Elementary season 2 episode 4 review: Poison Pen

Elementary continues to delve into the emotional history of Sherlock Holmes. Here's Frances' review of Poison Pen...

This review contains spoilers.

2.4 Poison Pen

Assembling the jigsaw of Holmes’ past is always a gratifying part of Elementary, so by rights, Poison Pen – which provided us with both an origin and an adolescent love story for Sherlock – should have been satisfying in the extreme.

That it wasn’t is in part due to the disparity between the risqué farce with which the case began (an oo-er missus dominatrix, a latex suit, a sex shop, and Noel from Frasier), and the dark revelations of incest and child abuse with which it ended. Like one of those ‘cut and shut’ cars we’re warned about on consumer scaremongering TV shows, the murder of Titus Delancey seemed to have been welded together from two halves, one tongue-in-cheek comic, the other darkly serious. The resulting vehicle was an unreliable, and uncomfortable ride.

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Unpredictability is key in any detective case, but this week’s leap from gimp mask comedy corpse to a father sexually abusing his son was an unstable tonal jump rather than a tantalising twist. (If it was a twist the writers were looking for, then Elementary’s talented team could have been more imaginative than to go for the sensationalist, exploitative shock resolution). Poison Pen took us from raised-eyebrow levity to a dump truck of gravity in forty minutes, and the combination left me feeling uneasy.

That said, thematically, child abuse was the thread running from start to end of the episode, so perhaps it’s fairer to call out the fetish-wear segment for not belonging as part of the whole. Graham Delancey was being sexually abused by his father, just as Abigail Spencer was abused physically by hers, and Sherlock – the headline act, as ever – was abused by his school bullies.

Little by little, Elementary is filling in the gaps on Sherlock’s past, and just as it should, each new discovery informs our perception of his character. In season one’s Flight Risk, we learned about his absent father; in The Deductionist, about his fear of his own weakness; in Step Nine, about his sibling rivalry, and of course throughout season one, about his broken heart.

Put it down to our touchy-feely sharing-caring modern fascination with psychology and therapy if you will, but Elementary’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation has gone further than any other in probing the emotional genesis of Holmes’ behaviour and attitudes. Holmes’ genius is still what sets him apart in the show, but he’s much more than a walking, talking deduction machine here. He’s also an estranged son and brother, a bullied child (Sherlock’s impressive physique is no longer only the sign of a disciplined mind, but can now also be seen as a response to early victimhood), a hurt lover, and lest we forget, a recovering addict. Arguably, all of these aspects are as important to Elementary’s Holmes as his extraordinary mental abilities. When Elementary was first announced, the frustrated cry of “why do we need another one?” was heard, and understandably so. The work Robert Doherty’s team and Jonny Lee Miller have done on Holmes’ character over Elementary’s two and a bit seasons answers exactly that question. We ‘need’ this version because it brings something new to the canon, i.e. Holmes the man, and not just Holmes the great detective.

(It goes without saying that Elementary’s other addition to the Holmes archetype extant is the re-creation of Watson as his burgeoning equal. “You know, you’re starting to sound like your partner” Detective Bell told her this week, and boy, is he ever right.)

None of that well-deserved praise however, balances out what was a shoddily contrived episode. Yes, detective stories often rely on contrivance more than most, but for Sherlock to stumble across his former international pen pal – and, as Watson would have it, first love – at a murder scene was a messy, frayed development. That the murderers in both cases turned out in fact to be the victims, and that Abigail sacrificed herself for the sake of Graham (and her conscience) was a trite rather than affecting denouement.

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Overall, Poison Pen lacked the excitement of last week’s ripping take on the real-life Snowden/Anonymous events, which – from the mysterious Belgian who brought Holmes and Watson the case, to the international intelligence scandal – felt closer to Conan Doyle than a great many of Elementary’s cases. This week’s episode felt neither Holmesian, nor particularly satisfying on the character development front, though it did provide us with another piece of the Sherlock – or should we say Sean – puzzle.

Read Frances’ review of episode two, Solve For X, here.

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