Photo: Jeff Niera (CBS)

“You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.”

- The Sign of the Four, 1890

There are two declarations of love in this episode. The latter is the more overt, and we’ll get there. The former is the better one: Sherlock takes Joan aside and asks, as a formality, if she really murdered Michael the serial killer. “I would understand,” he assures her. “In fact, I would do everything in my power to make sure you got away with it.”

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It’s a very Elementary mash note. Equally Elementary is Joan’s question to him in turn, after she’s promised she didn’t do it: “Did you?”

This beat is some of the best of what the show can do—glimpses of a relationship where the idea of protecting the other person can easily become overstepping boundaries, and trust isn’t an absolute even after so many years. And for an episode that was originally expected to be the series finale, this tense exchange pays off like so much else of Elementary: almost very satisfying.

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It’s a tricky business to try to judge a show that, in general, does a perfectly adequate job being a pleasantly vague echo of its best season. I’ve gone to the mat repeatedly for the first season of Elementary being one of the best Holmes adaptations in recent years. Sherlock’s struggle with sobriety was a fraught landscape he couldn’t navigate alone. An aimless Joan Watson slowly discovered her affinity for the macabre and unusual. A supporting case of irregulars (and Irregulars) brought the story into the twenty-first century; several other hat-tips to the Arthur Conan Doyle canon assured viewers than the connection hadn’t been forgotten. And the relationship between Sherlock and Joan developed by degrees, inching toward respect, then friendship, and later toward devotion.

Over the years, Elementary has become a cozy mystery setup mapped over its Byzantine cases, a situation it handles with variable deftness. Its worst instincts can lead to proceduralism: plot at the cost of everything else, leaving you with gimmicks instead of relationships and revelation as substitute for character development. It’s the sort of thing where any given episode of the show will devote several twists to sand piracy or forging mummies, while Joan’s father and Sherlock’s brother die offscreen, seemingly to give them something to discuss in their brief allotments for emotional expression.

But at its best, the show leans on the strengths of Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, separately or (ideally) together, and shows us two prickly people trying to navigate a relationship that always demands just a little more trust than they have. (In this episode, when Joan bites out, “So, be my partner,” she startles even herself with how baldly she’s asked for something she’s never been good at needing.) It’s this version of the world that’s inhabited by compelling supporting characters, and by cases that shake them; it’s this world we keep wanting them to come home to.

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The best cases aren’t good because of their intricacy, but because they tend to be the ones that force Sherlock or Joan to examine something personal that’s not easily resolved; this season, “Bits And Pieces” brought Sherlock’s denial about his post-concussion syndrome to a head. And when an emotional moment on this show lands, it really lands; Joan’s stiff-upper-lip conversation with her mother in “Through The Fog” is somewhat unearned (where has her mom been all these off-camera seasons?), but still, it’s plenty affecting in the moment. Almost very satisfying.

This season was initially ordered at 13 episodes; about six months later the order was extended to 21, a significant chunk of story to backfill. Early episodes of this season, believing they would be Elementary’s last, pulled out all the stops trying to bring the story to a close. The later episodes, which pushed the original two-part ending back, tried to match the subtly elegiac tone of the character beats in the season’s first half, and more or less succeeded. We got cameos from friends and family, and closure on some long-abandoned subplots. Captain Gregson and Marcus Bell got to consider the future as an inevitability that carried consequences from the present. Even its serial (har har) element–comically creepy Michael, who somehow slipped under the radar of the world’s best consulting detective—was a weaponized metaphor for Sherlock’s sobriety.

Given the uneven lead-up to what was going to be a full wrap on the series, it’s very interesting to see how things shook out for characters who, presumably, we would never see again. Marcus didn’t get much to do here (he rarely does), but Jon Michael Hill is as light a touch as ever. (His careful non-reaction when asked about Joan’s questionable tactics was perfect.) Putting Gregson in the middle for fraught emotional reasons is, on the surface, a great move—and if there isn’t quite enough of Gregson as a character to make this fully land, Aidan Quinn still gives the showdown with Sherlock his all, building a full emotional backjourney as he goes through sheer force of will. And Hannah’s his daughter; what choice did he have?

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It’s affecting enough, in the moment, that we understand why Joan’s willing to risk her own future to protect him—and Hannah—from having to pay too big a price for murdering a serial killer who’d previously evaded the law. It’s messier than some other foreshadowed assassins would have been—and honestly, better for it. Having, say, Moriarty or Holmes Sr. behind the hit would have been well within the show’s mythology, and could have prompted a similar result, but would have asked less of Joan and Sherlock than this did. It’s not quite earned (Hannah disappeared for quite a while, and Gregson deserved more than one episode to spin out such a tortured loyalty), but within its limitations, it’s as wrenching as it can be. Almost very satisfying.

And of course, Liu and Miller absolutely nail the progressively-fraught struggle over Joan’s exoneration, leading to the most overt declaration of feelings this show has ever risked.

There have been grand gestures before, on either side; if developing a sting operation against the biggest criminal mastermind alive in order to protect your best friend isn’t a sign of devotion, what is? But the show has always been so careful about anything that could be construed as traditionally romantic that it’s often worked to avoid it, even if it robs Joan and Sherlock of some potentially interesting moments. (Why not show Sherlock arriving at Joan’s side after she was attacked by Michael—too expected? Too gallant?) For the show to carve out such dedicated time, for such dedicated admissions, is a big move.

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Sure, it has some of the familiar Elementary shortcuts that can still grate—Sherlock, as usual, does the talking, while we’re left to wonder until this episode’s final moments what Joan has to say about it. But it’s hard to begrudge that in the brownstone, watching Joan and Sherlock struggle to hold back tears. Sherlock can barely bring himself to use her name (the first time he’s called her “Joan”); he can’t bring himself to admit happiness at all. With the courage of a farewell, Sherlock offers Joan a more vulnerable truth than we’ve ever heard—”I was dying, and no one could see it but you”—and, after Joan tries to reaffirm the status quo of their partnership, overcomes years of deflection and defensiveness to acknowledge what we all know: “No, we’re much better than that. We’re two people that love each other. We always have been.”

Every Holmes and every Watson are the center of their adaptation. Their relationship, wherever it exists on the wide sliding scale between platonic mentorship and subsumed romance, defines what the story will become. It’s snarky or earnest; it’s nuanced or slapstick; it’s pleasant or fraught. Elementary has faltered a little at times in how it positions its Holmes and Watson—one of them gets to discuss feelings much more than the other, in a show with a prescribed formula that doesn’t have enough time for quiet, guarded Watson to get that emotional reflection back some other way. But it has also deliberately made room to let their relationship be more than one thing. It’s a relationship that has its well-worn habits (either delightful or too well-worn, depending on your ceiling for things like the Joan Wake-Up). It’s a relationship that has broken, more than once. It’s a relationship that could easily take over the cases—and frankly should have—and has routinely been shortchanged in the name of episodic pacing. (Sherlock’s relapse at the end of the third season cast a shockingly short shadow, given how much of his character is centered on his sobriety; Joan’s life casts a shockingly short shadow on pretty much anything.)

It’s not an easy relationship; it’s a partnership in the sense that it takes both of them working hard to keep things stable. It’s been rough enough to make you doubt, for just a moment, whether Joan and Sherlock will be able to find their way back to each other in the end, after all. The stakes are organically high enough that Joan starting over alone would have made sense—perhaps a visit from an Irregular as a sign that the relationship would continue, as complicated and convoluted as ever. So much of this show, even in character beats that it fumbles, is about coming to terms with things you can’t conquer; their separation, as an act of devotion, would have been of a piece with that.

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The suspense doesn’t last long, when you’re watching—we can see the reveal as far ahead as Sherlock sees the runaway bride—but it hardly matters, does it, if they’re living side-by-side? Even the attempt to make light of the L word becomes just so much other prickly back-and-forth. Their geography of place is vanishingly important compared to the geography of their partnership. They’re together; everything else is window dressing.

As a setup for next season, it suggests that things will fall back into the same old routines, because the shape of the show demands it. But this was originally meant to be an end, and as an end, it’s almost very satisfying, indeed.

Stray observations

  • “...your stepfather’s out of town on a book tour.” Oh yeah? Is it another of the books that he wrote about his thinly-fictional daughter in a sexual relationship with thinly-fictional Sherlock? (Handy of them to include one of the most egregious examples of Joan being shoehorned into reconciliation over something so they wouldn’t have to spend more time on it.)
  • Joan’s sudden urge to parent, sparked by a note from her murdered therapist (sure), was weird, given how much time has been spent on the ways Joan’s urges lead her outside the ordinary. There’s certainly value in seeing a woman on TV contemplate single motherhood without any agita about a partner—particularly a character of color. But that also requires you to believe motherhood is an unexpected path, which...is arguable. Kitty has a kid, and so does Moriarty; depending on how you rank Moriarty’s presence on the show, 50%-66.6% of the show’s female leads are already mothers! Is that the only endgame this show can imagine for a woman? Now that we have another season, I guess we’ll see if a child appears. (Sherlock did say “neighbors.” Brace yourselves.)
  • In a show that was allowed to be more serial, the question of Joan’s unflinching ethical backbone as it’s applied to extrajudicial methods—the wrong thing for the right reasons—would be consistently explored, with emotional friction and consequences, outside of a very special episode or a season finale. I bet that show is very good. Remember earlier this season when she barely flinched at dosing an ex-addict with heroin because he was a serial killer, superceding the oaths of her surgical office and her ethics as a former sober companion because the stakes were so high? Remember how we never saw her have any emotional fallout around that presumably-wrenching decision?
  • Who’s taking care of the bees? (I’d hope Ms. Hudson, but among all the characters who recurred this season, she was noticeably absent.)
  • For Myles: No Clyde.
  • Joan’s suits have gone from an unspoken character note during a fraught time with Sherlock to a trademark she carries off seemingly for herself. Whatever she was trying to prove before, by now this feels like someone she’s comfortable being. Interesting development.
  • Christine Moore delivered some very well-directed conversations between Joan and Sherlock. They echoed one another nicely—one person a fixed point, the other all agitation—and moved through the house in a way that felt like a fitting goodbye.
  • What a lovely finale. (Season, technically, but it’s hard to unsee this as a series finale, for good reasons.) Thank you for reading.

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