Broken Holmes: A Sherlockian’s thoughts on ‘Elementary’

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I like BBC’s SHERLOCK quite a bit. I see the efforts of Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Freeman as an extraordinary adaptation of Doyle’s great detective, perhaps my favorite adaptation. The updated stories from the Holmes canon feel fresh, while the characters are as comfortable as a well-worn Persian slipper with pipe tobacco in the heel. I’ve enjoyed both of the triptychs they’ve released so far, and greatly look forward to the release of series 3. But like many fans of Sherlock Holmes, my adoration doesn’t begin and end with a single interpretation. As I’ve mentioned previously, the character has been around for so long, and spawned so many iterations, that it is impossible to pick a definitive version.

Lately, as I wait for the return of BBC’s SHERLOCK (we unfortunately won’t get to see the series until next year), I’ve been pouring over some of my favorite versions of the character. I’ve rewatched both Guy Ritchie films, I’ve plucked through some of the Granada episodes, and even The Great Mouse Detective, before realizing that OnDemand has the entire first season of Elementary available. I had seen the pilot episode previously, and enjoyed it, but not having cable at the time, was forced to put the show on hold until a DVD release. Having finally sat down to watch the series recently, I’ve realized that the show is not only completely different than the other interpretations, but represents a take on the character that we rarely see.

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Unfortunately, upon the show’s release, it was compared unfairly to SHERLOCK. Fans spouted off, saying that this was simply America’s way of cashing in on a character that has suddenly become popular, leaving out the fact that the character is 120 years old, and that the Guy Ritchie films had already dipped their toes in the water. Across the web, you can see everything from venomous ire to gentle chiding in comparison of the two shows and their versions of the characters. And while everything about both SHERLOCK and Elementary is different, the main variance that I found most interesting, rests upon “The Great Hiatus”.

In the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Final Problem was supposed to be the detective’s heroic swan song. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had become tired of the character, wanted to pursue other things, and killing Sherlock off seemed the only way to do it. Of course, the fans shouted their displeasure (nerd culture wasn’t so different then, as it is now) and after three years, Doyle brought the character back in The Adventure of the Empty House, much to the rejoicing of Holmes fans around the world. However, it was this three year gap in the world of Holmes that has spawned some very curious ideas concerning the character’s life. This gap is often referred to as “The Great Hiatus” and has left many fans to wonder what Holmes was up to in those three missing years.

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Theories jump from performing theatre in America, to acting as a spy under the alias of “Altamont”. However, it was writer Nicholas Meyer, who presented quite a different theory in his book The Seven Percent Solution. Meyer posited that many of the Holmes stories leading up to his supposed death were fictions created by Watson, to cover up his friend’s struggle with drug addiction. In The Seven Percent Solution, Holmes is taken by Watson to the office of Dr. Sigmund Freud, in order to get to the bottom of his dependence on cocaine. I won’t spoil what Freud’s treatment entails or uncovers, but regardless we are left with the portrait of a great man nearly destroyed by his own demons.

This seems to be the approach taken by the creators of Elementary. We are not seeing Holmes at his heroic intellectual peak, we are seeing him as a broken man, struggling with addiction and a past event that very nearly destroyed him. This portrayal of Holmes is as far as one can get from the persistent machine-like quality of the Cumberbatch version.

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It should also be noted  that there are references to Holmes’ retirement to Sussex Downs, to raise honeybees. In the pilot episode, we learn that Holmes keeps bees on the roof of his father’s brownstone, informing Watson that he is writing “Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen”. This is a piece of writing, he will eventually produce as a much older man, when his days as a detective are behind him. The drug addiction and forced “retirement” in some ways that coalesce into a situation where Holmes is not the man he was, nor is he like anything we’ve seen in the character before. We finally see Holmes as a broken man who makes mistakes, and for this period in his life, both physically and psychologically, needs a Watson.

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It is also this new spin on the Homes and Watson relationship that bares examination. Watson not only serves as a foil for Holmes to bounce his ideas off of, she also serves as his partner. Watson is not Holmes’ intellectual equal necessarily, but because both characters are disgraced in different ways, they tend to help each other reach a new equilibrium. Through this dynamic, we see Watson becoming a useful member of the team, filling in Holmes knowledge gaps on certain cases; this doesn’t make Holmes any less of a master detective, he’s still the smartest guy in the room, but it does allow Watson to rise beyond the level of maternal caretaker.

While Elementary is very good as toeing the line of expected CBS mysteries like CSI (which is plays the Doyle template to the hilt in every episode), we are seeing a fascinating portrayal of a character most often shown at the top of his game, now at the bottom trying to fight his way back up. If SHERLOCK is the peak of Holmes’ crime-fighting career, Elementary represents the middle slump, showing us depth and struggle we rarely see in a character as defined and well regarded as Sherlock Holmes.

Sidebar 1: This show also has one of the best opening title sequences on television. Second maybe to Game of Thrones

Sidebar 2: Jonny Lee Miller does look a lot like Sidney Paget’s original Holmes illustrations, doesn’t he.

About author

Robert Walker
Robert Walker 152 posts

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado, and is creator of the comedy web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre. He loves horror films and comic books (American Vampire, Jonah Hex, The Flash, Planetary). Rob has been a Sherlockian since the age of ten, is a Dark Tower junky and believes that Indiana Jones is the greatest cinematic hero ever created. You can follow him on twitter at: @timidwerewolf and see his other writings and videos at robwalkerfilms.com

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