[This is a review of Elementary season 3, episode 13. SPOILERS ahead.]
The last time Lucy Liu stepped behind the camera to direct an episode of Elementary, Joan found herself the victim of a kidnapping, while Sherlock spent the episode working to ensure her safe return. In 'The Female of the Species', Liu again is absent for most of the hour, allowing for a rare team-up between Sherlock and Det. Bell that offers the series a chance to explore one of the more interesting relationships outside of the its primary conceit. The difference here is, even though Joan doesn't participate in the principal crime of the week, she still manages to play an integral role in the progression of the overall storyline.
After Joan's soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Andrew fell victim to hemlock poisoning at the end of last week's episode, it was expected that Watson's efforts to locate the killer and bring him or her to justice would command much of the hour's time and attention. Instead, it is revealed in the opening moments that not only does Joan already know who actually placed the hemlock in the coffee cup (it was a French assassin in a blue leather jacket), but she also knows who hired the would-be killer in the first place. Enter, Elana March (Gina Gershon), the crime boss she had put away for life in the season premiere.
Joan's subsequent isolation in her apartment (while under police protection) gives the episode the space to move around, while Sherlock and Bell investigate a case of two pregnant zebras that were stolen from the zoo.
The case is filled with the kind of twists and turns one would normally expect from the show, as the recovery of the zebras leads to a wider, stranger mystery involving the death of a equine specialist and the revelation that the zebras didn't give birth to little zebras at all, but instead birthed two quagga's – an extinct subspecies of zebra that died out more than a century ago. It's the kind of twist that's not too far removed from the cloning of the ultra-rare flower in the aptly titled 'Seed Money'. But it's also the kind of element that lets Elementary dabble in the unusual but possible, without stepping completely outside of reality.
This season has been testing the limits of what the series can get away with in interesting ways, and often with equally interesting results. While the introduction (or re-introduction, as the case may be) of the quagga and the cloned flower are plot devices intended to make for "You never saw that coming" moments, the season went slightly further into the arena of speculative fiction with 'Bella' - leaving things on an unsettling ambiguous note that demonstrates just how much room the series has when it comes to the breadth and depth of topics the crime of the week can focus on.
Wisely, though, the episode doesn’t spend too much time on the quaggas or the culprit. After he was initially identified, Ben Reynolds disappears, thanks to an architectural convenience in his apartment building - and isn't seen again until he's arrested outside of a café that Sherlock and Bell are dining at. The limited interaction with the killer allows more time for the personalities of the two detectives to mingle and generate a series of overdue character moments for Jon Michael Hall. None of them are particularly revealing – he doesn’t like his soup as spicy as Sherlock, and he doesn't eat red meat – but still, his reactions to Sherlock's quirks and proclivities make for an entertaining match-up.
What is revealing, though, is the way the episode continuously lays out references to Sherlock's life as a detective – in that, it never stops. At one point, Bell comments that the workday is over, and it's time to turn off that part and to live a normal life, until it all starts again. For Sherlock, there is no off position on the detective switch; it just stays on all the time. This is demonstrated through his interactions with Bell, as much as it is during a dinner with Joan, where Sherlock would rather continue working the case than relax on the couch and watch television.
In a sense, that never-off aspect of Sherlock's deductive brain is meant to be seen as an extension of his addictive personality. It's not nearly as problematic as his difficulties with narcotics – in fact its something of a socially acceptable and productive alternative – but the evidence to suggest a darker connotation is there. So, when Joan confesses to Sherlock, after receiving a telegram from Moriarty, alluding to her role in the death of Elana March (because nobody messes with Moriarty's playthings), that being a detective is more than a job, it's who she is now, there's a hint of worry underneath the surface-level excitement of Joan returning to the brownstone full time.
With that conclusion, 'The Female of the Species' manages to work in a compelling wrinkle to the Holmes-Watson dynamic that actually brings them closer (in grief and loss, but still), while at the same time delivering a sharper, more absorbing offering of the "Joan is conspicuously off-camera formula." It is something that offers more meaningful insight into both characters by revealing the potentially problematic aspect to what is otherwise a major plus.
Elementary continues next Thursday with 'When Your Number's Up' @10pm on CBS. Check out a preview below: