Here’s my review of Elementary season three episode “Hemlock.” Please note that this isn’t a recap of what happens. I’m assuming that you’ve already seen the episode. There are spoilers in this review.
The key to good storytelling is to subvert the audience’s expectations. We want the fun of the surprise. There’s no point in telling a story if we already know the beginning, middle, and end. Here’s an example: say you want to tell me that about the time you went fishing. I know, logically, that this story will end one of two ways. 1.) you caught fish or 2.) you caught nothing. What I’m not expecting, however, is for you to tell me that your friend accompanying you in the boat stood up at the front, declared that he was “king of the world” and then promptly fell face forward into the water as the boat hit a tree stump.* Because I’m not expecting this, it’s a great story for me to listen to. This episode of Elementary, “Hemlock,” is a great example of throwing the unexpected at the audience.
(*this actually happened)
Humor is a complicated thing and everyone’s funny bone is different, but a lot of humor works by taking what you expect and turning it on its head. In this way, Elementary does humor wonderfully. Just from the opening scene we have Sherlock discussing a cold case with a mostly naked lady companion. The scene is amusing enough in itself because of course Sherlock’s after-sex conversation is about investigating something. But what really elevates this scene to hilarious is when Sherlock turns to his other side and asks the opinion of a previously unseen other lady companion. It’s not like we couldn’t believe Sherlock wouldn’t have a threesome. It’s just that we weren’t expecting to see it. I, for one, burst out laughing.
This kind of humor pops up all the time in Elementary. Sherlock seems to delight in doing weird things, especially during the course of an investigation. We see this many times in “Hemlock.” Without thinking of the possible consequences, Sherlock licks a suspicious stain on an envelope. In another scene, Joan walks in and asks why Clyde the turtle is painting. And the camera cuts to Clyde, slowly walking around a piece of paper with a paintbrush taped to his back. Later, the scene cuts from Sherlock looking at portraits in an office to Joan in the brownstone, lecturing him for stealing the portrait.
These are things that afterwards you might think “oh well that does seem like something Sherlock would do,” but in the moment, it’s unexpected. It catches you off guard and makes you laugh. Well, it makes me laugh anyway.
One of the things that makes Elementary an outstanding show is the incorporation of humor like this. In my review of “The Illustrious Client” I mentioned that the lack of humor was odd. The topic was serious, of course, but a few moments of brevity occasionally gives the audience a brief reprieve from the heavy tension. In contrast, this episode is full of weirdly humorous moments that keep up the momentum of the story even as they try to find the murderer.
And it’s the humor of this light-hearted episode that makes the end scene even more impactful, because good drama also works from subverting the audience’s expectations.
By the last scene, we’re already expecting the breakup between Joan and Andrew. Joan has already discussed her boyfriend problems and come to that conclusion. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a standard coffee shop breakup scene. Up until this point, this had been a nice, feel-good episode, so the audience might expect a quiet breakup scene, probably ending with them both still on pretty good terms with each other. That should be what normally happens in an episode where the emotional stakes aren’t very high.
But contrary to our expectations, we get the quiet breakup followed by Andrew choking (probably to his death) by accidentally drinking Joan’s coffee, poisoned by some unknown assailant. Tvtropes calls this sort of thing “mood whiplash” which is an accurate response to the situation. The dissonance is what resonates with the audience. Suddenly everything has changed. And change is what keeps the story interesting.
I’m happy to see that, despite Kitty’s departure, the show goes on and we’re back to weirdo Sherlock and his quirkiness. But I’m even more excited to see that we’re not going to settle back into the old status quo just yet. I definitely want to know what’s gonna happen next week.
Extra Case Notes
- It was refreshing not to have a body on screen this time. A lot of crime shows focus on getting all the evidence from the crime scene itself, but since they couldn’t find the body, they had to investigate in other ways. I love whenever any show shakes up the usual procedural routine.
- Let’s take a moment to acknowledge Sherlock and Joan’s excellent friendship. While I think Sherlock goes a bit far in mentioning Joan’s sex life all the time, you can tell that he means well. It’s coming from genuine friendly concern. And Joan constantly bugging him about a roommate showed her concern for him as well. Half the episode could have been them discussing this and I would have been okay with it.
- Speaking of the roommate discussion, Bell’s face when he was stuck between their argument in the precinct was priceless. Sometimes humor just comes from making a hilarious face.
- This is twice now (I think) where Sherlock didn’t wake Joan up in a silly fashion. I can only assume he feels guilty about the bugle call a few weeks ago 😉
- I’m sad Sherlock’s portrait theft was offscreen because watching that would have been ridiculously fun.
- How do you feel about the episode being called “Hemlock” even though we don’t find out the poison in Joan’s coffee was hemlock until the preview for the next episode? Seems like a weird choice to me.
- Best quote of the night: Sherlock says “Watson, I’ve got every confidence that you could brain a man with a metal tube if you put your mind to it” to which Joan simply says “thank you.”
So what did you think? Did this episode make you laugh? Were you expecting the ending? Do you have any other thoughts on the case, the acting, the roommate discussion, anything? Feel free to leave a comment and discuss.