Lucy Liu as Joan not John Watson doing what she does too often on CBS’ updating of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, fade in the background while Holmes gets down to work.
Following up on my post from last week, Elementary! He’s elementarily not my ideal Sherlock Holmes: From time to time, in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, after Holmes has asked (ordered) Watson to join him in an investigation, Watson will make polite noises turning him down, saying he doesn’t want to get in Holmes’ way. Watson is a modest man and well aware that Holmes doesn’t need to have him along. In fact, very often, Holmes doesn’t let him come along or even tell him he’s about to go out on a case without him.
But Holmes is certain to reply something along the lines of Stuff and nonsense! Actually, his most famous reply to one of Watson’s polite refusals is “I am lost without my Boswell.”
This is Holmes’ way of telling Watson that he does need him and, more importantly, wants him along. It’s a statement of affection. He needs and wants Watson along because he’s a good friend.
He needs and wants Watson’s company.
But, as a purely practical matter, let’s ask. Where would Holmes be without his Boswell?
Pretty much in the same fix as Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes in Elementary. A little lonely, a little less confident, but basically functioning as well as ever as a detective. Mainly, though, not lost but incomplete.
Miller’s Holmes doesn’t need his Boswell but he’d be better off with him…I mean, her.
Sorry. From what I’ve seen, Lucy Liu is not Watson. I don’t know who she is. Apparently, neither do the show’s writers, which means Liu doesn’t know who she is either. She’s trying to figure it out without the writers’ help but she’s struggling. Whoever she is, though, it’s not Watson.
It’s not because they’ve made Watson a woman. That’s not even new. Two TV movies in the 1980s had female Watsons. So does one of my favorite movies from when I was kid, They Might Be Giants. And plenty of TV Holmes avatars and manqués have had female Watsons. Monk and Sharona and then Nathalie. Castle and whoever he’s paired with. The best played Watson to the best Holmes avatar, Vincent D’Onforio’s Bobby Goren of Law and Order: Criminal Intent was Kathryn Erbe as Detective Alex Eames, who is a number of things Doyle’s Watson is and Lucy Liu’s isn’t, among them, independent, capable, and confident enough in her own skills and intelligence that it’s truly persuasive that she’s impressed by Goren and impressed enough to ignore his weirdness and that he’s far from her idea of an ideal partner. She makes us think that if Eames can put up with and even like this guy, then he must be worth putting up with and even liking, a very Watson-esque thing for her to do. All Watsons have the job of helping us appreciate the great gifts and see the humanity of their Holmeses.
So, it’s not the gender change. It’s the career change.
Doyle’s Watson and just about every Watson who’s followed is a former Army surgeon. Liu’s character is a former surgeon.
She’s quit medicine out of guilt at having lost a patient on the operating table.
Her confidence shot, her career over, she’s more or less adrift. But she’s on the lookout for something to do that will give meaning back to her life, and in this her situation is somewhat similar to that of Doyle’s Watson when we first meet him.
At the opening of A Study in Scarlet, Watson has come home from Afghanistan traumatized by his wounds and his experiences in the war there and still suffering the effects of a tropical fever that nearly killed him. His military career’s over but he’s having trouble getting a civilian one going.
I had neither kith nor kin in England, and was therefore as free as air–or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be. Under such circumstances I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained. There I stayed for some time at a private hotel in the Strand, leading a comfortless, meaningless existence, and spending such money as I had, considerably more freely than I ought.
Then he meets Holmes.
Soon he has moved into 221B Baker Street and is helping Holmes---or at least accompanying Holmes---on an investigation that exhilarates him and brings him back to life. By the end of the novel he’s not practicing medicine again---that doesn’t happen until after the next book, The Sign of Four, and then it’s due to his having met, fallen in love with, and married Mary Morston---but he’s snapped out of his depression and ready to begin work on his second career, the one that will make him and, more importantly, Sherlock Holmes famous.
“I have all the facts in my journal, and the public shall know them.”
Effectively, then, the first person Sherlock Holmes saves with his detective work is Watson, something the BBC’s Sherlock brings to the foreground in its first episode. In Elementary, this appears to be working itself out more slowly and subtly and with an ironic twist. Holmes is saving Watson by drawing her into his work as a detective but she thinks she’s saving him.
But this is where and why the career change works against her achieving real Watson-osity.
Before he returns to medicine, Doyle’s Watson is paying his bills with his army pension. Elementary’s Watson is paying hers by taking work as a “sober companion.”
The central conceit of Elementary is that exactly what Doyle’s Watson worried would happen happened. Holmes’ habit of alleviating his boredom between cases with seven percent solutions of cocaine became a habit. This Holmes is a recovering addict. His move to New York is part of his recovery. He’s left behind bad company and old haunts, presumably like the opium den in The Man With the Twisted Lip, to start his life and his career over, clean and sober. His father---not his brother Mycroft---paid for the move and his rehab, which, as I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t like, because it defines Holmes as a son, a child. But now Daddy Holmes is paying Watson to keep an eye on his kid, see he doesn’t fall into old ways and take up with the wrong friends, drag him to his support group, and nag and scold and lecture and plead with and badger and boss and bully and emotionally blackmail Holmes to keep him from backsliding.
This makes Watson two things, besides annoying, no other Watson is or has been.
A glorified babysitter.
And an employee.
This is a significant and as far as I’m concerned damaging change.
The popular conception has Holmes and Watson joined at the hip, with Watson playing a definite secondary and supporting role. But that notion is Watson’s own doing and a sign of his innate modesty. It’s how he presents himself in the stories. In fact, he has an independent and successful life of his own. And this is key to our appreciating Holmes.
Time to back up a bit and ask the question, Why does Holmes need Watson?
At the most practical level it’s simply that Watson has useful knowledge and experience Holmes lacks. His medical skills and training come in handy particularly at a time when forensic medicine was still a developing field. Doyle’s Holmes and Watson frequently arrive at a crime scene where no competent pathologist is at work. If there’s a local coroner around, it’s usually the case that he’s never seen anything like this before. A 21st Century Holmes, though, shouldn’t face that problem. If the local forensics unit can’t answer a question, there’s always the internet. On the BBC’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes needs his Doctor Watson because, unlike Jonny Lee Miller on Elementary, he’s not a quasi-official member of the police department and has no authority with the technicians on the scene who therefore aren’t obliged to answer his questions or show him any evidence they’ve collected. On top of that, he’s alienated practically the entire department. He doesn’t like them and he doesn’t respect them, especially not their supervisor Anderson. They don’t work fast enough and they have a bad habit of interrupting Holmes’ thinking by offering their own (wrong) interpretations of the evidence, when they actually find evidence or evidence Holmes recognizes as having real importance.
Liu’s Watson’s medical training occasionally makes her useful at a crime scene, but so far it’s usually been a matter of her saving Holmes the trouble of asking one of the police medical officers at the scene or taking out his smart phone and googling for a fact. And they’ve made him such a walking encyclopedia that often he tells her what she out to be telling him, leaving her nothing to do but confirm he’s correct. At least, though, they haven’t had her sputter a 21st Century American version of “By Jove, Holmes! How the deuce did you know that?”
And it’s damning that Holmes never introduces her as Doctor Watson. It’s always “Joan Watson” or “Miss Watson.” Also, he never calls her his “colleague and associate.” She’s just his associate and he says it in a way that makes it sound like a synonym for assistant. In other incarnations, Doctor Watson’s title opens doors and loosens tongues for Holmes. Being able to introduce his friend and colleague Doctor Watson---or as often happens being introduced himself by Doctor Watson---confers an authority and respectability and an air of professionalism people might not be inclined to grant an amateur private consulting detective, if they can even conceive what such a creature might be. But they’re used to talking freely to doctors and answering their most probing and intimate questions. Elementary’s Holmes doesn’t need help in that way. After all, he’s basically a cop. In real life, he’d be flashing a badge. Watson needs his stamp of legitimacy. She’s allowed on the scene and tolerated because she’s with him.
There’s more to it.
As a doctor and former soldier, Watson has a breadth of experience and acquaintance that’s different from Holmes’. Holmes, who, nevermind the popular conception, has friends besides Watson and his own extensive social circle, but most of those friends and acquaintances belong to London’s underworld, the part of the city he most often visits when he leaves Baker Street. He doesn’t know people who aren’t connected with the criminal side of life. When he meets so-called respectable people of his own class and station it’s usually because somehow or another they’ve been drawn into that world.
But Watson, the doctor, is used to dealing with people in distress not of their own making, and he has learned to treat most everybody the way he treats his patients, with…patience, a virtue Holmes does not practice regularly, and with kindness, tact, and sympathy. He know when and how to employ diplomacy, to show respect towards people Holmes is disinclined to respect, and in short to be polite and charming. Which frees Holmes to be rude and obnoxious or at least less than ordinarily civil. More to the point, it frees Holmes to concentrate on a problem while ignoring the distractions presented by the person with the problem. This, of course, comes most into play when that person with a problem is a woman.
And Watson’s bedside manner, so to speak, is not incidentally a form of information gathering, something else Holmes relies on Watson for. Watson is an extra pair of eyes and ears, and by temperament and training, he’s able to pick up on things Holmes might miss.
After all, he is a trained observer and collector of evidence. Doyle didn’t make Watson a doctor just because he was a doctor himself. Doyle saw his medical schooling as an education in scientific thinking. Watson is every bit the scientist Holmes is. Watson may not be brilliant but he is intelligent and his intelligence is educated and developed by training, experience, and continual practice. This makes him useful to Holmes in another and maybe the most important way.
Watson is someone Holmes can talk to, because Watson can keep up.
Never forget that the reason we can follow Holmes’ line of deduction (if only after the fact) and grasp how he’s solved a case is that Watson has followed it and grasped it and explained it to us.
Holmes can think out loud in front of Watson, try out theories on him, ask him questions he’s asking himself, because, knowing that Watson’s following right along and expecting him to ask intelligent questions back and taking in Watson’s own observations helps him focus and work his way through a problem. Holmes isn’t always polite about acknowledging this. In fact, he can be downright insulting---
“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”
He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. He now took the stick from my hands and examined it for a few minutes with his naked eyes. Then with an expression of interest he laid down his cigarette, and, carrying the cane to the window, he looked over it again with a convex lens.
“Interesting, though elementary,” said he as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. “There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions.”
“Has anything escaped me?” I asked with some self-importance. “I trust that there is nothing of consequence which I have overlooked?”
“I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth.
---but he does acknowledge it and he counts on it.
If Watson sometimes seems not to have much to say in reply to Holmes’ monologing, it’s because he’s also smart enough to know his own limits and when to keep his mouth shut so as not to interrupt Holmes when he’s on a tear.
Liu’s Watson is not smart in that way.
She’s not particularly smart in any way Doyle’s Watson and other Watsons are.
I blame this on the writing, not on Liu’s acting. She’s just not given any smartness to play. Going by the stuff the writers have her saying, it’s easy to forget she is---was---a doctor, and a gifted one, according to a former colleague who can’t understand any better than we can why she’s given up her career to play nurse to a rich man’s spoiled brat of son. As far as we can tell, when she practiced she paid less attention to her patients as individuals with feelings than Holmes, any and every Holmes, does to clients. All her knowledge and experience of human nature seems to have been acquired during her time spent in the field of self-help. Her language is the language of self-help and recovery. She says things like:
“That relationship stabilizes him…”
“I just need to re-open those lines of communication…”
“If I feel you’ve compromised his sobriety…”
No wonder Holmes doesn’t talk to her. He talks at her. She’s an excuse for him to soliloquize. Often he seems to be talking to keep her from talking. And why wouldn’t he, if what he’s going to hear out of her is stuff as banal and devoid of independent thought as that?
On top of this, she’s intrusive.
Years go by before Watson learns Holmes has a brother. That’s because he’s too much of an Englishman to pry into a friend’s personal life. Liu’s Watson won’t stop prying. She’s convinced that he needs to dredge up his past in order to achieve the kind of emotional self-awareness necessary to recovery. Other Watsons admonish their Holmes to show some feeling or at least remember that other people have feelings. This Watson is constantly encouraging her Holmes to get in touch with his own.
To be fair, the writers know this is part of her problem. They know they’ve made her a pill. In a clever bit from this past Thursday night’s episode, we see Holmes at his support group relating to his fellow addicts not the latest news from his road to recovery or details from his past struggles with his addictions but the facts of a case he solved back in London, when he was, as it happened, coked out of his skull. Sherlock Holmes fans would recognize the case as an only slightly updated retelling of The Crooked Man. Watson finds this an appalling breach of group etiquette and at the end of the episode, dragging him back to another meeting, she says, scoldingly, “You’re not going to talk about some old case. You’re going to share something real…” depriving us of the real pleasure of hearing him re-tell, as he’s threatening to do, the adventure of The Blue Carbuncle.
Now, here’s where Watson’s not being a doctor and working at a dead-end job that reduces her pretty much to a stand-in for Holmes’ father, whom for the moment the show’s producers are keeping off screen---presumably until they can persuade Christopher Plummer to guest star---makes her less than useful not just to Holmes but to us the audience.
Considered purely as a literary device, Doyle’s Watson does several things for us readers. First, he keeps us out of Holmes’ head. We never get to read Holmes’ thoughts directly, which means we never see him working at being brilliant, we only get the results of his brilliance and thus the mystery and surprise of that brilliance is maintained. Next, Watson as the teller of tales provides us with a point of view that is warm, humane, sympathetic, insightful emotionally as well as intellectually, colorful, and literary. We know what the stories would be like if they were told from Holmes point of view---not stories. They’d be dryly scientific case studies, of interest only to other professionals, like his monographs on tobacco ash, tattoos, 160 separate ciphers, and---Holmes being a world-class violinist as well as a great detective---the polyphonic motets of Lassus. Although Holmes routinely criticizes Watson’s prose style and his taste for the sensational, the romantic, and the dramatic in his accounts of their adventures at the expense, Holmes feels, of the scientific, we sense that Holmes is secretly glad that it’s Watson doing the writing and not himself, recognizing that Watson’s “sensational” stories are better for business and Holmes’ reputation than his own accounts would be and, perhaps, enjoying the way they humanize himself to himself. But, finally and most importantly, seeing that this smart, decent, independent, highly competent and successful doctor is impressed by Sherlock Holmes tells us that it’s right for us to be impressed by him too and, at the same time, seeing that this smart, decent, independent, highly competent and successful doctor is often baffled by what does not baffle Holmes allows us to not to feel bad about being baffled ourselves---in fact, we can enjoy our bafflement just as much as Watson does his.
But Liu’s Watson does not have an independent, self-contained, successful life of her own. In what we see of her life apart from Holmes’, she’s not capable. She’s barely a grown-up.
…a self-doubting daughter convinced she’s disappointed her mother.
…a lonely single woman looking for love and failing at the dating game.
…a sulking professional failure, a former doctor who can’t get over her one mistake that proved she’s not perfect.
…a put-upon renter about to be evicted from her rent-controlled apartment until Holmes comes to her rescue.
We’re not impressed that this screw-up is impressed by Sherlock Holmes. We’re astonished that she can stand to be alone in her own company. It’s no wonder that as her term of employment is nearing its end she’s scheming to stay on his sober companion. She’s even lying to him and his father about the progress of his recovery.
This may be part of the producers’ plans for the development of her character. Watson needs to reclaim a life of her own and she may be on track to do it through her admiration and affection for Holmes. He’s inspiring her. But it’s not promising that she doesn’t seem inspired to get back into medicine. She’s not contemplating opening her own clinic somewhere. What she seems attracted to is the idea of working with Holmes as a partner in crime-solving. I suppose the producers think that in this way she’ll become his equal. But she can’t be his equal unless he’s not really Sherlock Holmes. By definition, Holmes has no equal as a detective. But even if she does learn his methods and how to apply them, she will still have no real life of her own apart from his. At best all she’ll be is a junior detective.
Doyle’s Watson and every real Watson who’s followed is not Holmes’ equal as a detective, but he’s his equal in other ways and even his superior in some. He’s not Holmes’ partner in crime-solving because the world’s greatest detective does not need a partner, not even a junior partner. Watson is Holmes’ partner in adventuring.
This brings me back to my point in my previous Holmes post. The reason Jonny Lee Miller hasn’t convinced me his Sherlock Holmes is the Sherlock Holmes is that so far he hasn’t shown enough of that side of Holmes, the adventurous, swashbuckling, freebooting, violent and dangerous side. Almost all original stories centered around wild and violent and romantic adventures that had swept up Holmes’ clients and other characters and there was always the chance that if they weren’t careful or if their investigation went awry Holmes and Watson would be caught up in the wildness and the violence themselves. This happens in a number of the stories and, Watson tells us, has happened on cases he hasn’t written up yet and, apparently even more frequently, on cases Holmes tackles alone.
Where would Holmes be without his Boswell? From what we can tell, working more often in secret as a late Victorian combination of James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Batman.
So Holmes has to be prepared to turn into an action-adventure hero at any moment, and part of his preparation is to call on Watson. This is a very real way Holmes needs Watson. He depends on him to have his back in a fight.
Don’t forget, throughout most of the stories both Watson and Holmes are still young men.
Watson is brave, dogged, quick-witted, keen-eyed---he may not observe according to Holmes’ lights, but he can see what’s coming at them---and unflinching. When Holmes suggests he bring his trusty service revolver along on a case, it’s not because Watson owns a gun. It’s because he’s good with one.
Like Holmes, Watson, the war hero, is a dangerous and potentially violent man.
This is one of the reasons I get such a kick out of Jude Law’s Watson in the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes movies. Downey’s Holmes is an exaggeration of Doyle’s Holmes. But Law’s Watson could be dropped as is into a more traditional adaptation---say one starring Jonny Lee Miller---and Law would hardly have to change anything except to shave closer.
The last three episodes of Elementary---The Red Team, The Deductionist, and A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs---have allowed Miller to show a more dangerous side to his Holmes. He’s not as much of swashbuckler as he is a thug, more Daniel Craig as opposed to Pierce Brosnan in his inner Bondness. But he’s capable of inflicting pain and damage on the bad guys and willing to put himself in danger, not for danger’s sake but out of sheer ruthlessness and a desire to punish the villain.
Liu’s Watson, however, has not shown any sign she’d be useful in a fight, not even to call 911. She’d drop her cell or discover she’s forgotten to charge it. In A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs she does manage to help out by knocking out the bad guy while his back is turned by smashing a plaster bust of Napoleon over his head, reaching for the nearest literary allusion because no flower vase is handy. And this takes so much out of her that right after she collapses into bed and sleeps for six hours. So she’s not exactly the kind of partner in adventure Holmes can depend on to have his back.
She’s not dependable in any way, in fact, except in the way she keeps offering to be and urging him to take advantage of, as a friend Holmes can open up to, and we can only hope he never takes her up on the offer.
Ok. It’s network television. The target audience isn’t obsessive Holmes fans like me. It’s fans of TV detective shows looking for something fun to cap off their Thursday nights. If you miss Monk, miss House, and can’t get enough of Castle and The Mentalist, Elementary will fit the bill. And things might change. In fact, as I’ve said, there are signs they are changing. We don’t need to find out that Liu’s Watson has her own Army issued .45 in her sock drawer or that she has hidden martial arts skills that like Kane she’s Zen enough to keep in check until pushed too far. I really hope she doesn’t. I would love it if the writers could find ways to show that she is brave, stalwart, capable, and in her own way dangerous than just by having her turn out to have been one of Charlie’s Angels.
Nicol Williamson was the first Sherlock Holmes who looked and acted like my ideal Sherlock Holmes, and his Watson, Robert Duvall, was the first Watson who was at all close to my ideal Watson. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke were both excellent Watsons but they were something of a step back in being more decidedly middle-aged. An unsung but fine and youthful Watson was Ian Hart who played Watson to two different fine and youthful Sherlock Holmeses, Robert Foxburgh and Rupert Everett. But I was thrilled when I saw Jude Law in the part. That, I said, is my Watson, well, except for the homo-erotic sexual panic. And he’d still be my all time favorite Watson, but now Martin Freeman has come along.
Freeman’s Watson, who besides having the advantage of working with what may be the best Sherlock Holmes ever, is Watson through and through, dependable in every way every Holmes needs his Watson to be, including having his back in fight. Despite looking like a hobbit, Freeman’s Watson is every bit as dangerous as Law’s. This has been dealt with comically---
But it’s demonstrated to ruthless effect in the very first episode when Watson takes aim and shoots a murderer in the back and then coolly shrugs it off without remorse or regret.
The first person Cumberbatch’s Holmes saves is Watson. But ever since they’ve pretty much kept it even.
Previous post, essentially Part One of this post: Elementary! He’s elementarily not my ideal Sherlock Holmes.