Elementary Review: “When Your Number’s Up”

Photo credit: @ELEMENTARYstaff

Photo credit: @ELEMENTARYstaff

Here’s my review of Elementary season three episode “When Your Number’s Up.” 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.

If you’ve read any of my other reviews, then you know that I like when procedural tv shows shake up their routine. Elementary has always done a fine job of this by placing more emphasis on the main characters’ lives while investigating murders. This episode is another attempt to show a murder investigation from a different angle than we usually get to see. More specifically, the audience knows who the killer is right from the beginning. The question is: does this make the episode better?

One good thing about knowing right from the beginning is that the audience doesn’t have to spend the episode trying to guess who the killer is. It’s nice to take a break, for once, from figuring out which guest star is the culprit because that can certainly get tedious after a while.

Without this particular guessing game, the audience is free to focus on different aspects of the case such as the killer’s motivation. Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in the twists and turns of the case that the reason for the murder gets lost in the fray, mentioned only as a sort of afterthought as they arrest the criminal. But this episode  was different because we knew who was killing but we didn’t know the why? of the crime. And isn’t that the most important part? Isn’t that why crime shows are so interesting? Because we want to explore the mindset of murder?

As Sherlock and Joan try to figure out who was on a killing spree, they of course start with the question of “who had something to gain here?” But while our detectives investigate that, we don’t have to figure it out. We are shown little bits of the killer’s life. At the beginning we see Dana Powell having to pawn off her things in order to get cash. Later after the support group meeting, her maybe boyfriend/future victim asks if anyone knows she’s “slumming it.” As the episode continues with a visit from her sister Penny, we see Dana’s desperation for money. If we had been unaware of the culprit the whole time, her greed may not have been highlighted as well when they did catch her. It would just be another bit of exposition tucked away as they put her in handcuffs. So in that regard, I think the early reveal worked.

On the other hand though, there are downsides to the way the writers set this up. Revealing the killer early ruins the mystery and the narrative tension. There is no surprise when Sherlock and Joan catch Dana because we already know. We spend the whole episode just waiting for them to catch up. That’s frustrating, isn’t it? We don’t want to sit through the whole investigative process when we already know who did it. There’s not much else to keep us engaged.

The writers did something similar earlier in the season with Simon de Merville in “The Illustrious Client.” The audience got to see de Merville before anyone in the story did, but in contrast to this episode, he was easily identified as the kidnapper/murderer so we didn’t waste much time watching everyone investigate. Instead, the plot was advanced in a different way by searching for de Merville and also developing an ongoing storyline.

This did not happen in “When Your Number’s Up.” We just spent too much time waiting for something to happen.

The way to keep an audience interested is for the story to have conflict and tension. If you give the ending away at the beginning, then you have no tension. For the audience, the conflict is already solved. This may work for other television shows, but not in a procedural show about solving mysteries!

While it was nice to see the focus on the motivation, it’s not enough to outweigh the problems with this set up. There was too much time spent with a character we didn’t care about instead of our mains. It was a nice idea in theory to try this different routine, but in the end, it fell flat. We’ve seen some pretty cool stories from the writers in the past though, so I’m confident that the next attempt to break out of the mold will work better.

Extra Case Notes

  • The staff twitter (@ELEMENTARYstaff) mentioned that their inspiration for the flipped format was The X Files which showed the monster at the beginning of each episode apparently. I’ve never seen the show, so if anyone has any thoughts on how well this format worked for The X Files, please leave a comment and let me know. I’m curious.
  • The sidestory for Sherlock and Joan’s personal life felt like an afterthought this week. Sherlock’s worried Joan’s moving back for the wrong reasons, and Joan wants to donate her stuff to charity. Unfortunately, we didn’t spend enough time with these ideas to really explore them. In the end, it gets resolved with Joan deciding to use the basement as her office. I like the new basement set.
  • …aaaaand Bell is back to doing nothing again. -_- I sure wish the storylines could integrate Bell and Gregson into more pivotal roles.
  • Missing a bit of the quirkiness this week but I suspect that’s probably dependent on whoever’s the main writer for each episode. We did get a fun throwaway reference to Sherlock walling himself up in 221B once. Guesses as the how he got out??
  • Not gonna lie, I loved that Dana’s sisters was named Penny. Funny how the not-money-obsessed accountant in the family end up being named after America’s smallest unit of current.
  • There’s no new episode next week, but it’ll be back the week after. (And I’ll be back with another review of course!)

So what did you think? Like the episodic formula shakeup this time? Feel free to leave a comment below and discuss.

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