Recap and review of Elementary – Season 2 Episode 4 – Poison Pen:
While I’ve often lauded Elementary for its character work more than for its individual procedural cases, it’s hard to ignore just how compelling these cases are from week-to-week. “Poison Pen” doesn’t really have the same twists and turns as the standard investigation, but I found it completely engaging, not only because of what it tells us about Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller), but also because of the anchoring performance by Tony winner Laura Benanti as this week’s perp. Even though there have technically been better episodes, this was my favorite of the season so far.
When financial consulting company CEO Titus Delancey (Steve Greenstein) is found dead in a latex suit after a meeting with a dominatrix, Sherlock and Joan (Lucy Liu) are called in to investigate. Sherlock gets to the bottom of the crime itself pretty quickly, rationalizing that Delancey couldn’t have put the latex suit on himself, and theorizes that he was put into it after the fact by the killer. Joan, meanwhile, recognizes that the discoloration on the victim’s lips means he was likely poisoned by nitroglycerin, which Sherlock confirms when he lights a few drops from Delancey’s unfinished drink, confirming that the drug was placed in the victim’s glass. So with the How answered, all that remains is the Why. And, as with any Elementary, this is where things get interesting.
Sherlock questions Delancey’s new wife, Peri (Noelle Beck), who offers an alibi and claims she doesn’t know anyone who would want to hurt Titus, an unassuming businessman and father of two boys, a 17-year-old Graham (Samuel H. Levine) and preteen Zack. But things take a turn when they briefly question the Delancey’s babysitter, Anne (Laura Benanti), whom Sherlock immediately recognizes as Abigail Spencer, a woman who made headlines in 1991 for allegedly murdering her father — using nitroglycerin. As Holmes explains to Watson, the case was such a sensation that they even covered it in the UK, prompting 15-year-old Sherlock to become interested in the psychology of killers. In essence, she was his first killer, and started him on the path toward the life he lives today. However, Sherlock’s connection with Abigail goes a bit deeper than that, as he explains to Joan that he used to frequently correspond with Abigail via letters (under the pseudonym “Shawn Holmes”) over the course of the eighteen months between her arrest, imprisonment, trial, and eventual acquittal of all charges.
The connection between Sherlock and Abigail provides the episode with its most poignant elements. When Sherlock confesses to Abigail that he is actually “Shawn Holmes,” she’s floored. As she explains, his letters helped her through a very difficult time, since everyone assumed she was guilty, and the friends that believed she was innocent were all scared of ending up in the newspapers. And this friendship was hardly a one-way street, as Sherlock offers to Watson the story of how he had been bullied and abused in the boarding school to which his father sent him, and his only escape was in the letters Abigail used to send him. And so we have this meaningful bond between these two characters, and it’s made all the more potent by a powerful underlying conflict: though Sherlock believes Abigail is innocent of murdering Titus, he came to the conclusion at age 15 that, despite her acquittal, Abigail definitely killed her father. When forced to confront the truth from someone who knows her obstinate protestations of innocence are all B.S., Abigail shrinks into herself, shunning the human contact she’s so desperately wanted. This is made all the more significant by the fact that Sherlock isn’t even intending to do anything with the information, as he felt her act against her own father was an isolated incident, and was unlikely to recur. In fact, Sherlock’s biggest interest in speaking with Abigail is in attempting to get to the bottom of who might be trying to frame her, since whoever killed Titus must have discovered the secret of Abigail’s past, and planned to use it to make it appear as though she’d killed Titus in the same way she’d killed her own father.
To this end, Sherlock looked at who stood to benefit from Titus’ death. Though Peri confirms she discovered the truth about Anne/Abigail from a private investigator, and even admits she was considering killing Titus for money, she swears she didn’t actually do it (prompting Gregson to deliver the killer line, “So you’re saying you couldn’t have killed your husband because you were planning to kill your husband?”). So suspicion naturally falls on 17-year-old Graham, who would inherit a considerable sum of money in the form of a trust, to be released on his 18th birthday, which is fast approaching. Graham denies the insinuations, and shows video of his father shouting at Abigail and accusing her of attempting to steal his tablet, and it’s this bit of information that breaks the case wide open. A full search of the Delancey household turns up the missing tablet, and on that tablet are videos of a heinous crime: Titus Delancey molesting Graham.
And so the motive becomes clear: Graham decided his father needed to pay for what he did, and needed to be prevented from doing it to Zack. Once Graham found the report exposing Abigail’s past, he decided to carry out the plan to frame Abigail. Though the twist comes in the reveal that he actually cares very deeply for Abigail, as it’s one of the few honest connections in his life. So it’s unlikely he ever actually thought she’d get arrested for the crime, since that would require someone else actually finding out about Abigail’s past, which is hard enough to do given she’s apparently had plastic surgery to make herself unrecognizable from the teen she was in 1991. But once confronted with the possibility that Abigail could go to jail, Graham considers confessing…until Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) inadvertently reveals to Abigail that Graham has been taken into custody, at which point she confesses to the crime herself, in order to save Graham from prison.
While it’s a fairly rote conclusion to the investigation, we learn that Abigail ultimately decided to confess not only because she genuinely loves Graham, but because she feels a lingering sense of guilt over allowing Titus to hurt him. As she explains to Sherlock, she may have been acquitted of her father’s murder, but she’s hardly an innocent person. Benanti does remarkable work with Miller, conveying her weariness at having to run for so long, and relief at her long persecution finally being over, in some small measure. She no longer has to feel as if she’s escaped justice. And, in the process, she’s given Graham a second chance. As the episode comes to a close, Sherlock meets with Graham and explains his own past as a victim. Although he admits that his abuse was nowhere the betrayal that Graham suffered, Sherlock offers the boy his card to talk to him any time, saying that it helps to talk these things through. Once again, the delicacy of Miller’s portrayal shines through, as Sherlock Holmes is a complicated man, but undoubtedly a good one as well.
“Poison Pen” is a strong case from top-to-bottom, and is elevated substantially by Laura Benanti and Jonny Lee Miller’s performances. There have been better episodes this year, but none that I’ve enjoyed quite as much as this. It’s a fairly straightforward case, but there’s something exhilarating about the way Sherlock and Joan do their jobs, using reasoning every bit as much as hard data. From Sherlock sussing out Abigail’s guilt from the letters she wrote as a teen, to Joan discovering the hiding place for the tablet due to the irregular number of air vents in Delancey’s study, I genuinely love watching this pair work. And there aren’t many procedurals that offer that same engrossing feeling. Elementary is on fire this season, far more so than usual. I find I’m at the point where I genuinely can’t wait for next week.
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