“You should still prepare yourself for the worst.”

At the beginning of this episode, we’re introduced to the perfect case for Joan and Sherlock at this point in the season. Brian, a kid going through withdrawal from pain meds, and his father, a jerkbag lawyer (and abusive parent, as Sherlock and Joan separately seem to pick up on), is hiring them to find the doctor who got his kid hooked in the first place. Sherlock is so incensed at the abusive father that he socks him in the face; Joan, her old habits coming to bear, talks directly to Brian rather than about him—the only person in the room genuinely interested in Brian’s take—and then removes him from the father who’s making him so nervous.

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Sherlock is still ostensibly getting back in the swing of sobriety and dealing with his own overbearing and neglectful father; the past few episodes have hinted that Joan is going to start coming across situations where no one is ever going to be brought to official justice for the terrible things they’ve done. This case—in which Joan’s concern about Brian would be positioned just far enough away from Sherlock’s desire to find the doctor, perhaps, and look for answers—seems perfectly positioned to bring both those things to bear.

That doctor is the body of the week; we get a lengthy tour of a bunker and a subplot about the world of prescription pill fraud. We never see Brian again. Neither Joan nor Sherlock mentions him.

At Wondercon this weekend, Rob Doherty gave an interview in which he spoke about how difficult it is to come up with sufficiently complex cases for Sherlock and Joan to solve. He clarified that the writers’ room always manages: “That always seems to get done…the deeper we get into the run of the series, it’s harder and harder to come up with the character stories, and what’s new for the partnership in this season or this episode, or how is Joan’s life changing for having been a detective for four years, or where is Sherlock with his sobriety. They’re still the most satisfying part of the show, but I think we sweat a little bit more as we come up with those.”

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I thought about this quote a lot during this episode. It’s put some things about this season in perspective, though the implications aren’t great; for a show based on such rich, nuanced interpretations of two of the Western canon’s most recognizable characters, the idea that the writers’ room is struggling to dredge up enough character beats to parcel out amid the procedural beats is a seriously disheartening image. On the other hand, you can’t say it isn’t clarifying. The abandonment of that initial setup in favor of survivalist red herrings suggests a writing staff that prioritizes cool twists (the undercover journalist), and that didn’t even think of the cold open beyond a way to get Joan and Sherlock interested in a case that they hoped would be interested enough to carry the rest of the episode by itself.

Spoilers: Nope. There were some nice beats, as always: this week’s highlight amid the procedural stuff was probably Joan and Sherlock pretending to be shitty elitists in order to get a tour of the bunker (and barely able to keep up the pretense long enough). But as I’ve said repeatedly about this show, no one in the era of Peak TV is tuning into an episodic procedural for the cases. You want an interesting case? Watch a season-long documentary that unpacks one. People tune in to Elementary for the characters; Joan and Sherlock are so good together that they can make a pile of exposition in the backseat of a blacked-out car feel like a dramatic fulcrum. When this show works, it’s like pulling off a dark road to a wonderful hotel full of fascinating people where you can’t wait to settle in. When it doesn’t work, it’s like being on a bus that won’t even pull over at a rest stop so you can get a bag of chips from the vending machine, and you can’t do anything but watch the scenery and starve.

Which brings us to Fiona.

Fiona—a neuro-atypical programmer introduced as a potential love interest for Sherlock after she was very briefly a person of interest in a case—is perfectly fine. Betty Gilpin does a great job with her, giving her a distinctive affect that doesn’t swallow her personality; we haven’t seen her much, but we know she’s painstakingly honest and has a wry sense of humor. She is, apparently, very special to Sherlock, who has had trouble courting her because he’s bad at relationships—either generally aromantic or because of severe trust issues after his attempt at having a relationship with Irene—and most of Joan and Sherlock’s non-case moments are spent deep in discussion about just how special Fiona is. And it isn’t that I don’t believe it; I’m happy to. It just feels…flat.

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And this is despite some major beats. Because of Sherlock’s issues, they haven’t had sex; she breaks up with Sherlock because she assumes he sees her as a “project”; he comes clean about his emotional issues, at which point Fiona suggests they consummate the relationship instantly. And it’s all perfectly nice—TV could use more neuro-atypical characters with healthy romantic relationships based on communication and honesty! But if the writers’ room is reaching so hard for character beats, and they had this in the wings, wouldn’t it have been nice to see this relationship progressing?Has the episodic nature of the show doomed characters to only be thought of in forty-minute chunks until the last four episodes of the season?

It’s hard in moments like this to grade a show on things that are passable from a show that you know can do better. Was anything wrong with Fiona this week? Not really; the moments that featured her were handled well. But Joan and Sherlock had to spin their wheels catching us up with a month of dating developments just to get us to a status quo; it was so much work that it let the air out of the scenes that actually had Fiona in them. How do you grade invisible disappointments?

This week’s procedural was serviceable. Most of them are serviceable; after four seasons, understandably, finding cases that will stump savvy TV viewers is a tough gig. But the cases that stand out are almost always so striking because they connect deeply with one of the characters. (“Miss Taken” is still a standout from this season case-wise, though it had its own character problems.) The thing that sets this show apart has always been its central characters—and a supporting cast that, hilariously, we never see enough of. It’s a great cast, and the benefit of being four years in is the rapport you’ve built up, even in parceled-out moments. You could lock them in a diner for an hour for no reason at all and we’d watch it; you can give them a few more minutes to breathe.

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Stray observations

  • I can’t shake the feeling this episode was tempting fate by spending an entire act touring a bunker in which everything has been set up at first glance to look carefully considered and is actually just a bunch of empty promises.
  • I have to ask: A dedicated, paranoid survivalist scheduled a meeting with someone for illegal shenanigans and decided to make that meetup location the middle of a public train station obviously covered by surveillance cameras? Are we sure?
  • Jonny Lee Miller’s mask of Sherlock’s adopted disdain can occasionally slide into Smell The Fart territory. It’s fine—it segues nicely into his barely-controllable anger at the abusive dad—but for an actor capable of such subtlety, even when depicting Sherlock as detached, it sticks out.
  • Sticking out in a good way: Lucy Liu’s face during Sherlock’s description of the dream she might have had if she’d been able to overhear Trent’s amorous activities, which manages to clearly convey that it’s Sherlock, not Trent, who’s crossed the line.
  • “Right. Wouldn’t want to separate the wine from the guns.”
  • I was prepared to say I’m over the ties, and the costume department must have known, because they gave Joan a skinny scarf instead, and while I hated it, it is at least not technically a tie. You win this one, costume department.
  • Line that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: Marcus. Jon Michael Hill’s “You’d be surprised how many confessions start that way!” was laugh-out-loud funny.

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