It Makes a Science of Almost Everything
“Observe and deduce” is his mantra. And the midseason premiere of Elementary reveals precisely how this directive applies not only to Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), but also to viewers at home. Upon entering a horrific crime scene, with all 12 pints of the victim’s blood pooled on the floor, the detective’s expression is peculiar, almost amused. The observant audience member might deduce that his response has special significance for him, that indeed, this is no ordinary crime scene.
Here you might be thinking of Dexter. This most obviously because of all the blood, but also because both shows call on viewers to detect subtle clues, to solve their mysteries along with their protagonists. More specifically, the serial killer in this episode of Elementary, known only by the letter M (Vinnie Jones), likes to play games with Holmes, who is in turn enthusiastic to play along. Much like Dexter, Holmes here conceals his investigation from the police, as he embarks on a very personal murderous mission. This mission soon becomes so involving that Holmes’ personal philosophy, his very faith in deductive reasoning, begins to break down.
Most notably, Holmes here confronts a moral decision and finds himself truly distressed. In a rare moment of vulnerability, he admits to Watson (Lucy Liu) his uncertainty with regard to the killer’s right to live. “It’s strange really, I’m rarely conflicted about the decisions I make. That’s the beauty of deductive reasoning, I suppose. It makes a science of almost everything. Not this.” With this bit of self-doubt, Holmes seems different, more nuanced than he has been so far in the series. But then, he resolves his conundrum not by discerning right from wrong, but by resorting to his habitual pride and secretiveness, reverting to disgust at the idea that the killer might understand even the first thing about him: “He presumed to know me. And he needs to be shown that he did not.”
The decision reveals much about Holmes that has been hidden thus far. Indeed, those mysterious elements of his past that Watson has been trying to understand all along are suddenly, and very hastily, revealed. The episode therefore feels very different than the rest of the series up to this point. Rather than focusing on figuring out Holmes’ secrets, we learn, along with Watson and even Holmes himself, a great deal about who he is as a person, how the loss of a loved one led to his addiction, and now, how deeply mired he is in his self-absorbed stubbornness.
All this comes at the end of Watson’s initial six-week engagement to watch over Holmes, as they are coming to terms with their imminent separation. Finally, they acknowledge their mutual respect for each other, but we see as well a curious imbalance in their relationship as revealed by a line each speaks to the other, on different occasions during this mid-season premiere: “I think what you do is amazing.”
Yes, Sherlock’s powers of deductive reasoning are astounding and he uses them in the admirable quest to help catch murderers. But what does Watson really contribute? As Holmes’ “sober companion,” for the most part she just tags along, although she has been gradually developing her own powers of observation as well. In this episode Holmes admits that he has been using Watson as a crutch, but it is difficult to see how, as her contributions have been fairly minor.
As this episode reflects, Elementary is about Sherlock Holmes, plain and simple. While having Watson in his life does force him to open up about his thoughts and emotions, that is basically her only function, as a sounding board. The limitations of this series’ version of Watson are highlighted by Liu’s very flat performance, which unfortunately sucks out almost all of the humor that is so characteristic of this famous friendship. Their clever and biting banter is replaced by a purely sensible Watson who does almost nothing to counter Sherlock’s quips. Holmes, on the other hand, is acted expertly by Miller, with all the quick-witted dialogue and dry humor we love to see from Sherlock Holmes, as well as a physicality that injects energy into this otherwise blandly performed show.
The episode finally gets the ball rolling. Until now, the series has been entertaining but has revealed next to nothing about Holmes or Watson, and had very little by way of an overarching story. With the introduction of the infamous Moriarty, Holmes now has both his nemesis and his primary motivation. Hopefully the series will take advantage of the change by moving beyond the case-of-the-week format and begin to tell a more complex and compelling story that reflects all the richness of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation.