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Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson Was Elementary’s Humanistic Heart

Photo: CBS

Recently, the BBC Archive shared on Twitter a 1977 clip of a middle-aged woman who was stopped on the street by The Viewer’s View to talk about her thoughts on television. In her tomato-red raincoat and delicately wrapped scarf, she cogently and movingly extolls the wonder of television. At different points she describes the medium as a “phenomenon” and a communal ritual for her family, which reminded me of the gentle awe television instilled in me when I was a child watching The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation as my mom braided my hair, or obsessively taping Buffy the Vampire Slayer on my own. “It felt like we were escaping from that kitchen sink,” she notes about the transporting nature of television, its potential to be not just a mirror, but also a window — an escape. Watching this brought to mind how much can be said about the pleasures of televisual comfort food, those shows we slip into like a warm bath, letting them entertain us with their familiar rhythms and archetypes.

Elementary, the CBS procedural that ended its seven-season run last night, was a delectable example of the potency and wonder of televisual comfort food, wrapping within the folds of its procedural a tender argument that the families we craft ourselves are as important as the ones we’re born into. What elevated the series from the glut of procedurals on television (and its own uneven final season) was its adept performances, particularly Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, who created a layered study in empathy that suggests second acts are possible in life.

Trying to capture what makes a good performance is like trying to hold smoke in your hand, but when I spoke to Liu earlier this summer, she said something that captured the essence of it: “I do think listening is very key to directing, and I don’t think we all do it as well as we should.” This holds true for acting as well, and Liu proved over Elementary’s seven seasons to be an active, empathetic listener. But even the greatness of Liu’s performance couldn’t distract from how the final season failed her character, ending on a sour note that stains her legacy.

When we first met Joan Watson, she was a woman whose life had been undone by trauma. After a patient died on her operating table, Joan gave up her life as a surgeon, flinging herself into a new profession as a sober companion hired by Morland Holmes (later played by the inimitable John Noble) to help usher his son, the brilliant and difficult yet strangely beguiling Sherlock (an excellent Jonny Lee Miller), into the rigors of recovery for his drug addiction. When Sherlock saw the spark of ingenuity and potential in Joan, he aided her in taking on a new calling as a detective.  What followed was a tender story not just of a nascent friendship, but what it means to rebuild oneself.

It became evident early on that Elementary was at its best when it used its procedural format to carefully nudge at ideas of family, both those we’re born into and those we make ourselves. For Joan, family is a knotted reality: We’ve seen her struggle with her mother’s Alzheimer’s, the memory of the father who ran out on her family and later wrestled with schizophrenia and homelessness, and the half-sister she only met recently as an adult. These rigors carefully revealed what justice and order means for her character, but Joan isn’t a harsh, brooding detective; she’s lightning-bright and boldly empathetic, listening with full-bodied attention.

As an archetype, detectives are a useful window into the moral dimensions of the society they are born into. They’re cinematic moral compasses tracking the interior and external reverberations of the choices we make and the often illusory nature of true justice. What does it say, then, that the most iconic examples of this archetype have been primarily white people? Perhaps this is one reason I’ve found myself pulled toward Joan, whose existence as an Asian-American woman shapes her understanding of the world and the justice she seeks. Perhaps the most striking development in this regard occurred in the show’s fifth season, when Joan approached a former patient fresh from prison, Shinwell Johnson (the late Nelsan Ellis), for information, but soon took him under her wing to teach him the detective skills she learned under Sherlock’s tutelage, which helped his own work as an informant. She and Sherlock increasingly disagreed on the situation until he was proved somewhat right about Shinwell’s moral character, but Joan’s decision to mentor Shinwell spoke to her empathetic ability to see the potential of someone whom the justice system may have failed.

When I spoke to Liu, she said it’s the episodes that peel back the layers of who these characters are that she cherishes most. “We do a lot of procedurals, obviously, and a lot of mysteries that need to be solved, but those episodes [like her first directorial effort in the show’s second season, “Paint It Black”] really stand out, and I love seeing those relationships. They are what creates the person that is presented and has so many layers,” she noted.

Joan is also one of modern television’s greatest examples of the characterization and storytelling that comes with great costuming. For Joan, fashion isn’t just a form of expression; it’s identity. One of the greatest pleasures of Elementary was in tracking the breadth of Joan’s arc through Rebecca Hofherr’s costuming. In the beginning, Joan wore casual clothing with loose silhouettes, but by season four her wardrobe had subtly shifted into impeccably tailored suits, echoing the evolution of her career as a detective. “The suit idea was not to sort of become more ‘masculine’ and have that kind of energy,” Liu told me. “It was more that she now conducted herself in a more professional manner as a detective, and so she then wanted to have more of a uniform.”

Yet some of the most indelible moments in the character’s history saw her in more feminine wear, like in season three’s “The One That Got Away,” in which Joan wears an elegant burnished copper and obsidian dress with a fur-trimmed coat to confront suspected murder and violent abuser Del Gruner (Stuart Townsend). When he viciously grabs her arm to level a threat, her posture strengthens and she looks him in the eye with an icy glare. “Get your hand off me or we’ll find out how well you do against a woman who can actually fight back,” she says, never breaking her gaze.

Joan’s clothing often acted as a window into how she saw herself. Her refined, immaculately tailored suits from the last few seasons spoke to her professionalism and comfort in her role as a consulting detective. Moments like her confrontation with Del allowed her contradictions to rise to the surface, contrasting the feminine quality of her dress with the steely aggression that allowed her to confront a man suspected of torture and murder.

But in the final season, Joan often felt like a splintered character lacking a secure through line, being pulled in various directions by the plot. This was evident in her clothing, which moved away from beautiful but not ostentatious suits to brighter clothing, busy with clashing patterns, ruffles, and an overall looser silhouette. The clothing was still gorgeous, but it didn’t track with the woman we came to know over the preceding seasons, and Joan wasn’t given enough to do in the final season to justify such a shift in wardrobe. This is a symptom of a larger problem: The series’s seventh season just didn’t work.

Elementary being cut down from 21 episodes to 13 put a strain on it, resulting in a final season that felt rushed and half-formed. That extended to Joan, who didn’t have much to do beyond support Sherlock until the finale, in which she became a vehicle for a maudlin twist that undercut the vibrancy of the character by making her a source for Sherlock’s pain (and a way out of the bind the writers found themselves in with trying to get him to stay in New York).

In the last few minutes of the Elementary finale it’s revealed that Joan has cancer. This leads to moving performances by Liu and Miller, who grant heft to this twist, but their tender chemistry isn’t enough to distract from the sense that Joan has been pulled in an unexpected direction that we aren’t given enough time to sit with, to fully feel the emotional weight of it. It’s a poorly sketched turn that misuses a star character who didn’t get many moments to shine in the final season.

I prefer to remember Joan as she was before the seventh season squandered her. I’ll remember the empathetic way she interviewed those mired in grief as a detective, how she carefully navigated the emotional strife of her familial dilemmas, and the gentle chemistry she shared with Sherlock, which demonstrated how a deep friendship can stir us as human beings. I’ll remember watching Elementary with my mother, feeling inspired by how Joan faced her future with a gimlet-eyed exuberance that made me believe that second chances in life are possible. I’ll remember all the times Joan chose empathy over being jaded, in a world where that choice remains preciously rare.

Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson Was Elementary’s Humanistic Heart