Elementary Season 1: Joan Watson, Detective in Training

In case you haven’t heard, Elementary has been picked up for a second season and Irene Adler has been cast. Those two juicy bits of news nearly distracted me from my mission to discuss what is easily my favorite storyline to come out of this young series, but I persevered because Joan Watson is becoming a detective and we need to talk about that.

Now that season one is firmly in its final stretch of episodes, I can’t help but think back to the controversy that surrounded the series before it premiered. The most fervent Elementary naysayers were the ones who believed the show was committing sacrilege by turning John Watson into Joan. Having seen how thoroughly Lucy Liu has made the character her own, those arguments are even sillier now than they were then. Joan provides both the series and Sherlock with a touchstone. She is our gateway into Sherlock’s world and it’s her journey that has provided this season with a coherent arc.

Historically, the Watson character’s primary function has been to support Sherlock. Watson is meant to be Sherlock’s chronicler; the one who shares the brilliant detective’s journeys with the an enraptured audience, while mostly keeping out of the spotlight. Elementary has taken a different route with its Watson. While Joan shares some of the basic characteristics of the traditional Watson (she’s a doctor and she has served as Sherlock’s companion, both in a professional and personal capacity), she hasn’t taken up the mantle of official Sherlock biographer. Instead, the writers have taken great strides to keep Joan and Sherlock on equal footing within the story. By having her take an active interest in Sherlock’s work and giving her the desire to take up the detective trade herself, they have guaranteed that Joan won’t live in Sherlock’s shadow.

It’s a fascinating direction to take her character in. When we met Joan she was at a clear crossroads in her life, but she wasn’t ready to move forward. When she entered Sherlock’s life, it would have been easy to simply have her story entirely revolve around her desire to help him through his addiction. Joan has been established as a deeply empathetic character who cares about everyone. We’ve seen her over-invest in cases and in the personal lives of everyone from Sherlock to the recently introduced Mrs. Hudson. Channeling her great capacity for empathy into detective work is a brilliant move. It gives her a way to continue helping people, while also allowing Joan to take control of her life again.

The “Joan wants to be a detective” arc has done more than just give Joan a new career path; it has also given the series a renewed sense of energy and opened up countless storytelling possibilities. The moments where Sherlock stops to allow Joan to work through a crime scene on her own are as thrilling as they are fun. There are lots of procedurals on television, but, to my knowledge, none of them have ever been interested in showing us a character who is learning the art of deduction. It’s not easy to make the crime scene portion of a procedural interesting. That’s why other shows go for the gross out effect, but with something as simple as introducing a teacher/student dynamic into the story, Elementary has made the investigation portion of each case feel fresh.

There is one more reason I love this storyline: it has brought out the very best side of Sherlock. Just as Liu has made Watson her own, Jonny Lee Miller is bringing an entirely new and vibrant version of Sherlock to life each week. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Sherlock played either as cold and entirely rational or as an incorrigible eccentric ala Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie films. I enjoy both of those versions, but Miller’s take on the character has been enthralling thus far. His eagerness to share his knowledge with Joan is refreshing, as is his patience in allowing her time to learn. Here we have a Sherlock who is still smarter than everyone else in the room, but who doesn’t hold himself apart from the world. This storyline demonstrates that he is fully capable of connecting, even though he took a break from it after he lost Irene.

When I watch scenes like the blood spatter lesson Sherlock was setting up for Joan at the end of “Snow Angels,” I find myself getting more and more excited about the future of Elementary. Seeing their vision of Sherlock and Watson’s partnership unfold has been such a delight so far because the writers have a way of taking these familiar characters in entirely unexpected directions. Here we have a Watson and Sherlock well on their way to being true partners; creating a world with not just one “world’s only consulting detective,” but two.

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