This is a response to Nerdophiles‘ Kirstie Haruta’s article defending the U.S. modern Sherlock Holmes show Elementary as a worthy take on the British literary hero, even in the shadow of the BBC’s own Sherlock.
I’ve never seen Elementary, so I’ll reserve judgement. I did however feel that the article short-changed Martin Freeman’s Watson and I wanted to properly discuss his character.
Read the article here. It’s otherwise very thorough.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is brash, curt, and impatient. He’s overtly misanthropic, manipulative, and often abusive. But he’s a mastermind of critical thought and reason. In his own words, he observes where others see, able to deduce convoluted mysteries and solve complicated problems. He’s a genius that while perfectly suited for intelligence or science, “chooses to be a detective” because of an insatiable sense of adventure. Sherlock is a lone wolf; he excels in solitude and few can simply keep up.
So why does he need anyone else?
Haruta’s article seemed to be of the opinion that Martin Freeman’s Watson really has little to do and serves no real purpose in helping to solve problems. Yes, Sherlock is a investigative wunderkind that would probably come to any answer independently. But Watson is in fact very important to his strategy and life.
Superficially, John Watson is the audience proxy. We the audience would have no idea what Sherlock is thinking if he didn’t have to speak it out loud to John. We need an uninitiated character like Watson to say, “stop, explain yourself to me” so that we can know what’s happening. It’s a classic plot device that shows up in almost every mystery/science fiction genre story, especially those that world-build, introduce foreign concepts or concern technical jargon. It’s why many stories involve a “new guy” character. When new information needs to be disseminated to the audience, the “mentor” character explains it to the new guy, whom the audience relates to. This is a critical technique for engaging the audience because if we don’t understand what’s going on then we aren’t emotionally invested and don’t care.
Think about it this way: Smart people don’t talk about things out loud. Two business partners -two “mentors”- have a certain unspoken language between themselves as a result of expertise and shared experience. They don’t talk about information that they already know. We the audience are the new guys, looking in on their daily life. These two businessmen are not going to chat about why the red binders go into the blue folders because they themselves already know why and it would sound weird and unnatural. By instead giving direction to an uninitiated character, an intern, new hire or girlfriend, the message is indirectly explained to the audience in a plot-relevant way. Here Martin Freeman is perfectly cast. From Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins and Tim Canterbury, he’s the fish-out-of-water everyman scripts use to engage the audience and introduce new information.
That’s why the plot needs him, but why does Sherlock need him? Remember, Sherlock Holmes picked John Watson. They didn’t simply happen upon one another and decide to become roommates. Sherlock learned about his soldiering past and determined that his disposition would be a good fit for his roller coaster life.
Recall how Sherlock interacts with people. His brusque personality pushes them away, his seemingly omniscient knowledge prompts suspicion from Scotland Yard, and his inquisitive mind inspires violence and disorder. Sure, Inspector Lestrade allows him access to sensitive material, but more out of workplace respect and a lack of better options, his own force being bumbling and useless in comparison. What Sherlock needs is a PR guy, someone to synthesize his prickly demeanor in order to ingratiate himself into deeper circles: Molly, Mrs. Hudson, Baskerville, etc. He needs someone to smooth over his social faux pas, excuse his behavior and occasionally explain why other people react to his personality the way they do. Molly’s reaction to Sherlock’s insensitivity at her Christmas gift, for example.
But Sherlock does not simply consider John Watson a tool. Despite repeated examples to the contrary, notably his aural horror experiment in the Baskerville lab, and of course, his death. No, their’s is an unconventional relationship, one where feelings are not discussed without consequence or ridicule, because that’s not Sherlock’s way. He considers John a friend in the way only two mutual adventurers could: respect for companionship on the hunt. Watson doesn’t need to be Sherlock’s equal in solving crime because he understands his past and recognizes in him the hunger for action. Anybody can pay half the rent. John Watson is Sherlock’s partner because like the detective himself, he’s obsessed with adventure.
Important is Sherlock’s unconventional opinion of himself because it informs his behavior and desires. Without question he fashions himself a classic crusader in some epic tale of mystery, blazing a new trail like a colonial-era legionnaire or sea captain. It’s this romantic streak that lets him be both dispassionate and totally engrossed in whatever he’s put his mind to. He stresses that the case must inspire him, be profound and fit into his idea of what a rousing tale ought to be. Why shouldn’t he then have a sidekick? Like a Robin to his Batman, it’s natural that he would want some sort of companion, perhaps a protege, to take under his wing and share in adventure.
Most importantly, why would he even bother befriending a man with a psychosomatic leg injury if not to reform him? Isn’t that the type of person he would otherwise loathe as lazy and distracted? Clearly there was a small part of Sherlock that wanted to help John, restore the latent fire in his heart. He must have seen a man of similar ilk, temporarily stalled, only needing an opportunity to jump back into the game.
Moreover, the chase in “A Study in Pink” where John loses his cane and forgets all about his apparent injury was, in Sherlock’s mind, an interview for a potential new friend. And rightly so, the best friend of Sherlock Holmes would have to be a singular person himself. Not everyone is enthusiastically game to repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of a mystery. The opening episode’s chase served two purposes: 1. It helped John regain his courage and get over his mental funk. And 2. It endeared him to Sherlock as a friend who could provide the excitement and danger he once enjoyed as an army doctor. Sherlock is looking for a companion. And like a real person, chooses to associate himself with someone who isn’t interested in making fun of his sexual choices or suspects his skills are potentially sinister. He’s interested in sharing a good time with a like-minded guy.
It’s not much of stretch to see that Sherlock needs Watson more than just as a partner on the job. Think about the kind of person he’s probably been in life up until the series. Bureaucratic coldness (and betrayal) from his only shown family; school was probably torture. He’s been stuck inside “Sherlock” all his life and is without a doubt lonely.
John Watson provides the appropriate balance to Sherlock’s eccentricities. He is genuinely impressed by his deductive acumen while providing the necessary social lubricant the consulting detective so desperately needs. He defends Sherlock to the cops, has his interests at heart, and relishes the opportunities Sherlock affords to get off his ass and feel alive. The fans and boys have it wrong. There’s no sexual tension between Sherlock and John. John fills a brotherly role left empty by Sherlock’s real family, the inadequately human Mycroft.