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Elementary, My Dear Joan Watson: An Egalitarian Sherlock?

CBS’ Elementary has been saddled with the difficulty of distinguishing itself from the beloved BBC Sherlock, and, in a sense, justifying its existence. Sherlock fans were incensed when the rival show started running, and even before episodes aired, many people put in their two cents about the casting of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, suggesting that her character was an abomination against all that was canon. You can’t have a woman, let alone an Asian-American woman, in the sacred role of Watson! That would ruin everything!

Well, did it?

It turns out not, and it turns out that Elementary has done an admirable job of making itself into a very different sort of show, despite some obvious homages (or appropriations, depending on how you view it) of the BBC series, like the distinctive intro sequence which bears a lot of resemblance in style and tone to that of Sherlock. It’s not just a uniquely US series, although that’s certainly evident in the handling of overall storylines, the writing, the lack of the discreetly compact nature that serves the BBC series so well, with its tight episode arcs.

It’s also that Sherlock and Watson are two very different people in this series. At the start, the premise was that Joan, an ex-surgeon, was paired with Sherlock as his sober companion, tasked with keeping him out of trouble in the fragile period after leaving rehab. Sherlock, meanwhile, worked as a consultant to the New York Police Department, assisting them with tricky cases. And, inevitably, Watson was dragged into his world, since she was living with him, following him everywhere, and taking such an active role in his life.

In both Conan Doyle’s books and Sherlock, Watson is very much positioned as subservient. He’s the bumbler with a hero complex, following Sherlock about and worshiping his every thought and move. He’s astounded and amazed by the feats of deduction Sherlock manages to complete, and fawns over his partner to a degree that’s almost obscene. One almost gets the sense that Sherlock needs Watson, not as a companion to keep him anchored to the world, but as a self-esteem booster, someone there solely to serve as the person who will remind him of his perfection.

That is most decidedly not the case with Elementary, a series in which Watson is an independent, vivacious, complicated human being. Joan has her own life—private therapy appointments, her own apartment, her own friends, and her separate identity is important to her as something distinct from Sherlock, something she pursues on her own. Like Watsons past in various iterations of the story, she also has some darkness in her past, but it’s not portrayed as something that wounds her so deeply that only Sherlock can repair her.

Critically, this is a Watson who talks back. This Holmes is as arrogant, misogynistic, and pompous as all the others, but she calls him out, routinely and sometimes aggressively. She lets him know that she takes note of his behaviours and she has no interest in tolerating them; and she forces him to respect her not just as a woman but as a fellow human being. This isn’t depicted in a ‘woman as great civiliser’ way, but rather in a way which makes Watson a stronger and more serious character.

She is not a servant who follows Holmes wherever he leads, content to follow in his footsteps. She takes an active role in investigations, she questions people, she brings her own medical expertise to the table, and she holds Holmes accountable for his actions. She doesn’t make excuses for him to other people, for the most part—not for her the role of appeaser, the woman forced to pick up the pieces after an important man, soothing ruffled feathers and assuring people that he’s prickly, but thorough, and good at what he does.

This is a Watson who conducts research on her own, who brings her own strengths to investigations, who is very much an independent person even as she’s a partner. Their relationship is made more functional by it, because Watson is suddenly a multidimensional character instead of someone dependent on Sherlock for everything.

As the terms of her contract drew to a close, the show clearly had to come up with an effective way to keep her on, and I enjoyed that rather than taking the easy route, and simply having her stay on as an extended companion, the show had Watson engaging in a bit of a subterfuge, lying to Holmes and claiming that his father had extended her contract when this wasn’t the case. She had become, in a sense, attached to working with Holmes as a partner, and wasn’t yet ready to leave him, even though this meant she was living without compensation.

Naturally Holmes discovered this and they played an interesting and discreet game over the course of several episodes, with Holmes trying to assure her that he was fine on her own, and she valiantly pretending that she was still his companion. With everyone around her, including Holmes, pushing her to leave him and move on to the next client, she stayed. Yet, this wasn’t depicted as a character weakness or as a desire to cling to Holmes because he’s a brilliant man; rather, Watson wanted to stay with him because she had come to like him, to like working him, to find something fulfilling in the nature of their work that she clearly wasn’t getting before.

Watson was getting something out of assisting Holmes that serving as a sober companion wasn’t giving her anymore. A striking illustration of Watson’s character, and of her evolution even over the course of a few short episodes. And when Holmes finally revealed that the jig was up and he knew she wasn’t getting paid for her work anymore, he offered her a chance; moving on, or coming to work with him as a partner, a fellow consultant, getting her own wages for that.

Several things about that scene struck me as distinct. One was Sherlock’s emphasis on Holmes as a partner. Not a woman there to clean up after him and make cooing comments about how lovely he is, but as an actual partner, there to learn, but also there to assist with investigations. Another was his insistence on paying a proper wage, and acknowledgment that she might choose to live in or live out, thus emphasising that Watson has her own life and he respects that.

Finally, and most strikingly, he encouraged her not only to think over her choice with care, but to consult others when forming her opinion, and to consider their advice. It’s rare to see a male character on television offering a woman something and not only suggesting that she wait to think about it, but acknowledge that she might want to talk to the people in her life about such a major life change. Because transitioning from a sober companion to an investigator is a life change, and while Joan can make up her own mind about what she wants to do and who she wants to be, perhaps she also wants to reach out for advice or thoughts.

Sherlock, in other words, recognised Joan as a whole and independent person separate of himself, and wanted to make sure she understood that. He, too, has grown as a character over the course of the series, and it’s in part because of their dynamic. Joan’s no-nonsense, frank, assertive style meshes well with his arrogance, and it creates a fascinating partnership that is truly a partnership.

All the more remarkable for the lack of sexuality in their relationship. Inevitably, television seems obligated to make male/female crime duos both heterosexual and in love with each other (see Castle, Bones, and so on, all of which have suffered as a result of allowing the leads to get together). In this case, that sexual tension appears absent, although Holmes periodically hires sex workers and clearly has a history of relationships, and Joan occasionally dates. I’d love to see this dynamic maintained, illustrating that yes, heterosexual men and women can be friends and working partners without tumbling into the sheets together, and can even become intimate friends without feeling obliged to have sex.

This would make Elementary all the more revolutionary in terms of how it depicts men and women and their working relationships, and it’s clear that the writers on this show really are thinking about how to write a relationship that stands out. This is not a show you watch for the murder plots, which aren’t terribly remarkable. This is a show you watch for the people in it and the way they interact with each other, with the crime as a backdrop.

On Elementary, the real case study is in human beings, not in criminology.

(Photo by Heptagon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.)

3 thoughts on “Elementary, My Dear Joan Watson: An Egalitarian Sherlock?

  1. I disagree that BBC Watson follows Sherlock around complimenting him all the time. He does do that, but he also does a lot of telling him off, investigating on his own and doing his own thing (there is acknowledgment that he goes out with friends/girlfriends between scenes for instance, we just don’t see it because the show is more about Sherlock than John). Sherlock and John’s relationship is borderline unhealthily co-dependent.

    Sherlock and Joan on the other hand, are reliant on each other like friends ought to be but they don’t rely on each other for the entirety of their wellbeing.

  2. I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying, Emily.
    While I completely agree with you on the first part regarding John, I don’t get your conclusion at all.
    John telling Sherlock off and doing his own thing are indications of an unhealthily co-dependent relationship? But why?
    Isn’t it rather the other way round? If he were always following him around and never went out with anybody else?

    I adore both shows (yes, that is possible) – especially for their ability to portray friendships as friendships and not as a preliminary phase of a romantic relationship. It’s a rare thing in tv shows these days, as the article stated correctly. I grew tired of this “will they? won’t they?” policy.
    Elementary and Sherlock have different approaches, friendships in these shows are depicted differently just because we’ve got different characters. What unites them is that both are unusual friendships.
    Despite struggling with life as well, Joan seems much stronger than John in the first episode while CBS!Sherlock is much more human. BBC!Sherlock isn’t a very likeable character at the beginning, yet John manages to connect with him.

    “Like friends ought to be” – there isn’t any pattern for friendships and how they’re supposed to look like. Everyone has their own definition, it always depends on the people involved and their personal concepts. Hence it comes as no surprise that even difficult constellations can work out without having to be unhealthy. The two of them just bring out the best in each other and that is what makes both shows enjoyable for me.

  3. Love the article, but I’m going to disagree with you about the title sequences. They are nothing alike. Sherlock is shots of the city while Elementary is a giant mousetrap. The fact that they both show a shot of their respective city with the title card at the end would mean Sherlock actually ripped off shows like Sex and the City and Golden Girls which also had a shot of their city.

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