Home > TV and anime > Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)

Elementary poster

This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013) propels us into the death scene before we have a chance to draw breath in the boxing ring. This time Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is summoned to the scene of a death by a dominatrix. Her story is she walked into the house as requested and found the stiff on the floor. When she took off his mask, she realised he was dead and called for help. With spectacular chemistry, Holmes proves he was poisoned and we’re off on the familiar trail of the murderer du jour. This leads us immediately into the world of S&M and the Pleasure Parlor which, it seems, was a convenient ploy to avoid paying out on the deceased’s retirement contract. There was a morals clause. Our loyal subordinate thought of the massive bonus he would earn if he could save his company the need to pay out the $125 million. This is a not unreasonable excuse — the fact it would have been extremely difficult to insert deceased boss into the suit is not something on which we should dwell.

Anyway, when the second wife and the two boys from the first marriage return from their country retreat, Holmes and Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) also meet Anne Barker (Laura Benanti), the nanny, who proves to have an interesting history, being connected with another poisoning fifteen years ago. It also turns out that a fifteen-year-old Holmes had an extended correspondence with her during and immediately after her trial. After her acquittal, she broke off the exchange of letters to assume a new identity, symbolised by the tattoo of a phoenix on her wrist. There’s backstory from Holmes: bullied at school, it was his first chance to gain an insight into the mind of a killer. It was not that he fell in love with her. But he did come to anticipate her letters. Subsequent inquiries establish an interesting alibi for the deceased’s second wife. She could not have administered the fatal dose because she was with a prescription drug dealer buying the drugs she would need to kill her husband and frame the nanny — a rather pleasing and not unconvincing explanation. And, so, by a process of having eliminated all the suspects so far considered, there’s only one person left who could have done it.

Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and  Laura Benanti as Anne Barker

Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Laura Benanti as Anne Barker

This episode sees us going back to the original formula in the first season. Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) are both given a fair amount of screen time. In many ways, the solution of this murder is a team effort. But we’re beginning to see an interesting problem emerge. The first season showed Dr Watson with no interest in becoming a detective. If she made a contribution to the solution of the week’s murder, it was either by accident or in general conversation when discussing something within her expertise. But as the year progressed. the experience she gained watching Holmes began to pay off. This season has seen Holmes actively training her. The result in this episode is that she probably does most of the observed “detecting”, e.g. in thinking about the crude attempt to force open the deceased’s desk and finding the missing tablet. The episode is also showing potential vulnerability in Holmes. It’s not that he’s actually becoming Watson’s sidekick, but the script seems to be struggling to strike the right balance between the two leads.

As to the moment of Holmesian vulnerability, the week’s theme is the age-old problem of guilt. When people go through traumatic events as children or teens, it leaves emotional scars. Whether the young person is a victim, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of guilt, blaming him or herself for having failed in some way. As Holmes recognises, it’s only by talking the person can get a proper perspective on what happened. As youngsters, Holmes and the accused nanny found mutual support when it was needed. That leads to a bond as adults yet, as is required in series like this, there cannot be another woman. We’ve met the “one” and, with a possible secret correspondence between them, Holmes can’t be seen dallying with anyone else. That’s one of the reasons for the phoenix nanny’s decision to confess. Holmes has pointed out the obvious. She got away with murder the first time. She seizes this opportunity to make a meaningful sacrifice. This leaves Holmes with the burden of monitoring the beneficiary of this sacrifice. It would be genuinely tragic if the sacrifice was in vain.

I’m not at all sure the episode is successful but I acknowledge the script is trying to deal with slightly more sophisticated ideas. Too often, series like this have rather banal emotional subtexts. Elementary: Poison Pen makes the effort to raise its game. Whether the series will find the right balance between Holmes and Watson remains to be seen. Although she’s becoming significantly more observant, there’s still little evidence of deductive reasoning from Watson. In fairness, Holmes is not being allowed much opportunity to shine either. In this respect, the show’s producers need to firm up on a strategy soon or risk the series becoming a routine detective show.

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 7. One Way to Get Off (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)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

  1. October 19, 2013 at 2:57 am

    Again it comes down to too many players; in the original stories Watson was little more than the narrator and secondary characters like Lestrade existed only to deliver context and listen to conclusions. So it stands to reason that a more “ensemble” cast has to diminish Holmes’ contribution to allow room for others. In this case, I think the writers should have let Watson detect the general cause of death, still leaving Holmes to conclude nitro-glycerin and figure out the delivery method. Still, Holmes did figure out the fetish-suit bit, even if it turned out to be a red herring.

    Like you, I enjoyed this episode more than some others, and it did bring up more of Holmes’ history and play with some interesting ideas.

    • October 19, 2013 at 3:20 am

      The reduction of Aidan Quinn in the ranks indicates the desire to thin out the cast a little. With the two police officers now more officially ciphers, the scripts can focus more on Holmes and Watson. Sharing out the investigative spoils between them is going to be a continuing challenge. Since she’s been presented as more than usually competent in her profession as a surgeon, she’s a threat to Holmes’ supremacy.

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