There was never truly any chance that Joan Watson would spend only six weeks with Sherlock Holmes. Elementary may have been premised on a short-term arrangement tied to Sherlock’s struggle with addiction through which Watson serves as a sober companion, but television production is premised on a long-term relationship between primary characters, creating a conflict between narrative and medium that would have to be resolved. As Elementary approaches the midpoint of its first season, that resolution seems as inevitable as the coming new year, a predictable transition from one character dynamic to another, more stable one.
However, what makes this resolution interesting is that it isn’t really about Sherlock. As opposed to allowing Sherlock to relapse (and thus justify Watson’s continued presence in his life), Elementary seems much more concerned with Watson’s personal agency. The point is not that Sherlock necessarily needs Watson, but rather that Watson might well find Sherlock’s line of work to be fulfilling. As Watson has gradually honed her deductive skills over the course of the series’ first 10 episodes, the argument for her continued presence in his life hasn’t been solely predicated on her value to him, or even on his value to her. Rather, it has been about how the work is something Joan values in her own life, and how the sense of accomplishment she gets from assisting Sherlock—both as a sober companion and as a detective in her own right—is meaningful not simply to their relationship but to her own personal journey.
We know far more about Joan than about Sherlock at this point: We know her backstory, we know former best friends and boyfriends, and we now know her family, represented here by her mother, brother, and likely sister-in-law. And yet although her relationship with her mother is about as strained as you could predict based on televisual precedent, the introduction of Joan’s family in “The Leviathan” is not intended as offering insight into how Joan is in some way damaged, or in need of rescuing. Instead, there’s the sense that she is simply like any other person set adrift by a major life change, working her way through a complicated set of circumstances in order to achieve personal fulfillment. While not exactly subtle in the way Joan’s mother lays it out at episode’s end, the episode argues that Watson might have found her calling as a detective, or at least a detective of a sort.
While I would not argue that Watson’s characterization has been particularly complex, the relative parity Watson has alongside Sherlock in the narrative trajectory of the series is nonetheless notable. Acknowledging that it’s hard to talk about Elementary without thinking of the similar shows with esoteric detectives, I suppose the closest comparison would be Monk, which also set up a detective-and-companion relationship, and slowly grew both Sharona and Natalie into more active participants in Monk’s cases over the course of the series. However, Monk nonetheless consistently positioned those characters as assistants on whom Monk was dependent, giving us brief glimpses of independence—children to care for, relationships, etc.—but never truly allowing them to separate their identity from their employer. What “The Leviathan” seems to hint at is the point at which Watson doesn’t simply work with Sherlock out of professional obligation, but rather because it is something she is good at, and something that she believes will make her happy.
The episodic nature of Elementary means that this has been happening gradually, which the writers call attention to during the family dinner sequence. We enter the scene just as Sherlock has finished telling Joan’s family how she saved his life from a murderous secretary, and it’s as though they’ve just been caught up on the past nine weeks of crime-solving adventures. The family becomes a tool not to arbitrarily define Watson as someone with “Mommy issues” or anything similar; instead, they become a tool to highlight the change in Joan’s character, able to crystallize the sense of growth the character has seen over the course of these episodes. The show has been smart to have her role increase slowly, her deductive observations becoming more pointed and consistent with each passing episode. It has allowed her dynamic with Sherlock to evolve rather than manifest out of thin air, something that she has to have pointed out to her instead of something she wakes up realizing one morning. It isn’t that Watson is suddenly a different person, but rather that a bizarre, unpredictable opportunity has swept her up and made her gradually realize that there are parts of herself that could be happy in this rather strange line of work.
It becomes not unlike the story of four copycat bank robbers who discover while jurors for a trial that they just happen to share the skills necessary to pull off the heist themselves. For them, it was a moment when they realized that some part of their lives—either a previous career or a fortuitous relationship with an employee at a diamond exchange—could be used for something else, something that would have never occurred to them if they hadn’t happened to be serving on that jury. It’s a ridiculous coincidence, a theory that even Sherlock acknowledges might be too perfect to be probable, but it fits as a rumination on how we respond to a chance to be something different, something new. Although they proved to only be copycats, it still took tremendous agency to pull off that diamond heist, and thus an unemployed programmer, a son of a locksmith, a retired electrical engineer and a homemaker became the second group to successfully break into the “impregnable” Leviathan.
That mystery was nearly the first to avoid featuring a murder of any kind, solely driven by the mystery of how the vault was breached up until the point it’s revealed the locksmith has been killing his co-conspirators for reasons that are never exactly clarified. The lack of murder suits the show, allowing for an opening half that more effectively embraces the show’s humor with a set of twins on which Sherlock performs observation-based genetic testing in exchange for his companionship and a progressively “dry drunk” Sherlock working himself into a frenzy over solving what he believed would be a simple case of thievery. Sherlock and Watson discover who committed the initial crime, how they managed it, and which of them was trying to murder the others, and all they gets for their trouble is three bottles of champagne, a kind gift that’s also a rather unfortunate one for a recovering addict.
As Watson pours those bottles down the drain, though, Sherlock notes the basic principle of any procedural: “I suppose being proven right is the best gift of all.” Sherlock is selfish and self-centered, but his ultimate goal is to satisfy his urge to be proven right, a quality we have come to associate with the character of Sherlock Holmes and thus easily latched onto with this version of the character. What Elementary has been less willing to do is pigeonhole Watson based on any previous conceptions of the character, even if we can see clear connections between this and other versions. Instead, they have allowed us to discover what drives Watson on our own, to use these episodes to reveal an aptitude for detective work that she could pursue moving forward not simply because the story requires it, but rather because it could fulfill her in meaningful ways. Although the sense of hierarchy between Sherlock and Joan could persist once she ceases to be his sober companion, Elementary has been patient in building the two characters and their relationship, and the result is an equal stake in the series’ agency. As much as Sherlock might remain the driving force of any given investigation in the series’ future, Elementary has been willing to let Lucy Liu take the front seat on enough occasions early in the season to build Watson into a prominent part of this story, and it’s paid off with another strong episode. Although not the season’s most interesting case, “The Leviathan” is evidence of character development more subtle than your average procedural, and a strong female co-lead as opposed to a simple supporting player.
- This Week in Casting Spoilers: Although I would argue there was never really any part of “The Leviathan” that depended on mystery in order to function, I’m guessing that fellow fans of The Wire were equally aware of Jeremy Lopez’s guilt as soon as Gbenga Akinnagbe’s picture was put up on Sherlock’s wall.
- There was a lengthy discussion about Elementary and gender in last week’s comments, and I do think that there have been trends—the sex slaves, Sherlock’s fetishistic sexual proclivities—that I would consider problematic. But I’d also push against any claims that Watson has been in any way marginalized or discriminated against within the larger narrative, as I have argued above. This doesn’t suggest the show should get a free pass on other issues, but I would say that Watson’s arc is stronger than that of female characters on other similar procedurals, at least this early in a series’ run.
- On that note, I’ll save the comparisons between Watson and the other female counterpoints to esoteric detectives for later, but y’all are welcome to start brainstorming your Lisbon and Cuddy arguments in preparation.
- I suppose the whole Le Chevalier angle ended up just being a red herring that also helped give the episode some closure in regards to the painting Sherlock threatened to steal, but I’m open to other interpretations given its lack of clear ties to the case.
- Clearly a Game Of Thrones fan in the writer’s room, given the name of Casterly Rock Security.
- “Triplets?” This was a particularly funny episode at points—see also: Green Stick—but nice to see Watson get the biggest laugh.
- I’d be interested, now that we’re on hiatus until after the holidays, what everyone’s favorite episode has been thus far. I’d also be interested in what criteria we’re using: the most effective character episode, or the most effective mystery? It’s different with procedurals than with serial narratives, as I’m discovering.
- On that note, thanks to those who have been consistently hanging out in the comments—this has been an enjoyable show to write about, but it’s been more enjoyable with people willing to engage with both its procedural structure and its characterization, which makes it all sound dry and dull but it’s really been a fine time. Hope you all have a fine holiday season, and we shall hopefully see you in the new year.