Regina Saphier: Elementary

Regina Saphier: Elementary

If you don’t know, let me tell you that many US TV series have some excellent writers and advisors and the content is often effortlessly educational. The series “Elementary” is a perfect example of the popular being educational as well. Former medical doctor Joan Watson, the first ever female Watson in a TV series, phenomenally played by Lucy Liu, is first the guidance counselor of addict Aspie Sherlock Holmes, exceptionally portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller. Dr. Watson becomes Holmes’s highly appreciated associate during the first season. I have to say their dynamic on screen is really entertaining and completely believable, plus I really enjoy the atmosphere, the spaces used in the series, that unfolds in New York. Romantic interest in not part of their interaction, it is purely intellectual and collegial. Their libido is perfectly normal, but between them it is about solving crimes and finding criminals. We constantly witness how Mr. Holmes struggles with the neurotypical environment, how he stands out with his sharp observations and painful lack of social skills. Ms. Watson on the other hand is the mostly well adjusted female Aspie, passing as “normal” (mostly, but at some point her friends begin to assume that it is not “normal” to be fascinated by criminology on Holmes’s side), while exhibiting many of the observational and synthesizing abilities as Holmes…

Ms. Watson and Mr. Holmes in Elementary

In season 2, at the end of episode 9 (“On the Line”) Holmes explains to Ms. Watson that he is not a nice man, and he is making an exceptional effort to accommodate her, because she is exceptional:

I transcribed the dialogue (intentionally skipped a few lines here and there):

Sherlock Holmes: There is unquestionably a certain social utility to being polite. To maintaining an awareness of other people’s sensitivities, to exhibiting all the traits that might commonly be grouped under the heading “nice”.
Joan Watson: I think you would be surprised how easy it is to earn that designation.
Holmes: No. I am not a nice man. It’s important that you understand that. … There is not a warmer, kinder me waiting to be coaxed out into the light. I am acerbic. I can be cruel. So I am. … I am neither proud of this, nor ashamed of it. … And in my work my nature has been an advantage far more often than it has been a hinderance. I am not gonna change.
Watson: You have. You are not the same person I met a year and a half ago. You are…
Holmes: Good to you? Yeah… For the most part. I consider you to be exceptional. So I make an exceptional effort to accommodate you. But you must accept that for as long as you choose to be in my life there will occasionally be fallout from my behaviour. That must be a part of our understanding.
Watson: No one can accept something like that forever.
Holmes: To thine own self… Watson…
He means to say: know thyself or know yourself. Basically know who you are and be yourself. In full, the last sentence is (originally): “To thine own self be true“… it is from Hamlet. Sherlock wants Watson to understand that he finds his professional performance more important, but because she is instrumental in his professional efforts, he sacrifices parts of his automatic behaviors and uses mental energy and concentration to accommodate her. In his asocial mind this is a rational decision, he needs her so he accommodates her perceived needs. He gives up something cognitive to gain much more, because it is logical. She on the other hand has an emotional reaction to his words. You can see it on her face. She feels that Sherlock is developing as a person. He rationalizes his own growth, while she perceives emotional development in him. In a way both are right.
Here the writers show us how Holmes believes that he only changes to accommodate an exceptional person for purely rational reasons. What he is unable to consciously realize is that she cares about him, unlike most others, and he unconsciously appreciates that. At the same time we regularly witness how Watson’s presence and more developed social awareness often helps to balance Holmes’s asocial behavior. Note: I really dislike when people mix up the meaning of asocial and antisocial. Aspies are asocial, not antisocial. If they are not pushed and bullied over the edge by their neurotypical and ignorant peers, and when they grow up in an accepting and loving environment, they are as unlikely to become antisocial as any of the neurotypicals.
I am listing some other films for you if you are interested in Asperger’s (or in Autism):
  • The first major film on Autism: Dustin Hoffman as Raymond, an autistic savant… in “Rain Man”. This is NOT a film about Asperger’s!
  • Also by the writer of “Rain Man” (by Ronald Bass), an Asperger’s movie (the characters are in different places on the Asperger’s spectrum and are highly asocial): “Mozart and the Whale” (not as well directed as “Rain Man”, but still entertaining and educational).
  • Claire Danes in “Temple Grandin“, very well portrayed, and Claire’s spouse
  • Hugh Dancy in “Adam“, also a very good movie (about a lonely Aspie who develops a unique relationship with his neighbor: Beth).

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (film)

  • The director of “The Hours” (Stephen Daldry) created another wonderful film: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” … The director “… stated in an interview that the film is about “a special child who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, trying to find his own logic – trying to make sense of something that literally doesn’t make sense to him.” When asked how much research was necessary to realistically portray a character with such a condition, he answered “we did a lot of research,” and that he “spent a lot of time with different experts of Asperger’s and talked to them.” In the film, Oskar reveals that he was tested for Asperger syndrome, but the results were inconclusive. As Daldry explained: “Every child is different on the autistic spectrum, so we created our own version of a child that was in some way – not heavily, but somewhere on that spectrum in terms of the fears and the phobias.” (
  • Lately Abed in the series “Community” provided a perfectly believable Aspie. It turns out, the creator, Dan Harmon discovered he has a form of Asperger’s while doing research for the Aspie character Abed. As Abed would say, Cool cool cool. :-)This brings me to my key point: Many writers, stand up comedians, actors, actresses and film directors have a form of Aspergers. And these people have exceptional observational capacity, and for that you need deep empathy, high level of cognition, and special analytical skills. I believe that many Aspies are deeply empathic and have a very creative fantasy world, and e.g.: writing helps to “defragment” their massive emotional content.

Neurodevelopmental differences are probably much more common than we like to think. What makes the differences less apparent is enormous social pressure. Just think of religious people. Have you ever listened to a religious person quoting the bible word by word again and again and have you ever observed people’s religious rituals or the rigid social structures they feel forced to maintain? Don’t you think that many of them would fit the criteria of Asperger‘s with OCD? Focus on a single topic, repetition, rigidity, rituals, inability to assume the point of view of other people of other religions, and so on… Today, as people are more and more educated, religion is less and less dominant, and individuals discover new beliefs online that fit their personalities better. The mass scale of need for social “shelterdness” goes online and becomes much more individualized and globally remixed. At the same time people learn faster and more than ever before in human history. At this rate we might as well become a more understanding and more compassionate species, especially if we are willing to admit our shortcomings and do everything in our power to change to the better.

I think that the title Elementary might come from Sir Ken Robinson’s book title and theme: “The Element” (How finding your passion changes everything). He says that in order to be in your element, you must discover what you are best at, what you enjoy doing the most, and you also have to find the people who are like you, who appreciate you, and they are in a way your tribe. It is a beautifully idealistic human goal to be in your element, and some people are able to achieve this. Holmes and Watson enjoy their two person tribe and they are in their element together. Their personalities are different, but their elementary process is the same and they participate with passion. Seeking your element and passionately being in your constructive and positive element is the ultimate human goal for men and women equally. Aspies are probably born with a higher sense of their element and it often annoys “the seekers” (and remember, being “a seeker” is already a higher level of consciousness). When they are forced to adjust to rigid social norms they are denied their freedom to be in their elements and it is enormously frustrating. I mean, imagine that you just woke up from a flying dream, and you find yourself hovering above your bed… and suddenly you would be told to stop it, because it is not polite to levitate. How would you feel? 😉 Many Aspies “levitate intellectually” and are constantly told to “land politely”… Shouldn’t more people learn “mental levitation”? Of course they should! It is in fact the only kind of levitation a human is able to do without any instruments at the time of real action. 

This post grew out of my previous blog post: Curb Your Testosterone!