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What if Joan Watson is becoming Elementary’s antihero?

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“You really think I don’t know the origin of the Midnight Ranger?”

It’s probably fitting that Elementary does their comics-themed episode on a weekend when everyone’s watching Daredevil so hard they’ve forgotten any other TV exists. It’s doubly fitting that the self-appointed Midnight Ranger protecting his New York neighborhood gets fridged in a single, stupid moment by an angry guy with a grudge and a gun, a split-second loss that echoes through the episode so much even the murderer feels it.

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“You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got You?” (written by Paul Cornell, also a comics writer) is an earnest trip through comic book superheroes. The dead guy is halfway between a legal relief and a PR snarl for Superlative Comics, who own the Midnight Ranger and are happy to have the copyright infringing out of the way as they angle for a movie deal; your friendly neighborhood vigilante has a handshake deal with his tailor and runs a veritable bridge club of amateur do-gooders who wish to be the night. Some of them, like the Standard Bearer, are more good intentions than good results. (He’s amazed Sherlock can read him. Sherlock: “I was bitten by a radioactive detective.”)

We spend the entire episode knee-deep in meta, right down to the Midnight Ranger’s backstory being that he was galvanized into action by the death of his beloved (well-worn ground for comics but also a de facto callback to Irene, who at this point in the season has been name-checked so much that if she doesn’t show up it’s going to be weird). There’s a comic-book editor whose grandfather was robbed of his rightful royalties, and a glimpse of protective-nerd sniping from one superhero to another. There are even some distinctly comic-book beats from director Seith Mann: the pullback reveal of the Midnight Ranger’s splay-armed corpse next to an artful blood stain was splash-page material.

Amid all this wide-eyed heroism is the deliberately petty murder plot. Al killed the Midnight Ranger—a man he considered a friend—as he tried to stop Al from massacring the editorial staff of Superlative for going to a movie-contract dinner without him. (As Sherlock puts those pieces together, he gets that expression he saves for those who most appall him.) But the influence of someone who genuinely wanted to do good doesn’t get totally scuttled; even Sherlock can admit that if there are going to be vigilantes taking care of the small stuff, he might as well start a lending library for what they’ll need to know. It’s worth noting that the vigilantism in this episode is deliberately tidy, of course; purse-snatchers and dealer-shooing only, well within the extra-legal boundaries we know Sherlock accepts, so he doesn’t need to look out over the rooftops and wonder where to draw the line.

Or does he? Because for me, this episode reads most satisfactorily as a callback to that burgeoning origin story for Joan. In “Down Where The Dead Delight,” I talked about how the show is potentially setting Joan up to turn away from the path of police-adjacent justice in order to get results. (We have another reminder of that here, as the Standard Bearer mentions that Sherlock and Joan are in the superhero Yellow Pages because “You’re with the police, but you’re not police.”) And this episode feels like she takes another step in that direction, thanks to Elementary‘s own Lex Luthor, Morland Holmes, who dumps a quarter-million dollars into Joan’s favorite homeless-aid charity and then casually suggests he could use her to find a mole in his office. (Lucy Liu has some great beats this episode, but maybe none of them can overtake her utterly unimpressed, “You want something.”)

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And then we get one of the most satisfying Joan subplots of the season, as she takes these comic-book lessons to heart and makes a few moves that are decidedly antihero-reboot ready. Secret identity, check: she plays Morland through the entire episode to find out what he knows, and even plays a little sleight of hand with Sherlock while she’s at it, making him think she’s turning down Morland’s case for his sake so he won’t stay curious about it. Badass one-liners, check: After she coldly assures Morland there isn’t a mole in his organization and he was beaten fair and square and shows herself out, she drops the expertly portentous: “That can happen, you know. You can lose.” And antihero-ready movable moral goalposts, double check: There was a leak. And Joan’s going to blackmail the hell out of him to get what she wants: “A mole inside Morland Holmes’ office.”

I suppose, given the overall priorities of this show, it was inevitable that even Joan’s unspoken, simmering vigilantism was eventually going to reconnect with Sherlock somehow. (I hope someone makes a graph about how much time these two have spent with Sherlock’s blood relatives mapped against how much we’ve spent with Joan’s, just so we can see how often Joan has been adrift in a sea of Holmes family issues.) And Joan keeping a secret from Sherlock as she attempted to manipulate Morland is a position she’s already been in this season—one that built beautifully and then fizzled out because Sherlock knew all along. He doesn’t know about this. Maybe this time, it could mean something.

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At this point, I hesitate to say this will go anywhere, both because experience has taught us that this show sows a lot of seeds that it doesn’t reap until the final three episodes of the season, and because experience has taught us that Joan has not factored into those things in a lead-character way since the first season. Still, in the spirit of recapper optimism, let’s say this is forward momentum. If so, I’m duly excited by anything that signals an arc for Joan, or motivations independent of the partnership, or anything at all that will push her into high relief instead of flocked wallpaper. Bring on the Midnight Ranger. This city needs her.

Stray observations

  • Full disclosure: I write comics. The only aspect of that experience I am bringing to bear on this episode is the note that Superlative’s comic-book office was delightful; those pencils-to-final progression posters on Al’s wall were pitch-perfect. (That said, there were decorative items in those rooms that were not superhero-themed, and while I understand most people want a nice vase occasionally, unless it’s a Midnight Ranger/Rebecca Rogers Valentine’s Day Issue commemorative vase, it wouldn’t be there.) Hats off to the production team that mocked up so much comic-book history for five minutes of screen time.
  • Joan costume note: The severe black shirt and the outstanding black sunburst on her gray skirt would have been better without that white tie; I get that it’s a slender column of righteousness pointing right to her So Done face, and I even like that she always slaps on a tie to go see Holmes Sr. to look as businesslike as possible, but still.
  • Most unexpected beat: Marcus asking the tailor if it’s okay to show him a photo of the corpse and assuring him it won’t be graphic. He doesn’t get the screen time he should, but Jon Michael Hill works so hard to make Marcus’s kindness the quiet core of what drives him as a cop that I just want to recognize him for it.
  • The kind of moment that probably looks like partnership in a writers’ room and ends up incredibly awkward in front of the camera: “It’s an impressive suit,” says Joan. Sherlock agrees and takes over narration of the discovery, leaving Joan silently holding a cape in her hand.
  • The kind of moment that probably looks like a dual-backstory hat-tip in the writers’ room (tweed blazer! Joan volunteers for the homeless!) and ends up being baffling: Why did Joan bring a hole-riddled blazer to a clothing drive?
  • The kind of moment that probably looks like it doesn’t mean anything in the writers’ room and then ends up feeling like ADR from elsewhere: “My brother was a geek, remember?” First of all, Joan killed it in video games earlier this season and knows the blasphemy of unbagging a rare back issue; it’s odd they wouldn’t let her just be a geek without a male qualifier. Second of all, was her brother a geek? Does he still exist?
  • Just how good these performances are: Jonny Lee Miller manages to avoid making his incredulous superhero pointing look like a geek test, and instead makes it part of the canon Holmes’ own narrow scope of interests in which he knows everything about cigarette ash, but Knowledge of Astronomy: nil.
  • Line that’s better than it has any right to be of the week: guest star Michael Mosley, with that tiny, guilty pause in the middle of “He was my friend.”
  • Sherlock’s favorite of the five canonical deaths of the Midnight Ranger: “Pushed over a waterfall locked in the embrace of his nemesis.” :looks into the camera like it’s The Office:
  • We know why the episode title is here from a comics standpoint; I am very, very curious as to whether it’s foreshadowing about Joan slipping into a moral gray area.
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