The BBC’s Sherlock ended its long-awaited, if brief, run last week. Yasmeen Khan argues that despite accusations of self-conscious fan service, it remains compelling viewing.
Sherlock is a thing of extremes and paradoxes. Two years of nothing but rumour and speculation… then four and a half hours in under two weeks. It was over in the blink of an eye. It felt like a box of insanely expensive chocolate truffles, kept locked away. Once we found them, the whole country indulged together in a euphoric, cocoa-smeared binge. It was like something from before satellite and cable, when everyone really was watching the same thing at the same time, and talking about it for days afterwards. Once, the BBC could have hoped to achieve this again with Doctor Who – the nation wanted to get behind it – but they screwed that one up, didn’t they? New Who is greeted with as much bafflement and resentment as love, now.
So the BBC needs Sherlock, and so far, Sherlock can do no wrong. Its scarcity is part of its success; the whole thing, before this last fortnight, was only six episodes; then again, they’re feature length, and six original films actually sounds like a lot (until you compare it to an American series making 24 high-quality 42-minute episodes a year, every year, but that’s a wholly different infrastructure and an unfair comparison. Nonetheless, the existence of Elementary on CBS kind of demands it be made.) This might sound unnecessarily negative, given the huge audience figures and obvious love for the show, but perhaps Sherlock’s vital advantage is that, despite the issues it has suffered from, there wasn’t time in those six films for the writing and storytelling to deteriorate to the extent that they start working against the property as a whole. The question then arises: how long can it keep that up?
None of this is to say, by the way, that the first two series weren’t great. They were. There were lots and lots of things wrong with them, from relatively minor irritations (Watson spending half his time being outraged that someone might think he was gay) to serious issues (making everything to do with Irene Adler ludicrously, spectacularly terrible). But overall, they stand up; crucially, Sherlock has always been better than it should be, always succeeded despite its problems. It’s remained complex and pacy and always been gorgeously made, but what really compels and rewards repeated, careful viewings is the way character development has continued to drive the plots. Series three had lots to live up to.
The Empty Hearse picks up right where The Reichenbach Fall left off. The first series’ cliffhanger, it just looked like Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime (they might have blithely transferred that epithet to the new villain, but Conan Doyle gave it to Moriarty) might be going to kill Sherlock. This time, we knew he’d failed, but not how. It’s kind of genius. What else could have kept fan interest getting stronger, the longer we waited for the new series? And when it finally came, it was all terribly thrilling! The super exciting version of the theme tune! The swooningly sexy kissing! (Thank goodness nobody got cut by the flying glass.) And the mystery of the illusion is solved! Well, no. It’s just a theory Anderson came up with that’s even less believable than his hair dye. The alternative explanations offered later, the dummy and the giant airbag, are equally ludicrous. It doesn’t matter. It was never going to matter how he really did it. As Sherlock says, this is just window dressing. This story is about who this Sherlock Holmes, this version of the character, really is, and the mystery-solving scenes make him what others want him to be. They’re outrageous fan service. Just as with the Doctor, when your hero is dashingly good-looking, charismatic and also famously asexual, occasionally presenting an alternative reality in which he’s a romantic hero is massively appealing. And not a problem. The problem comes when the character’s internal reality is undermined in the service of the story.
Although the rest of the episode is stuffed with allusions to Conan Doyle’s texts, the actual plot just happens incidentally as Watson tries to come to terms with Holmes’ resurrection and what it says about who Holmes is, and who he is to Watson. No wonder it takes time. Mycroft, their parents, Molly, and dozens of the ‘homeless network’ (the politics of which, by the way, the show only barely began to address this series) knew Sherlock was alive, but Watson, his confidant, the one who really suffered, was the only one deemed too indiscreet to trust with the secret. That’s got to sting. If you were hoping for another reason, something to do with protecting John, maybe, you can keep hoping. The rest of the series is going to be about making it up to him, but there will never be any explanation for this mystery.
Anyway, there’s a bomb on a tube train, a Guy Fawkes style plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster, more to Mary than meets the eye, and the name Magnussen is glimpsed on the TV news. It’s essentially just stuff you’ll need to remember later. The most important thing that happens is the scene in the tube car. Watson tells Holmes how he really feels. He forgives him. Because he thinks he’s about to die. Sherlock practically laughs in his face. Because Sherlock Holmes is selfish, capricious and cruel? Except he isn’t, or at least, he never has been before. The story demands this happen, so he can make up for it later, but the inconsistency is grating. When Sherlock mocks Molly’s affections, it’s careless, and he apologises. This is something different.
Episode two begins similarly. Holmes exploits Lestrade’s friendship almost as badly as he does Watson’s, and come to that, Mrs Hudson’s. Who doesn’t say thank you when someone brings them tea? Neither of them will get an apology for being taken for granted, either, but at least Holmes finally tells Watson how much he values him. The Sign of Three is a series of flashbacks structured around Sherlock’s best man speech at Watson’s rather lovely wedding, in which he remembers old cases and solves one that arises on the spot. It’s pleasingly complicated, and a better framework than the first, inasmuch as it is actually a framework rather than a random collection of exciting and/or silly things happening in a seemingly random order.
There’s still a standard amount of ridiculousness. The investigation of the guardsman’s stabbing, for example. Watson, regarded with suspicion by the officers he’s interviewing, nonetheless is allowed to follow them into a presumed murder scene. They let him examine the body because he yells at them a bit, and he finds out that trained soldiers aren’t competent to ascertain if someone is actually dead. And why does their new client, the nurse Tessa, turn up so late? Why doesn’t Mrs Hudson, who knows full well they’re drunk, not tell her to come back later? Just for the mildly funny drunk detecting scenes? It’s another kind of fan service. (By the way, H being for Hamish isn’t in the books. It’s a theory Conan Doyle fans came up with. This show really loves to acknowledge fandom.)
This best man’s speech, though. At least the pacing gives the audience time (unlike those poor guests) to cope with its emotional ups and downs. It’s a confession by Holmes about how he sees his own character and Watson’s; seen another way, it’s almost a study in what the writers have got right about them and what they’ve made twee, offensive or just plain stupid. It’s absolutely baffling and infuriating in the way it lurches from great to terrible to mawkish to heartbreaking. It makes no sense. Sherlock Holmes is a fantastic character, and this show’s version could be every bit as great as the original or any other. They’ve kept their Watson consistent and excellent throughout, but it’s as if they can’t resist the temptation to keep messing with Holmes.
Benedict Cumberbatch is as good as Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. He deserves scripts that would give his Holmes what they give to Martin Freeman’s Watson. Something that runs throughout this series exemplifies this issue – not only would (this) Sherlock Holmes know that ‘sociopath’ and ‘psychopath’ mean the same thing, he would also know that he isn’t one. The show throws the term around willy-nilly, this season – it thinks it needs to do it, but it’s pathologising Holmes in a way that’s inapposite and limiting, and it’s hard not to see it not only as an attempt to modernise something that doesn’t need to be modernised, but a betrayal of the very character the show has spent all these years exploring.
Perhaps what they need is to refer back to Conan Doyle just a bit more. It’s all very well, cherry picking small chunks of narratives from throughout Conan Doyle’s books and fitting them together like jigsaw pieces to make the right sizes of story for TV films. It’s great, nesting the littler arcs within the bigger ones with finesse and aplomb, all the while modernising them with just the right amount of humour – but if you forget which facets of the main character are essential, rather than symptoms of being Victorian, the baby goes out with the bathwater. It’s okay for Sherlock to have different attitudes and understanding to his Victorian counterpart. It’s not okay to have him keep saying something anachronistic if it’s also stupid and wrong.
It’s also not okay to have to see Mark Gatiss in lycra leggings. Never will that be okay.
Anyway, Sign of Three does take off in the second half. Sherlock’s almost excessive proclamations of respect and friendship for Watson begin to restore the balance after the cruelties of The Empty Hearse. The flashback structure adds depth to their relationship, a nice way of reminding us that there is more history than we’ve seen, enough to actually justify such levels of affection, and the lead-in to the finale is beautifully handled.
From the beginning, His Last Vow feels so much more like the Sherlock of old, a Sherlock that we didn’t even know we were missing until we saw it again. It felt exciting and familiar and so much more confident in itself. Plunging into Sherlock’s hard drug use (referred to once before, then overlooked) was a sign of confidence in both plot and character. And even though the villain Magnussen initially comes off as Sven-Göran Eriksson’s evil twin, with his rimless glasses and his unconvincing accent, the return to shadowy spying, geopolitical meddling and vaults filled with intrigue is terrific. Like The Blind Banker, this episode throws Holmes and Watson into a world of stunning modern architecture and technology, then blends it with ancient tradition and archaic secrets – one of the things the series does best. It’s terrific.
That’s not to say that His Last Vow doesn’t also continue contrasting the irritating with the beautiful. ‘Mixed messages’, as Sherlock puts it. In this case, though, there’s a reversal: the good stuff subverts the bad more often than vice versa. For example, Molly slapping Sherlock. At first, it’s disappointing that the tired idea that it’s okay for women to unprovokedly slap men, when the opposite wouldn’t be, is still hanging on. But then she has to do it again, in his mind, to save him, and suddenly the reason she did it – because she cares – feels justified. (It’s cheating, of course – yes, storywise it’s nice that everything that happens in his head is drawn from life, but, no, that doesn’t mean it had to be a sexist trope. But at least the problem’s acknowledged.)
The exception, sadly, is the terrible characterisation of Holmes’ ersatz girlfriend, Mary’s friend Janine. First she’s trawling a wedding for a man to have sex with. Then she’s unintelligibly happy with a weird, sexless quasi-intimacy with Holmes, to put up with which she’s either an idiot, or a cardboard plot device. Next thing, she’s a woman scorned, selling kiss-and-tell lies to the tabloids like an ‘80s politician’s mistress. For shame. It’s not as bad as what they did to Irene Adler (not much is), but even next to the relatively unsubtle characterisation of Molly, Mary, Donovan, Mrs Hudson, it sticks out as unnecessary. When you think how smart and subtle the dialogue can be, how nuanced the characterisation can be, it’s unforgiveable.
And why do we need Sherlock and Mycroft’s parents? Making their mother the one they inherited their brains from is no excuse for not realising that some things just don’t work, narratively, and taking characters like these two, whose isolation and separation from the normal world define their very essence, and giving them a pair of ordinary-if-quite-posh potato-peeling parents is one of them. Presumably they’re there as background to Sherlock and Mycroft’s relationship, and to help define Sherlock’s identity – but nothing in either episode they’re in requires their presence. The deepening of the fraternal bond is one of this series’ best aspects, from Sherlock’s returning of Mycroft’s insult ‘How would you know?’ from A Scandal in Belgravia, to their confessions over Christmas cigarettes, but having their parents hovering over it just dilutes the impact. It’s very cute that they’re played by Cumberbatch’s real-life parents (and, like the casting of Freeman’s real life partner as Watson’s wife, very fan serving to keep blurring the boundaries between actors and characters in the audience’s mind) but narratively they were much better left as snide references in the two brothers’ bickering.
But overall, His Last Vow is a proper return to form – not before time. The memory palace scenes are amazing, taking the bomb defusal scene and Sherlock’s mental theatre and expanding the idea a thousandfold. Memory palaces are an old idea, as old as Cicero, although the most famous fictional character to have one before now is probably Hannibal Lecter. Holmes using one is perfect; he’s the analytical machine who believes, according to The Blind Banker, that you can move pieces of knowledge around in your brain or remove them to make way for others. And giving Magnussen a palace of his own is a wonderfully well executed twist, in an episode brimming with surprises.
Holmes himself, though, and his relationship with Watson are what this is still all about. These questions are always being reframed and redefined, they’re the story to which the mystery plots are the background. This world has a rigid moral code, however murky it sometimes looks, and the system is based on transgression and forgiveness. Holmes is the sinner, Watson the arbiter. They take turns to sacrifice themselves for each other, and each self-sacrifice is more moving and noble than the last. Yet it’s never enough. By the end of the series, the terrible things Sherlock did to John at the beginning are forgotten, eclipsed, but nevertheless, he has to commit cold-blooded murder to achieve redemption (presumably the rationale, although still no excuse, for all that bandying around of the word sociopath). It would be romantic in another light (one in which there were fewer protestations about being thought to be gay). And we’re left with a quandary. The Sherlock we knew has become ‘better’ through sacrifice, but he’s also been fundamentally redefined, according to what the story demanded. But this was meant to be the story of Sherlock, he was meant to shape the world around him. We’re left asking, how did this happen?
Sherlock’s sky-high production values kept it as stylish and pretty as ever. But the enquiry into who Sherlock is remains the heart of the show, the reason it’s always been gripping, even when the storytelling flops. Cumberbatch and Freeman are still sublimely good, no matter what fan serving nonsense they’re asked to participate in and how much; indeed, this is part of its popularity. The myriad allusions to the source material and to itself are pleasingly intricate, it’s swashbuckling and yet introspective, the supporting cast deliver fine, nuanced performances even when the script fights them all the way. Criticisms of this series could fill a book, but it was never less than great TV. After three series, Sherlock remains a paradox.
Yasmeen Khan is a freelance writer and artist
Illustrations by Yasmeen Khan