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.

“In Memoriam Sherlock”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on the run. Hiding in a damp alleyway somewhere in the back-end of Marylebone, they catch a breath, handcuffed together, and regroup. James Moriarty, Sherlock’s greatest enemy, has framed the world’s only consulting detective for a string of crimes, all of which he purported to solve; even his closest allies within the police force are now doubting that their erstwhile collaborator was ever anything more than an elaborate, sociopathic conman. “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever,” Sherlock reflects. “A lie that’s preferable to the truth: my deductions were a sham. No-one feels inadequate, Sherlock’s an ordinary man.” Sherlock Holmes knows that we want him to be humbled.

Efforts to topple the great detective from his self-selected lofty heights have a long vintage. They began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who famously attempted to rid his career of the success that had so blighted it by sending Holmes careering off the edge of a cliff; it is a need which has continued to be fulfilled right to the present day, in manners as disparate as Michael Chabon’s in The Final Solution or Mitch Cullin’s in A Slight Trick of the Mind, both of which imagine Holmes in his creaking senescence, and Matt Frewer’s in four TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, in which Holmes is a joke of a character, zany and cartoonish in a fashion that renders him a laughable caricature. Attempts to humanise Holmes – Rupert Everett’s turn in The Case of the Silk Stocking – or to uncover his psychology – Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Per Cent Solution –  have the same ultimate end: to find a chink in Holmes’s armour, and to prise him open.

It is to the credit of the latest series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s reimaginng of Conan Doyle, that it takes this trope and uses it for another purpose: to, on the contrary, re-affirm Holmes’s other-worldliness. To one extent or another, the gambit may be slightly weakened by its similarity to the plot of Moffat’s most recent season of Doctor Who, in which a disassociated super-being with few meaningful relationships has only one option if he is to avoid the power of his own myth: fake his own death (and here Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect Sherlock is given in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ the motivation of Holmes’s creator), and recede from the immortal limelight. On the other hand, and with a hat tip to the reputedly “preternaturally urbane” Graham Sleight, I’ve been mulling over Jon Blum’s post about ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, the first of the latest Sherlock trilogy, and along with much of the rest of his analysis tend to agree that beneath the surface resemblance between the Doctor and Sherlock beat three quite different hearts.

In fact, let’s begin with the Belgravian imbroglio. As Blum points out, the episode caused some consternation, since many viewers felt its depiction of Irene Adler – a character who appeared in the first of Conan Doyle’s short stories, got married, and left again – fell short in its gender politics of a literally Victorian forebear. Moffat’s Adler is a professional dominatrix with a string of high-profile clients (an earlier age may euphemistically have called her an ‘adventuress’) who seeks security not from a twist of gold around her finger but by blackmailing the British state. When Holmes arrives at her home, dressed as in the original story as a doddery clergyman, this Adler sees through him; when Holmes tricks her into revealing the location of her hidden valuables, this Adler has booby-trapped the safe; and, when orchestrating her escape, this Adler has no need to dress as a man and do a moonlight flit – she incapacitates Holmes, using his body against him.

That Adler is ultimately and rather triumphantly defanged is also true; but, it seems to me, her role is not to defeat the series’ hero (since nor does she achieve this in the source text): it is, in a manner far more potent than a few Watsonian lines at the end of a story, to test and undermine his commitment to reason and rationality (a characteristic so fundamental to the Holmes character that even Guy Ritchie’s foppish iteration shares it). Holmes’s feelings for Adler – again, so much more far-reaching and plainly stated than in the source text – lead even he to question the central, Spockish tenets of his existence. All limbs and rolling eyes, crashing to the floor, Holmes is out of control not because he cannot solve a puzzle, which of course he may always do at the very last minute, but because he has been incapacitated, literally brought low.

Likewise, in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the first of two titles this season which play with plurals), Holmes is confounded by the barrier which exists between the world and his mind. In this case, his senses are assaulted by a non-corporeal influence, glimpsing a gigantic hound on the moors – even though, as he insists, ‘hound’ is an archaic term wildly out of place in a world of SMS and first-name-terms, and despite the fact that, to paraphrase Jeremy Brett’s dyspeptic Holmes of ‘The Last Vampyre’, “werewolves don’t exist!” How to respond, then, to a problem which does not yield to the rationalistic observation method Sherlock brings to bear upon every problem? He is for a while at a loss, and confesses an extended moment of real doubt to John (a masterful Martin Freeman, who will not receive the attention of Cumberbatch but deserves all the plaudits). Holmes – naturally – ultimately solves the mystery. But he does so by passing through a Gethsemane, and the audience enjoys it. We – and here we should sigh a sad, patronised, joyless sigh – ‘identify’.

All of this leads to a new kind of precipice, both figurative and literal: Sherlock, defeated and check-mated, is goaded to self-annihilation by Moriarty, atop the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. At the end of an episode which gleefully retells The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first of Basil Rathbone’s appearances as the detective and the source both of the courtroom drama and the Tower of London heist, the site of Sherlock’s first contact with John is refigured as an alternate location for what Conan Doyle long ago wished would be his last. The Reichenbach fall of the title, however, is not a torrent of water but a movement from unconquerable rescuer of a stolen Turner to potential suicide standing at the edge of a tall building as his greatest enemy brands him a less than worthy adversary. “I’m disappointed in you, ordinary Sherlock,” groans Moriarty, chagrined that even his finest adversary is, in the final analysis, no match for his genius – just normal, just human. Just a sham.

Of course, all that follows  – with different moves, but the same shape as Conan Doyle’s original Swiss tango – exists, as it exists in the real world which so confounded Conan Doyle’s assumption that Sherlock Holmes was mortal, to disprove Moriarty’s thesis. Sherlock, like Holmes, is extra-ordinary, capable of evading certain death, of solving every puzzle, of championing the power of human faculty. This is how we should understand and embrace him – not as an impossible ideal, a tabloid celebrity whom we, like Katherine Parkinson’s Kitty Reilly, are desperate to tear back down (see that issue with Moffat and women? It’s there, but let’s leave it for another day). Sherlock Holmes offers us necessary hope: we leave Freeman’s John walking into a bleak landscape of duller colours, having begged a tombstone to perform one last restorative miracle.

Across the churchyard, hidden and unseen – but prepared, like another figure of British legend, to return when we are most in need him – Sherlock Holmes, unhumbled, abides.