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Elementary: "The Marchioness"

Illustration for article titled Elementary: "The Marchioness"
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We never see the murder that kicks off the central mystery in “The Marchioness.” By the time Sherlock and Joan visit the scene of the crime, the body is long gone, and we don’t find ourselves flashing back to the murder to understand how it unfolded. Rather, we are walked through the events of that night by various characters repeating others’ stories second hand, accounts that nonetheless give Sherlock the necessary information to solve the case. While he works best with primary evidence, even exposition can give Sherlock the hints he needs in order to discover fingerprints on a tree branch.

“The Marchioness” is a story Elementary planted seeds for in its London premiere, both in terms of Sherlock’s relationship with his brother Mycroft (a returning Rhys Ifans) and the character of Nigella Mason, the fiancé with whom Sherlock copulated to prove a point to his brother and further shatter their sibling relationship. However, while those elements of the episode build on our own observations in previous episodes, the actual crimes in the episode are all things we learn about second hand. When Nigella—sorry, the Marchioness—is describing the murder, we never cut away to a flashback, instead focusing exclusively on the telling of the story itself. It’s a space where we can witness Sherlock’s low opinion of the woman, get details about her character through her storytelling, and consider the trustworthiness of her tale given the facts involved. Despite functioning purely as exposition, it’s exposition tinged with perspective, perspective the episode uses well to add to our evolving understanding of the brothers Holmes.


The biggest piece of exposition has nothing to do with the murder case, but rather about an event that transpired in London to which neither Sherlock nor the audience were privy. That Joan slept with Mycroft is news to the audience, a case of retroactive continuity that admittedly caught me by surprise. As Joan notes, it was an act between two consenting adults, and thus it’s not that their pairing is unnatural or anything of the like. However, my experience with the season premiere had never once suggested the idea of the two sleeping together following their emotional conversation about Mycroft’s illness and his relationship with Sherlock.

It’s true that it’s embedded in the awkwardness of their first interaction upon his arrival to New York, and Sherlock is right to observe the tension Joan has around him (even if it’s so subtle she doesn’t even realize it), but the reveal nonetheless threw me for a loop as much as it did Sherlock. When I had seen the previews for this episode featuring Sherlock poking the bedsheets for Mycroft, I had read Joan’s response as incredulousness that Sherlock was still on about Mycroft’s perceived flirtations with Joan in London; in context, he has legitimate reason to wonder if he is present, if not a legitimate reason to be so childish about it in that scene and others.

Sherlock’s response is somewhat understandable, though, given this is a character that thrives on certainty. As he observed in his therapy session, he is a man with keen senses in an era of distraction, and drugs were his way of tuning out the cacophony. But more importantly, Sherlock is someone who has built a careful bubble around himself, and he allowed Joan into that bubble. As he explains to her in a rare moment of emotional honesty—mirroring the one in group—his objection is less the act itself and more the idea that she chose to commit an act that could in some way contaminate that bubble. It’s the same reason Sherlock responds so violently when Mycroft “contaminates” his group therapy space, and it’s also the same reason why Sherlock is so wary to allow Mycroft back into his life in any way. For someone who so stridently refuses to engage with people emotionally, Sherlock is in truth incredibly emotional, just in ways that make him vulnerable and thus defensive of his personal space.

This season thus far has been about testing Sherlock’s ability to expand—if not destroy—his bubble. Mycroft’s arrival in New York is one such test, news of Mycroft and Joan’s “dalliance”—to quote Sherlock—is another, and Moriarty’s letters from prison offer a further example. In all cases, Sherlock is never under any immediate duress: Mycroft is careful to avoid offending Sherlock (note how the chef preparing the meal at the restaurant serves no alcohol), Joan and Mycroft’s news is told reluctantly and in the past tense, and Moriarty’s letters require only passive response. However, it all weighs on Sherlock, pieces of information that together form their own kind of cacophony; although Sherlock speaks of his affliction as one of noise and simple distractions, he is equally afflicted—in his post-recovery state—by the onset of complex relationships he had otherwise avoided. Now that he’s opened himself up to those relationships again, he’s being forced to confront that complexity head on, and it is proving realistically difficult.


“The Marchioness”—to return to the original point—mostly tells its crime through exposition, as various characters recount past murders and past mysteries that Sherlock uses to piece together the current crime. The business about the fraudulent race horse stud and the cartel hitman hired to earn vengeance for the deceit is itself largely irrelevant; although the episode briefly establishes the hitman as an active threat to the Marchioness, he’s apprehended in an unassuming sequence and becomes less a threat than a way to keep the story dynamic. On that level, ultimately, the story is a success, offering enough logical twists and turns to give Sherlock, Joan, and Mycroft opportunities to engage with one another and the case at hand in equal measure.

The hour ends with Mycroft and Sherlock sitting in the former’s restaurant, Sherlock adamantly refusing to discuss either future plans or distant memories. Sherlock’s safety mechanism has often been to focus on the now, to build a sustainable partnership with Joan and to settle into his new life after his recovery. Mycroft threatens that, but he has also made considerable efforts to become a part of it. Joan sleeping with Mycroft also threatens that, but she can’t be expected to evolve completely within Sherlock’s comfort zone given that she’s on her own personal journey. There is a simplicity to Elementary’s basic storytelling, but episodes like “The Marchioness” remind us that the people telling and hearing those stories are far from simple. Sherlock’s issues are not simply boogeymen in his past that emerge to remind us of his illness or his fractured relationship with his family, but real day-to-day struggles that cannot be so easily qualified. Episodes like this one amplify our understanding of his experience, and Mycroft’s time in New York promises to be a less violent but nonetheless equally meaningful test of Sherlock’s character than Moriarty’s return at the end of last season.


Stray observations:

  • There are clear parallels between Mycroft and Joan sleeping together and Sherlock sleeping with Joan’s friend—I was surprised they weren’t called out, but this only reinforces how “Ancient History” airing out of order made it feel unmoored from the arc of the season.
  • Although we don’t see Miss Hudson, Mycroft did apparently speak with her before finding Sherlock at therapy, so a return appearance is not out of the picture even if she remains so.
  • It was subtle, and not particularly meaningful, but I enjoyed that the age of trees played a role in two separate crime scenes.
  • “Summon the Marchioness”—one imagines Jonny Lee Miller read this script and got really excited over how many times he got to say “Marchioness.”
  • Look, I know the dude was guilty of mass murder, but I was most outraged by the clearly empty coffee cup he was drinking from in that interview tape.
  • “I’m in the peerage!”—Olivia d’Abo’s performance was generally fun, and played off the Holmes brothers well, but I particularly enjoyed the way she captured the character’s privilege in this line.
  • “Change is sloppy, not an absolute state”—the model of the show, really, and delivered by a character that has fit in nicely. I don’t know precisely how long Rhys Ifans’ arc will extend, but he’s a most welcome addition no matter the duration.
  • Clyde Watch: It’s been a while now, and Nutmeg ain’t gonna cut it, Elementary.

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