There’s a contradiction at the heart of Sherlock’s concern for Joan in “The Female Of The Species.”

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By the end of the hour, Joan has reached a point where she has fully accepted that she is a detective, and that she is never going to be able to live a normal life. In the wake of Andrew’s death—which we quickly learn was an assassination attempt by Elana March, as many in the comments speculated last week—Joan has stopped communicating, delving deeper into a dark place that Sherlock expresses concern over. The contradiction is that this is where Sherlock has always lived, and where he will continue to live, and to express concern over it is inevitably to create concern over his own state of being.

There’s something decidedly productive about this contradiction, to be clear, and the episode gets some decent mileage out of the few scenes in which Joan appears. With Lucy Liu pulling double duty as the director, Elementary finds a more productive way to limit Joan’s screen time than having her get kidnapped, using Joan’s forced solitude for security reasons in order to allow her time to reflect. Joan does not come to this conclusion out of wallowing or self-pity; we see her expressing herself clearly with Andrew’s father, enjoying a night of TV with Sherlock, and even showing outright glee while waking Sherlock up for a change. Rather, Joan spends the episode doing normal things and realizing as she does them that her truth is in detective work, and all she can do is commit to it.

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The end result is a good example of a show giving us something its audience theoretically wants—Sherlock and Joan back together—in a complicated fashion. Do we want Joan to be back if it means she’s given up on being able to lead a normal life? Is the type of commitment Joan is making a healthy one? The episode furthers these questions by actually creating a good example of how Joan’s separation from Sherlock has deepened the character’s interpersonal relationship pool, bringing Marcus Bell into the fold as a temporary partner. The circumstances by which this takes place are pretty thin—Marcus has vacation days, Sherlock has a case of missing zebras from the Bronx Zoo—and the show is a bit casual with how it brings up their complicated past, but Liu’s other duties leave room for a nice piece of partner work that eventually gets Sherlock to refer to “Detective Bell” as Marcus. The episode didn’t ask a lot of Jon Michael Hill, but it demonstrated the strong chemistry that Hill and Jonny Lee Miller have developed beyond the whole three name situation.

The case itself was a trifle of a thing: it’s not shocking that two abducted zebras would result in a dead body on a show that insists upon one popping up each week, but the story barely stops to consider the gravity of the murder, with David Chang a mere innocent bystander. The episode gets more mileage out of the de-extincting of the Quagga and the way Sherlock kept pronouncing it “zeb-ra” as opposed to “zee-bra,” details that make the episode flow smoothly despite following a highly familiar pattern.

Less familiar was Liu’s direction, which—similar to her first directorial outing—felt more conspicuous than what the show typically displays. In one case, Bell and Sherlock’s walk-and-talk at the Bronx Zoo, the novelty is simply in the length of the shot—it’s a long set of expositional dialogue, and it’s delivered in a single take as the characters are walking in the snow. It’s a case where the length of the shot makes the traversal of both time and space apparent, with snow accumulating on their respective hats as they travel to their eventual stopping point and find the evidence leading them to the delivery truck.

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This continues into another sequence later in the episode, where Bell delivers a similarly long piece of exposition regarding his theory regarding David Chang’s murder to Sherlock, although we don’t initially see the latter. While we’re presuming he’s talking to Sherlock somewhere offscreen to the left, the camera slowly zooms out to reveal Sherlock examining the undercarriage of the delivery truck. It’s unfortunate, then, that CBS had placed a huge Battle Creek banner ad on the screen at precisely this time, as it obscured the reveal of Sherlock and took away from a piece of filmmaking that was designed to use the whole frame. Those graphics operate with the assumption that what happens in the bottom portion of the screen is unimportant, but this isn’t always true, and Liu’s direction tested that assumption in this instance.

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Finally, in the concluding sequence to the episodic mystery, Sherlock and Bell eat breakfast in Greenpoint while the drama unfolds behind them. Liu’s camera slowly—very slowly—zooms in as Ben Reynolds is arrested for stealing and attempting to sell the extinct creatures. It’s fun to see the show playing with the foreground and background in this way, but it’s also meaningful in how it keeps our focus on the detectives rather than the case itself. While not necessarily an outright meta-commentary, it lets the show more easily play the character dynamics in the foreground while not having to shortchange the “climax” of the episodic arc, a challenge they face each week. It fit the tone of the show well, and was a worthy showpiece for Liu’s interest in direction as an avenue into storytelling.

In addition to visual storytelling, “The Female Of The Species” ends up relying on voiceover to bring a character back into the universe. At the heart of Joan’s guilt over Andrew’s death is the idea that Gina Gershon’s Elana March was someone she forgot about: She told Andrew about her, and about the fact she put her behind bars, but she admits to Andrew’s father that they hadn’t talked about her in a while. The same could be said for Elementary itself, which never mentioned the character again, letting her reappearance be as sudden for us as it was for her (albeit ruined by the “Previously On” segment, and quickly revealed as the episode began proper). It’s only fitting, then, that Jamie Moriarty would be the one to emerge from the shadows to take care of March, objecting to anyone but herself entering into the game she intends to play with Sherlock and Joan once she’s able to engage. Natalie Dormer’s voice is enough to sell the character’s return, her protectiveness over people she is ostensibly threatening as unsettling as it’s ever been.

While some of the connectives in the context of the episodic case lacked spark, this was an example of Elementary finding energy in how it tells stories, using a new pairing and some visual style to create interest until the voice delivers, as the writers knew it would, and Joan’s decision sets the characters on a course different than the one they were on the last time they were partners living under one roof.

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Stray observations:

  • So for a second I was convinced Sherlock’s discovery of the non-zebra was about to reveal that it was a zonkey, and that the Zoo had been swindled out of a real zebra. In retrospect this isn’t a huge scandal, I know, but my “local” zoo had a zonkey growing up, and I guess I’m conditioned to read it into every equine story in a procedural.
  • I don’t know if it’s outright contradictory, but there’s still something terrifying about Sherlock real life tearing down the moderator of an Internet forum, as someone who writes things on the Internet. He would be a worse person to have on a forum than even this site’s worst commenters (which include none of you reading this, I promise).
  • “You say that like it explains why you’re weighing a toaster”—I want to try to work this into casual conversation.
  • Had some definitely “Those boxes are clearly empty” moments during the scene of Sherlock and Marcus shifting through the discarded cargo.
  • Speaking of Marcus, definitely felt targeted by his resistance to Sherlock calling him “Detective Bell” all the time, since I think he’s basically just Bell in these reviews typically, and I feel weird every time I call him Marcus.
  • I don’t know the actor playing Ben Reynolds, but his guilt was still spoiled by just how slimy he looked at that staff meeting.
  • Clyde Watch: I sure hope that Clyde—unseen in the episode proper—didn’t overhear Joan say she was moving back into the Brownstone—we don’t want him to get his hopes up of his parents moving back in together only to have it all pulled away at the last minute if she chooses to live elsewhere. Sometimes I worry that these two characters with significant challenges in their personal lives aren’t putting their pet turtle first, you know?

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