[This is a review of Elementary season 3, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Elementary will always skew its episodes toward what makes a good procedural. The week-to-week stories are as much about reaching a solution as they are about Sherlock and Joan's relationship. This is the kind of consistency that viewers typically tune in for: a sense that a mystery will be created and resolved within the confines of a television hour. But every so often, the show is granted an opportunity to skew in the opposite direction of resolution, to offer up something a little more compelling than routine – while at the same time still adhering to the basic principles inherent in that routine.
From the beginning, 'Bella' announces itself as just that kind of episode. The story kicks off when a scientist named Edwin Borstein (Michael Chernus) approaches Sherlock with something much different than the usual murder mystery. Instead of death, Edwin brings Sherlock the mystery of creation, in that he believes the artificial intelligence program that he created, named Bella, has achieved some form of actual intelligence – hence, someone broke into his office and stole a copy of it.
Naturally, Bella represents a layer of interest that goes well beyond the mystery of who stole a copy of the program. Part of that layer is nestled deep in the arena of science fiction and, to Elementary's credit, the episode is not afraid to take it and the questions it poses seriously. Those questions lie primarily in whether or not Bella has actually asked to be connected to a network, or if it is simply a part of its programming. This leads to a lengthy but engaging sequence in which Sherlock attempts to administer a Turing Test, to rule out the possibility that Bella is in fact a scientific breakthrough of the highest order.
The scene doesn't prove anything about Bella one way or another, but it grants 'Bella' some clever character moments that show Sherlock at his obsessive best, and then sets up a subtle but effective exchange between Kitty and Joan. It's a simple thing to have Kitty call Joan when Sherlock is on the verge of being uncontrollable, and here it works not only as a way to reinforce how Kitty and Joan can now reach out to one another, but also as an endearing example of how well Joan knows Sherlock – which is enough to recommend Kitty let it play out and possibly get a fire extinguisher. And then Joan simply leaves. Joan's quick assessment and nonchalant departure sets up the kind of humor that only works when two characters have an established enough rapport that a blasé response actually conveys a good amount of emotion.
But by the time 'Bella' gets around to focusing on Edwin's murder – which, the episode posits, may have been committed by the machine – the episode has already developed such a strong reason outside the case for Joan and Sherlock to interact that the death takes a back seat to Sherlock's eventual admission of his non-romantic, non-familial love for Joan. And Joan's response is typically endearing as well. If the show no longer wants to sustain a turbulent relationship between the two, then this remedy works to bring them back to a familiar stasis point, without mitigating the sense that there has also been change.
In that exchange is already the makings of a strong episode of Elementary, but 'Bella' moves beyond the continued mending of fences between Joan and Sherlock – that hopefully means Andrew will stay in the picture for the time being, even if he is frequently off in Denmark – and delivers a surprising conclusion to the mystery of Edwin's death.
It doesn't take Sherlock long to deduce that Bella is not behind Edwin's death. And for delaying the actual murder, let alone its subsequent investigation for a good 20 minutes, the discovery of a professor named Isaac Pyke (played by the great Michael Cristofer), who is concerned with preventing a robopocalypse, develops into something more compelling than a simple cat and mouse game. Instead, 'Bella' delves into what makes Sherlock human, after he attempts to blackmail the professor into a confession by threatening his drug-addicted brother with some serious jail time. Rather than cave to Sherlock's demands, Pyke announces he, too, has looked into his adversary and deduced that Sherlock won't sentence a fellow addict to a horrible fate; that his humanity will win out over his need for resolution. And he's right.
It is a surprising ending that shows how confident Elementary has become with regard to its storytelling that it knows the impact of a killer remaining free because of an empathetic choice made by the protagonist is far more valuable than a tidy, expected conclusion. It's also the kind of interesting choice one hopes the writers will explore variations of in the future.
Elementary continues next Thursday with 'Rip Off' @10pm on CBS.