Love stories, "without all the shagging"

One of the reasons I'm not immediately impressed with Elementary is that I feel it's missing an important element which has been an integral part of the Holmes/Watson relationship in all its successful forms. They're setting Holmes and Joan Watson up in this semi-adversarial bicker-yourselves-friends dynamic, which is lamentably common in television drama, and which I am sick to death of seeing. (They also seem to be setting her up to be the Woman Who Fixes Him, which annoys me more, but that's another rant altogether.) It seems to me that they have missed the point of why this particular relationship is famous.

There is much snark about slash in Sherlock. Downey and Law are playing it up intentionally (in the words of one critic: "It's a decent yaoi fanfic.") in their films. What Doyle was actually writing between Holmes and Watson was a kind of relationship not much seen, or at least not much acknowledged today, what was known as a "romantic friendship". Romantic friendships -- and that's romantic as in the literary genre, not as in roses and chocolate -- are probably most commonly known now through spoofs, particularly of the flowery, effusive, emotional correspondence exchanged between upper-class women friends in Regency, Victorian and Edwardian times. There is a great deal of "I miss you," "I recall walking with you in the garden," "kisses on the cheek," "sweet laughter" and other things that today scan rather like schmoopy love letters. In a way, they are; these relationships were considered to be intimate and very enduring, much as we would like to consider our sexual/dating relationships today, and being forever separated from such a friend was a melancholic tragedy.

Notably, the kinesic code for these "sisterhood" romantic friendships lingered far longer in formal body-language dialects than the actual relationship lingered in popular lit. It was common in movies for two women to walk away arm in arm as a visual shorthand for "very good friends" (usually united against someone else, whom they were leaving behind) long after it was fashionable for women to actually stroll down the street like that, particularly in American culture. It survives today chiefly in YA materials aimed at young women, in the slightly-self-aware-silly concept of "BFF" and girl-bonding things like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Although by Victorian times, it was less common to depict this relationship existing between two men, this was not always the case. They are attested to in a great many Greek and Roman myths, all the way down through the Grail romances of the Middle Ages. Historically, such an unbreakable chosen bond has been seen as one of the few points of honor held in common between Christians and barbarians -- see particularly the descriptions of the relationships that the Saracen brothers Palamides and Segwarides have with the other Knights of the Round Table in Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur.

(Which I have read all the way through, by the way, only to discover it is surprisingly tedious in many places. There is very little of the Merlin/Nimue/Mordred/Mab stuff modern readers might expect. Tolkien picked up his irritating habit of just listing off important things rather than telling us about them from writers like Malory, who devotes long sections of the tome to ticking off who brast his speare on whose shild, and who was left fair astonied by this apparently unanticipated outcome of the battle. More fun to skim through Chrètien de Troyes for the stuff about Sir Gawain -- "Welsh" has apparently been the polite English term for "idiot country bumpkin" since at least the 13th century. If you happen to be a francophone, La Chanson de Roland is also fairly entertaining; there's a few chapters involving a girl in a tower maybe a third of the way through which turns out to be a sort of head-bonkingly medieval frat boy elaboration on "bros before hos". I don't know how well the modern French and English translations came out, as I read the original -- I find 12th c French much easier to mentally convert to modern French than even Elizabethan English to modern.)

One place where it has more or less always been acceptable, in dramatic works, for two men to speak of "heart of my heart" and "I would give my life for you" is between soldiers, particularly in wartime. The idea of a 'band of brothers' has existed, so far as I am aware, ever since the need to fight for your lives in the company of others was invented -- so, pretty much from the dawn of humanity. Although much to-do is made about things like the Sacred Band of Thebes, a Greek regiment that was populated entirely by paired lovers, the to-do is made because this is and always has been some degree of unusual. The more commonly spoken-of circumstance, particularly in places where homosexuality was culturally denigrated, is that shared risks, stresses, and in many cases quarters create a strong sense of intimacy and emotional devotion between the men who survive it together. You cannot live most of your (potentially very short) life less than ten feet from another human being and not figure out what makes them tick -- and if you can, you're likely the sort of fellow the other fellows would elect to go out on guard duty in the tiger- and native-infested jungles, alone, with ammunition of dubious provenance.

Watson, even in the original, is very much at loose ends when he arrives back in London. He did not particularly want to leave the wilds of Afghanistan, but as a doctor he had to grudgingly admit that the wounds he'd sustained made him a liability to his regiment, and was dutifully bundled back to the homeland. He tries lunching at places where some of his old medical colleagues appear from time to time, but having left the Army he lacks for a feeling that he belongs somewhere, to something, with someone who knows both his quirks and his talents. Holmes takes one look at him and divines things that it would take a lesser man months of idle conversation to work out. Debatable whether he intends to create that sudden connection or not -- the original may have, if only as a convenience; House does it as a way to assert dominance and warn people not to mess with him and his giant brain; the younger Sherlock seems unaware that other people see this abrupt scrying as an unrequested intimacy, and that this is both what makes John immediately fascinated, and other people immediately tell him to piss off.

In any case, Watson is not most people, and the thing that cements the bond is that Watson gets it into his head to return the favor. It eventually dawns on him that very few people, if anybody, ever scrutinize the detective as the detective scrutinizes other people. He doesn't have quite the aptitude or decades of training that Holmes does with detail, but his own confessions of stupidity aside, Watson is actually remarkably keen on picking up many things about Holmes that others miss. Smiles, laughter, asides, dry humor, and the rare open flash of raw humanity that Holmes does not show to others. Watson is amazed, not threatened, when Holmes pulls one of his favorite tricks of answering some thought of Watson's that Watson has not actually voiced, and so Holmes does not feel the need to draw himself up to his full height and get pompous about it when queried for an explanation.

The Holmes and Watson in Elementary really don't impress me as being part of this paradigm. Watson lacks any military, LEO or like background which would give her a sense of that 'band of brothers' mode of functioning; she was, as far as I can tell, meant to be a civilian surgeon, stereotypically a solitary and egotistical bunch. Holmes is, as tradition dictates, able to figure her out at a glance, but he seems neither interested in charming her nor particularly in impressing her. He uses it to manipulate her, first by lying about what he knows, then by the ham-handed tactic of openly whacking all of the buttons he didn't admit to knowing about earlier. One of the more charming things about the traditional Holmes/Watson relationship is that Watson is one of the few people to realize that Holmes really doesn't much lie about what he thinks -- other people assume the things that come out of his mouth mean more than they do, or are concealing something that isn't actually there, or are meant to be misleading, but the original model, John, and James Wilson, all treat their odd detectives as if the things they say mean something, and often mean exactly what they say, particularly much when everyone else is going mad trying to figure out the over-complicated puzzle. This Holmes and Joan Watson are suspicious of each other -- he's lying, apparently, and she's always going to be digging for what he's lying about.

There is no quiet acceptance. It's always going to be a battle for the truth. This is mentally exhausting, and not what I watch Sherlock Holmes for. Holmes and House and Sherlock are admittedly confusing sometimes, but their sidekicks really do have all the data: It's the correct perspective they need to find, and they generally do. It's a bit of a mini-mystery along the theme of the actual case. There's no "what's he not telling me?" -- just "what do these things I know really mean?" The evidence is presumed to be accurate; only the interpretation is held in suspense.


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