“You okay?”

“Not really.”

So, Joan and Sherlock fail.

They fail in the episode’s opening minutes, when—despite Jack Brunelle being just the sort of man they keep assuring one another they’re in the business of helping—they reject him without so much as taking a phone number for later. It might just have been a failure of logistics; if nothing else, Sherlock and Joan are too busy solving every homicide in the Major Case squad to get around to much private work these days. But writer Jeffrey Paul King deliberately chooses cases that asked Joan and Sherlock to question themselves, a collection of past doubts and potential failures. (“Dead Clade Walking,” in which Sherlock is asked to step up after Randy relapses, and he and Watson deal with an old case Sherlock couldn’t solve; “Bella,” in which Sherlock never quite gets his answers about intelligence vs/ consciousness; and “Down Where The Dead Delight,” in which Joan is forced to face how far she would bend the law in the pursuit of justice, and got reminded how her compromises would follow her around.)

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Jack Brunelle is meant to be the Ghost of Cases Past as much as he is a current one; even his own case is about being unable to fix the past. The statute of limitations on his son’s assault is running out, and when he takes hostages he’s railing against the futility of it all. Luckily, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. does smart, subtle work that prevents Brunelle from becoming just a symbol of past mistakes. He’s a man at his wits’ end who has our sympathies; even if he largely exists to present another set of novelty parameters for the case of the week, it doesn’t feel that way.

That case is another of the Elementary twist-a-minutes (gang wars! Maple syrup! Tolling!), though this one features two things many of their recent cases don’t. One, it keeps a clear line between one discovery and the next while solving a single case that remains the focus of the investigation the entire time; the case itself is about a gang that cuts its losses to be free of the past. Two, we get to see Sherlock fail.

One of the downsides of being increasingly comfortable in an episodic network procedural is that the shakeups are Events, and the rest of time we rest fairly easy that our protagonists will get the job done. In the moment before I looked at the clock and realized we had several minutes left, I was impressed that the timer on this case expired. That for once, outright, Joan and Sherlock failed. For a moment, they had to accept that they hadn’t helped someone who needed them—someone who, as Joan deduces, means no real harm and has no expectations about getting out alive. That burden lingers after the nonviolent showdown, when the pair of them, sleepless with guilt, try to come to terms with it. When Sherlock admits, “As rivals go, [time]’s undefeated,” it feels like the precipice of something big. That moment of them failing and having to absorb the blow is so interesting that the eleventh-hour solve felt like a letdown. Sure, it was inevitable, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting.

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That wasn’t the only way this episode felt like a meta check on the show itself, asking some questions it doesn’t have the authority to answer. Brunelle’s son spiraled out after feeling helpless and ignored, eventually dying of a heroin overdose; that feels like a fairly pointed dig at Sherlock—particularly given that callback to “Dead Clade Walking”—and yet Sherlock never betrays a moment of guilt or regret that he’d ignored someone who needed his help. (He does have the moment of manic discovery, visibly pushing himself to spit out the solution before the sand runs out of the hourglass, but that feels like the sort of general stress reaction we’ve seen from him before.) That’s especially interesting considering “Over A Barrel” also puts Watson in the position of hostage, again.

If you’re reading these recaps you know how I feel about Watson’s captivity disappearing into the Season The Show Speaks Not Of, and its apparent disinterest in ever addressing that again. It’s one thing to ignore it when the reminders are peripheral; actually taking her hostage again and not hinting at all that she might be under increased ambient stress seems almost surreal. Instead, her narrative energy is expended outward with her usual competence, analyzing and emotionally handling Brunelle (even saving his life). She gets a moment or two of nerves, but there’s not much space for her psychology in the middle of discerning his. On the other hand, “Over A Barrel” comes closer to recognizing her stress after the fact than the second season ever did. Gregson asks if she’s all right; for once, she acknowledges she’s not. (Gregson even offers her a hug, which might be the first time in the history of the show anyone’s physically comforted her.)

It does seem odd to skip Joan and Sherlock’s post-case reunion; that “partners in everything” sentiment could have used a bookend at the end of the crisis. (Unless they’ve gotten as casual about peril as we have from watching them over the seasons, de-escalating and surviving a hostage situation again.) Still, it’s good to see Joan affected by something, however briefly; it’s good to see Sherlock watching her go up the stairs as if he’s worried.

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In the end, the biggest downside to “Over A Barrel”—that it doesn’t let them really fail—is just par for the course of Elementary’s last few seasons. That doesn’t rob it of its marks for an ambitious setup, and for the ways it actually did set up so many small ties to the past. It’s just that we’re looking at a show that echoes Joan and Sherlock in the episode’s final moments; it likes to cut everything off clean, and start over.

Stray observations

  • Continuing the theme of Avoidable Mistakes: Sherlock seems remarkably unconcerned with the possibility that he sounded Reggie’s death knell when he called him out as a former Shoreline 99er in front of his bosses.
  • Sherlock’s sincere but oblivious, “I can only apply my talents where they are most needed” was somehow startling in its cruelty; I hope this isn’t the end of him grappling with that idea.
  • It’s probably worth a mention that Connor Brunelle’s sexuality was neither an opportunity for a big reveal, nor any part of the reason he was assaulted; appreciated.
  • “If Brunelle doesn’t have a reason to kill anybody, I don’t want you giving him one.” I love Gregson when he’s being the incredibly grumpy exposition patriarch of the Major Case squad, but this is a welcome beat of Gregson’s even-keeled leadership.
  • Also a welcome beat; Marcus, barely able to even believe how far Sherlock’s asking him to bend the law in order to break in and discover all that syrup.
  • Great use of Zoe Keating’s cello to heighten the tension of the final diner standoff; I was never in doubt as to the outcome, but the music let me pretend I was!
  • Liu cradling Miller’s head as she studiously buzzes his hair off makes for a strikingly domestic beat—somehow even more so as the camera pulls back to put the door frame between them and us, making us a voyeur into a private moment. (“Partners in everything,” after all.) Given that the season began with Sherlock so uncertain of their partnership, this is either subtle signaling that all’s well, or foreshadowing that something terrible is about to happen.

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