As someone heavily invested in the field of mental health, I often find myself intrigued by the way mental illness is tackled on television. Elementary is one of those shows that could have very easily taken an addiction storyline and turned it into something cringe-worthy, but this past season demonstrated that they take it seriously. The writers did a phenomenal job weaving in Sherlock’s slow and steady descent into relapse all throughout the third season. They did so tastefully, realistically, and subtly, which is a nice change from how television typically handles the subject of addition.

From the start of the season to the very last episode, the writers had been pointing to relapse. Sherlock escaped to England and returned with Kitty, someone who had shaken him out of a potential relapse and given him a purpose. He was already on life support at the start of the season, so it was no surprise that the concept of relapse was a consistent theme as it progressed. When Kitty left, his mood deflated, and we sauntered into the middle of the season with a very conflicted Sherlock.

I’d mentioned this in a previous recap, but I’ll go into more depth in this article. In the episode titled “The Eternity Injection,” where they initially explored the concept of relapse, I think the writers finally got to the heart of staying clean and sober. Where a lot of shows play with addiction and make it out to be a big thing, triggered by some huge dramatic event, only to reverse it almost immediately, Elementary took it in a different direction. Piece by piece, they displayed for everyone to see the struggle that those in recovery often endure.

You see, relapse isn’t so much a huge climactic event. It is a slow, painful crawl back into the warm and waiting arms of an old coping technique. The addict’s plight is the choice they have to make every single day of their lives, and that choice is, “I will not use today.” Sometimes it is even the choice to not use minute by minute, hour by hour, etc. That’s something that isn’t often discussed publicly about the truth of addiction. It isn’t so much a switch from addict to recovering addict, as it is a daily struggle to continue down the path of sobriety.

The introduction of Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous into the show was a blessing, especially the exploration of the relationship between sponsor and sponsee. A program that is often a footnote in shows, or used as a throwaway plot device, was given the spotlight it deserved as the crux of recovery. In the United States, the most successful drug treatment program is Alcoholics Anonymous, and it is completely free. Yet so often it is overshadowed in popular writing by the angst-ridden mystery of sketchy drug rehab centers that have become an overused trope.

Elementary avoided all of the things usually associated with drug addiction story lines, and that’s why I found this underlying plot arch so convincing. They played it smooth. The best part of it had to be the contrast, though, between Sherlock’s personal development and his recovery.

Season three was a season of achievements for Sherlock as he engaged with others on a deeper level than previous seasons. Again, I’ll bring up Kitty, because she really was a beautiful representation of how far he’s come. He not only acknowledged how much he’d enjoyed mentoring and passing down his knowledge, but went so far as to actually reach out to someone and draw them in. That’s something season one Sherlock wouldn’t have been capable of, with his addiction story so fresh. Yet in the third season, even as he descended back into the world of addiction, he also had the chance to witness positive growth.

It made his fall from the heavens all the more hopeful, because this time he wasn’t going to be doing it alone.

So season three had been pointing all along to relapse, and it was handled well. It was like I mentioned earlier, instead of a huge climactic breakdown, the writers whittled away at Sherlock’s resolve piece by piece to the point it would be simple to go back and track his fall from the beginning. Little choices, small events, tiny triggers chipped away at Sherlock until he was finally faced with the ultimate look back from where he’d come. He was faced with pre-series Sherlock again. The finale title, “A Controlled Descent,” was the perfect way to summarize this plot throughout the season.

After working three seasons to dig him out of the pit, the writers have turned around and tossed him back into it. Except it isn’t as simple as that, because he’s not really back where he was in season one. This is probably one of the most important things to understand about addiction that has been demonstrated throughout the series. Though someone may falter in their sobriety, be it one day, two days, a week, months, or years, they are still well ahead of where they were when they first started their journey. Even in relapse. Because while relapse is a bump in the road, it isn’t going to be the end game, and there are already supports in place that came from the recovery process which will help an addict get back to the path of sobriety.

In the case of Sherlock, I imagine he’ll find it difficult to face the people who love him. However, my hope for season four is not only to meet Sherlock’s dad (because holy hell we’ve been waiting for that since season one), but to see how he heals again and continues the journey he started in rehab. If I were to guess at the trajectory of next season, I would predict that we’ll see people step up in the face of Sherlock’s relapse to remind him of the very fact I mentioned in the section above: one mistake does not destroy years of work. Not in addictions, or life as a whole.

Mistakes won’t break us, no matter how far they drag us down. That’s my hope for the message of season four. On top of all the cases, and Sherlock and Joan still doing what they do, I hope beyond hope that they will use Sherlock’s “controlled descent” to provide a message of hope regarding addiction. I’m looking forward to season four and all of the challenges it will present both to the writers, the audience, and the characters.

5 thoughts on “Elementary’s Tasteful Take on Addiction is Compelling Storytelling”

  1. I completely agree that this season was successful in setting up a relapse over the course of many episodes. I also agree that “relapse isn’t so much a huge climactic event. It is a slow, painful crawl back into the warm and waiting arms of an old coping technique.”

    However, that is not the way that “A Controlled Descent” presented Sherlock’s fall off the wagon. Because instead of falling off of it, he was deliberately PUSHED off of it by a vengeful asshole, who knowingly and purposefully put triggers in his path. It was no slow, painful crawl — that would’ve been much more interesting and dramatically satisfying.

    Instead the writers took the easy way out and had the decision forced upon Sherlock instead of him succumbing to his own impulses. This episode would’ve been much more impactful if he just one day, faced one minor trigger, and that was what caused his setback. Because, as you say, “every minute by minute, hour by hour” is a decision not to use, and Sherlock had noted this too, in his excellent “slow drip, drip” of abstinence speech.

    You make another good point — “In the case of Sherlock, I imagine he’ll find it difficult to face the people who love him.” Right? And wouldn’t that have been great to see? Unfortunately, all we get is a three-day gap in which he’s assumed to have used, and has chosen to come back to the brownstone.

    The most gut-wrenching failure of the finale was depriving Watson — his former sober companion, best friend and partner — of the onscreen moment where she realizes that Sherlock has relapsed. That would’ve provided at least a modicum of emotionally satisfying drama.

    The idea of a finale where Sherlock falls off the wagon is great — the execution was a total bust.

    1. i feel like he did succumb to his own impulses in the end, and that eternity injection and the one that got away especially were great lead-ins, but this was fumbled. the writers put SO much energy into oscar trying to force him to use that the creative message was muddled. having sherlock wait until after he knew alfredo was safe was their way of saying, “see? he didn’t use because of oscar, he used because he’s an addict!” oscar essentially holding him captive for two days, conscientiously picking apart all his defenses, and literally putting the drugs in his hands certainly didn’t HELP though, damn! i can’t really call this subtle. it felt kind of like an anvil, actually.

      there’s another show airing now about an addict. she started using again on the day of her 1 year soberversary. it came completely out of nowhere, by all appearances she was doing great, and yet her fall still made sense from a characterization standpoint. that’s the sort of random, addicts will be addicts, notion elementary was going for, but they injected too much high drama to pull it off effectively.

  2. It ruined the program, the crimes and cases all take backseat to the 12 step drama, it’s like having a boring addicted relative who wants to yammer on about their recovery program night and day.

  3. I enjoy the show, but the 12-step dogma gets more than a little overplayed. It is not the only way to stay sober, and its success rate is very low. The characters prattle on about meeting attendance, but isn’t this similar to saying one cannot be moral without church attendance?

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