Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
I’m indebted to Marion Harmon for the following comment about this series, “The problem really is that the writers are trying to stick too closely to Conan Doyle’s original storytelling framework. The original stories were all about each puzzle and about Holmes; even Watson was a shadow, whose life the reader only glimpsed through references.” So what exactly should we be expecting in any individual story or series drawing on the Sherlock Holmes mythos? We have to start with the traditional trappings. At the time Arthur Conan Doyle was writing, the majority of people smoked and indulged in a number of drugs now tightly controlled. Such practical behaviour cannot be allowed on the screen in a prime-time show. People no longer act like factory chimneys with black clouds of tobacco smoke preventing a clear sighting from one side of a room to the other. Similarly, knocking back the laudanum, injecting cocaine and absorbing other everyday but disabling substances no longer flies. The closest we can come is the news Holmes has been released from rehab and this episode having Watson return to the clinic to try gathering information on her client.
Then we come to the deerstalker and cape. If you want to see a recent, strictly canonical story as an exemplar, you can’t do better than “Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery” by Eleanor Arnason (an excellent short story published at Eclipse Online, November 2012). This is science fiction but presents a not unpleasing mystery set on an alien world with absolutely everything you could hope to find including a medically trained Watson with a damaged leg. It’s a delight! But the problem is that canonical references only get you so far in a series. You can work the tropes and introduce references every now and again, but if the series is to take on a life of its own, it has to move beyond the clichés, develop and grow. The canon can be a source, the roots of the show, but everything else has to be as new and fresh as possible. So, coming back to this episode, we’re presented with Irene Adler as being of continuing importance. This impressive female of the species only appears in one original story yet, surprisingly, she’s now elevated to high status in the canon and assumed to have achieved romantic dominance over our eternal bachelor Holmes. In this series, we now learn that it’s a post-mortem influence, but details are still sketchy.
This leaves us with the nature of the puzzles to be solved. In all the early cases by Arthur Conan Doyle, I agree with Marion Harmon that there’s genuine ingenuity at work and the solution of the problems is deservedly central to the enjoyment of the stories. But after Sherlock returns from his “fall”, many of the puzzles are rather more melodramatic and not always so clever. The more general social situations come to the fore and Holmes cuts through the distractions to emerge with the rather more mundane solutions. Finally, as we might expect of a biographer, Watson is a more shadowy, self-effacing figure. It’s relatively natural for narratives from his point of view to focus on Holmes. This leaves the field open to those adapting the canon to make a different role for Watson when the point of view is the objective camera that sees both actors.
Why this debate? Because Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off has what may best be described as an excuse for a puzzle to solve. In all my reviews of this series to date, I’ve been trying to assess the balance between puzzle and character development. This episode’s puzzle is an excuse to give our four series regulars a chance to grow a little. Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) must be put into exactly the same position as Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and see the need to reflect on past events in his own life. Gregson must be allowed to show something of his honesty and character when it’s suggested he may have planted evidence to frame an innocent man. Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) must be allowed the chance to show she’s learning observational skills but also exercise restraint. Without allowing Sherlock room, she’s never going to break down his defences. And poor Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) must be allowed to say something intelligent before all viewers switch off, seeing nothing but racial discrimination in the short shrift scrips he’s given to perform.
So where do we end up? Holmes is asked to consider what went wrong in his past relationship with Irene while simultaneously implying Gregson framed an innocent man. Gregson must decide what to do when confronted with evidence his partner planted fingerprint evidence at the scene of a murder. Watson must decide what her ethical course is when she discovers unopened letters from Irene addressed to Holmes. And Marcus Bell must decide whether he should unionise to ensure this trend in better scripts will continue. It’s only marginally interesting to discover the real story behind the five new murders replicating the MO from an old case. There’s absolutely nothing original about the plot and the way in which Holmes debunks the latest attempt to frame an innocent man is 5 seconds of flashback, a singularly unconvincing explanation, and a physically offensive means of proving the hypothesis. The idea anyone who has defective vision in one eye would clump everything together on one side of shelves is completely absurd. People have their head on a neck so that they may move it from side to side. Although the Holmes/Watson relationship inches forward at the end, the plot line between Gregson and his ex-partner is rather obviously left hanging. Perhaps it will be resolved in a later episode.
So we would judge Elementary: One Way to Get Off as successful only in that it allows the ensemble four series players a chance to act while a transitory trail of red herrings is dragged in front of them — the title tells you what’s happening without you needing to watch the episode. It comes nowhere near a canonical standard because it has no central mystery worthy of our hero’s attention. Although perhaps that’s actually what’s needed if the series is to survive. We may need to become more interested in the characters than the mysteries to be solved.
For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013).