'Elementary' Boss on Why Sherlock and Joan Deserved a Superhero Ending (Exclusive)

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Elementary Series Finale: Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller
CBS

Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's series finale of Elementary. You are about to enter major spoiler territory.

It was a happy ending for Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson.

On Thursday's series finale of Elementary, titled "Their Last Bow," the CBS detective drama kicked off its final episode with a three-year time jump after Sherlock's (Jonny Lee Miller) faked death. When the P.I. returned to the New York brownstone he once shared with Joan (Lucy Liu), after she secretly sought out his help with a case maybe involving his ex-flame Jamie Moriarty, a lot had changed between the former partners. For one thing, Joan fulfilled one of her biggest life goals by adopting an adorable little boy, Arthur, and was also a successful published author. And Sherlock had been doing the detective thing under various aliases around the world.

But not all was as it seemed. Joan was not only keeping a massive secret from Sherlock, but so was he. During their three years apart, she had been diagnosed with cancer and he had relapsed. Joan's cancer diagnosis turned out to be the main reason why Sherlock decided to stay, instead of leaving to continue on his international P.I. spree and a possible job working undercover for the U.S. government.

Cut to another time jump, this time one year after Sherlock and Joan's emotional reunion, and Sherlock is seen standing in front of a casket. "She was one of a kind," Sherlock's friend says, leading us to think -- for a brief moment at least -- Joan maybe didn't beat cancer after all. But, it turns out, it was Moriarty's funeral they were attending, though Sherlock was hard-pressed to believe she was actually six feet under. Later, Sherlock and Joan, now cancer-free, get ready to make their big pitch to Captain Bell (Jon Michael Hill) to return as consultants at the precinct. But really, as Sherlock eloquently says to Joan, "As long as we're together, what does it matter?"

In a wide-ranging series finale chat, ET spoke with showrunner Rob Doherty about the final episode's biggest moments, the decision to have Joan be diagnosed with cancer and why it was important for him to give Sherlock and Joan a happy ending.

ET: It must be bittersweet saying goodbye to Elementary. What was your approach for the final episode in wrapping up Sherlock and Joan's story?

Rob Doherty: As you recall, we thought season six was our last season and it meant telling a lot of our stories in a certain way. Season seven was an opportunity to know that the end was coming, to go into a season and look ahead and try to build everything piece by piece. We had to talk a lot about the 13th episode before we could talk about the first. We knew that there were elements from canon that we wanted to utilize. Specifically, we looked at two stories in particular, "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House," that we borrowed liberally.

In canon, Sherlock did drop off the map for three years. He was thought to be dead. His Watson was in the dark on that front. That felt too cruel to do to our Watson and it also felt inappropriate. I think she would've known better. We knew we wanted a three-year window where they were separated and changing, making new choices and then bringing them back together so each could do a bit of self-analysis. Who were they apart and who might they be now that they are together again?

It's very clear from the three-year time jump that a lot has changed for both Sherlock and Joan. Joan has a young son, Arthur, now. Why was it important for her to accomplish one of her main goals of having a family?

It was a story that we started in season six and it's a story we would've told a different way if we had known at the time that it was potentially the final season. When it did look like the end for us, that was something that we had to move away from -- not abandon completely, but pin it, for lack of a better term. Season seven was a great opportunity to revisit it and hopefully, punctuate it. It was important a year ago and it was important this year because it just felt so true to who Joan is. Becoming a parent seemed like a very natural progression for her. Despite the dangers that come with her job and despite living with an addict in recovery, we felt she could be an incredible parent. With just 13 episodes in season seven, it didn't feel like something we could start at the top. Odin Reichenbach took up a lot of real estate and so it became, in our eyes, more appropriate to return to Joan after three years and find out she has Arthur in her life in the finale.

It was surprising to learn that Joan had been diagnosed with cancer, something she chose to hide from Sherlock when he returns. Why did you make the decision to have her go through a major health struggle in the final episode? 

We've seen their lives in danger on multiple occasions over the course of the series, but more often than not, they are threatened by criminals and villains. Not many of us are stalked by guilds of assassins. I liked telling a story about a real-life threat to one of the partners. We all worry about getting sick or we all worry about a loved one getting sick, and so many people go through it, fight it and come back from it. Sherlock and Joan are, in their own ways, superheroes. It was interesting to put them in a situation where they're dealing with a much more grounded threat.

Joan reluctantly telling Sherlock that she's sick also seemed to be the main catalyst for Sherlock's decision to ultimately stay in New York. Was that actually the case?

Even with three years of separation, I wanted them back together again. I wanted them to ride off into the sunset together. I didn't want fans to come out of the final episode feeling like they thought, "It's good we've been apart. Our lives are better for having been apart." The problem is, for each character, they worry that they're putting the other in a bad position. Joan doesn't want to tell Sherlock's she's sick because it appears to her that his life is going great. And when Sherlock looks at Joan, he sees the same thing. He sees someone is thriving. But, when someone's sick, all of that falls away. No one has to be polite at that point. It brings them both right back down to earth. It clears the decks. Especially for Sherlock, he sees what's really important, understanding that his partner, his greatest friend and virtual family member needs help. It doesn't matter what else is going on in his life. He's going to step away from it to help her.

Elementary
CBS

Sherlock says he relapsed during his time away and that, like Joan, he was secretly struggling. Was it important to highlight that these two were better together? 

As far as Sherlock relapsing, we never wanted to suggest that it was because Joan wasn't there. She's not his heroin-proof vest, for lack of a better term. He relapsed when they were together, he relapsed when they were apart. It was more than anything, us being true to the disease of addiction. And yet, I think it was important that it happened because it informed his concerns about staying with Joan. Potentially doing it now that Joan has a child in the house, Sherlock just can't wrap his head around that possibility. He doesn't want to expose her son to any of that baggage that he carries.

Was Sherlock always going to stay, even if Joan wasn't sick?

That's a great question. The short answer is yes, they would have gone their separate ways again if the captain hadn't shared Joan's secret with Sherlock,. Each would have returned to their lives, not because it's what they truly wanted. The way I always looked at it was, they're thinking about each other. Now, Sherlock is about to leave New York because he thinks Joan is better off without him. Joan is going to keep her secret to herself because she doesn't want to disrupt what appears to be success and happiness on his part. Of course, that's not the least bit true and it takes someone who knows them as well as they know themselves to shed appropriate light on the situation, which is, Joan is ill and could use help. Gregson is the one who can look down and see the truth of the situation. Gregson knows each one is not being entirely honest with the other and he knows it's because of good intentions, but also, he knows the veil has to fall away. Sherlock has to know what's going on and he has to make a decision that factors that unfortunate truth in.

You also did another one-year time jump in the finale and I was worried for a second that it was Joan in the casket, so you did your job there. But it's Moriarty's death Sherlock is mourning, even though he believes she's not actually dead. Are you leaving that as a mystery?

I don't have it in me to leave it a mystery. I guarantee you Moriarty's alive. We'll never see it, but Sherlock absolutely goes back and digs up that grave and finds an empty casket. The intention was for that to be the takeaway. My hope was that people would, when they think about all stories we're not going to tell, those stories will include lots of Moriarty. Sherlock and Joan should be going into this future with her as an adversary.

Did you try to get Natalie Dormer back for one last appearance as Moriarty?

As a staff, we talked about it very briefly at the beginning of the season and ultimately, the concern was we would be telling a last story about three people and not two. Nothing is more important, at the end of the day, than Sherlock and Joan's relationship and yet Moriarty carries so much history that in a weird way, it felt like she would distract from the ending Sherlock and Joan really deserve.

Earlier this year, I asked you about Lucy's blonde hair. In the series finale, we see her character, after the one-year time jump, rocking a short black bob of a wig. How much thought did you put in Joan's post-cancer remission look?

I wanted her appearance to speak for itself and remind everyone that she has spent a year fighting cancer, she had experienced hair loss and she fought through it. The wig helps tell that story a little bit. What was amazing to me was how good it looked. Very early in the series, we had Lucy in a wig, when we were showing a flashback to another part of her life and it's one of my great regrets over the course of the series, so I was a little nervous. I was like, "Oh, man, I hope this wig is better." But the team in New York found something perfect. 

When did you know you wanted the final image of Elementary to be Sherlock and Joan walking into Captain Bell's office and asking to be consultants again?

The final image is probably something we didn't settle on until we were actually breaking the episode. I don't think it's something I had in my head for a long time, unlike season six where we thought, if this is the end, we wanted to see them walking down the street in London. Knowing this would be a story set in New York, at the brownstone and the 11th precinct, those sets take over. The only real question was which space would be the last one? While I'm extremely partial to the brownstone, the story dictated a final beat at the precinct.

Looking back at the last seven seasons, are there any lingering stories you wish you could have had time to tell or could have told?

One thing I would have liked to have done is seeing more of Moriarty. Over the course of the series there were bigger, more serialized stories we wanted to tell about her, Sherlock and Joan. But we made the grave mistake of hiring an outrageously talented and very in-demand actress for the role. Natalie has had an incredible seven years. Every success had been much deserved and yet, it made it hard for our calendars to jibe with hers. We love the character. We love Natalie. Selfishly, it would've been so much fun to have a little more time with her over the course of the series. (Laughs.)

Joan becoming a parent was really a story I thought would begin and end in season six. It was something I felt we could serialize in the course of a year; circumstances changed and we had to put it to the side. But one notion I was really intrigued by is the very unique living situation that would have resulted for Sherlock and Joan. It would've been interesting to have a kid in the house for a season, not just to see how good Joan is at being a mom, but to show that Sherlock can do this too. I wanted to see what it would do to the living situation and I thought it would have been fun to see him try to be helpful in his own way. He would have had a lot of plans for Joan's kid.

You talked about how you saw this season as a "blessing." I'm curious if where Bell, Gregson, Joan and Sherlock ultimately end up is where you originally envisioned the characters' final chapters would be when you first started on this journey?

More than anything, I wanted everyone at peace in the end. I'm sure the case could be made that separating Sherlock and Joan would be more dramatic than killing someone off. It might've made a bigger splash. But as we got into it, it just felt right to settle everyone, to show how they've changed and to put them in good places as the series came to a conclusion. We're certainly hinting that there are adventures ahead, but people who watched the show and cared about Sherlock and Joan can turn off their TVs on Thursday night knowing that the most important story we told, which is the relationship between Sherlock and Joan, is going to continue. That's always going to be moving forward. That's not going to end. Creatively, I get it when [showrunners want to shake things up]. Sometimes, it makes all the sense in the world but other times, it just leaves the audience cold and I wanted a happier ending.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if 10 years down the line an Elementary revival comes to fruition.

Hey, I'll take it! That sounds great to me.

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