Elementary has had quite an emphasis on character development. That’s been its core ever since it’s started, and it’s what hooked me. From season one’s development of the relationship between Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) and Joan (Lucy Liu) as well as the Moriarty plot to season two’s emphasis not only on Sherlock and Mycroft but also the consequences of Sherlock’s actions, it always felt like Elementary had a good grip on its characters.
Season three was no different, zoning in on the way Sherlock affects the people around him and how it reflects back to him. We’ve seen how Joan begins to pull away from social interactions especially after the death of her boyfriend Andrew; we’ve seen Bell pull away from an imperfect relationship; we’ve also seen Kitty become stronger and more competent. It’s a push and pull, where those weaker than Sherlock gain strength, those lost gain purpose, but those who play with the fire of Holmes get burned.
The finale, though, is a different beast than the rest of the season. Like season three as a whole, it meanders without a major character focus, which was a source of frustration for me. Back from earlier in the season is Oscar, Sherlock’s old dealer buddy, and he’s kidnapped Alfredo. Naturally, Sherlock is more than displeased given his newfound friendship with his former sponsor.
Because of the kidnapping, Sherlock is sent on a wild goose chase through the drug dens of Manhattan all to find Oscar’s sister Olivia. The first place they check: Hemdale, the very clinic that Sherlock found himself leaving back at the beginning of season one. Meanwhile, Captain Gregson, Detective Bell, and Joan Watson find themselves worrying about Sherlock’s physical well-being. It’s a strange thing, considering how easily we saw him take down Sebatian Moran during their confrontation in season one, but not something unexplainable.
What Joan as his former sober companion should worry about, however, is the likelihood of relapse.
Oscar drags Sherlock from Hemdale to den to den and even goes so far as to bring up Irene and Sherlock’s post-breakup/kidnapping spiral into depression and drugs, and soon after, Sherlock finds Olivia just as he was meant to: dead.
It’s a revenge gambit from Oscar, whose last scene before this episode left him flabbergasted at Sherlock’s evaluation of him: worthless, sickening, vile.
And that’s what he thinks Sherlock is, too, belonging with the rest of the addicts instead of elevating himself. Alfredo’s safe thanks to Joan, but it’s too late: Oscar tempts Sherlock with the highest-grade heroin he could get his hands on, and even after Sherlock roughs him up, Oscar proves that he may have indeed won.
The episode flashes forward just a few hours as Joan finds Sherlock up on the roof, warning him of his father’s imminent arrival in New York, not knowing how he heard of what had happened… and the camera pans over to show Sherlock, bags under his eyes, utterly defeated.
The relapse has finally come.
“A Controlled Descent” isn’t a weak episode, but it also isn’t a particularly strong one. Due to Kitty’s arc taking over half the season, we don’t get to see as big a build-up to the finale. Season one had the slow burn of Sherlock growing to trust Joan and team up with her against the looming threat of Moriarty; season two saw him feel threatened by Mycroft’s return to his life and feelings of guilt as a result of his actions.
Season three suffers from a lack of focus. Sherlock had been tempted multiple times, yes, but it wasn’t until this particular point that he relapses, and frankly it reads more as an attempt to close out a weaker season than an organic plot point. Why not have him relapse with the reveal of Moriarty as Irene? At the kidnapping of Joan, the discovery of Mycroft as MI6, or the subsequent parting of ways of Holmes and Watson? Season three serves up so many beautiful moments as Sherlock finally gets to see how he affects those around him in a myriad of ways, but instead the finale takes us down a darker road that while not bad also seemed out of nowhere.
What weakened the season, too, was what’s widely considered a sin of storytelling: showing instead of telling. Liu never gets to show her acting chops to show Joan’s reaction to Andrew’s death, and Miller doesn’t get to actively show Sherlock’s relapse, only the leadup. We get the aftershocks, but they’re weak and bring down the season as a whole because of the lack of emotional climaxes.
Another source of frustration is the guest stars. Alfredo comes in and out, which was a pleasant surprise, but favorites from the other seasons–Ms. Hudson, Pam the snow plow driver, Gay the geologist, or even Randy, Sherlock’s sponsee–are barely shown if not outright absent. Ms. Hudson makes a two-line appearance at one point and is mentioned a few other times, but Elementary worked hard to bring back, for instance, Harlan from season two as much more important. Given that several of these characters have worked their way into Sherlock and Joan’s lives–particularly Ms. Hudson as their housekeeper–it’s strange that they’ve rarely if ever popped up again onscreen, making Holmes and Watson feel that much more insular.
Strangely off-putting, too, was the emphasis on Middle-Eastern characters as possible terrorists. While some of season three’s episodes used stories ripped from the headlines–“Everyone” as stand-ins for Anonymous, the troubled and waning existence of bees in the world–it troubles me that Elementary was so at ease with placing characters of color as villains or possible suspects. On one hand, it suits reality, as profiling happens within police departments on the regular; on the other hand, for a show with a diverse cast, it sticks out.
All of these complaints don’t mean that season three was a weak one; no, just the weakest of the ones so far. It’s hard to follow season one. But this season instead felt like it should have kept Kitty on and extended her arc; indeed, even the reveal of Kitty’s rapist seemed too quick. It makes me wonder if perhaps what was originally going to be a season-long recurring role for Ophelia Lovibond was cut in half. Kitty Winter helped give this season of Elementary a focus, a set of mysteries that could eventually be solved. What we got was an attempt at showing the effect of Sherlock’s existence on others, only to fall flat with a lackluster finale.
Despite that, the appearance of Daddy Holmes in season four will prove to be quite the game-changer.