I get the impression sometimes that part of the dichotomy we’re supposed to see in Holmes and Watson is the investigator’s ability to see bad in everyone and a doctor’s desire to see good instead. Doctors are supposed to heal. They exist as this essential force for goodness and health and triumph over the natural world’s desire to kill us off. All this despite the fact medicine was still mostly brutal and simplistic at the time and lacked a lot of the finesse and knowledge that it would discover in the century to follow, like the benefits of maintaining sanitary conditions in hospitals and their complete misunderstanding of how germs and bacteria work. Don’t get me started on the state of psychiatry then, either. That’s a whole different rant. If you ever want proof that we’re descended from animals, look at the barbaric things we did to the mentally ill in the history of the supposedly civilized world. There’s a reason so many old asylums were easily turned into prisons when they closed.
Right. Not getting started on that rant. Where was I? Right. Doctors. A lot of them had their hearts in the right place, though, like our dear Watson, and that alone might make him the perfect foil for Holmes.
In “The Adventure of the Resident Patient,” we get a broader look at that dichotomy through the introduction of Dr. Percy Trevelyan. Poor Dr. Trevelyan never set out to find himself in the middle of a mystery (though you do wonder at his naiveté a bit, maybe. More on that later). He was apparently a very bright and advanced student with a keen medical mind and a desire to specialize in “nervous diseases” such as catalepsy. He just happened to be a physician without unlimited means who couldn’t quite afford to set himself up with a proper practice. Then he managed to cross paths with Mr. Blessington, who offered to set him up in a nice house, provide him an acceptable income, and only asked for 3/4s of all he earned and shared occupancy in return. Blessington isn’t a well man and having access to a doctor 24/7 works out in his favor just as much as the steady income of one does.
At this point, I just have to ask – who gets offered this sort of deal and doesn’t think it’s just too good to be true? I mean, we all dream about it, sure, but when it really happens? Maybe I’m just too skeptical. I’ll blame mystery novels and police procedurals again like I did last week.
All that is just setup for the good part, though. See, the last few weeks, Blessington has been acting strange. He keeps going on about burglaries in the area and how people are going to break in and steal his fortune. When a strange pair – a supposed Russian nobleman and his son – arrive to seek the doctor’s services twice while Blessington is out, the last time making their way into his room by all appearances, Trevelyan’s resident patient demands they engage Holmes, leading to his visit. Holmes is, of course, intrigued, and they go straight to the house. But when Mr. Blessington lies to Holmes and refuses to admit he knows who would want to cause trouble for him, Holmes leaves, telling the anxious man to call on him tomorrow if he decides to tell the truth.
They get a call the next morning, of course, but it’s not because Blessington’s had a change of heart. Turns out, the maid found him hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Did he do it himself? Or did someone else help him to it? Pretty sure the answer’s easy to guess, but I’ll leave it unanswered directly for the sake of not spoiling the story entirely. Let’s just say Sherlock Holmes doesn’t investigate suicides and leave it at that. And that Scotland Yard is left pretty unsatisfied in the end, too, but that’s to be expected at this point.
Back to that dichotomy thing, though. Trevelyan might be an extreme example, considering the naiveté discussed above, but he does serve as stark representation of that “can’t see the bad in people when it stares right at him” concept. He doesn’t find anything overtly suspicious in Blessington’s offer or his odd habits. He doesn’t consider that the person he left in the waiting room might have gone a-wandering while he was examining his older companion. Doesn’t consider the possibility, either, that his unexpected patient might be faking his seizure in order to get him out of the room. This is obviously a man who’s never experienced the bad side of humanity directly before or he’d recognize it when it stood in front of him.
Watson’s not quite that lucky anymore, though. I’m not talking about the criminal element he’s been exposed to since he’s met Holmes. War provides a stark and undeniable example of man’s inhumanity to man, and Watson saw that up close and personal. The fantastic thing about him, though, is that despite that, he’s still a doctor, and still wants to be the person who helps, who believes, in some small part of himself, that we’re all intrinsically good at the heart of us. John Watson is no cynic. Which works out really well, because Holmes certainly is.
In a lot of ways, I’m flexible with certain aspects of Holmes and Watson in adaptations. I think gender, race, and time period are always open to being bent. Those things aren’t the core of who the characters are. Obviously in my world Holmes can be a woman, as long as she still possesses the qualities that otherwise make Sherlock Holmes into Sherlock Holmes. Watson could as easily be a woman. I chose to gender-bend Holmes instead because of my own vision of the story, but that doesn’t mean I can’t imagine the possibility of doing it the other way around.
I do think there are two essential elements to any portrayal of Watson, be it written or performed, that should never be changed, however: he (or she) must be a doctor, and he (or she) must be a veteran. Both of those things make up the core of who Watson is, in my opinion. Watson is shaped and defined as much by his service as he is by his occupation, and eliminating one is like hacking off one of his legs and expecting him to hop around solely on the other.
This is my only complaint about CBS’ “Elementary,” by the way. I love the show. I love Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock and Aidan Quinn’s Gregson and Rhys Ifan’s Mycroft. Detective Marcus Bell is my favorite non-canon character in the history of adaptations, with “Sherlock”’s Molly Hooper taking a very close second. I love that it’s more police procedural, that it hints at canon without always tackling it, and I absolutely LOVED the twist with Moriarty and Irene. I saw it a mile off, but I still loved it. And I like the character of Joan for what she is – a good friend for Sherlock, a woman who lost her sense of self and is trying to find it again, and a good, strong female character – but she isn’t Watson. She’s lacking half of that core that makes the good doctor who he is.
I have definite opinions on Watsons. They are not at all shaped by the fact that I adore Martin Freeman. It just so happens that he’s also a fantastic Watson.
Because we haven’t spent a lot of time focused on Holmes’ favorite biographer, I decided we’d play in his head a bit this week. Oddly, he demanded on using third person. And I would never dream of arguing with the imaginary people in my head. Not in front of others, anyway.
“I’m in need of your professional services.” Charlotte stands at the door of the small, upstairs room Watson utilizes for his medical practice. It’s a slow day: no scheduled appointments and no random patients wandering in off the street. The doctor had begun to drift off in the quiet, until the sudden and unexpected sound of the young lady’s voice interrupts. “If you’re not already engaged, of course.”
“What can I assist you with, Holmes?” he asks as he sits up, trying to look attentive and focused; trying not to look as if he’s been daydreaming about the exact person standing in the middle of his doorway. They’re usually the sort of daydreams that leave his cheeks feeling too warm and his heart beating too fast in his chest. “Something to do with one of your investigations? I thought you finished up with the Blessington business?”
She shakes her head and steps into the room, picking a cautious path across the room. “Signed and sealed, that. Without the slightest need to engage the proper authorities.” The door closes behind her. For a moment, Watson is torn about whether that is a good or bad thing. “My request for assistance is more related to the personal sphere than the professional this time.” Her hands are tucked behind her back in what he’s come to recognize as her thoughtful pose.
He watches her every step. Doing so is ridiculous. It’s also torture. Only a man who wants to make himself miserable spends so much time admiring something he can never have. Should never have. She’s too young – he’s convinced himself of this, despite the relatively small gap between their respective ages – and he is too much a wreck to inflict on another living soul. Neither of those things can stop his brain from feeding him endless amounts of torment, especially when he sleeps. Lately, his nightmares have been replaced by fleeting glimpses of dark hair splayed across his pillow and soft lips yielding to his own.
He looks up. Charlotte stands in front of his desk, watching him with that head-canted way of hers that spells trouble for all she turns it upon. He’s not entirely sure, despite the improbability and illogicalness of the thought, that she can’t actually read people’s minds. Sometimes it seems the only way she could know half the things she does. “Sorry. Mind trailed off a bit. You said it was a personal matter you needed assistance with?” She nods. “Are you feeling unwell?”
“I don’t know that unwell is the best term for it. I certainly feel unlike myself. Enough for it to be concerning.”
“Tell me your symptoms and we will try to discern the cause, hmm?” He waves her to the exam table and she dutifully approaches it, perching on the edge at the center with the help of a steadying hand. His grip lingers just that much more than is necessary; he has to remind himself to release her elbow once she’s situated. “What seem to be the most prominent of the issues that you’ve noticed?”
Charlotte stares at her hands. The discomfort is new. Watson has never seen it in her before. “I can hardly concentrate. My mind is constantly wandering from the topics I set it on. My appetite is elusive at best. There are moments when my heart begins to race, even if I’m seated and doing absolutely nothing that would make it do so.”
Watson frowns as he digs the stethoscope from the drawer and blows on it to warm it. He hasn’t decided yet how to casually ask her to unbutton her blouse so he might get at her heart. Hasn’t decided yet that it’s an entirely simple and innocent request, either. “Is there any common thread to unite these symptoms? A time of day, an activity…”
What is, without question, the most tortured and pained smile Watson has ever seen crosses Holmes’ expression. Her hands grip the edges of the table, searching for strength or anchor, he doesn’t know which. “That is the simplest deduction I’ve ever made, dear Watson. It’s you.”
“I’m sorry, it’s…” Watson doesn’t realize he’s placed himself in the perfect position for what’s to come until it’s happened and his question is left unfinished. Charlotte leans forward just enough to press her lips to his. The kiss itself is innocent – halting, cautious, experimental; a first kiss inspired as much by things read in books as instinct. Watson has received similar kisses before. He’s given them as well. It would be so easy now to succumb to his own instinct and give in. Wrap his arms around her, pull her close, and kiss her as he’s wanted to for days. Weeks, even, if he’s honest. The simplest thing in the world right now is surrender.
His arms stay at his side. He steps back, struggling to calm his own racing heart and catch his own ragged breath. Charlotte sways forward, a victim of gravity that saves herself by her grip on the table. For a moment, she’s caught in an almost comical freeze frame. Lips puckered, eyes closed, a photograph of a kiss caught in the moment before lips touch. Then her eyes open and she stares at him with wide, blinking confusion. “The best thing I can suggest for your ailment is distance, Holmes. And finding better things to let your thoughts dwell on. Broken Army doctors are no appropriate fit for anyone.”
Before she can speak, he drops the stethoscope and lumbers for the door. He descends the stairs faster than he has ever managed before and is on the stoop, breathing fresh, chill air, in no time at all. While the best cure for what ails him is staring dumbly at the blank wall of his office, he plans an alternative treatment: a pint and a game of cards. Potentially several of both.
Perhaps an endless stream of them, until he can forget how sweet those lips tasted.