The Victorian Sage

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Tag: elementary

The Last Monarchist and Elementary

I still like to check in with Elementary from time to time, as it continues on its relatively unheralded way. It’s just finished screening season 5 (and season 6 is on the way), but I’ve just started watching season 4 on DVD. They certainly know how to churn them out: 120×40(-ish) minute episodes since it first aired in 2012; Sherlock only managed 13×90 minute episodes between its 2010 inception and its 2017 finale. That equates to about 960 minutes of airtime per year for Elementary; 167 minutes for Sherlock. That’s quite a contrast.

So the fever of speculation that surrounded Sherlock hasn’t had time to develop around Elementary, as they churn out episode after episode. There is little chance of a mystique developing around the show. Indeed, just keeping up with watching each episode can come to seem like a Sisyphean chore in itself.

One thing these two adaptations of the Holmes mythos have in common is their interest in Holmes’ family backstory, one which manifests itself in the invention of family members unknown to Doyle’s tales. Doyle’s had a mostly absent brother, Mycroft, but he had no other siblings, nor did he have any parents, in so far as Doyle’s writing gives any clue. Sherlock centralizes Mycroft from the start, creating a complex dynamic between him and Sherlock; later Sherlock brings in the detective’s parents, and later still a certain hitherto unsuspected family member who plays a large part in season 4. Elementary also works Mycroft hard in season 2, and in the season 4 that I am now watching, the detective’s father Morland enters, and some predictably complex interfamilial dynamics are explored.

The 21st-century detective cannot escape complex relationships, and much of his energy and that of the scriptwriters go into the exploring of said relationships, invariably culminating with revelations of the deep love between Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock and Watson (whether John [Sherlock] or Joan [Elementary]), Sherlock and Morland, etc. There is an ultimate idealization of all such relationships in the two contemporary series. A truly subversive Holmes would at this stage be one who genuinely subordinated his personal relationships to other factors, whether that be the work of detection or simple self-interest.

Morland

Morland Holmes (John Noble) in “Evidence of things not seen”

But this hypothetical subversive Holmes is not the one we get in Elementary. In episode 2 of season 4, “Evidence of things not seen”, he is preoccupied and troubled by his relationship with his father, even while the standard detection plot progresses. This detection plot takes Sherlock and Joan into some unexpected corners, the most interesting of which to the current blog is the visit they pay to a “neo-reactionary monarchist” (as Sherlock calls him), or a “kook” (as Joan calls him).

Maurice Antonov is a blogger calling for the return of a Tudor-style monarchy. He admits that his political orientation is “not very socially acceptable at the moment”. He quotes Plato to the effect that the king and the philosopher should be one. Sherlock then declares his own orientation: democrat (citing Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all of the other ones). As the conversation progresses and Sherlock and Joan ask Mr Antonov about the crime in question, he reveals that he was giving a seminar at the time. A seminar on Thomas Carlyle. “There are over a dozen witnesses who will vouch for me”, he says. (This number itself a sly joke at the expense of Carlylean monarchism and its popularity or lack thereof.)

What is striking is the lightly mocking tone with which our Carlylean friend is treated. He’s a bookish individual, bespectacled (thick black frames), bearded and bald. We meet him in a wood-furnished, dimly lit library, where he wanders among the shelves picking up hard back books of obviously antique vintage. Though he’s an ex-partner of the murder victim being investigated, once he has appeared, his possible guilt is never discussed. He is not a threat.

Antonov

The first shot of Maurice Antonov (Geoffrey Cantor), clutching his dusty hardback tomes and peering over his thick glasses.

So the Carlylean philosophico-political beliefs of Mr Antonov are a signifier of his redundancy in the detective plot. His ideas are not presented as in any way objectionable, but rather as being humorously erroneous and anachronistic. The indulgent way in which they are treated is a measure of Carlyle’s current reputational standing in our culture: simply an irrelevance rather than a thinker of note.

Of course, it’s fitting that Elementary should be the show to register this. This is because Doyle’s very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, references Carlyle:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

The point Doyle/Watson is making here is that Carlyle is so famous, so relevant, that for an intelligent person not to have heard of him is preposterous. Of course, adaptations invariably retain the Copernican reference and dump the Carlyle one, because Copernican remains a touchstone of our intellectual progress and Carlyle, well, less so. Elementary goes a step further and reintroduces Carlyle, but now as a signifier of irrelevance.

That Holmes himself is a character whose popularity now is the same as it was in a substantially different ideologico-cultural climate, one wherein Carlylean monarchism was a serious political position, is a noteworthy fact in itself, even if he has had to trade in his steadfast individualism for a more symbiotic relationship with his family and associates in recent adaptations.

 

Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

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.

elementary2.png

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.

 

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