Enola Holmes

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S1: I want to tell you my secret now, I see.

S2: Charlotte, greatest Fabo. What’s in the box, you know, you’re blowing down, you know?

S3: Hello and welcome to another Slate spoiler special today we’re spoiling and NOLA Homes, a new Netflix movie starring Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock Holmes is lesser known little sister whose name, as she’s so fond of pointing out, spells alone backward. I’m Marissa Martinelli, an associate editor at Slate. My name Backwards Spells Element Trem Assaraf. So make of that what you will. I’m joined by Laura Miller, books and culture columnist at Slate.

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S4: My name backwards is really Mirrool, which I know very well, because when your name is something like Laura Miller and you need to come up with an a unique user ID, spelling your name backwards is usually the easiest way to do it.

S3: I’m envious of you, Laura, because my first name starts with S.. So it’s out of the question. So there have been so many adaptations and sequels and offshoots of Sherlock Holmes over the years. I’m curious what your expectations were for this young female centric version that wound up going to Netflix because of the pandemic?

S4: Well, that’s an interesting question. What are my expectations? I mean, I feel like Sherlock Holmes is both a very narrow set of motifs and locations. You know, it’s a very specific feeling. And there have been so many attempts to sort of just recreate that feeling or to sort of take it in some new direction, you know, have homes, have some other kind of adventure. During this famous period called the Great Hiatus by Sherlock Iain’s, which is the gap between the Reichenbach fall pseudo death of Sherlock Holmes and his return, which was basically when Conan Doyle tried to kill him off because he was sick of writing about Sherlock Holmes, and then he was forced to bring him back to life by popular demand. So that’s like a famous three or four year period called the Great Hiatus among the super fans, where people like to imagine things that Sherlock Holmes did or things that happened after he retired as a beekeeper. There’s a beautiful literary novel just about the retired Sherlock Holmes keeping bees in, never outside. Yeah. So there’s so many attempts to sort of take this story and change it or make it your own in some way or just make more of this little snow globe world that the stories create. I don’t even really know what to expect anymore. I mean, there are the things that seem like an integral part of Sherlock Holmes, like it being set in London in the late Victorian era. But then I loved the BBC reboot of a few years ago, Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch, and that was set in contemporary London and made very creative use of things like text messaging and new technology. Instead of writing stories for the Strand magazine, Dr Watson had a blog. It was very clever. It was a Holmes that had to be in London because there’s something about Sherlock Holmes that has to be in London. Although I really love the Japanese series called Miss Sherlock, which is set in Tokyo and has a female Holmes or a female Watson. So you sort of expect certain things, but then often it’s something else. And and it’s really interesting to sort of say, to what degree is this Sherlock Holmes? You know, how far out can a new creator in this sort of fictional universe swim before they’re just not in the waters of Sherlock Holmes anymore? It’s a peculiar question. So I always feel like when I see one of these, I’m ready for anything.

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S3: Yeah, you raised a really good point there about what makes Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and how much you can play with the formula before it becomes something different. And that’s especially relevant for this movie because it had troubled production history with the production being sued by the Conan Doyle estate because they argued that Sherlock Holmes, the character, is not, in fact in the public domain, despite being, you know, old enough.

S4: This is a really ridiculous case. And it just shows how desperate the people who run this estate are to just hold on to that cash cow. Some of the stories are in the public domain. When Conan Doyle started writing them again, some of the later ones are not yet in the public domain. And in those ones, they argue that he made more of an effort to deal with Holmes’s emotions, you know, like a sort of more of his inner life as opposed to. Just the sort of world’s greatest detective, the game’s afoot, you know, Watson, bring your service revolver and all of the sort of classic stuff that people like. So their argument is that because this deals more with it, like his family and his feelings, even though he’s actually not in this movie very much at all, it is sort of stepping on the later stories to which they still own the copyright. But I really doubt there is a single person in the world who has any respect for that argument.

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S3: Well, it’s really interesting because the Sherlock that we get in this movie, as you say, is not really in the movie all that much. For starters, he’s emotional, certainly, but he also doesn’t really have a lot in common really anyway with the character from the books necessarily. I mean, a little details here and there. There are some allusions that are kind of fun. Easter eggs for fans, for example. He says that he doesn’t have a knowledge of politics. And of course, Watson once makes a note in the book that his knowledge of politics is feeble. But other than that, I mean, it’s not really about him. Of all the battles to pick, this seems like the wrong one.

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S4: Yeah, it has nothing to do with the creative property of Sherlock Holmes. It has to do with their attempt to retain control over an extremely profitable piece of IP. It’s ludicrous and it has been for a really long time. I mean, if there was ever a fictional work that needs to be in the public domain, it’s the whole body of the Sherlock Holmes canon.

S5: It’s like Sherlock. And then trailing right behind is maybe Dracula.

S4: Yeah, well, I think Dracula, Dracula and everything. Yeah, yeah. I just you know, they belong to Western culture at this point, both of them.

S3: Let’s talk about the actual hero of this movie, young Winola Holmes. She has a very cozy life with her eccentric mother in the countryside when one day her mother disappears, bringing her two brothers back into her life. And of course, they’re Sherlockian. Mycroft Holmes. I have been a big fan of Millie Bobby Brown since the days of stranger things. And I think she brings a really fun energy to this role. That’s more along the lines of sort of a precocious, typical heroine. You know, this movie is written by Jack Thorne, who is probably best known for the Harry Potter and the child’s also his dark materials. And he actually had another adaptation come out this year that he penned of the Secret Garden. And you really get a sense between that movie moving this one of where his interests lie, right. Both movies have young, spunky protagonists who have a very complicated relationship with their mother, who find a male companion who has a reverence for nature. There’s this sort of rejection of the rigid English society. I think this movie pulled it off a lot better. And I think a lot of that is a credit to Millie Bobby Brown. I really liked her asides to the camera as much as I thought they were hokey at the beginning. I think she really carried this whole thing.

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S4: I liked the address to the camera, partly because we have a character who the movie is arguing is like a young female version of Sherlock Holmes. And the desire to sort of control the story just seems really a part of who that character is. And that was actually one of my favorite things about the film. I mean, it has a slightly artificial quality, which is something that also Sherlock has. It’s not nearly as clever or as insightful as Sherlock, I don’t think, but the kind of panache and the vim is really the word for it, because that’s such a a feature of the Sherlock Holmes stories, that sense of adventure. It does preserve that. It’s not in the super introspective side of the Sherlock Holmes. I don’t want to call it fan fiction, but she’s a bit of a Mary Sue, this character. But in Sherlock Holmes pastiches, you know, this is of the very traditional sort of light hearted adventure yarn school, not the kind of thing that Sherlock is, which is a more searching examination of what’s it like to have this sort of freakish intellect and not totally activated emotional self. You know, like the thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he is a bit of a freak. And with a noella, she’s a rebel in that she doesn’t like wearing corsets. She doesn’t think that her her role in life should be to get married. I mean, but who does? I mean, that’s kind of a gimme at this point, that there’s nobody. Watching this thinking, oh, you know, she should be wearing, you know, nobody’s on the side of the corset in the story, so that seems a little bit easy. But the thing about the idea of Sherlock Holmes is that his intelligence is so enormous and it’s sort of focused like a laser beam on a really narrow range of experience. You could even argue some people would say, I don’t want to be facile about this, that he’s a little on the spectrum and he needs. Oh, sure. Yeah. Well, I you know, I don’t want to claim expertise in that area.

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S3: I think plenty of autistic people have sort of claimed him as a member of the community. Yeah. Yeah. Deliberately or otherwise.

S4: Yeah. So there are these ordinary human things that he doesn’t participate in. He you mentioned his knowledge of politics being weak, but he also doesn’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun. Like this is just it’s just he feels like that information is not useful to him. And so he just if he ever encountered it, just didn’t retain it. Sure. And I don’t feel like this movie is one of those treatments of the home story that’s really interested in that idea.

S5: No. If anything, he’s a big softy in this movie. Right. One of the central tensions of the movie is that with their mother missing, Sherlock and Mycroft have to figure out what to do with this kid who has been dropped in their laps, who they haven’t seen since she was a baby. And Sherlock is the soft one, which is very surprising.

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S3: Mycroft is the one who wants to send her away to boarding school to become a lady and get married. Sherlock is persuaded over the course of the film that Winola is a lot like him and should be able to choose her own path.

S4: Yes, but he’s not really helping her, which is sort of, you know, it’s easy to sort of say, oh, Mycroft, he’s the bad guy, but at least he’s taking responsibility for her because she is still pretty young and has no means of support. And so, yes, it’s bad that Microfit doesn’t listen to what she wants to do with her own life. But it’s also bad that Sherlock kind of washes his hands of it and is sort of like, well, whatever she could take care of herself, that might be a step too far in the warm and fuzzy area.

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S3: The Conan Doyle estate might really flip if he were like, come live with me right at the get go. Yeah, one interesting take on him in this movie. He sort of gets yelled at a lot by women. I don’t know if you noticed this as well. There seems to be a reckoning around Sherlock Holmes and sort of the white guy hero that’s happening where, you know, he says he’s not interested in politics because it’s boring. Whereas, of course, in the books, he just doesn’t see a use for it in his detective work, and he’s so hyperfocus that it escapes his notice. But he’s chewed out by a character, Edith, who is played by Susie Coma, who is a black suffragette who chastises him and basically tells him, like, you can afford not to pay attention to politics because the context of this movie is that it’s taking place in 1884 with the representation of the People Act being voted on. That expands voting rights not by much, but it’s alluded to many times the sort of paving the way for others to gain their rights. And so there’s a little bit of a chewing out of Sherlock Holmes that I think. Is eager to acknowledge that times are changing within the film, but also times are changing.

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S4: Outside of it for us, the audience, yeah, it’s also kind of a gimme like who isn’t for the extension of suffrage. So obviously that was an important and powerful movement. And it’s not something that really is reflected in the stories. But then nothing in the original Conan Doyle stories, nothing of the real world is really reflected at all. It’s like a playland. I would just say that I think that yelling at men, which is something that Winola does as well, is sort of kind of cheap movie language for this is a strong female character like, you know, she’s a strong female character. She’s doing it. Men, you know, obviously men do sometimes need to be yelled at. But again, I just feel like it’s a little remedial on the side. Like, I didn’t really I like the style and the energy of this movie, but I didn’t feel like it was particularly smart or interesting.

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S3: I have to say, write those scenes seemed like we were being yelled at as the audience or expected to go with the movie more than actually changing Sherlock’s ways necessarily. You mentioned the corset earlier, which is another kind of cheap movie ploy to easily telegraph that this is a rebellious young woman who doesn’t want to wear a corset. There’s a very obscure work of fashion history called the Corset A Cultural History by Valerie Steele that I highly recommend that sort of challenges that idea that corsets were all super restrictive and tightly laced. And, you know, it was just this one group of women who were forward thinking, who rejected it. It was actually a very complicated garment and had a lot of different uses. And there’s more to it than just corset, whereas our straight laced I mean, women who tied their corsets too tightly were actually considered kind of slutty. So I think that element of it is also very like movie language as opposed to actual history.

S4: It is one of those examples of looking at the past in a reductive way of like the corset becomes the symbol of the stupid thing that the people in the past did, that we are too smart. It’s like a little self-congratulatory, like, yeah, no, I would not want to be a woman living in Victorian England. It was not a good position to be in and I wouldn’t want to wear a corset either, but. It kind of enables the viewers to feel sort of superior in a way that doesn’t encourage a lot of self-examination, and we also get to see various other disguises for Winola, which is another one of Sherlocks own marks.

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S3: She dresses up as a boy. She dresses up as a widow at various times. So along the way, she picks up while in disguise a young companion, the Viscount Duxbury. He’s also being hunted down for reasons that develop over the course of the movie. And it gives her sort of a love interest and it also gives her a chance to boss around a boy, which is something that seems very important for this character. It really involves her in the highest levels of political machinations in London in a pretty shocking and dramatic way.

S4: Yeah, I thought this was a clever element of the plot that it seems like Tewkesbury, who is played by Lewis Partridge. He’s your basic doe eyed, floppy haired teenage heartthrob type, you know, and there’s a lot of bantering with him and Winola that feels like it’s sort of aimed at the teenage audience. But somebody seems to be scheming against his life. And at first you think, oh, it just must be his inheritance or something like that. And then I think that the clever twist of this story is that he’s just about to come of age. And at that point he’ll be able to vote in the House of Lords and he’ll be able to either vote for or against this voting reform bill. And that is what the bad guy who turns out to be his own grandmother is trying to prevent.

S5: How did you feel about that reveal, Laura?

S3: Because I felt that it was telegraphed early on that grandma was bad news when she finds Winola snooping through Tewksbury stuff and makes its, you know, a very pleasant, idyllic environment. So maybe there wasn’t supposed to be such a threat of menace. But she says something along the lines of saying we have to protect this and the ancestral homes. Our job is to keep England the way it is. And to me, that immediately set off so many alarms that I was like Ron and Oleron, the lady’s trouble.

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S4: Well, the movies made pretty clear that any investment in tradition is probably evil, even though at the same time it does kind of fetishize the fact that this guy is a member of the aristocracy. It was fairly obvious that she was going to be the bad guy, partly because of that speech. They’re walking down this sort of arcade of trees, you know, these stately trees. And and because she’s talking about defending English identity, it just rings all these Brexit bells and you’re just like, she’s clearly the bad guy. Even though the uncle, who would be the inheritor of the title looks more like your classic bad guy in the grandma, seems sometimes like the kind of character who would ultimately like be like, oh, you two kids, you just go ahead, you know? And yet when as soon as she makes that speech, you know, that she’s probably behind all of the shenanigans that the bad guys are engaged in, although it is a little shocking that she would send an assassin to kill her own grandson, I did find that a little hard to believe.

S3: Seems like there would be easier ways to do it, like just poison his food.

S4: Grandma, it just suits the film’s messaging about times are changing and there must necessarily be changing for the better. And everyone needs to get on board or the bad guys. And you just know that. I mean, that’s just the whole framework of the film.

S5: So the word you used earlier was contrived. And I agree with you that the initial mystery of the film definitely felt that way to me and all. As mother goes missing, she leaves behind all these anagrams and ciphers. And there’s really an interesting technology going on that leads Winola to go after her.

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S3: And that, to me, felt less interesting than what I thought was going to be a subplot, but really turns out to be the crux of the movie itself, which was this reform bill going from set dressing and the background to really being what the movie is actually about in an interesting way. And I think they introduced it well early on. I mean, you get to see some old headlines, you know, most of which are fake, and you can actually spot a few anachronisms if you pause on Netflix and really go digging. There’s like a lot about Jack the Ripper and they’re part. And that that definitely had not happened by eighteen eighty four. Yeah. But I thought that if anything it. Did give Sherlock some kind of emotional journey, because early on they’re talking about we don’t need uneducated people voting and then they cut to this great shot of like one of the other lords slumped over with his newspaper in his lap. And obviously, it’s not just the lower classes who are uneducated, and it’s a nice little refutation of that. So I just feel like. I could have used more of that, I could have used more of Sherlock and Winola together and a lot of ways it felt like this whole movie was setting up something for the two of them, like sequel potential.

S4: Yeah, I mean, I definitely feel that the movie points to a sequel. It almost feels like the end of the first season of a television series in a way where there’s a conclusion, you know, Winola escapes Microsoft’s clutches and Sherlock sort of tacitly agrees not to help Microsoft catch her and send her off to Fiona Shaw’s boarding school. But, you know, we don’t really know exactly what their mother is doing, you know? You mean like her name is Eudora and Eudora Homes, and she’s clearly involved in the suffragette movement, but she also has all these bombs. Setting bombs is not a good thing. And it’s not feminism, Laura. Feminism, you know, and it’s not like who is she going to bomb and what group is she part of? The whole thing is extremely murky. I don’t know. It’s just I found that, you know, that subplot really perplexing because I thought when she shows up at the end, she would offer something more by way of an explanation for what she’s doing and why it matters and why it’s OK for her to have all of these explosives, which she’s presumably going to use on somebody. And that just didn’t really happen. And what’s going to happen to know is she’s supposedly going to set up shop as a detective. I mean, these things all seem to be pointing at at another film, the relationship with Tewkesbury and further developments between her and Sherlock. It does really feel like a TV pilot to me in that it just seems to be setting up situations like a case of the week thing where she and Sherlock kind of step on each other’s toes and, you know, he appears every now and then and and then, you know, like a season long arc that involves something that you Daria’s doing that can add a certain darkness to it. Because you Eudora, it does seem like kind of a sinister character to me. It feels kind of unresolved in a way. I mean, I like that it’s lighthearted.

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S3: I agree that it’s definitely a fun adventure to take with Millie, Bobby Brown. And there’s some cute romance tropes between her and Tewkesbury, for example. She brings him back to her horrible little apartment and there’s only one bed. So he has to sleep on the floor. Of course, they never get around to sleeping because they’re in constant peril. Yeah, but that’s part is cute. You know, the explosives, the movie never connects the dots for us, but I think I just sort of assumed that. There was a plan to bomb the vote if it wasn’t going to go in favor of OK, but the representation they did seem that is not a good thing. But from a screenwriter’s perspective, it’s also very convenient that these explosives had been left in the exact location where Winola will need them to escape a downright horrible villain. Yeah, Linton, the man with the bowler cap who was played by Bern Gorman from the Pacific Rim Movies and from Torchwood, and he is a genuinely scary villain for a movie that is otherwise very much a romp. He basically tries to kill her on multiple occasions. He holds her head in a bucket of water. She’s wearing a very revealing gown during their fight scene. And so some of the grabbing of her throat, there’s like a little bit of a sexualization that I was uncomfortable with. And he meets a really grisly end. So for all that, this was like, let’s take an adventure with Sherlock’s little sister. I mean, there’s a horrible squelch when he gets it. Finally, when he’s jujitsu it into some sculpture and it hits his head. I was like, oh, I can see the captions squelch.

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S4: Yeah, yeah. He’s a terrific actor that you see often in different British productions on in film and television. And there’s an intensity that he brings to it that makes it feel like he’s in a different movie. The rest of the actors are just having fun, I think. And he feels like he’s like in a much more serious, serious kind of action movie.

S3: Yeah. Especially when you compare him to the other pursuer, Lestrade, who is tasked with bringing it all back to Mycroft, who is more sort of the classic bumbling cop who can’t seem to get his hands on these wacky kids.

S4: Yeah, and he is a running character. And all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the police detective who Holmes is constantly outwitting. So, you know, you kind of know from the beginning that he’s not going to be able to accomplish anything. But Mycroft is supposed to be more brilliant even than Sherlock. And in this, he is just kind of a stuffed shirt who wants to cram her into some kind of Iron Maiden type of role? You know, he’s he’s less interesting than the character of Mycroft usually is. I have to say.

S3: He’s a stuffed shirt with a terrific moustache. Yeah. Yeah. It’s funny that Sam Claflin is playing Henry cavils older brother since he’s actually younger than him. And Henry Cavill is such a big guy that it doesn’t really sell me on the idea that this man is older.

S4: I gather that some people have an issue with the casting of Henry Cavill as Sherlock. I think he’s fine. I mean, I wish that he was making on season two of The Witcher instead.

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S3: Why is that a blonde wig?

S4: Yeah. Why isn’t there season to The Witcher right now? But, you know, he’s not certainly the most compelling Sherlock Holmes. I mean, he’s a little blandly handsome. And I have to say that this movie kind of did take me a little down the rabbit hole of attempts to sort of bring a sort of feminist slant to the Sherlock Holmes stories. You know, there’s a long history of people taking supporting female characters like Irene Adler, who is this actress that in the original canon was the only woman that Sherlock Holmes truly admires to make her a detective of one kind or another. This is not the first imaginary Holmes sister. The BBC series Sherlock has a sister who is the most brilliant of all of the home siblings, but is also a total psychopath. Whereas Sherlock Holmes is sort of like he described himself as a high functioning sociopath. But, you know, he functions well within society, whereas as this Holmes sister is depicted as completely monstrous and terrifying. Then there’s the Mary Russell series, which is a series of novels about a young woman that Sherlock Holmes marries after he retired. But the one that I found myself totally smitten with is this a series called Miss Sherlock that I mentioned before, this Japanese Sherlock Holmes. It’s really based more on the BBC series, Sherlock, than necessarily on the stories themselves or the BBC series is closely based on the stories in its own way. And it stars Youko Takiguchi, which I hope I pronounce your name right, who tragically just died very recently in. Kind of, I have to say, currently my favorite vamp on the Holmes character, because not only is she a woman, but she’s Japanese and she has a female doctor. Watson, there’s something for the feels so much more liberating about her just striding around in these trousers, being brilliant and rude to everyone that it just feels so much more transgressive than anything that’s happening in Winola homes, you know, that that feels like it’s transgressive in a very tame, widely accepted way. And this feels like edgy in a way that the BBC series did when it first appeared. And I would just highly recommend that anybody who’s sort of interested in these feminist takes on the homes can check it out. You can stream it on HBO.

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S5: Max, I’m definitely going to check that out. There is a name that keeps coming up in this discussion yet is not a character in the movie. And that’s what’s it.

S4: I know. I know. And this has been like a long standing issue because, you know, the thing about Watson and Holmes is that they really are the perfect marriage. And if you’re fan fiction is not about how Holmes and Watson are a couple. And it’s going to try to introduce some other character. The way the Mary Russell series by Laurie are King does. You kind of have to take down Watson to get your character closer to Sherlock. You know, I mean, that is a partnership made in heaven. And if you’re going to have somebody assist or, you know, a lover, wife or whatever bond with Sherlock, that person is going to have to elbow Watson out of the way. So one of the really controversial things about the Mary Russell series is that it depicts Watson as a complete idiot. And this is hugely controversial and in Sherlock Holmes fandom, because the whole sort of classic 30s and 40s films of Sherlock Holmes with starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, they’re very controversial because that Watson is depicted as an idiot as well. And it is argued by the hardcore fans that the Watson of the stories is not an idiot. You know, he’s just he’s not as smart as Sherlock Holmes. But there’s a reason why Holmes keeps him around. And there’s a famous scene where Holmes thinks that Watson has been fatally wounded or killed. And in this story, Watson thinks it was almost worth it because I could see how much he really cared about me, how much he valued me and cared about me when he thought that he had lost me. That is a relationship that people love and have so much invested in, regardless of whether you think it’s platonic or not. And so, you know, if there’s a sequel, will Watson be in it? How do you work that out with Winola? You know, it’s interesting and maybe, I don’t know, maybe Tewkesbury, if they’re going to be more instalments, maybe Tewkesbury will be her. Watson knows it would be that would be it would be an interesting thing to to try. I just think that you can’t really have Sherlock Holmes without Watson.

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S5: Well, it’s funny because this movie is based on a series of books by Nancy Springer.

S3: It’s actually aimed at a wider audience, which I think you can tell from the most of the tone of the film that this is definitely looking for a younger audience. But Watson is a character in at least some of the books, from what I can tell, because at one point they have to rescue him. And I’m curious for Watson. I’m curious what the future of this potential franchise would look like if it would bring Watson in, if it would be sort of the duo of Winola and Sherlock solving crimes together. Are they too similar or will they clash with one another? Or will this be a case of Winola goes on her own adventures and has her own Watson in Tewkesbury. And then Sherlock remains sort of a almost paternal figure who sort of pats are on the head and provides an assist every now and then. I don’t know, but I’m eager to see where it might go.

S4: I have to admit, if there’s another one, I will watch it. And I hope that it develops the characters in a more interesting direction. I mean, I, I think that the question of what it would be to be a woman with the personality of Sherlock Holmes, which is what Sherlock really addresses, is, I have to say, a whole lot more interesting than what it’s like to be a spunky young Y.A. heroine who has a floppy haired, doe eyed viscount, you know, gazing at her adoringly and who she has to yell at every now and then. I mean, I find that question just so intriguing. The difference in having the. Kind of personality between a man like Sherlock who can find a place in the world and a woman who is going to find it a lot harder to be somebody who holds the intellect so much higher over emotion.

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S3: Well, Laura, I hope to see you back here in a year or two for Angela Holmes and the case of what the heck is going on with my mom. It’s a date. The game is afoot. Marissa, I’ll be your Watson little boy. I can’t wait.

S6: That’s our show. Please subscribe to the Slate Square special podcast, feed. And if you like the show rate and we do it and the Apple podcast store or wherever you get your podcasts, if you have suggestions for movies or TV shows, we should spoil or if you have any other feedback I’d like to share, please send it to spoilers at Slate that our producer is Rosemary Bellson. For Laura Miller, I’m Maurice Martinelli. Thanks for listening.