Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) watches as his brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) blows up Sherlock’s cache of private papers for reasons not worth explaining here. But I’m hoping the fact that Mycroft knows how to build a bomb is a clue he isn’t just the playboy restauranteur he’s seemed to be so far on CBS’ Elementary.
The writers of Elementary have introduced their versions of Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, and Mycroft Holmes and the disappointment of the blatant revisions of their characters as they originally appeared in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories is nothing compared to the infuriation caused by less immediately noticeable but even more truly fundamental changes.
Making Irene Adler a criminal and Holmes’ erstwhile lover has been done in the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey Jr movies and, to kinkier effect and with more amusing perversity, in the BBC series Sherlock. And it’s nothing to have Moriarty a woman, especially after working a gender change on Watson, except that rather than the effect being feminist, it’s subtly misogynistic, depending on whether you think the good of having Holmes’ intellectual equal a woman outweighs the fact that evil female nemeses are a staple of insecure males’ nightmares. Also, it’s been done too: In Law and Order: Criminal Intent. By the way, Olivia d’Abo, who played Nicole Wallace, Bobby Goren’s female Moriarty, appeared in last week’s episode, The Marchioness, I hope as a wink to fans of both series and not just coincidentally. It’s even less than nothing to have slimmed Myrcroft down and sexed him up, and the idea that the Holmes Brothers are rivals with a complicated family history isn’t at all faithful to Conan Doyle’s stories, in which, although Sherlock is affectionately critical of his older brother’s apparent laziness and lack of ambition, the two men like and admire and trust each other, but it is a nod to---or an out and out steal from---Sherlock, where, however, the rivalry, animosity, and distrust are all on one side and symptoms of Sherlock’s personal dysfunctions. It’s also implicit in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and it's the stick---and schtick---that drives the plot of Gene Wilder’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, although the smarter brother isn’t Mycroft, it’s Sigerson, Wilder’s in-jokingly named invention.
Reducing Mycroft not just in bulk but in achievement and status from an important government official who likes a good meal to a playboy restauranteur may turn out to be a good, that is, actually creative, change. It’ll depend on how things play out and what surprises are in store. Mycroft is going to be a recurring character this season and it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s a good reason Alan Moore made Mycroft the second head of the agency that would become the MI6 of the James Bond universe in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (See The Bruce-Partington Plans.) He’s also the second in what, judging by Skyfall, is a long line of M’s for whom M is not just short for Minister.
So these changes don’t bother me---too much---because they hardly strike me as changes, except in the Been There, Done That, Bought a Higher-Quality T-Shirt way.
But having Irene Adler outsmart Holmes by being sexually manipulative, taking away Moriarty’s mathematics degree and professorship, and not allowing Mycroft to demonstrate he’s smarter than his brother diminishes those characters and diminishes Holmes in the process.
I’ll have a lot more to say about Moriarty and Irene Adler in a future post, but for now I need to say this about Elementary’s Irene versus Conan Doyle’s original:
I think it’s a given among casual fans of Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia that Holmes comes to admire Irene Adler and compliment her with the title the Woman because she outsmarts him. but that’s not quite the case. She barely does. They play a game of chess, trading pieces, until she contrives to upend the board.
It turns out that they’re playing against a clock, a fact she knows, because she’s arranged it, and he doesn’t, because she manages to keep him from discovering it until time’s up and it’s too late.
So she does outsmart him in that way.
But he’s used to being outsmarted. It happens. Not very often, and he doesn’t like to admit it when it does. But it does. There are cases he’s failed to solve, criminals who got away. Irene’s almost certainly the first woman to do it, and he admires her for pulling that off. But his admiration is for her is based on something more and less than that, as well.
Until she comes along, Holmes doesn’t believe that any women are capable of outsmarting him. It’s not that he thinks they’re unintelligent or less intelligent than men. He thinks they’re too emotional. Too flighty. Too undisciplined in their thinking. He doesn’t doubt their brains. He is contemptuous of their characters. However inherently intelligent they may be, they don’t have the willpower or the moral fortitude to act intelligently. (This, by the way, is his excuse when he is outsmarted by other women or feels that he might be: You can’t out-think someone who isn’t thinking.) Irene surprises him not just by being smart but by being pure of motive. She's honest and decent and, instead of indulging herself emotionally, she does the right, that is, the intelligent thing in the end.
This doesn’t change his opinion of women. He just makes an exception---the Exception---for her.
By having their Irene “outsmart” their Holmes by sexually beguiling and emotionally toying with him, the producers of Elementary have made her into exactly the sort of inferior being Conan Doyle’s Holmes takes all women to be. If he saw what happened to his 21st Century counterpart, he wouldn’t dub Adler the Woman. He’d say, “Isn’t that just like a woman” and feel confirmed in his misogyny.
Back to Mycroft.
Here’s how we’re introduced, through Watson, to Conan Doyle’s Mycroft in The Greek Interpreter.
Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.
“I am glad to meet you, sir,” said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal. “I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler. By the way, Sherlock, I expected to see you round last week to consult me over that Manor House case. I thought you might be a little out of your depth.”
“No, I solved it,” said my friend, smiling.
“It was Adams, of course.”
“Yes, it was Adams.”
“I was sure of it from the first.” The two sat down together in the bow-window of the club. “To anyone who wishes to study mankind this is the spot,” said Mycroft. “Look at the magnificent types! Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.”
“The billiard-marker and the other?”
“Precisely. What do you make of the other?”
The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.
“An old soldier, I perceive,” said Sherlock.
“And very recently discharged,” remarked the brother.
“Served in India, I see.”
“And a non-commissioned officer.”
“Royal Artillery, I fancy,” said Sherlock.
“And a widower.”
“But with a child.”
“Children, my dear boy, children.”
“Come,” said I, laughing, “this is a little too much.”
“Surely,” answered Holmes, “it is not hard to say that a man with that bearing, expression of authority, and sun-baked skin, is a soldier, is more than a private, and is not long from India.”
“That he has not left the service long is shown by his still wearing his ammunition boots, as they are called,” observed Mycroft.
“He had not the cavalry stride, yet he wore his hat on one side, as is shown by the lighter skin on that side of his brow. His weight is against his being a sapper. He is in the artillery.”
“Then, of course, his complete mourning shows that he has lost someone very dear. The fact that he is doing his own shopping looks as though it were his wife. He has been buying things for children, you perceive. There is a rattle, which shows that one of them is very young. The wife probably died in childbed. The fact that he has a picture-book under his arm shows that there is another child to be thought of.”
I began to understand what my friend meant when he said that his brother possessed even keener faculties than he did himself.
Over the course of last season, Elementary got better and better, and cheekier and cheekier, about riffing off the Conan Doyle stories, and when Mycroft was brought on screen (in the person of Rhys Ifans) in the first episode of this season, I expected the writers to play around with that.
Didn't happen last week either when Mycroft showed up in New York and there was an actual opening in the plot for the dueling deductionists bit as Mycroft followed his brother around through a clumsy homage to Silver Blaze (made clumsier by the writers having used the big reveal of that story, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, in a previous episode). But Mycroft doesn't interrupt as Sherlock walks and talks his way through his investigation to point out something Sherlock's missed or even show signs he's taking in at least the same things if not more than Sherlock observes, and Sherlock gives no clues he's expecting Mycroft to chime in and one-up him.
Maybe tonight, but I'm not holding my breath.
There’s some cheating by Conan Doyle in that scene from the Greek Interpreter. The Holmes brothers are indulging in guesswork and basing too much on assumptions and prejudices like the idea that an expression of authority can be seen, never mind defined, from a view from an upstairs window or that there’s such a thing as the cavalry stride. But otherwise they are working from observable physical facts that Watson could have and, Sherlock would say, should have seen himself. The difference is that Sherlock and Mycroft know what to look for.
This is how Shawn Spencer works on Psych.
Shawn is hyper-observant. He solves cases by seeing things that are there to be seen by anybody if only they knew to look (and they like him have 40-20 vision; some cheating by the writers goes on) and that they often do see but don't grasp the significance of or connect to other clues. Shawn makes the connections and this is how a case can turn on something as simple as his reading the shipping label on a packing crate and Shawn still comes off as the smartest person in the room, and keep in mind the room usually includes Gus, Juliet, Lassiter, and Henry, none of whom are dummies. Shawn's genius isn't in the deduction, but in his having thought to read the label.
This isn't how Elementary's Holmes works, though. He doesn't make deductions based on observable clues. He doesn't do much observing at all. He doesn't have to. He's able to pull things out of his head no one else could know unless they'd read ahead in the script. We've seen him perform the trick of taking in another character's life story at a glance, but without explaining how he's done it so we're left to infer he's seen something that was there to be seen by anyone if only they'd looked more closely, if they'd not just seen but observed. It turns out, however, this isn't what's been going on.
In another recent episode, Holmes takes Watson to the police station on a Friday night as part of her training as a junior detective and orders her to deduce what's landed each of the prisoners in the holding cell in jail. He doesn't flat out say, "You know my methods, apply them," but that's her assignment. And she comes through by...reading their body language.
Well, actually, by reading time-worn bits of business actors have used since the days of the Ancient Greeks to convey their characters ' emotional states to audience members way up in the cheap seats. But still, that's what she does, treats gestures, postures, and expressions as if they are as signifying as smudges of dirt on a shop clerk's trousers, wax drippings on a lost bowler hat, or a children's picture book under the arm of a man wearing widower's weeds and ammunition boots. And presumably this is how Holmes does it, which means, since real human beings aren't as obvious and predictable as mediocre actors, he's not so much observing clues as reading minds.
And when he's not solving cases by telepathy, he's solving them by being literally a know it all. This Holmes knows stuff. Tons of stuff. He reads and watches and memorizes everything. We've seen him training his mind to do the impossible, take in streams of information from multiple sources at once and file it all away in his mental attic from where it can be retrieved instantaneously the moment he needs it. Conan Doyle's Holmes makes a point of not knowing stuff. He keeps his mental attic as uncluttered as possible so that nothing extraneous is there to get in the way of his thinking a problem through, confident that if there's information he needs he can find it quickly outside his head. Transported to the 21st Century, Conan Doyle's Holmes would be a cheerful and enthusiastic user of Google. In fact, Sherlock's Sherlock is. He's as wedded to his smart phone as other, more traditional Holmeses have been wedded to their magnifying glasses. (Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes uses one of those too, a sign that there are things there to be seen. Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes doesn't need one since there's nothing he needs to see to solve a crime. Even if there was, he still wouldn't need one,because it turns out he has superpowers. "My senses are unnaturally keen," he's boasted, which makes him more like Adrian Monk than like Sherlock Holmes, although Monk has the good grace to be sorry about it, calling his OCD inflected abilities a blessing and a curse.) Elementary's Holmes has his smart phone with him at all times too and has an impressive computer set up at home as well. But when he takes to the internet it's generally to confirm what he already knows, which makes it basically a trope the writers use to convince us of the reality of Holmes brilliance: See, he really is that smart!
But what it all comes down to is that the only way Mycroft, or Irene Adler, or Moriarty, or Watson can be smarter than Holmes is by knowing stuff he doesn't know. But the show's already established that he knows everything. So the only way he can be outsmarted is by his lapsing into sudden stupidity, which is how it comes about that Irene Adler bests him by getting him to think with his...um...heart...and not his head.
It'll be interesting to see what they finally do with Mycroft and if and how he's revealed to be the smarter brother. I'm pretty sure there's more going on with him than he's letting on. I’ve heard that an episode based in part on The Bruce-Partington Plans is in the pipe. Maybe it's tonight's.
I don’t know if I should get my hopes up. Mycroft hasn’t shown he’s the more intelligent brother so far, but he’s proving to be the more sensitive one. Which is in keeping with Elementary’s emphasis on recovery and relationships. Whatever the case Holmes and Watson are working on in the main plot, the subplot is usually about someone getting in touch with their feelings. Although their originals got along happily, Elementary’s Sherlock and Mycroft have a number of issues to work out, starting with the reason for their current estrangement---Sherlock slept with Mycroft’s fiancée.
Yep, both these Holmes brothers are robustly heterosexually sexual.
The Non-Adventure of the Dueling Deductionists continues. Friday morning update with minimum spoilage: Last night's episode, Blood is Thicker, did do a take-off on The Bruce-Partington Plans, using the central gimmick of that story, a body mysteriously appearing on the roof of a moving vehicle, a delivery truck here instead of a train car. And it turned out to be a rare occasion when Holmes did the Shawn Spencer routine and came to a conclusion based on observable physical clues that anyone could have seen had they thought to look. But Mycroft didn't figure in solving the mystery at all. And there was another missed opportunity for him to one-up Sherlock or what would have been an opportunity had the writers been setting things up for it in Mycroft's two previous appearances. Early on, Mycroft wonders why Sherlock missed the opening of Mycroft's new restaurant, the Diogenes (Get it?), and Sherlock testily replies that he was busy solving the abduction of a teenage girl. Here, if the writers had been doing it right, Mycroft should have said quickly, "It was Adams, wasn't it?" He didn't and the brothers just continued on working out their personal issues.
There was a nice in-joke bit of casting though. Back in the 1980s there was a TV Movie called The Return of Sherlock Holmes in which Holmes wakes up in the late 20th Century after having been frozen like Austin Powers for 80 years and teams up with his old friend Doctor Watson's grand-daughter, Jane Watson. Jane was played by Margaret Colin. Last night's guest star on Elementary? Margaret Colin.
Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, and Jon Michael Hill, with, from time to time, Rhys Ifans. On CBS, Thursdays at 10 PM Eastern, 9 Central. Recent episodes are available to watch online at the Elementary website.