The Watson Factor: Character Shifts in Elementary and Sherlock

WatsonIf you’re a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series,  then you have no doubt been enjoying (or despising) the latest interpretations, namely Elementary and Sherlock.

Even though both shows are in a modern setting, the creators behind the BBC’s Sherlock have decided to stay more true to the novels by keeping Sherlock and Watson at 221B Baker Street in the heart of London. Likewise, the episodes are staying true to the original adventures written by Doyle, but with well plotted modern touches.

CBS’ Elementary, on the other hand, challenges the traditional formula in several ways. First of all, the story takes place in New York. Second, not only does Holmes admit to being an addict, but he’s also a recovering addict. Third, and perhaps the most obvious difference, the creators of the show have gender-bended the role of Watson, adding a dynamic female element not normally found in Doyle’s stories, apart from Irene Adler, of course.

Sherlock               Elementary

Both shows have their own merits and flaws, but one of the things I find most extraordinary is how the differently constructed Watsons significantly change how the character of Sherlock is portrayed.

Role of Watson

Whether on the page or on screen, the character of Watson is a necessary plot device. In terms of story construction, Watson serves as a vessel for the audience. Doyle wrote the stories from Watson’s perspective so that readers could slide into Watson’s role.

Why do we as readers need to be Watson? Why can’t we be Sherlock?

In many ways, the character of Sherlock represents an almost alien presence.

He sees the minor details and the big picture simultaneously. He perceives problems abstractly, yet he is capable of linear logic. He possesses the ability to multitask by solving problems in the back of his mind while doing something completely different in the here and now.

Yes – people like Sherlock may exist, but they are extremely rare.

I mean, can you imagine reading a novel from Sherlock’s point of view, or reading a stream of consciousness novel that showcases Sherlock’s internal thought processes? I’m sure if you like experimental fiction it would be fascinating, but most readers would find it marginally psychotic and difficult to follow. Simply put – Sherlock does not think like most people and nor does he operate like most people. Therefore, from a writer’s perspective, he makes a fascinating subject, but the audience can’t really relate to him, which is why you need someone like Watson.

Beyond the story construction, Watson proves vital to Sherlock because Watson also represents the liaison between the human condition (society) and hyper logic (Sherlock).

Although Sherlock was solving crimes and working as a detective prior to meeting Watson, Sherlock almost always needed a handler. The police used Sherlock because he got results, but Sherlock had few friends looking out for him on the police force. Due to Sherlock’s nature and his alien presence, it’s not surprising that he has questionable social skills. Therefore, to function in society, Sherlock needs Watson.

Not only does Watson act as a buffer between Sherlock and everyone else, but Watson also reminds Sherlock to be human. Watson accomplishes this feat somewhat haphazardly, although sometimes deliberately.

For starters, Watson questions Sherlock’s logic. In the stories, not only does Watson’s questioning serve to help the reader understand what’s going on, but it further highlights the peculiar thought processes that comes so natural to Sherlock. Although Watson constantly questions Sherlock, he usually does so without insulting Sherlock’s ego. In many ways, Watson builds Sherlock’s ego and sense of self, since Watson can see past the neuroses and marvel at the sheer brilliance.

Nevertheless, although Watson recognizes Sherlock’s amazing skills, Watson also realizes that Sherlock is a broken man.

As a logical man, Sherlock must recognize his own flaws, even if his ego likes to pretend such flaws don’t exist. He never lets other people see him vulnerable, yet he lets Watson see the cracks in his character. Since he is a logical man, perhaps at some level Sherlock realizes that he needs help, which might be why he chooses and accepts Watson as his true and only confidant.

If you take a step back and look at the construction of the character relationship between Watson and Sherlock, especially in regard to how we as the reader become Watson, you see something even more interesting. By making Watson the vessel for the audience, and by making Watson one of the only people to see the true Sherlock, Doyle successfully shows his audience the cost and consequences of being a genius.

Watson’s Effect on Holmes

While the above describes Watson’s role for the reader and for the story, it doesn’t really do much to discuss Watson as a fully formed character. If anything, it shows that the character requirements for Watson are rather simplistic, in a way, but in that simplicity it leaves a lot of room for Watson’s character development.

By putting so much effort into developing the nuances of Watson’s character within the modern interpretations, both Elementary and Sherlock, the result has led to some interesting side effects that in turn alter Sherlock’s character.

Joan_WatsonIn Elementary, Joan Watson is a former surgeon residing in New York City. She stopped practicing medicine because she accidentally killed a patient. To make amends for her action, she becomes a sober companion who tries to help addicts get their lives back together.

These additions to Watson’s character ripple out and subsequently transform Sherlock.

For one thing, Sherlock and Joan Watson meet because she has been hired as his sober companion. In addition, she was hired by Sherlock’s father, which makes her presence in Sherlock’s life not one of his initial choosing. Therefore, regardless of Sherlock’s intellect, Joan’s existence in their relationship acts as a constant reminder that Sherlock is a broken man who is just as susceptible as anyone else to making poor choices.

Acting as his sober companion, Joan pushes Sherlock toward developing a network of confidants, including his associates in law enforcement. She also encourages his involvement and support of fellow recovering addicts. In Doyle’s version of the story, Watson doesn’t normally encourage Sherlock to broaden his social network. However, by further developing Watson within this version of the story, Joan’s role as a sober companion and Sherlock’s status as a recovering addict changes the traditional dynamic of how both Watson and Sherlock interact with each other and society.

As a result of Elementary’s version of Watson, Sherlock seems somewhat more human. He’s still an arrogant ass and brilliant beyond measure, but he’s more willing to make connections with people, because Watson pushes him to do so. In addition, Joan herself is a more open character in this version of the story, and she pushes her openness and sense of ethics on to Sherlock. Although Sherlock does resist her in many ways and also challenges her perspectives, he does recognize that perhaps she has a better grasp of normal human behavior as compared to himself.

John WatsonIn the BBC’s Sherlock, John Watson is a closed off man suffering from PTSD, which happened as a result from his military service. He still has the ability to understand how normal people function in society, but as a former soldier, he has difficulty relating to civilians. His inability to find his place back in civilian life combined with his secret desire for militaristic action make him the perfect candidate to be Sherlock’s companion.

However, since John Watson is somewhat closed off, his character promotes Sherlock to be more logical and less emotional. Nevertheless, since John sits on the borderland between civilian and soldier, he represents a very unique person that Sherlock covets. Sherlock knows he needs someone to help him reach the outside world, but he also needs someone who can deal with Sherlock’s insane life. Not only can this version of Watson handle and admire Sherlock, but he can also give Sherlock space to focus.

This analysis does not imply that Elementary’s Sherlock is any less focused. Both Elementary and Sherlock showcase Doyle’s quirky master detective brilliantly. The techniques used to further develop Watson’s character in both shows, however, simply adds a clever twist on how we the audience perceive and understand all the characters involved.


3 thoughts on “The Watson Factor: Character Shifts in Elementary and Sherlock

  1. That was super insightful and a delightful read! I love this analysis of character and especially how the audience is supposed to identify and react to Watson in relation to Sherlock. He is our eyes and ears into the mystery that is Holmes, and like you so insightfully pointed out, how *he* is portrayed changes a lot on how we view Holmes. Americans seem to have this liking for making Holmes much more human than the British tend to do (like the RDJ version of Holmes). I’ve not seen Elementary, but I have started on BBC Sherlock, and there is a large sense of Sherlock’s foreignness to everyone else. Benedict’s Watson straddles the line between Sherlock’s neurosis and his humanity, thus enabling us to step that bit closer to where Sherlock is mentally.

    1. Thank you for your comment and for reading my post!

      I agree that there’s always a sense of foreignness – an almost alien presence, in some sense –about Sherlock. He’s so unlike anyone, yet he has to deal with everyone. Both Elementary and Sherlock portray how dealing with other people frustrates him to no end, because he considers everyone else as less intelligent than himself.

      I would be the first to admit that most people are less intelligent than Sherlock, but I sense Sherlock might be acting so rude to people as a form of psychological projection, because deep down he’s envious of the people around him. He can’t help but notice everything about the world, it’s his psychosis/neurosis, but he can’t always process that information in a human way. Other people, people he considers beneath himself, have no problem with that human part of the equation that he can never seem to master, and I truly think that is the core of his frustrations with the world. As much as he may want to discount sentimentality and bury himself in his deductive science, there is a part of him that wants to be like everyone else, which is why he reaches out to Watson. At the end of it all, he doesn’t want to be alone.

      Furthermore – since you have the David Tennant Doctor as your profile pic – I think the relationship between the Doctor and his companion is very similar to the Sherlock and Watson relationship, especially since the Doctor uses his companions as a way to combat his inner demons and his feelings of loneliness. Plus, much like we are Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, we are the companion in the Doctor’s adventures.

      This dynamic of an incredibly intelligent character and a more down-to-earth character has been repeated in literature since probably the mid-to-late Renaissance, as that was about the time when we began to gain more respect for brains over brawn. Despite this respect for intelligence, I think the foreign/alien presence we see portrayed in Sherlock underscores the common man’s distrust/dislike of intelligence, which of course creates all the drama and conflict that makes for more interesting storylines.

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