Sherlock: Will You Miss Him?


“What effect do you think it will have upon his plans now that he knows you are here?”

“It may cause him to be more cautious, or it may drive him to desperate measures at once. Like most clever criminals, he may be too confident in his own cleverness and imagine that he has completely deceived us.”

Sherlock Holmes had disdain for the self-satisfied. Though he once remarked (in ‘The Creeping Man’) that, “I have never sought to inspire confidence in others – I have quite enough of my own”, many of his triumphs arose out of a knowledge that, eventually, his enemy would grow over-confident. “Pure swank!” he spits of the too-proud villain in ‘The Retired Colourman’. “He felt so clever and so sure of himself that he imagined no one could touch him. He could say to any suspicious neighbour, ‘Look at the steps I have taken. I have consulted not only the police but even Sherlock Holmes.’” To Sherlock Holmes, swank was a quality to avoid.

What, however, of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock Holmes? From its first episode, Sherlock has tweaked the nose of expectation: many might have scoffed when they first heard the idea of transplanting Conan Doyle’s sleuth to the modern day, but it’s an idea with such currency that it hasn’t only been done since – it’s also been done before. Moffat and Gattis’s genius was to do so unapologetically, almost rudely: texts instead of telegraphs, blogs instead of a tin dispatch box. Sherlock has also been bold enough to reimagine the central characters themselves, almost from the very off: though ‘A Study in Pink’ introduced us to characters we at first recognised, by ‘The Great Game’, and with it the close of the show’s first season, it was clear both Sherlock and John were quite different to Holmes and Watson.

In the former’s case, however, it is arguable that the show’s vision of Sherlock as a “high-functioning sociopath”, as was declared at the close of its third series finale (aired last Sunday), is rather less layered than the original. Conan Doyle’s Holmes could certainly be obsessive and detached; but he could also be compassionate and connected. The confidence – perhaps the over-confidence – with which the show has chased this limited vision of its lead character has led it to make several odd mis-steps in the latest trilogy of episodes. Where Sherlock has always been a populist show written by Holmes nuts with irreverence and some pugnacity, in the latest run it has been given the room to follow its preferences at the expense of those concerns of structure, plot and pacing which once kept it – barely, but with often giddy results – in check.

That final episode, ‘His Last Vow’, was evidence enough of what Sherlock can do if it tries: superlative performances (in particular from Martin Freeman, of which more shortly), comforting and clever canon references (an east wind, a false marriage proposal, a chance meeting in an opium den), a vivid premise rolled out in surprising ways. But both ‘The Empty Hearse’ and ‘The Sign of Three’ were palpably over-interested in themselves, in pulling those shapes and popping that swagger: in both episodes, the central and peripheral mysteries alike were unworthy of the supposed intellect of the lead, and were subsumed beneath an over-riding interest in baiting or servicing the show’s fans, in aggrandising or undercutting its own mythologies, in the business of being a television programme.

I am not invested in an idea of what Sherlock should be, or in the idea that it should follow the same plot-heavy pattern of the original stories. I’m happy to countenance Moffat’s vision of his show, which is that, “it is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.” But Moffat then went on to say: “It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn’t celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‘His Last Vow’ allows no intellectual escape for its clever man, but instead asks him to fall back on the worst behaviours of his supposed condition.  Secondly, there’s that issue of appearance: why go to the effort of making a show look complex if it is complex already?

‘The Empty Hearse’ archly refused to provide an official explanation of Sherlock’s escape from death at the close of the second series. That’s fine – in fact, it’s rather neat, resisting the urge to render Sherlock as some sort of magician, whose genius is besmirched when we understand the turn. Of course, withholding knowledge was not enough for Sherlock – providing three separate explanations is what a “clever” show would do. Likewise, in ‘The Sign of Three’, a full third of the entire third series is more or less devoted to a best man’s speech delivered by Sherlock at John’s wedding to Mary Morstan; a bizarre structural choice, certainly, but made complex and clever, or so the episode willed us to believe, by a series of mini-adventures imparted as component elements of the speech (that the monologue ends by connecting all its dots into a single mystery that needs solving immediately never quite follows from the baggy pace of all that preceded this most sudden of denouements). The directorial flair which has always been part of the show’s look, the snappy dialogue and self-aware comedy, is now so focused upon as to become its centre, almost its raison d’être, rather than the seasoning which made so strange and sometimes flawed a dish so confoundingly flavoursome.

In this way, ‘His Last Vow’, alone in this series, was quintessential Sherlock: fast-paced and funny, awkwardly structured and occasionally tone-deaf, all carried through by stellar performances and a pointed sort of wit. Freeman’s John in particular shined in the finale, with all the suppressed rage we were somewhat unconvincingly, given Freeman’s simultaneous total humanity, told was a sign that he, too, was a sociopath. In contrast, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock felt faintly under-powered. One wished for the Cumberbatch of Parade’s End, endlessly subtle and compelling, rather than the occasionally one-note actor he was forced by Sherlock‘s third season scripts to be. He was given, of course, his workshop moments: the memory palace scenes, his arrival at the restaurant in ‘The Empty Hearse’; but he was also asked to put his hands to his temples and squint a lot. I’ve previously praised the show for its characterisation of Sherlock, but this third series felt to me to be asleep at the wheel, its high-point coming too late to change direction. The trajectory of Sherlock is now not (if it ever were) from great to good man; it is from narrow to narrower, from the sorrowful, considered jump of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ to the hemmed-in final, fatal action of ‘His Last Vow’.

Into the space vacated by its central character, Sherlock puts an often wonderful Mary Morstan (although this character, too, is whittled down somewhat during ‘His Last Vow’), or a developing but increasingly woobyish Mycroft; it gives us gloriously nasty villains (we should spare a mention for Lars Mikkelsen, who as Charles Augustus Magnussen is memorably horrible), and some lovely moments of misdirection (Major Sholto is no villain, the woman in the blackmailer’s office does not shoot him in the chest). But most of all the show is padded with a cleverness not so much celebrated as fetishised. For all of Sherlock‘s better moments (and for all of its ongoing blind spots, where in the case of gender at least there were some noisy attempts at mitigation), it was this series a show rather more guilty than not of … well, swank. And Sherlock Holmes should not be deceived by swank.


6 thoughts on “Sherlock: Will You Miss Him?

  1. Still working on my own post about the season, but on the whole I think we’ve made the same observations but come to different conclusions from them. I agree that the third season is much less about Sherlock than it thinks it is, and that he has become, in some ways, a catalyzing agent at the center of the show rather than its focus. I’m not sure, however, that I’m opposed to this. Sherlock‘s fawning over its title character has always encapsulated the show’s worst traits. Letting him fade into the background while more human, more rounded characters get to shine is surely for the good – I wouldn’t trade some of the excellent work done with Mycroft this season, or with John, for more repetition of the high-functioning sociopath canard (I’m less pleased than you are with Mary, a character who ends up being summed up by her husband’s refusal to find out who she is).

    None of this, of course, has much to do with Sherlock Holmes. You’re absolutely right that the show has plumped for razzle-dazzle over anything resembling mystery, or even a meaningful examination of who the character is. But this isn’t news, and especially now that Elementary is picking up the slack I’m more willing to cut Sherlock some, to let it be the swanky, self-important trifle it clearly wants to be.

  2. It’s interesting that you, who have always been cooler towards the show than I, are now in the position of forgiving its weaker third series to a greater extent! I think what this boils down to is a slight difference in our assessment of the success of previous series in characterising Sherlock (I think they did it better and a bit more roundly than this current one); and in the simultaneous success which the current series may or may not be having in developing its other characters: we differ on Mycroft (excellent work, really?), whilst we agree that by ‘His Last Vow’ Mary is something less than she might have been.

    I’m not as sure as you are that this isn’t news – yes, the third season isn’t an entirely different beast to the previous two, but it’s certainly chosen a spot further along its own continuum. The pertinent question, I think, is whether the show does indeed want to be a trifle – whilst it’s never aimed to be anything less than showy, I’m not so sure it has such modest ambitions. In that case a fourth series would require some further retooling, and a rather more deft handling of its title character – whether he is any longer the central one or not.

  3. It’s certainly possible that I’m more generous towards the third season (which I wouldn’t even necessarily have characterized as weaker – like the previous two, it is so thorough a mixture of the sublime and the terrible that I couldn’t begin to grade it) because I was already less impressed with the show than you. But I do feel that at least some of Sherlock‘s movement this season has been deliberate, and towards a more solipsistic mode that is less about the traditional markers of good storytelling, like plot and character, and more about showmanship. “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” are fundamentally about the show’s relationship with its audience, and they treat the title character not as a person but as a signifier, a repository of the audience’s, rather than the writers’, ideas about him. As you say, “His Last Vow” is a more straightforward story (though, to my mind, too reminiscent of the superior “Reichenbach Fall” to deserve the praise you’ve given it), but it isn’t about Sherlock in any meaningful way except to repeat “Reichenbach”‘s concluding note in which he sacrifices himself for his friends. It’s hard not to assume that the show wants to be a metafictional exercise more than it does a character study (not to mention, of course, a detective story).

    Mycroft: partly this is Gatiss (who is far better as an actor than a writer), but yes, I did think the third season humanized him wonderfully. The scenes between him and Sherlock are consistently the highlights of the season (in fact one might argue that Sherlock is never as human, and that the show never comes as close to treating him as a proper character, as in the scenes that reveal Mycroft’s influence on his sense of self and habits of thought), and one could even say that the only true character arc in the season is the regrowth of their relationship – from Sherlock accusing Mycroft of enjoying his torture to Mycroft admitting that he loves his brother. And even on his own, I thought the season used his relatively limited screen time to explore how someone could be very similar to Sherlock but also a completely different person.

  4. at least some of Sherlock‘s movement this season has been deliberate

    We’re agreed on that entirely. I just wonder if the same movements could have been made with better effect – and therefore wonder if, despite Moffat’s public persona as a bit of a braggart (“We had a brilliant response from the critics as you well know”), there might not be a regroup around the same solipsistic mode, but … better. My piece was an attempt to accept the basis of the show’s form, but point out its unnecessary fumbles.

    I take this position because there’s no real evidence – beyond our own, as denizens of the internet, interest in ‘the audience’ – that this interface with the viewers, this Sherlock-as-signifier, is what the show is attempting (“it’s hugely important but it’s a one-way thing”). I’ve previously played with the idea that the show is interested in the many ways in which Sherlock Holmes can endlessly be imagined – but that’s not the same metafictional thing as actively engaging with fan theories. For instance, I do think there’s a separation between TRF and HLV – that’s a central point in the piece above. It’s not that both episodes are interested in pandering to its audience’s vision of Sherlock and John’s OTP; it’s that Sherlock can be both imagined as a mythic figure capable of beating death and a self-important busy-body happy to resort to criminality to reach his goals (even ACD’s Holmes once said that “the action is morally justifiable, though technically criminal”).

    These, though, are differences of nuance. On the issue of Mycroft there’s a gulf between us! For example, I notice that each of your points about Mycroft’s development relate back to Sherlock: Mycroft influences Sherlock, Mycroft humanises Sherlock, Mycroft acts as a contrast to Sherlock. Has the show really given up on its main character, then? Gattis’s Mycroft has always felt to me to belong to a different show, and that remains true here: he’s camper, cooler, more caricatured than the others. He’s also more predictable: the added depth given to him (or, rather, to his relationship with Sherlock) is exactly as you might have expected, all troubled childhood and repressed fraternal feeling. Hence, woobie. Whilst I agree that Gattis is watchable, and the dialogue between them (particularly in ‘The Empty Hearse’) easily some of the snappiest of the series … I’m not sure his development, particularly as it so clearly feeds into precisely the narrowing of Sherlock that I identify above as a problem for the show, is so good as to save the series from itself.

    Much of this discussion is persuading me that series three might come to be seen as a slightly awkward kind of transition point for the show, the moment at which it came to own its own mythologies rather than merely refigure the canon. Hm. I’m looking forward to your own post a great deal …

  5. As you may have seen in my post by now, engaging with Sherlock as a signifier seems to me like the third season’s only consistent act. And while I wouldn’t swear that’s entirely deliberate, there are certainly moments that respond to specific fannish tropes – the fan-girl’s Sherlock/Moriarty fanfic, for example. Whether that represents a conscious choice to remake the show, or simply more of Moffat’s self-obsession creeping into his writing, seems less clear.

    I wonder if the reason we differ on Mycroft is that as a Brit, you’re probably more familiar with the stereotype he’s meant to represent. You’re not wrong, obviously, but it never would have occurred to me to describe Mycroft as campy or caricatured until you mentioned it (or at least, he’s not a lot less caricatured than Mrs. Hudson the long-suffering, dotty old lady, or indeed Sherlock himself). And while you’re right that there’s nothing terribly surprising in what we learn about him, I think that precisely because of that campness, the very fact that we learn these things is important. In the first two seasons, Mycroft was a semi-villainous figure, calmly tolerant of collateral damage in service of the greater good (and rather cold-blooded about what that term meant). The third season makes him something sadder and more human.

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