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Elsbeth Season-Finale Recap: Elsbeth’s Singular Style

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Photo: Michael Parmelee/CBS

As the first season of Elsbeth comes to a close — and don’t worry, friends, everyone’s favorite quirky detective will be back on your screens with a full season of fresh new episodes next year! — it’s time to reflect on how far our gal has come in New York. Elsbeth has never lacked for confidence as an unexpectedly astute unofficial homicide detective, or as a kind and enthusiastic collector of friends, of course. However, her place in the city, in the police department, and in her relationship with Captain Wagner have all been in question throughout the season.

Now that she and Captain Wagner have gotten the disgraced former Lieutenant Noonan to exonerate the good captain while putting himself on the hook for various bribes and money laundering, everything should be hunky-dory, right? Wrong. It turns out that Captain Wagner is a really sensitive dude, and Elsbeth’s months of secretly investigating him has hurt his feelings. Was their budding friendship even real, or was it only about the investigation all along?

As Elsbeth reveals in a scene with surprising emotional heft for an otherwise pretty light murder show, it was both. She liked Captain Wagner from the beginning! She was also obliged to carry out the investigation she’d been assigned by the Department of Justice, even if she wound up proving his culpability in the Flair-All scandal in the process. Come on, Captain! I’m concerned about your detecting abilities and understanding of your fiduciary responsibilities to the Payne Wagner Foundation (perhaps some training there, rather than in Detective Edwards’ beloved AI is in order?), but you’re invested in actual justice. For the good of the show, please process your hurt feelings and move on!

This not-insignificant wobble aside, we can feel pretty confident about the future for Elsbeth and Captain Wagner. You know what friendship could not withstand major conflict? The one between gifted but doomed photographer Ezra Tate (Ryan Bourque) and veteran fashion designer and teacher Mateo Hart (Hadestown’s André De Shields). Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? This is the first episode of Elsbeth where the audience doesn’t know who committed the episode’s murder prior to the credits. We’re as in the dark as she is, piecing clues together and recognizing a bunch of misdirections as we go along.

The setup is the final runway walk by retiring supermodel Nadine Clay (Laura Benanti, having an absolute ball with her character’s weird accent and odd pronouncements) at her soon-to-be ex-husband Nick Garrison’s (Daniel Passaro) show, designed around the theme of climate change. Yes, we are at New York’s Festival Of Fashion (not Fashion Week™, do you hear?), and everyone is there to soak up the glamor, including Tim Gunn, who is on hand to interview legends like Mateo, who is looking to seal his legacy as a designer and retired professor from FUNY (Fashion University of New York, which is definitely neither FIT nor CUNY). Gisela Mott (Vanessa Kai), the fashion editor of Dress-Up, floats imperiously into the room to take her seat in massive and aggressively mirrored sunglasses — think Iris Apfel, but severe.

Among the photographers jostling for space and sight lines is a handsome ginger-bearded fellow — the aforementioned Ezra Tate — whose messenger bag contains an envelope clearly marked PANGAEA PROJECT. Unfortunately, once the show has begun, complete with flashing lights and loud music, it’s all too easy for a gun fitted with a silencer to take Ezra down and for nobody to notice until the show is over. I have a lot of fun being arch and witty in these recaps, but that’s one of the saddest ways I’ve ever described a fictional murder victim. Poor Ezra.

Once it’s established that everyone is aghast at his murder — Ezra was a mess of a gambler, but he had no money to steal, and wasn’t hateful — both Nick and Nadine fall under suspicion, because they were backstage but unseen in the window when Ezra was shot. Their acrimonious ongoing divorce, complicated by their still-entwined professional lives and the last embers of love still very slightly smoldering between them, leads each to accuse the other. Nadine and Ezra had been an item during their days at FUNY and Nick was terribly jealous of their relationship, even once he and Nadine were married. Later, Nick reveals he’s been very suspicious of Nadine’s secretive financial moves and suspects that she killed Ezra to put a stop to some blackmail he may have been perpetrating to get out from under his gambling debts.

Formerly close people hurling accusations and hurt feelings hither and yon is not limited to Nick and Nadine. Back at the precinct, Captain Wagner makes it clear that he expects Elsbeth to leave now that her investigation is complete, putting a little extra emotional mustard on it by having both her office and Noonan’s cleared out simultaneously. He can’t resist a gruff “don’t leave without saying good-bye.” Elsbeth bobs a little curtsey in response as if she’s being sent back to class by a stern but loving principal. These two simply must make up or I will lose my belief in friendship. At least everything is cool between her and Kaya, and even Detective Donnelly is grudgingly content to have Elsbeth available to help out (now extremely unofficially) with the investigation. This turns out to be harder work than usual due to Elsbeth’s uncharacteristic lack of hunches.

Being so unsettled in her working and social relationship with Captain Wagner leaves Elsbeth particularly open to having her heart touched by Mateo and Nadine, who, it turns out, are two fellow oddballs given to fanciful divergent thinking. Also, like Elsbeth, they’re both navigating career transitions. Nadine is about “to launch a brand of sustainably sourced beauty and office supplies,” including “a combination nail polish and staple remover.” (How … is this possible? Does the FDA have an opinion?) Mateo, driven by an obsession with leaving his legacy just so, is feverishly casting about for a new angle on his own final collection, which he has scrapped with no inspiration in sight, just a few days before his final catwalk. Elsbeth arrives at his home/studio just in time to ask questions and be his new muse. Mateo, enchanted and inspired by the exuberance and specificity of her personal style, insists that she walk the runway, too. Sure, she’ll need some tutelage from Nadine, but then she can strut her stuff and “teach those Amazon depressives how to take a nourishing bite out of life!”

By the time Elsbeth’s final fitting with Mateo rolls around, the line between secret investigator and seemingly guileless muse/confidante is very blurry. Elsbeth has developed a certain fondness or at least sincere sympathy for some of her previous suspects, but she genuinely likes and vibes with Mateo. They’re both dog people (he misses his dear Sebastian, buried out in the front yard where Gonzo is happily nosing around), both incapable of being anyone other than exactly who they are, both protective of their friends.

Mateo relates the story of the mysterious Pangaea Project, which keeps popping up in conversation with suspects and witnesses. It was a project Ezra, Nadine, and Nick had collaborated on for one of his classes back in their FUNY days, and while it had good bones as a concept highlighting fashion trends from cultures around the world, the execution was a racist mess; as Mateo puts it, Nadine appeared in the photos in “blackface, yellowface, redface — each more offensive than the last.” Yikes. He’d advised them to destroy all of it, but Ezra, ever the artist, had taken it hard. What if he hadn’t destroyed the photos, after all? What if Nick and Nadine’s mutual suspicions are right, and Ezra was blackmailing one or both of them?

When Elsbeth figures out that the kindly, warm Mateo — someone who really sees and values her — killed Ezra himself, the bolt of insight is thrilling, and the knowledge that she’ll have to confront him breaks her heart. Ezra had been facing Giesa La Mott and her ultra-reflective sunglasses during Nick’s show, and his last photos clearly show Mateo’s unmistakably be-ringed hands holding the gun.

Mateo’s obsession with his legacy got the better of him — he couldn’t bear the idea of his name being forever associated with his accidental killing of the shady, armed gambling debt collector hounding Ezra late one night, or with the Pangaea Project, and he wound up killing Ezra to try to cover up and bury the whole nasty business. Still, deeply generous to the last, Mateo leaves behind the images for Nadine to destroy so her own reputation won’t suffer. Elsbeth can continue to be grateful to him for giving her the confidence boost she needed to embrace her own way of moving through the world and solving the cases and problems she encounters.

Mateo’s encouragement, after all, is what led Elsbeth to her greatest personal moment of triumph so far. She struts down the runway to the apt and earnest strains of Cass Elliott’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music” while Kaya, Captain Wagner, and Donnelly all gaze up with various facial expressions of pride and joy, unlocks the old Elsbeth once more. With one more case closed, it’s time to say good-bye. Or is it?! Having learned from DOJ Agent Celetano that the consent decree was real enough to justify funding a long-term position for Elsbeth to continue her investigative work, Captain Wagner fits the last pieces of the workplace family puzzle together, moving Elsbeth’s belongings from her old broom cupboard to Noonan’s former office. And so all is well: Kaya will help decorate her new space and be fast-tracked for a very well-deserved promotion to detective, Wagner allows a hug (a sweet callback to his refusal in the pilot), and in the final scene of Elsbeth walking Gonzo, she sees some very glamorous young women sporting Elsbeth-y looks from Mateo’s show. She’s gonna make it, after all!

One More Thing, One Last Time This Season

• Coat of the Episode: I’m a sentimental fool and love rhymes of all kinds — verbal, sonic, visual — so I’ve got to hand it to the return of Elsbeth’s signature pale pink overcoat from the pilot. This may be her first repeat coat! I hope we’ll see it again.

• Throughout this episode, Tony-winning Broadway veterans De Shields and Benanti were running neck-and-neck in the race for best line delivery. Benanti established an early lead with her remarks on Nadine’s future career plans and her comment that “I wasn’t myself yesterday, and not just because I was made up like a melting glacier!” Then De Shields came in hot on her heels with his description of standard issue models and the quip that once he had the resources to do so, he moved to his favorite part of New York: Connecticut. It’s got a neo-Vaudevillian feel, but when delivered with zest and gusto, an oldie truly is a goodie.

• A very honorable mention for best line delivery goes to Joel Marsh Garland, playing Pavel from the pawn shop where Ezra reluctantly put his camera in hock to pay off some gambling debts. When asked if he knows anything about Pangaea, his response is a perfect balance of enthusiasm and dryness: “Sure, Pangaea was the ancient supercontinent landmass that broke apart at the end of the Triassic period into the seven continents we know today.” Chef’s kiss.

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Sophie Brookover , 2024-05-24 04:00:29

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