When people on the Internet write about Game Of Thrones, they have to mark themselves: either they’re someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or someone who hasn’t. We split our coverage of the show into “Experts” and “Newbies,” categories that build separate communities and maintain the purity of the experience for the unspoiled.
This doesn’t happen with every television adaptation: In the case of The Walking Dead, for example, the story has veered so far from the comics that direct spoilers are unlikely. There are also cases like Elementary, however, where primarily considering it an adaptation is misleading. Rather than adapting the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson for television—which is arguably the task being undertaken by that other Sherlock Holmes show—Elementary has recast the characters as 21st-century television detectives, the pre-existing narratives a source of broad inspiration rather than inspiring specific storylines.
This is how I’ve viewed Elementary since I started writing about it, in part out of necessity: I am ill-equipped to consider it as an adaptation, only familiar with The Hound Of The Baskervilles out of Conan Doyle’s stories. And yet every so often a comment pops up from someone who notes that Sherlock’s philosophy is drawn from this story, or a character name is pulled from this other one. I ultimately feel confident that such knowledge is not necessary in order to engage with the show and the characters the writers have built through its own stories, but at the same time these comments are a constant reminder that there is another way of engaging with this show that represents a meaningful minority of its viewers.
And so before sitting down to watch “The Illustrious Client,” the first of a two-part mid-season story arc, I sat down to read “The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client,” the 1924 short story from which the episode gets its title. Its presence has been floating around in the comments since Kitty Winter was introduced in the season premiere, as it is the Conan Doyle story where the character appears, but the purposeful reference in the episode title calls further attention to the connection. That connection, it turns out, mirrors the series’ relationship to the canon as a whole: while far from a direct adaptation, the characters and themes of the story resonate here as Sherlock, Joan, and Kitty get closer to the truth of what happened to Kitty five years ago.
The actual story of “The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client” is left more or less untouched in “The Illustrious Client.” There is no mysterious client working through an intermediary to commission Sherlock to investigate a pending marriage between an innocent young woman and a man who murdered his wife; instead, there’s a dead body, necessary given the series’ resistance to cases outside the realm of murder. The dead body leads the police to Simon de Merville, whose only connection to the original story is his name—in the context of Elementary, he’s just another criminal who helps smuggle women across borders for the sex trade, and who may be responsible for housing women for the man who raped and attacked Kitty.
The resulting story pivots on de Merville’s sister, who becomes a turning point for both Joan and Kitty as each goes outside of the law in order to move further in the case. Joan goes to her new boss at the insurance firm, Del Gruner (Stuart Townsend), in order to use the insurance company’s claims to discover someone with a rare blood diseases that requires the medication stolen from the sister’s pharmacy. Kitty, meanwhile, shows up at the woman’s house with her baton. Initially, the latter seems like the most important story: paying off Kitty’s B-story with Gregson’s daughter and her attacker, we learn exactly how persuasive Kitty can be, and eventually it results in her suspension from her work in the NYPD. It’s also a clear case of adapting the character from the canon, where Kitty Winter is a fiery young woman who attacks her murderous former lover with vitriol (sulfuric acid). That revenge story begins to play out here, with Sherlock and Gregson each acknowledging they had looked past her ethical breaches in the search of justice, the story as a whole evoking Sherlock’s own revenge narrative in the wake of Irene’s murder back in the first season.
As the episode ends, though, it’s Joan’s story that ends up the more crucial piece of the narrative, and the adaptation. The reveal that Del Gruner is in fact the equivalent to the original story’s Baron Adelbert Gruner serves as the episode’s cliffhanger, and it’s a doozy: while there’s an initial concern that Kitty’s attacker has broken into Joan’s apartment, it turns out it’s Kitty herself, who overhears Joan’s conversation with Del and recognizes his voice as the man who attacked her. It obviously turns the whole story on its head: Was Gruner going after Joan knowing her connection to Kitty? Was his participation in this investigation all done knowing that he was effectively threatening his own illicit activity? Townsend’s Gruner is immediately transformed into the season’s first full-fledged antagonist, the two-episode arc giving us the opportunity to meet Gruner in one hour and hunt him down in the second.
Baron Adelbert Gruner is a different kind of antagonist in Conan Doyle’s story: details of his actions are left to the imagination, with homicide and abuse mentioned but never focused on to the degree that Del Gruner’s status as a serial rapist and torturer makes them explicit. Moreover, Conan Doyle’s story never pretends that he is anything but: the narrative is entirely focused on how Sherlock intends to make Gruner’s young fiancé aware of the known truth of his illicit past. The end of “The Illustrious Client,” therefore, actually sets up this episode as a prologue to the canonical story itself: although Kitty’s actions recall the character’s role in the story, the actual plot requires knowledge of Gruner’s identity, something that the episode potentially withholds even from those who have read the original. I’ve checked, and as far as I can tell the name “Gruner” isn’t mentioned at any point in earlier scenes—unless HD televisions make it possible to read the award on his desk, both of his earlier scenes pass by without his full name being mentioned, meaning only those viewers who put “Del” and “Adelbert” together are going to be ahead of the final reveal.
Given that I sometimes forget that Elementary is adapting specific stories, I can’t imagine there were too many people who put “Del” and “Adelbert” together and knew from the beginning that Townsend was the villain. However, I can’t imagine this because I’m not tuned in to “the canon” as a lens through which to view the show, and have no real sense of how a more thorough knowledge of the canon would reshape my experience. I would contend the show has been subtle enough with its engagement with the canon that such viewers are likely in the minority, but at the same time my engagement with this episode was undoubtedly changed by having the structure and characterization of “The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client” fresh on my mind (not that it helped me pick up on the connection before it was made explicit).
Regardless, “The Illustrious Client” works better as a hook than as a contained episode. The de Merville story ends up being a means to an end, a wild goose chase written off when the bigger story emerges—it means that there’s lots to look forward to in next week’s resolution, and that the success or failure of this episode will depend on how the story is—or, given a few episodes this season, isn’t—resolved.
- Wasn’t entirely sure what the writers were going for with de Merville eventually hiding on a boat—the parallels to the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing were either accidental or purposeful in ways I’m not following.
- Transforming Townsend into Kitty’s attacker is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, making it someone Joan happens to know is awfully coincidental, provided that we don’t learn he was actively stalking Kitty through Joan by hiring her as a consultant in the first place. On the other hand, from a “Prominent Guest Actor did it!” perspective, I fully believed that Townsend could also recur as a new boss for Joan, meaning I didn’t immediately suspect him.
- I posed this notion on Twitter, but I feel like Stuart Townsend is the actor whom I know best for a role he didn’t play (Aragorn) than for any roles he did play, but there are some other good options people threw out as well.
- So I’m predicting that Kitty ends up following the dark path Sherlock avoided in “M.” and ending up in jail for it, if I had to put my money on the table. I’ll save my thoughts on Ophelia Lovibond’s performance for then, expecting—in any case—some reasons to reflect on her take on Kitty Winter more broadly.
- Clyde Watch: I would like to think that Clyde would be incredibly helpful in a time of crisis, but it’s becoming clear that Clyde must heroically fade into the background to allow his owners to focus on the task at hand in such trying times.