The proto-typical “ripped-from-the-headlines” procedural format, most commonly associated with the Law & Order franchise, can take many forms. In some instances, complete cases are grafted onto the procedural format, with actors hired to play facsimiles of the people involved in the real case—for example, there have been two separate episodes within the franchise—one of the original series, one of Criminal Intent—built around The Jinx subject Robert Durst. In other cases, as in Law & Order: SVU’s recent “GamerGate” episode, a real-world issue or situation is taken to its logical extreme—although no members of the GamerGate movement have kidnapped a female game developer, the toxic misogyny rampant within the movement serves as fuel for televisual exaggeration.
Elementary has never taken the former approach as an engine for its procedural storytelling, but “The View From Olympus” represents a case of the latter. However, the way the show’s “ride share” episode plays out is a reminder that the specific program format dictates what kinds of headlines have value. Whereas Law & Order and its various spinoffs have the benefit of the courtroom to flesh out criminals, thus placing value on headlines that involve either eccentric or volatile personalities, Elementary is largely disinterested in who committed a crime, with the how being far more crucial. Accordingly, it relies on headlines that offer multiple storytelling engines for explaining how a crime took place, something that rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft offer.
The episode begins with a headline: “Rideshare driver gets run down by a city cab.” The fictional company Zooss—the second “o” is on purpose, whereas I’m convinced the second “s” is a BYOBB-style typo—functions here as a surrogate for larger anxieties over how rideshare services threaten traditional taxis. We see the taxi commit the crime, and we see a local cab dispatcher explaining how companies like Zooss have dramatically changed the financial situation for cab drivers, particularly those who own their own cabs.
However, while this provides an initial presumed motive, it doesn’t hold up for long—Sherlock quickly finds evidence to suggest that it wasn’t an active cab at all, and further investigation reveals that it was a registered child offender who ran down Galen Barrow—a freelance journalist by trade—after being blackmailed over his parole-violating visits to a schoolyard. For a period in the episode, it seems like the initial headline was just a red herring, serving as a relatable starting point before discovering a more typical blackmail operation that would lead to an eventual culprit. But when Sherlock discovers that the driver and the victim’s boss—with whom the victim was having an affair—were users of the Zooss app, it pulls the story back toward its headline, while acknowledging that the rideshare trend has multiple headlines to draw from.
Indeed, while the idea of a cab driver murdering a Uber driver seems like a headline that could work for a crime procedural, Elementary is far more interested in accusations regarding Uber’s security failings, and the potential for the company and its drivers to track its users—just today, in fact, this issue made headlines, as Uber announced they were hiring its first chief security officer to address those concerns, prompting The Washington Post to ask the obvious question: “Why didn’t it have one before?” Fortuitously, “The View From Olympus” taps into this particular headline for its resolution, in which it is revealed that not one but two employees were using the service’s data to their advantage: a programmer was using it to blackmail customers in order to pay the gambling debts (that eventually got him killed), and another employee was using it as a one-stop stalking shop, which was eventually uncovered by Barrow, leading to the latter employee using the former employee’s blackmail victim in order to eliminate the threat.
As I write this out, the logic doesn’t entirely make sense—Sherlock uses the Zooss “Olympus” data to track various users’ actions and uncover the hidden motive, but the logistics of the second employee using the blackmail information he gleaned from the first employee—which he had hidden to protect the company and thus his stalking capacity—never really makes a lot of sense. However, the episode gets away with it because the slippery slope of Uber’s data collection contains the potential for such extremes. The sheer uncertainty over the company’s surveillance is a goldmine for Elementary, which has been consistently invested in surveillance and technology long before CSI: Cyber started airing the night before. Even if the logistics of the case don’t make sense, the idea that this platform would be utilized by a criminal is not outside the realm of possibility, and uses the headlines to generate the necessary twists and turns to stretch out the investigation over the course of an entire episode.
Although the initial setup might have sufficed for a show like Law & Order that can use the trial to draw more storytelling out of a single origin point, Elementary needs a bit more to work with, and rideshare companies offer that here. It’s not one of the show’s strongest episodic storylines, given the lack of clarity in how the crime was committed and some sloppy characterization (the doughy, pasty, red-faced pedophile was an anvil, and the character work on the eventual killer wasn’t much more subtle), the show made good use of its inspiration to slot into the show’s typical rhythms.
Where I started to lose the episode a little was when it veered away from the headlines and toward the sudden arrival of Agatha Sparrow, played by Anastasia Griffith using her real accent that my brain still registers as fake. Identified by Sherlock as “not your regular Irregular,” Sparrow is both a climate consultant and a lover, but quickly veers into a new role when she requests Sherlock donate his sperm so she can have a child. From a practical level, her request destabilizes Sherlock, giving the episode a reason for him to be distracted, and something for he and Joan to discuss as they go about the procedures of the case at hand. As an engine for storytelling, with a light serial component to add dynamism to the case of the week, Agatha works as intended.
However, the actual function of the storyline thematically is less clear to me. When it is revealed that Sherlock’s father originally suggested the plan, it seems like its only real purpose is reinforcing his interventionist role in Sherlock’s life, which really hasn’t come up much at all this season. And yet Agatha attempts to claim that this isn’t just a cynical ploy, and that she believes Sherlock is brilliant, and that she truly wants this baby—the desire to have children is complex, I grant you that, but I don’t feel we know the character enough to be able to judge her true feelings, and she disappears before we can learn enough for her claims to have meaning. Sherlock and Agatha has a discussion where Sherlock makes a cogent point about his struggles: what she views as genius is in fact Sherlock coping with deep struggle, something that people looking from the outside often don’t understand, and something Sherlock wouldn’t want to pass along to a child.
The problem is that we aren’t really on the outside, and we do understand, and so Agatha’s ignorance doesn’t really serve any purpose. It’s thematically consistent with the show’s characterization of Sherlock, and it’s still an interesting and nuanced take on the character, but it didn’t add anything to our conception of that character. Sherlock contemplating becoming a father emerged too quickly and disappeared without making an impact beyond reminding us of Sherlock’s own daddy issues, which I imagine are going to play a larger role as the season progresses (or at least should to justify their somewhat sloppy reappearance here).
- I have some issues with the episode structurally, but I thought the comedy was on point: between Joan noting the “sex blanket,” Sherlock noting that Zooss’ lawyers “might contest the invasion of privacy as being too ironic,” and Sherlock’s assurance to Joan that with the bearskin rug gone “it is not safe to move amidst the Brownstone,” the rhythms of the show were intact minute-by-minute. It was just the thematic material and case logistics that were a struggle.
- A small detail, but I appreciated how Sherlock referred to the initial rideshare motive as a product of “The Livery War of 2015,” something that almost no other character on television would ever call it. That type of specificity has a lot of value to the show.
- “Who dresses you, girl?”—the boutique owner meant this as a compliment for Joan, and I won’t disagree overall, but I’m wondering if the jury is still out on the giant hood she was sporting at the crime scene.
- “Do I exude the traits of fatherhood to you?”—Sherlock asked this question facetiously, I know, but was he watching the same Kitty Winter arc we were? That wasn’t exactly the opposite of fatherly, was it? It’s not the same, I know, but it’s similar.
- Clyde Watch: In a perfect world, I would log onto CBS.com and see a deleted scene from this episode, where Sherlock makes arrangements with Joan to have Clyde sent to a luxury Turtle hotel nearby to the one she was relocated to during Agatha’s stay. As it stands, this does not exist, which means the show did an episode based around the territorialized Brownstone and in no way evoked its most territorial resident. I don’t even know what to do with that, Elementary.