Elementary, Season 2
by Mark Wallace
This is being written like a live blog, in a way, as I’m writing in my observations while watching season 2 of Elementary. Not watching them live, admittedly, but a much belated viewing of a complete series link. Not publishing them as I write them ,either, but as a single post when I get to the end of the current binge, which will take me past the half-way point of the series. So not much like a live blog, really. I like Elementary, maybe more than BBC Sherlock, which is kind of a minority position. Part of the reason Elementary got, particularly initially, a less enthusiastic press is because it is seen as a corporate cash-in on the success of its immediate precursor – reasonably enough, because CBS initially approached the BBC to ask if they could remake Sherlock for a US audience. They were refused, and so went ahead with an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes characters and genre, anyway.
But it was never notably like Sherlock. Both were updated to contemporary times, admittedly (the first [and second] time that’s been done in a major SH adaptation in a long while). Obvious novelties to Elementary were the female (and Asian) Watson played by Lucy Liu, and the setting in New York – though Holmes is still English, just expatriated.
But the first episode of season 2 sees it moving towards Sherlock territory. Literally, for one: Sherlock and Watson go to London. Figuratively, also. Mycroft makes an appearance, and the constant sniping between him and Sherlock recalls the dynamic in the BBC series. There are even a couple of quotes lifted from Sherlock: Mycroft’s first reaction on meeting Watson is “Sherlock doesn’t have friends”; and Lestrade shushes Watson at one point on the grounds that “he [Sherlock} is doing that thing”. The “doing that thing” verbal phrase is used repeatedly in Sherlock to draw attention to Sherlock’s cleverness and his otherness.
At the end of the episode, there’s a nice nod to canon, when Sherlock says that art in the blood takes the strangest forms, recalling the line from “The Greek Interpreter”, the story in which Mycroft is introduced. These nods are always appreciated by readers of the stories, and it’s something that Sherlock is master at, interspersing episodes with diverse lines and references from different stories, illustrating that they really know the stories, even though they never adapt the plots directly and fully, and use the source dialogue only in small portions.
Elementary is back in NYC, which is good. Watson is getting good at detection in her new position as apprentice. So the solving of cases is carried on by conversations between Holmes and Watson, which is maybe more TV-friendly than Holmes doing it alone, but it’s a jarring change from the Holmes of other versions: the superman with the mind others can’t understand, never mind replicate. The notion of the apprentice is, in such a case, difficult to integrate. And it can’t progress: Watson can never begin to be as smart as Holmes, so even though Elementary seems to be going this way, it can’t. It is another point of difference with Sherlock, though, because the latter really relies on the befuddled Watson trope.
Sherlock pontificates on love: he thought it was a delusion, then he met Irene Adler, then he recovered from his infatuation with her and is now “post-love”. This is another thing it has in common with Sherlock, and out of common with Conan Doyle’s writing. In Conan Doyle, Holmes just isn’t into romantic love, and that’s it! There’s no mystery, no need to analyze his choice, no search for a pathology of which this is the symptom. The contemporary adaptations just can’t see it like this, though, and there’s an endless circling round Sherlock Holmes and love – fidelity to source keeps them from quite going there, but contemporary mores keep them from ignoring it.
Attention turns to Captain Gregson’s home life, when his wife, from whom he is undergoing a “temporary separation”, is accosted by a masked man in their house. Again, this turn towards fleshing out recurring characters, giving them a past and a life of their own, is very different from Conan Doyle’s approach. When CD was stuck for a plot, he recycled his old stories (“The Three Garribeds”) or used various of his recurring tropes, but he never went in for mining his characters’ depths. It intrigues me that this approach proves impossible for contemporary versions. It may, indeed, point to a whole different way of viewing personhood in these times. Is this all Freud’s influence? – that the persona/ego is now wholly distinct from the real self. This rather takes away from the original appeal of Holmes, which is that he is wholly and always himself – that is what makes him so admirable, such a role model and aspirational figure. Unattainable, perhaps, but a valuable presence in the cultural canon.
This one is interesting, doing something neither CD nor most adapters have really done: confronted the economics of being Holmes. In this case, Sherlock is a trust fund kid, still living in the old man’s block of apartments in his late 30s. This is probably the most realistic approach, and chimes in with the original idea of the detective in literature, predating CD:
‘Do you then propose, dear boy, that we should turn detectives?’ inquired Challoner.
‘Do I propose it? No, sir,’ cried Somerset. ‘It is reason, destiny, the plain face of the world, that commands and imposes it. Here all our merits tell; our manners, habit of the world, powers of conversation, vast stores of unconnected knowledge, all that we are and have builds up the character of the complete detective. It is, in short, the only profession for a gentleman. (R.L. Stevenson, The Dynamiter)
The detective is above all things a man of leisure, a man of means, who doesn’t need to earn a living, so can demand of life the type of work which is the most intrinsically engaging. He has escaped the cash nexus, as Carlyle says, the irony being that to do so one must have plenty of funds.
Also being brought up again in episode 8 is the pull of London. This isn’t something I’ve thought about much, geocriticism being not really my area, but it’s definitely an issue in Elementary. In this episode, Sherlock says New York is “American London”, so he doesn’t need the original London, but it’s interesting that such a justification is even needed, and the possibility of a return to London is mooted and remains at episode end. Some of CD’s most famous Holmes stories take place outside of London: Hound, obviously, “The Speckled Band”, “The Copper Beeches” and many others. But Elementary seems to very rarely leave the urban, and is haunted by London as the one truly canonical setting for a Holmes story.
Watson is growing increasingly competent, and not just that, but increasingly assertive. She dictates the terms of the investigation to Holmes in this episode, and he accepts it. I’m finding it hard to wholly endorse this egalitarian dynamic. On another note, there are echoes of Sherlock again (“His Last Vow”), in that Holmes comes across a criminal so devious and so elusive that he has to go over to the dark side: in this case, he decides to frame him. But he doesn’t have to in the end.
More blarney about whether Sherlock has “changed” since meeting Watson: she says yes, he says no. Things get a bit tense.
Well, well, well, if it isn’t Moriarty. Back again. It’s odd to think that Moriarty was only in one Holmes story in the original canon. One, out of 56 stories and 4 novels. And as a blatant contrivance to suit Doyle’s purpose of killing off Holmes, at that. All the stuff about Moriarty being a spider at the centre of the web of London criminality was just invented for this story, and doesn’t appear in any of the others. (Though he is reintroduced for the late novel The Valley of Fear, where he is only talked about and never appears). Despite his marginality to the canon, adaptations always make him central, expanding on the spider-in-the-web claims and building them into overarching plots. I find Moriarty an unnecessary addition to Holmes stories. The idea that the evil Holmes fights is embodied in one single person is the sort of non-analytical reductionism that detracts from the purely rational conception of the character – everything can be read by Holmes, but needs to be read on its own account, as a unique set of circumstances. Bringing in Moriarty is too easy, and fundamentally melodramatic.
So, halfway through the series, I cease my binge, to be picked up at a later date. Elementary remains above the norm, in my opinion. The plots stretch credulity a bit, but they don’t have the really thoughtless dumbness of some Sherlock episodes; it also keeps the mystery element foregrounded a lot better than Sherlock – sure, it’s far more conscious of character exposition than Doyle, but it does it least keep a strong detecting framework to every episode, thus retaining the centrality of work to SH’s being, which to me is important in all good Holmes adaptations. Holmes needs to be about the work, that’s what marks him out. I like Lucy Liu’s Watson, too, though I would like to see a bit more differentiation in her methodology/competence as a detective compared to Sherlock’s. I like the imbalance in their relationship, the opposites-attract element, and don’t want to see it turning into a run-of-the-mill working partnership.