I’ve just watched an episode of Elementary and it raised an interesting point – are Holmes’ abilities a gift facilitating interesting work, or an illness that he uses the work to treat?
In episode 18 of season three, ‘The View from Olympus’, a causal lover asks Holmes to have a child with her. She doesn’t need him to have a relationship with either the child or her, she just needs him to (to put it delicately) do the biology. Towards the end of the episode, there’s a wonderful scene when Holmes finally explains to her why he must decline her offer.
She had previously tried to persuade him by telling him he is remarkable and a good person for using his abilities to help people. In their final scene together Holmes agrees that he is remarkable, but explains that this is the very reason why he can’t have a child:
“The things I do, the things you care about, you think I do them because I’m a great person, but I do them because it would hurt too much not to. It hurts Agatha, all of this (pointing out of the window across the city), everything I see, hear, touch and smell, the conclusions I’m able to draw, the things that are revealed to me, the ugliness. My work focuses me, it helps. You say that I’m using my gifts; I say I’m just treating them. So I cannot in good conscience, pass all of that onto someone else.”
I found this so touching, a clever and more sensitive interpretation of Holmes’ abilities than the usual ‘Look at me I’m brilliant’ approach. I have always argued that Holmes’ abilities to see connections between things, hidden meanings, minute observations, are more like a compulsion than a choice. I’ve explored this in my own writing, likening it to a form of OCD, an addiction almost. If it wasn’t for being able to channel them into his work, they would consume him.
I think Elementary explored this in a very eloquent and sensitive way, better than I’ve seen done before. It’s a very modern interpretation of Holmes, the flawed hero battling mental health issues and addiction. This suits a contemporary audience well I think. We need to get inside the heads of our heroes; we want that level of analysis and complexity, the tortured genius. Conan Doyle hinted at these things in the canon but its shows like Elementary and Sherlock that dare to take them one step further. Holmes is evolving before our very eyes.