What does it mean to be human? Is consciousness and self-awareness the same thing? Does an emotionless act make us inhumane? And most importantly, where’s the beef? Questions like these are the lofty fodder we find ourselves grappling with this week in what is one of Elementary’s most esoteric and thought-provoking episodes, wherein we dig for the truths behind the very essence of human nature. Our detectives hunt for a murderer that might be an artificial intelligence who really just wants someone to stimulate its pleasure cortex (and don’t we all?), while Kitty does very little of import to justify her continued existence within the context of this show. But none of that really matters, because CLYDE RETURNS!!!!!
Let me be honest: I wanted a different show this season. I felt like I deserved a different show this season. The finale of season two seemed to promise a different sort of show this season, one where Joan honed her skills while figuring out independence from Sherlock, and one where Sherlock applied his unique talents to the British spy agency. It’s fair to say at this point we are not going to get that show, and the sooner I move on from that grief, that loss, that disappointment of expectations, the more objectively I can view what this show is, and not what this show ought to be. However, this season continues to develop in a way that would suggest that the showrunners either had their original plans for this season cancelled at a late stage, or it suggests that they legitimately did not have anything further planned out after the end of last season, which seems ludicrous given Elementary‘s decent ratings (though this season has seen a marked decline). What needs to be accepted by the audience at this stage is that season three of this program is not going to have a substantially different dynamic from the two seasons prior; what I feel is unacceptable, however, is how the forging of that dynamic back into its original form seems to largely be happening off-screen. In the premier of this season, we learned that sometime after the previous finale Sherlock and Joan had a falling out, Sherlock left New York having not properly said goodbye to anyone, and Sherlock had an unspecified departure from MI6 in which in the aftermath he decided to take on a protegé and move back to New York. Since then, each episode this season has found a contrivance to force the independent Joan back into working on cases with Sherlock; this episode overtly suggests that Joan and Sherlock have not only reconciled their relationship, but are tentatively agreed to resume their old partnership — again, all off-camera. This is deeply frustrating, because this relationship between Joan and Sherlock, this blended personal and professional dynamic, this is what the show is actually about. You remove that and all you have left is yet another crime procedural set in New York City, which has only been done about seventeen brajillion times before.
Yet, it seems that this is the episode where the writers have acknowledged that the pretenses of change must be dropped, as our two detectives now again refer to their work as “partnership.” Kitty, ostensibly in the role of apprentice to Sherlock, has been sidelined and relegated to the most menial of tasks and exposition, and in terms of her development as a detective we have seen very little involvement on that front from either her or her mentor. She has become our exposition crier and an available way for Sherlock and Joan to have scenes together where the story can allude to investigatory work still being done by Kitty without having to show it. Now, Sherlock and Joan can talk about their personal lives without having to be at a crime scene; in many ways, Kitty has taken much of Marcus’ Bell’s narrative role of having someone work on each week’s case in the background while the B-plot takes focus. This shifting of responsibilities and functions in the interpersonal dynamics is actually not all that bad, even if it is far different from what I would have liked to have seen this season, as this episode really invests capital in the platonic romance between Holmes and Watson; the conversation between the two of them in the kitchen of the brownstone (where Sherlock is mixing up some Yorkshire puddings — hooray for callbacks!) is a highlight of this season.
Also, this episode is the first episode of the season to really tie the thematic momentum of the procedural into the metatextual conflicts within the show’s ongoing personal dynamics. Sherlock is faced with the possibility of a true artificial intelligence, and he takes such an extreme and obsessive interest in disproving this possibility that it serves as a microcosm of his entire throughline since this program’s inception: the conflict between his sacred belief in rationality and his emerging understanding that even he is capable of irrational behaviors, thoughts, and desires. I found it quite fitting that this episode concludes with Sherlock being stymied by a paradox, a hallmark of science-fiction regarding artificial intelligence. Our perp this week goes unapprehended as an underling takes the fall for him, and the only way our boy can force a confession is make a choice that threatens his moral core: let a murderer go free, or condemn a fellow addict to a life of certain despair. In choosing the former, we once again see that legal justice is not Sherlock’s ultimate virtue, forcing him to admit that at some point his irrational humanity supersedes his mechanical desires to solve equations. Sherlock Holmes, for all his uncanny brainpower, is not a machine. What’s interesting about this, though, is how much that accepted state can vex him.
Next week: arm wrestling. Really.