Sherlock Holmes would be a terrible narrator of his own life. This is clear early in “Tremors,” when he embellishes his memory of an encounter with a schizophrenic man brandishing a shotgun in order to have Gregson wax poetic about Holmes’ brilliance in a way that no one in the courtroom could believe. Testifying in front of an NPYD administrative hearing, Sherlock can’t help but inflect his stories of how he came to know James Dillon with a defense of the work he does, and his attitude toward those who don’t share his visions on morality and justice.
There are two types of unreliable narrators, however. Some are those who have faulty memories, who can’t be trusted to remember what exactly happened in a situation; Sherlock, however, is a poor narrator because he is actively reconstructing events to suit his needs. In some cases, this makes sense, as it does when he constructs various stories to justify his and Watson’s persistent breaking-and-entering offenses in the midst of their investigations. In other cases, as with his editorializing through Gregson, Sherlock is rather allowing—or, more to the point, forcing—his distain for the system and his belief in his superiority to soak through.
“Tremors” is an investigation of what happens when Sherlock acts with certainty of purpose and finds it leads to an unspeakable and tragic outcome. We learn early on that Detective Bell was shot as part of the investigation, and we eventually see the event itself: However, tellingly, it is told from Joan’s perspective, and told only because the opposing counsel raised the issue. Sherlock was solely focused on his narrative, one where Sherlock’s actions with James Dillon helped eliminate him as a suspect, prompted a late-night science distraction, which led them to exonerate an innocent man, and thus pushed them to reexamine the oncologist, and eventually led to the arrest of a man who murdered a woman solely to be able to profit from a drug that had the potential to create serious side effects. That this could all lead to James Dillon pulling out a gun and attempting to shoot Sherlock for ruining his life, and that Detective Bell would step in front of that bullet, seems unfathomable to Sherlock because his quest for the truth shouldn’t have ended that way.
Jonny Lee Miller has always done fine work as Sherlock, but “Tremors” is a particularly strong showcase because of the variety it gives the character to work with. It reminded me—perhaps because I raised its specter last week—of House’s “Three Stories,” as it uses the structure of exposition to reveal various sides of a character; this episode was also not coincidentally written by House alum Liz Friedman. We can see a clear contrast between the Sherlock who is sitting on the stand and the one who is solving the case, the former driven by the same motivations but simultaneously carrying the guilt of where those motivations led. Sherlock’s abrasiveness is such that he often hides when he is simply being mischievous in a lie versus when he is hiding from a truth he would like to avoid, but there’s a difference between his lie about puppies being mistaken for crying babies and his lie about whether or not he had stolen James Dillon’s phone. We first think the latter is simply a lie to cover his tracks—I even laughed at the reveal of the phone, the sort of fun law breaking that often delights Sherlock and the audience alike. But leaving that detail out of the story was as much about guilt as it was about the law, and Sherlock shows a wildly different perspective on that event in his closing conversation with Detective Bell.
When “Tremors” began, I was fairly skeptical. My skepticism came largely from the sense that this was more a way to shake up the show’s procedural formula than create any sort of major event for the show and its characters. As the episode progressed, however, the show returned to the questions of Holmes and Watson’s place within the NYPD that was raised in the previous episode, following through on an idea that I had figured had been resolved by that episode. When it was revealed that Bell had been shot, it created more potential stakes, but there was still skepticism that the writers would just use his recovery to help craft a happy ending for those involved. Instead, however, Bell ends the episode unwilling to accept Sherlock’s offers of help, and still struggling to rehab a right hand that may preclude him from remaining a detective moving forward. Although the hearing itself was an empty exercise given that the Commissioner rejects the judge’s recommendation, the ramifications of both the event discussed during the hearing and the hearing itself could not be so easily swept away, even though that would be the impulse for your average crime procedural.
I want to resist overstating the groundbreaking nature of this storyline, given that various other procedurals—including House, for example—have created events like this that complicate interpersonal relationships that after a period of healing are relatively mended. However, what makes them seem so much more dynamic with Elementary is that Sherlock’s multitudes make those dynamics so inherently volatile, given that he’s grappling with himself as much as he’s grappling with others when he attempts to engage with them. I loved the scene where Sherlock was cross-examining Joan, as Sherlock’s decision to refer to himself in the third person revealed the degree to which he thinks of himself as a third person in each of his relationships. Whether it’s Sherlock the Addict or Sherlock the Asshole or Sherlock the Friend or Sherlock the Partner, Sherlock Holmes is almost always hidden behind one other version of himself.
The way the final scene of “Tremors” plays out is bleak, as Bell refuses Sherlock’s offer to help with his rehabilitation and asks him not to return to the hospital. It raises the question, though, of whether that was Sherlock being completely honest, operating without that third person in the room. Done hiding his guilt, Sherlock apologizes, and thanks Bell for taking the bullet for him, and says the “banal bromides” that he dismissed in an earlier conversation with Joan wherein she encouraged him to visit the hospital. And yet Bell, despite—we presume—having instructed the Commissioner to ignore the judge’s recommendation and allow Holmes and Watson to continue their work, seems unwilling to accept that Sherlock’s offers are sincere. He sees them as another mechanism of Sherlock’s arrogance, with Sherlock’s offers of medical assistance a performance of his goodwill more than an act of good faith.
Sherlock Holmes may be a terrible narrator, but Elementary has consistently portrayed him as a man capable of sincerity. We have seen enough of his interactions with Joan to know that he is able to care about people, and in the case of Detective Bell we’ve seen many cases where he has paid the young detective compliments that he would scarcely pay lightly—Sherlock doesn’t just invited anyone to learn singlestick with him, for example. We even saw his interactions with the opposing counsel here, as he spots her as a fellow addict—not to attempt to leverage it against her, but rather to acknowledge their shared obsessions. And make what one could argue is a real, human connection. And yet what the conclusion of “Tremors” demonstrates is that there are people like Detective Bell who aren’t privy to those moments, whose framework for analyzing Sherlock does not have the narrative closeness we have as viewers.
While at times bogged down by the need to frame so much of its casework through exposition, “Tremors” excels when it comes to using that exposition to make clear the privileged perspective through which we view these characters. By slightly sidelining Joan as our point-of-view into Sherlock’s world, it instead narrows in on Sherlock’s self-expression, and the way his choices both as an investigator and as a defendant reflect the complex way in which he understands himself. Anchored by Miller’s performance, it’s the kind of episode that takes what could have been a trifle and commits to making it resonant and meaningful for the series and its characters moving forward.
- Frankie Faison and Elizabeth Marvel were a nice presence in the courtroom sequences, but I must also single out Jon Michael Hill—he didn’t have a whole lot to do in the hospital scenes, but his scenes with Liu and Miller got to the heart of his predicament well.
- I wonder if we’ll be seeing any more of Commissioner Patrick moving forward—he seemed an ominous, potentially-threatening presence in his brief appearance, and that seems like a card the show could hold onto for later.
- While I’ve learned from other procedurals that drug trials are a high stakes business that could serve as a motive for murder, I have to say that viaticals were new for me.
- Clyde Watch: We have a sighting! And although there were some continuity issues—there was a wide shot where Clyde was loose on the scale, but the crew clearly had to use the plastic container to keep Clyde in one place for longer takes—I really enjoyed the “Lighter or Heavier Than Clyde” science experiment Sherlock was using to distract himself. I also enjoyed that the way the scene was framed let us figure out what he was doing for ourselves, and that Sherlock never explicitly comments on the specifics at any stage. My one nitpick: for some of those items, it’s really “Lighter than Clyde and a Sandwich container.”