Going into last night’s series finale of Elementary, I wasn’t sure how showrunner Robert Doherty and his collaborators would be able to pull off a satisfying ending to the CBS procedural drama. There were too many dangling threads. Would Odin Reichenbach (James Frain) — the kind of villain who purrs the word “delicious” when talking about murder and mayhem — get his comeuppance for using his software to pry into the lives of his users and execute them as he saw fit? Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) clearly faked his death, but would that ploy prove successful in the long run? How would his friendship with Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) fare in the wake of this? Would the NSA, in the form of Agent McNally (Tim Guinee), foil these plans? How could they even fit all the answers to these questions, plus emotional closure for seven seasons’ worth of character development, into a single one-hour episode?
The answer to that last question, at least, is that the finale flash-forwards three years into the future to Odin’s sentencing, which we learn about as Joan is on a morning show to talk about it and her new book on Sherlock. The revelations don’t stop there. Captain Gregson (Auden Quinn) has retired. Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) has become captain of the precinct. Most importantly, Joan has adopted a young child named Arthur. She somehow balances raising him with the demands of her life as a consulting detective and writer. And for those wondering, yes, she’s still blonde.
This startling jump encapsulates the whiplash-inducing nature of “Their Last Bow,” directed by Christine Moore and written by series creator Robert Doherty, which doles out plot development and resolution so fast there’s no time to sit and savor the episode’s emotional beats — which include a twist so manipulative and miscalculated it nearly soured me on what does work. Nearly. In this respect, the finale is much like the rest of season seven — too rushed and uneven, but still strangely moving thanks to the cast’s considerable chemistry.
In Elementary’s final hour, there is still a mystery to be solved, of course. Joan is approached by a lawyer who says he represents Jamie Moriarty (the very missed Natalie Dormer), who has died, leaving behind a painting that falls into Joan’s hands since Sherlock is “dead.” This leads Joan to contact Sherlock, who rushes back to New York. Jamie Moriarty has always been one of the series’ most beguiling twists on the Sherlock Holmes canon, and Dormer’s presence is quicksilver and mutable in a way that flies in the face of the sometimes staid conventions of a procedural. It’s a shame Dormer couldn’t appear in the final season at all; that she was only represented by Moriarty’s lackeys takes the weight out of some of the dealings in the finale.
This sense of weightlessness also plays out in the lack of resolution around the death of Sherlock’s father, Morland Holmes (John Noble), who died offscreen two episodes ago, leaving me to suspect he may be alive. I was hoping the finale would sit with Sherlock’s grief more, or perhaps reveal a wrinkle in Morland’s death, given that we never fully saw a body. But, unfortunately, one of the season’s most mishandled major threads was left dangling.
Instead, once Sherlock returns we get a series of awkward, even combative, scenes of him and Joan getting used to each other’s new status quo. Sherlock gruffly remarks on the changes to the brownstone and seems uncomfortable around Arthur. Joan is strangely secretive about a case she’s working on. And Sherlock learns it’s Agent McNally who lured him out of hiding in order to offer him a job he unsurprisingly turns down. Agent McNally’s turn from ally to villain to potential ally over the course of only a few episodes muddles the story this seventh season has been trying to tell about corporate and government oversight, and highlights the problem at the core of this concluding run: There’s too much going on for anything to get the development it needs to land effectively. It also rings untrue for the characters, as if the writers are changing them in ways that advance the plot, but don’t necessarily track with what we’ve seen before, creating a dissonance that no amount of exposition can alleviate.
It seemed, for a moment, that Elementary would limp to a hollow finish. Then came a twist I never expected: Joan has cancer. The case she’s been secretive about was really her oncologist’s name, used as code whenever she talked to Marcus. She had hoped to keep it secret from Sherlock because Joan felt he was happy with his new peripatetic life and didn’t want him to stay behind in New York just for her.
There are many problems with this twist, chief among them that it comes 37 minutes into a roughly 42-minute series finale. There’s not enough time to unpack such knowledge, or to sit with the emotional reality of this, because the show has to move on to wrapping up its next plot point. But I can’t lie: I was moved by Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu’s performances here. The gentle chemistry they share makes the scene practically glow. He barely looks at her, he’s so overcome with emotion. Liu’s voice dips then cracks as Joan says, “I am starting chemo in a few weeks,” and when Sherlock embraced her, I choked up a little bit. “Of course I’m staying,” he says. It’s beautiful because of the performances, but feels too baldly manipulative and poorly sketched to fully work.
Unfortunately, the manipulations don’t end there. The episode concludes with another flash-forward a year into the future, with Sherlock standing by a coffin that has yet to be lowered into the ground, festooned with expensive flowers. Agent McNally approaches Sherlock and gives his condolences, which makes it seem that Joan is dead. Except — surprise! Not only is she not dead (and is blessedly rocking a fierce new bob in her natural hair color), it turns out the funeral is for Moriarty, although Sherlock suspects she took a page from his book and faked her own death.
The problems with the series finale, and the final season of Elementary as a whole, lie not so much in what happens but how it happens. This season being whittled down from 21 episodes to 13 is clearly felt. The writers seem to be trying to force a full season of development into a final hour, making what could be a moving and entertaining concluding chapter into an overwhelming story that is too worried about burning through plot to deliver true emotional closure.
The ending of the finale is initially moving, capitalizing on the friendship between Sherlock and Joan, with a final line that sees Sherlock dissuading Joan from her anxiety about being consultants again: “As long as we’re together, what does it matter?” On its face, it’s a sweet gesture that underscores the deep friendship between the two, and feels like an appropriately moving resolution for the series’ core relationship. But it’s hard to reconcile with the manipulation that led us to this endpoint.