There is Nothing on this Planet Quite So Toxic as Guilt

**This post contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Elementary, “Solve for X.”**

There is nothing as special to me as watching Elementary during the live broadcast on Thursday nights. Inevitably, about two minutes into each new episode, my phone chimes with a capslocked text from my fifteen-year-old sister. Generally, it’s along the lines of “KERRYYYYYYYYY! ELEMENTARYYYYYY!” And that’s how it begins.

I’m not sure what it is about this show that struck a chord with my sister when she watched it last season. I know I had to convince her to give it a shot at first; she was (and still is) a diehard BBC Sherlock fan, to the point that I think she has memorized all six 90-minute episodes and can quote them back to you if you ask. She is also a big fan of the Robert Downey Jr-starring movie adaptations, though she’s not quite as passionate about those. Most importantly, she’s a big fan of the canon, as she’s read quite a few of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories.

I know that my sister has a deep and unwavering love for Jonny Lee Miller’s version of Sherlock, and of the friendship that he shares with Joan. But I think the real reason this show appeals to her–and to me, and to all of the other people who choose to tune in to Elementary instead of Scandal or Parenthood during that competitive timeslot–is because this show has done an amazing job at putting a lot of heart and warmth into an otherwise dark and gritty show.

After Sherlock and Joan’s London escapades in the season premiere, during which we met his brother Mycroft and the former Detective Inspector Lestrade in a rather whirlwind and rushed way, this episode was wonderfully grounded back in New York. It felt sort of like a reset button, because while the London episode was fun for fans of the canon, it was also very unlike normal Elementary episodes in its structure and regular characters.

The Case of the Week involves mathematics, or as Sherlock called them, “Maaaaaaths!” In theory, it should’ve been boring, but this show didn’t just do math, it did math in a big way: a real-life, near-unsolvable equation that led to the murder of two mathematical geniuses. “P vs. NP” is a real super-problem, and the best part of the episode is that Sherlock doesn’t claim to know how to solve it. In fact, he testily tells one of the math whizzes, “If we were mathematicians, you wouldn’t be here.” It’s nice that this show puts limitations on Sherlock’s talents, because being a deductionist and a math whiz would’ve been a little too unbelievable.

It turns out the motive for murder is that the Clay Mathematics Institute of Rhode Island offers to pay one million dollars to anyone who can solve any of the seven hardest problems in the world. And as my Twitter feed noted, the Elementary staff did their research:

The case itself becomes a little hard to follow, with one too many guest stars coming in to convolute the case, but by the end of the episode, the investigators figure out that a female professor had killed anyone who had figured out the solution to the problem before using it herself to alter a security camera’s timestamp, thereby giving herself an alibi.

The only gripe I have about this episode is the professor’s motivation. She went to the trouble of filing a false police report about her gun getting stolen, doctoring footage of a restaurant’s surveillance camera, and planting fake emails in her ex-boyfriend’s account. She clearly had a long con in mind, and we were supposed to believe that she was smart enough to cover her bases. But in the end, some dog fur at the scene was traced back to her dog, the gun she’d reported as missing was the same gun used to kill the mathematicians, and nearly everyone in the math community knew she had a motive to kill both men. For all the work the writers had put into the math aspect of the episode, I wish they had worked harder on making a more believable criminal.

Texts from my sister during one of the commercial breaks.

It’s a testament to Sherlock and Detective Marcus Bell’s investigative skills, and to the writers of Elementary for writing better cases with each new episode. (At the beginning of the first season, my only complaint with the show was that the cases were rather weak and easy to figure out. Shows like Castle and Psych can get away with flimsy cases, but a show revolving around the science of deduction needs to have tighter writing, which is why I appreciate the Elementary staff putting so much research into each episode.)

What sets the episode apart from the premiere are the interactions between the characters. Even the light moments on this show pack a punch of poignancy, as demonstrated in this exchange between Sherlock and Bell:

Sherlock: “Have you always been this observant? I ask quite sincerely, I was wondering if exposure to my methods have helped you in any way.”
Bell: “Actually, before you came along, I’d never closed a case before. Neither had the rest of the department. Most of us were thinking of packing up, leaving, letting the city fend for itself…”

Sherlock walked away dismissively before Bell could finish the retort, but there’s real sentiment under those words. Sherlock really does believe in Bell, and thinks he has a good investigative eye. And we can tell that Bell is improving after watching Sherlock use his methods on cases (Bell sounded a lot like Sherlock when he noted the lack of art and nail holes on the white walls, which turned out to be covered in invisible-inked equations) which has also made Bell more interesting as a character. And the way Bell responds with sarcasm to Sherlock, even though he respects his work, is something Sherlock actually values because it means Bell can’t be pushed around.

But this episode was Joan-centric from start to finish. We start out by watching her put flowers on a grave, and we use our deductive reasoning to figure out that it’s the grave of the man who died on her operating table, causing her to leave her practice and become a sober companion. While at the graveside, she runs into the son of her patient, a man named Joey who looks to be in his early twenties. It’s clear right away that he and Joan are on friendly terms, and he asks her to coffee.

We learn that Joey had gotten a scholarship to become an engineer, but left college during his junior year because he claims he’d been thinking about his dad a lot. Joan expresses concern over that, saying she’d gotten to know his dad very well in the days leading up to his surgery, and that his dream had been for his son to get his degree in engineering. The implication here is that Joan was sort of like Wilson from House: she had a close relationship with at least some of her patients, and valued the personal interactions and warm bedside manner that people like House (and Sherlock) don’t find very important. (Remember: House was based on Sherlock Holmes as well.)

Joan’s interactions with Joey make it clear that she has a lot of lingering guilt and that it’s important to her that she and Joey stay on friendly terms. However, Joey then informs Joan that he’s opening a bar, but he needs money for startup. When Joan goes to Sherlock to ask for a $5,000 advance on her salary, Sherlock is immediately suspicious.

He figures out, through the scent of carnations on her sleeves, that she had gone to the cemetery that day. He further deduces that the person who needs money is connected to the man who died on her table. He insists, “I want to make sure that this person is not taking advantage of you.”

Joan then tells her story for the first time. Her patient, Gerald Castoro, had been a dock worker with a tumor. In the weeks leading up to his surgery, Joan had grown close to Gerald and his family. The surgery was routine, but Joan messed up and nicked something, causing Gerald to bleed out in a matter of seconds. His wife then sued Joan, saying awful things about her in court, but their son Joey had written Joan a letter saying he didn’t blame her for his father’s death. It meant a lot to Joan at the time, and it still means a lot now.

Sherlock, not unaffected by her story, simply asked if it was the first time Joey had asked Joan for money; it wasn’t. She’d bought him a car a couple of years ago.

Later in the episode, Sherlock expresses his displeasure at Joan letting herself be taken advantage of. “Joey’s good will obviously means a great deal to you. The fact that he has, on more than one occasion, attached a dollar figure reveals his character. Or at least it does to me.”

He “gifts” her nearly $22,000 so that she may “buy out” Joey, but Joan says she doesn’t mind that Joey comes to her for help. Sherlock is adamant that Joan shouldn’t be so easily manipulated by Joey just because she feels responsible for his father’s death.

Ultimately, thanks in part to Sherlock’s reasoning and her own gut feeling, Joan decides to tell Joey that she will only invest the money in his education. It’s a hard scene to watch, because Joey shows his true colors by trying to guilt trip Joan again in blaming her for his father’s death. It brings tears to her eyes and we see Joan is visibly stricken by his words, but she reiterates that she will always support his endeavors. In the end, she’s not hopeful that Joey will take her up on her offer, and we (and Joan) are made to believe that her friendship with Joey is over. We’ll see. It’d be nice to see Joey grow into the person Joan thought he was, but I also like the idea of Joan having her own sort of Irene Adler/Moriarty to deal with in the future, and Joey Castoro could be that character.

The episode ends with a powerful scene between Joan and Sherlock. She’s returned to the Brownstone after talking to Joey, and Sherlock expresses a desire to accompany Joan next time she visits Gerald Castoro’s grave. He’s nervous and fidgety as he says, “Obviously, the mistake that you made has changed the course of your life. The man seems to have left quite an impression as well. I’d just like to pay my respects.”


It’s a huge moment for both characters, because it’s Sherlock’s way of telling Joan that he cares deeply for her. It’s possibly the most unselfish sentiment he’s ever expressed, because he’s telling her that he essentially wants to thank the man who made Joan the person she is today. Without Gerald Castoros, Joan never would’ve become Sherlock’s sober companion. Would Sherlock still be sober today? Would the NYPD have solved all those cases without him being assisted by Joan? Would Joan be living a fulfilling and purpose-driven life? Would Sherlock have a friend? Of course it’s a shame that a man had to die for these things to come to fruition, but at the same time, Joan is the one who has taught Sherlock to see the good that can come out of tragedy. Sherlock’s drug addiction defined his life the same way Joan’s slip during surgery has defined hers, but it led them to each other.

Other great quotes from this episode:

“That’s from someone named ‘Bella,’ and you got [the text] last December. My name is Bell, no ‘a,’ but I see how you might’ve confused us. It’s not like you’re into details or anything.” –Bell

“Where’s your better half this morning?” –Bell

“I’m an expert on poisons, Watson. I know virtually everything there is to know about them. But I’ve come to learn over the last few years that there is nothing on this planet quite so toxic as guilt.” –Sherlock

“You have made your mistakes, Watson. So have I. And if there’s anything that has become apparent during our time together, it’s that the great majority of those mistakes belong firmly in the past.” –Sherlock

Next week: Joan has some kind of aversion to the word “nefarious.” Tune in, CBS Thursdays at 10/9c.


One thought on “There is Nothing on this Planet Quite So Toxic as Guilt

  1. […] ← There is Nothing on this Planet Quite So Toxic as Guilt […]

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