"a good many of us may wither before its blast" [LAST]
[Editor's Note: this is the 13th in our series of reviews for Series 4 of Sherlock. Yeah, yeah, spoilers.]
So let me get this out of the way. I am a traditional Sherlockian. If cinematic versions of Holmes and Watson never existed, my Holmesian world would not feel one whit smaller. Sherlock is an incredibly well-acted and produced show. My criteria for the cinematic Holmes must be that it tells a good Sherlock Holmes story. I have never seen a film version of a Canon story get it right to my liking. Sorry Granada.
In fact, I prefer original stories about the detective or original spins on the material. As such, "A Study in Pink" was brilliant. There were quibbles, such as in the opening shots the bottle of pills being offered by Jeff to his victims containing more than two pills, and it took an inordinate amount of time for Sherlock to realize the cabbie was the killer. Those don't matter. It was a brilliant modern-day reimagining of the character.
Now at the end of Series Four, we can clearly see that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss weren't telling a unified, coherent story about a detective but a series of interlinked stories about the many versions of the Holmes/Watson mythos with each episode having its own emotional cohesion, but only a tenuous relationship with preceding or upcoming episodes, and, indeed, storytelling logic. As an example, look at "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "Hounds of the Baskerville" (thanks to Ariane Devere)
SHERLOCK (walking closer and looking down at her): Oh, enjoying the thrill of the chase is fine, craving the distraction of the game – I sympathise entirely – but sentiment? Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.
(He bares his teeth slightly as he finishes the sentence.)
IRENE: Sentiment? What are you talking about?
SHERLOCK: So they didn’t have it put down, then – the dog.JOHN (tucking into his breakfast while Sherlock stands next to him and drinks his coffee): Obviously. Suppose they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
SHERLOCK: I see.
JOHN (smiling): No you don’t.
SHERLOCK: No, I don’t. Sentiment?
SHERLOCK (rolling his eyes): Oh.
In "Belgravia" Sherlock knows knows all about sentiment and uses that knowledge to break Irene's code. However, in "Hounds," sentiment is a foreign concept, in keeping with the episodes depiction of Sherlock as an unfeeling automation:
SHERLOCK: Always been able to keep myself distant ... (he takes another drink from the glass) ... divorce myself from ... feelings. But look, you see ...
(He holds up the glass and glares at his shaking hand.)
SHERLOCK: ... body’s betraying me. Interesting, yes? Emotions. (He slams the glass down onto the table.) The grit on the lens, the fly in the ointment.
JOHN: Yeah, all right, Spock, just ...
(Realising that he is starting to raise his voice, he looks around at the other people in the restaurant behind him and then looks back to Sherlock.)
JOHN (more softly): ... take it easy.
When John explains to Sherlock that the owners of the Cross Keys Inn couldn't kill their dog because of sentiment, you could practically hear Cumberbatch recite the Spock line, "Ah yes, one of your Earth emotions."
By using various pop tropes (superhero, action hero, spy, horror) as applied to Sherlock Holmes, Moffat and Gatiss are telling different stories about different Holmeses and Watsons. This is made clear in the fourth wall-breaking "The Abominable Bride" which opens with clips dated 2010, 2012 and 2014, years the shows aired, not internal chronology, and with the "Alternatively" year running down not to 1881 but fading around 1884. A Study in Scarlet was published at the end of 1887, but accepted for publication by Ward, Lock Co. early in 1886. 1884 might then be Moffat and Gatiss' guess at when Arthur Conan Doyle first thought about writing of Holmes.
If "Abominable" was its own stand-alone episode, then a modern Sherlock imagining a Victorian, Canonical Sherlock who knows details of Doyle's Holmes (such as the implied knowledge of Sidney Paget) and whose mind palace has all cinematic tricks of the BBC series tucked into it, well, that would be fine.
But "Abominable" is part of the show's continuity, violating both regular and meta-storytelling techniques. Then Series Four makes a mockery of Sherlock's statement
SHERLOCK: Moriarty is dead, no question. But more importantly ...
(He raises his head and looks to one side.)
SHERLOCK: ... I know exactly what he’s going to do next.
As we soon see, Sherlock doesn't have a clue. He has suppressed all memory of his sister, the real boogieman behind Moriarty and leaving the viewer to wonder if Moffat and Gatiss make this stuff up all on the fly.
As Series Four keeps throwing in the viewer's faces, Sherlock (and Sherlock) is all about emotion, which explains why that in a supposed "clever" show it rarely has Sherlock getting out of tight spots by brain power. "The Great Game" has the Mexican stand-off with Moriarty and his snipers end by Moriarty getting a phone call and being distracted and leaving. The terrorist bomb in "The Empty Hearse" has an off switch. Sherlock uses the Mike Hammer deductive technique of putting a bullet in the bad guy's brain in "His Last Vow". He then gets out of exile-to-certain-death through the deus ex machina of Moriarty hacking every screen in Britain, then having the government, through Mycroft, altering the surveillance tapes to show a government sniper killing Magnussen instead.
The show has, in fact, has pushed the characters past the breaking point of being any sort of representation of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It is the canon of this show that Sherlock is, to put it nicely, a "d*ck." He unknowingly made John an accomplice to murder:
SHERLOCK (loudly, lifting his head): Oh, do your research.(He steps closer to John, reaches round behind him and into John’s coat pocket, then steps away again and walks forward towards Magnussen.)SHERLOCK: I’m not a hero ...(Magnussen turns to look at him.)SHERLOCK: ... I’m a high-functioning sociopath.(He widens his eyes and glares at the man.)SHERLOCK: Merry Christmas!(He raises John’s pistol, aims it at Magnussen’s head and fires. As John recoils and even before Magnussen hits the ground, Sherlock drops the gun to the patio and turns towards the helicopter, raising his hands.)
And Sherlock sees Watson less than a friend and more as a fashion accessory:
([Sherlock] looks at the picture of John with his new moustache.)
SHERLOCK: Well, we’ll have to get rid of that.
SHERLOCK: He looks ancient. I can’t be seen to be wandering around with an old man.
This Holmes and Watson have a dysfunctional relationship, with John physically assaulting Sherlock and Sherlock emotionally abusing John, such as letting John believe he and Sherlock were going to die, just so John would forgive Sherlock for deceiving about his death in "The Empty Hearse".
Watson is not the stalwart companion of the Doylean Canon, but the damsel-in-distress, needing to be saved by Sherlock from Chinese circus spears, dynamite vests and burning Guy Fawkes effigies. Finally, Sherlock saves John by letting John believe he's saving Sherlock from his drug use (call it the "Miss Mary Sutherland Treatment"). Mary Morstan, even in death, is a more Canonical John Watson than what the scripts give Martin Freeman to work with. With Sherlock making a vow to Mary, to protect her from her past, he is in essence making John, Mary and himself a polyamorous unit and it is Sherlock and Mary to the rescue in "The Empty Hearse." And while "The Sign of Three" refers to John, Mary and unborn Rosamund, it could also refer to John, Mary and Sherlock and their union of love and partnership. In this triad, someone has got to be diminished, and John becomes lessened in comparison to his ninja assassin wife. He's someone prone to texting flirtations with a stranger on a bus while Mary does her superspy thing and being a sleep-deprived mother of a new born.
How does the show explain how Sherlock came to be the great detective, whether Canonical or pop cultural? Moffat and Gatiss have concluded that Sherlock Holmes is the way he is because his psychopathic six year old non-Canonical sister killed Sherlock's best friend; Sherlock suppressing all memory of her; Eurus being locked away, but like the Joker in Arkham, running the secret government asylum; controlling Moriarty, thanks to an incredibly stupid Mycroft; Eurus responsible for who knows how many deaths, all because she wanted Sherlock to play with her. And we're supposed to be happy with the conclusion of Sherlock making regular visits to play (the violin) with Eurus because, what, family is family?
We've entered the world of comic book superhero soap opera mythology where John and Sherlock jump through second story windows microseconds ahead of a devastating bomb blast and land in a busy metropolitan street without a scratch and left the Doylean realm of human beings.
Sherlock Holmes is widely recognized as having said "When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Well, the series was filled with improbabilities, which made it impossible to like.
And that's the ugly truth.