A family in the making: Sherlock Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch, left) meets and gets to know and like and be liked by Dr Watson’s (Martin Freeman, right) soon-to-be fiancee Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington, center) in the premiere episode of Sherlock Season 3, The Empty Hearse.
[Editor’s note: I’d put a spoiler warning here but I’ve been informed by smarty pants fans on Twitter than the in-crowd has already seen all the episodes and only old-fashioned old people like me are watching Sherlock one new episode at a time on PBS. Still, if you’re old-fashioned like me and saving them up, spoiler alert. PS. Click on the photo above to see another photo that contains some very minor spoilage.]
One of my favorite scenes in The Empty Hearse, last week’s premiere episode of Sherlock Season 3, is when Holmes, Watson, and Watson’s not-quite-yet-fiancee (Holmes has interrupted Watson’s proposal) Mary Morstan are waiting for a cab outside the third restaurant they’ve been thrown out of because Watson has tried, for the third time, to throttle Holmes (he has his reasons), and Holmes looks at Mary’s face and sees…
Almost too much for Holmes to take in.
Fans will remember that when Holmes tried to read Irene Adler’s face in A Scandal in Belgravia he was stymied. He could find nothing there to tell him what she was like or what she was thinking and scheming. The trademark lettering that superimposes itself over clients, crime scenes, witnesses, and suspects to tell us what clues Holmes is observing typed itself out as a series of ??????
Mary’s face almost disappears in a word cloud.
Irene was unreadable.
Mary is an open book.
It’s not that she’s simple, she’s not, or that she’s without guile or deceit, although at the moment that’s the case. It’s that she’s allowing herself to be completely open to Holmes because she likes him.
More importantly, she trusts him.
Her immediate trust and affection are partly based on her trust and affection for Watson. If John likes Holmes, Holmes must be likeable. If John trusts him, he must be trustworthy. But it’s also based on her own quick and sure judgment. She’s already read him as clearly as he’s reading her and despite his flaws and shortcomings, of which she is well-aware, she’s decided she likes him and trusts him
Which is a very good thing because she also knows she’s going to have to trust him with her husband-to-be. In two important ways. She’ll have to trust him with John’s life as Holmes drags Watson in and out of danger while investigating crimes and chasing down villains. And she’ll have to trust him not to interfere with her and John’s marriage. And she does that on the spot. In fact, she welcomes him into it.
He’s family now.
“I like him,” she says to Watson’s consternation when they’re alone together on the cab ride home. Watson’s still furious at Holmes for pretending to be dead for two years without letting him in on the scheme and he’s trying to convince himself he hates Holmes. Mary won’t let him. She repeats herself with a satisfied smile that ends the argument before it begins, “I like him.” She means she’s adopted him. It’s not clear whether she sees Holmes as a son or a little brother, but she definitely sees him as someone she cares about and will care for from here on out.
Quick aside. Next time we see her she’s reading Watson’s blog, not for the first time, we can be sure, but for the first time with the actual, live Sherlock Holmes in mind, and she’s impressed, even thrilled, by how well Watson’s described Holmes. It’s not Sherlock Holmes the great detective who’s excited her admiration. It’s John Watson the writer.
Holmes is her new friend and even hero. But John is her man.
Back to the scene.
For his part, Holmes is completely thrown off balance. Mary has forced upon him the new or at least rare experience of feeling liked. Not just liked. Loved. Sure, people have loved him. His parents, for example, as we learn in this episode. But he’s been adept at ignoring that. He can’t with Mary. What Mary has also done is made him like someone back instantly. The only other time that has happened was when he met Watson.
This meeting with Mary tells us the most important thing about Holmes and Watson’s friendship. They’re family. Brothers. More truly brothers than Holmes and Mycroft because Holmes can’t always depend on Mycroft and because the two have a real problem not just expressing their love for each other but, because they can’t stand the idea, even admitting it. Holmes and Watson love each other and can depend on each other always and utterly.
The key in Sherlock is that Watson’s dependability is the basis of the love, not the other way round.
The intimacy between Holmes and Watson assumed in the popular imagination is an artifact of the movies and TV shows in which they’re portrayed as inseparable for dramatic convenience. In the original stories, when Watson isn’t along on a case, they lead separate lives, even when they’re sharing the rent at 221B Baker Street, which they don’t do throughout the whole of their time together. In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the collections that contain the most of most famous and best short stories, Holmes has 221B to himself. Watson has moved out. He’s married---to Mary Morstan---and busy with his growing medical practice and weeks and even months go by without Holmes and Watson seeing or hearing from each other.
When Watson moves back in after Holmes returns from the dead in The Empty House, it’s also after Mary has died. (That’s not a series spoiler. At least, I don’t think it is. I don’t know what plans Sherlock has for its Mary.) And what Watson is seeking is not so much a renewal of an old intimacy that never was but company. Not quite the same things. Good company is a solace for loneliness. Intimacy often isn’t and can even make it worse.
Even so, the two still manage to lead lives apart from each other and out of sight of each other. For one thing, Watson has his own social life. He has a wide circle of acquaintance with many friends, a number of whom come and go through the stories, a few turning up as clients or as introducing clients or cases, others Watson taps as sources to help with investigations, but most having little or nothing to do with Watson’s life as Holmes trusty colleague and biographer, and all of them taken for granted in conversations between Watson and Holmes and in Watson’s narrations.
That’s why I was taken aback when I read this in an interview with Sherlock’s co-creator Steven Moffat in which he talks about Holmes as the best man at John and Mary’s wedding (the centerpiece of tonight’s episode, The Sign of Three):
Ever since I was a little boy, I always wanted to do it. It was obvious Dr. Watson only had one friend and Sherlock Holmes must've been the best man.
Moffat and his co-creator Mark Gatiss know their Conan Doyle backwards and forward, so I’d have thought Moffat would have to know he’s wrong there. Holmes is definitely not Watson’s only friend. Then I realized he’s talking about Watson at the beginning of The Sign of Four, when he’s still traumatized by the horrors he went through in Afghanistan and drifting about London, emotionally, psychologically, and professionally at a loss. Meeting Holmes saves his life. But marrying Mary gives him a life.
And that’s where we last saw Moffat and Gatiss’ Watson at the end of Season 2. One of the great things about Sherlock’s Watson is how much he's still Conan Doyle’s Watson while still being a distinct character in his own right.
In The Empty Hearse, before Holmes reveals he’s alive to Watson, he tells Mycroft of his plan to pop round to Baker Street and surprise Watson “maybe jump out of a cake.”
Mycroft says, “Baker Street? He’s not there any more. Why would he be? It’s been two years. He’s got on with his life.”
Holmes scoffs at the idea. “What life? I’ve been away.”
But that’s the problem. Meeting Holmes in A Study in Pink saved Watson’s life (just as meeting Holmes in A Study in Scarlett save’s Conan Doyle’s Watson) by giving him something to do. But now he’s met and fallen in love with Mary. Which means he’s about the begin his life apart from Holmes. It’s Holmes who’s about to learn he’s the one without a life of his own. It’ll be interesting to see how this changes things for him and between him and Watson. There’ll be frictions. Some fighting. Mary's bound to find out Holmes isn't that easy to like, let alone love. She may have underestimated his ability to make it all about him and overestimated her own capacity for tolerating him. Watson will feel pulled in two directions. And there's a new villain at work, one who, assuming he's like his counterpart in the stories, specializes in ruining lives, wrecking friendships and love affairs, and robbing people of their happiness and he's already targeted Watson. But I suspect it won’t change anything fundamental between Holmes and Watson. We can see that by how Mary’s not worried about it. But we can practically bet on it because---well, because it’s the basis of the show’s appeal. But also because Moffat and Gatiss understand and embrace the foundation of Holmes’ love for Watson. His dependability.
In a short behind the scenes documentary on the PBS website, Moffat says:
Sherlock Holmes doesn’t need another brain. He needs the most reliable, competent, dependable human being in the world. And in the judgment of a genius, that’s what Dr Watson is.
I take that as a dig at Elementary where the producers are desperately trying to make their Watson their Holmes’ second brain. And I’ve said before by doing this they’re shortchanging both the character and Lucy Liu who has to play her. The writers just don’t know how to make Joan Watson sound and act as intelligent as she is. They don’t really know how to do this with their Holmes either. They just make him a know-it-all and let their star, Jonny Lee Miller, do the real work. Liu isn’t given enough to work with and, in fact, is routinely forced by the scripts to work the other way, to play Watson not as intelligent but as feeling. She’s locked inside the show’s self-help themes. And while the writers keep insisting that Watson is becoming Holmes’ equal as a detective, presumably because they think this will make her his equal, although a Sherlock Holmes who is an intellectual equal to his Watson is not Sherlock Holmes, it hasn’t occurred to them that Watson’s deductive abilities might be due less to Holmes’ tutelage than to her own training as a doctor so that even when she’s supposed to be speaking for herself as a know-it-all detective in her own right she sounds like she’s just parroting Holmes. In short, the junior detective business is doing the opposite of what it’s meant to do, diminishing Watson instead of raising her to Holmes’ level. She's not even his second brain. She's his auxillary brain.
But the more important difference between Elementary’s Watson and Sherlock’s, is that the former is not dependable. Just the reverse. The writers are committed to their self-help themes and that means they are committed to showing that Holmes needs help. Not to solve cases, but to grow and change emotionally. He has to admit to his feelings and his failings and work on both. Watson’s role as his emotional conscience requires her to constantly undermine him. For his own good, naturally. But how can you depend on somebody who’s always telling you you’re doing it all wrong?
Back over on Sherlock, this Watson is not oblivious to this Holmes’ faults and flaws. He gets exasperated with him and lectures him and pushes him to change his behavior or at least learn some tact. But he doesn’t see it as his job or his business to make Holmes a better person. He thinks the world of him no matter what. “The best and wisest man I ever knew,” he calls him, echoing Conan Doyle’s Watson. He may question Holmes’ judgment but he accepts it and once he does he acts without question.
Watson’s dependability is the reason he’s so angry at Holmes for keeping him in the dark about his “death”. Watson thinks Holmes should have known he could have been depended on to keep the secret. But Holmes knows that Watson would have dependably done something to come to Holmes’ aid while he was busy working undercover to dismantle what was left of Moriarty’s criminal network. It wouldn’t have taken much to alert Moriarty’s remaining henchmen. Just a slight lightening in Watson’s step or a broadening of his smile, a reflexive reaction to his no longer needing to grieve, would have given the game away.
Watson thinks he should have been told because he is Holmes’ best friend. Holmes can’t tell him because he is too good a friend and loves him too much.
Sherlock mines a lot of humor from Watson’s homosexual panic whenever people assume he and Holmes are lovers. But that’s really a joke at the expense of 21st Century audiences who can’t keep our minds off sex. I should say post-Freudian audiences, because this one’s been going on for a while now. There’s just some part of us that seems to need Holmes and Watson to be getting it on. And, by the way, I think that need is going to be why Elementary will sooner or later throw their Holmes and Watson into bed together. Moffat and Gatiss are made of sterner and more perverse stuff and enjoy keeping us tantalized and guessing. But in the end, though, it doesn’t matter what the nature of their love is, brotherly or whatever. All that matters is that they do love each other, as maudlin as that sounds.
For all its archness, for all its knowingness, for all its dark and sardonic and sarcastic humor, Sherlock can be an awfully sentimental show, because one of its themes is the beautifully diverse and often perverse ways love takes hold of us.
Holmes and Watson’s love for each other is central, naturally. But both men love Mrs Hudson and she loves them---my other favorite scene from last week is Watson’s return to 221B Baker Street after two years away when he couldn’t bear to go near it for the heartbreak it caused him and Mrs Hudson lights into him for having abandoned her in her grief, for not having been around to comfort her, more for not letting her comfort him---and Mycroft and Sherlock love each other, in their prickly, difficult, competitive, jealous ways. Lestrade loves Holmes as we can now tell from the bearhug he gives him when Holmes shows up alive. And of course Molly is in love with him.
Then there’s Holmes and the woman.
And now John loves Mary and Mary loves John and she loves Sherlock too.