Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

by Mark Wallace

A while back I mentioned the CBS series Elementary in relation to the Freudianization of the character of Sherlock Holmes in contemporary retellings. Now I want to look a little more closely at this series. By Freudianization I mean the exploration of sexuality, the centrality of libido,the search for primal scenes and childhood traumas, the assumption that work is a sublimation, the imputation of an unconscious driving behaviour, and so on – all things that Conan Doyle felt no need to go into or to have to explain away. My point is that the Sherlock Holmes of Doyle’s stories is unrepresentable according to contemporary narrative tropes, and both Sherlock and Elementary demonstrate this. Sherlock is the series I have looked at most, but in the paper I am currently writing on this series, I will also mention Elementary, and how this series faces the same difficulties when it comes to depicting Holmes, particularly with regard to his sexuality.

It’s not a hard argument to make. Remember the first episode of Elementary? Remember the very first line Sherlock speaks? It is this:

Do you believe in love at first sight? I know what you’re thinking: the world is a cynical place and I must be a cynical man.

And he continues into a speech about how much he loves her (Joan Watson), who has just entered his apartment and introduced herself to him. It turns out Sherlock is rehearsing a piece of dialogue from a film or TV show. However, we don’t know that during the speech: he’s staring at Joan intently, and she’s taken aback but intrigued (going by facial expressions; she doesn’t say anything). Not only do we not know that it’s a rehearsal, but the reason he is reciting this speech is never revealed. Why would he be learning this speech? How on Earth can this square with Holmes’ famous brain-attic theory:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for any addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. (A Study in Scarlet, Pt. 1, Ch. 2)

In episode 2 of Elementary, Sherlock gives a variation on this speech, so he too subscribes to the brain-attic theory. How, for a detective, can we envisage learning a romantic speech from a film or TV show to be a useful fact, worthy of a place in the attic? No obvious answer suggests itself, and Elementary never actually makes any effort to explain why Sherlock is doing this.


Sherlock declaring his love for Joan at their first meeting

So why is he doing this? At a plot level there is no reason. It’s a non-sequitur. But it sets up the theme of Sherlock’s sexuality that is central to Elementary. Unlike Sherlock, this series doesn’t claim that Sherlock is celibate. They get that one out of the way immediately, in this first scene. He says:

I actually find sex repellent. All those fluids and all the sounds, but my brain and my body require it to function at optimum levels, so I feed them as needed.

This is the official line throughout the series: Sherlock has sex, but he doesn’t like it, though the second part is not so clear-cut. Joan makes it clear she doesn’t believe that he doesn’t enjoy sex, and the viewers sometimes doubt it, too. So that is partly how that opening speech functions: making it clear right away that Doyle’s approach just doesn’t fit our conception of a man, and dispelling it.

It also introduces the possibility of sexual tension between Sherlock and Joan: how is she reacting when he declares his love for her? It’s not clear. She gives nothing away, but she seems intrigued by his declaration.

elementary Joan.png

Intimate over-the-shoulder shot of Sherlock and Joan in their meeting scene.

Maybe the most interesting element of the speech part of the meeting scene is its functional inutility. From a plot point of view, it never happened: the speech wasn’t real, it was a rehearsal; and the rehearsal wasn’t real, it wasn’t for anything later in the episode. So we have to conclude that its thematic meaning is very important because a) its plot meaning is nil and b) it is placed at an important point in the narrative: the very first meeting of the two lead characters.

The possibility of Sherlock having an identifiable sexuality is what is at issue here. Unlike Doyle, the makers of Elementary can’t see a pure distancing of the character from sexual and romantic concerns being acceptable, so they’re establishing right away his plausibility as a romantic lead. The formal meaning of the scene (it has none) is unimportant, as its experiential meaning (the viewer experiences, for that minute before we find out what’s going on, the scene as a standard romantic one [formal and experiential meaning are notions taken from Stanley Fish]) is what resonates, and what can’t be undone by recognition of the narrative insignificance of the scene.

There’s a very similar scene in Sherlock, albeit much later in the development of the series. I might write on it later, but both series are similar in needing a sexualized Sherlock while also being somewhat beholden to a source text that does not allow for such a figure. Over the course of their development, they work with this tension, but can never resolve it, because the source is uncompromising, and so are contemporary models of building character in narratives.