This week finds us on solemn ground as Sherlock battling to come to terms with something he’s never dealt well with: the unsolvable mysteries of the human condition. Reeling from the sudden death of a dear friend, Holmes tries (and mostly fails) to reign in his volcanic grief while he and Joan assist Captain Gregson in shutting down a right-wing conspiracy nutter who wants to murder hundreds of thousands of people with anthrax. No, not the metal band from twenty years ago. You know what? Maybe it was. I haven’t been paying that much attention to metal lately.
Last week we were finally treated to a Joan episode that felt like the story grew from somewhere organic and moved her character’s trajectory forward, and this week it’s Sherlock’s turn; it puts me in a bit of an emotional bind, see, as the episode’s B-plot with Sherlock is legitimately great stuff that enriches his character, but comes at the expense of being jammed around an A-plot that has no textual or thematic ties to the more concerning existential crisis our boy is facing down, as well as requiring Joan to act suddenly bag-o-hammers dumb just to allow the writers to give Sherlock a reason to have a volatile scene with her. The central story here is about Sherlock and Joan working through what at first appears to be a domestic terror plot, convoluted in classic Elementary fashion from what is actually a labyrinthine scheme by an upstate farmer to commit insurance fraud vis a vis mass dairy cow murder. You know, I’m really getting into writing the plot summary section of these write-ups; they’re almost always sentences I’d never in a million years thought I’d ever put on paper. Mass dairy cow murder, indeed.
Meanwhile, back in the world where the calculated killing of livestock isn’t a routine concern, Sherlock struggles to reconcile the sudden and early death of his friend of many years, Alistair, a character we saw early last season. He and Sherlock not only shared a common homeland and childhood, but later a substance abuse addiction, as well. We find out this week that Alistair is credited by Holmes to be his key inspiration for sobriety, as Alistair managed to remain sober for over thirty years; the dark irony here being that Alistair was apparently felled by a heroin overdose despite being apparently happy and well and in no great risk for relapse. This conundrum shakes Sherlock to the core, and he initially investigates the death as a potential case of aggregated suicide or murder. One of the attributes that occasionally marks this as a great show is character moments such as the ones we see here, like Sherlock admitting that the needless nature of Alistair’s death confuses and bothers him on a profoundly personal level and that mere phenomenon gnaws at his mind even further. Sherlock has lost his collected reserve, and he knows it, but for much of the episode he can’t separate it from himself, and he spends much of the running time here trying to piece together Alistair’s relapse like its a mystery to be solved, burning bridges with Alistair’s survivors along the way. It’s only when Sherlock, standing at his friend’s freshly-interred gravesite, makes the profound actualization in the denouement that his inability to prevent another’s self-destructive habits is not his fault or responsibility and people are not some terrible mystery to solve. Sometimes you get weak, and sometimes the drugs win.
The complaint within this emotional evolution is how the episode seems to mandate Joan taking stupid pills just so Shirley will have something to freak out about when she can’t connect the easily-adhered dots linking tubs of dangerous poison to a rogue fratricidal farmer (giving the game away here by being played by modestly-famous person, Garrett Dillahunt of Raising Hope and Deadwood). It’s a shame, because we really needed to see a blow-up between Joan and Sherlock to set straight the selfish and moody behavior of the latter, especially since he has been treating her with all the respect of a petulant teenager lately, but it’s a shame the writers couldn’t make that happen without giving Joan temporary script-induced cognitive impairment. Regardless, their fight was a lovely moment of personal growth on a network famous for championing the status quo. On the positive front, with the A-plot involving anthrax, at least Joan was given plenty of material to chew through this week. Of course she looked fabulous the whole time. Doesn’t she always?
Okay, friends, check back in two weeks for the next episode, and find me in the comments!