Our lives are broken up into arcs: we move between cities, switch from job to job, and transition from one highly serialized television drama to another. When we’re young, these segments have standardized forms through education, but as we grow older the arcs become more varied; each of our lives is distinctly segmented based on the people, places, and life events that shape our adulthoods.
Segmentation is difficult for a show like Elementary. This is not a seasonal anthology, where the show can be wildly different from season-to-season, even if that’s how many of our lives are divided. It’s also not much of a serialized show at all, meaning that any longer arcs have to retain at least some semblance of a status quo that can generate much smaller, individual segments on a weekly basis.
Most importantly, however, Elementary opened with the single most important arc in the lives of its characters. Given the premise of the series, the origin story of Sherlock and Joan’s relationship is never going to be surpassed in terms of resonance and importance. The evolution of their relationship was a powerful story engine in the first season, and that moment of them on top of the Brownstone with the bees was the end of the segment that provides the series with its most basic DNA.
Once you’ve told the core of a story like the one told in the first season, you have two options: you either settle into episodic segments that keep the series and its characters in stasis, or you start building new large-scale arcs to anchor procedural storytelling. The first option is the easiest, but Elementary has always been a more ambitious show than that, and so the second season delved into Sherlock’s background with the introduction of Mycroft. On paper, it’s logical: it’s pulling from the canon, and his father’s complicated place within his care had been central to the first season.
In practice, though, the second season arc didn’t work. Mycroft appeared in the storyline too sporadically, with Rhys Ifans’ limited availability ensuring we never actually saw the meaningful connection build onscreen. The storyline rested on a history we hadn’t seen, both in Sherlock’s complicated dynamic with Mycroft and in Joan’s romance with Mycroft. When the storyline eventually turned into a high stakes case of international espionage, it wasn’t a resolution to anything because there hadn’t been much laid out for it to resolve. As much as drop-in, drop-out mythologies have been valuable to a range of crime procedurals—thinking specifically of Monk and Burn Notice’s recurring mysteries, as I’ve been watching a lot of the latter recently—they are more difficult to sustain in 22-episode seasons, particularly with a show that relied on the relationship between Sherlock and Joan—and not the drop-in, drop-out of Moriarty and Irene—to generate meaning in its first season.
However, while hindsight has not been kind to the effectiveness of Elementary’s second season arc, the third season has been a reminder that we learn from those segments of our life that don’t go as we planned. While the characters seem to have more or less forgotten the events of the second season, the writers have not, and the Kitty Winter arc will go down as one of Elementary’s most successful. Anchored by strong work from Ophelia Lovibond, the first half of this season has demonstrated the effectiveness of crafting a segment in characters’ lives that offers meaning and resonance while retaining—and in this case restoring—the DNA that made the show successful in the first place.
“The One That Got Away,” the first hour creator Robert Doherty is credited as writing solo since the series’ second episode, is nothing without what came before it, in two ways. First, the episode wastes no time picking up where last week’s first “The Illustrious Client” left off, with Del Gruner very quickly identified as the center of the ongoing investigation. The show is still in familiar territory as Sherlock, Joan, and the NYPD work to unravel his motives and discover evidence that will allow them to arrest Gruner based on their suspicions, but there’s no effort to create a new mystery, similar to the way the end of the first season shifted focus to apprehending Moriarty once her identity was revealed.
Second, meanwhile, the episode deftly positions itself as the culmination of more than just last week’s episode, although not in the way you might expect. It would be easy to imagine a version of this storyline where there was a smattering of C-stories spread throughout the season-to-date in which Kitty, Sherlock, and Joan began the investigation into her attacker. Many crime procedurals use recurring antagonists—serial killers, in most cases—as a way to create meaningful arcs for characters, getting a piece of the mystery each time. By comparison, Elementary largely ignored the “mystery” of Kitty’s attack to focus on its impact on her life, and on the stakes of her recovery.
It’s a choice that makes Kitty’s actions feel like the resolution of a character arc as opposed to a mystery arc, with Gruner’s appearance a turning point in her story rather than the story in and of itself. The series certainly explored Kitty’s victimhood, but it was always in the context of her status as a survivor, and here they avoid returning her to the victim position. From beginning to end, Kitty is in full control of her actions, only playing the victim with Sherlock in order to better enact her revenge. She is calculated and careful (if also a bit careless with the elastic), her actions the resolution of the training we’ve seen throughout the season, right down to her recreation of the Nutmeg concoction. Making explicit the connection we discussed last week, her scenes with Gruner in the warehouse mirror Sherlock’s with Moran, with two important differences: she has the right man, and she has Sherlock knocking at the door as she’s about to take action.
The flashbacks in “The One That Got Away” serve two purposes. One is to frame Kitty’s arc in clearer detail, allowing Lovibond to explore whom the character was before she became Sherlock’s protégé. As she follows her instincts regarding a child she believes was abducted by a sex offender, she struggles to make eye contact with the male detective, and with Sherlock when he follows up on her lead. When Sherlock shows up at her door in London, she pulls a knife and proceeds to have the rest of the conversation through the door, which is not the same character we met in the season premiere.
Withholding that version of the character until now artificially heightens the sense of resolution, certainly, but I appreciate the choice because it allowed the show to gradually work its way into her past. In many ways, the show retained the use of Joan as a point-of-view character set up in the premiere, allowing us to come to Kitty’s past through her eyes. Joan’s relationship with Kitty started when ours did, and was one of the reasons the storyline worked so well. The show needs Joan to connect to its arcs, but the second season struggled to do this, creating a romantic connection with Mycroft that seemed like a default choice instead of a meaningful character development. With Kitty, Joan functioned as an emotional connection, working alongside Sherlock to create the necessary support structure. That dynamic wouldn’t have worked the same way if we had been privy to these flashbacks before Joan, and the season would have suffered for it.
The second purpose, however, is reorienting the season around Sherlock and Kitty’s relationship, the stakes of which were always at least somewhat left to our imagination. We only really knew that they met while they were in London, and that their dynamic was inherently reciprocal: Sherlock was struggling in the wake of splitting with Joan, Kitty was suffering in the wake of her attack, and they righted one another’s path. This proves to be true, but seeing it is different than surmising it, particularly in the case of two characters who aren’t one for shows of emotion. The flashbacks bring that dynamic to the forefront, showing us how Sherlock’s training activated Kitty’s sense of purpose and—in the final flashback—finally resolving that missing packet of heroin as Kitty returns to Sherlock’s employ just as he was at his lowest moment and on the brink of relapse.
There’s just so much to appreciate about this relationship. On a practical level, Kitty’s arc serves to bring Sherlock and Joan back together, his experience as her mentor putting his life into perspective and bringing him back to New York. However, it also achieves what the show wanted to accomplish with Sherlock as a sponsor, but with the benefit of consistent presence and integration into weekly cases. Furthermore, that consistent presence allowed for both sides of the resolution to feel meaningful. It’s a huge moment for Sherlock when he promises Kitty that she will always be his friend, and that she is special to him: that isn’t something he says often, and having someone like that in his life is what saved him from relapsing. However, it’s also a huge moment for Kitty when she tells him she loves him as she prepared to board a plane for a new life putting the skills she learned to use. In either case, even though the show can technically move back to its post-Kitty status quo with Sherlock and Joan back as partners—or at least freelance contractors who consistently work alongside one another—something meaningful has happened to bring them back to this point, rather than something simply getting out of the way (as was the case with Mycroft).
There’s no plans for a Kitty spinoff as far as I can tell, but this arc created a character and an “ending” that would allow for one. Lovibond was consistently strong, particularly in this episode as she was asked to explore two very different manifestations of the same pain. The end result mirrors Kitty’s actions in “The Adventures of the Illustrious Client,” right down to the acid attack to Gruner’s face, but it leaves her fate more open-ended: rather than sitting in jail on a reduced sentence (for the justice found in the criminal act), Kitty will travel as an extension of Sherlock’s method and Sherlock’s progress as a mentor. When she promised to call for assistance every now and then, I got excited by the prospect of this character dropping back into this world, but I was also excited by the idea that the world it’s building is being extending out in ways we won’t see. We may only end up seeing this segment of Kitty’s life, but it was more meaningful based on the series’ ability to establish that there will be more segments, and that her life does not end with her disappearance from the show on a weekly basis.
We privilege game-changing arcs, but that’s not always how life works. Sherlock’s trip to London was always going to be a detour, but that isn’t just because Elementary is a television show: we all have detours, and we all have something approaching a resting state, and it’s only natural for us to return to it. The challenge for writers is finding ways to make those detours memorable, and meaningful, while acknowledging that you’ll eventually get back on the same road you were on to begin with. “The One That Got Away” completes Kitty’s arc in a way that overcomes this challenge, creating an arc that lives up to the standards set with the first season. Its only downfall—beyond the totally meaningless yet also very meaningful one I’ll discuss at the end of the stray observations—is that the show now has to find a way for the second half of the season to live up to it.
- I appreciated Sherlock’s strong opinion on the switch from the familiar first name to the impersonal last name once Gruner was established as the villain, in part because that mirrors how I tend to write about characters in these reviews.
- Clever with the Canon: In addition to officially establishing that Del was short for Adelbert, and the nature of Kitty’s crime, exposition also established that Gruner kept a book detailing his crimes that seals his fate, which was central to the original story.
- There didn’t end up being a whole lot for Stuart Townsend to do, but I thought he delivered what he needed to in threatening Joan and Kitty later in the episode, and handled the slick “Del Gruner” side of the character effectively.
- Speaking of Joan, still not entirely sure on the soundness of her “Let’s confront Gruner at a fundraiser” strategy, but I appreciated her line about being able to defend herself.
- “A lack of elastics?”—Kitty on the failure of apprentice detectives, and a nice example of how the flashbacks also allowed for some added levity in the episode to go with their emotional resonance (and, in this case, exposition for the discovery of the elastic later in the episode).
- Joan’s hat. That is all.
- What do we think the goggles and ladder were for?
- Clyde Watch: I in no way begrudge the lack of Clyde within this arc given its necessary disruptions of the status quo, but we’re due for a reappearance, and I would hope that the reduced tension will leave the door open for more Clyde appearances in the future.