Official Episode Synopsis: Sherlock and Watson consult on a child abduction case involving a serial killer who is nicknamed "The Balloon Man," because he leaves a signature batch of balloons at each of his crime scenes.
Elementary, (Season 1 | Episode 3) "Child Predator"
So, hey, content note upfront: this episode involves child abduction, child abuse, Stockholm syndrome, and then a reversal twist where a victim turns out to be a victimizer. One of the praises I've heaped on this show in the past is that it doesn't rely on this trope nearly as often as some crime dramas do, but it is here for this episode and not everyone will want to come along for the ride. So here's a content note upfront and I'll try to handle the issues herein sensitively.
Episode 3 starts with Joan coming down the stairs dressed for a workout. Instead of being ready to join her, however, Sherlock is disheveled, shirtless, and jittery -- he's stayed up all night combing through cold cases. Joan expresses concern over his lack of self-care (given that he's still very early on in the recovery process) and points out that he agreed to add regular exercise with her to his self-care routine. Sherlock tells her that when he says "I agree with you", it is a sign that he's not listening and just wants her to stop talking. This will be a major theme of this episode.
One thing I like here that I want to point out is that Sherlock is shirtless. I've seen it noted -- here and elsewhere -- that a common television technique is to place attractive women characters in various states of tantalizing undress under assorted pretexts so that the audience can ogle them, and Elementary turns this trope on its head by showing skin for Sherlock rather than for Joan.
But I also like this staging of Sherlock being regularly shirtless because it subtly provides some power balance between Sherlock and Joan relationship. I've pointed out before that Joan is taking a perceived risk by living with strange drug-addicted men she doesn't know; a lot of people would consider that to be a dangerous situation. Additionally, Sherlock is a white man who is independently wealthy; Joan is a woman of color living under his roof and eating his groceries. She is performing a valuable service, yes, and he's not directly her employer (his estranged father is), but there's still a lot of power imbalance in that equation, and I feel like making Sherlock vulnerable-through-dress-choices is a way of addressing that imbalance somewhat.
(On the related subject of clothing on Elementary, Melissa McEwan has noted that Sherlock and Joan dress in complimentary colors and styles as their friendship deepens, which I also think is a nice touch.)
|Elementary subtly balances power between Joan and Sherlock.|
(SHERLOCK: I could have sworn I was wearing a shirt at some point.
A call comes in that one of the cold cases Sherlock was studying -- and which he was studying because he'd heard the news earlier on a police scanner -- has suddenly become hot again: a kidnapped called The Balloon Man has kidnapped a little girl from her bedroom.
Sherlock and Joan arrive at the crime scene, and he immediately notices broken twigs on a garden lattice which he believes were broken by the little girl as she struggled to get away. Detective Bell says that the broken twigs are a good sign, since it means the girl is a fighter. Sherlock retorts that it would only be a cause for optimism "if little girls could actually win fights against grown men".
I like this exchange, because I like what it reveals about the characters involved and isn't just a Right-and-Wrong back and forthing of views. Detective Bell is realistically looking for something to be positive about; he has to speak to the press and to the governmental authorities paying attention to the case. He additionally has a long morning ahead of him comforting the parents and encouraging them not to lose hope just yet. Beyond all that, he also has a support structure in the police force itself: the other police officers are going through this case alongside him. Sherlock doesn't have any of that; until recently (and this will be explored in depth through this episode), he has been unable to make a friend who he can reliably talk to. Bell shows optimism because his job requires him to and gives him tools to help; Sherlock doesn't show optimism because he's not asked to and anyway lacks the tools required.
I also like that this scene -- once again -- centers the victim and her pain, rather than making this case about the puzzle or the genius solving it. Sherlock may not be a "people person", but he still empathizes with the victim, with what she is going through, and with the helplessness she must be feeling in this moment. He internalizes why this is important, and why his help needs to be rendered. (And, of course, when we get to the reversal twist this line will be Ironic in Hindsight since at least one victim does end up winning a fight against a grown man.)
|Elementary analyzes situational helplessness. |
(BELL: That's good. Sher's a fighter.)
Inside the house, Sherlock intervenes and prevents the parents from going on television to appeal for their daughter's life; he reveals that his research from last night indicates a correlation between the deaths of the victims and the amount of media attention given to the parents. Sherlock believes that the longer the abductor remains "hungry" for the parents' grief, the longer their daughter will remain alive. There's a nice touch here -- not screen captured, unfortunately -- where Sherlock first asks the camera crew not to go on the air and then, once he cannot get their consent and emergency status has been achieved, he uses non-violent means (spray-paint) to deface the camera long enough to make his appeal to the parents. I like that.
While Sherlock searches the house for clues, Joan starts talking out loud about The Balloon Man and his first victim Adam Kemper. Joan mentions that she "read all the articles over the years", and provides information which reveals that she has followed the case closely (as opposed to just being briefly aware of it while it was a media sensation). And I think this is so important, because while many characters on the show (and a few of the viewers) assume that Joan is passively changing her career on a whim or to suit Sherlock, conversations like this reveal that she has had an interest in detective work and criminology long before she met Sherlock.
And it is important to also point out that we only consider "changed careers on a whim" to be a Bad Thing when dealing with women and other marginalized people. John Watson never needed an excuse for his life to revolve around canonical Sherlock Holmes, and the iconic ending of the massively popular movie Office Space didn't feel the need to extensively justify why a male character might find blue collar work more personally satisfying than white collar work, resulting in a huge career change rather than merely a change of employers. Yet when a woman makes a major career change, not only do people feel entitled to comment on it, many of them feel free to assign unhealthy psychological justifications for it -- in this case, that she's unhealthily fixated on Sherlock. Elementary foresees this response and provides ample characterization to justify an established interest in the material for Joan, and I applaud them for it.
|Joan has an established interest in what will becomes her new career.|
(JOAN: I read all the articles over the years.)
Joan talks a little longer while Sherlock becomes increasingly agitated and finally he asks her to either leave the room or stop talking. He says that he finds her talking to be distracting and counter-productive to his work. The conversation pauses, however, when he becomes fixated on a bottle of wine and Joan -- his addiction counselor -- intervenes. The wine was a clue, not a temptation, but I love that it shows that Joan doesn't forget her job even as she experiences a new and more exciting one. Whatever her interest in detectiving, she is still a sober companion and cares about doing a good job as one.
The bottle of wine leads to a new witness, and it's a nice touch that instead of the husband being currently cheating-on-his-wife -- which would be a lot for the poor woman to handle right now -- he was instead meeting an ex-girlfriend and asking her to stop calling him anymore thankyouverymuch. The ex-girlfriend supplies a clue in the form of a "brown van", and Sherlock, Joan, and Bell take to the streets to look for anyone who saw anything. It's while the four are interviewing the ex-girlfriend that Sherlock resumes his earlier theme about wanting Joan only as a listener. "I'm not supposed to talk?" Joan asks. "I talk to you, never the other way around," Sherlock orders.
|Sherlock learns to value the viewpoints of others. #ElementaryFeminism |
(SHERLOCK: I talk to you, never the other way around.)
On the street, Sherlock explains why he has this rule. He says that he finds having a listener helpful, and that he used to enlist waiters and sex workers to fulfill that role for him, but that the value he derives from Joan is only in explaining things to her, and not in anything she has to say or contribute. "One-way street, not two", he says. Sliding past this for the moment -- Joan likes to pick her battles -- she points out that Sherlock has had no sleep and no food for a very long time, and that this is not healthy for his recovery process.
Later, back at the police station, Joan will get in a good dig at how rude Sherlock is behaving, saying "I'm sorry, were you talking to me? I thought I was just a cavernous expanse between two ears." Sherlock tells her that she needs to stop being so sensitive, and that listening is a valuable service. He reveals that he used to talk to a phrenology bust in his study ("Angus") but that he prefers animate listeners. Joan wryly retorts how pleased she is that she made it to the "animate category", and I love how the show balances the long-suffering-ness that she kind of has to have because of her job (unlike a girlfriend or wife, she can't just leave the vicinity right now -- it's her job to stay with him at all times and make sure he's sober) versus actual verve and decided unwillingess to accept Sherlock's "sexist crap".
The clue about the brown van pans out, and the police track the van until the driver bolts and Detective Bell has to chase him down because he is awesome. The driver turns out to be not The Balloon Man, but rather his first victim Adam Kemper. The police take the young man, who has been missing all these years, back to the station and try to figure out what to do with him. Joan reveals -- there's that Established Interest -- that she's read about similar cases of kidnapping victims treating their kidnappers as though they were parents. Sherlock asks to interview the young man, and we get these two awesome exchanges from Gregson. First, Sherlock appeals to Gregson, saying that Gregson knows Sherlock wouldn't hurt the young man or make things worse and Gregson tells him that intent is not magic.
|Intent is not magical protection against causing harm. #ElementaryFeminism |
(GREGSON: Intentionally, of course not.)
YES! YES! THIS. Sure, Sherlock would not intentionally fuck everything up. But his intent isn't good enough, because good intent isn't going to magically prevent the fucking up of things. Sherlock argues that the young man wouldn't even be safely in custody if it weren't for his detectiving and Gregson tells him to check his privileged attitude at the door because that doesn't mean Sherlock owns the young man now or that the police owe him anything more than a hearty thank you.
|Elementary invites you to check your privilege. #ElementaryFeminism |
(GREGSON: What, oh, you think that gives you the right to question him?)
And the best part about it is that while Sherlock eventually wheedles his way because of the demands of television, it's still presented as Gregson being right here and only giving in because he genuinely hopes that Sherlock can help and has run out of options. In other words, we're not being asked to view all this as terrible wrong-headed because the white male genius isn't being properly bowed to by all the sub-genius peons in the station. Sherlock may get results, but that doesn't mean he deserves to be Emperor of the Station because that is not how the world should work. (And there, again, is a good example of the police in Elementary operating in an ideal, aspirational way which is valuable for emulation.)
Sherlock talks to Adam and tells him that he understands what it's like to view negative attention and abuse as positive things because (a) it's still attention and (b) because self-loathing makes it seem good and corrective and useful and right. He speaks very movingly about life with bullying and abuse, and later Joan compliments him for his moving story (with a nod to the fact that Sherlock is an accomplished liar and we don't know how much of his story was true). Joan also deeply sympathizes with Adam's parents, saying that she "can't imagine what they're going through right now." In terms of evidence, all they are able to get from Adam is that The Balloon Man has a night job, so Joan and Sherlock head back to the house to pour over the files again.
Night has fallen and Sherlock anticipates that Joan will try to send him to bed; preemptively he tells her that she "can't stop [him]". Joan tells him that she has no intention of stopping him and that while this treatment of his body isn't healthy during recovery she understands the situation and wants to help. Joan offers to "take a box" to help with the files -- again expressing an early interest in the work he does. When Sherlock tells her that the only help she can offer is to bring him coffee -- he won't allow her to help with reading the files -- Joan tells him that she's going to show him a trick that got her through all-nighters at medical school: squats. Sherlock makes skeptical faces, but Joan gives him a Look and points out that she was valedictorian and might know what she's talking about. And -- and I love this! -- he joins her. With a very frowny concentration face!
The next morning, Sherlock has identified The Balloon Man, and everyone goes for one of those SWAT-team-busts-down-the-door raids where it turns out that the apartment is empty and they're Too Late to have caught anyone. The Balloon Man has left behind a video note, though: he want his "son" Adam Kemper back, and if he doesn't receive the boy by noon, he'll kill the current kidnap victim. Back at the police station, the parents beg that the police take the deal, and point out that Adam is a legal adult and has anyone asked him what he wants? Sherlock morosely points out that abuse victims often want to protect their abusers but that "it doesn't mean we should send them back for seconds."
|Abuse is never okay, not even when the victim loves their abuser. |
(SHERLOCK: It doesn't mean we should send them back for seconds.)
Taking a brief break, Sherlock confides to a smiling Joan that his back hurts because he ended up doing "about a thousand squats" to stay awake last night in his search for The Balloon Man's identity. Turning serious, he thanks her for being willing to accommodate a difficult person through his difficult process, and tells her that he was the one who listened last night and in the process he learned something truly valuable. And this follows on perfectly from the last episode: before, he had to learn that even the act of listening can be an important part of detective work; now, he's learning that listening to someone he trusts and respects -- even if she's not a Certified Genius -- can be a valuable way to learn from experiences and viewpoints he's not privy to.
|Sherlock recognizes that his viewpoint isn't universal. #ElementaryFeminism |
(SHERLOCK: I may even listen to you again in the future.)
The police can't trade Adam to The Balloon Man even if he wanted to go, so Sherlock pleads to Adam to tell them where The Balloon Man is right now so that they can save the girl. There's an immunity deal on the table, but Adam is hesitant to take it because he feels like he is responsible for his part in the victims' deaths. He asks Sherlock if he will ever be redeemed from the acts he's committed and because Sherlock is wrestling with his own demons, he tells him that, no, he will always be partly responsible, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't try to correct things.
And we need to talk about this. On the one hand, I recognize the intent behind what Sherlock might saying: Adam may never truly feel guiltless, which is not the same thing as being guiltless. Or Sherlock might be saying that Adam does carry some blame in which case we have a problematic scenario wherein Sherlock is victim-blaming a very abused young boy in order to wrestle with his own personal demons that are neither relevant in this case nor appropriate to push onto Adam. That's kind of a big problem, and I'm not sure if we're supposed to understand it as such. (The scene really needs a third character there to provide disagreement.)
Nor is this helped by it being reversal twist time: Adam takes the immunity deal and tells them where to find The Balloon Man. (Hereafter "TBM" because I'm tired of typing it.) The police arrive to find him and his current kidnap victim alive; TBM commits suicide when they enter. And I want to take a moment to note that -- hey, look -- that is actually what a back brace and surgical scars look like. I HAVE THESE. (Links instead of embedded pictures, because of triggers.)
Joan is ready to take Sherlock home to rest, but something is bothering him: he doesn't feel like TBM seems strong enough to effectively dominate a young man like Adam. And I want to note that I am not comfortable with using this line of thinking to introduce the already-problematic reversal twist trope. It needs to be said that emotional and psychological abuse don't require physical strength, and TBM has had Adam since he was a very young boy. By discounting the power of emotional and psychological domination in favor of physical strength only, there's an element of victim-blaming going on here: Adam didn't escape, therefore he must not have tried to escape. And lo and behold this very thing happens, and Sherlock additionally confronts Adam by breaking into his room at night. DO NOT WANT.
Yes, it's the third episode and yes, the series is still getting its bearings. No, I don't think the use of this trope "cancels out" all the good feminist work being done in the show. No art is perfect, including Elementary. But it needs to be said that this twist is not a good plot twist, nor is it handled particularly sensitively. Anyway. Sherlock confronts Adam and eventually it all gets sussed out that Adam is a Genius and TBM was not, and Adam was able to dominate TBM and chose to join the ranks of the oppressors and hurt more children and more parents. And I at least like that if they were going to use this bad trope twist, they at least tied it a bit to the concept of oppression and how joining the ranks of the oppressors and being all "I got out of marginalization-land, so now I get to do the marginalizing myself!" is a bad thing. So that's at least something, I guess.
Let's wrap this up. Sherlock goes home to throw knives at the immunity agreement while Joan confirms that her "friend from the D.A.'s office" -- more established interest! also, I think that's the ex-boyfriend from the previous episode, but she could have more than one friend from the D.A.'s office, which is also nice! -- thinks the immunity deal is pretty solid: Adam is safe from prosecution of crimes committed in concert with TBM. But wait! When Joan tells Sherlock to do squats instead of knife-throwing, his mention that he still has squat-related back pain causes him to remember that TBM had a tremendous amount of surgery, and some quick deductive work reveals that at least one of the prior crimes was Adam acting all on his own and therefore No Immunity For You.
Two things to love about this: Sherlock wouldn't have had back pain were it not for Joan's squats and, when he confronts Adam, he says he can try to run and Sherlock will chase him since he's "recently started developing my core". LOL. And actually, a third thing, Sherlock carelessly waving a knife around the house reminds us that Joan isn't assuredly safe at all times there and that her job is super brave and badass and not just the glorified babysitter that some people seem to think she is.
The episode ends with Sherlock falling asleep, but not before he has a chance to ask Joan to go over more cold case files because he values her as a listener -- and, implicitly, as a speaker now, as well -- over his silent buddy Angus. And in one episode we've gone from Sherlock telling Joan to never, ever speak to him because she is a distracting chatterbox to valuing her input because he's learned that his viewpoint is neither universal nor sufficient to solve every case. And that's powerful.
|Sherlock values Joan's friendship. |
(SHERLOCK: You already know I favor you.)