Femme Friday: Joan Watson
You can count me among the legions of existing Sherlock fans that were more than a bit skeptical when Elementary was announced. For awhile Sherlock Holmes was like the new zombie apocalypse (which was the new vampires): a resurrected topic with a bandwagon large enough for multiple networks, writers, and other creative hopefuls to throw themselves on. Elementary just seemed too gimmicky: hot on the heels of Sherlock, it tried to change up the characters and setting enough to differentiate itself while still capitalizing on the recent uptick in the popularity of the canon. I wanted it to be good, but my expectations were very low. It seemed unnecessary to move the characters to New York, the new Watson was so radically different from the character I knew as to be borderline unrecognizable, I was convinced that this was a cheap way to create a romance between Holmes and Watson, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they didn’t just make the damn show and give the leads different names, like Sherrinford and Sacker.
When the pilot finally aired, I still didn’t see the point of it. I watched the first four episodes and wrote the whole thing off. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly good either, and I’ve got better things to do with my time than waste an hour every week watching something that I don’t feel passionate about.
Bending the gender of a character is nothing new, ala Katee Sackhoff as a female Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot. I realize I’m about to draw the collective ire of the entire internet, but I thought the treatment of her character was all wrong: she always appeared to be trying too hard, she always had something to prove, and in my opinion this made her totally unbelievable.
Kara Thrace, after being asked how her day was.
Luckily for me I have friends that stuck with the show and told me to give it another go. I figured Lucy Liu would be handed one of two roles: a new Kara Thrace constantly throwing her weight around, or a more typical Watson, passive and admiring and serving as a foil to Sherlock’s quips. Incredibly enough we didn’t get either one of these things, and while it is difficult for me to pick a favorite Watson Lucy Liu now comes first to mind. Her Watson is effortless. She’s tough without resorting to bullying, intelligent without having to show off, and stands up for herself without appearing to be on a crusade. She understands that respect is earned rather than freely given, and never allows herself to be the recipient of abuse in any form.
For the first time that I can recall Watson was treated as Holmes’ equal, someone competent with talents worth developing and worthy of his respect. And she continues to impress me the more we get to see of her: she keeps her cool under extraordinary pressure, is constantly working to improve herself, has proven herself to be a fearless and invaluable asset to their partnership, stands her ground and fights back when faced with misogyny, and she calls Sherlock out on his shit – something that has been sorely lacking in the majority of adaptations. The esteem in which Holmes holds her is a real testament to how highly he thinks of her, and it is incredibly refreshing to see a Holmes/Watson relationship where the admiration goes both ways.
We are all familiar with seeing Holmes treat Watson as a sidekick, making disparaging remarks about his intelligence and abilities in an offhand and completely shitty way. Elementary removed this dynamic from their relationship and introduced us to two lead characters of equal ability – one the master of his finely honed craft, and the other no less capable but merely lacking in training. In many ways this strikes me as a show about Joan Watson rather than Sherlock Holmes, and she is certainly a character worth watching.
What impresses me about this particular adaptation is that despite the unorthodox casting Watson is treated as a human being, first and foremost: the fact that she is an American woman of color is completely arbitrary to her character. Watson was written as a modern individual rather than a Victorian character update, and then the best actor was cast for the role, race and color be damned.
We’ve come a long way from the simpering Nigel Bruce and the invisible Ian Hart. This new Watson is vibrant, essential, and one bad ass bitch. We salute you, Joan Watson, for making the everyman the most capable and competent everywoman we could have hoped for.