The will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic is a cornerstone of countless TV shows, most especially procedurals. From Bones to Castle to The X-Files, it seems nothing makes weekly mystery-solving more interesting than some flirting in between catching the bad guys. But for seven seasons, CBS’s Elementary has bucked the trend, proving that platonic love can be just as compelling.
Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to the world in 1887, there have been numerous adaptations, including several in the last decade alone. When it was announced in 2012 that Lucy Liu would be playing Watson to Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes, there was concern and backlash against this gender-swapped vision of an iconic character (some of which was steeped in misogyny and racism). So much so, that at a San Diego Comic-Con panel prior to the premiere, creator Rob Doherty was quick to emphasize the platonic aspect. Would the creative team get bored with this “just friends” mandate? Furthermore, When Harry Met Sally taught us that friendship between straight men and women is impossible without the “sex part” getting in the way. Could Sherlock and Joan beat the odds?
As it turns out, Doherty stuck to his guns. This is not a show devoid of sex -- Joan and Sherlock both hooked up, just not with each other. And while there are no lingering looks of desire or withholding of feelings as they sift their way through evidence in their shared home, last year's Season 6 did emphasize a love story between them. It just isn’t the one we've come to expect.
Updating a classic work for a contemporary audience while staying true to the canon isn’t an easy task. Sherlock is still abrasive and caustic, he doesn’t suffer fools and he isn’t soft in any way just because his best friend is a woman. Often there is a power imbalance between the two characters as Sherlock flexes his intellect, but the CBS series portrays Joan as Sherlock’s equal. Casual cocaine and morphine drug use is Joan’s entry point when his father hires her as a sober companion. However, this isn’t just a story contrivance ditched by the fifth episode. There is no magic cure for maintaining sobriety; instead, Sherlock’s drug addiction is a thread that's weaving its way throughout the last six seasons, and we've seen him struggle and relapse. He compares it to a leaky faucet, a tedious grind, but through it all Joan has been a steadfast support.
What began as a professional relationship has since evolved into something that blurs the lines between a business and personal connection. Joan is now very much an investigator in her own right, which involved some time apart for the pair. Like any great romance, a breakup is a vital part of the arc and it can be just as painful when sex isn’t involved. Since the rupture at the end of Season 2 when Joan moved out of the Brownstone — she moved back the following year — the bond has deepened to the point at the end of last season, when Sherlock confessed to a murder that neither he nor Joan committed to save her from going to prison.
Sherlock told Joan that “he would lay down his life for her” and he put his money where his mouth is (or close to it, anyway). Cutting a deal with the FBI — Sherlock has connections — he forfeited living in New York for a life back in London. The season ended at the famous Baker Street address with Joan by his side. Let’s not let an ocean get between these two. The final season picks up with them still in London, but how long will it be before they return to the place they call home?
Another cornerstone of the crime procedural is a work team doubling as a family unit, and Elementary sticks to that script. Often marriages and long-term romances are sacrificed for the job. In Sherlock’s case, his big love story with iconic Holmes character Irene Adler is blended with his great nemesis, Moriarty (both played by Natalie Dormer). If you’re going to write Watson as a woman, why not do the same for the big villain? Watson has less explosive affairs and has never seemed all that satisfied by any of her love interests — including Sherlock’s now deceased brother — but an adoption storyline was introduced last year in response to Joan wanting something more (and mirroring Lucy Liu’s IRL situation). In doing so, it opened up another conversation with Sherlock about what it means for their relationship, as their home is also their workspace.
There are zero expectations from Joan; she isn’t asking him to co-parent, but he is surprisingly enthusiastic about her decision. His one concern is that his addict status might impact her chances to successfully adopt, but she doesn’t want this living arrangement to change. This set-up is not a “conventional” family unit, but his desire to do anything to ensure Watson’s happiness is undeniable, he tells her, “For you Watson, I would make adjustments. Always.”
Joan meets with a woman who is considering giving her baby up for adoption and she can’t quite get her head around Joan and Sherlock’s platonic status remarking, “He’s hot, you’re hot. You’d make a great couple.” Joan quips, “You would be surprised how often we don’t hear that,” a knowing wink from the writers acknowledging how they've managed to avoid any undercurrent or hint of romance between the pair. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch-fronted BBC series Sherlock teased its audience with queer-baiting and fan fiction mocking whenever anyone thought they were a couple. There is no horror or revulsion from Joan when asked about them being a couple, just a matter-of-fact response. If only this was how all Watsons responded to this question.
Elementary’s strength is in its nuanced portrayal of a partnership that extends far beyond the crimes they solve. Sherlock’s know-it-all armor has been chipped away, revealing a vulnerable core. In the Season 6 finale, he admits “I was dying when we first met” and the only person who saw this was Watson. It is an emotionally charged moment underscoring everything great about Liu and Miller’s performances and what has made this show compelling for seven years. In what he believes is the demise of their working relationship (before she travels to London with him), Sherlock tells Joan they aren’t just partners: “We’re better than that. We’re two people that love each other. We always have been.” You don’t have to be a great detective to crack this case.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.