Recap and review of Elementary – Season 1 Episode 12 – M.
Elementary has only gradually taken forays into the larger mythology of the Sherlock Holmes canon. We know about Irene Adler, yet in this continuity, we don’t ever get to meet her. She’s already dead. While some might argue that this is an unfortunate choice on the part of the writers of the series, tonight’s “M.” illustrates that it’s actually a pretty clever decision in how it reorients the entire basis of this particular interpretation of Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller). Instead of being a romantic figure against whom Holmes can match wits and humor, she is instead used as the crux around which Holmes’s pathos is oriented. It is Irene’s death that sends him into a tailspin of hardcore drug use, resulting in his necessary rehabilitation and move to New York. And it is the possibility of catching her killer that contextualizes the darker aspects of Holmes’s psyche. He’s galvanized into action by M.’s presence, and the story feeds on our expectations that the “M.” stands for “Moriarty”, Holmes’s greatest nemesis. Yet the episode diverts those expectations when the serial killer (portrayed by Vinnie Jones) turns out to instead be Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s henchman whom Arthur Conan Doyle described in the books (through Holmes) as the “second most dangerous man in London”. If a man who exsanguinates living humans and then discards them like candy wrappers is only the second most dangerous man, then Moriarty is beyond the limits of savagery.
Last week, I had assumed that the show had sewn up the method by which Watson (Lucy Liu) would stay on as Sherlock’s companion, as Holmes offered her an apprenticeship. Apparently, I was hilariously off-base (hey, it’s happened before), as the episode charts a clear arc in which Joan is gradually coming to the realization, on her last week with Holmes, of just how much she’s going to miss solving crimes with him. As they stand in the morgue over the corpse of one of M.’s victims, Watson poignantly states, “I’m going to miss this. Well, not this. But this. I think what you do is amazing.” It’s a genuinely touching moment, one that builds on the rapport between the two. This serves the story well, as that bond will frequently be tested throughout the hour.
“M.”, as it happens, is a serial killer that Holmes had been chasing while working with Scotland Yard in London. The killer’s M.O. (no pun intended) involved stringing his victims up, and hanging them upside down from a tripod device, and then cut their throats and letting them bleed out. He’s killed 37 victims, among them Irene Adler, and Holmes has blamed himself for allowing his addiction to prevent him from capturing M. It’s an interesting story to tell, since no “case of the week” has been so intimately woven in the fabric of our protagonists’ lives. It’s an exhilarating case made all the more engaging by the presence of scenes away from Holmes and co., focusing strictly on M., who kicks a hooker out of his high-end hotel room after sex, trades text messages with someone in code on his phone, and puts together cliche taunting letters using magazine clippings. There’s a pathology at work here, and the more we see of M., the more we see that Holmes is probably right about the man: M. wants to give police the impression of someone far more disturbed, between the letters and the lack of any identifiable pattern to his slayings.
The cat-and-mouse game sees Holmes employing the use of an associate named Teddy (Bobbe’ J. Thompson) in tracking M. down, after having caught an image of the illusive, never-before-photographed killer on his hidden home surveillance system, the existence and secrecy of which pisses Watson off. When Watson confronts Holmes about what he intends to do with the information, and questions him about why he hasn’t turned the evidence over to Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) or Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill), he comes clean: he has no intention of capturing M. This is a revenge mission. He’s not just going to kill M., he’s going to torture him. Slowly. Jonny Lee Miller is tremendous in communicating the chillingly deliberate focus of a man with righteous murder on his mind. It’s downright scary, at times, even though Holmes admits to Watson that he’s not nearly as calm about what he’s about to do as he appears to be. Feeling betrayed by Holmes, Watson attempts to reason with her charge, begging him not to throw away all the progress he’s made in his recovery, to which Holmes replies that the entirety of his progress has been in preparation for this moment, for capturing M. and having his revenge. Watson has no choice but to take this information to Gregson. Holmes tells her that she will do what she must, as will he. And we’re off to the races.
Holmes interrupts M. in the process of his latest killing, and renders him unconscious, taking him to one of his father’s abandoned properties to commence with the torture. What follows is a terrific dialogue between Jones and Miller, as Holmes explains his entire backstory to M., who portrays steely resolve in the face of his inevitable death, saying that as a former Royal Marine, he isn’t afraid of dying. He’s not scared, he’s angry, because he realizes he’s been set up. When Holmes inquires, M. explains that he isn’t a serial killer, he’s an assassin. His employer gives him a list of names, and he kills whoever is on it. He doesn’t know why his employer has him kill these people, in particular. What he does know is that he didn’t kill Irene. He couldn’t have. He was incarcerated at the time of her murder for getting into a bar fight. M. reveals that his employer, Moriarty, must have done that killing himself. Holmes, denied his revenge after a cursory internet search confirms that Moran is telling the truth, is completely unhinged. It’s a compliment to Jonny Lee Miller and to the writing that it was such a viable possibility that Holmes could snap and just kill Moran right then and there, as this wouldn’t be at all what we would expect from a protagonist on a highly rated network TV show barely halfway into its first season. Holmes stabs Moran, but he misses every organ, in order to keep him alive as a means of helping to track down Moriarty. He turns Moran into the police, and the killer confesses to all of the slayings, yet he refuses to say a word against Holmes, since Sherlock is his best way of ensuring that the man who set him up is brought down.
And it all comes full circle: when Holmes is unable to shake his shock over the revelation that M. didn’t kill Irene, Watson comforts him by holding his hand, at which point Holmes tells her, “I’m going to miss this. Well, not this. But this. I think what you do is amazing.” Having broken through Sherlock’s rough exterior, Watson is now, more than ever, committed to remaining on as Sherlock’s companion. She phones Holmes’s father and leaves him a voicemail stating that she’s concerned about Sherlock and would like to extend her stay as his sober companion. Later, Mr. Holmes texts Watson to refuse her offer, and adding that her final check is on its way. Watson, however, tells Sherlock that his father agreed to her proposal that she stay on. This…was not how I expected the partnership to keep going. It’s the one part of the episode that feels clumsy, as the solution to figuring out how to keep Watson on as companion basically amounted to “she just decides to stay on.” But there are interesting story possibilities in Watson’s decision to defy the wishes of Sherlock’s father – possibilities that could be realized if/when they cast the role. As for now, the dynamic between Holmes and Watson is more than enough to carry the series, particularly now that they share a mutual admiration for what the other does. There’s a fondness and respect there that is sincere, and touching.
“M.” is the best episode of the series thus far, in how it tells a nuanced, complicated story that changes our perceptions of each character. Both Holmes and Watson break with their own codes of conduct in order to get what they want, or at the very least, to do what they want. Now that Holmes is catalyzed by the news of Moriarty’s existence, it’ll be interesting to see how this changes his approach to his investigating. I don’t doubt that we’ll still get the wise-cracking, smarmy Holmes of the past eleven episodes, but I feel we’ll be getting a much more focused, determined, if not serious, version of Holmes than we’ve had before. He clears his entire suspect/evidence wall and puts a simply card on which he can focus his energy: Moriarty. An overarching villain and a more clearly-defined narrative purpose can only make this show better. And “M.” is certainly an episode that represents the show at its best.