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“It’s All About The Legend”: Sherlock’s Final Problem

Sherlock Season 4

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.” (A Study in Scarlet)

It is one of the recurring metatextual jokes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories that their protagonist believes he could write them better than their narrator. In ‘The Copper Beeches’, for example, Holmes declares that Watson has “erred perhaps in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.” In one of only two stories the Master deigned to write himself, Holmes remarks of this ongoing spat with his Boswell that, “I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures.”

Admittedly, in that self-penned story, ‘The Blanched Soldier’, the Great Detective admits that he found in the writing of a case that some thought to the entertainment of the reader is necessary. But one wonders how he would feel about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the latest series of whose twenty-first-century update of Holmes and Watson, Sherlock, has just finishing airing.

I began more or less as a fan of Sherlock, but as early as the first episode of its second season I was becoming ambivalent; by last year’s “special”, I’d fallen out badly with the show. I wrote then that, “There are hopes here for a Sherlock in series four more aware of his faults, but the show’s own instincts seem to remain less self-critical”, and I take only a little bit of pleasure in having been proven prescient. The first of the new trio of episodes, ‘The Six Thatchers’, seemed to be aimed at doing what Doyle did so many years ago in ‘The Empty House’: reboot the series. It did so via some highly rushed resolutions of several previous cliffhangers, which allowed us to reach a montage of old-fashioned case-solving: Sherlock in his rooms at Baker Street, interviewing clients and putting together pieces of puzzles. Then, as again Doyle had done before them, Moffat and Gatiss killed off Watson’s wife.

One of Sherlock‘s biggest problems – in many ways its original sin -has been to miss the attraction of Doyle’s original stories. The series has assumed at almost every point that what matters is Sherlock Holmes – his psychoses, his addictions, his cruelties and his heroisms – but this was never the case. What mattered in those original stories, and what made Sherlock‘s opening episodes different, was the focus on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. It can hardly be said that Sherlock has entirely ignored that dynamic – the legion of online slash fiction writers happily lapping up every nuance of every scene between them is proof enough that there is material here, there is scope. In this sense, ‘The Six Thatchers’ did its best: by killing off Mary Morstan, and looking at how her self-sacrifice for Sherlock Holmes might affect his relationship with her widowed husband, Sherlock was trying to get back to basics.

But the show could not escape its own dread gravity: not only did Mary deserve rather more, in an adaptation which trumpets its updating of Holmes to a twenty-first-century milieu, than to become female fodder for the series’ central boys (even her Victorian forebear didn’t die for Sherlock Holmes); when Moffat and Gatiss had her leave behind a recorded video message not for her husband John but his best friend Sherlock, all that might have been achieved by the opening episode lay in tatters: it was not for Holmes and Watson, together, to find some meaning and win some justice in a Mary-less world; rather, it was for heroic, super-human Sherlock to save John from his own worst excesses. That is, it was – and shall always be – all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy weirdo.

It was fortunate in papering over these cracks, then, that the season’s second episode, ‘The Lying Detective’, was Sherlock‘s strongest instalment certainly since ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ and very possibly since ‘The Great Game’. Toby Jones’s Culverton Smith may well be the show’s best villain, up to and including Andrew Scott’s over-used Moriarty: he is a caricature to be sure, but played with such conviction by Jones, and just close enough to what are improbable but all-too real cases in our own world, that we buy into the fiction. Sherlock hasn’t seemed to care too much about its own plausibility in this way for years, and if – inevitably – the episode closes with yet another Big Twist focused on Sherlock himself, at least ‘The Lying Detective’ had its moments: Sherlock conjuring a narrow kitchen in a London street to demonstrate how he has deduced the origin of a sun-bleached note; John receiving feedback from Sherlock’s adoring public about the quality of his blogs; Culverton Smith himself, perched over Sherlock’s deathbed, explaining to the audience’s mounting horror the cold logic of a serial killer.

If Sherlock never escapes the flashier parts of its DNA – Mrs Hudson screeching around a residential development in an Aston Martin, Euros Holmes appearing from nowhere with a bullet for John’s brain – ‘The Lying Detective’ held them all in an acceptable balance. It gave us hope that the show could do the impossible -break free of its years of accumulated weight and hype, and return to something approaching a show about two detectives and their relationship as they solved crimes. What Sherlock has always assumed is that bigger is better – the larger the canvas, the clearer and more large-writ its characterisation. In fact, the opposite is true: never has Sherlock been more entertaining than in its quieter moments, in those scenes where Freeman is allowed to act repressed, or Sherlock to doubt himself. For every naval treaty, the Victorian Sherlock Holmes had a half-dozen solitary cyclists; Sherlock Holmes does not need to save the world to be interesting.

Alas, Sherlock feels he does, and ‘The Lying Detective’ bled out into ‘The Final Problem’, a bizarre instalment of the series that may be its worst, at least since the execrable ‘The Sign of Three’. Sherlock’s long-lost sister, Eurus Holmes, imprisoned for a lifetime in Sherrinford, a high-security prison on a sea-beaten island somewhere, has finally – following a Christmas Day treat of five minutes with Jim Moriarty half a decade ago – broken free. She used her time to get on a bus and text John Watson flirtatiously; pose as the daughter of Culverton Smith and go for chips with Sherlock; and pretend to be John’s new therapist and shoot him at the end of last week’s episode. Then, we learn, she went back to her prison and awaited their arrival.  

Mycroft, of course, is at the centre of the conspiracy to secrete Eurus, and Gatiss gets more lines than perhaps he ever has: endless backstory, numerous retcons, a whole barrel-load of pop-psych justifications for the personality quirk of each Holmes sibling. Sherlock’s childhood best friend was murdered by his sister; that’s why he doesn’t like making friends. Mycroft, almost a decade older than his siblings and smarter than his parents, had to take early charge of the situation; that’s why he’s so distant and Machiavellian. Euros just wanted to play with other children, but wasn’t invited; that’s why she became a criminally insane psychopath. She leads Mycroft, Sherlock and John through a series of Saw-like puzzles that she appears to think offer meaningful moral quandaries – will you shoot a man to save his wife?! – in an attempt to we’re not sure. Annoy her brothers? But it’s all very important, and we know this because people get speeches and Andrew Scott gets a cameo.

All this amping-up is entirely unnecessary, but Sherlock has the weirdest case of impostor syndrome we may ever have seen on television: it is wildly popular, internationally successful, and stars some the UK’s most famous actors. It consequently exhibits a certain smugness, a self-regard – Sherlock is a show that cannot believe its luck, and feels pretty happy with itself. (We know this because Mark Gatiss has taken to responding to critics in verse.) Fair enough. But it cannot believe that luck; that is, it is incapable of settling into its own rhythm, of having the confidence simply to be. Rather, it must ape Hammer Horror at one moment, and Skyfall the next. It is always acting out, always assuming that we’ll turn off if it doesn’t one-up itself yet again within the next five minutes. All this despite the self-evident truth that the single most gripping scene in the whole of ‘The Final Problem’ was a telephone conversation between a man and a woman, in which each told the other they loved them. (Kudos to Louise Brearley, sadly under-used in season four and bravely selling a scene that did her character yet another injustice.) Sherlock can do under-stated if it wants to. It chooses otherwise.

In other words, the series focuses too freely on image, on the cool visual. Its scripts are like string threaded through pearls meant for a necklace: important only as connective tissue.  Eurus is imprisoned in a glass cell – but the glass isn’t there! Moriarty is flying in on a helicopter – to the strains of ‘I Want To Break Free’! Sherlock is unhappy – so he karate-chops a coffin! One of these is seasoning enough to delight a restless audience’s palate. But Sherlock has always packed itself so full of incident that it is the incidentals which have come to dictate the melody. We might return at this juncture to the Master himself: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner,” he insisted to Watson in The Sign of Four. “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”

Gatiss might presume to disagree: “If you don’t want to be challenged,” he says about Sherlock, “don’t watch it. It’s a complex and entertaining programme.” But the truth is that the series has not been half as complex as it thinks. Its plots and structures have sometimes been purposefully Byzantine, yes; but this sort of spectacle is chaff. At its most basic level, Sherlock has been so simple that its foundations have always struggled to bear the weight of its accretions. “He’s a great man,” gushed an anonymous plod to Inspector Lestrade at the close of ‘The Final Problem’. “He’s more than that,” says a disappointed Rupert Graves, gearing up dejectedly for the culmination of the show’s entire arc. “He’s a good one.” In my review of the show’s very first instalment six-and-a-half years ago, I wrote: “a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts.” It turns out Gatiss and Moffat disagreed, and have spent the intervening years trying to prove themselves right. That seems to me a fair summary of the path Sherlock has taken, in fact: on gender, on sexuality, on Molly and Mrs Hudson, on Sherlock’s centrality and on plot tokens and cliffhangers … it has sought to prove its writers right.

All that said, at the final furlong I’m attracted – diverted, even won over – by another of the duo’s sophistries: that Sherlock so far has been a sort of prequel for the Sherlock Holmes we know. “He isn’t as smart as Eurus, he isn’t as smart as Mycroft but he is always going to win against them because he is better and stronger,” they say in an interview with the Radio Times. “That is him becoming the Sherlock Holmes of Basil Rathbone and [fellow Holmes actor] Jeremy Brett, the one we’re used to, the wise old man … who is still terrifying and still cold but has a heart that you never doubt.” For a show that has long been obsessed with references to the canon – in ‘The Final Problem’ alone we have a Musgrave ritual, no fewer than three Garridebs, a Carfaxian cofin, a best friend named Trevor just as in ‘The Gloria Scott’, and a chalkboard featuring dancing men – it’s rather fitting that where its creators have ended up, and they admit it is by accident more than design, is in the margins: Sherlock is a gloss, one of many ‘young Holmes’ fictions written by fans over the years in an attempt to understand our actual hero. We can debate how successful Moffat and Gatiss have been in their attempt (‘The Final Problem’ looks likely to be the last Sherlock for some time, and certainly the last in which Cumberbatch and Watson can feasibly play young men); that they failed with fondness is beyond question.

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Sherlock: Everyone Always Lets Him Do Whatever He Wants

abominable bride

Lestrade laughed loudly.

“You don’t like being beaten any more than the rest of us do,” said he. “A man can’t expect always to have it his own way, can he, Dr. Watson?” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”)

The seasonal special episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock began with a ‘Previously On’ sequence that was also a statement of intent. These montages of scenes from previous episodes are usually made up of snippets with heavy significant to an overall plot, arranged in such a way that they provide a condensed grounding in whatever on-going story points will be addressed in the coming episode; here, however, they made no such attempt to add up to a coherent narrative primer, but rather appeared to offer a “greatest hits” compilation of the show’s most memorable images or phrases. Almost immediately, indeed, the special began to echo the first of these motifs: in retelling Sherlock and John’s first meeting but doing it in the Victorian garb we are more accustomed to seeing the great detective and his amanuensis don, Moffat and Gattis deliver a series of winks to the viewer that explicitly call back not so much to the original stories (although there are those, too) but to the clips included in the opening sequence.

In other words, Sherlock was coming clean: it is primarily interested in referring to itself.

The Victorian 221B has beneath it a cafe like the one in 2015 and it’s called Speedwell’s not Speedy’s; nineteenth-century Sherlock’s big, billowy coat has a red-stitched buttonhole, too; and the moustachioed John’s limp is psychosomatic, eventually disappearing just like the clean-shaven version’s. Compare this with how the opening scenes of the episode treat the Arthur Conan Doyle canon: “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” has just been published, but somehow Sherlock has also read The Hound of the Baskervilles, written ten years later; Moriarty has died at Reichenbach, but Dr Watson still resides at Baker Street. That later on five orange pips are delivered to a Sir Eustace living at an Abbey Grange-ish house, and Holmes and Watson travel there in poses taken straight from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is of a piece with Sherlock‘s now time-honoured tendency to mash up the original stories into new shapes; that the show doesn’t even try to make some internal sense of its Victorian setting (of which more anon) – and yet is utterly obsessed with its contiguity with the twenty-first-century milieu it has over three series conjured – says much, however, about the situation in which this show now finds itself.

In fact, I rather weary of writing about Sherlock for much this reason: from its very first episode, it was a victory of style over substance, and despite having other avenues to explore it has often opted to chase the tail of its own worst tendencies, gradually becoming more and more self-interested and less and less convincing. The lot of a viewer attempting to assess and understand the show as a storytelling artefact, then, is not a happy one; and the sadness of this sad – so sad – sad, sad situation is only further compounded by the quirks of Steven Moffat, who – perhaps more than his co-creator, Mark Gattiss, himself hardly innocent – more or less revels in negative fan commentary. This is primarily because, as Maureen Kincaid Speller has put it in in her own piece on this episode, Moffat enjoys adopting a persona that suggests “anything I might know, he will know better.” If we are fully to engage with this self-interested text, then, let us indulge in its own game and self-refer:

On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it. [July 2010]

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England. [August 2010]

So this is a joyous fangasm of a writing effort, and the enthusiasm of the execution mostly makes up for its failures. (Did Sherlock really spot a gay man by sight? Must the only women on show be bitter, soppy or useless? And isn’t that cliffhanger a massive cheek – and cheat – after just three episodes, and an indeterminate period of time before the next episode is even written, much less filmed or scheduled?) It would be curmudgeonly not to admit that this Sherlock has been something of a triumph; but, like its titular character, it is not yet a heroic one. As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future. [August 2010]

Sherlock’s crush on Sherlock is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.” [January 2012]

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? [January 2014]

I have had five years of writing about Sherlock, then, and yet have so little new to say. I’ve been more charitable towards the show than many, and have wanted it to succeed; but I think you can detect – ho, ho – the slow erosion of that faith across my assessment of the show as it has gone on; certainly by its third series I had given up much hope. What’s startling, though, is how much of the show’s troubles were there from the off – or, rather, from its first broadcast episode. Unusually, Sherlock‘s unaired pilot has been made widely available, most notably on the first series DVD, and in that episode Cumberbatch’s performance is slightly softer, perhaps callower – his character was hardened between that and the broadcast version of Study in Pink, and that hardening has continued ever onwards, presumably because the show’s success justifies writing its bugs large as features. This results in a Sherlock denied a celebration of his intellect (“Must be difficult, being the slow little brother”), but who remains bizarrely lionised by all for dimmer and more dubious reasons.

Indeed, by The Abominable Bride, it is Sherlock who is truly abominable: sneering “You’ll do” at Watson on their first meeting, quipping that he has found the murderer of a dismembered country squire but is “still looking for the legs,” and, of course, being rude to Mrs Hudson. The show is both aware and not of its protagonist’s ickier qualities. It has Watson demand he hold himself to a higher standard – but because, through John’s stories, he’s become a figure that millions look up to. It has him say, quite obviously unfairly, that Watson never understands a word anyone says – and yet has Watson’s wife, Mary, smirk conspiratorially at the “joke”, because everyone on this show must first love Sherlock. It is strange to see a show at the height of its popular success lack quite so much confidence that it treats its lead with such kid gloves.

Most pertinently, the whole episode actually takes place inside Sherlock’s head. I didn’t object to this per se, perhaps because it was clear to me from around the ten-minute mark that this is where we were headed. But as a metaphor for what this show has become it is unbeatable: we are in Sherlock’s imagination; that’s how irrelevant all other considerations have become, how marginal every other character. All of them are – and at least for the Victorian Watson, in his last appearance, happily – simply grist for Sherlock’s self-obsessed mill. In part, this is in the show’s DNA – from episode one, it has been the halting, and increasingly unrewarding, story of how a good man might become a great one – and yet that lack of confidence to shake up the formula has led to a self-defeatingly circular route to that end-point, as if Sherlock must get worse before he gets better. There is an attempt at fixing this near the episode’s end – “there’s always two of us,” says Watson in Sherlock’s dream, in one of the moments that seemed to me at last and again to grok the power of the source material – but even this is marred first by the preceding absurd over-play and sad misinterpretation of the Moriarty relationship (“I am your weakness!” he bellows, entirely missing the fact that Moriarty is what transforms Sherlock Holmes into a heroic figure), and second by the sort of slash-fic fan-service that is beginning to eat the show whole (“On your knees, professor”). There are hopes here for a Sherlock in series four more aware of his faults, but the show’s own instincts seem to remain less self-critical, more hesitant.

The entire episode is, as well as a plotless amble into the self-professedly fascinating subconscious of its title character, a metafictional play on whom we consider Holmes to be – is he the Victorian or the modern, the actual human being or the story, his own self-image or how he is experienced by others? This is an interesting route to take when adapting a character already so widely adapted as Sherlock Holmes, but it’s not enough to carry episodes which increasingly lack a central mystery. In this episode, alas, the investigation is not just imaginary but thoroughly fumbled thematically. Helena Coggan, she of the publishing contract at 15 for those of you not paying attention at the back, has a good description of this: “a man walking through a row of mute women in blue Klan outfits and musing that men will really have to give in to women eventually because it is ‘a war we cannot win’, because if they do not, women will physically actually murder men they dislike.” That is, feminism is having your own back because your husband asked you patronisingly at breakfast whether you were going to spend your day at the milliner. Coggan laudably wishes, as I’ve often tried, to give the creators of Sherlock the benefit of the doubt (“Disparaging a show is very easy when you have not had to write, agonise over, cast, set up, fund and film a show yourself”); but, again like me, she struggles. (The only additional commentary I can add to the cloth-eared, cack-handed cultish denouement, by the way, is that it reminded me of the same finale in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and that it may therefore, as in the episode’s final shot of Cumberbatch, Brett-like, looking out from his window over Baker Street, have been the show again puling itself out of shape to whack out a knowing riff – there is, in Sherlock, nothing new under the sun indeed.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult, then, to argue anything other than that Sherlock is a show fatally flawed under the hood. Conceptually, it simply seems to be broken, back-firing at every turn. On the surface, it is beautiful as ever to look at – its performances, particularly and always Freeman, are excellent, its production values top-notch, and its sheer surface fizz, the amount of stuff it fires out at its audience, is remarkable – but its story engine, its internal combustion of plot and theme, is simply not sparking. I’m currently editing for Strange Horizons a review of Telotte and Duchovnay’s Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as a Cult Text by Raz Greenberg, and I hope I’ll be forgiven if I quote from its quotation prior to the review’s publication: “cult film cuts across all generic types, it is a form that, in another kinship to the sf world, has tended to privilege the audience and the peculiar nature of the audience experience, in effect, to be marked by a level of self-awareness” (Telotte and Duchovnay, p. 9). Sherlock is a mass-market success – The Abominable Bride took five million dollars in box office when it was released in Chinese and Korean cinemas last weekend, a fact which also suggests that five years of writing about this show is five years wasted – but it comes from, and has retained, a cult aesthetic. It is, then, self-aware to the point of self-regard. But objects in a mirror might be closer than they appear, and, on the evidence of The Abominable BrideSherlock is crashing.

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“Time To Grow The Things That It Would Kill”: True Detective

truedetective

I’ve just finished a review of Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent for the journal Foundation, and have consequently been thinking a good deal about misdirection. Here’s Priest, reanimating the pledge and the prestige, on the art of the conjurer:

The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed. The actual set-up is unimportant—what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.

For the last eight weeks on HBO, Nic Pizzolatto has been conducting a series of elaborate sleights of hand with the first season of True Detective, his mooted anthology cop series. Written by him in its entirety, and wholly directed by Cary Fukunaga, True Detective has possessed many of the hallmarks of auteur cinema: distinctive visuals, languorous pacing, and an air of artsy portentousness. In its opening three episodes, the first of which began with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s detectives attending a ritualised crime scene with a murdered woman at its centre, there was the maddening sense that the show’s disappeared coin was hidden in plain sight, that Pizzolatto had a truly tremendous reveal planned for it, but that the misdirections were so subtle and engaging that the trick’s depths were unplumbable.

The atmosphere conjured by True Detective in those early episodes (currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic) was remarkable: doomy and uneasy, it felt like a total, peopled world – heavy and oppressive in the way south Louisiana should be, but also degraded and collapsing in the way of America’s end of empire. Endless cane fields competed with ubiquitous petrochemical plants; down-at-heel suburbs bled out into rural poverty, backwater brothels were given the nod and wink by churchgoing sheriffs. Harrelson’s character, Marty Hart, is a Louisiana native who largely accepts this environment whilst seeking to adopt the crime-fighting moral high-ground usually reserved for the “big dick” cop; McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, however, takes a position at the other extreme.

Cohle is a remarkable creation: he ticks every antihero box, from dark past to brooding good looks, from dubious methods to fundamentally moral core. His criticisms of the corrupt and corrupting society in which he finds himself (he is Texan, and at the story’s beginning has been in Louisiana only a matter of weeks) are pungent and bleak: “I see a propensity for obesity,” he says during a visit to a revival tent. “Poverty. A yen for fairy tales.” When Pizzolatto introduces characters with fingernails rotted away by petrochemicals, or fishermen so disconnected from the wider world that their language barely resembles the English spoken by the men from the city, True Detective gives the sense not of being a police procedural, but an examination of the shapes into which people trampled by modernity can be crushed (one of the witnesses questioned by Hart and Cohle was once a college baseball pitcher, but now sits immobile in a filthy trailer following an unexplained “cerebral event”).

This disconnect between Cohle’s nihilism and the show’s sympathy for the poor and the lost, however, renders him, despite those immediately apparent generic signifiers, a repellent and failing figure. At times in the last few months, I have felt myself to be the only person in the world to have ever previously thought Matthew McConaughey a decent actor – despite his string of romantic comedies, I always felt surprised that the man who had put in such creditable, charismatic performances in A Time To Kill or Contact should wish to appear in Tiptoes. Without a doubt his work on True Detective is improbably committed and convincing, but viewers used to writing off McConaughey as a washboard stomach on legs seem to have been taken in by his charisma: on the fanatical subreddit devoted to the show, viewers week in and week out latched on to Cohle’s every pronouncement as if he was the voice of the series, the mouthpiece of Pizzolatto. McConaughey had them fooled, the coin was in his other hand: True Detective never believed the words of Rustin Cohle any more than it believed in Thomas Ligotti’s. Time, True Detective was here to tell us, is not simply a flat circle. Between Hart’s total absence of self-knowledge and Cohle’s absurd nihilism lay the real heart of the show (it was, in fact, perhaps best represented by Michelle Monaghan as Hart’s wife, Maggie, but more of her short-changed presence later).

That heart, it turned out, was much less contemplative or recursive than the season’s opening brace of episodes. At the close of its fourth instalment, True Detective switched gears, with a six-minute tracking shot following Cohle, taking leave from the state police and reverting to his undercover narco alter ego of ‘Crash’, across a chaotic housing project with a hostage drug dealer as a human shield. It was a shattering sequence, and one which might have suggested that the series was seeking to explode more than one crime fiction cliché – but which ultimately led it away from the rural metafictionality of its fake-out villain, the meth-cooker and paedophile Reggie LeDoux, and into a much more well-trodden story of frustrated detectives spending years recovering from a case they never solved. By the series finale, even that subreddit – once a hotbed of some of the most bizarre theories about a TV show since Twin Peaks first aired – was descending into parody and fan art, just as the show to which it was dedicated was settling, too, into a more conventional televisual space.

True Detective had built atmosphere through allusion and symbology: Hart’s daughters arranging their dolls as if at a crime scene or gang-rape, characters spouting references to the cosmic horror of R.W. Chambers, birds wheeling in the sky into the shape of a spiral found painted on the victim’s body. But these symbols were revealed, ultimately, to have no real purchase or substance. They were designed to add texture to a conventional serial killer mystery, which in its final hour saw two detectives chasing a reclusive pervert through a series of corridors until a final climactic battle saw both injured but, thanks to the commitment of a refound partnership, alive. This was all done very well – gloriously shot, beautifully acted, and – within the grand guignol confines of gothic southern horror – even tastefully drawn. But it wasn’t the show that presented itself to the viewer seven weeks previously.

True Detective‘s scepticism about Cohle extended, despite the apparent assumptions of many, to his investigative practices: McConaughey portrayed an obsessed, deranged detective so compellingly that – like the readers of a fictional play, The King in Yellow, which was cited by the show’s characters on many occasions (and again to little final effect) – the audience went mad. They, too, were looking for clues everywhere in what was ultimately a simple mystery: Hart’s father-in-law or wife were not involved, Cthulu was not involved, Cohle’s past was exactly as presented, not some elaborate cover for an Internal Affairs officer investigating the police captain who never had any lines. “Like, why do you think we’re tricking you?” Pizzolatto almost pleaded with his viewers in an interview with the Daily Beast. “It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years.”

If True Detective really read like this kind of explosion of its audience’s collective case of Stockholm Syndrome, it would be a masterpiece. If it had been cast in so grotesque but cohesive a shape as some of the fan theories suggested, it would have been a landmark series of one kind or another. In fact, it was a straightforward cop show with a little more time and star-power with which to explore its central protagonists. This meant that it was not terrifically interested, ultimately, in its female characters, both alive and dead; it did not wish to delve into the power structures of the cover-up and conspiracy that hid the grotesque crimes of an in-bred bastard scion of the state governor’s family; it did not even, in the final analysis, care for its own mythology – for the backwoods elite murder cult which seems to have petered out even before Cohle and Hart arrived at the crime scene in the show’s opening minutes. For a series which seemed at first to luxuriate in its background, indeed to make the props and landscapes of its crime the very foreground of its investigations, the show retreated into the singular, into the comforts of genre. At the close of its final episode, Cohle accepts that his relentless nihilism isn’t the whole story: that the blackest night is dotted by the pinpricks of stars. True Detective didn’t abuse its audience, but it certainly left them watching a television show.

“We ain’t gonna get them all,” says Marty Hart at the close of an investigation which has captured one serial killer but left a cult uncovered. “That ain’t the kind of world it is. But we got ours.” The question of True Detectives first season – written as it was by a television novice – must be, “What was its target?” Ultimately, I’m not certain it was sure: it had many, and for want of choosing a single theme of interest it wound up asking a lot of questions it couldn’t fully answer: thus we were treated to a crooked sheriff made to say he was only following orders, Hart’s wife and children nodding awkwardly at his post-showdown bedside, the rural poor forgotten and the politically powerful protected. This might be all part of its point – “true detective” describes not one or both of the flawed Hart or Cohle, but a piecemeal, incomplete process which TV usually denies by wrapping up and matching to a single theme. But precisely that uncertain pregnancy of its opening episodes felt poorly served by the more straightforward denouement. Likewise, the traditional and well-turned pleasures of its event-laden final act could not attain noirish worldweairness (“forget it, Rust, this is the French Quarter”) following all the philosophising and mysticism of what had gone before. There was a disconnect, in short, between style and substance, function and form.

“True crime,” Hart explains to an old police colleague. “That’s the genre, not the title.” True Detective was remarkable on almost every level of its execution: direction, soundtrack, acting. Its writing, all pop cultural references and recurrent motifs, hit a very real nerve; but perhaps it also lacked a little discipline – and not just in Cohle’s much-lampooned trademark monologues. The show’s approach to misdirection was to gesture at everything – and then deliver a reveal we’d seen before. There’s nothing wrong with the trick, but when the original object was so interesting, the revealed one has to match up, whatever shape it decides to take, and however it collapses the waveform. The set-up, it turns out, is important after all – and, in the event, True Detective‘s pledge may have been more elaborate than its prestige.

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Sherlock: Will You Miss Him?

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“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.

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“Only Kings Understand Each Other”

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It seems strange to begin to say, in Boardwalk Empire‘s fourth season, that this year the show is about power. Terence Winters’s mobster epic began on the eve of Prohibition, and followed Atlantic City’s most dominant political figure as he first dabbled in the alcohol trade and then, by increments, became as involved in criminal activity as any other more unambiguous a hoodlum. Boardwalk Empire has in this way been a study in the abuse of power, in the way in which the social contract between ruler and ruled is a scrap of paper principally useful for wiping blood from one’s hands. In every murder, every rape, and every extortion, power has been the sine qua non of Nucky Thompson’s increasingly degraded, and yet consistently more profitable, life.

But ‘Resignation’, the second episode of the show’s current season, seems to follow through on the premiere’s hints of a shift in perspective. The most obvious source for its title is the notice given by Nucky’s domestic factotum, Eddie Kessler, who has stayed by Nucky’s side with an unswerving loyalty quite unusual in the world of the boardwalk. Since his injury at the end of the third season, incurred whilst protecting his master, Eddie has been less useful as a manservant; but he sees his own qualities and here demands a less active, but more responsible, role in Thompson’s organisation. Eddie has cultivated a wilful blindness to Nucky’s affairs for years; his insistence, upon shakily delivering his employer an over-cooked egg, that he suddenly become intimately involved in arranging them is a sign that servants know and crave more than it may appear to their lords.

The former Bureau of Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, for instance, is caught between two masters and in this way seems more than either: he is hiding under an alias in order to escape the consequences of murdering his partner (and now more besides), and neither of two crimelords of his adopted home, Chicago, know that in their employ is a man who can recite every element of Prohibition back to front. Caught between Dean O’Bannion and Al Capone, Van Alden – or, as they know him, George Mueller – is shaken down by each for information on the other. He responds because, like most servants, his home life is far less impressive than his master’s (his wife, for instance, wants nicer soft furnishings). This decision, like Eddie’s, will lead him down yet darker paths – he’s seen here breaking up an election rally for a candidate opposed to Capone’s dealings.

From Eddie Bader, the neutered mayor of Atlantic City, to the bank clerk confronted by Richard Harrow and is subject to the hired guns of the men he seeks to swindle, even men who in one setting might feel mighty are in another very small. In the episode’s most arresting scenes, Chalky White, the African-American proprietor of the boardwalk’s finest nightclub, is confronted with the consequences of his minion’s poor choices last week by Harlem crime boss and pan-African advocate Dr Valentin Narcisse. “I see a servant pretending to be a king,” Narcisse intones, to which White can only sneer impotently. Indeed, when Nucky arrives to negotiate a settlement, it is clear that, whilst Chalky is in charge of the performers backstage, when front of house his writ runs less far.

For resignation also has other meanings: when Harrow’s sister realises she had the wrong date etched onto her father’s gravestone, she shrugs it off – the funds do not exist to correct the mistake. When Kessler snipes that “Everything is ‘only’ something”, and rejects Nucky’s offer of money, he recalls Margaret Schroeder, the estranged wife on whom Thompson appears to have entirely given up. And when Nucky gives ten per cent of Chalky’s club to Narcisse as a peace offering, White must roll over and have his tummy tickled. One imagines, too, that, whilst the homicidal Richard Harrow’s refusal even to shoot a dying pet dog this week suggests he wishes to see the back of all that killing, the parlous finances of his widowed, pregnant sister will require the simple acceptance that he is who he is – and must work with what he has within the limitations set for him by others.

In previous years, Boardwalk Empire‘s lens has sat at the apex of this relationship; in its fourth, it seems more interested in those players struggling not so much, in the way of Jimmy Darmody or Gyp Rosetti, to topple the king – but those who have no prospect of doing so, and yet may still come to some form of accommodation with power. There are still the unfortunate moments in which might runs roughshod over sensibility – Narcisse orders the brutal execution of a woman who (falsely, of course) claimed an African-American raped her – but if Boardwalk Empire has occasionally been open to Game of Thrones-ish accusation that it has only superficial sympathy for the cannon fodder, its fourth season looks set to redress the balance.

 

 

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“All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit in a quiet room by himself.”

Menage a quatre: Dickey, Cora, Don and Chalky

Menage a quatre: Dickey, Cora, Dunn and Chalky

As scenes to include in your season premiere, the least expected of all might be Sunday evening’s Boardwalk Empire sequence in which African-American gangster Chalky White’s right-hand man, Dunn Purnsley, is forced at gunpoint to have sex with Cora, the wife of a dodgy music promoter (whose name, fittingly, is Dickey). “Act like a nigger,” the promoter snarls at Purnsley, insisting that he loves jazz music and flash dancing, but that ultimately Dunn can only expect one kind of treatment from his ‘betters’. As a capsule dramatisation of the relationship between white promoters and African-American performers during the Jazz Age, it’s apposite if heavy-handed. As an illustration of Purnsley’s character and its distinctions from that of his boss – impetuosity against calculation, confidence against grudging caution – it’s perfect, and sets up a season’s worth of tension nicely. But, with Purnsley fooled into bed by a coquettish flapper, and then humiliated by a masturbating bigot, it’s an ambiguous statement of intent for the HBO drama’s fourth season.

One of Boardwalk Empire‘s features (or bugs) has long been imbalance. In its first season, there was an evident uncertainty as to how to fit in the variety of characters and locations with which this ambitious chronicle of 1920s gangsterism had landed itself. Set largely in the Atlantic City of treasurer-turned-bootlegger Nucky Thompson, the series also dots between the Chicago of Johnny Torrio and the New York of Arnold Rothstein. Part of the show’s trajectory involves the emergence of the next generation of gangsters – Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano – and the second season shocked many by killing off Thompson’s own heir apparent, protagonist-turned-nemesis Jimmy Darmody. The dizzying success of that supremely ballsy second season quickly toppled into the occasional grand guignol excess of its third, in which the unhinged hatchetman Gyp Rosetti cut a deranged swathe through Atlantic City, destabilising each of the show’s increasingly atomised metropolises.

Still, it took five episodes for season three’s imbalance to reach the stage of a sex-and-violence scene remotely comparable to Purnsley’s: Rosetti, engaged in erotic asphyxiation with a prostitute, was interrupted by assassins hired by Thompson, and forced to use the woman as a human shield whilst he scrabbled, hindered by the leather noose around his neck, for cover and his gun. Boardwalk Empire had built over three seasons to such a scene of blackly absurd abandon; season four feels little need to regain our trust. The show excels at scenes which are almost impossible to watch in their ruthless tension; the placement of this scene might have had a touch of hubris about it, but it is born of real confidence in an increasingly complex, unstable milieu.

It can be difficult to know what to make of this boldness: on one level, season four’s opening episode was relatively quiet, putting pieces in place in the way of these sorts of instalment. Dry humour is drawn out of even the grisliest scene: Purnsley, forced to bury Dickey’s body (whom, predictably, met a gruesome end) is teased and troubled by White, and Thompson’s bag-man brother: needling punishment for what is nevertheless a serious infraction (the promoter, of course, was well connected in New York, with whose crime families Thompson had only a few scenes earlier finally made peace). Similarly, the explosive Al Capone (joined, in a good sign for the balance of Chicago’s storyline this year, by his two brothers), storms into a hapless journalist’s office with apparently murderous intent, only to teach the terrified word-smith how to spell an Italian name correctly.

Despite several vivid deaths – the damaged war veteran and expert murderer Richard Harrow, having spent eleven episodes of last season failing to be the cause of a single corpse, here starts early, in the episode’s atmospheric teaser – ‘New York Sour’ also makes a virtue of quiet. In another gutsy move, the show’s main character, Thompson himself, is a diminished figure, reduced to paying off New York gangsters, and skulking around in a dingy hotel on the edge of town, having withdrawn entirely from the gilded life that made him so visible a target in the past. But that arresting scene of cuckoldry lies at the heart of the episode, underlining the impossibility of moving in the circles of Thompson, White or Capone and avoiding violence: smart or stupid, hasty or slow, someone’s will to power will come get you.

Long before he died, Jimmy Darmody told Nucky Thompson that it is impossible to be half a gangster. It might feel, recursively, as if Thompson, hiding away and considering Florida land deals whilst others distil liquor on his behalf, will need to be taught that lesson yet again this season. It is a repetitive prospect which leaves Purnsley’s ordeal seeming, too, like a sort of instinctive attempt rapidly to rekindle past, er, glories. On the other hand, the theme of retreadings was made almost explicit in a conversation between Nucky and his nephew: like Darmody of old, this college boy is trying to impress the big man with his bright ideas and an eager young face. One hopes, then, that all this is prelude not to the same lesson as last season, but to another – that the gangster’s life is a grind, an endless rerun of the same degradations, whomever holds the whip.

We will see whether the show’s aversion to balance is of a piece with its characters’ incapacity for it. In Purnsley’s violent retribution is the seed of a movement revolutionary enough to throw the show’s world even further out of kilter: with he and Chalky newly prominent, power dynamics are set to change. Beautifully shot and carefully written, Boardwalk Empire remains, after all, one of the slickest, smartest and most addictive series on television. Controlling imbalance is a far craftier art than simply enforcing equipoise. Boardwalk Empire teeters on the edge, and that is part of the point.

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‘Valar Dohaeris’ – The Return of “Game of Thrones”

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.

The return of HBO’s Game of Thrones last week – heralded by several high-falutin’ essays on the series and its literary progrenitor – asks questions of what we might call, for the sake of convenience, ‘viewing protocols’. ‘Valar Dohaeris’ picks up precisely where the last episode of Game of Thrones, screened in June of 2012, left off (‘all men must serve’ being in translation the answer to the ‘all men must die’ on which the show’s second season ended). The sympathetic Night’s Watch steward, Sam Tarly, is running – huffing, really – away, or perhaps toward, a phalanx of Walkers, supernatural beings accompanied by the reanimated corpses of their victims. Last summer, we – were we not already spoiled – were in fear for Sam’s life. Within minutes of the first episode, that rug has been resolutely – abruptly, even bathetically – pulled from under us, with nary an expensive CGI ghoul in sight.

Other cliff-hanging plot threads were also rapidly sewn back up into the rococo tapestry of the series: Jon Snow is bundled by Ygritte and the Lord of Bones into the snowbound camp of Mance Rayder, the leader of the outlaw Wildlings who has been the subject of whispers since the very first episode; Tyrion Lannister awakes in his cell-like room at the capital of King’s Landing, forever scarred by his victorious leadership at the Battle of Blackwater but not, of course, forever enobled by it (he is joined in his marginalisation by Jerome Flynn’s wonderful Bron, happily promoted to the opening credits this season); and we learn that Davos Seaworth, the plain-speaking right-hand of a defeated claimant to the Iron Throne, Stannis Baratheon, survived Tyrion’s stratagems at Blackwater and has been sitting on a rock for a while. Hail, hail – the gang’s all here!

The difficulty of all this, it seemed to me, was in its atomisation: the first episode of a season can make a statement, too, about the direction of the show – not just its disparate cast – and yet the demands of its episodic plot are routinely denying Game of Thrones of anything like that sense of unity. I wrote in my review of the first season that the absence in its second of Sean Bean’s magnetic Ned Stark might lead to a peeling-away of its many strands. Helmed doughtily by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones has to some extent successfully transplanted Ned’s charisma to other characters, but increasingly they are each following their own path. The utility of Ned was that he bridged King’s Landing and the North, the Baratheons and the Greyjoys. His absence, of course, is part of the reason for the disintegration now at play in the world of Westeros, but it is also necessarily part of the structural and thematic difficulties the show itself endures.

When Snow arrives at Rayder’s camp, he undergoes a cat-and-mouse testing of his motivations for switching loyalty from the Night’s Watch, who guard the wall, to the Wildlings, who seek to breach it. It’s a wonderful little scene (we can expect most scenes in which Ciarán Hinds appears to turn out that way), and might have served as an overture for the rest of the episode: Tyrion bickering with his sister Cersei and falling foul of his father, Tywin, on the topic of Lannister family honours; Davos pleading with Stannis that the diminished pretender listen to his warnings about the malign influence of the witch Melisandre, and being thrown into the dungeons as a traitor for his trouble; and King Joffrey finding himself torn between loyalty to his mother and to his future wife. Personal and dynastic loyalty, the extent to which they are the same and also wildly divergent, might have sat as a useful frame for ‘Valar Dohaeris’, except that the episode also features exchanges – between Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish, or Robb Stark and Roose Bolton – which feel simply part of the relentless collection of plot tokens. Theme can identify resonances and challenge readings, but Game of Thrones is constructed to progress, not ponder.

There is, in short, little room for discrete themes amidst the tyranny of Game of Thrones’s arc-to-end-all-arcs. Viewers of contemporary television may have been taught – by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, or Boardwalk Empire – to watch out for this one kind of unity, but Benioff and Weiss care primarily for cohesion of plot alone. This is why, rather than allow time to pass or refuse to present as merely the second part of ‘Valar Morghulis’, ‘Valar Dohaeris’ defaults to rejoining Sam as if we never left him. The show has little room for shaping its material when there is so much of it to get through, and the fabric is so widely spread. I’d like to be able to ask what distinct contribution this episode of that season has made to the way the show is telling its story, but all elements of the grand narrative serve only to edge us along in its wake. As a soap opera, Game of Thrones is without peer: it has mastered pace and delivers its twists with a flourish; it looks as beautiful as ever, and its actors commit entirely to their roles. It will continue to capture viewers – but we will be watching to know what happens next, and how prettily, rather than to consider what is happening now.

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