Elementary has spent its first six episodes establishing the world in which the series takes place. In order to distinguish itself from Sherlock, the other current modern day Holmes series, Elementary had to take a different route. Sherlock plays directly into the familiar Arthur Conan Doyle canon by giving the classic cases and characters 21st century twists, and because it came first, Elementary would have looked like a remake, or worse, a copycat, if it had followed that same path. Instead, the series distanced itself from Sherlock and many of the traditional trappings of a Holmes tale in favor of forging its own path.
From a storytelling standpoint, the gambit has been liberating in some ways and stifling in others. On the one hand, many of the tweaks to the canon were inspired, including changing Watson’s gender and altering the Watson/Holmes dynamic by having Holmes’s addiction bring them together. Transplanting Holmes to New York City was another good move. In doing so, it gave the series a unique look and an entirely different environment for Holmes and Watson to play in. However, by altering the canon so extensively, at times the series hasn’t felt Holmesian at all. Falling back on the canon too much would be a bad move too, but ignoring it so thoroughly is just as frustrating. Sherlock Holmes is such an iconic figure that everyone knows at least the Cliff Notes version of his history: his arch enemy is Moriarty, he once solved a mystery involving hounds, etc. Playing on our expectations by finding new and unconventional ways to upend the original canon should be half the fun of any modern day take on the character, but so far Elementary has been primarily focused on cases of the week and the burgeoning friendship of Watson and Holmes. These are necessary moves on the part of the writers, given how young the series is, but knowing that the larger Doyle world was out there, just waiting to be explored, left me feeling antsy. Then the end of “Flight Risk” happened, and The Woman entered the fold.
Just hearing the name Irene Adler, the woman who is referred to by all versions of Sherlock Holmes as “The Woman” or “the one who got away,” was a powerful moment and it instantly gave the series an air of epicness. It was a reminder that by virtue of being a Holmes story, Elementary isn’t allowed to be a simple procedural with quirky partners. There is too much history here and too much cultural weight for the series to settle for normalcy. Just by introducing the idea of Irene, dozens of new story opportunities have been opened. Moriarty could be just around the next corner, Watson could bump into her “Sarah” during a routine case, Holmes could get called out to a New York estate to investigate a case involving hounds…by integrating Irene into the story, the writers have acknowledged the Holmesian universe at large.
In true Elementary fashion, they’ve acknowledged the universe in their own way though. It seems likely that Irene isn’t just an elusive figure who bested Holmes, here she is someone who broke his heart. This Holmes is fully capable of emotions, in his own peculiar way, which adds a layer of vulnerability to his eccentricities. Also, Irene will no longer be the only significant female figure in Holmes’s life because his dear Watson, is also a woman. These small changes add up and contribute to making Elementary something special.
The moment Watson confronted Holmes with the name “Irene,” the series moved into a new phase. We know this world now and we’re comfortable in it. Likewise, Watson and Holmes may not have entirely overcome the professional distance her title as his sober companion brings to their partnership, but they’re creeping closer to being in each other’s lives by choice, rather than necessity. He depends on her as his sounding board now, and as evidenced in “Lesser Evils,” Watson is catching the detective bug. In other words, the moving pieces portion of the season is over. Now Elementary can stop worrying about establishing the characters and their world and move on to more exciting things like the fascinating Ms. Adler.
All right, Elementary fans, its your turn: were you as excited to hear Irene’s name mentioned as I was? What do you think it means for the direction of the series? And more importantly, which actress would you like to see in the role (my pick would be Lena Headey, but I suspect she’s a wee bit too busy)?
Follow me on Twitter @sljbowman