This week, I’m going to talk about the Watson Problem. But to get there, I have to talk about Sherlock Holmes first. (That’s the trouble with these two. You can’t talk about one without also talking about the other.)
I’m getting a bit tired of Asshole Sherlock Holmes. We’ve had variations on him for 30-40 years now, and it’s getting a bit stale.
For the first few decades of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes was presented as pretty much infallible. He was smart, he was brave, he was polite. He was pretty much everything you want a hero to be. If the 19th century had a superhero, Sherlock Holmes was it.
But you can’t be a hero for too long before people start to deconstruct you. For Sherlock Holmes, that happened with Billy Wilder’s 1969 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Both presented us with a vulnerable, fallible Holmes, and both were extremely well done. So Fallible Sherlock Holmes became the thing to do. And slowly but surely, that inched over into Asshole Sherlock Holmes.
You know the guy. He’s the master detective who solves the case, but drives everyone around him crazy while doing it. And everyone just sort of puts up with it because of how badly they need Holmes to solve the case. And Holmes’ sidekick Watson just follows along behind Holmes, making apologies to offended people, reminding Holmes of social niceties like inviting people to sit down, or remembering the gender of the murder victim. When Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes walks away from the King of Bohemia without a word, leaving Watson to sheepishly offer the King a handshake, that’s Asshole Sherlock Holmes in action. The Holmes-inspired House takes this behavior even further, with House actively insulting everyone who crosses his path.
But as popular as this interpretation has become in live-action adaptations of Holmes, it doesn’t have much foundation in the original books. Conan Doyle’s Holmes wouldn’t express his emotions much, true, but that’s a far cry from him actively antagonizing people. And if you think about it, a Holmes who is that rude and oblivious to social conventions wouldn’t be a very effective detective. So why do they keep doing it?
I think it’s because of Watson.
Watson running interference for Holmes’ social faux pas is appealing to Hollywood because it solves the age-old problem of giving Watson something to do. In the books, Watson is our narrator, and our gateway into the world of Sherlock Holmes. He’s the audience surrogate who tries and fails to solve the mystery alongside Holmes. And when Holmes explains how everything really went down at the very end, we feel foolish along with Watson. Like him, we kick ourselves for not being able to see the same clues that Holmes did.
But Watson also serves another purpose for the reader. He’s our Holmes Filter. Everything we see is through his eyes. So when Watson tells us that Holmes has hidden depths, we believe it.
In a live-action treatment of Holmes, though, that aspect isn’t really necessary. We don’t need Watson to tell us what Sherlock Holmes is like. Holmes is right there in front of us, larger than life, deducing up a storm, and a little voiceover narration goes a long way. So Watson needs something to do besides telling Holmes how brilliant all of his deductions are. And for a long time, that something was being a comedic bumbler.
Stupid Bumbling Watson really took hold in the 1940s in the Sherlock Holmes films of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. It made sense. Nigel Bruce was really good at comedy, and it enhanced the contrasts between the characters for Watson to be as stupid as Sherlock Holmes was smart. Problem solved.
Stupid Bumbling Watson annoyed purists, though. And when you think about it, it doesn’t really make much sense. Even if Watson isn’t presented as a wounded war veteran, he’s still a medical doctor, and you don’t find too many doctors who can pass their medical boards while also being rock stupid.
Various attempts were made to give us the competent Watson of the books, with varying degrees of success. I think David Burke and Edward Hardwicke were the ones who finally drove a stake through the heart of Stupid Bumbling Watson in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series of the 1980s.
Burke and Hardwicke gave us Watsons who were intelligent, loyal, compassionate, and brave. Their only real flaw was not being as extraordinary as Sherlock Holmes. Competent Watson was back, and he was here to stay.
But again, Watson needed something else to do. “Competent” isn’t really the most compelling character trait. And again, you need Watson to balance out extremes of Sherlock Holmes. So, if Sherlock is the Asshole One, Watson becomes the Socially-Adept One.
And we’ve had a lot of variations on the theme of Socially-Adept Watson. Colin Blakely gave us Excitable Watson. Robert Duvall gave us Sketchy English Accent Watson. Alan Cox gave us Young Watson. Ben Kingsley gave us Secret Genius Watson. Robert Sean Leonard gave us Sort-Of-But-Not-Quite Watson. Ben Stiller gave us Frustrated Watson. Jude Law gave us Action Hero Watson. Lucy Liu gave us Asian Woman Watson. And Martin Freeman, as it’s developed over the last seven years and four seasons, has given us Danger Junkie Watson.
But I feel like in the last few years, we may have gone too far in the other direction. Now, instead of an intolerably stupid Watson and a likeable Sherlock Holmes, we’re given a likeable Watson and an intolerably obnoxious Sherlock Holmes.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of these Holmes productions. I just wish they could give Watson functions other than making sure Holmes doesn’t get his block knocked off.
Confession time: I started writing this column a couple of weeks ago, intending it to be the beginning of my thoughts on Sherlock‘s “The Lying Detective.” Once the episode actually aired, though, I found that it didn’t match up in the way I’d anticipated, so I just wrote a new column from scratch and spun this off into its own thing. Anyway, while this was sitting in “Drafts” folder here at AJS, my fellow Holmesian Greg Hatcher took a look at my column-in-progress and offered these thoughts. I’m including them verbatim in italics below, as I don’t think that I can put this any better than Greg did. Here’s Mr. Hatcher:
The thing that’s awesome about Martin Freeman and Edward Hardwicke isn’t so much their competence as it is that Holmes RESPECTS them. The liking and respect is mutual. That’s what makes those portrayals work so well.
The key is that Watson is the window into Sherlock Holmes’ suppressed humanity. David Duchovny used to say about his character: “Dana Scully is Mulder’s human credential; She likes him and respects him so the audience gives him a chance. Without Scully he’s just an asshole, there’s no reason for anyone to like him.” This is even more true of Holmes and Watson, that’s what makes the danger-junkie stuff on SHERLOCK so irritating. It’s a distraction. That’s not what makes Watson interesting. It’s that Sherlock Holmes, the brittle unfeeling genius, has his humanity awakened by the sheer unfailing decency of this simple doctor. That’s why “Lying Detective” had five times the punch of anything since “Reichenbach Fall,” because they got back to THAT part. And we were all puddles because it was dead Mary that explained it to us all again.
Not that you asked. But i think about this stuff A LOT.
I think Greg hits on a good point here. In a way, it’s the same point that I was making, just approached from the opposite angle: Just as we like and admire Sherlock Holmes because Watson says it’s okay, we find Watson interesting because Sherlock Holmes says it’s okay. It’s kind of like that old Katharine Hepburn quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “He gives her class, she gives him sex appeal.”
The point is that Holmes & Watson are a double act, and neither one of them is quite as interesting without the other. Without Watson, Sherlock Holmes becomes an insufferable know-it-all. Without Holmes, Watson becomes a rather dull general practitioner. It’s a delicate partnership, and just like with Astaire & Rogers, if one partner is out of step, it becomes a mess.
And that’s the thing with all the great pop culture partnerships, like Mulder & Scully, Kirk & Spock, Batman & Robin, and Holmes & Watson. They balance each other out, but they both bring something to the party. They bring out the best in each other. Those are the sort of friendships we gravitate to in life, and those are the sort of friendships we gravitate to in fiction.
So yes, I like to see Watsons that are intelligent men in their own rights. That way their above-average intelligence can make Holmes’ extraordinary intelligence look all the more impressive by comparison. Anyone can shine next to a bungler, but it takes someone really spectacular to make a smart man look dull.
So, despite my dislike for Sherlock’s version of “The Final Problem,” I’m glad that Steven Moffat says that they’re bringing their Sherlock Holmes and John Watson a bit closer to the book versions. Here’s what he had to say in an interview after the Series 4 finale:
Well, it closes a chapter. It closes an idea. Dr. Watson is at last the brave widower and Sherlock Holmes is a wise old sage of Baker Street. They become, as we keep saying, the full Rathbone, which is why we actually have Rathbone Place up on screen as they come. Finally, we’ve done four series of Sherlock. It begins as a voyage, as a grand origin story, never the grown-up version. There is a proper sense of closure because that’s the end of stage one. Normally, we present Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as in their 40s or 50s, and we started with them in their 30s, so in a way, it’s the end of their youth. If we came back again, if we did do another series in a few year’s time, then they would be, finally, the normal age for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who were always presented as older. You would have them in the midstream of everything, as opposed to the beginning. So it can have a sense of closure in that, but, you know, that practically says they’re off to solve more crimes. It’s not closure; it’s closure of one idea. It’s them realizing that they are always going to be in their flats or grinds. That’s their future.
It might have taken them seven years and four seasons, but by God, it sounds like Sherlock is finally going to give us a classic, non-Asshole Sherlock Holmes. And that’s as a good as reason as any to get excited about a possible Series 5. And as busy as they are, I would love to see Cumberbatch & Freeman periodically playing Holmes & Watson through their 40s and into their 50s. I’m hoping that Moffat & Gatiss find a way to make that happen.
Next week, I’ll be wrapping up my Sherlock Holmes Month with a look at another modern day Sherlock Holmes… One that beat Sherlock to the screen by over a decade. See you then.
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