“The matter is a perfectly trivial one”—he jerked his thumb in the direction of the old hat—”but there are points in connection with it which are not entirely devoid of interest and even of instruction.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”
There are two thorny, potentially fascinating plots in “Rekt In Real Life.” Unfortunately, that’s all we get.
Marcel “Tendu” Otolik is an Inuit gamer called up from his small town in Canada to make staggering amounts of money as a pro gamer. He’s deeply connected to his hometown, which is on indigenous land and has been struggling to keep out corporate interests and maintain traditions, including seal hunting. He uses his money and influence to protect his town’s lands and to be a face of the seal-hunting movement among big-name activist groups. Things get complicated when he falls in love with one of the trafficked women hired by his gaming company to provide sex to its players; when he tries to free her from her contract by blackmailing the traffickers with info he gleaned from his hacking skills, he ends up in the crosshairs of two enemies at once.
That’s a lot for an A-plot. Even the conservationist who casually suggests genocide provides enough fodder for a full episode. (Sherlock and Joan would, one imagines, have plenty to talk about, if the show let them.) And a hacktivist gamer who risked it all for love is a ton of story; it’s the kind of setup you’d give a new recurring character so they could unspool it over several episodes. At the very least, you’d expect someone who’s done so much in the narrative to have a hell of a personality for however long you get him in his guest appearance.
Instead, Tendu is missing. In his absence, Sherlock and Joan and an animal-rights activist discuss the morality of seal hunting. (The activist explains that after she commented on his sealfie that “you and your people deserve extinction,” she and Tendu came to an agreement about what kind of hunting is okay and everything is settled now.) Tendu’s seal-hunting hakapik represents him like a Monopoly piece until someone finds him at last. And after they find him…he never says a word.
I understand the mystery conventions at work—in order to ratchet up the tension, Tendu has to stay Schroedinger’s Gamer for as long as possible while we worry about his well-being—and I understand, even appreciate, the attempt to root the mystery in something with real timeliness and resonance. But that very timeliness should have been a reminder that visibility is crucial. In an episode so firmly centered on a First Nations character dealing with issues rooted in culture and tradition, his erasure is so painfully obvious that the rest is just a non-starter. The setup is interesting, but if Tendu can’t be present in his own story, what is that saying?
The B-plot has a similar problem: fascinating setup, execution so rushed it undermines itself. Shinwell’s daughter Chivonne finally makes contact—but only because a gang member’s been stalking her and she needs it handled. Shinwell (currently an informant but still disposable to the feds) knows he can’t afford to take violent action, but he also can’t let this threat to his daughter go unchallenged. His chance to be her father is clearly going to crush any other concerns underfoot; even Joan doesn’t seem surprised when he asks her to help him brainstorm a non-murder option. That option: Trade the guy two additional dealing corners in exchange for leaving Chivonne alone.
Again, there’s a lot to work with here—honestly, an episode’s worth. Ever since Joan first toyed with the idea of a little vigilantism, it’s been a loaded gun on the mantel; when, and to what degree, and why she’ll give up the last pretense of the straight and narrow. She’s also been a little blithe about Shinwell’s problems in the past, which makes this outcome ostensibly intriguing. She’s beginning to take his problems seriously; how does that affect the ways she tries to help?
Unfortunately, the decision-making process loses almost all its power by being shunted offscreen. As shot, the only resonance we’re left with is Chivonne’s haunting rejection (“I came to you because I had to. Do you understand?”), and Shinwell glancing back over his shoulder at the daughter he took such a risk for, and who he might not ever really know. Luckily, it’s a great moment; Nelsan Ellis is fantastic throughout this episode, whether bluffing his way through the confrontation or overwhelmed by this tentative, fraught with his daughter. But it’s clearly rushed, and does him a disservice.
It’s also, frankly, a disservice to us. This show has really begun to coast on overstuffed plots and skimp on character, and it’s even more obvious when setups like this get shortchanged. Joan advocating negotiating drug-dealing territory for a good cause should be a major turning point for her. (If that’s even what she did. Did she have any qualms, as a former sober companion, about dipping her toe into the logistics of the drug trade? Did she just press him about murder until he thought of an exit strategy himself? Did she make another blithe suggestion about involving the police? We don’t know.) Again, we see the conventions at work here. There are times a story wants you to be in the dark, and there are advantages to cutting away from a done-deal conversation to watch the fun stuff play out; the language of the camera trains us to anticipate these and fill in the blanks. But this is a tough, dark decision—immoral for the right reasons, which is great for character work—and we deserved the full weight of watching it get made.
Honestly, this episode is more frustrating than some of the workaday ones, because it wouldn’t have its problems if Elementary was able to break its bad habits. A show that used to use cases to deepen our understanding of the characters (and occasionally engage with the moral quagmires of the job) here uses cultures as plot points, subcultures as window dressing, victimization as color commentary, and twists as character development. It’s possible, during a bland episode, to think the show has merely settled. “Rekt In Real Life” is a worrying example of the show not recognizing potential when it has it; if you can’t do that, why are you playing the game?
- Joan speaks Mandarin! I’m fairly sure this is the first time she has; it was definitely the most exciting onscreen beat for her this episode.
- Sherlock observing proper chain of custody for a piece of evidence? That haircut has changed him.
- O.G. is played as exactly as unbearable as he needs to be; brief but great.
- Line reading of the week: “Back off or I’ll destroy you. Three exclamation points.” Jon Michael Hill is always walking a very fine line between Marcus genuinely believing in his duty to mete out justice, and Marcus being absolutely done with everything that has ever happened, is happening, or could possibly happen later.
- Myles may be off the Elementary beat, but he’s never forgotten, thanks to Joan and Shinwell’s air lattes. #EmptyCupAwards
- The ‘booth babe’ escorts were a jarring note in a show that has, in the past, largely managed to avoid that sort of objectification. Attempting to humanize them by making them victims of human trafficking only muddies the waters; it removes any sense of agency the women had, taints our missing hero Tendu, and turns every other gamer character in this episode into criminals or accessories. (Also, whatever Major Crimes plans to do to help Anezka and company gets swallowed by the plot machine, which…awkward.)
- Related: “Spent her whole life in the sex trade, she’s used to trading herself for money.” These are the moments you realize how little character work has been done for Joan Watson lately. Are we meant to take this uncritically as the show-world’s opinion of women who have risen through the ranks of human trafficking to a clearly-still-iffy middle management? Are we meant to look at this as Joan betraying a blind spot? Is this cynicism setting in? Does Sherlock, who in the past has shown both deep sympathy regarding trafficked women and deep resentment of those who collude, have anything to say about where Carla falls on that scale? Why have a beat like this if it tells us nothing about the characters?
- Gregson spends the first act of this episode dressed like it’s Winter Formal on Babylon 5.
- A moment of this episode Jonny Lee Miller palpably enjoyed: “Horse emancipation is not on the docket, I’m afraid.” He’s gonna be warming up backstage with that one for the next few years.
- “He died because of global warming.” Honestly, won’t we all?