Monday, May 27, 2013

Elementary: Dead Man's Switch Review


The Holmes Is Lovely, Dark and Deep...

In the Elementary episode You Do It to Yourself, I had found similarities between the story and the Canon (in this case, The Abbey Grange).  Dead Man's Switch is to my mind the first time we've had an actual Canon story adapted for the series.  In this case, elements of Charles Augustus Milverton were the basis for Dead Man's Switch.  In preparation for viewing the episode I reread the Arthur Conan Doyle story and found my memory of the story intact.   A master blackmailer (which if memory serves correct was the title for the Granada Television adaptation of the story) toys with Holmes, with Holmes and Watson breaking in to retrieve important papers only to witness the murder of said master blackmailer.  While we never fully discover the murderer's identity, Holmes does in the end know via a photograph he spots, but in this case believes justice has been done and thus no need to bring the killer to trial. 

Dead Man's Switch stays close to the story but adds elements specific to Elementary: first, a stronger focus on Holmes' recovery from drug addiction and two, a resolution to the crime.  While the crime is solved with clues we don't have full access to, on the whole Dead Man's Switch shows that the Canon can be adapted and updated successfully to fit the Elementary structure. 

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is disinterested in his upcoming one-year anniversary of his sobriety.  While both his new assistant and former Sober Companion Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) and his sponsor Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) want him to take his One-Year-Sober chip, Holmes insists he doesn't go for that sentimental token business.  However, he will take something Alfredo offers him: a case.

Alfredo's sponsor, Ken Whitman (Thomas Jay Ryan) has received a note from a blackmailer, one Charles Augustus Milverton.  He wants money, otherwise he will release a videotape of his daughter being raped from a few years back.  She was one of three victims of the rapist, Brent Garvey (Tom Guiry), currently in prison himself for the rapes.  This will be emotionally devastating to the victim who has slowly come back from this traumatic occurrence.  Holmes, who holds blackmailers with great contempt, agrees to work silently to avoid the possibility of a fail-safe, something or someone who will release the information should anything happen to Milverton.

Holmes breaks into Milverton's home with Watson as a look-out.  However, much to everyone's surprise Milverton is murdered, and while Holmes is a witness the killer is masked and anonymous.  Now Holmes consults his friend Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) for advise, and convinces the NYPD to keep Milverton's death secret so as to not have the fail-safe triggered.

As Holmes, Watson, and Alfredo investigate to find A.) who murdered Milverton and B.) who is holding on to the secret information, the stories soon start meeting.  One of the blackmail victims is found attempting to dump the body in cement and he confesses to killing Milverton.  However, Holmes and Watson can't figure out why the fail-safe has not been triggered or how a man dubbed in Milverton's ledger as "Henry 8" who is the most likely candidate for the fail-safe has not struck. 

Reason being, Henry 8 aka Stuart Bloom (Randy Lewis Swiden) is himself most conveniently dead, making the money demands from "Milverton" all the more bizarre.  Holmes and Watson put it all together to apprehend the man behind these murders and blackmail, showing how greed can overcome sense.

In the major subplot, Holmes reveals the real reason he won't celebrate his 'sober-verssary': it technically won't be a full year.  The day after entering rehab, he snuck out and used.  Feeling overwhelmed with a sense of failure, he went back in and began his long march to sobriety.  He confesses this to Watson first, then to Alfredo.  In the end, while Holmes still won't take the chip, he is surprised and moved when Watson presents him a gift anyway: a framed copy of the final lines to Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Liz Friedman and Christopher Silber's screenplay (from a story by Silber...from a story by Conan Doyle) does what good Elementary episodes do: focus on the characters without short-changing the crimes.  I find that the best Elementary episodes so far have been the ones where the struggles of Holmes and Watson are if not prominent at least equal to the cases they're in.  So far, the best episode this season has been M., where we saw a Holmes completely undone, where his emotions overran him and was no longer the cold, logical thinking machine he usually is.   With the possible exception of Child Predator (where the crime was the main focus of the story), I feel more impassioned with the character-driven stories that have crimes in them.  When both the characters and crimes prove uninteresting, then the stories fail. 

Here, the subplot of Holmes' anniversary allows Miller to show a rarely-seen side of the Great Detective: a genuine vulnerability.  His monologue with Liu when talking about his relapse within a day of entering treatment is a showcase of his acting: the nervous movements of his fingers, the halting delivery, the shifts in his voice.  This is a man who does not want to admit weakness, even to himself, but is too honest intellectually to not admit it.  Even more difficult is that he opens up with someone else, someone he has taken on as a protégé but who also has studied and had experience with drug addicts. 

In fact, Dead Man's Switch shows Holmes to be not just vulnerable, but surprisingly human.  Despite all their work and a mutual respect, when Holmes tells Gregson his 'hypothetical' situation, it is again quite moving.  Holmes tells the Captain that he is there 'hypothetically' to either report a murder or, "to seek the counsel of an investigator I respect and admire".  Given Holmes' ego and his superior intellect, for him to praise a fellow detective (and not grudgingly but with sincerity) allows us to see Sherlock Holmes as someone who despite himself has come to rely on Gregson, on Watson, and even Alfredo for something he has never given (or with his father, never received): emotional support.

This of course isn't to say the crime is unimportant.  I found it had those twists and turns that detective procedurals thrive on, but on the whole I thought the story worked.  I didn't care for Bloom's revelation (a little too Seven-like for my tastes) and again I never like it when we get the green-tinted shot of major clues we were never or quickly shown.  However, to its credit it took the basic story of Charles Augustus Milverton and stuck close to it (even though I wish it were a lady who did it, but we can't always have it all can we).

I especially enjoyed the fact that the story was introduced naturally via Alfredo and that Watson was not left behind but actually knew a bit more (unlike Holmes, she focused on Alfredo's statement that the man seen at Milverton's apartment wore cowboy boots, and it seems so odd that Holmes didn't think a man wearing cowboys boots in New York City wasn't an important piece of information).  Essandoh even got to do something few people ever do to Holmes: get one up on him.  He sets him straight as to the true significance of the One-Year Chip: it's not all about him, but about those who see it as a goal to achieve themselves.

"I know it's hard, but one of these days you gotta get over yourself," Alfredo tells Sherlock.  It isn't much, but one can see Holmes process that he isn't perhaps the center of the universe he sometimes appears to be.  While not exactly on the same level, we do have moments of light comedy too: when Holmes asks Gregson what's the first thing he thinks of when he hears "Henry the Eight", his questioning reply is, "Herman's Hermits?"

A side note: I think, "Many wives...three Catherines, two Annes, and a Plain Jane."  And for the record, alas, I am not related to Catherine of Aragon (and have always wondered what would happen if I ever married a Catherine...but I digress).

One thing I might quibble with Dead Man's Switch is how Holmes believed Milverton's murder involved one of the three rape/blackmail victims and not perhaps other blackmailed people.  It also meant that Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell made what amounted to a cameo appearance.

However, on the whole I found Dead Man's Switch to be well-written and extremely well-acted by everyone, pushing it higher.  Also, I think that perhaps Elementary could be more daring and adapt other Canon stories not as well known to non-Holmesians.  The Adventure of the Six Obamas, perhaps?           

This DVD says "Written by Steven Moffat."
I know he killed Doctor Who,
but what's he got to do with Sherlock?


Next Episode: A Landmark Story

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