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TV Review: Elementary – “Lesser Evils”

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A chance encounter with a corpse while experimenting in the morgue leads Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) to discover a hospital angel of death in this week’s Elementary episode “Lesser Evils.” Bringing Watson (Lucy Liu) into her native professional territory, she ably assists while reconnecting with a former colleague and close friend. As she dabbles in her abandoned field using her newly-honed deductive skills, Watson also saves the life of an old colleague’s young patient when she suggests that the girl may have a serious heart condition that will kill her on the table. Her association with Holmes is obviously rubbing off!

Having believed that Watson gave up medicine because she’d had no choice, Sherlock is surprised to learn that she’d given up surgery voluntarily. Whatever medical error she’d made yielded only a suspension; she might have returned to her surgical practice at any time.

Watson clearly misses some of medicine’s thrill, but like Holmes giving up drugs and alcohol, Watson has given up something that maybe gave herself a false sense of herself. Doctors, especially surgeons (not unlike this week’s villain) can gain enormous egos, dealing so often with life and death situations, rescuing the dying from the clutches of death. God complexes are dangerous, and unfortunately the wakeup come with tragic collateral damage.

Was the god-like position of surgeons in the medical pecking order, and the adrenaline rush of the operating theatre Watson’s drug of choice? And was the patient she lost her tragic wake up call — a crisis not terribly unlike Sherlock’s dark night of the soul back in London (whatever it was)?

The fascinating thing about this week’s case is that the serial killer himself provides the red herring for solving the murder mystery, and a completely new take on “the janitor did it.” I sympathized with the janitorial Angel of Death and his position as an immigrant of the Former Soviet Union. I know so many immigrants from the FSU: engineers, attorneys, doctors and scientists who have come here over the last few decades only to work as housekeepers, taxi drivers, and, yes, janitors.

My children’s nanny and her husband, both from the Ukraine (15-odd years ago) were both highly respected physicians in their home country. The retraining takes many years and is a challenge because of language, age, and other barriers. So to find a janitor in a hospital who had been a physician in the Ukraine is not at all a stretch of the imagination.

Yes, the janitor did it, but what had he done but put already dying patients near death out of their misery. What he had done is illegal, but is at least understandable. The episode’s real villain, Dr. Baldwin (The Newsroom’s David Harbour) had known of the Angel’s activities, and rather than stopping him, he had chosen instead to exploit the well-intentioned mercy killer. 

As a surgeon, the reckless Baldwin has a terrible track record, insisting that his experimental, risky procedures save many lives — more than he loses. He seems almost a Dr. Gregory House, but with neither House’s mad skillz nor his hyper-objectivity and self-critical attitude.

Baldwin is a menace, believing that he can do recklessly experimental surgeries that may, indeed, save lives, but in his case, his fatalities are too numerous to ignore. Having known that one more error would mean the end of his illustrious (at least in his own inflated opinion of himself) career, he sets up the janitor when he accidentally leaves a clamp in a patient. Instead of admitting the error and removing the clamp, he falsifies her records to make it seem as if she was terminal, knowing that Angel would end her life. His easily fixed mistake is now buried with (and inside) her. But the patient is just the anomaly Holmes needs. Her death doesn’t fit the janitor’s MO. And uncovering the reason why solves the case.    

I’d had Baldwin pegged as the killer early on, but then was thrown by the contrary evidence. I’d been wondering about the janitor as well, and eventually figured it out just slightly before our hero. 

We learned little additional about Sherlock this week, but loads about Watson. I wondered up until she hit “delete” on her past career whether she was going to retain all of those images of her past life. Does she regret making the change to this new life? I would imagine she does, which is why she feels compelled to interfere in her friend’s case. 

I think that for Sherlock, the biggest puzzle is figure out his new partner in crime-solving. And with her increasingly finely honed deductive skills, I think Watson’s most challenging puzzle is Sherlock. I don’t think either of them will ever grow bored of trying to solve the other. 

Elementary airs Thursday nights at 10:00 ET on CBS.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Lucy H.

    I like some of the subtle things they do as they unwind the tale of Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship. Near the end of this episode, for example, Joan was walking around the brownstone without her shoes, which is what Sherlock is always doing. She’s getting comfortable there.

  • yes. She’s getting not only more comfortable, but she’s also trustin him enough to open up a bit more. I’m really liking it. In a very big way, this series is more about the characters than the plots.

  • Lucy H.

    The open questions, I’m guessing, are how big the audience is for character-driven dramas; whether they can find some way to enrich the cases/scripts/mythology/whatever to quiet the grousing about how the procedural part (which people persist in seeing as the MAIN part) doesn’t contain enough thrilling, complex and amazing elements; and whether you can sustain a character-driven show without a fairly large ensemble cast.

    (although I think they may be beginning to assemble more of an ensemble, since they’re bringing in Gregson’s old partner soon, and I will be surprised if we don’t see more of Detective Bell and Ty Marston, for example, (since they’ve given him a name right out of Doyle *and* he provides a natural entre into both collaborate-with-the-DA plots and corruption-in-the-DA’s-office plots.)

  • Great review, Barbara.

    Joan definitely was in the limelight this time. Lucy Liu knocked this one out of the park!

  • 60 plus

    I didn’t expect to like this show. However, the first episode piqued my interest in a way that no other has since the end of House. The fact that it is character driven is a huge plus for me. I noted that Peter Blake and Liz Friedman have connections to Elementary. I’m sure these two House veterans are valuable contributors.

  • Hi all,

    I think there is audience potential in character-driven procedurals. House’s success is an example — if the characters are well-written and well-acted. In character driven pieces, the acting is as important as the writing because often on the page, the characters are there but not fully formed. It’s the subtleties and nuances that really put those finishing touches in.

    Hoping to catch up with the show’s creator in the next few weeks to get his take on the series. I will be continuing to write weekly commentaries on the show, focusing on the character aspects (and social commentary as it arises) as I did with my House reviews. So keep comin’ back and please tell your friends to stop by.

  • Action Kate

    ooh, you’re doing Elementary now! Why can’t I find the “home page” for these reviews like with Once and House?