On the Evolution of a Friendship: Joan Watson and Sherlock Holmes

Every time I watch, I find myself falling deeper in love with Elementary on CBS, which continually surprises me, because CBS is not exactly a terrific network, and their procedurals tend to be extremely formulaic and dull. While this one does at times slip into the trap of seeming to have more time than it does creative storylines, fortunately it usually pulls itself, and it does so through the amazing relationship between Holmes and Watson. This is a programme as much about their complex partnership as it is about anything else, and it’s an amazingly well-done depiction of a relationship between two people.

I have really being enjoying the evolution of their partnership over the course of the series, and I get the sense that there are a number of smart, savvy people in the writers’ room steering this one in a good direction. Perhaps we are not to be tormented with the inevitable sexual tension-laced relationship where viewers wait impatiently for the characters to get together already: perhaps we are finally going to be treated to evidence that men and women can just be friends, and can have a strong, though complicated at times, friendship.

Somewhat uniquely, their relationship started as a purely professional one, with Watson serving as Holmes’ sober companion. When that began to shift and Holmes recognised that she could play a role as a partner—and, though he was loath to admit it, as a friend, we could see him trying to adjust to this idea, a radical shift from his loner existence. It marked a major change in his life and attitudes, one clearly created through Watson’s influence in his life and one that’s extended beyond simply creating more ties with Watson.

Sherlock is slowly transforming into a person with more empathy, more focus, more respect for other human beings, and more of a desire to do the right thing, even if it is not necessarily easy. A man who initially came across as callous and arrogant still is: he is, in some senses, a bad person, as he occasionally reminds Watson and the viewer, but her influence on him has also been positive in the sense that she’s forced him to rethink his strategy of being massively rude to everything.

This has not, however, been presented in the way of some stories where a woman acts as a calming and taming influence. Watson is good for Holmes because she is Watson, not because she is a woman, and this is a careful and important distinction that the show accomplishes very well. She pushes back hard on him and is unafraid to bring him up sharply when he does something inappropriate, including hurting her feelings or overstepping the boundaries of their friendship, which is also a professional partnership, which is also that of roommates who share a home and have to navigate that environment together as well.

What I love about this relationship is that both parties have something to bring to it, and this Watson, as I have mentioned before, is one who doesn’t follow meekly in Holmes’ wake. It’s so common to see Watson depicted as slightly slower on the uptake, devoted to Holmes, convinced that he can do no wrong, all while fretting over Holmes’ more unhealthy and dangerous habits. Lucy Liu as Watson, though, is a sharp, independent figure who has absolutely no time for Holmes’ bullshit, and has an interest in keeping him alive and functional, but refuses to sacrifice herself for him, or to coddle him to make him feel better.

She’s one of the few people in his life who doesn’t act like he can walk on water because he’s capable of making astute observations. And as that person, she plays a critical role in his life, in the show, and in this reinterpretation of Holmes as a character. One thing that’s always frustrated me about the original novels and adaptations of the same is that Watson becomes basically the wingman, there to make Holmes look good, without a strong personality or motivations or interests of his own, and it waters down the relationship between the two.

Holmes does not seem like a man who would tolerate people who aren’t his intellectual equals, and who aren’t as driven, passionate, and intrigued by the world as he is. Why on Earth would he choose to make a living with someone who is always a step behind him, who’s always making him look good, who acts as a foil and a reflector so Holmes can shine all the brighter? Holmes doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would need a sycophant, but that’s exactly what Watson is in so many depictions.

Not, however, in this one, where she is an assertive, powerful character. She goes off on her own and does her own thing, she forms her own relationships, she goes on dates, she interacts with people on her own level. She’s not afraid to challenge Holmes when he’s being reckless, or rude, or acting in a way that’s harmful: she doesn’t believe he gets a free pass because of who he is, and this distinguishes her so much from other iterations of this role. She sees that Holmes operates in a world with actual consequences for your actions, not a fantasyland where just being an extremely talented detective is enough, and should be enough, to get by in the world.

CBS has taken an old classic and updated it in a way that’s actually interesting and engaging for the modern era, and the decision to make this a very character-driven show was a good one. We can get mysteries anywhere, thanks to the wealth of procedurals on TV right now. What we can’t get is relationships like this one.