Five minutes in to “Dead Man’s Switch” and I was worried. Very worried.
Over the course of its 20 episodes, ‘Elementary’ has developed into a rock solid crime procedural, driven by what’s turned into delightful chemistry between leads Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu and cases that are usually pretty interesting. But it didn’t start out that way. The first batch of ‘Elementary’ episodes were grim, slow-paced walkthroughs of what felt like recycled plots from “The Mentalist.” Miller and Liu were needlessly set against each other over a pervasive story about Holmes recovering from a drug addiction that ‘Elementary’ was afraid to show on screen. In fact, much of the series’ recent success can be attributed to the shift in Watson’s role from Holmes’ sober companion to his sidekick, a change that seems to have clicked everything else on the show into place.
So when “Dead Man’s Switch” opened with very serious discussions of Holmes’ one-year sober anniversary and none of the snippy-but-playful banter that’s come to define the Holmes/Watson relationship, I was definitely worried.
But it appears that turning the corner from “bland procedural” to “rather good procedural” has affected all aspects of ‘Elementary,’ because despite covering a lot of the same themes as the pretty bad early episode, “Dead Man’s Switch” was a rather good hour of television.
It didn’t start that way. Despite the always-welcome presence of Alfredo, the early material with Holmes resisting Watson’s attempts to celebrate his sober anniversary felt like the show’s previous addiction material. But as the episode perked up, the story began to unfold in a more interesting way, culminating with a very real and very striking moment where Holmes admits he fell off the wagon a day after declaring his intentions to sober up. He elaborates that his frustration is not with the fact that his actual anniversary is one day further back than everyone thinks, it’s that he set his mind to something and failed to follow through with it.
This is a rather nuanced point for ‘Elementary’ to be making, and Miller’s performance sold it wonderfully. For once, the addiction material felt specific to the character, not a broad device to manufacture drama. The payoff at the end of the hour was understated – we didn’t even see Sherlock and Alfredo’s conversation – but I suppose Alfredo had his big moment earlier in the episode, so no harm done.
Meanwhile, the episode-specific case picked up steam as the hour went on as well. What started with a father being blackmailed over a tape of his daughter being sexually assaulted turns into a race to track down the blackmailer’s accomplice. This case didn’t feel as propulsive as the ones in previous weeks, dragging at times; but the twist ending was a reasonably clever conclusion.
For once, then, my enjoyment of an ‘Elementary’ episode came not from the case of the week, but from the running addiction/recovery story. If that’s not a testament to how far this show has come in 20 episodes, I don’t know what is.