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This weekend, in light of having an extra day off, my family took the time to get caught up on Elementary. I have many thoughts about the show in general and the finale specifically. The non-spoilery version is that Elementary is not an "adaptation" of Sherlock Holmes so much as an "inspired by" with nods and winks to certain storylines, themes and moments in the books, and I absolutely love it. Obviously if I wanted to see Sherlock Holmes I'd watch something else, and also obviously there are problems with Elementary – it's a cop show with all the standard drama-driven breaks from reality that implies, for one – but it's got a lot I really like.

To recap, Elementary has the generic white Brit for Holmes himself, but Watson is portrayed by Lucy Liu. This could have been very bad had they used either the hopelessly-clueless Watson of fame or the more conventional average-Joe sidekick, but instead, Liu plays a competent woman who, while not as brilliant as Holmes, holds her own.

The writers dodged most of the big problems they could have run into writing a female Watson – there's no sexual tension between her and Holmes, she's not ever a damsel in distress, and she's far less of a sidekick than any Watson I've seen (though she still spends a significant amount of time taking care of Holmes' physical needs, down to making sure he's fed and rested). They also avoided stereotyping common Asian characters; Watson isn't at all meek and submissive, nor is she a super-genius, an innocent sex kitten, a martial artist, or any of those tropes. It's worth noting also that Liu is past the age when Hollywood restricts women, though she still looks damn' amazing. The writers don't ignore Watson's race or gender or what they mean in the society she lives in, and she comes across as keenly aware of them, once calling out a man who's gaslighting her (the film Gaslight is even brought up in that episode) and outlining on specifically gendered terms his scheme, another time objecting to the police captain's efforts to protect her on the grounds that he's got a sexist double standard.

There've been a lot of little jolts, throughout the series, for me, along the lines of the Gaslight reference I suppose. Holmes' sponsor in his drug addiction recovery program is a lower-class black American man who used to be a carjacker, a living breathing stereotype who's a positive figure in Holmes' life. Mrs. Hudson, the landlady, appears as Ms. Hudson, a transgender woman who's a sort of high-class prostitute and INCREDIBLY AWESOME CHARACTER I WANT MORE OF. The Obligatory Black Cop rapidly moves out of that role and becomes three-dimensional, smart, and competent. The show plays with tropes, goes along with them, subverts them, puts people into roles and then does something unexpected with them. My one big beef with the show was when Irene Adler was introduced as Holmes' dead love interest who'd motivated his entire tragic backstory.

Then Moriarty was mentioned and I groaned, because honestly the thing I tend to like least about Sherlock Holmes adaptations is Moriarty, who is played up ridiculously compared to his role in the books, sometimes to the point where every single crime Holmes solves is ultimately committed at his behest (see BBC Sherlock). Moriarty killed Holmes' One True Love and now Holmes must avenge her; talk about unoriginal and problematic. I kept watching, though, because I'd been pleasantly surprised before. And Reichenbach Falls came up, and Holmes and Watson did an awesome bit of friendship talk (I love those scenes) and Irene Adler turned up alive. That was better already, because she wasn't in a refrigerator, and then we started seeing flashbacks to her early romance with Holmes, and that was actually one of the better romantic storylines I've seen recently.

Still, watching all of this I was aware that we were building up to the big Holmes-Moriarty showdown, where they stop trying to outsmart each other and start physically fighting and Moriarty dies and Holmes pretends to die and Watson is on the sidelines broken-hearted. I was waiting for it, because that's always what happens when Moriarty's involved. And then I figured out who she was, and then she revealed herself, and I realized the game was different, because Irene Adler beat Holmes, and one way or another she wasn't going to have the usual Moriarty ending.

And she didn't. She beat Holmes and then Watson beat her and she was taken alive. The physical contest between two men I had been expecting was replaced by a mental and psychological battle in which neither of the rivals ultimately prove themselves, Holmes' fake death by a fake fall into the patterns he had been successfully avoiding. Watson's the hero, and credited as such, and friendship – platonic friendship between a man and a woman! – wins the day. I find that just incredibly satisfying.

May 2013

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