“Lying about an alibi is one thing; motive is another. Proof—that’s something else entirely, and that we don’t have.”

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“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” has some of the most varied and crime-heavy plotting of the season. A purse-snatching; a man intent on faking his own death; a man assisting identity fraud; a man with a hit out on his business partner; under-the-table ginseng wholesaling; an offscreen prison break; a woman who murders both “victim” and hired killer; an assassination cliffhanger; a little arson on the side. But the only really menacing moment in this episode is when Joan comes home and Morland’s waiting for her. He’s “left something in storage.” He’s brought security with him. He doesn’t mention what he’s looking for. Joan holds her folded coat in front of her like it can stop bullets.

We knew this was coming, of course. Nobody goes up against Morland Holmes undetected for very long. (Her snitch points out his own death knell half an hour before it happens.) But watching it play out, as Joan begins to realize the depth of subterfuge and steely nerves required to stay the course, is by far the best part of “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.”

Vigilante Joan is an interesting construct, even if it’s felt like she gathered her initial steam out of nowhere. By now she’s in the swing of things in earnest; she’s ruthlessly blackmailing Emile Kurtz, and shows zero remorse about leaning on him. That seems cold on first glance, but that’s what this season has been building to, and we know she’s never lacked for determination. Whatever’s most incriminating about Morland has yet to be discovered, and she’s just going to make Kurtz play both sides until she has it. (The Krasnov evidence seems fairly conclusive as regards Morland’s plans for everyone, but I like that Joan’s adopting the classic Holmesian technique of letting the evidence dictate the theory. She’s not done looking; a hungry Joan is a great Joan.)

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But the best thing about vigilante Joan is that it gives the show another chance to sustain one of those disconnects between Sherlock and Joan that the season has repeatedly offered and then defused without incident. She’s lying her ass off; maybe this time it will stick.

It’s rare these days to leave a personal interaction on Elementary not knowing exactly what the deal is. The show seems intent on making nearly everything tidy, from cases to emotional arcs, and unless the actors are allowed to imbue a moment with ambiguity, what you see is what you get. So there’s no doubt Morland suspects Joan, and that he knows exactly what kind of proof he’s looking for. There’s no doubt Joan is on to Morland—who, admittedly, is making zero attempt to play any of this cool. And that’s fine; it’s not like we were going to be in suspense about Morland’s intentions for very long. Emile Kurtz turns up dead in the final minutes. It’s just as well we know that Joan’s already playing this game in earnest.

What’s less clear—and a lot more interesting—is what Sherlock knows (or doesn’t), and how far Joan trusts him (or doesn’t). She definitely trusts him enough to ask a couple of very leading questions about Morland. They’re questions of the sort that usually lead Sherlock to close a case in a matter of seconds; he looks at her like he knows as much and is surprised she’s tipping her hand. (There’s also some very wise concern about wanting the brownstone to be more generally Morland-proof.) But whatever Sherlock suspects still seems vague and uncertain, and Joan is determined to shield Sherlock from it all until she has enough evidence against Morland to be sure. It’s no coincidence that Sherlock hesitates to call in Mrs. Taft for the big confession until they have some forensics in hand; this episode knows the importance of cold hard proof.

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Most seasons of Elementary have a very slow-burn arc that spins its wheels for much of the season and then comes roaring back in the final few to give us a breathless chase to the finale. The Kurtz cliffhanger suggests that Morland Holmes has had quite enough of this father-son reconciliation and is making his move to punish everyone this season who’s crossed him. The big problem with that, of course, is that Joan is now one of those people.

I would honestly love if Joan found herself really going toe-to-toe with Morland Holmes. Whatever the outcome, it could injure her relationship with Sherlock—and honestly, that’s no bad thing. She’s been a reactive character for two seasons; she’s due for a switch-up. (Let’s not forget the show literally had her win a boxing match this season; she’s a fighter, and it wanted to remind us.) Her increasingly direct vigilante edit feels as if it’s pointing straight to a breaking point.

Of course, it’s impossible to keep Sherlock out of things for long. Still, there’s such potential for dramatic payoff whenever Sherlock realizes the depth of Joan’s determination (and deceit), and has to decide if he’ll give his father the benefit of the doubt. I suspect that soon enough, Sherlock’s going to have to make a choice between the comfort of cold hard proof, and evidence of things not seen.

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Stray observations

  • This poor cat gets handed off three times in a single episode. No wonder it doesn’t like new places!
  • I’m not going to turn away a character beat on a show that apparently struggles with them, but I am going to note that Eugene got an onscreen hobby and Watson followed up on his trauma recovery. Ms. Hudson, who had a cat subplot just waiting for her, got…an offscreen mention.
  • In the Elementary universe, stand-up comedy is an inherently corrupting force; get a dude onstage and he’ll be emailing gendered dating riffs to guy friends for feedback within 24 hours. He can’t help himself. (Forget it, Sherlock, it’s Standuptown.)
  • I know exposition has to be delivered somehow, but this episode takes pains to prove Joan’s a handy detective: acing the shirt ID, noticing window alarms, seeing the missing diamond on Mrs. Talt’s wedding ring, outsmarting a bear(!). And yet Lucy Liu must be contractually required to bear the brunt of expository questions for the viewers at home. (Really? Joan doesn’t understand the importance of soil samples and regional insect populations? Are we sure?)
  • One of my favorite things on TV is the many actors who gamely play bit parts in police procedurals; they commit to dialogue that’s often impossibly awkward. Giant-Shiny-Purse Thief, I salute you.
  • Marcus running down the evidence at that crime scene was a lovely bit for him. This show often requires him to hold back from actual detective work in order for Sherlock and Joan to have something to do; it’s nice to watch him build a case on his own intelligence.
  • Honest question: In a post-I Love Lucy world, will we ever be in a place, culturally, where someone can have “some explaining to do” without it being a reference?
  • While her “woman scorned” plot was odd, even with the lampshading, there was something satisfying about how much Roxanne Ortiz hated Sherlock. She wasn’t guilty of murder, she just hated him! It happens.
  • There was a nice visual motif in this episode of possessions falling apart or being taken; the diamond in the ring, the souvenir Roxanne sacrifices to the altar of Hating Sherlock Just That Much, the motorcycle, the anonymous purse in the cold open.
  • Line delivery that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: Gregson’s downright perky ennui as he contemplates the long list of questions raised by the case beyond propping the corpse’s eyes open. “Good question…Then again, there are others.”
  • “She offered neither confession nor alibi. So consequently, we will spend the day sorting through the flotsam of her sad life with Butch Callahan.”
  • Costume note: Joan’s black coat with the gold highlight is skirting awfully close to the visual language of superhero costumes; I’m listening.

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