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Elementary: "The Hound Of The Cancer Cells"

Illustration for article titled Elementary: "The Hound Of The Cancer Cells"
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If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that whenever the show makes an overt reference to the Conan Doyle canon, it usually pops up in the comments rather than in the review itself.

This is because my familiarity with the canon is limited to The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I read in a 19th century literature class in college (which, yes, carried briefly into the 20th century). I understand basic details about the canon in reading comments and reviews of both Elementary and Sherlock, but I’ve rarely noticed the subtle inspirations for episodic storytelling that have been evident in previous episodes.


I’ve occasionally felt bad to be missing a part of the series that other viewers have access to: Elementary’s writers have always treated it as an easter egg, and not a key to understanding the storylines in question, but I was still excited that there was finally an episode about the one story I knew fairly well.

You can imagine my disappointment when “The Hound Of The Cancer Cells” is revealed to be the name of a breathalyzer capable of detecting cancel cells, and that none of the rest of the episode is shaped around the original story. It is instead another in a series of fairly nondescript hours, albeit one that did a nice job of twisting and turning its way through the mysterious death of one of the device’s lead researchers (who was, in one of the series’ finer bits of tragicomedy, killed with helium and spent his final moments with the high voice to prove it).

Those twists and turns are, on the surface, your typical pieces of procedural misdirection. Although the first “suspect” we’re introduced to—Hank Prince, the creator of “The Hound”—proves to be the person who committed the crime, the episode sends Sherlock and Watson off on more immediately logical directions. There’s the young woman who was seen arguing with the victim, who it turns out is a Mossad agent working undercover out of a New York travel agency (in what I’m choosing to see as a nod to Elementary’s New York-based neighbors The Americans). There’s also the anonymous reviewer who questioned the validity of the research project, placing it in jeopardy and setting off the chain of events in question. Sherlock sniffs out the Mossad agent and discovers the identity of the anonymous Adam Peer, but it all turns out to be a dead end, which by all procedural logic means we need to return to the first person we originally ruled out as a suspect since there’s no way the killer is going to be someone we haven’t met by the end of the hour.

I usually find this rather unsatisfying, but I liked the chain of events that Hank Prince went through in his effort to deprive his wife of his financial windfall once his company’s value increased exponentially. There is a clear motive, but also evidence of how that motive manifested in an evolving criminal conspiracy, and how Sherlock and Joan’s investigation prompted an escalation in violence. What began as submitting the anonymous claim the research was questionable became homicide after more of a delay was necessary, which eventually became killing his wife outright when Sherlock and Joan’s detective work revealed the original claim was a forgery (given that “Adam Peer” wouldn’t report on himself). The crime itself felt dynamic, adapting not simply to create story opportunity but rather because the crime was still in the process of being committed parallel to the investigation. Whereas some episodes feel reduced to the basic facts once the killer is revealed, “The Hound Of The Cancer Cells” became more interesting when the pieces were fitted together, making for one of the more solid standalone stories in recent weeks.


The rest of the episode isn’t the more focused character work of the two-episodes Lestrade arc, but it returned the show’s attention to Detective Bell after he re-qualifies for fieldwork by passing his firearms test offscreen. Most relevant to ongoing character dynamics, the episode ends with Sherlock getting over his concern over fraternizing with the police to attend the celebration of Bell’s return, just in time for Bell to express apprehension about the party. The two men go to get coffee instead, the camera panning back as though it were the end of Casablanca.

However, Bell’s story before that point is more interesting, if not necessarily tied to any form of serial development. The case doesn’t exist to reveal something about Bell’s past: Although Bell shares a connection with the young girl who has chosen not to testify after becoming pregnant and knows of the high school teacher offering her support, this is not really a story about Bell himself. Rather, it’s a story about the injustices you’re exposed to working as a cop, and the limits you face when it comes to doing something about them. It all felt routine, in its way: a case goes to trial, a witness’ circumstances change, and it creates the chance a guilty man threatening an entire neighborhood will walk free. It also creates the potential for a good man who’s tired of feeling overmatched in his efforts to protect his neighborhood to sacrifice his own life to take one drug dealer off the streets.


When Bell shows up to his party, he isn’t carrying the weight of his time off or the weight of his relationship with Sherlock or the weight of anything we would associate with the “narrative” of the television series. He’s simply carrying the weight of being a cop, and being privy to bad things that happen around him, and there’s something strikingly honest about that. It showed the human side of being a cop without trying too hard to become a mystery or working too hard to tell us something about Marcus as a person, converging nicely with the ongoing foreshadowing of his party and providing a meaningful conclusion that never felt too forced into the other stories around it.

Although last week I observed the show is reaching the point where it needs to shift gears to build momentum into its finale, this hour did a nice job of settling into an episodic story and maintaining interest. Even though I think the show missed an opportunity not giving us a glimpse of Bell’s requalifications exam, there was something more elegant about having his moment with Sherlock being less assuming, and coming at the end of an overall solid outing to cleanse the palate ahead of the imminent final arc.


Stray observations:

  • This was a much less jarring use of Shiri Appleby than the last show I saw her in, which also films in New York.
  • While an attractively filmed episode on the whole, director Michael Slovis—best known for his work as DP on Breaking Bad—didn’t have quite as much to work with scenery wise in the confines of the crime procedural, but the show continues to bring in some strong directors and make good advantage of its sets/locations.
  • “Barry Grainger: M.D., P.h.D., D.O.A.”—Gregson, getting in on the jokes.
  • “I need something powdery that won’t kill us—surprise me”—what would have killed them in the lab, I wonder?
  • Clyde Watch: I am outraged that Clyde’s job waking up Joan has been outsourced to Sherlock opening the curtains. Outraged.
  • As you may have seen earlier today, Elementary was—as expected—one of the many shows CBS picked up, which means it will be back for a third season (and likely at least a fourth season after that, so as to better fuel the syndication machine). So now we just need to wait and see how contract negotiations for Clyde being added as a series regular go down.

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