This week’s Elementary could easily be titled “The Case of the Wall Street Sociopath.” When the chief operating officer of an investment banking company turns up missing, Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) reluctantly takes the case. He has no real regard for the banking industry, holding them in considerable disdain. But it’s a puzzle, and he likes puzzles. Actually, I’m not sure he likes them as much as needs them.
In any event, this week’s puzzle leads to an ambitious secretary who has been offing her boss’ competition to take him up the corporate ladder. It takes the old adage, “behind every successful man is a woman — pushing” and brings it to an entirely new level.
Holmes’ investigation leads him into hot water, however, when the murderer zaps him with a taser and leads him into the country, where she intends to silence him for good. But thanks to her evolving deductive powers, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) pieces together that her charge is in trouble, and brings the police in just in the nick of time.
What I like most about the new CBS series (and what makes it different, I think think, than the BBC Sherlock and most other mystery procedurals on the air these days) is that the show seems less about the murder mystery (although there is that) and more about getting at the series’ biggest puzzle: Sherlock himself.
Yes, it’s fun to try to at least keep up with Holmes (as Watson does), learning to see things with a lateral logic and deductive eye. See beyond the red herrings and fake-outs. But long-term, again, at least for me, the cases become interesting for what they reveal about our hero(es). The formula becomes the narrative structure to dive into the complex being that is Sherlock Holmes. And this is where I think (and hope) is where the series is headed.
When the executive turns up dead of an apparent heroin overdose, Watson grows concerned. Exposed to the reality of the situation: addict, found dead, needle stuck in his arm, might trigger a relapse given Sherlock’s still-raw emotional state. Especially considering that heroin seemed to have been his drug of choice. Sherlock brushes off her concerns, but his body language and entire manner suggest that he is actually quite upset.
We, like Watson, have no idea what happened to Holmes back in London that so broke him, leading him down a self-destructive path that eventually made him a heroin junkie. He refers to the oblivion addicts seek in narcotics, yet steadfastly clings to his privacy, and not talk about his own hell.
Disclosing his history to Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn), Sherlock says he is embarrassed; acknowledging his own vanity, he says he doesn’t want Gregson to hold him in less esteem. But there’s more to it than simple embarrassment. Extremely uncomfortable talking about it, Holmes is trying hard to tamp down an awful lot of emotion during that conversation, which still manages to seep both into his speech and manner. It’s a lovely performance by Miller, suggesting deep misery as well as his fragility.
As our avatar, Watson feels this fragility as well. She is worried about Holmes, and not only because she thinks he’ll slip up. Asking him if he’s “okay,” Holmes (clearly not) tells her that he has to be “okay.” If he’s not, he can’t concentrate on the case. But what is really true? Would coping with whatever torments him really distract him from the case, or is it the case keeping him from dealing with how not okay he really is.
Watson is delighted to be absorbing Sherlock’s deductive skills from him, although he seems less happy that he’s rubbing off on her. Although a Watson with highly developed deductive powers would make for an even better partner in crime solving, Holmes cautions her that being able to see the puzzle in everything (and, more importantly, everyone) has a high cost. “They’re everywhere,” he explains. “And once you start looking it’s impossible to stop.” People, he tells her, are the most fascinating puzzle of all. But people do not often like to be picked apart and put under a magnifier. It’s a quick way to lose friends and lovers, he warns.
When Watson suggests that it’s “a lonely way to live,” Sherlock doesn’t disagree, acknowledging the truth of his own isolated existence. “As I said,” he says finally, barely above a whisper. “It has its costs.”
The toll on him has obviously been high over the years. While he’s a bit vain, cocky and even arrogant, Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes is a broken man, deeply troubled and barely holding it together. He’s not detached like Benedict Cumberbatch’s classic take, nor a flippant action hero like Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes.
This Sherlock Holmes is in the best tradition of tormented, angsty fictional British detectives. From Adam Dalgleish (P.D. James) to Ian Rutledge (Charles Todd), Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L. Sayers), and Tony Hill (Val McDermid), what keeps me coming back is not the forumla, not the cases, but the puzzle of the hero himself. Perhaps that is the wrong way to appreciate a mystery series either in print or on the screen, but I’m a character junkie.
Elementary airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.