In the season finale of Elementary, Joan Watson solves a puzzle that Sherlock Holmes could not. Joan Watson solves the puzzle of Irene Alder: The Woman.
The show immediately but very subtly pits Watson and Adler against each other in the two episode titles, “The Woman” and “Heroine”. Those familiar with Sherlock lore can easily guess The Woman but the heroine’s identity is shrouded, until these last few minutes when we all realize that the episode’s eponym is Watson. A woman of color sees what a white man does not and resolves the problem of the season.
Watson and Adler are pitted against each other in other ways as well. This is most obvious when the two women are sitting, literally one across the table from the other, for a tense conversation at the Four Seasons. Adler is unable to decipher the nature of Watson’s relationship with Holmes and can only conclude that Watson is a “mascot”, a very loaded term from a Brit to a POC. Later, as the action unfolds, the audience learns that Adler is primarily a woman of the mind. Watson, in contrast, may also be a sharp thinker, but she is primarily a woman of the heart. Adler has her passions but they are distorted by her need to analyze and control. Though Watson shows deductive strength, she is driven by her instinct to nurture and heal. Holmes, placed in between these two women, is not facing the shallow narrative of a love triangle. No, he is not choosing between two romances. Instead, he is choosing between two different worlds: British vs. American, mind vs. heart, isolation vs. friendship, abuse vs. respect, addiction vs. sobriety, past vs. future. For all, Holmes chooses the latter when he chooses to listen to Watson’s insight on Adler. He chooses to continue forward, and this is why we cheer.
Elementary does a wonderful job reinventing the Sherlock Holmes mythos. Adler is The Woman, not only because of the stellar impression she made upon Holmes but also because she is the Napoleon of Crime. Having Adler also be Moriarty adds dimension to the two’s obsessions with each other. Adler is not only Holmes’ match to wit; she is also his dark mirror. Watson, on the other hand, has always been the heart of the stories. It is through the doctor’s eyes that we experience the detective’s adventures. That the glue of the Holmes-Watson duo is a woman of color, that the humane insightful everyperson is an Asian-American woman, is absolutely amazing. Transforming the mythology of a fictional world is also transforming the perception of ours.
In the very first episode, when Holmes and Watson were discussing changes after he crashed her car, Watson laid out her expectations, that he will tell her what happened in London. When he refused, she smiled. Now I know it was a woman, she said.
This fucking show, man.
In this episode of Elementary, Watson calls out Gregson for sexist motives when he expresses concern about her safety.
This show, man.
Elementary’s primary plots are never the weekly mysteries. Instead, the narrative arc is centered around Sherlock finding peace with his demons and how that is inextricably tied to his relationship with Watson. Heroin may have made Sherlock a better detective but it didn’t give him a better life after Irene’s death. After many weeks sober, he knows that he can still be good at what he loves and that life can be good with Watson’s friendship. When Sherlock refuses heroin, he is refusing his old life. He may always be tempted, but he is no longer a broken man.
That is a very powerful message, for the character and also for cultural archetypes of addiction, trauma, and recovery. You may be broken, have gone to hell and crawled back upon your belly, suffered through profoundly life-changing trauma, but you can still heal. You can still learn and grow and find happiness. Some days will be challenging. Some people will never fully recover. But we can find pieces of our selves that we thought we lost and still fulfill our passions. We don’t need to be broken to be brilliant.
I’m pleased that the Elementary is honest about Sherlock’s struggle with recovery, but I’m delighted that the show chose to have him want a life free from heroin. He wants to heal from that injury. He wants to keep living because he has something to live for.
Granted, it’s revenge, and though I’m interested to see where that goes, I hope that Sherlock will find a more positive life goal. Still, he went to a very dark place and came back and now he wants to stay. We need more of those stories, of people breaking and then choosing to heal themselves.
I need more of those stories.
But maybe I just need to live my own.
I also noticed how Elementary uncomfortably plays to mainstream sex tropes, especially in regards to sex work. In “The Long Fuse”, the high-end escort is the cunning murderer. “You Do It To Yourself” shows Sherlock having boyish fun with a pair of beautiful twin ladies, and Watson uncomfortably draws boundaries as he overshares. Also in the same episode, Sherlock accuses a woman of murder, ignoring her distress from years of sex slavery. Last Sunday, “The Deductionist” opened with a provocative scene condemning sex workers who steal from their clients. Moments later, Watson makes a disparaging remark about strippers. Then, finally, we get to the scene above where Watson reveals her feelings about having pornography filmed in her home.
It’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable with unfamiliar activities in your private space, but it’s unclear from the narrative whether Watson is uncomfortable because it’s an invasion of privacy or sex or a mix of both. A character can keep very private boundaries around sex, but when a show consistently uses shallow sex tropes, it’s hard to read Elementary as anything other than sex-negative.
I noticed in Elementary that Joan Watson doesn’t take off her shoes when she enters her home. It’s such a small detail and I understand that it’s primetime serial television, but it would have been such a wonderful little wink.
Several years ago, I adopted this as my default response to The Question. What many people still don’t realize is that I still have this conversation with almost everyone. Only fellow Asian Americans, or people who also live straddled among different worlds, seem to understand.
After five seasons, I am finally done with Fringe’s fringe science when they started handwaving at the biological bases of emotion and reason.
And I learn where one of my most oft used phrases, I choose my choice, comes from.