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Joan Watson: Not so Elementary

Written by GeekGirlCon Copywriter Winter Downs.

poster

Image source: IMDb

Many geeks are gaga for Sherlock, but I’m here with a shout-out to the other modern-day TV adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes books, CBS’s Elementary.

For me, the core appeal of the show is not the sleuthing—the mysteries can be a bit lackluster—but the relationship between Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), and the character of Watson herself. Lucy Liu’s casting caused concern in fan circles, for some because they favored ‘traditional’ (ie. white male) casting; for others because they thought that making Watson female meant the showrunners planned to reduce her to a love interest or caretaker.

For folks in the second group, just one or two episodes should set their minds at ease.

Just to get the main drawbacks out of the way: as in all Holmes adaptations, Watson is defined by her relationship to the title character. The show also suffers from a lack of other female characters for Joan to interact with. But she herself is the most dynamic and interesting Watson I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot of Watsons), and she elevates the whole show.

Holmes and Watson are a staple pairing of slash (same-gender sex and romance) fanfiction. Here, they’re more platonic than in any adaptation I’ve seen. That’s partly because of Watson’s superpower: setting boundaries. She comes into Sherlock’s life as his sober companion, a live-in supporter as he recovers from his drug and alcohol addiction. That’s a job that entails making clear rules about how clients interact with her, for their benefit as much as for hers. Sherlock, who’s used to being in control, withholds information and uses his deductive powers to uncover secrets that she didn’t want to share. Whereas in other versions, Watson lets him get away with this because “that’s what makes him great,” Joan Watson never does. She refuses to comply with his demands until she knows the reasons behind them, and she never fails to tell him when he’s being inappropriate.

full of it

Yep, right from Season 1, Episode 1.
Image souce: BrandyAlexanders-moved

Having established this as the basis of their relationship, when Sherlock takes Watson as his apprentice, she assumes a much more equal role in their partnership. The average TV or cinematic Watson, even the original Conan Doyle Watson, is done a disservice by his writers. Sherlock never treats him as an equal, because Watson never sees himself as an equal. Joan Watson, on the other hand, is far more to Sherlock than a gopher/cheerleader. In one episode, when Sherlock contemplates losing Watson as a regular partner in crime-solving, he realizes how vital to his process she’s become. After banishing her to prove to himself that he can still solve problems alone, he slogs through the evidence all night to make a few connections, but it’s Watson’s insight when she arrives in the morning that breaks the case.

Holmes respects her because she respects herself. Holmes begins to show compassion because she shows that it makes her a stronger person, not a weaker one. Gradually he understands that, even though he might never find another person whose mind works like his, he doesn’t have to isolate himself.

The greatness of this partnership is not just what Watson gives to Sherlock, but what he gives to her in return. She comes to the relationship feeling rather lost; she gave up medicine after a mistake in the OR shook her confidence in her own judgment, and while she does get something out of being a sober companion, it’s clearly not fulfilling. She initially helps Sherlock with his cases because she has to be around him all the time for her job, but it quickly takes on its own meaning for her: she gets to help people, and flex her intellectual muscles at the same time. She studies for her PI license—how many Watsons do you know with their own PI license?—and begins choosing cases.

Sometimes, Sherlock will reject those cases because they don’t seem challenging enough for him, but Joan pushes on, and inevitably turns out to be right—there’s more to the case than meets the eye. She’s got an eye for certain kinds of detail that even Sherlock, with all his genius, tends to miss. Those details might be medical oddities, or quirks of people’s reactions that might point to motive.

At one point, her friends and family worry that her leaving medicine was a mistake, and that now she’s just drifting from one thing to the next. She takes their concerns into account, but thinking about it just confirms that being a consulting detective is right for her, and she stands firm. Sherlock is forever trying to ferret out information about her love life, claiming he wants to make sure she chooses someone good enough for her, but really because he fears change. Joan is compassionate about his insecurity, but states plainly that she needs a life of her own.

I wish I’d had a role model like Joan earlier in life. Secrets and frustrations are never left to fester simply for dramatic purposes. They’re not always resolved, because human relationships don’t work that way. It’s just that the drama comes not from misunderstandings and half-truths, but from people working through their human failings. That’s not something that could’ve been possible without this version of Watson.

What’s great about her character is that she’s allowed to have strengths that are based in interpersonal relationships, but those strengths aren’t devalued because they’re about feelings, or because she’s a woman. Even the traditionally misanthropic Sherlock Holmes admits, “I’m better with you.”

named a bee

The truest sign of appreciation.
Image source: Halloa What Is This

The show’s just returned for its third season, picking up at a point where Joan is rightfully annoyed at Sherlock for reasons I won’t spoil. I look forward to watching her make him earn her forgiveness.

Winter Downs
“Rock On!”

Winter Downs

Manager of Editorial Services at GeekGirlCon.

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