First, I want to acknowledge “Elementary” as the best of the recent adaptions of “Sherlock Holmes”–and quite possibly, the best adaption ever. Perhaps not the best in terms of being faithful to the original works (I’ll have to give that to the Jeremy Brett-led series on PBS), but still: the best.
Why? First, the showrunners updated the story by moving it to New York City, making Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) a recovering heroine addict instead of a cocaine addict, and making Dr. Watson female; Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is a former surgeon who is hired by Sherlock’s father Morland (John Noble) to be his sober companion as he pursues sobriety. Mrs. Hudson (who appeared far too rarely in the show) was portrayed as and played by a transgender person (Candis Cayne). The doltish Lestrade (Sean Pertwee) makes a few appearances, but for the most part his role is taken over by Detective Marcus Bell of the NYPD (Jon Michael Hall), who rapidly comes to respect and rely on Holmes. In another gender-bending move, the infamous Moriarty is a woman and a former lover of Sherlock’s.
Second, in seven seasons the writers never got stuck on a formula. Each episode was different, unpredictable, and often concerned with issues so on-trend that watching the show was my first exposure to them (did you know that sand, so necessary for concrete, has become such a hot commodity that people steal it in quantity from beaches and riverbeds?). The writers even made use of the blizzard that hit New York in January 2016, using it as the backdrop for a heist that the perpetrators could only pull off if and when a snowstorm paralyzed the city (and that could only have been filmed during the storm; it’s clearly a real blizzard going on as the actors slip and battle the wind in their scenes on the street and you can see the snow piling up).
Then there are the character arcs. Sherlock and Joan start out as uneasy partners in his effort to go straight; Joan is in many ways the dominant person in the relationship as she must monitor and direct his recovery. Over time, Sherlock begins to teach her his methods, both to have something to do (he became an addict out of boredom, as life is often too uninteresting) and, I suspect, to assert his own power. As Joan learns how to be a Holmesian detective and Sherlock becomes more solidly grounded in sobriety, they become partners in detection instead. Both have demons to exorcise, past failures that haunt them (Joan walked away from a surgery after losing her nerve), and they each come to some kind of rapprochement with these issues over time.
And they become friends, which is the hardest thing of all for both of them. Although the show never says this overtly, they both come from cultures that discourage public acknowledgment of emotions. Both are disappointments to their parents: Sherlock for not following his father into business and for becoming an addict; Joan for not marrying and for abandoning her career as a physician. They have sex with others, not each other, but these relationships never amount to much.
Gradually the show and the actors build pictures for us of two driven, intelligent, intellectual people who do in fact feel deeply, but keep those feelings strictly under wraps. This is not, as so many shows today are, a pairing of an intuitive, feeling person with a logical, analytical type. Both Joan and Sherlock are logical and analytical, distrustful of anything that can’t be proven. There’s no big “TV moment” where they break down and all their repressed feelings come out. Although they come to care deeply for each other, the most emotion they ever express is contained in a single embrace, a hug in which both of them slowly relax into holding each other.
And that’s it. At the end of the series finale, they are walking into Bell’s office to propose that the NYPD hire them back as consultants, but as they discuss the possibility that they may be turned down, they agree that it doesn’t really matter. We are left not knowing whether this partnership has become an actual love partnership, but we don’t need to know that. We are content, as they are, that Holmes & Watson will be together now and always, on their own terms.