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By Becky Kifer · May 20, 2013
When Elementary debuted last fall, the premise alone was the equivalent of a waking nightmare for any Holmesian purist. A junkie Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) solving cases in New York, a plucky American Joan Watson (Lucy Liu)—what could possibly be next? Holmes having a sex drive? A transgender Mrs. Hudson? It’s not like it would turn one of the most famous criminal masterminds of all time into…oh no they didn’t.
Instead of inching back toward a more traditional core once its wacky premise was accepted, Elementary gently patted Canon on the head and continued on its way. Much to the show’s betterment, it isn’t precious about its source material. It takes what it wants, disavows what it wants, and moves on. Sometimes a little sacrilege really is superb. That doesn’t mean Elementary, withits procedural-heavy, syndication-friendly nature, can’t be commonplace. For every standout story about an abducted child controlling his kidnapper, there’s a filler episode about Russian spies in the suburbs just pushing you along to the next Thursday.
The show’s first season finishes with a two-fer episode finale. When we last saw our intrepid duo they were following a clue from Moriarty, leading them to a very-much-alive Irene Adler (Natalie Dormer)—whose “death” nearly two years prior was the catalyst for Holmes’ drug-fueled meltdown. Suffering from severe PTSD, she claims to have been kidnapped and psychologically tortured. Holmes, sure her disappearance is his fault, drops out of the hunt for Moriarty to take care of her, leaving Watson to finish the case.
Irene’s story is overly farcical—the word “subterfuge” could have literally been written on her forehead in permanent marker—but the extent of her duplicity isn’t clear. The character of Irene Adler has been front and center in two of the most recent Holmes incarnations—codenames Blockbuster and BBC—where she is a criminal/blackmailer with direct connections to Moriarty. Elementary’s solution to this trend is to literally skip the middleman: Irene is Moriarty. (Dormer, of more recent Game of Thrones fame, is a decent Adler but a fabulous Moriarty. I want to watch a show of just her and her L’Oreal commercial hair plotting deliciously evil things.)
Interested in Holmes because of his meddling in several of her London escapades, Moriarty initially adapted the persona of Irene Adler to meet the detective and later “killed” herself once she concluded her experiment with him. When she suspects Holmes is going to foil her newest assassination attempt in New York (this time involving the murder of a Macedonian political figure and making a fortune off the chaos), she resurrects Irene to pull him away from the investigation. It would have worked, save for one factor she failed to predict: Watson. Throughout the season Holmes and Watson have become friends with benefits—crime-solving benefits. Although Watson is usually a step behind Holmes, she’s learning fast. As the series has progressed, it’s been delightful to watch a platonic fondness develop between two people; an attraction not built out of sex appeal but brain appeal. Sexy, sexy brain appeal.
If there’s something lacking in Elementary, it’s been great Watson moments. Miller’s Holmes is a ball of stiff-armed energy and it’s sometimes easy to overlook Liu’s Watson when they’re together (this is, I add, a writing problem and not an acting problem). When Watson is given prominence and dialogue in a scene it usually centers on one of two reasons: to reiterate what Holmes has just said or get him to talk about his feeeeelings.
What the final episodes this season have given us is long overdue: Watson, Watson, Watson. Confident, passionate and, for once, not playing second violin to Holmes. When Moriarty predictably gets her hands on Watson, the conversation between the two is like lightning. Moriarty’s “Do you want to sleep with [Sherlock]?” is more jab than accusation—she doesn’t understand Watson’s role in Holmes life any more than Holmes would have prior to his descent into drugs. Yet while Holmes and Moriarty, landing somewhere between archenemies and star-crossed lovers, are too busy trying to win the game and avoid their true feelings, it’s Watson who sees victory in defeat. Having Holmes fake an OD brings Moriarty creeping to his bedside and right into a pair of handcuffs.
Watson needed Moriarty just as much as Holmes did—not as a grand adversary, but as proof that in a game of gods and titans, there’s still room to be had for mere mortals. If season one represented Holmes’ journey and the demons that came with it, season two should—one can only hope—further explore Watson’s history as well. She isn’t ready to head off on her own just yet, but she needn’t be cowed by Holmes’ abilities (exasperated and impressed at the same time, yes). If taking down the Napoleon of Crime doesn’t boost your confidence, nothing will.
Elementary concludes its season not with a bang but with a buzz. A thankful Holmes, standing with Watson before his rooftop hive, names a new species of bee after her. If that’s not the beginning of a bizarrely beautiful partnership, I don’t know what is.