[This is a review of Elementary season 2, episode 20. There will be SPOILERS.]
No matter what incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is being depicted, the seemingly deliberate lack of people whom he would consider close friends and/or confidants is fairly small. While Elementary has found need for Sherlock to socialize outside his immediate inner circle (i.e., Joan), for reasons concerning either his consulting services with the NYPD or his ongoing recovery from drug addiction, it's likely there are precious few individuals, even in that group, that Holmes would openly consider a true friend or confidant. So, when his actor friend Alistair Moore (Roger Rees) dies suddenly – as a result of a drug relapse – the ramifications take Holmes to a place that's rarely seen.
Finding a meaningful way of dealing with or discussing death, on a show that typically starts off every episode with a murder in progress or Holmes and Watson dealing with the aftermath of one, can put the writers and the cast in a bit of a tight spot. In order to underline the importance of the deceased – especially when he's only appeared briefly before – the episode has to effectively take the bereaved out of the police procedure at hand. As luck would have it, Elementary is already dealing with a protagonist who frequently removes himself the focus of concern, so as to attend to the details on the periphery.
In this case, Sherlock and Joan are helping the NYPD investigate a potential anthrax outbreak, after Joan discovers a man died from it while in police custody. The obligatory legwork segment of the episode actually winds up delivering some well-placed twists that lead the investigation straight to an anti-government group supposedly planning to mail the deadly substance to several members of congress. Their focus quickly leads them to a radical named Eugene MacIntosh, whose dairy farmer brother, Bart (Garret Dilllahunt), was the last person to have any contact with him. According to the unwritten code of the genre, anytime the authorities question someone who also happens to be a recognizable actor, he or she generally had something to do with the crime at hand. As it turns out, Eugene and Bart were planning on committing insurance fraud by killing their cows with the anthrax and then reaping the rewards.
It's a lively central mystery to be sure, one that even involves Sherlock getting into a scuffle that happens off-screen between commercial breaks. For whatever reason, this jump cut to the aftermath of violence works both as a humorous punch line, and the nonchalance with which it is regarded helps to underline Sherlock's emotional state. As is usually the case, Elementary proves to be a much stronger program when focusing on more emotionally resonant themes. Here, the passing of Alistair is highlighted by Sherlock's imagined conversations with his deceased friend, in which Miller superbly vacillates between sorrow and anger.
Walking that fine a line, while also trying to convey the enormous implications behind the fact that Alistair managed 30 years of sobriety before succumbing to heroin is a burden for any single episode to handle. To its credit, 'No Lack of Void' manages most of it quite well. Mourning is a different side of Sherlock, and although Alistair wasn't frequently seen on the show, he was the man Holmes chose to portray his father in an effort to confound Joan. That says a great deal about the character's importance, but it also helps to emphasize the larger role Joan plays in Sherlock's continued recovery from not only drugs, but also misanthropy.
While Joan is unfortunately marginalized for the more emotionally driven portions of the episode, she and Holmes do enjoy one meaningful conversation that has nothing to do with cows or anthrax. This helps signify her importance to Sherlock and to Elementary overall, even though the episode couldn't quite fit her into the more meaningful component of the narrative.
Elementary continues on Thursday, April 24 with 'The Man With the Twisted Lip' @10pm on CBS.