Elementary S2 Ep4 – “Poison Pen”

JLM and Benanti share a smile between takes.

Brace yourself. This episode will very nearly break your heart.

The last time we heard Sherlock talk about the bullying he suffered during his school days was way, way back in episode 3 of season 1, “Child Killer,” when he was interrogating a murder suspect who seemed to be protecting his abuser. He ‘made up’ a story about how he also protected his bully when asked who had been hitting him because he had come to think that he ‘deserved the punishment.’ Now we learn that those stories were actually true, and  during that time, he was just starting to get interested in crime-solving.

An American court case about a 15-year-old girl, Abigail Spencer, who is accused of fatally poisoning her physically abusive father caught his eye, and Sherlock became obsessed with finding out the truth by writing to Abigail. Joan describes her as Sherlock’s “first,” and Sherlock is quick to clarify she was his first killerShe was his first study into the criminal mind and first inspired him to become a consulting detective. But when she suddenly reappears, 22 years after changing her name, getting plastic surgery, and moving away to escape the media, it’s clear that their relationship wasn’t just between a killer and a detective.

Unfortunately, she only reappears in Sherlock’s life as a suspect in a murder where the victim was killed in the exact same way she was accused of killing her father years earlier. The victim, a financial CEO, Titus Delancey, is revealed to have been sexually abusing his teenaged son, Graham, who killed him to stop the abuse and also stop him from ever abusing Graham’s younger brother Zach. Abigail confesses to the crime to make sure Graham stays out of jail and has a chance at a good life.

Joan Watson, looking sharp in a pair of thick rimmed glasses.Joan, in the meantime, continues to grown as an investigator, and it’s so awesome to see that the show is taking pains to demonstrate that she’s not simply soaking up some of Sherlock’s brains. In the previous episode, she proved to be a capable pickpocket, without needing a bit of help from Sherlock, and in this one, she suddenly notices that Delancey’s office has five air vents. Detective Bell says that she’s starting to sound a lot like Holmes, but she immediately begins tapping on the walls. She knows that for a room of that size, five vents is overkill, because her uncle was a contractor. It’s not that she’s beginning to sound like Holmes, but that she is drawing from her own personal background to enhance her detective skills. As smart as Sherlock is, he doesn’t know everything, and Watson has stores of knowledge that he simply doesn’t.

Credit must be given to the Elementary writers, who manage to delve deep into the lasting psychological effects of abuse and bullying, but are never heavy-handed or disrespectful. They are setting a track record of not showing pictures, videos, or flashbacks of any sort of abuse (see Season 1, Episode 20, “Dead Man’s Switch”), and instead focusing on the victims, their privacy, and their healing processes. They are also continue to bring in interesting side characters.

Abigail (played wonderfully by Laura Benanti) is a well-written, complex character, arguably on par with Irenarty, even though it’s not likely we’ll see her again. She is smart, compassionate, but also vulnerable, without being overly dramatic. For much of the episode, she’s on the defensive. The police are interrogating her for the murder of Delancey, the traumatic past she thought she had escaped is being discovered by people around her and used to frame her, and the media is once again hounding her, trapping her inside her apartment, but Benanti manages to play her as an incredibly strong person, similar to the way that Miller plays Sherlock as a brilliant but broken man.

I think the writers made a great decision to have such strong solidarity between Abigail and Sherlock, and even Graham later on. Even after not speaking to each other for over two decades, both Abigail and Sherlock recognize that their sad, nostalgic bond is still there, because they each recognize the other is still dealing with the fall out from their ordeals. The message that survivors can derive strength from each other is a beautiful one, and not usually seen on mainstream television.

Graham Delancey in the interrogation room.However, it is exactly this  survivor’s bond that makes Abigail take the fall for Graham and also makes Sherlock give Graham his card and contact information. “Being victimized is corrosive. And sometimes, talking about it, that can help.” Sherlock recognizes that he and Abigail saved each other back when they were young, and wants to make sure that Graham will make it through as well.

But even though Sherlock knows, intellectually, that talking about the abuse can help the abuse victim heal, the final, heart-wrenching 30 seconds of the episode show that he likely hasn’t done it himself, because he’s simply not ready to. Ending the episode with a shot of Sherlock boxing – fists up, pain and fear apparent in his face and eyes, nearly crying, fighting without mercy to ensure he is never victimized again – really drives home the idea that even years after the abuse has ended, the trauma can still feel fresh.

Cue the heart-breaking.

While I was happy (heartbroken?) to learn more about Sherlock’s past, and the appearance of another well-written female character, I found myself missing my weekly dose of Lucy Liu. Much of the screen time was devoted to Abigail and Sherlock, and furthermore, Watson was not very involved in the emotional arc of the episode. This was a departure from the past few weeks, and while I enjoyed the episode, it felt a bit like a tangent. A good one, in which some light was shed on Sherlock’s character, but a tangent nonetheless.

What did you think of the episode? Leave your thoughts below and tune next week, folks, when we tackle some “Ancient History”, and dive into the dark underworld of the mob and, judging by the crew’s attire, danger!

Watson, Holmes, and Bell don bulletproof vests and look badass.