Wednesday, January 22, 2014


One of the good things about the long, two-year gap between Sherlock's second and third seasons (aside from the fact that in it we discovered Elementary, and suddenly Sherlock and its flaws seemed a lot less important) is that in that time the mainstream conversation about the show shifted from a tug-of-war between near-ecstatic praise and near-total denigration to a more universal acceptance of the show's massive flaws--which leaves more space to acknowledge its good qualities.  (This shift, I suspect, has a lot to do with the increasingly fatigued reactions to Stephen Moffat's work on Doctor Who; it's easier to see the same flaws occurring in Sherlock when you've already cataloged them on a show that is more blatantly running out of steam.)  If you're a fan of pop culture criticism, this is a bonanza; fewer people are attacking or defending the show, and more are considering it more deeply, and from different angles.  I've collected a few interesting examples, and my comments, below.
  • I linked to this essay already in my own review of the third season, but in case you didn't click through, it is worth taking a look at cesperanza's interpretation of the train scene in "The Empty Hearse" as representing a masochistic (or, to take a dimmer view of it, abusive) relationship between both Sherlock and John and the show and its fans.

    A reaction I'm seeing a lot, to both "The Empty Hearse" and that scene in particular, is that it makes the Sherlock/John relationship (in whatever guise you choose to interpret it) seem untenable--it's no longer clear what John gets out of the relationship or why he would continue as Sherlock's friend.  cesperanza's conclusion is that he either enjoys the mistreatment or is being genuinely pathological; "His Last Vow" makes the only slightly more palatable claim that he craves the excitement and is willing to put up with the abuse in order to get it.  What both of these interpretations are ignoring is that by the time the third season ends, Sherlock and John are, for better or worse, no longer the show's central relationship.  In fact it's arguable that the relationship never fully recovers from Sherlock's departure and abrupt return, and instead becomes something completely one-sided.  Sherlock spends the season either doing things to John (surprising him at the restaurant and tricking him into believing that he's about to die in "The Empty Hearse") or for John (making sure his wedding day goes perfectly in "The Sign of Three"; murdering Magnussen so that he and Mary can live in peace in "His Last Vow").  But John himself is focused on Mary--even the former partners' last hurrah as an investigative duo happens at her instigation.  I wonder how much of this is deliberate--despite Freeman being wonderful in the role, Sherlock has always been more comfortable envisioning its hero as a lone, Doctor-ish superhero rather than part of a duo, and it may prefer to keep John as merely one of the people in Sherlock's orbit.

  • Some reviews: Dan Hartland wonders if the third season represents the show realigning itself and its idea of what it wants to be.  Emily Nussbaum discusses Sherlock's relationship with its fans in the season's first two episodes.  Genevieve Valentine is reviewing the show for the AV Club: her long and detailed look at "The Empty Hearse" is a sharp examination of its many problems.

  • My recollections of "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" begin with Holmes's famous line about finding Milverton more odious than many murderers (which has been cropping up regularly in discussions since Sherlock's emergence, as a counterpoint to the argument that the show's take on Holmes as a sociopath is in line with canon; perhaps as a response, Moffat has Sherlock quote the line in "His Last Vow," but the character's general indifference to anyone not closely connected to him means that it falls flat), and ends with the plot point in which Holmes seduces a maid in Milverton's house in order to gain access to his blackmail material (which "His Last Vow" handles rather more convincingly).  Which is why I needed several other venues to point out that Sherlock has done it again: take a story written in the 19th century and update it in the 21st in a way that actually makes it more sexist, and gives the women in it less agency and power than they originally had.  In the original story, it isn't Holmes who kills Milverton but a woman who breaks into his house at the same time Holmes and Watson do, but in an interview about the episode Moffat and Gatiss have said that they take this as a cover for the more "believable" interpretation, that Holmes did the deed himself.  "His Last Vow" parallels the original story up until the discovery that Mary is about to kill Magnussen while Sherlock and John are trying to retrieve the client's letters, but as The Daily Dot points out, there's no real justification for her failure to carry out that plan, and for her passivity during the rest of the episode.
    This means that Mary, much like Gatiss and Moffat’s interpretation of the lady from "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Magnussen," has effectively been written out of her own story. Supposedly a deadly assassin, she doesn’t get to confront her blackmailer, and instead is drugged by Sherlock so he and John can have a proper showdown with Magnussen. A dramatic scene that allows Sherlock to seem more badass and morally ambiguous than before, while a heavily pregnant Mary gets to wake up from her drug-induced slumber to discover that she's now free to go back to being Mrs. Watson once again.
  • Paul Kincaid watched the third season shortly after watching both versions of Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Elementary's Johnny Lee Miller alternated the roles of Frankenstein and the creature.  In this post at Big Other, he discusses Cumberbatch's and Miller's different approaches to the two roles, and how he sees those approaches reflected in their versions of Holmes:
    In a show as frenetic as Sherlock, in which the camera is in constant motion, scenes flicker across the screen almost before we can take them in, unreadable captions bloom and fade at high speed, the only choice is stillness. And this suits Cumberbatch, who is particularly fine at showing there is a mind working rapidly if invisibly behind that sharply chiselled face. His Holmes is also his Victor Frankenstein, a man so in love with his own thought processes that he has virtually no awareness of their consequences. (This Sherlock is not a sociopath, no matter how much Moffatt loves to tell us that he is.) When there is action (and every episode features a scene where he is running, just so we can relish the texture of that long coat), he becomes like the Creature, jerky, somewhat uncoordinated.
  • Matt Cheney, meanwhile, has been watching Sherlock in conjunction with Hannibal.  Like pretty much everyone who isn't me, he's quite taken with the latter show, finding in it a level of tension and character complexity that I could never connect to.  His comparison between the two shows, however, in which he contrasts Sherlock with both Hannibal and Will Graham, gives Matt the chance to examine how both shows manipulate their audience and source material, and the way they both approach central characters who are abnormal, and more observant than the rest of us:
    The Sherlock Holmes stories have always thrived because audiences love stories that fit a certain post-Enlightenment, pre-Modernism rationality. ... Hannibal is more pre-Enlightenment and post-Modernist. The world does not add up; its forces and flows can only be glimpsed, and those glimpses often redirect what they glimpse, and shards of reality are all that can be perceived. Compare Will to Sherlock — both have extraordinary powers of figuring out why particular events happen, but Sherlock knows how he does it and Will does not. For Will, it's simply a mysterious and torturous talent; for Sherlock, it is a skill. Will's ability to reconstruct murder scenes is mystical; Sherlock's ability to "deduce" all the details of a person's life is sold to us as rational. But from the days of Conan Doyle to now, most of Sherlock's deductions have been fanciful, even quite obviously ridiculous, because the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is a world where reason rules and human behavior is, like the emotional behavior of the dedicated Sherlock fan, patterned, predictable, determined, scrutable.
  • Carrying on from that last point, this tumblr post by Ami Angelwings isn't strictly about Sherlock, but its observations about the seductive but dangerous appeal of applying Holmes-style deduction to real life feel germane to discussions of the show:
    But somebody could just pick that out.  HEY LOOK AT THIS.  DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMEBODY WHO HAD JUST BEEN ASSAULTED?  And later on she did XYZ, does that sound like the behaviour of somebody who was assaulted?  And look at this picture of her, she doesn’t appear to have any wounds on her… and etc etc… I got a degree of this from some ex-friends who read the big long detailed write up of what I wrote, that I didn’t fight back, that he didn’t hurt me enough, that I should have done this, or that, that according to what I wrote it sounds like he could have just not known, or the layout of the room from what they pieced together was…, or whatever… the point is they were Holmes and they decided from their internet detectiving that I must be a liar and look how smart they are.  And this is how people SHOULD behave, and you didn’t, so, liar.
    At its most basic level, this feels like a good excuse to trot out a Terry Pratchett quote that should probably come up in every discussion of Sherlock Holmes:
    he distrusted the kind of person who'd take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, "Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times," and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he'd been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience! 
    But more seriously, what this post made me think about is that a completely unexamined assumption of the Holmes character type is that he has total empathy.  That, in essence, his intellect and observation skills negate the effects of privilege.  Women, LGBT people, and people of color are used to having to explain the basic facts of their world to the privileged, often being met with the response that "you must be wrong; I've never seen what you're talking about, therefore it must not exist."  Holmes is a straight, white, cisgendered, upper class man who nevertheless has total understanding of everyone he meets, no matter how different from him.  In theory, this could be fantastic--Holmes could use his privileged position to put his famously rationalist stamp of approval on the experiences of people who are used to having their take on the world discounted.  In practice, however, the game is rigged.  As Pratchett and Cheney both note, in order to support Holmes's powers of deduction, the rich and chaotic variety of human experience has to be whittled down to very specific, clearly-defined types of behavior, any deviation from which can be declared irrational (if it exists at all).  And of course, those types of behavior are the kind that our privileged, male protagonist--and his privileged, male writers--can understand and sympathize with.  The result is that Sherlock's world (and, in fairness, Elementary's as well) is all but bereft of people whose life experiences are foreign to the great detective.


Brendan Clay said...

Thanks for some good reading material. Some of this, especially the Pratchett quote and the one contrasting Sherlock and Hannibal, reminded me of Pascal's comments on the intuitive versus the mathematical mind:

"And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind does not do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technical rules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a few can feel it."

Tim Ward said...

Sherlock Holmes is based on a very 19th century idea of what it means to be quote unquote rational which doesn't really tally with what we understand about the human mind and senses today (i.e. they play tricks on us), if you're going to bring Sherlock Holmes into the present day, you can either just ask the audience to accept that, well, Sherlock Holmes has an extremely abnormal mind and he can just *do* that or you can de-construct it a bit, which would end up undermining the basic nature of the character.

I think House actually had a pretty good take on it: he is quite often wrong, but in being wrong he learns something new which takes him closer to the correct answer, they would come up with theories and test them and eventually (usually) come with the correct answer: a lot closer to how the process of reasoning actually works, rather than the Sherlock/Holmes style "I will now instantly arrive at the correct conclusion from a single piece of evidence".

Anonymous said...

I'm not a viewer of "Sherlock" for exactly the reasons you mention in your paragraph - because in my adult experiences of reading ACD, Holmes consistently stands out to me as the protector and auditor of New Women, prostitutes, homeless children, and mentally distressed people generally. (Admittedly the period racism somewhat gets in the way of this, but for my own enjoyment I wave that away with the explanation that ACD was merely an imperfect instrument.) I didn't like Sherlock Holmes stories as a schoolchild because they were presented to me in the fake-rationalist puzzle-solving way, and I'm just not a puzzle-driven reader; I don't care who dun it, I want to watch everyone's faces when they find out. It was only when I started thinking about Holmes as a brilliant but unusual man who deliberately seeks out the company of actors, pickpockets, musicians and hoboes that I was able to find something in the mythos to care about enough to engage me with the mysteries.

Anonymous said...

Oh and also - I think it's very possible to overstate ACD's/the Victorian's belief in rationalism. ACD was a Spiritualist, after all, and as the scion of what might be one of the last active Spiritualist families in the US I'm disinclined to accept the usual line that his noble mind was o'erthrown by grief. There's a lot of the uncanny clinging about Holmes, right next to the science and the drugs, some very gothic and sensation-novel stuff. I wonder if our insistence on Holmes as a rational actor doesn't say more about the 21st century than the 19th.

Cedric P said...

I know this is flawed, but I always thought that 19th century Sherlock Holmes could apply his deduction skills because Victorian society was more rigid and codified. When I learned about 21th century Sherlocks, my first though was that he would have a hard time to use his observation method in a less rigid and codified society.

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