Sherlock Holmes and the Case for Deeply Flawed People in Extraordinary Situations
By Anna Michnowicz
Edited by Hallie Gordon/Director of Artistic Development, KCRep
The story of Sherlock Holmes begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1886, Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story titled “A Study in Scarlet.” The character Holmes is eccentric, highly observant, and driven, much like his real-life counterpart Dr. Joseph Bell. Doyle studied under the Scottish forensic scientist as a clerk when he wanted to become a doctor himself. Bell’s method of attempting to deduce people’s occupations and habits from little details or characteristics about them is the reason behind his genius in the forensic field.
What about Sherlock Holmes caused his immediate launch into the pop culture stratosphere? In 1893, Doyle attempted to kill off Holmes in “The Final Problem,” having become sick of his literary creation. However, fans were so taken with the character that they sent Doyle angry letters, wore mourning clothes, and canceled subscriptions to The Strand, the magazine that published the short stories in the first place.
On the page, Holmes and Watson read as flat characters, unchanging from story to story. However, their lack of development is not a disservice to the reader. Because Holmes and Watson are so steady, it’s easier for the reader to project themselves onto the characters. In real life, Holmes’ eccentricities, standoffish personality, and drug habit could make anyone wary of him. Yet, if Holmes were any less eccentric and equally talented, he would become unrelatable from an audience perspective, as no one can claim to be a flawless genius. Watson serves as the reader stand-in and emotional translator of Holmes. Without Watson, Sherlock could seem unrelatable with his cold, unsympathetic, and analytic personality. In turn, without Holmes’ single-minded pursuit of a good mystery, Watson appears unmoored and lost in life, aimlessly wandering without clear direction or purpose. Watson’s humanity helps readers and viewers understand that Holmes, while unusual, is still capable of love and friendship, thus also cementing them as a pair by necessity.
There is no shortage of flawed male characters like Holmes and Watson in pop culture. Recent examples include Spock and Captain Kirk, Dr. House and Dr. Wilson, the Winter Soldier and the Falcon. Male characters have always been lauded for their ability to be as emotional or messy (or as unemotional and clinically stern) as they like.
In Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson — Apt. 2B, audiences are asked to re-consider the Holmes and Watson dynamic from a new lens because of the characters’ re-interpretation as women. There is a significant lack of female detective characters that are held to the same standards as their male counterparts in pop culture; female detectives are instead written for children (Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy) and are often youthful but without serious substance, messiness, or unlikability. In the play, Holmes and Watson’s friendship and its many nuances are highlighted, especially as Holmes drifts closer to and apart from her new roommate-friend when other characters like Irene Adler are introduced. The unique type of jealousy, frustration, and camaraderie that the female perspective presents is new to characters like Holmes and Watson because of society’s unwillingness to associate female characters with violence, chaos, or emotional mess.
As recently as 2018, the entertainment industry has seen a rise in “unlikeable” female characters with the same flaws their leading male counterparts typically possess. Women being messy, disgusting, angry, or wicked onscreen is seen as flaunting convention. Female-led films such as Ghostbusters (2016), The Heat (2013), Ocean’s 8 (2018), and Widows (2018) all portray female characters who are not only funny, driven, analytical, vengeful, loving, grieving, and ambitious; they’re also friends. The bonds of friendship in these films allow characters to highlight each other’s flaws and strengths and play off one another while also exhibiting that being flawed doesn’t make anyone less capable of love or affection.
Audiences continue to see a rise in flawed characters and flawed female friendships that defy genres, especially in television shows such as Sharp Objects (2016), Broad City (2014-2019), Jessica Jones (2015-2019), Insecure (2016-2021), Orphan Black (2013-2017), and Scandal (2012-2018). The characters in these shows are allowed to be unapologetically messy, self-destructive, spiteful, misguided, and eccentric. Many of the shows and movies revolving around these flawed female characters hinge on giving a platform to the “atypical” female character and showcasing women that resemble those in society, not just their idealized versions.
Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson: Apt. 2B highlights flawed female characters and their friendships, showcasing what Holmes & Watson fans have always known: flaws make friendships stronger and characters more appealing.