Watson: It’s so incredible, the way that you can… solve people just by looking at them.
I noticed you don’t have any mirrors around here.
Holmes: And what’s that supposed to mean?
Watson: It means I think you know a lost cause when you see one.
A telling moment from the pilot episode of Elementary on CBS, which concluded its series run this month. The American vision of the Sherlock Holmes world posits the detective living in New York City in exile as a recovering drug addict and the female (yes female) doctor Joan Watson as his sober companion. Over time, Watson ceases to interact with Sherlock as a client and begins to as his partner in their detective work. While more attention has been paid to its BBC counterpart, this series has seen the detectives grow in seven years in ways many other versions have not.
One of its throughlines that has intrigued me the most as a fan of the show is the idea of determinism vs self-willed change. The master of deduction himself begins the series as a recovering drug addict and in mourning over the loss of his great love (Irene Adler) who in many ways is a human embodiment of Holmes’s addictive personality. Watson herself comes into the series already escaping from what had always been her “path” as a doctor and is starting to discover what she really wants to do and who she really wants to be.Perhaps Elementary’s best contribution here has been to show the futility of seeking change in isolation and the benefit of accepting help from others.
Both Holmes and Watson took others under their wings who echoed these themes. In season three Holmes takes on Kitty Winter, brash and capable as any, whose arc asks if someone can ever escape trauma or if they are doomed to be defined by it. In season five, Watson tries to help Shinwell Jackson, a former convict who Watson had previously treated. As a parolee, Watson tries to help him escape recidivism and find his own redemption, no matter how convinced he is that it is hopeless.
In its final season, the show has perhaps put this idea into its most prescient and timely version. The season’s villain, Odin Reichenbach (yes, as in Reichenbach Falls) seeks to use technology to identify people he determines are guaranteed threats to others and have them executed. Taking the Minority Report approach, Odin believes once someone simply is down the path of a troubled person, it is a certainty they will strike.
None of this is to say that the material here is uncharted territory, but it is somewhat unique within procedural television and even the Holmes pantheon. While many prefer the BBC version (or the Robert Downey Jr. films) this series has given viewers so much growth with the characters and themes and ideas to wrestle with. The finale itself, which aired this past Thursday, masterfully paid off the character development to a satisfying end that sadly some shows seem to retreat from in their finales. I dare say, Sir Arthur would be pleased to find out what has become of his detectives.
Much ink has been spilled, and most likely better ink than mine, on the debate in and out of Christianity over the free will we do or do not have and the power of external forces in our lives. Perhaps Elementary’s best contribution here has been to show the futility of seeking change in isolation and the benefit of accepting help from others. Sherlock not only improves because of Watson but also through his time and work in Recovery Groups and with sponsors. When striving to white-knuckle alone he often fails, but when leaning on Watson he often succeeds. She, too, sees that her walk strays without the influence of her fellow deductionist. This is most evident in the third season where Watson moves out to her own apartment, has her own clients and yet realizes after some personal loss that her life makes more sense with Sherlock and by the end of the sixth season she even follows Sherlock back to London for a time rather than be apart.
Christians see this idea in scripture. When they read, listen and talk of Good News they are interacting with the message that, in spite of circumstances, change and improvement are possible. Even better, the burden and ability to do so does not rest on the individual’s shoulders. Scripture tells people that God works the change in us and also provides siblings in faith to walk the journey alongside us. Life for us is not meant to be a solo mission.
For its depth, longevity and excellent portrayal of the struggle with sobriety and recovery, Elementary has staked out a very unique and meaningful place as one of the best Holmes adaptations yet. I would put this Holmes and Watson duo right up against all others seen before and would put up the ideas explored, questions asked and introspection offered above all the rest.