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Review of Elementary 2.04 "Poison Pen": Whoops, I did It Again!



Warning: spoilers below.

“Poison Pen,” season two’s fourth episode of Elementary, cowritten by show creator Robert Doherty and Liz Friedman and directed by Andrew Bernstein, is a decent if unspectacular episode of the offbeat mystery show. This time out, Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu) are called in by a dominatrix Holmes happens to know (one of the recurring motifs in the show is the eclectic and highly convenient collection of people with whom Holmes is acquainted) to investigate the dead body she found upon arriving for a good evening’s workout.
After a rather perfunctory and rather implausible red herring involving a co-worker putting the victim’s body into a bondage outfit, the main narrative settles in: our victim was poisoned with nitroglycerine, the same method used years ago to murder an abusive father, whose daughter, accused but acquitted of the crime and now living under an assumed name, just happens to be the victim’s nanny. Is she up to her old tricks, or is she being framed, as a convenient scapegoat? And if the latter, who has discovered her identity?

The plot is satisfactorily convoluted, involving multiple plausible suspects, including in addition to potentially naughty nanny Anne Barker/Abigail Spencer (Laura Benanti), the victim’s wife (played by Noelle Beck) whose alibi is that she couldn’t have done it because she was busy planning to murder her husband when he was murdered—said plan being the exact method whereby he was murdered—and the victim’s son, who, it turns out, was being sexually abused by his father. Pluses (in addition to the delightfully convoluted alibi) include Watson’s growing analytical skills—displayed here when she sees instantly that Holmes knows more about the nanny than he’s telling, and when she deduces the hiding place of the murdered man’s tablet, which contains crucial evidence.
Another plus is more insights into Holmes’s past. Presumably, creator Doherty cowrote the episode in part to build into it important backstory elements about the abuse Holmes himself suffered when he was a boarding student—of an age with suspect Graham Delancey (Samuel H. Levine). We are left to infer that Holmes experienced sexual abuse—as suggested by his invitation to Graham to talk with Holmes about what happened (an exceedingly rare attempt at human sympathy from the almost pathologically inward-directed Holmes—who at times makes me think of a more serious Sheldon from CBS sister show The Big Bang Theory) and the scenes which bookend the episode, in which we see Holmes, first, boxing and “fighting dirty,” as Watson notes—a lesson he learned as a teenaged assaulted at school—and finally, almost frantically working out with a punching bag, evidently attempting to exorcise his own demons.

Less satisfactory is the episode’s invocation of twin clichés of mystery fiction: the whopping great coincidence and the personal connection. Holmes not only comes onto the case because the body is discovered by someone he knows but also discovers that one of the suspects is not merely linked to a similar crime from the past but also happens to be a person with whom he had a sort of relationship.
As a teen, Holmes was fascinated by the Abigail Spencer murder case and corresponded with young Abigail, from which correspondence he deduced her guilt, despite her acquittal. Since double jeopardy prevented her from being retried and since Holmes recognized that the murderer of an abusive father is unlikely to be a continuing threat, he chose never to reveal her guilt. Nevertheless, she was, as the episode makes clear, his “first”—the first murderer he identified, the first murderer into whose mind he saw, and in away, as the explicit identification of her as his “first” suggests, an odd sort of first lover. The psychological implications of this are interesting as adding layers to Holmes’s character, but the concentration of mystery clichés here—coincidence, personal involvement, murderer being a sort of quasi-lover for the detective—weaken the plot, in my estimation. It’s a convenient and economical way to provide back story, perhaps, but it’s also rather threadbare.

     Nevertheless, the episode ends on a strong note of some moral complexity and irony when the actual murdered (Graham) gets away with it because Holmes’s first—the one he let get away with it, basically—confesses to the murder, taking the rap for the abused boy to give him a chance to redeem himself. Holmes doesn’t get his man (or woman) twice in the same episode, despite knowing the truth; this is especially interesting in light of his assertion in last week’s episode that he always gets his man. The show’s willingness to make Holmes undeniably brilliant but also fallible plays well here, and Holmes’s sympathy for both murderers (even to the point of letting them into his life, to an extent—though I think we can be reasonably sure we’ll never see either Abigail/Anne or Graham again) is played effectively by Miller, whose work as Holmes continues to im
So, in short, I found the episode solid but not fully successful. What did you think? Have I been too hard on it? Not hard enough? Or have I missed things? Let me know in the comments!

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