Why Elementary’s Joan Is the Best Version of Watson

There's no worthier companion! Photo: Michael Parmelee/CBS

When Elementary, a contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, premiered on CBS in the fall of 2012, it felt terribly redundant. The second season of the BBC’s Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the brilliant detective had run to critical acclaim and growing fan obsession. Robert Downey Jr.’s second Sherlock Holmes movie, Game of Shadows, had made piles of money just a year prior. Holmesian medical drama House had just ended. Each of these featured an eccentric, abrasive Holmes working with a more socially adept Watson. The TV shows, especially, followed a similar dynamic, foregrounding Holmes’s cruelty, making him borderline abusive, while Watson struggled to keep him under control. CBS’s procedural version of Holmes and Watson sounded like more of the same: Sherlock Holmes, fresh off a stint in rehab, teams up with his sober companion, former surgeon Joan Watson, to help the NYPD solve murders.

But the show did have one thing that obviously set it apart from other adaptations: the casting of Asian-American actor Lucy Liu as a female version of Watson. This alteration caused a considerable amount of consternation among Holmes fans before Elementary’s first episode even aired: What if (gasp) Holmes and Watson slept together? A writer for the Guardian wrote off Liu’s casting as “a mindlessly trendy piece of feminising,” complaining that the swap would at best change nothing and at worst reinforce stereotypes about women and people of color existing only to serve white men. Even competitor Cumberbatch felt the need to weigh in, confessing, “I’d be frightened of the dynamic of male friendship that you’d lose.”

But over the course of the show’s four seasons, it’s become clear that Joan is among the best adaptations of Watson TV or film has seen in recent years. Criticisms of Watson’s race and gender generally died down after the show actually aired, when it became clear those initial concerns were moot. Early on, producers explicitly swore that Holmes and Watson would never become romantically involved — a promise they have thus far shown no intention of breaking. Instead, Joan and Sherlock have developed a complicated but steadfast friendship, and, maybe most remarkably, an equal partnership. After discovering she has a talent and passion for detective work while serving as Sherlock’s sober companion, Joan becomes his apprentice and then an independent investigator, even moving out of their shared home. When she does decide to move back in with Sherlock and formally partner up, it’s on her terms, which include retaining her own office and clients.

It’s also clear from the beginning that Joan is capable of things Sherlock is not. In the pilot, she manages to get information out of a witness after Holmes throws a tantrum. And as Joan becomes a more adept detective — if not quite Sherlock’s equal — the police generally prefer to work with her. Watson is the one who comes up with the plan to trap Moriarty, who in this telling is also a woman: none other than Sherlock’s former love, Irene Adler. Moriarty dismisses Watson as a mere “mascot,” rather than a capable investigator, but Joan expertly sizes up the criminal and realizes they can exploit her obsession with Sherlock to take her down. If Holmes traditionally represents the mind and Watson the heart, here’s an incarnation where emotion is just as powerful as intellect.

This treatment of the two characters as equals — with a challenging but not unbearable Holmes, and a capable but not genius Watson — is a considerable break from the tradition of the brilliant detective and his dopey assistant, which stretches back to the 1940s Basil Rathbone movies that cemented Sherlock Holmes’s place in our cultural imagination. Despite initial comparisons, Elementary’s Watson bears little resemblance to the BBC version, which draws heavily from that popular image of the character as a put-upon sidekick, always one step behind. Cumberbatch’s Holmes undeniably loves Martin Freeman’s Watson (whether that love is romantic remains open to interpretation), but he also looks down on him, while John, despite occasionally losing patience with Sherlock’s high jinks, idolizes him. Cumberbatch literally towers over Freeman. Despite the profoundly codependent dynamic between the two men, there is a telling imbalance: Sherlock makes all the plans and decisions, while Watson just tags along.

Changing Watson from a British man to an Asian-American woman allowed Elementary to shift away from this dynamic. The characterization of Watson as a hapless follower would read as regressive and sexist if applied to a woman, especially a woman of color. Smartly, the writers jettisoned the idea of Watson as the Robin to Sherlock’s Batman, and drew on the original dynamic in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, where the two men are more evenly matched. Watson plays a secondary role in Holmes’s investigations, yes, but is generally capable of following his logic. On Elementary, Joan similarly lacks Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things crime, but she’s perceptive and bright from the start.

Lucy Liu’s casting is also an excellent example of how changing a character’s race and gender can offer new narrative opportunities and character dynamics rather than reinforcing traditions. She stands as a refreshing instance of racebending — which is more commonly used to erase people of color from roles, not the other way around — especially in light of recent instances in which white actors were cast in Asian roles, including Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson as manga icon Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Watson’s altered identity doesn’t define her character, but it does inform it: While much of her relationship with Sherlock is based in the original texts, the ways in which she stands out from her forbearers are undeniably shaped by her new identity, and it helps make Elementary stand out among the sea of Holmes adaptations.

In previous incarnations, Watson has always been a conventional man of his times. He may be an adrenaline junkie and have an unusually close relationship with his roommate, but he follows a relatively standard life path. In most adaptations, he is usually still a practicing physician and almost always gets married. Joan, on the other hand, finds her romantic relationships mostly unsatisfying and fully commits herself to investigatory work, despite the initial concerns of her friends and family. She also rejects the most explicitly feminized part of Watson’s character by refusing to be a cheerleader. She admires and appreciates Sherlock, but doesn’t look up to him; after all, she was introduced to him as an addict, not as a brilliant detective. She acknowledges and accepts Holmes’s failings in a way other Watsons do not. By empowering Watson, Elementary undermines the fantasy of Sherlock Holmes: He’s no longer the infallible god of logic, but just an exceptionally intelligent human being.

If you’re a fan of the borderline-robotic version of Holmes, that may sound like heresy, but 96 episodes of such a character would be unbearable (just watch a late episode of House). Transforming John into Joan leaves the core of the stories — two best friends, solving crimes — untouched, while allowing Elementary to deepen its exploration of Holmes and Watson as people. And after getting to know them both for four seasons, it’s safe to say there’s no worthier partner for the world’s most famous detective than Joan Watson.