Friday, November 20, 2015

Five Things About Elementary 4x03, "Tag, You're Me"

In this week's episode, on the one hand, the mystery was boring and there wasn't nearly enough Joan. On the other hand, SHERLOCK HAS A MOM.

1. Though it took three seasons for us to actually meet Sherlock's father, Morland has been a constant presence on Elementary. He's the owner of the brownstone, which is both the carrot and the stick of Sherlock's initial sobriety; he's a shadowy source of unseemly amounts of money, which can be called upon at any time, for a price; he's the subject of any number of Sherlock's bitter quips and barbs.

Yet for all we've heard about Sherlock's father, we've never--not once--heard a thing about his mother. It's as though Sherlock is Athena, sprung from Morland's head. I mean, if you want to get technical, Athena had a mother, it's just that Zeus ate her before she gave birth. Look, Greek mythology is really weird, okay? The point is, Sherlock's mother's absence is conspicuous, particularly for a show that delights and excels in examining Sherlock's relationships with the important women of his life. Either the writers had committed a gross oversight in not bothering with Sherlock's mother--the mostly likely possibility, on any other procedural, a genre where fathers loom large and mothers are often forgotten--or Sherlock's mother was of monumental importance.

The final scene between Morland and Sherlock indicates the latter. There's a ton to unpack in that scene, which is the best of the episode. Some things can be found on the surface: Sherlock's mother is gone from his life, and has been since childhood. Some things require a little inference: Nobody says it out loud, but the most plausible reading of the scene indicates that Sherlock blames Morland for his mother's absence. And, of course, both the dialogue ("I can think of one person") and Jonny Lee Miller's always-phenomenal acting indicate that Sherlock's mother occupied a place of unique importance in his life.

I'll wait until we get more information to actually do it, but I could write pages of theorizing and character analysis based on those 30 seconds. They single-handedly redeemed a disappointing episode, and they've made me much more interested in this season's arc--and I was pretty interested to begin with.

2. Joan was pretty much Sir Not Appearing in This Episode. I mean, she was physically there, and she had lines, but for most of the episode, she could've been on vacation, and it wouldn't have changed much. There's a logistical reason for her sidelining (more on that below), and the writers did try to make up for it in the end by giving her the Big Solve, but it's disappointing to see her doing so little along the way. Especially when it's such an easy fix: Just have her notice things! Anything! Just because Joan normally does the heavy lifting in the B-plot doesn't mean that she take a break and do some cardio by running the case of the week for a while. (Metaphors are hard.) That's one of the things season three generally did a good job of; if Sherlock had a monopoly on the emotional plot, Joan tended to take a more prominent role in the mystery plot.

3. We had two cases this week--one mystery to solve, and one problem to fix. Morland's case has the advantage of being moderately more interesting than the mystery (which loses steam after the first 15 minutes), but it seems to be taking the place of the usual B-plot, rather than being an addition to it. Since Joan often shines in the B-plots, and Morland's case has no room for her, this has the unfortunate effect of sidelining her for the episode. Moreover, Elementary's B-plots are generally riveting in and of themselves, and don't need any procedural structure to hang on. Indeed, the procedural aspect of this week's B-plot rather detracts from its emotional punch. Sherlock and Morland's final scene has all the right elements for a great Elementary episode-ender, but it lacks the groundwork necessary to make it soar. The best Elementary B-plots are pure, distilled feeling. They build up, over the course of the episode, until all of their force is concentrated in one scene, sometimes even one line--something so small and so powerful that it guts you, like the tip of a knife. It's hard to create that kind of crescendo if you have to take breaks every other line to talk about black crown squirrel monkeys. If the show returns to this well, it would be a better idea to steal time from the usually overly-long and uninteresting A-plot, rather than cannibalizing the B-plot.

4. Speaking of the mystery, this week's episode follows last week's pattern of interesting set-up followed by poor execution. The first 15 minutes of the A-plot are great, actually. Doppelgangers being murdered? Cool! A moment of actual empathy with a murder victim's family member? Not cool, but definitely interesting. And then it falls apart. The doppelganger problem is solved fairly quickly, and the rest of the mystery is yet another of Elementary's revolving carousels of plot-twists. It never even manages to say something interesting about facial-recognition software. And the victim's father is never mentioned again--but then, I never imagined for a moment that he would be. Elementary can build an effective A-plot around a theme (it didn't this time, but it can). It's never shown any ability to build one around a character. Which is strange, considering Elementary's strongest element is the character work it does with its main cast.

5. Random Bits:

  • I couldn't find a screencap for it, but I so desperately wanted the image above this review to be Sherlock and Morland, on the rooftop, in matching suits and sunglasses.
  • Sherlock's cigarette-recognition skills are reminiscent of classic!Sherlock's study of cigar ashes.
  • sounds like a website that would totally sweep your Facebook feed. I wonder if they were inspired by the Guess Your Age thing.
  • I kept trying to find a way to fit this into the first point, but I couldn't, so I'll put it here. The trick Elementary pulled with Sherlock's mother--whether it was something Rob Doherty had in mind from the start, or whether he came up with it later on--reminds me of something Farscape star Ben Browder said about his character, John Crichton. For the first season and 2/3 of Farscape, Crichton's father is this huge presence, both a hero that Crichton looks up to and an impossible standard that he rails against. But his mother is never mentioned. And then toward the end of the second season, they reveal why that is, and they way they do it is the most glorious gut-punch the show ever delivered. Anyway, watching "Tag, You're Me," I remembered something Browder said on the audio commentary for that episode, which is that he had always assumed that there was a trauma related to Crichton's mother--why else would she be so totally absent? It's an interesting narrative trick. I don't know whether it was intentional, either on Farscape or Elementary, but it's certainly effective.
  • I can't help thinking this is a clue: "I'm quite good with puzzles. You've known that longer than anyone."
  • "Maybe some kinky sex... thing?"
  • "Yeah, Jesus saves. Your data."
  • "Remind me to untag every picture ever posted of me online."
  • "It doesn't look like the company had anyone killed." "Well, that's unfortunate."
  • "Fluent in three languages, but the man has never seen Say Anything."
  • "Playing the victim doesn't suit you, Sherlock."
  • "You know yourself, Sherlock. You know who you are. You know who you were. Ask yourself. When you were a boy, could anyone have parented you?" "I can think of one person."
  • "The world is as wretched a place as it's ever been."

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