If there’s one scene that encapsulates why I love Elementary despite its flaws, it’s from 5×08 “How the Sausage Is Made”: in which Joan and Sherlock discuss why Sherlock isn’t attending his support group meetings.
Sherlock claims he’s bored because he’s the smartest person in the room, which makes the whole thing unbearably tiresome, and so he is special and doesn’t need to go.
Joan counters by pointing out that he may be special and smart, but not all his problems are due to his preternatural intelligence. Other people, she says, are bored at the meetings too. Sherlock’s real problem is that he attributes every emotional hardship he encounters to being smarter than everybody else. Sometimes that may be the case, she acknowledges, but more often, Sherlock hurts himself and others by deciding that he is the only one who is capable of feeling what he feels and therefore permanently unable to cope with his negative emotions the way others do.
Most people feel this way sometimes: nobody has to deal with what I deal with. If they did, they’d act the same way as me. Therefore, they couldn’t possibly understand. It’s particularly grating in Sherlock Holmes because so many adaptations of the character use it as an excuse for their poor treatment of others.
Dr. House’s genius means that his pain matters more than that of the people around him, and his addiction to Vicodin isn’t like other non-genius people’s addiction. He uses his vice to cope with life the only way he can, but they’re just… dissolute? Lazy? Degenerate?
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes blanches in horror of having to go see — gasp! A musical of which he’s not fond! — with his parents. There are lots of people who don’t like Les Mis, but, you see, Holmes is so smart that it’s qualitatively different for him. He can’t just suck it up and bear it like everyone else does when their significant other or friend or family member drags them somewhere they don’t want to go. His boredom is special! It’s absolutely nothing like that time that person you love made you watch Twilight or Teletubbies or Piranha 3DD.
It’s a pretty lie. Part of the fun of watching House and Holmes in more hero-fantasy adaptations is that they get to say and do things the viewer wishes they could but can’t. How many of us would like to be excused from tedious activities because, you know, we’re not actually regular bored, we’re genius bored? How many of us would like our friends and family to admire us for that trait — to be fascinated by it — rather than get upset that we aren’t willing to compromise for their sake?
But there’s also something toxic about this idea that a vast intellect automatically means emotional superiority. One of Lucy Liu’s Watson’s chief skills (perhaps unfortunately related to the character’s gender switch, but that’s a discussion for another day) is her emotional intelligence. In this, she surpasses Sherlock.*
The show still values Sherlock’s deductive and information-processing intelligence: we see over and over again that it helps him see the significance of clues Watson can’t fathom. But we also see that his EQ is woefully inadequate. We watch him tell himself the story that, actually, his poor emotional intelligence is part of his logical superiority: emotion is illogical, so, really, he’s not good at emotions because he’s actually better at them.
But Watson blows this self-congratulatory myth to smithereens. She forces Sherlock to confront the fact that, no, it’s not that feelings are stupid and being super-smart entails one is bad about them. Instead, the truth is that one can excel superlatively at one aspect of intelligence (analytic**) and be terrible at another (emotional), and the second might have nothing to do with the first.
(Incidentally, the flip side of this myth is also damaging: the perception that any talents of differently abled people, especially those who are neurodiverse, are “compensation” predicated on the ways they differ from neurotypical/able people. Because they can’t be gifted and different at the same time? You know, like the full human beings that they are?)
Negotiating the boundary between self care and selfishness is difficult. Everyone, including Sherlock Holmes, needs to set the boundaries that will keep them emotionally healthy. And, in Elementary, everyone, including Sherlock Holmes, struggles to figure out which limitations are healthy and which are barriers we erect between ourselves and the difficult personal work that will help us become better people.
I find this model timely, particularly in the context of the social dominance of mainstream “nerd culture.” There’s a tendency to take nerd pride in “not being able” to get through inferior modes of entertainment — superficial conversations, televised “sportsball,” social gatherings with people who aren’t interested in nerdy topics. Likewise, many of us introverts take pride in being unable to handle extroverts’ allegedly inane and draining pastimes. It’s a mark of sophistication and intelligence that I’d rather be at home reading a book than making small talk at cocktail hour!
Both nerds and introverts may have different needs from other social groups. Common social situations may by default neglect those needs. But it’s not true that every time a nerd or an introvert feels uncomfortable in a social setting, it’s because of those needs.
Like Sherlock Holmes — who is, after all, the quintessential introverted nerd! — we can acknowledge that Watson is right. It can be the case both that we are fundamentally different and that our difference is irrelevant on this occasion. We, like Elementary‘s Sherlock, can strive for a more complex balance of doing right by ourselves and doing right by the world.
* Like Sherlock, she also has to cope with re-evaluating her self image on the occasions when this key talent fails her, which is one of the chief appeals of this season’s introduction of Shinwell Johnson (Nelsan Ellis) as a former drug dealer whom Watson has decided to “help.”
** Let’s pretend that math and computer science are magically different in the Elementary universe rather than allowing real-world artists’ analytic limitations become the characters’.