Thursday, June 20, 2024

When Elementary Rules Out God Plot Twists Will Do

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Second episode of the season, and the writers are settling in with a classic Elementary Elaborately Twisty Murder. Some might say too twisty. I say these people are cowards…but not necessarily wrong.

The episode opens with Joan at her father’s funeral. Her father was schizophrenic and was homeless much of his life. He left Joan and her family when Joan was young. He also had another family, giving Joan a half-sister Lin that she only learned about recently. Lin asks to see Joan again soon and they plan lunch for the next day.

It was raining at the funeral. That night, it storms. A man is walking down the street in Midtown Manhattan He’s arguing with his wife on the phone about infidelity. Suddenly, a big old blast of lightning hits him in the chest, killing him instantly. You know, normal New York stuff.

The EMTs quickly dismiss the case as a lightning strike, but Sherlock is on the scene, and he’s not so sure. He points out how unlikely it is that someone would be hit by lightning in Midtown, an area full of skyscrapers. The buildings should act as lightning rods to draw away the electricity. Plus, marks on the man’s body show he was hit with lightning at his hip, not his head like you would expect with ordinary lightning. This suggests the lightning ran parallel to the ground. Sherlock, gleeful as always at a weird case, proposes a lightning gun.

Not just anyone can access something as sci fi as a lightning gun. But it’s not as impossible as it seems. The victim, Rohan Giri, was an inspector for the Department of Energy. His wife was a physicist, and they were known to have had an unhappy marriage. She’s their next stop.

I adore Joan’s collection of stylish bee pins

The wife admits their relationship was in bad shape. That’s her alibi too; she was having dinner with her lover at the time that Rohan died. But her scientific expertise can still be of help, and she gives them some leads on local labs and scientists that could have created a weapon of the kind they think killed Rohan.

Joan meets her sister for lunch. Lin has an unexpected revelation. The shelter their father was staying at had passed on some of his personal belongings. Among these, Lin found a letter…addressed to Joan. Lin kindly tries to play it off, but Joan can tell she’s hurt that their father only thought of Joan before his death.

If you had in your possession a giant cannon that could shoot bolts of electricity, what would you name it? As the writers know perfectly well, we would all name it Sparky. Sherlock and Bell find a lab that has created such a thing, housed in a black SUV. The scientists responsible for its creation want a contract with the US military. But Sparky is too heavy to be housed in a plane, so they’re working on making it smaller. To do that, they need to go nuclear. Rohan was an inspector, checking to see if their facilities were safe for plutonium. He was killed before he could make his decision.

The scientist in charge of Sparky argues that no one at the lab would have motive to kill Rohan. If he passed them, they’d get their military payout. Even if he failed them, they’d know what to fix and be closer to success. But Sherlock notes a pattern of rain drops on the truck, suggesting it was moved the night of the murder. They also discover that Sparky’s logs were erased for the previous evening. Besides, how many lightning guns can exist in a city at one time? So now they have the murder weapon. Still need a murderer. Sherlock can tell from the positioning of the driver’s seat and mirrors that the driver was a tall man. The lab’s financier, a Mr. Amberlin, fits the bill.

When bringing Amberlin in for questioning, the detectives discover two telling details. First, their new suspect does not seem to be in good health. Second, a device for testing radiation dosing is found in his office. From these, Sherlock quickly draws a conclusion and a motive for murder. Amberlin was recently in Japan. While there, he smuggled out some plutonium in order to get a jumpstart on Sparky. But when Rohan carried out his inspection, he uncovered this too. That’s motive!

Amberlin breaks down and admits it all. He hadn’t meant to kill Rohan, just hurt him and buy some time. But honestly, he’s got a bigger problem. So do they all. Someone stole the plutonium.

That makes things serious, and an Agent Kohler from the National Nuclear Security Administration comes in to the precinct to take over the investigation. Fortunately, there wasn’t enough plutonium stolen to make a nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, there was enough for a dirty bomb, an ordinary explosive coated in plutonium. If set off, it can take thousands of lives and leave radiation damage for decades. Gregson predicts that New York is the most likely target of attack. Ah yes, the arrogance of a New Yorker. Greatest city in the world! One dollar pizza! Most likely to be attacked by terrorists! Bada bing bada boom. I lived in New York for four years and I never once heard anyone say that and that’s my greatest regret in life.

Sherlock abruptly walks out of the room mid-meeting. After, he confesses that his PCS is acting up, giving him a violent headache. He and Joan return home to rest and investigate.

As Joan watches traffic footage to try and find the vehicle that absconded with the plutonium, she tells Sherlock about the letter from her father. It wasn’t the first time her father sent her a letter. The first one she received from him was long, written in Chinese, and completely incomprehensible due to his illness. Joan fears this is the same and doesn’t wish to put herself through more of the same, so she threw the letter out. Sherlock is concerned. But Joan has found something in the footage – a suspicious truck.  

It was a delivery truck, stolen and then abandoned a few days later. Kohler’s crew detects traces of radiation. The mileage on the truck tells them how far it went, and gravel in the tire treads gives Sherlock a hint as to where it may have gone within that range.

It’s a good lead. A known bombmaker lives in that very area, off a gravel road. At his house, they find more traces of plutonium. At first there’s no sign of the bombmaker himself, until Joan notices an underground bunker. Inside, they find more radiation and the bombmaker’s body, but no bomb and no plutonium.

From photos of the scene in the bunker, Sherlock notes that the man has a tattoo that’s code for “Heil Hitler.” He was a white supremacist and had joined a neo-Nazi gang called PAIN (yikes) in his time in prison. So that’s who might have the bomb on their hands now. Oh good.

The writers of this show have such a gift with names. The leader of PAIN is a man called Colm Frick, naturally. He’s out of prison and dodged his parole. So their next task is to find him.

There’s an enjoyable bit of Sherlock and Joan roundly abusing racists and white supremacists. Then Sherlock notices from Frick’s records that he had an unusual hobby of playing tabletop war games. Maybe they can use that to track him. That out of the way, Sherlock brings up the topic of Joan’s father again. He thinks that the fact that Joan threw the letter out rather than thoroughly destroying it shows that she wants to read it after all, so he retrieved it. It’s obviously a privacy violation of him to do that, but at least he didn’t read it? Character growth, maybe?

Based on the state of the letter and the envelope, Sherlock thinks the letter is more than incoherent ramblings. He uses his own PCS for comparison. In both illnesses, people have good days and bad days. Maybe the letter was written on a good day. Joan gives in and takes the letter, but decides to read it after they deal with, you know, the potential weapon of mass destruction.

The tabletop gaming tip pays off and they’re able to track down Frick, but he claims not to know about any of this. Although he is the leader of PAIN, he denies that they’re any sort of terrorist organization. He doesn’t even believe in white supremacy; it’s just a tactic to manipulate his underlings and attract followers. It’s all a scam. However, he does have one useful bit of information. Recently, a group of Europeans approached the gang about using their bombmaker for something unknown. Suspicious.

The investigation stalls out without any info on who these Europeans may be, until a tip is called into the precinct. An anonymous woman reveals that she knows of a plan to blow up a local mosque. A taxi will be used to deliver the bomb. The whole precinct, on high alert, settles in to watch traffic footage to try and find a suspicious taxi. It’s a needle in a haystack, but Bell manages to find that needle in a taxi circling a mosque. Kohler evacuates the area and a team heads out, but Sherlock notices something odd in the footage. As Gregson kits up with a gas mask to leave the station, Sherlock stops him. He doesn’t think it’s a terrorist attack anymore – it’s a heist. There was no dirty bomb at all, it was simply a distraction.

Among the evacuated buildings was a diamond exchange. With it empty, the criminals are easily able to bypass security and help themselves to a king’s ransom of gems. When the police catch them leaving, they threaten to blow up their “dirty bomb.” But thanks to Sherlock, Gregson knows it’s a bluff and captures those tricky Danes.

Of course, there’s still the question of who arranged the whole thing. I won’t ruin the surprise, but I will say that it disappointed me. It was extremely predictable and, in fact, Elementary has used a similar idea in a different episode. Boo.

But there’s still the matter of the letter from Joan’s father. She meets her sister at the cemetery again, a nice bit of storytelling symmetry with the episode beginning and ending in the same place. They’ve both bought traditional Chinese funeral offerings to his grave. Joan has read the letter. It was for her, but it turns out it was about Lin. Their father wanted Joan to know that Lin existed and to meet her. He hadn’t forgotten about her after all. It’s one of the things that Elementary does best – a sweet, simple, emotionally understated moment.


  • This is one of those episodes where it was enjoyable to watch, but afterwards I thought to myself, well, that was a load of nonsense! It’s hard to rate those episodes, because if I enjoyed it, then it was good, right? But if the crime is silly and illogical, then that’s bad, right? Not one of Elementary’s stronger episodes, that’s for sure.
  • Actually, I need to rant for a moment about this. Look, I get the idea of creating a distraction in order to run a heist. They got the building evacuated and had the police chasing their own tails. But plutonium? Really? I mean, why did they even need to steal the plutonium if they weren’t going to use it? Why not just call in a fake tip, which they did anyway? Why bother exposing yourself to one of the most dangerous substances in the world and then not even use it? C’mon! Sometimes the writers try so hard to be twisty that it just gets silly.
  • Also – only on Elementary would a cannon that shoots lightning be the red herring that kicks the episode off and is solved ten minutes later. You can’t help but laugh.
  • I wasn’t sure how to feel about the white supremacist thing either. On the one hand, I think there’s something powerful about the way they deflated the racist rhetoric of PAIN. It was revealed to be completely hollow, meaningless, literally a scam used by the more powerful to manipulate the weaker. On the other hand, I object to the idea that Frick isn’t really racist. Maybe Frick doesn’t personally believe poc are inferior, but he is willing to use rhetoric that is harmful and potentially deadly to them to further his own ends. White people benefitting from racism even if they don’t believe in it…is still racist!
  • Considering last week was a Sherlock-centric episode, I was happy this one was Joan-centric.

Images courtesy of CBS

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