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“The Invisible Hand” is just a stack of dad problems

Illustration for article titled “The Invisible Hand” is just a stack of dad problems
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“I’m untouchable, remember?”

Jonny Lee Miller is a remarkable Sherlock Holmes. It’s admittedly hard for a casual viewer to get much evidence for this from a single episode; the CBS-ification of this adaptation means actors often have to steal grace notes out from under exposition. And even though he gets the lion’s share of the character beats, that isn’t generally saying much. But at its best, the show puts as much weight on him as has ever been placed on an actor in the role: all the stress of making one’s mark as literature’s most iconic detective, with the added pressure of a long-game arc about recovery and addiction.

Miller has risen to the task; his Sherlock can be a tick over the top, but he’s also a man of believable joys and flaws, who gets furious when someone takes advantage of the powerless and is happy to pause an investigation in order to crow about something he knows. He’s capable of deep empathy and violent outbursts, of incredible coldness and deep attachment, and Miller often manages to make it feel of a piece even when individual beats are a reach. (We have yet to address his delusional declaration of moral black-and-white earlier this season; Miller’s talent has been the tiny hesitations that suggest Sherlock hasn’t forgotten what he said, even if the show has.)

And of all the small-screen Sherlocks, Miller’s struggles most with the separation that comes from being who he is. His journey as a character isn’t to prove himself a peerless detective, but to learn from those around him—to accept help, to learn to trust, to learn that he isn’t always right. He’s trying to become less exceptional. There’s a part of him that still just wants to be a real boy. In the middle of “The Invisible Hand,” he and his father have an argument that’s a flaying of skin until they hit old wounds, and halfway through it Sherlock’s body language goes from anger to a self-containment of almost robotic stillness. He’s vibrating with fury, but it isn’t quite the kind we see when he aches to throw a punch; it’s the self-defense lockdown we saw with his former dealer Rhys, when Sherlock realized he’d tried to be honest with someone who couldn’t be trusted. Some of Morland’s anger hits home: it has to, since this is a two-parter and Joan’s in no mood to drive Sherlock into the season’s big atonement. (She, hopefully, is busy sewing that vigilante outfit together out of sight of Morland Holmes.) But that telling tightness in Sherlock’s shoulders, the set of his jaw like it’s a drawbridge slamming shut, is our biggest clue that this fallout is going to be serious business.


It’s just as well Miller indicates it, since the rest of the episode is so crowded with its own setup that any real sense of building drama gets lost. After the last episode, and all its beautiful character work, this episode sinks under the weight of its own plot requirements. The bomb scare! Ruslan Krasnov! Morland’s real killer still running amok! A dirty cop in the precinct itself! Professor Vikner taking over for Moriarty! Perhaps also still Moriarty! Another bomb scare! Dads! Dads! Dads!

It’s not Elementary‘s fault it aired immediately after a Game Of Thrones episode that was almost entirely about impossible relationships with fathers; I suppose we can take comfort that Elementary was not going to give up the Most Father Problems title lying down. Tony Curran delivers a great performance as Vikner, just smoothly sinister enough that you can imagine some level of honesty between Vikner and Moriarty when they were first together, and just overconfident enough to lose in the end. (His scene with Sherlock at the funeral is one of the episode’s best; even amid a sizable infodump, you can see Vikner enjoying his new position of power, not quite realizing how intently Sherlock is looking for chinks in his armor.) But villainy aside, Sherlock is scanning Vikner with disdain that ebbs and flows depending on how much Vikner reminds him of Morland at any given moment. There are plenty of moments.

This season has been about legacy in a lot of ways. (It’s the real invisible hand.) We have Sherlock’s self-imposed legacy as a recovered addict, which he struggles not to fail; the legacy he hopes to avoid from his father and finds himself slipping into; the ways his relationship with Irene impact his romantic relationships now. We have Joan’s legacy as a flattened caricature in the hands of her stepfather; her discovery of her birth father’s other family and her struggle to integrate that into her own life; the legacy of being an arm of the police weighed against how far she’s willing to go for justice. “The Invisible Hand,” however perfunctorily, sets up another legacy question—whether Morland is going to protect his son, and whether his son will let him.

Even in their first conversation, before it all spirals down into the boil-piercing argument in the brownstone, Sherlock can’t help but snipe at his father: “I’m glad I still have the capacity to surprise you. It’s not mutual.” Elementary certainly still has that capacity, though not in the ways it thinks: that bomb cliffhanger is so overdone that I expect it to be a dud in the cold open of the finale. The surprise is that the show is suggesting in the setup to this big finish is that Moriarty—a fan favorite and a darling of the showrunners—has been removed from the story in favor of Vikner, with the only real reasoning for it being the invisible kind: He gets to lead the crime syndicate because he isn’t currently contracted to Game Of Thrones.


One jokes, of course. (One hopes.) It’s entirely possible that this is all setup for another Moriarty appearance in those crucial minutes when Sherlock, driven by guilt on two fronts, sets forth to settle accounts for his father. We know Moriarty was planning to teach her child’s father a lesson about discretion. If she’s set all this up in her imprisonment, and extended her protection to both Sherlock and Joan, then we have reason to believe this is all a long game to ruin Vikner for running his mouth, and Morland’s true assassin will surprise us from another quarter. In a season characterized by so much agita about fathers, a takedown this complex would be oddly satisfying.

Though the show’s single-mindedness about Moriarty has actually held it back—dismissing other opportunities for repeat villains, exploring Moriarty at length when Joan struggles for screen time—this season has liberally suggested she’s still on everybody’s mind. This Sherlock, who wants so deeply to carve out a legacy for himself, is primed for a sacrifice, and Moriarty’s the best at forcing those. Here’s hoping she’ll appear in the finale just to bring the season home. Hell, what if the season remembers that Joan has been increasingly ruthless, and that she’s still the only person in the world who has ever beaten Moriarty at her own game? Be still my heart if the finale bears this out for both Sherlock and Joan. It would all be a pleasant surprise; “The Invisible Hand” left us disinterested about an awful lot.


Stray observations

  • I’ve talked before about how this show’s nods to canon are always best when they’re indirect—a nod to what resonates about the characters rather than a beat-for-beat adaptation. And subtle as the moment is to an episode that instantly drowns it in subplots, there’s a certain visceral satisfaction in seeing such modern interpretations of the characters standing in a wood-paneled office, silently judging, as someone dramatically closes the door. (The old “Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson” greeting still carries a thrill; we’re not made of stone.)
  • Line Joan Watson has been visibly waiting for a chance to use on someone who isn’t Sherlock: “All of them are those corporate vampire types. Half of them probably wouldn’t even show up on film.”
  • To be fair, it’s no wonder she relished that, since she had little else to do this episode except frown at her portrait. (How does she feel about having it in the house? How has she ever felt about this portrait existing? Did Sherlock consider it might be unnerving?) Even her frustration at “lying to our friends” about their real suspicions goes utterly unremarked-upon in the deluge of dad feelings and plot twists. Is that going to come back to bite them? Would we be able to tell?
  • “You guys have a suspect in mind?” Gregson is at the mercy of these writers to such a bizarre degree that Aidan Quinn doesn’t get his due in delivering a character who can declare he’ll never trust these two again and then, with no bridging scenes in the interim episodes, explain very seriously how much he trusts them. The fact that he’s been disapprovingly paternal for two episodes in a row feels like a banner run for him; I’m just happy for him, is all.
  • The most menacing delivery of four words that’s ever happened on this show: “No, Alison, it’s not.”
  • Not even Morland Holmes can afford real sod in this town.
  • “She endorsed him with her very genes.” This line works if it’s foreshadowed reassurance the lady herself will make an appearance to refute this sentiment from a man whose own father problems should have taught him better. It works in no other way. (I know it’s likely a holdover from his concerns about biology being reality, but it’s one of many examples of “Turn It Upside Down” surpassing this episode in execution.)
  • “My predecessor was a painter.” “So was Hitler.” I see Joan’s read the internet.

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