Elementary – Review: Phone Tag
Recap and review of Elementary – Season 1 Episode 21 – A Landmark Story:
Elementary has finally delivered an episode that bests “M.”, the thrilling hour that introduced Sebastian Moran (Vinnie Jones), as well as the concept of Moriarty into this version of the Sherlock Holmes universe. This is not only thanks to a truly compelling case at the heart of the matter, but also thanks to how the search for Moriarty exemplifies the growth and change in Sherlock’s character, as he’s a much different man now than he was when he tortured Moran all those episodes back. “A Landmark Story” is just that, a story that stands as a milestone that represents what Elementary is capable of being when it embraces serialization in a more direct fashion, eschewing the hardline “case of the week” dynamic, in favor of a more story-driven approach with an incisive focus on character. Here, Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) is as driven as ever in his pursuit of justice, teetering on the edge of morality and procedure once again, yet the presence of Watson (Lucy Liu) as his partner has marked him as a changed man. He can’t promise that he won’t shoot up heroin again someday, if he were to find a syringe, nor can he promise that he won’t exact the full measure of his revenge against Moriarty. He can’t know what he’ll do tomorrow, he simply needs trust, in the moment. “A Landmark Story” presents a more focused, driven Sherlock than ever before, as he’s getting closer to his prey, perhaps not realizing that he’s not so much the hunter as the hunted.
The “case of the week”, if this episode can be said to have one, is the systematic murder of all persons preventing the demolition of an historic landmark. The Taggart was once a grocery store in the 1920s that held a speakeasy in the back, and its value as an historical landmark has earned it protection for preservation. However, a shell company wants to repurpose the site for more profitable ends, and they won’t be able to do this unless the property’s “landmark” status is revoked. Enter a man named Daniel Gottlieb (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham), who sets about killing off those opposing the development plans, finding creative ways to kill his targets that appear to be accidents or natural causes. He murders one preservation board member by hacking his pacemaker and frying his heart. Gottlieb then murders the real estate facilitator, who’s outlived his usefulness, by perfectly timing the drop of an air conditioner on his head from a third story window. If not for Holmes and Watson, Gottlieb would have had a third victim, the last remaining Taggart relative, who’s been an outspoken advocate against demolition. Gottlieb cultivated a hive of Africanized bees on her jogging route, hoping to create a scenario where she’s repeatedly stung to death. However, Holmes and Watson stake out the hive and are able to catch Gottlieb before it’s too late. Holmes zaps him with a stun gun and takes him prisoner.
Back at the apartment, Holmes forces Gottlieb to tell him everything he knows about Moriarty. All Gottlieb can manage is that he only met the man once, when he was contracted to kill on Moriarty’s behalf. Gottlieb also reveals to Holmes that he was once contracted to kill him by staging an overdose during Holmes’ days as an addict, but Moriarty canceled the contract without explanation, which was the only time that’s ever happened, states Gottlieb. Holmes arranges a meeting between Moriarty and Gottlieb, knowing full well that Moriarty would send a proxy to the meeting on his behalf. As the proxy leaves the diner after Gottlieb fails to show, Joan and Sherlock follow the man to Moriarty’s location. Unfortunately, Moriarty is meeting with the proxy on the other side of a set of train tracks, over which a speeding locomotive roars past. Thankfully, Holmes is able to take several high-speed images with his camera, pasting them together to create a clearer picture of who this Moriarty is. However, it turns out that “Moriarty” isn’t Moriarty at all. He’s yet another of Moriarty’s associates, John Douglas. When Holmes confronts Douglas at his hotel, the associate can hardly get a full sentence out about Moriarty’s true goal before he’s shot by an assassin’s bullet. Sherlock remains in the assassin’s crosshairs, but is ultimately let go. Moriarty is, essentially, toying with Sherlock, passing on countless opportunities to finish the job.
Gottlieb remains in police custody, having confessed to at least eighteen murders — however, he isn’t much of a help in capturing Moriarty, as he fails to recognize a code that Moriarty sends Sherlock. Holmes takes the coded message to Moran, with the hopes that Moran will be able to identify the message. Moran had been the one to kickstart this entire investigation when he requested an audience with Sherlock from behind bars. Moran revealed that the man who’d allegedly died of a “heart attack” at the start of the episode was someone he’d once been contracted to kill by Moriarty before he was arrested. Hence, it’s likely that Moriarty found someone else to finish the job.
The ensuing chain of events has led Holmes right back to Moran, who takes several looks at the coded message, and then claims that the message isn’t in any code he and Moriarty ever used. Holmes, however, knows that Moran is lying. He breaks night trying to crack the code, finally getting a breakthrough when an innocuous comment from Joan inspires Sherlock to check the timestamp of each text message. The numbers in the timestamp prove to be the key to decrypting the code, and the message is revealed to be a threat from Moriarty to Moran, threatening to murder his sister if Moran didn’t kill himself. Holmes realizes he’s been used by Moriarty, who knew that Sherlock would go to Moran for help with the code, inadvertently relaying the message to the convicted serial killer, and resulting in Moran’s decision to kill himself. Holmes blames himself when Moran dies from the effect of swelling on his brain, resulting from having beaten his head against the wall repeatedly, which is a unique way of committing suicide, though pretty brutal. Yet Holmes hardly has time to process his perceived failure before he gets a call from Moriarty, who declares that they’re long overdue for a chat. And like that, we have our tease for next week.
I sincerely loved this episode, just as much for the little things as for its overarching story. The scene in which Holmes and Watson break into a mortuary to perform an “illicit autopsy” on one of Gottlieb’s victims is terrific, particularly when Joan gets irritated with Holmes’ attempts to compliment her progress (“I am dissecting a body in the middle of the night. We are not having a moment”). The comedic value is offset by the dramatic heft of their relationship, as Sherlock tells Watson that she’s the reason he’s not out for blood like he was last time, with Moran. In essence, she’s made him a better, more focused and level-headed person. “The thing that’s different about me, empirically speaking, is you.” Watson poignantly responds that this is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to her, and it’s a wonderful, earned moment between the characters, built up over a rapport that’s gestated for twenty episodes now. By the time the episode is done, there’s a sense that while Sherlock is in it for the long haul against Moriarty, Watson is going to be right there with him in the trenches.
“A Landmark Story” is a tremendous bit of storytelling for a show whose structure has wavered between straightforward procedural and serialized crime drama. This was the striking of a perfect balance between the two.