Elementary: Pilot Perfection

[Content Note: Drug Addiction, Murder, Domestic Violence, Victim Blaming, Ableism]

Official Episode Synopsis: Detective Sherlock Holmes, along with his sober companion, Dr. Joan Watson, uses his uncanny ability to read people and analyze crimes to assist the NYPD on some of their more difficult cases.

, (Season 1 | Episode 1) "Pilot"

This first episode of Elementary opens with a woman being violently assaulted in her own home by an unseen assailant. This is potentially triggery, obviously, and that is going to be a hurdle for a lot of detective shows -- not everyone can watch them and not everyone will enjoy them. But, speaking as someone who enjoys detective shows, I can already say that there are a couple of things foreshadowed here that I love about Elementary.

One is that we're already dealing with a case that is common and realistic and something that actually happens to a lot of women. Shows built around the premise of Unusual Cases and Exceptional Detectives frequently reach exclusively for the strange and the bizarre and the inexplicable in order to pique audience interest, but Elementary doesn't do that: it is bound and determined to make interesting cases out of common events. I appreciate that decision in large part because I appreciate a show that seeks to explore the real crime that happens in the real world and which affects real women as real victims. It's nice -- if the word "nice" can be applied in this context -- to see that the reality which affects women isn't disregarded as unworthy of notice because of its commonness.

Two, the women victims in Elementary are empathized with rather than objectified. Unlike other crime dramas I could mention, there aren't long lingering looks over lovely corpses in Elementary. There's not voyeuristic trips to the morgue where strategically-draped nude bodies are displayed for our viewing pleasure. A kindly medical examiner isn't on-hand to opine over the tragedy of another beautiful young white woman dead and isn't it a shame and she had her whole life to live and argle bargle objectification. None of that. Wad it all into a ball of creepy paternalism and throw it in the trash where it belongs. The women victims in Elementary are empathized with as people rather than objectified into bodies and concepts. And, much more often than not, they are killed by men.

Because, three, this is a real thing. I know it's fun in crime dramas to play wacky reversal antics and have the women victims killed by their sister or mother or best friend or six-year-old child or whatever, but in real life as a general statistic (which is not intended to invisible victims not encompassed by the statistical majority), most women who are murdered are done so by men. And, most frequently within that group, by men known to the woman being murdered. Once again, having that fact being brought forward within the narrative rather than being ignored as too-common-to-be-interesting is, I feel, very powerful.

The episode cuts to Joan Watson waking up and going through her morning routine, and I like this focus both as a Holmes fan and as a feminist. The Watson character was historically a point of view character for the reader to follow, so it's natural that we would follow this Watson just as closely as the episode opens. Yet additionally, it's nice to see that the point of view character for this show is going to be a female character: the audience is being invited to see things through a woman's eyes, rather than pretending that women are strange, inaccessible creatures whom no one can really understand.

Joan works as a sober companion, a person who provides one-on-one assistance to people recovering from addiction (in this case, drug addiction). And again, I love this both from a Holmesian standpoint and a feminist one: this job is a perfect reason for Joan to live with and accompany Sherlock on cases, but it is also the platform through which a huge array of feminist terms and concepts are brought into the show. As a paid professional expert on things like boundaries and consent and framing, Joan can speak about these things in her capacity as a sober companion without all this being cast as Intrinsically Female. Elementary is not a story about men being from Mars and women being from Venus, nor is it a story about a Manic Pixie Girl Love Interest sweeping into the life of an Exceptional Man and changing his perspective.

Instead, it is a story in which an intelligent but highly flawed professional detective (Sherlock) learns to work together with an intelligent and highly trained professional sober companion and ex-surgeon (Joan) and the two of them find that they both bring a valuable and varied perspective to the team such that they do better work together than apart. And part of what Joan brings as a sober companion is a lot of valuable feminist-friendly ideology which is absolutely foundational to her work. In short: Joan's background as a sober companion is not just an "excuse job" to get her into the story. Not at all.

Joan is informed by rehab personnel (and then duly informs her employer, Sherlock's father -- or rather the infrastructure of assistants who surround Sherlock's as-yet-unseen father) that Sherlock broke out of the rehab facility where Joan was supposed to meet him that morning. Joan travels to Sherlock's local address in the hopes that he ended up there after escaping from the rehab facility. On her way in, she bumps into an egressing-and-presumed sex worker and (once inside) finds Sherlock sans shirt and surrounded by a semi-circle of television monitors. Joan is barely able to introduce herself before Sherlock has (unexpectedly) asked her if she believes in love at first sight.

Sherlock and Joan demonstrate that men and women
can be friends and colleagues
without becoming romantically involved with each other.
(SHERLOCK: Do you believe in love at first sight?)

Joan is disconcerted by Sherlock's confession of love -- probably not the strangest thing she's heard from a client fresh out of rehab, I imagine -- and isn't much reassured by the revelation that Sherlock was only quoting from one of the several televisions, apparently before Sherlock watched the scene he flawlessly quoted. Joan asks Sherlock if his father informed him of her employment, and Sherlock confirms that he understands she is an "addict-sitter" -- before telling her that he doesn't need her and that he expects her to be his personal maid.

Joan rejects stereotypical feminine work
being pushed onto her simply because of her gender.
Chores will be handled egalitarianly.
(SHERLOCK: Can't wait for you to tidy it.)

On the way to a crime scene, Sherlock explains that he previously worked as a consultant for the police, and that he is planning to resume this work now that he is sober. He reveals that he does not accept money for his consulting work, because he prefers to answer to no one but himself. This will be a minor point in a number of the future episodes; the monetary privilege which allows Sherlock to act autonomously from the police will allow him the freedom to make his own moral choices (both good ones and bad ones). That this is a position of privilege is, I believe, subtly highlighted.

It's also worth noting here, though, that this is a reversal of the usual trope that men's work is important-and-paid and women's work is unimportant-and-unpaid. Of the two people in this scene, Joan is the only one being monetarily compensated for her time, knowledge, and labor.

Paid work is meaningful,
but freedom to make moral choices is also important.
(SHERLOCK: I wasn't paid for my services,
and therefore I answer to no one but myself.)

At the crime scene, Sherlock asks Joan how her clients usually explain her presence, since her work requires her to be with her companions near-constantly in order to ensure that they don't fall into old habits of drug use. Joan explains that she maintains client-patient confidentiality with her clients, and that she can work under whatever cover explanation Sherlock is comfortable with. But she also chooses this moment to assert a boundary: after a full morning of hearing Sherlock denigrate her profession, she chooses to register her rejection of the term "helper monkey" that Sherlock attempts to impose on her.

Joan recognizes that the work she does is meaningful,
even when others do not.
(JOAN: Helper monkey?)

This is another tremendously important aspect of the series: Joan recognizes that the work she does is meaningful even when others do not. Sherlock will come to appreciate the value of Joan's work, both as a sober companion and as a fellow detective. Joan's mother will have opinions on Joan's career, as will her friends. Joan will repeatedly speak with people about her work as a surgeon, as a sober companion, and as a detective, and why these things are valuable jobs.

On a more meta-level, Joan has to endure Holmesian fans questioning the validity of her job. There are complaints on the internet that being a sober companion is too gendered, too feminine, for a "real" Watson to do as a profession. (How going to live in the house of a total stranger is supposedly inherently feminine and not brave-as-fuck is beyond me, but that's probably just my womanly feelings talking.) And there are similar complaints that her professional change later in the series from sober companion to detective is merely her following in the footsteps of a more exceptional man.

Joan weathers these complaints within the show, constantly pushing back on the social expectations that a woman is not X or a woman should be Y or a woman (of a certain age) cannot change professions. There's a lot of presumptions that Joan pushes back on, merely by existing as a woman with a job and career choices.

Sherlock informs Joan that if she is going to be with him 24/7 as a sober companion, then that will mean accompanying him on cases. This is something of a challenge to her authority; Sherlock does not want a sober companion and is trying to push back on their relationship. Later in the pilot he will float the idea of helping her defraud his father by taking a "vacation" instead of working; for now, he tries to scare her off by pointing out that she will be working in unpleasant conditions. Joan doesn't rise to the bait.

Joan bravely adapts to new situations:
surgeon, sober companion, detective.
She knows how to sit with fear and discomfort.
(SHERLOCK: Unless, of course,
you don't think you have the
stomach for the work I do.)

Inside the crime scene -- the home where the woman at the beginning of the episode was assaulted -- Sherlock deduces that the woman was assaulted by an attacker who was known to her, based on the evidence that the woman was sharing a drink with the man before he attacked her.

And here is a thing: in any other crime show, this would more often than not signal the plot development that the woman was cheating on her husband. From there we'd probably cycle through the usual suspect pool of jealous boyfriend, angry husband, and jilted woman connected to one or either man, before settling on the totally unexpected teenage daughter of the murdered woman who was having an "affair" (cue suggestions of statutory rape which will never be mentioned again) with her mother's boyfriend. Or whatever. But the point is that the majority of the audience will have lost empathy with the cheating woman victim, because clearly she brought this tragedy on herself.

Which is not to say that I agree with that victim blaming mentality, but I most definitely recognize it as a recurring trope in these types of shows. Elementary doesn't do that; it doesn't come up with dirty laundry to air on its victims in order to make their deaths somehow seem "preventable" if only the victim had followed whatever bullshit rules are being not-so-subtly offered to the audience. See, women? If you behave, this won't happen to you. Elementary avoids that. The women who are killed by their partners and spouses in this show aren't killed because they "brought it on themselves"; they're killed because they had the misfortune to be married to a murderer. No victim-blaming necessary or welcome.

Sherlock makes a point of a missing jewel box, and Joan is the one to pick up on his intensity regarding this apparently-irrelevant act and asks him to explain the importance. And I love this about Joan, because she doesn't just quietly bide her time in here as a sober companion, nor does she wait until the men aren't busy or until she and Sherlock leave in order to ask her questions. She actively questions him here and now, in order to learn.

Joan does not passively observe,
nor wait until the men aren't busy.
She actively questions in order to learn.
(JOAN: Why is it so important that
the kidnapper took a ring box?)

Sherlock explains his concern that kidnappers don't usually take trophies, but murderers do. He additionally doubts that a woman bleeding as profusely as the victim was after the struggle could have been removed from the building without leaving blood elsewhere during her exit. Sherlock deduces that there must be a safe room in the bedroom, and that the body must be there; when he is revealed to be correct, he is genuinely sorrowful and expresses regret that he's right -- since his being correct here means that the victim isn't alive elsewhere. And I value this, because I value empathy over being so lost in the puzzle that "being correct" becomes more valuable than a person's life.

No matter how good it feels to be correct,
Sherlock would rather be wrong,
if it would save someone's life.
(SHERLOCK: Sometimes I hate it when I'm right.)

The police take the husband into custody as the most likely suspect, but Sherlock reveals at the police station that the husband doesn't match the physical profile of the killer: his shoes are too small to match the boot print at the scene -- Sherlock announces the killer wears a size 11 shoe -- and his hands are too small to match the strangulation marks on the victim. When the police express doubt that Sherlock could make this assessment based on a quick look at the victim's neck, he appeals to Joan's experience as a surgeon to explain the bruising pattern.

Joan takes note of this: a short time later when Sherlock is interrogating another potential suspect, she observes a nearby box of shoes (perched on what appears to be a gym bag) with a size "11" emblazoned on the cardboard. Silently, she draws his attention to the box with her eyes, confirming that the current suspect fits the physical profile Sherlock has outlined.

Joan isn't intimidated by Sherlock,
and accurately believes she has insight to contribute.
(JOAN silently draws SHERLOCK's attention to a box of "size 11" shoes
after SHERLOCK has previously determined that the killer wears size 11 shoes.)

That evening, Joan settles into her bedroom in Sherlock's home and then speaks to him about his bee-keeping hobby as part of the process of connecting with him and getting to know him better. Sherlock resists her attempt at communication and instead tries to psychoanalyze her, asking her why she dislikes her job based on his observation that she uses two alarm clocks. (Suggesting that this means it's a "chore" for her to wake up in the morning.) He points out, correctly, that Joan finds his work interesting before telling her that he doesn't need her services and he won't tell his father if she goofs off on the job.

The next morning, Joan wakes to find that Sherlock has sabotaged her alarm clocks and he's at the police station without her. This is boundary testing, and Joan refuses to let it slide. When she reaches the police station, she tests Sherlock for drugs -- not because she genuinely thinks he's using but because these are the rules which make up their professional relationship and Joan recognizes the value of consistency.

Joan draws boundaries and sets expectations,
and then enforces them consistently.
(JOAN: I'm gonna need your saliva now.)

While the test percolates, Sherlock explains that he has a new theory that the killer may have previous victims, based on his choice -- a la serial killer behavioral patterns -- to take a trophy on his way out. Comparing the current victim to previous victims in the local case files, Sherlock has identified a living victim with a striking similarity to the murder victim.

But when they speak to the living victim, Sherlock becomes verbally aggressive when he realizes that she's protecting her attacker, and then accuses her of being responsible for her attackers actions by her decision not to turn him in. Joan tells him "That's enough!" and orders him out to the car before apologizing to the victim.

Joan will not countenance victim-blaming,
nor bullying.
Not even in service to a case.
(JOAN: That's enough!)

And I cannot stress enough how important this scene is. This is so valuable. Because we do live in a society where we blame victims for their "failure" to prosecute their attackers, even as we cultivate a society where we make prosecution of attackers as hard as humanly possible on those same victims. We erect countless barriers and then stand back and smugly say, "If you aren't willing to make every sacrifice necessary to clamber over those barriers then you, and not he, will be responsible when he attacks again." We hold women responsible for the behavior of men, and in doing so we strip away the tools by which victims could hold their victimizers responsible. It's pervasive and damaging, and Joan calls it out as such -- while also drawing a line which states that some behavior is simply not acceptable, even if it might help solve a case.

Sherlock stews by the car until Joan comes out and tells her that the living victim has told her the name of her attacker. Sherlock scrambles to cover his bad behavior, stating that he knew all along that if he went on the attack, Joan would defend her and the two women would communicate in his absence. Joan gives him a Look and tells him he's full of shit.

No matter how much she admires Sherlock,
Joan never hesitates to call him out when needed.
(JOAN: You are so full of it.)

Sherlock calls Captain Gregson to reveal the name of the new suspect (Peter Saldua), but Gregson is already on the scene of Saldua's apparent suicide. Sherlock doesn't believe the situation adds up to a complete picture, but doesn't have anything concrete to go on with his suspicions. Back home, Joan suggests that he might be having trouble accepting that the case is solved, since working the case gave him something to focus on.

Joan invites him to the opera, as Sherlock's father has (incorrectly, since he doesn't really know his son) told her that he likes the opera. Sherlock becomes increasingly angry and frustrated, and when Joan points out that he isn't always right -- that he was wrong about her motivation behind becoming a sober companion -- he rudely points out that he knows her real reason (she made a mistake in surgery that cost the life of a patient) and that he had made up an incorrect deduction to spare her feelings. Upset by his behavior, Joan calmly announces that she is going to the opera and will place Sherlock with a different sober companion tomorrow.

Sherlock visits Captain Gregson at the bar for more case information; after a fortuitous insight regarding the drugs -- steroids and not antidepressants as they were labeled -- found at Saldua's house, Sherlock darts out of the bar and sneaks into the opera to sit next to Joan. Still stung by his callousness, and recognizing that the opera is not the appropriate place for this conversation, Joan creatively asserts a boundary. (And I do love that she can do so with humor, undermining the Humorless Feminist stereotype.)

Joan finds creative ways to assert boundaries.
(JOAN: You're not here right now.
I don't see you.)

Sherlock explains his theory about the drugs, but though Joan is intrigued, she still recognizes that Sherlock's behavior deserves discussion. He acknowledges this reality, and apologizes. He confesses that she had been right the other day with the living victim -- that he had made up the story about provoking her and Joan on purpose because he had actually been embarrassed over losing his temper. He acknowledges that Joan has aided the case, and asks her to help him finish it.

Sherlock isn't an Exceptional Man who is always right.
And when he is wrong, Joan expects him to admit it.
(SHERLOCK: I had no idea she would respond
to you the way that she did.)

Sherlock and Joan drive to the hospital where Sherlock verbally confronts the murder victim's husband: Sherlock believes the husband acted as a counselor for Saldua, learned his victim profile, and then manipulated Saldua into killing his wife with a combination of (1) drugging Saldua, (2) pressuring his wife to change her appearance to match her killer's victim profile, and (3) placing his wife in Saldua's way by regularly employing Saldua to deliver flowers to her.

The husband tells Sherlock that he's insane, and I love this scene because Sherlock anxiously replies, "No, he was insane, Doctor. And you took advantage!" His anguish is tangible, and it's possible for the viewer to suddenly remember (had they forgotten) that this Sherlock isn't an Exceptional Man so much as a genius who also happens to be struggling with a drug addiction and with emotional outbursts of anger. In some ways, he's not so very different from Saldua -- he even has his own live-in counselor in the form of Joan -- and he recognizes how very vulnerable a patient in that position can be and how horribly this doctor abused his position of power.

I appreciate, deeply, that Elementary was able to make this point without in any way invisibling or obscuring the female victim in the process.

Calmly, the doctor confesses "hypothetically" that he wanted out of his marriage but that his wife was the wealthy one and a prenuptial agreement stood in his way. And here again is what we talked about before, the willingness on the part of Elementary to show things like domestic violence and murderous husbands despite other crime dramas considering those things to be too "common" and "obvious" and not "sensational enough" to bring in the viewers. And yet these things are the stuff of the real lives of many of its viewers, and Elementary understands that enough to see that many of its viewers are interested in seeing these villains brought to justice.

Elementary focuses on real life violence
committed by the privileged against the marginalized,
rather than engage in wacky reversal antics.
(DAMPIER: a man wants out of his marriage
to a very wealthy wife.)

Sherlock throws a temper tantrum, borrows Joan's car, and drives it full force into the doctor's car. After a scene cut, we see Joan visiting him in prison, where Sherlock apologizes -- not just for her car, but for the way he spoke to her earlier. Joan acknowledges his apology, as well as the pattern of impulsive behavior on his part. She then explains that she spoke to Sherlock's father and convinced him to give Sherlock another chance; she's chosen to stay on as Sherlock's companion. Sherlock, relieved, tells her that he's pleased that she's stayed on as his companion.

Sherlock apologizes for bad behavior and
thanks Watson for her help.
(SHERLOCK: I'm very pleased... Watson.)

Joan asks Sherlock to tell her about London, and to tell her what happened to him there that caused him to accelerate his drug habit into a crash. She explains that she feels the need to know, if she's going to be able to help him at all. Sherlock hedges and states that there's no point in him telling her in order to connect and communicate because he doesn't have meaningful connections. Joan smiles, and Sherlock asks why; Joan tells him that now she's knows it's a woman -- the only other time he's tried so hard to insist he doesn't connect with others was when she walked in on him immediately after he had sex at the beginning of the episode. She points out that his "sexist repellent crap" is a screen he's using to convince himself and others that he doesn't have connections.

(JOAN: All that sexist repellent crap.)

Joan goes home without Sherlock since his bail hearing isn't until the morning. And despite the fact that she's had a long day and must be tired, she starts going over the case material. And this is something I love about Joan -- not only are her insights used in order to solve cases, but she proactively seeks for opportunities to apply those insights. She genuinely chooses to be involved in these cases, and she believes she has value to contribute. She's not just along for the ride a la companion-presence and tossing out revelations as they occur to her; she's an active participant. This is so feminist it makes my smile hurt from smiley wideness.

Joan proactively contributes to investigations.
(JOAN examines case files without SHERLOCK.)

Joan collects Sherlock the next morning outside the courthouse and shows him what she's found: Saldua had a severe rice allergy listed on his medical records, yet his pantry had a large bag of rice contained in the pantry despite his allergy to the food.

We cut to the police station, where Captain Gregson apologizes for the damage Sherlock did to the doctor's car. As a final official statement, however, he asks the doctor to confirm that he never treated Saldua in his capacity as a doctor.

The police in Elementary are
an integral part of investigations,
and not merely foils to demonstrate Sherlock's genius.
(GREGSON: There is, uh, just one thing
I wanted to ask you.)

And here is something that I love -- oh my god, that I love so so so much -- about Elementary. The police are an integral part of the investigations. They're not stupidly-skeptical barriers for Sherlock to clamber over. They're not glorified foils to shiny up his genius and reflect it off of their sustained ignorance. They're not one-dimensional cardboard cutouts setup to bask in Sherlock's genius and congratulate him along the way.

They're just as much active participants in these cases as Joan is, and they contribute valuable material and insight. There are many cases in Elementary where, without the valuable aid of the police officers, the case simply would not be solved, by Sherlock or any other. They add value. And they add value in constructive, positive ways -- there's no shady police tactics on display for the winking viewer to delight in. And because life often tries to imitate art, I so much appreciate a show that calls police officers to be intelligent, thorough, and ethical in their investigations.

Sherlock explains that Saldua purchased a bag of highly-allergic-to-it rice because he'd laundered his phone and was anxious to use the rice as a desiccant to dry out the phone. Sherlock gives credit to Joan for the discovery, and produces the recovered phone ... along with recordings between Saldua and the doctor as part of their counseling sessions. Case solved, and valid credit given to Joan.

The episode closes with Joan enjoying baseball and Sherlock sitting with her through the game to make up for the ruined opera. And which brings us to my favorite line of the episode: Lucy Liu saying, with verve and passion, "Yeah, well, just because you don't understand something, doesn't mean it isn't awesome, okay?"

The characters in Elementary learn from each other,
rather than everyone learning from one exceptional man.
(JOAN celebrates baseball as SHERLOCK watches in solidarity.)

And those are words I think we can all live by. Ha. 


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