Hello, everyone!

I’ve been thinking about this topic idly in my skull for quite some time, and since there are no real good places to put it—less than an essay, more than a tweet—I figured a good test of my discipline would be drafting it for a newsletter. So here’s me rambling about one of my favourite idle obsessions: the 2010s CBS procedural Elementary, in particular why its portrayal of the relationship between Holmes & Watson is one of my favourites. BIG SPOILERS, of course that goes without saying, but you’re already here, so…

Just a little bit of other news otherwise, hopefully good, but beyond that, I hope you enjoy the tea!

One Fixed Point In A Changing Age


You have no idea how excited I am by the otherwise idle premise of simply gushing about Elementary.

It is not because I am an overwhelming fan of Sherlock Holmes—I’ve barely read the canon, although I do adore the character as much as everyone else does (especially as a writer, because why waste time write original character no one already like when beloved public domain character do trick?). The show is simultaneously not truly treading new ground in the procedural genre, not even during the 2010s, and somehow still deeply more emotive and interesting about the genre and its primary canon than most other adaptations of the same characters by doing only two things: making Watson a woman and asking a probing question about Holmes’ liberal use of opioids in the original works through a modern lens.

(Yes, I know, House, M.D. does that too, but for my money, viewing Holmes as recovering rather than addicted is actually more interesting if only by revealing that recovery is actually very fucking hard in ways non-addicts tend not to notice, not to mention how addiction is comorbid with all kinds of other personal suffering… but that’s another long-winded essay I want to write about what I think Elementary is actually about, so let’s veer back into the proper lane.)

What is particularly noteworthy about the time when this show came out from a fandom perspective is the lay beef it scored with a competitor of sorts, the more well-known of the adaptations of its time, the BBC series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Short of sounding like I’m yucking someone’s yum or mentioning that one really good HBomberguy video, I bring it up mostly to qualify that one of the interesting minor tidbits I vaguely recall as a salvo between the fan galleons during this period was that the JohnLock ship was one of the things that made Sherlock a radical premise in comparison to other adaptations because it, and therefore the show, dared to value queer subtext in primetime. To be frank, that is a subtextual reading I am implied to place strong stock in. I don’t buy the conspiracy, but I’m not against buying subtext at text’s asking price—I watched The Blacklist for Redarina, after all, and however flawed, I will never let that go.

I’m digressing again: I bring all of that up because a tweet about writing deep platonic relationships in media revealed something about Elementary that cannot leave my brain: that it is the closest that outright shipping bait can be written to be clearly portrayed as deeply friendly without a hint of complex tension, and that is another reason I value it more strongly than its counterparts (even the superior queer shipping material that is the Japanese adaptation Miss Sherlock, which apparently you can watch in the US on Max, so if you live in the US I envy you).

I am obviously loath to dominate the discussion: the OP Ell Huang is obviously asking the question in a clear aroace context, so having the feelings I do about a character in an adaptation that so deliberately paints him as allosexual as to have him several times share a bed with at many as four naked women is rude and dismissive of me, so I apologise first for that fact. But I do think, while it isn’t aro rep, the way that Holmes and Watson’s relationship is written is rare for network television even in the present day in ways that reveal how to write strong friendship deeply and unambiguously.

To begin with, it’s probably worth noting that Sherlock’s perspective on sex and romance are somewhat complicated early in the show. His first (and apparently only) serious relationship was a mess to put it mildly, and he goes on several times about how romantic relationships are as a result bothersome and innately doomed. Sex, on the other hand, he seems to see primarily as a means of physical release akin to exercise, and has various flings with people who agree. In fact, it’s a source of comedy for several episodes across several seasons that he has recurring threesomes with two women solely so he can gently badger them into being interested in solving crimes with him when he’s bored. I am obviously not well versed in ace theory but it strikes me as interesting how much his sexual relationships are divorced from the inherent value of sex as its own object of gratification (albeit only vaguely) so much that it becomes somehow more interesting than merely having lots of sex, even though it is, you know, a lot of sex. (There is a strong subtextual case to be made that Watson makes the late discovery that she is also aro, which I also appreciate through this lens.)

Even though that precedes the following fact, this is more primary: not once is Sherlock Holmes interested in Joan Watson. Very early in season one several facts about Sherlock’s sexual habits are almost uncomfortably shared, not least of which being that he is not unwilling to suggest sex to someone for reasons as flippant as ‘he’s down if they’re down’ or as disruptive as ‘I was tailing Watson for reasons to get rid of her and suddenly one of her friends came on to me’. But he does not ever come on to Joan even as a joke, or as a threat to get out of her commitment to him as a sober companion, and that doesn’t change even when she no longer works in that capacity. They are always friends and colleagues, and that trust is never complicated with tension.

What is left, then, is a very curious alternate tension that, to me, is very undeniably over-platonic. In Season One, after learning Joan is technically no longer obliged to stick around but has been tagging along for his cases anyway, he suggests that she should switch professions to detective—and then immediately admits that it is a selfish suggestion on his part.

Sherlock uses the language that another character in another show would use deliberately with romantic attachment. Even the way that confrontation scene is framed makes it appear like the emotional turnabout from which deep romance will spring. And yet… it never takes that hue, at least to me. He says, “explain what you have been to me—and what I believe you can be to me—a partner,” and he means it with the depth of someone who has been lifted out of the gutter of sorrow and addiction by Watson. He says, “I am better with you,” and it rings of someone who has seen himself be worse in any other relationship of any other shade save for this once totally professional one. Even when, several seasons later, he insists that they are not partners, but “two people who love each other”, to me that is not occluded with any other tension but deeply abiding trust.

John Wiswell’s thread reply to Huang’s original tweet highlights something many other writers, allo and ace alike, have observed about portraying friendship in fiction media:

It is very hard to separate some physical signs of affection from assumptions of romantic or sexual attraction, and that’s because allonormativity is a hell of a drug. But for me, in the writing of dialogue and the performance of their physical reactions, I read no romantic chemistry not because there is no chemistry (I dare you to argue that neither Jonny Lee Miller nor Lucy Liu are powerfully charismatic either solo or in concert), but because the chemistry is very platonically delineated to me. When they hug, they hug like the best of friends hug. When they bicker, they bicker like roommates. When they give in to grand gestures, they are the grand gestures of two people who know that, despite anything else, they have this friendship that has withstood mortal peril better than some of their romances have withstood much less awkward threats. Sherlock Holmes is better with a friend like Joan Watson.

Even the materially ‘familial’ are seen through a platonic lens for them both. When Watson does find love, their work changes shape, but it isn’t marred by weird jealousies or side characters’ awkward prodding that don’t you two know you’re made for each other like other primetime dramas would. When she loses that love to violence, she turns to Sherlock not for an affection to fill the void of loss, but because she knows getting back to work and having someone to confide in will ease her woe.

Sherlock’s last words in the entirety of the show are to Watson, gazing at her with concern as she frets about a dozen different things before saying, “As long as we’re together, what does it matter?

Would that every friend relationship we could ever had were this clear and strong and greater than any other love.

In the chronologically last Sherlock Holmes story penned by Doyle himself, ‘His Last Bow’, Holmes quite poetically calls Watson “the one fixed point in a changing age”. I find it perhaps one of the most striking things one character has ever said of another in all of fiction—a classic man if ever there was one, so dependable as to almost seem oblivious to the very same eastern winds of upheaval to which he must be impervious. It’s strange how much of that has been caricatured in other portrayals of Watson in fiction—a clueless tag-along, or a tired third wheel, or a Golden Retriever-flavoured kind of ur-himbo, or all kinds of less active participants besides. Above all else, he has always been Holmes’ strong second, and parts of that shine through in every adaptation at their best.

I adore how, in the Guy Ritchie movies, Jude Law’s Watson is frustrated and embarrassed by his colleague, ever the first to tell Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes that his reckless ideas are dangerous and unproductive—but he will never say no to him, part of the thrill of reliving his own action-days and the glory of being beside his friend to see the silly plan pay off. I adore how, in those same movies, the obviously still-troublingly-jealous Holmes can still obviously be read as only meddling in his friend’s affairs of the heart because he worries that without his bestest pal he will be adrift in the world, or in his own mind—that it will no longer be fun to do what they do without Watson. I adore how, in Miss Sherlock, Wato has known Sherlock barely several months but will already skip ahead of onlookers just to match Sherlock’s stride, and how when Sherlock says this new part of her life has been her “very first friend” while a villain has Wato point a pistol at her, Wato can barely put her finger in the trigger guard without groaning in anguish. I love how, in Elementary, Sherlock is willing to make all manner of concessions for Joan that he would hesitate to make for any of his paramours, even volunteer to be a steward of a child, with neither hesitation nor complaint. He doesn’t just refuse to say ‘I love you’, and he doesn’t just say everything else. Sherlock Holmes is, no matter what else adaptation takes from or adds upon him, always more whole when he deeply values the bond that he can have from Watson.

In a changing age of multiple wild winds of adaptation, that which is fixed is the bond between two figures, almost-alike in intellect but definitely alike in drive, linked more strongly in the heart than any other. Perhaps this is what the books of Samuel in the Bible mean when they say the love between David and Jonathan is “greater than the love of women”—or otherwise, as a Trini grandmother or auntie would say, “dat is friend for yuh money”. And I wish that more television—network or ‘prestige’, franchise IP and original one-off miniseries alike—would invest more often in telling stories of even the most allohet leading couples being willing to drop what they’re doing at a whisper of danger, willing to admit to each other that they make each other better, willing to calmly say they will always be together, and still be so clearly friends more radically than anything else.

Tasting Notes

So when I started writing I made the terribly dismissive assumption that surely, in the way that fandom might, there would be at least a clear preponderance of Elementary shipping fanworks—that is, that perhaps I am reading deeply into a portrayal of Holmes and Watson that, as other writers insist is the case, elides the common reading that two comphet leads must be in want of a romantic subplot.

And then the most curious thing happened: my first YouTube search, just for some edits of some of my favourite scenes from the show, bore out as its first video a sweet AMV that very clearly insists that Holmes and Watson’s relationship is platonic, thanking the show “[f]or unfolding a complex, evolving bond that's treated with the same care and importance as romance usually is”.

Shout-out to who cares for not only a very touching edit, but arguably also one of the most interestingly put-together AMVs I have seen in quite some time of any fanwork nature, almost jarring in its narrative juxtapositions but still legible, at least to me as someone who has probably watched Elementary over nine times through at this point.

Also because I am obviously self-absorbed and can ramble about Sherlock Holmes for ages despite having no merit to, I once did an entirely different version of this ramble, about adaptation in general, on the wonderful Absolute Territory podcast. The short version of it is: if you must pick a Sherlock adaptation, you can still actually do much, much worse than you can reckon.

Also, it would be remiss of me to not mention that John Wiswell, who I name-drop heavily here (and whose initial tweets on the topic were part of what inspired this entire ramble) has a book out! It’s called Someone You Can Build A Nest In and you should get you a copy.

A reminder that this newsletter, as well as the rest of my writing and game design work, thrives with your support. My Patreon is where you can find snippets of new TTRPG projects, exclusive writing drafts, and more:

Today's Tunes

First: all the talk of Kendrick Lamar firing shots yet again have reminded me of several things. First, I need to say that J. Cole’s Might Delete Later has some absolutely pisswater bars and among them are some truly atrocious statements both in and out of context, which is the reason he gets his head bitten off in that one poem in Can You Sign My Tentacle?, if you were wondering.

But perhaps less antagonistically, it reminded me of something I thought was idly funny when it re-emerged in my brain:

that Kendrick was on the soundtrack for the Divergent movie.

This sounds dismissive, but it isn’t. First of all, I was also reminded that this record was unexpectedly very eclectic. Chance the Rapper and A$AP Rocky are here alongside Gesaffelstein and M83, and it all actually kinda gelled together, even if it didn’t very much feel like they gelled with the movie. I would even dare to argue this was a prototype of what Kendrick would later perfect the trend of—well-curated album accompaniments to blockbuster films—when he put together the Black Panther soundtrack.

It’s not a mind-blowing song. It’s just Kendrick rapping on an up-timed Tame Impala chorus. But it just… hits something. It’s so pineapple-and-soy-sauce: Tame Impala’s ethereal production and Kendrick’s distinct vocal delivery just work together so nicely.

Second: my other offering is an edit of a cut from Utada Hikaru’s Bad Mode. In commemoration of their 25th anniversary in music, Hikaru drops their greatest-hits album Science Fiction on April 10th, much of which comprises new mixes like this one, which I am very excited about.

And third, because I forgot I didn’t write a newsletter when the track came out: did you know that the UK band bôa has been having quite a trip since their hit song ‘Duvet’ (yeah, that ‘Duvet’) spontaneously re-entered the zeitgeist last year, and now they’re recording new music? Well, it’s rad.

The Leaves

A reminder that you can help keep this newsletter and the rest of my work afloat by supporting me on Patreon, buying me a coffee on Ko-fi or sending a donation via PayPal, or by buying one of my small game projects over on Itch!

Also, here’s a thing: at time of posting, my birthday bundle on Itch is still live for a little bit! A wonderful way to support me would also include picking up some games for cheap, if you’re interested!

As a bonus Tasting Notes, since we're talking about bôa, here's a neat video about Serial Experiments Lain, media preservation, and [content warning] 9/11:

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed the tea!

Lapsang Souchong: Two People Who 'Love' Each Other

Above all else, Watson has always been Holmes’ strong second—one of the richest platonic relationships in fiction.