Elementary Episode Review: Step Nine

Sometimes I worry that I am too critical of the media I choose to consume. It pains me to notice, for instance, that the second episode of Sleepy Hollow was extremely mediocre in its writing, or that the much-anticipated premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did not come close to living up to its hype. I wonder if perhaps I would be happier if I simply lowered my standards and enjoyed what is in front of my face.

And then Elementary reminds me what truly great television is all about.

I was worried at the end of last season that Elementary had used all of its best ideas on the Moriarty plot line, but the latest episode is proof that the writing team is far from tapped out. They made the very shrewd decision to return Holmes temporarily to London, which allowed them to touch on a number of aspects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon that were missing from their home base of New York.

Most notable among these are Gareth Lestrade, the most recognizable of Holmes’s associates at Scotland Yard, and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s enigmatic brother. Some viewers might be shocked at how different these characters are compared to their original incarnations. After all, while Lestrade is always a background character in the books, he is a dedicated policeman and a stalwart individual. But Elementary chose to cast his work with Holmes as an allegory for addiction, and did not shy away from how far he had fallen. And Mycroft is originally a government database, brilliant, and highly respected by his brother for being so. Elementary puts him in the restaurant business, and pits him against Sherlock viciously.

These changes are perfect examples of Elementary’s exceptional writing. So many adaptations are content to reference their source material, as if acknowledging that something exists is a worthwhile contribution to canon. They might take characters, relationships, scenes, and even lines directly from the original. And that can be very effective. After all, viewers like recognizing things that we know and love. But Elementary goes one step beyond that. It doesn’t plop just Doyle’s narrative into a new setting. It interprets it, and in so doing it gets at what truly makes Doyle’s characters tick.

The fact that Holmes always lets Lestrade take credit for his work is almost a humorous aside in Doyle’s canon, but Elementary really delves into what the repercussions might be for such undeserved attention. Without Holmes, Lestrade would be left with a reputation that he could not hope to live up to. And so he would try to emulate Holmes, with his disregard for procedure and his wild leaps of logic, without any of the substance that makes Holmes, well, correct. And his story ties in nicely with the show’s themes of addiction and recovery – especially when he withheld his amends from Holmes to bargain for one last hit of the spotlight.

Sherlock’s and Mycroft’s relationship was transformed in a similar way. In Doyle’s stories, Mycroft was a larger-than-life figure, and when he shared a space with Sherlock their interactions bordered on uncanny. They didn’t seem like people who could really exist. Elementary’s Mycroft, with his grudges and his anger and his tangible mortality, is much closer to how one would expect anyone to act if they had had to grow up with a brother like Sherlock. He is a much better fit for a show that is less ethereal and more humanistic than Doyle’s stories ever were.

Now, while Lestrade and Mycroft were excellent additions to the episode, I can’t talk about Elementary without talking about my dear, dear Holmes and Watson. It’s immensely gratifying to see how they’ve settled into their roles as partnered consulting detectives. They are no longer feeling out their places in respect to one another; they complement each other effortlessly (like when Holmes chases a suspect directly into Watson’s surprise club attack, or when Watson takes Holmes’s unlikely improvisation in stride).

Holmes is the more experienced detective, so it makes sense that he takes a leading role in the investigations, but it’s clear that the writing team have taken care to keep his interactions with Watson equal. Watson is showing off her deductive skills ever more impressively. And when they are not working a case, Watson subtly but tangibly takes a dominant role. It would have been so easy, and so lazy, to put Holmes in the spotlight and keep Watson orbiting around him. I am grateful that Elementary has never fallen into that particular trap.

There was a murder mystery in there somewhere, but make no mistake – the highlight of this episode was the characters. And with the quality of writing that this show maintains, I don’t think I will ever get tired of them.

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