Tweetable Takeaway: Elementary is lovely when the characters are losing.
Airtime: Thursday at 10 pm on CBS
By: Madelyn Glymour, Contributor
There are basically two kinds of dramatic television shows: those that allow their characters to lose, and those that don’t. By “lose,” I don’t mean “fail to find the bad guy”; the narrative logic of a mystery requires that the viewer, at least, eventually learn whodunnit. But while some shows allow Pyrrhic victories — “We figured it out, but…” — others require that every episode come to a relatively happy conclusion. Elementary, due to its fractured relationship with its own genre, has always wavered between the two types. In the personal world of the B-plot, losses come fast and heavy. Characters try to change and fail; they pin their hopes on someone who disappoints them; they seek closure and never get it. The cases of the week, on the other hand, tend to end neatly. The mystery is solved, the killer is caught, and everything moves on as if nothing had ever happened. There are a few exceptions — this season’s “Bella” comes to mind, as does season two’s “Poison Pen.” In the former, Sherlock uncovers the killer, but can’t prove his guilt; in the latter, it’s no tragedy that the killer walks free, but the price paid to make that happen is very high.
“For All You Know” is a loss of a different kind. Sherlock lost this one long before the first scene. He lost it three years ago, when he forgot Maria Gutierrez. Everything we see in the episode is just mitigating the damage. We the viewers, like Joan, know that Sherlock didn’t kill Maria, but Sherlock is right: Even the best possible outcome is still a loss.
The failure at the heart of “For All You Know,” its inevitability and its immediacy, lends the episode an extraordinary weight. Scenes like the witness interviews, which would normally be rote and boring, are magnetic in light of Sherlock’s connection to and culpability in the case. Because Sherlock bears some responsibility for Maria, we have to take her family’s grief and anger seriously. (As seriously as a curbside assault.) Maria’s death feels real and meaningful — something few Elementary deaths manage. It reminds viewers of the loss at the heart of all murder mysteries: No matter what, at least one person has died a violent death.
The personal aspect of “For All You Know” is as compelling as ever. Perhaps more compelling than usual, even. Elementary deals quite often with Sherlock’s recovery, but it rarely makes more than passing mention of what his time as an active user was like. That makes a certain amount of sense, given that Sherlock is not currently using drugs. But the relative scarcity of information makes the episode that much more interesting.
The focus on Sherlock’s past also sets “For All You Know” apart structurally. It’s not really a murder mystery. Joan and Sherlock actually do relatively little investigation of Maria’s death. They interview only three witnesses, two of whom basically tell them, “I don’t know,” and they examine no evidence. Instead, much of the episode is spent investigating Maria’s connection to Sherlock, and in the process, exploring Sherlock’s past. The bulk of the mystery is solved in a single interview with Oscar, Sherlock’s erstwhile drug dealer; the real trick is getting Oscar to the point where he’s willing to talk.
Oscar is the heart of “For All You Know.” Played with slimy abandon by verified “hey, it’s that guy!” Michael Weston, Oscar both links the episode to Sherlock’s past and roots it in the here and now. He’s a walking, talking illustration of the man Sherlock used to be — and one more failure in the present day, one more person Sherlock can’t help. It’s a fascinating use of a character. There’s not a single likeable thing about Oscar, but he’s not a villain; he’s a sleazy, self-serving creep who serves as a parallel to and proxy for our protagonist.
Self-loathing has been a central part of Sherlock’s character from day one. Oscar externalizes that hatred. If you’re still watching Elementary in season three, you probably can’t really hate Sherlock, but Oscar is loathsome. He makes Sherlock’s self-recrimination immediately understandable. It’s another facet of Elementary‘s ongoing deconstruction of the character archetype popularized by the classic Holmes. Self-loathing assholes are a dime a dozen in detective fiction, but you’re not usually supposed to agree with them.
Joan spends most of “For All You Know” arguing against the idea that Sherlock is a bad person. The conclusion partially bears her out — it has to — but the final loss of the episode is that she’s not entirely right. There’s no arguing with the fact that Sherlock failed Maria Gutierrez and her family. At the very least, he delayed the capture of her killer by several years. Elementary refuses to absolve Sherlock of the consequences of his actions. It may be depressing — but it’s great television.
– If this were an episode of Friends, it would be called “The One With the Wrench”; I imagine that’s the scene that fans will remember, years from now. Nothing these “shocking detective” types do shocks me, these days. You watch enough shows about wacky crime-solvers, you grow to expect the outrageous things they do. But when Sherlock offered to let Prentice Gutierrez beat him with a wrench in exchange for answers, I screamed “What the fuck?!” and paused the episode. That is not standard wacky-detective fare.
– Jonny Lee Miller is always great, but he chewed this episode up, digested it, and used the energy it gave him to go back in time and beat it up before he ate it. That was a weird metaphor. He was awesome, is what I’m saying.
– You can often tell how much Elementary cares about an A-plot by the caliber of guest star they book. (As in last week’s use of Alicia Witt and Maria Dizzia.) Weston indicates a whole lot of caring.
– “For All You Know” was directed by Guy Ferland, a prolific TV director who has helmed several previous episodes of Elementary, including this season’s visually lovely “Bella.” Interestingly, he directed season one’s “A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs,” the only other episode that has dealt so directly with Sherlock’s time as an active user.
– Do you think the writers on Elementary are just really tired all the time, and that’s why the characters are always talking about sleep? Take a nap, you guys. You’ll feel better, I promise.
Quotes Are Sorry. They’re So, So Sorry.
– “That depends. Does your supplier always spell ‘Prada’ with two Ds?”
– “Time flies when you’re on heroine.”
– “I enjoy hospitals, especially in the middle of the night.”
– “There are few situations more amenable to picking someone’s pocket than a thrashing. It’s better to be the thrasher than the thrashee, of course, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
– “We had a brief physical relationship.”
– “You think this is an exercise in self-pity.” “I think this is an Olympics in self-pity.”
Classic Holmes References
Using street urchins to carry messages is something Holmes did in the classic stories. Classic Holmes did it because he lived in the Victorian Era. Our Sherlock did it because he was bottoming out and no longer had a phone. Oh, Elementary.