Elementary, the modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation set in New York, had many Sherlock Holmes fans, such as myself, eying it suspiciously at first: not only did it move the setting from the iconic 221B Baker Street in London,
but it introduced a reworked Watson character—the ex-surgeon turned sober companion, Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). However, Elementary quickly established itself as a clever, subtle, inclusive, and all-around amazing show and an exciting new take on Sherlock Holmes canon, while Joan Watson became one of the most complex female characters on TV right now. She‘s a role model in ways that you don‘t often see on TV. I want to talk about one such aspect of her character which is particularly important to me—what Joan Watson can teach us about looking for and finding what one is meant to do in life.
Joan Watson shows us that it’s okay not to stick to your life plans if things don’t work out. That it’s okay to still be searching for one’s occupation at an age when one is expected to have made a career already. That it’s okay not to have life figured out. Joan Watson shows all this to women and women of color in particular. She shows that you don’t need to follow expectations and be happy and fulfilled.
When we meet Joan, we learn that she used to be a doctor (and a great one at that, from the information we’ve been given), but because of an accident she has left medicine and has already established herself as a sober companion. I assume she’s also very good at this occupation, because the mysterious billionaire Papa Holmes picks her to look after Sherlock.
I could actually do without the “I accidentally killed a patient, therefore I no longer trust myself and can no longer work as a surgeon” backstory, because this trope is used way too often. It bugs me, especially in this case, because it makes it seem as though Joan lacks the self-confidence necessary to become a surgeon in the first place. But then again, men get this narrative and the audience generally thinks no less of them. (It’s used to a larger or smaller degree in a lot of medical series, but the most notable example is Royal Pains, where the main character quits after a similar incident and establishes himself in concierge medicine.) So this is probably just another instance of a classic double standard and internalized sexism, from my part, because it’s basically Joan getting a narrative that male characters usually get. And it’s clear that she’s very confident just from the way she plunges into detective work with no training.
When Joan starts working with Sherlock on cases and realizes that she loves it, she decides to stick with it, even though there seems to be no security in the prospect at first. Now, there’s a point to be made that quite often this “follow your dream, don’t settle for a job” message is harmful. It promotes the idea that people who choose security over dreams are cowards and can’t be happy, or that people who work “non-dream” jobs somehow deserve less respect than those who “suffer for their art”, etc. But in this case, I assume that from her time as a doctor and a sober companion she has saved some money to afford this risk. Also, judging from remarks made by Sherlock and her mother, being a sober companion isn’t something Joan particularly likes or wants to do. For instance, Holmes, in the pilot episode, remarks,
“I don’t see why you gave up your medical career to become a companion. I’d wager that addiction claimed the life of someone close to you, and his or her death led you to make drastic changes in your life. Am I close?”, and Mary Watson, in “The Leviathan”, says, “I’m not happy that you’re a sober companion, because it never seems to make you happy… After you left medicine, after what happened with Liam, I’ve always thought that this job was something you picked out of, I don’t know, out of a sense of duty.” But if Joan hadn’t met Sherlock, she would have continued to be a sober companion and most likely would have been content, because she’s good at it and it helps people and it wouldn’t matter to her that it’s not her dream job.
Which brings me to the point of Joan discovering the occupation she loves. Unlike many other leading ladies on detective shows (Castle’s Kate Beckett, Bones’s Temperance Brennan, The Closer’s Brenda Leigh Johnson, etc), Joan hasn’t established herself in this line of work yet; she doesn’t have a resume so long it makes you wonder how it’s humanly possible to have done everything on it. But she goes into detective work with confidence and we watch her learn and improve. She can find information in evidence and make deductions, but she is also empathic and can find things out by being nice to people—something Sherlock doesn’t seem keen on or even capable of.
At the beginning of their new arrangement Sherlock calls her his apprentice and speaks about teaching her his methods, etc, and while that’s true—Joan does learn from Sherlock—at the same time she immediately establishes herself as an equal partner. She won’t stand for anything else. One of the most telling scenes, perhaps, is in “The One Percent Solution”,
when Lestrade shows up with a female assistant and Sherlock and Lestrade go into a meeting. The assistant attempts to stop Joan by saying that assistants wait outside, and Joan just deadpans, “Right”, and goes in. She also calls Sherlock out when he behaves inappropriately or is a jerk to people on the job (and in general). Finally, let’s not forget that it is she who figures out Moriarty: Joan understands Jamie better than does Sherlock Holmes himself.
I especially love to see that Joan loves doing detective work. I get the impression that this sets her apart from other on-screen interpretations of Watson’s character (at least the ones that I’m familiar with) and, arguably, Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon Watson, but I don‘t think that‘s necessarily a bad thing. It is clear from ACD stories that Watson loves the adventure that working with Holmes provides, and that when he makes attempts at Holmes‘s deductive techniques, Holmes’s approval is very important to him. For instance, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter 1, Watson says: “I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval”, and later on in Chapter 5: “The promise of adventure had always a fascination for me”. Both Steven Moffat and Guy Ritchie have emphasized these traits and created Watsons who love adventure and excitement and are infatuated with Sherlock, so much so that sometimes it seems as though the only thing that gives the characters purpose and meaning is Sherlock.
In contrast, in Elementary, we have Joan, who stands on her own and who
loves sifting through evidence and making discoveries and stringing together evidence to solve the crime; she doesn’t do it to get Sherlock’s approval or to get the high from the chase. There’s not even that much chasing and excitement in Elementary. Sure, they get into trouble and are sometimes in danger, but neither Sherlock nor Joan especially seek it out. For Joan in particular, this is a professional hazard she could do without. Sherlock understands that as well. He doesn’t take unnecessary risks (mostly) but he’s even more adamant at avoiding them when Joan is involved. Also, her love for this occupation isn’t tied to a tragic backstory, which is often done in crime shows, as in, “my mother/wife/daughter/other important person was killed and I never found out what happened, so I’ll try to find some peace by solving other murders and maybe catch that murderer some time”. She likes doing detective work because she likes it; there doesn’t need to be a tragic reason behind it.
The creators of Elementary have taken the familiar John Watson character and created something quite extraordinary in Joan Watson. Not only is she given the character history usually reserved for male characters, she’s an older (by Hollywood standards) woman who is still searching for her vocation against everyone’s expectations. The instances of sexism and misogyny which Joan encounters aren’t ignored, and we see her stand her ground. Most importantly, perhaps, we see Joan Watson be unafraid to make changes in her life and discover her true vocation, while still being practical, pragmatic, and responsible. All of this means that Joan Watson isn’t a completely faithful interpretation of ACD canon, but in my opinion, it gives the character more respect and makes her a well-written and admirable character in her own right.