“Were you just following up on your suspicions, or did you mean to do me harm?”

There’s a pivotal scene in “Alma Matters” when Sherlock sits down with Nieves to discuss why Nieves is taking the fall for a murder Sherlock knows he didn’t commit. Sherlock makes clear he has nothing but contempt for murderers, and can’t fathom why, regardless of money, Nieves would agree to make a false confession. First of all, Lily Cooper was his friend; second of all, by confessing, he’s shielding another murderer from justice. Sherlock leans hard on the guilt, and a little on Nieves’ frustrations with being a fall guy, but Nieves never actually admits anything. Instead, he shrugs; he imagines that guy didn’t have much choice, either.

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It is, in its own way, a fascinating beat of caretaking from a character who, in the scheme of the plot, barely matters. Sure, he’s getting paid to take the fall, but even when confronted with the truth and given incentives to rat out the system, he refuses to blame the other murderer for what he’s done—despite the fact that someone he liked is now dead. Crippling financial pressure hit them both; Nieves understands. In this moment, he refuses to do harm.

It’s the sort of morally-gray moment that makes a procedural more interesting. Unfortunately, this brief beat was the episode’s most interesting beat—the cause is a noble one, but this isn’t a plot that hinges either on psychological drama or clever twists. But Sherlock, whose feelings about honor among thieves wax and wane depending on who he’s talking to, definitely takes note of it. He takes so much note of it that he ends up yanking the entire B-plot right out from under Joan—including the dramatic gotcha.

That’s unfortunate, because it undermines what was otherwise a great plot for Joan. As someone with a background in a profession like sober companion, and someone whose own biological father is a possibly-homeless schizophrenic who might have spent time in the very halfway house that asks for their help (or one just like it), she’s uniquely positioned to bring all her righteous anger to bear on the manipulative for-profit tactics of Fairbridge. If we’d seen any of it, it might even have been a great parallel with Sherlock’s faceoff with his father—each of them the black sheep that stepped sideways out of expectations and is fighting back for complex reasons. What we end up with is Joan as a placeholder, suffering first-act slings and arrows to lay ground for the case, without having any feelings about it beyond the occasional mild consternation. She ends up in the passenger seat, prepping paperwork, as Sherlock races from the A-plot to the B-plot like the hero of a French farce, getting the final word on all counts.

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And why? What for? (Loaded questions, in some ways—you can’t rewrite what’s been written—but occasionally, what’s been written feels so much a part of a pattern of forgetfulness and carelessness that it begs questions.) The look Gregson gets when Sherlock’s shirking his duty for family affairs seems loaded, but it never pans out. Joan, who in some version of this episode that didn’t suffer memory loss, surely would have been looking for her father in the halls? Surely she, who helped people get back on their feet for a living, would be furious that Fairbridge was taking advantage? And surely, for a case in which Joan did so much of the legwork, Sherlock’s standoff with his father was interesting enough to consume him?

Because it was solid ground. (Sherlock’s stories tend to be.) When Sherlock has to finally confront his father’s worst fears—just following up on his suspicions—we see the taboo question building inside Sherlock, who looks both visibly stung and slightly fragile: After all the lip service he paid to reconciliation, did Morland really just come here to do Sherlock harm? (Word for word, it’s probably Jonny Lee Miller’s best work of the episode.) It’s a pair of scenes that speaks to their long and painful prior history; it speaks to his father’s imperiousness in the wake of Sherlock’s relapse. It speaks to the tiny hope Sherlock has tried hard not to show Morland, that their relationship might actually be on the verge of repair.

It’s all well and good that Sherlock vows to find his father’s assassin—we need a slow-burner for the back half of the season, after all. But if this was the last time we ever saw Morland, we’d still have enough to chew on. A father Sherlock still can’t bring himself to trust completely, a father who only became convinced of his son’s innocence in the wake of evidence that exonerated him. (Sherlock seems noticeably taken aback by it, for someone who spends so much of him insisting on cold hard evidence on which to build his cases—but that’s the point, of course.) It’s the sort of impasse two people come to when their deepest natures just won’t allow for anything less complicated. It’s a shame the episode spreads Sherlock so thin; if Joan had occupied a similar position within the case this had the potential to be a really powerful episode.

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Instead, all we’re really left with is the sense of, Where to from here? It’s likely found in Sherlock’s own pronouncement: “Here’s how you can be certain I’m not the one who tried to kill you: You’re alive.” It’s more than a reminder to Morland what kind of son he has; it’s a reminder of how carefully Sherlock presents himself to the world. The hyper-mannered affect in Tate Donovan’s office is one extreme of this, a sort of frustrated primness laid over deep disgust .With his father, he makes the very interesting choice to sound both as hurt and as dangerous as possible. That line is straight out of a movie about assassins; for Sherlock, that’s likely no mistake.

Stray observations

  • The design of Morland’s personal spaces—which have inched slowly away from his office to include the landing/foyer and slightly beyond—have accordingly irised out from merely an opulent, vaguely confectionary office to the kind of opulence that suggests a king about to be beheaded. Is this meant to set us alongside Sherlock? Is it meant as foreshadowing for Morland? Does it throw his protestations of innocence into sharper relief to have them happen in Sherlock and Joan’s stripped-down kitchen than in the plaster whimsy of his offices? How much are we meant to read into Morland descending those grandiose stairs to speak with his son?
  • One of the biggest dramatic ironies this show has ever provided is Sherlock getting his hackles up this episode about his father withholding crucial information that endangers them. Combine it with last episode’s moral line in the sand, and we’re setting Sherlock up for some major soul searching. The question is whether it happens before or after whatever disaster awaits them.
  • Morland was on his way to a night out in the cold open—given how he was patronizing the arts in the pilot, let’s assume he was heading to the Met.
  • “I don’t speak of it because I find the matter painful.” At last, we know what must be clenched in the teeth of whatever animal flanks the Holmes family crest!
  • “A woman did this to you?” is such an incredibly strange thing for Joan, who tends not to invest much energy into traditional gender roles and who is also an amateur fisticuffs champion, to tease Sherlock about, isn’t it?
  • There is an essay to be written about the difference between Sherlock’s attitude to Joan’s sexual and romantic life, and Joan’s to his. If I have to, I will write it, but right now my blood pressure’s in a nice place and I don’t want to mess with that.
  • Tamara Tunie! The ol’ “Let’s get two well-known guest stars to make people guess which of them did it until the end of the first act” gambit.
  • That said, if you didn’t know it was Tate Donovan the second you clapped eyes on him, Myles is probably a little disappointed in you.
  • Line that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: “I take it you have something more specific in mind than Arrest The College.”
  • “Does he have something to hide?” Cut to the outside of this glass-walled meeting room with each flunky positioned right in front of a window.
  • They bought honey for Morland’s tea when he comes over? Aren’t there bees hanging out literally on their roof who produce honey as their one job? Did we forget the bees the way we forgot Joan’s dad, Elementary? (Also, Sherlock, come on, don’t waste honey. Bees work hard for that business and they’re nearly extinct; just respect bees.)

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