Watson vs. Watson vs. Watson

So, I caught the first episode of the BBC show Sherlock on Netflix Instant last week. It was really good! If you have BBC, Netflix, or access to torrents and little in the way of consumer ethics, you should check it out.

As is obvious from the title, Sherlock is a Sherlock Holmes show. It’s set in modern day London, but keeps most of the Sherlockiana, like his address at 221B Baker St., his landlord Mrs. Hudson, his sidekick Watson, his violin and drug habits, and his archnemesis Moriarty. The modernization is smooth. Other than Sherlock using nicotine patches instead of a pipe, it avoids the winking, too cute “updates” that usually befall classics made contemporary (eg: the Queen Mab of Mercutio’s soliloquy in the DiCaprio Romeo + Juliet being a hallucinogenic drug rather than a dream-inducing fairy).

Sherlock is a well written, directed, and acted show. It’s funny and intriguing. But what’s interesting to me about Sherlock is the way it portrays its two main characters, Sherlock and Watson. Benedict Cumberbatch (gods, what a name!) plays Sherlock as  “high functioning sociopath,” an arrogant, deductive genius with no social skills, who pisses off his professional colleagues, and solves crimes not to make the world a better place, but from the sheer thrill of the intellectual challenge. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s largely the same way Robert Downey, Jr. plays Holmes in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie, and also how Hugh Laurie plays the Holmes-modeled Dr. House on House.

It’s interesting that this is the Sherlock Holmes we as a culture have decided on. All 3 of our modern Sherlocks are obsessive, arrogant, witty, possibly autistic geniuses. Men always on the edge of moral or ethical failure due to their ambition and drive.

It’s an interpretation of the character that certainly has roots in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, but one that stands in stark contrast to what we might call the “Classic Sherlock”: the aloof, aristocratic and professorial Sherlock made iconic by Basil Rathbone in his 14 Sherlock Holmes films of the early to mid 20th Century. Our 3 modern Sherlocks are doubtlessly written expressly against the Rathbone model– Holmes now as the brawling genius, the ubermensch full of smarm and fury. This is our early 21st Century Sherlock.

Much more interesting to me, though, is how very different our 3 modern Watsons are. As alike as the 3 Sherlocks are in their autistic acidity, our Watsons are as different as can be. This is especially interesting since Watson is, almost by definition, a pale shade compared to his partner. In Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is the narrator, and so the audience surrogate, and so voided of personality beyond an eye for detail and a general amiability. We see Sherlock through Watson’s eyes, so Watson’s eyes have to be one-size-fits-all. Watson has to be universally likable, and thus bland and boring.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st Century, and TV and movies were invented. Watson could no longer be the eyes of the audience, because the eyes of the audience are the screen, the invisible camera that lets us see everything except what’s going on inside the characters’ heads (this must be deduced by the actors performances). But Watson was too integral to the story to be disposed of, and Sherlock was too damned weird and untethered to society to be left to his own devices. Watson was still needed, but now he was needed in front of the camera, and if you’re going to be in front of the camera, you’d better be compelling. And given Watson’s lack of defined personality, it makes sense that he, not Sherlock Holmes, is the character given the richest array of interpretations.

Of the 3 modern Watsons, Robert Sean Leonard’s Dr. Wilson on House is the most classic. He’s the amiable, long-suffering friend, the only friend, of our misanthropic (medical) detective. This makes sense. Since House is not explicitly a Sherlock adaptation (though it has the DNA), it stands to reason that Wilson would be more noticeably Watson-esque. And House needed a humanizing friend. It’s harder to take a misanthropic jackass when he’s a doctor treating dying patients, rather than some private dick puzzling over a mysterious letter sent to the King of Bohemia. You need somebody to soften the edges a bit. Still, there’s not much compelling about Wilson. All he does is soften the edges. He’s a brilliant oncologist who’s saved hundreds of lives but ends up looking like a sad-sack because he hangs out with an asshole all the time, an asshole who is half the doctor Wilson is but puffs himself up as a genius by virtue of being an asshole (House lost me when House failed to diagnose a dude with the Bends, when five minutes into the episode I was like, “dude has the Bends.” If you can’t diagnose a dude on an airplane flying from a tropical location with the Bends when his symptoms are the symptoms of the Bends, then you need to turn in your white coat).

Jude Law’s Watson in the Ritchie film is the most radical interpretation. His Watson is a handsome, dashing, sarcastic, no-nonsense brawler, a man unafraid to clock Sherlock when he gets out-of-hand, or get his own hands dirty. It’s a brave interpretation, I suppose, but it misses the whole point of the character, which is that Watson is an everyman assisting, saving, and dealing with an ubermensch. In the Ritchie films, Watson is such beautiful, bad ass fop that we end up identifying more with Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock than we do with him, because Sherlock is at least charmingly socially awkward.

Martin Freeman’s Watson on the BBC Sherlock is the most compelling Watson of all, and the best version of the character ever committed. Better even, I’d say, than the Watson in Conan Doyle’s stories. It’s a brilliant bit of casting to begin with, as Freeman is our generation’s Platonic Ideal of the Everyman (though Freeman is much, much funnier than your everyday everyman). Not for nothing has he been Tim, Arthur Dent, and Bilbo Baggins.*

But Freeman doesn’t play Watson as Tim from The Office. Well, he does, in a way, except he plays him as Tim if Tim were deeply messed up. Freeman’s Watson’s world weariness is hard-earned, instead of affected. He’s a doctor, but he’s also a wounded combat vet (depressingly, no modernization was required for Watson’s war wound. Both Conan Doyle’s Watson and Freeman’s Watson are shot during combat in Afghanistan). His attachment to Sherlock Holmes comes not out of curiosity (like Conan Doyle’s Watson), or a dependent personality (like Wilson), or even a shared interest in handsomeness (like Law’s Watson). It comes out of profound boredom with daily life, out of a need for danger and thrills, out of meeting a man who shares his desire to walk the razor’s edge. And yet Freeman’s Watson is still very much the audience surrogate, thanks to Freeman being Freeman, and thanks to Cumberbatch’s slithery, Snape-like take on Sherlock that makes identifying with him nearly impossible. Watson is still the audience’s way in, but it’s an especially dark and twisty way in. A way in that for once makes Watson, not Sherlock, the most compelling character before your eyes.

*Freeman, of course, is playing Bilbo in the upcoming Hobbit movies. Cumberbatch will be voicing the dragon Smaug. Given their great back-and-forth on Sherlock, I anticipate the Bilbo/Smaug encounter in Smaug’s lair will be awesome.

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4 Comments

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  1. agreed on all points, and I had no idea Cumberbatch was playing Smaug, that made me clap my hands together in glee.

  2. right so now i need to watch Sherlock, too. I should just stop reading things my friends post on the internet. oh, but friends posting on the internet, you know I can’t quit you.

    Your description of Freeman’s Watson is intriguing. If only because it makes me wonder just how disturbed Sherlock is portrayed that one can’t identify with him at all.

    /Goes off to rearrange Netflix queue.

  3. I quite liked the drug/fairy substitution in R+J – for me it worked because Mercutio was cast as a caberet transvestite; had he been a run-of-the-mill interpretation with the drugs sprinkled on as a “modern-day” frill, it would have been lame, indeed. But the combination, to my mind, was effective.

    Like dougery, I thought it was interesting that you describe Holmes as someone we can barely identify with.

    Interesting stuff, Austin. I caught a bit of Sherlock over here and agree that it’s a good show. I haven’t ever seen an episode of House but having read this, I might check out the first couple of episodes. For some reason, in my mind, it was to be boycotted because I grew up watching Hugh Laurie playing Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster alongside the God who is Steven Fry. So, it seemed to me from the outside that House was something so far removed from watching Cambridge grads take the complete rise out of the aristos, it would smash my image of him. But with your Sherlock twist, I might have a butcher’s at it now…

  4. So, I blame you for the two episodes we watched last week that gave me the jitters before bed. I didn’t feel like Sherlock was unrelatable, but maybe that’s more symptomatic of the folks that surround me in Hyde Park… I thought it was well done, though. Shame there only seems to be 4 episodes on Netflix. Given the sheer volume of old BBC Holmes movies we’ve watched, it will be sad to see the new series go. I for obe appreciate the larger roles given to women in these ( ie, not just damsels-in-distress or hapless would-be villains (if they weren’t of the inferior gender…). Thanks for pushing me to watch what Netflix had been telling me I’d like!

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