“On paper, you’re utterly disposable.”

It’s been illuminating to see what Elementary‘s fifth season has done with Shinwell Johnson. His attempts to keep on the straight and narrow have presented Joan with opportunities for soul-searching (only some of which she’s taken), presented Sherlock with opportunities to act superior (almost all of which he’s taken), and presented the show with a satellite for the unspoken frustrations of their partnership. What it hasn’t done is given us much from Shinwell’s point of view. Nelsan Ellis is doing fantastic work, so we care about Shinwell as much as his screen time allows, but aside from a few scenes designed to make us wonder what’s building in the background, we’ve been kept on the sidelines right next to Joan and Sherlock, waiting for the fallout.

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“It Serves You Right To Suffer” is seemingly the moment the season irises out on Shinwell. Mystery solved. We see how he’s made a victim of circumstance and a victim of the government system; he stays intimately involved with the investigation to clear his name, and speaks up for himself against Sherlock’s dismissals. We even get the sleekness of an episode focused on a single, relatively simple case involving someone we know and stakes that matter. But it’s not all smooth sailing.

Partially, that’s because we get two thematically distinct investigations, which, as often happens, requires one of them to be more right than the other. However, the default lens on this show is Sherlock’s, which means that even when he’s wrong (and we’re definitely meant to think he’s wrong), there’s also an assumption of authority in his point of view that means the episode trips on its own coda.

Joan largely tackles the system from within; Sherlock petty-crimes his way into gathering the necessary information. And though Joan doesn’t suspect the incredibly guilty Whitlock, somehow (no need for Previouslies to tell us something’s up), she has a solid turn. Crucially, her interview with Whitlock and her delivery of the big reveal both require outrage at a system that would put a vulnerable man in an impossible position and then throw him to the wolves. You could argue her shock is a little naive, but her outrage is necessary; it gives weight to her relationship with Shinwell, and it’s an attempt for the text of the episode to counter Sherlock, because boy, he needs it.

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Sherlock is at his worst here, which for him means a return of his on-again off-again lack of empathy. He spends most of the episode alternately breaking into places and staring down his nose at Shinwell, making it unmistakably clear he’s better than what Joan has implicitly asked him to do. He does assist, but there’s a certain dismissive gloss on his participation. When he tells Shinwell, “On paper, you’re utterly disposable,” there’s none of Joan’s outrage, or even the wry understanding he’s offered to marginalized clients in the past. “You’re penniless, sullied, disenfranchised,” Sherlock says, looking as if he can barely keep himself awake through the list.

One likes to imagine Sherlock’s position—a thoughtless high-handedness that terms Shinwell’s decision to bring down his gang because they didn’t care about members who fell into the prison pipeline a “vague opportunity to do some good”—is deliberate. Titling the episode “It Serves You Right To Suffer” itself invites the argument. Shinwell is innocent; obviously this is unjust; obviously none of it is right.

Perhaps the episode hopes the audience will question their assumptions alongside Sherlock. Certainly, when Shinwell tells him, “It’s like what you said before, we were all disposable. But we’re not,” there’s an implied parallel between two systems—one legal, one illegal—equally happy to forget anybody who isn’t immediately useful. Sherlock, who’s echoing some of Whitlock’s own attitude about Shinwell, should be a guilty party. If we’re setting up Joan and Sherlock as two pillars of Shinwell’s defense—one legal, one illegal—part of Sherlock’s arc should include some small comeuppance for dismissing the humanity of someone whose attempts to make good were backfiring on him because of someone else’s greed.

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But there isn’t any. Even when Sherlock approaches Marcus to ask if Marcus thinks his brother would revert to his criminal ways if he went back to prison (which seems fairly tone-deaf on a couple of levels), the show frames it as Sherlock making a difficult ethical decision by searching for faith in people.

So he helps Shinwell. Then Sherlock—who’s gotten sober partially thanks to financial and social resources he was able to leverage, who’s relapsed and avoided almost all repercussions from the self-destructive actions around that, who’s often lashed out and been protected on all sides by his friendship with the NYPD and his father’s influence—tells Shinwell, seemingly in all seriousness as the music swells, “This is your second second chance. Do try to make the most of it.”

Giving us an episode centered on Shinwell that ends on Sherlock begrudgingly admitting Shinwell’s a person makes the episode’s intentions ring a little hollow. Sherlock presumably respects his former sponsor, ex-con Alfredo; he mentored Kitty Winter, who struggled with destructive impulses. We know Sherlock’s wary of Shinwell for Joan Reasons, but somehow that antipathy gets sidelined. Despite ostensibly being Shinwell’s big moment, the episode ultimately frames him as Sherlock sees him: Someone Sherlock personally grants a second chance.

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Since Elementary‘s first season, which gave us the journey of the most empathetic and believably flawed Sherlock Holmes in some time, we occasionally get the Sherlock of “It Serves You Right To Suffer”: not the emotional friction of personal blind spots, but an unearned superiority validated by the text. Hopefully somebody calls him to task for this, and soon. The other option is that the show felt that Sherlock’s parting shot was an inspiring thing to say, and…well, let’s hope not.

Stray observations

  • Aidan Quinn directed! As often when actors direct, we got some great beats of everybody in the frame reacting to events. (I also dug the crime-scene shot of Joan against the gray wall, fenced in by tidy gray steel, while Sherlock had the lights-blazing cop cars behind him – all the trappings of righteously-angry law and order.)
  • I’m inherently not the biggest fan of the Weird Watson Wake-ups (I get the quirk value, but many of them still read as a “safe” way to remind us Sherlock hates those pesky personal boundaries). But regardless of how one feels about them in general, Sherlock setting up a phone to fake a stranger’s distress in order to panic Joan into a response is flat-out awful.
  • “Respectfully, I can’t take your word that the murder weapon’s over a hundred years old. I mean, let’s let Ballistics do their job, okay?” Oh. Detective Debi Mazar it’s way too late to suggest that other people on the force do their jobs rather than listen to Sherlock, but thank you for trying.
  • The rain is always a bummer for continuity. See also: Sherlock in a downpour, cutting to a perfectly dry Watson in some alternate universe where rain never falls on New York.
  • Marcus’ brother Andre still exists! Thanks, I guess!
  • Putting “Innocent man” and “Corrupt agent” supertitles on the preview that aired a few minutes before the episode was definitely…informative, but giving away the 40-minute twist to a show that’s billed as a mystery seems like an exercise in diminishing returns.
  • Line delivery of the week: Ellis, with the world’s longest-suffering, “Don’t get me wrong, I like your little art project…”
  • In fact, I just want to take another moment to praise Ellis in general. The scene with Tall Boy was great even while you knew it was going to be a red herring.
  • Watson’s clothing has followed a general trend away from drapey cardigans into an increasingly tailored wardrobe. There’s nothing wrong with this, obviously; characters’ styles change. I do have some questions about why her style has changed so much, especially where a change in style is substituted for character work. (Her outfits this season bring her more visually in sync with Sherlock than ever. I’m still waiting for a character note as to why that is, in a season where she’s been seen as a potential ditch case. Is she planning to ditch and overcompensating with businesswear? Is she attempting to visually equal the detective she plans to usurp—more Sherlock than Sherlock? Is she dressing to echo him in genuine solidarity?) This season has been particularly buttoned-up—often literally, and definitely here, in a three-piece suit, including a white shirt with at least twice the number of recommended daily buttons so she can look even more unassailable than previously. It makes visual sense, given that she’s confronting the system from within. It’s also the second of two full suits she’s worn in tense situations with Shinwell, and honestly, we could use some context here, too. Is she trying to position herself as an authority? Is this a meta-statement, signaling differences in class and privilege? Is she—once again—trying to protect herself from emotions by maintaining visual distance through her clothes? It matters; I’d love to know.

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