The Detective Dances: Thoughts on Sherlock's Third Season

As the 2014 Sherlock extravaganza draws to a close, let's pause and reflect on a single moment.  The star of the show is buttonholed.  In front of an expectant audience, he's asked to read words not of his own composition.  Words of an emotional, overheated nature.  Words that might be considered embarrassing.  Great merriment is had, both at his embarrassment and discomfort, and at the silliness of what he's saying in those plummy, aristocratic tones.

I could, of course, be talking about the by-now infamous incident at the BFI preview event for Sherlock's third season, in which Times columnist Caitlin Moran asked Benedict Cumberbatch (and Martin Freeman) to read an explicit Sherlock/John fanfic out loud.  But just as easily, I could be talking about an incident from the third season itself.  In the season's middle episode "The Sign of Three," Sherlock, acting as John Watson's best man at his wedding to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), has the task of reading the "telegrams" sent by absent well-wishers (this is apparently a British wedding tradition).  The audience is clearly supposed to be entertained as he stumbles over such terms of endearment as "poppet" and "oodles of love."  In both instances, the authors of the joke clearly think that it is much funnier than it actually is--Moran has, quite rightly, been taken to task for not only embarrassing Cumberbatch and Freeman but humiliating the hapless author of the fanfic she asked them to read, and while "Sign of Three" writer Steve Thompson shows us Mrs. Hudson nearly incapacitated with laughter at the mere thought of how silly Sherlock will look reading out sweet nothings, I doubt that anyone watching at home was more than mildly tickled.  The incongruity of life and art dovetailing in this manner, however, points to another reason why both jokes fall flat.  Moran and Thompson both assume that making Sherlock say things like "big squishy cuddles," or express his ardent lust for John, is funny because these are things that he would never do.  But in order for that to be true, Sherlock itself would have to have a firm grasp on who its title character is, and where the limits of his realistic behavior lie.  As the third season amply demonstrates, this is very much not the case.

Sherlock is, of course, fanfic.  As Laurie Penny has pointed out in this astute piece in the New Statesman, the show represents "a chance to see what modern fan fiction would look like if it was written by well-paid, well-respected middle-aged men with a big fat budget," which confers upon it a legitimacy that other, less laddish and coolness-obsessed variants on the great detective have been denied.[1]  It's this legitimacy that makes it possible for Moran to mock one kind of fanfic while lauding another, and not even notice the contradiction.  What surprised me about Sherlock's third season, however, was how much the show seemed to be aware of its own fanfic nature--even, in some ways, playing up to it.

Take the season's first episode, "The Empty Hearse" by Mark Gatiss, in which Sherlock returns to London after a two-year absence, eager to resume his partnership with John--who has finally climbed out of the deep well of grief he plunged into after Sherlock's apparent suicide at the end of the second season, and is about to become engaged to Mary--and befuddled when he is greeted with incandescent rage and flat rejection.  My first reaction when I watched the episode--which in general I think vies with "The Blind Banker" and "The Hounds of Baskerville" for the title of Sherlock's very worst installment--was "I've read this fanfic, and I liked it better then."  Almost every plot detail in "The Empty Hearse"--John's anger and its eruption into violence upon first seeing Sherlock alive; the existence of Mary and her willingness to help repair the relationship between the former partners; even actual lines, such as Sherlock telling Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) that "Moriarty slipped up... the one person he thought didn't matter at all to me was the one person that mattered the most"--has appeared in countless fanfics that have imagined the aftermath of "The Reichenbach Fall," almost all of them cleverer and more interesting than the official version of the story[2].  Part of the problem, of course, is that two years have passed for us, the fans, as well as the characters, and in that time the wisdom of crowds was almost bound to produce something more satisfying and adventurous than any single, "official" writer.  But the problem runs much deeper.  Despite having John, quite wisely, proclaim that "I don't dare how you faked [your death], Sherlock.  I want to know why," "The Empty Hearse" gets bogged down in "how," in the logistics of getting Sherlock and John back together--which it does in the most predictable, perfunctory way possible--instead of the next chapter of their story.

Almost the only way to read "The Empty Hearse" as anything but a colossal waste of its premise (not to mention a full third of the season's running time) is to take it as a purely metafictional exercise, in which the damaged, years-dormant relationship between Sherlock and John is a stand-in for the relationship between Sherlock and its fans.  That relationship has been semi-adversarial at best, with Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat often seeming chagrined that their fame and success have been handed to them by a largely-female, relationship-oriented fanbase.  On one level, "The Empty Hearse" persists in this tone of disdain.  It features a Sherlock fan club whose members are obsessed with figuring out how he faked his death, and one of the theories suggested (which function as a sort of fanfic-within-fanfic) feels like an encapsulation of Moffat and Gatiss's stereotypical take on their fandom--it involves Sherlock tricking John with a dummy and then dissolving into a kiss with Moriarty (Andrew Scott), and is raised by a fat girl in a t-shirt (Sharon Rooney).

There is also, however, an edge of self-effacement to this depiction.  Intentionally or not, the girl writing Sherlock/Moriarty fanfic is a sympathetic figure.  She punctures the officiousness of Anderson (Jonathan Aris), a former policeman turned Sherlock fanatic--protesting, for example, his decree that members of the club should wear deerstalker hats.  She also doesn't share his obsequiousness before Sherlock, whom she treats as an entertainment, one that she can twist into whatever form pleases her, rather than someone whose dignity must be respected.  Later in the episode, when Sherlock tells Anderson how he really faked his death (repeating almost word for word the conclusions that fandom had reached shortly after "The Reichenbach Fall" aired), Anderson quite rightly points out that the solution isn't very satisfactory, and has more than a few holes in it.  "Everyone's a critic," Sherlock huffs, but for once there's a sense that that criticism isn't inherently illegitimate.  The fantastically cruel scene late in the episode, in which Sherlock tricks John into forgiving him by pretending that they are both about to die, and then laughs at John's terror, can be taken as a statement by the show to its fans--you love it when I hurt you, Gatiss seems to be saying, and you keep coming back for more, so I'm going to keep doing it.  But at the same time, "The Empty Hearse" ends with a celebration of John and Mary's engagement, decisively puncturing Sherlock's earlier-stated conviction that after two years, John will just be waiting for him in Baker Street, his life paused while Sherlock was away--suggesting that Sherlock, too, needs to adjust to the fact that its fans have moved on (Mary as a metaphor for Elementary?).  It's hardly a justification for the episode, and it doesn't make "The Empty Hearse" any easier to watch, but an acknowledgment that Sherlock the show can develop a smidgeon of humility even if the character can't is certainly welcome.

The next episode, "The Sign of Three," is fanfic of a completely different stripe, a frothy, sitcommy affair in which the sadistic, uncaring Sherlock of "The Empty Hearse" becomes a defanged, adorably inept woobie, whose insults and malapropisms stem from cluelessness, not callousness, and anyway hurt him more than anyone else.  Spanning the day of John and Mary's wedding, the episode revolves around Sherlock's anxiety over his duties as best man, which conceals a deeper anxiety over whether the marriage will leave him out in the cold.  Structurally, "The Sign of Three" is the most successful of the third season's three episodes.  Though padded at points (the 90 minute running time remains an albatross around the show's neck), it uses the framing device of Sherlock's best man toast to segue into several secondary stories, which it then ties together as Sherlock realizes that one of the wedding guests is about to be murdered.  The intercutting between framing story and internal stories, between the build-up to the wedding and the day itself, and between reality and Sherlock's mind as he tries to puzzle out the mystery while still giving his toast, is Sherlock at its sharpest, a reminder of why this show, despite being so flawed in so many ways, can still sometimes feel like one of the most exciting things on TV[3].

What it isn't, in any recognizable way, is an episode of Sherlock, but rather one of those fanfics that shift the tone and genre of their source material, in this case towards the comedic and sentimental.  This is an episode in which John steps out of a room for a moment, and when he comes back Sherlock is surrounded by a dozen napkins folded in the shape of the Sydney opera house, shame-facedly explaining that "that just... sort of... happened."  An episode in which Sherlock writes a waltz for the violin for John and Mary to dance to as their first dance, after which he tearfully promises to always be at their side.  An episode in which Sherlock increasingly warms to maid of honor Janine (Yasmine Akram), becoming disarmingly flirtatious before finally confiding in her that he loves to dance ("it rarely comes up in crime-work, but I live in hope of the right case").  It's charming and funny (not to mention something of a relief, after an episode that seemed positively confrontational about Sherlock's relationship with its fans, to get an episode that seems so determined to court them) but the more one watches, the clearer it becomes that we're in some sort of alternate universe, one slightly adjacent to the show's world but not really part of it.

In my first post about Sherlock, I wrote that Thompson and Gatiss's episodes felt less like a coherent part of the show's world, and more as if they were writing fanfic in Moffat's universe, using the same setting and cast of characters, but unable to (or uninterested in) capturing his tone.  As I've written, their episodes in the third season take that fanfic approach to extremes, so it's perhaps unsurprising that it's only Moffat's episode, the concluding "His Last Vow," that feels like a genuine story set in the Sherlock universe, rather than a commentary on the show and its fandom.  Neither as solipsistic as "The Empty Hearse," nor as silly as "The Sign of Three," "His Last Vow" nevertheless feels more than a little mechanical, and in many ways a retread of "The Reichenbach Fall," complete with a conclusion in which Sherlock, cornered by his opponent and facing imminent danger to his friends, sacrifices himself for them.  The story, a thin gloss on "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," is just barely enough to sustain the episode, and its power is rooted mainly in the discovery that Mary (who is now pregnant) is actually an assassin on the run, and in the crisis this precipitates between her and John, as Sherlock scrambles to protect them both and save their marriage[4].  Freeman and Abbington's chemistry is strong enough (as well it might be, since the actors are long-term partners in real life) that the threat to their relationship feels devastating even though it's just been introduced, and "His Last Vow" also features the series's only effective use of the dreaded (and decidedly un-Holmes-ian) Mind Palace device, when Sherlock must scramble all his mental resources to will himself to survive after being shot.  But none of this quite gets around the gaping plot hole in the middle of the episode--Sherlock's efforts to secure the blackmailer's vault of incriminating material are scuttled when it's revealed that he has a mind palace of his own, and has no incriminating documents; but every blackmailer knows that the reason you keep a vault isn't so you can prove your allegations, but so as to dissuade your victims from blowing your brains out, which is indeed what happens at the episode's end.

More importantly, while "His Last Vow" might close out the third season out on a more solid, dependable note than the previous episodes, it can't do enough to correct the fact that Sherlock has lost sight of its title character.  It isn't impossible draw a line between "Hearse"'s cruel manipulator, "Three"'s sad clown, and "Vow"'s brave child, who will do anything to protect the people he loves except tell them he loves them[5].  But Sherlock doesn't seem particularly interested in drawing that line, and the tonal shifts between its three episodes, the way they each seem to take place in a subtly different world to the others, only intensifies the feeling that they also represent three different takes on the same character rather than three facets of the same person.  Moffat's writing has always been characterized by a desire to hit the big emotional payoff without doing any of the work of earning it, and Sherlock's stylistic quirks only intensify that flaw.  So that when Sherlock once again declares, before shooting Magnussen at the end of "His Final Vow," that he is a high-functioning sociopath, this feels more like empty posturing, the repetition of a by-now meaningless phrase, than any true insight into the character (besides which, Moffat has grown far too fond of the sociopath label, sprinkling it liberally on multiple characters in both Sherlock and Doctor Who as a substitute for actually developing them as people).

If Sherlock has grown increasingly cipher-like, however, one definite point in the third season's favor is how it allows the rest of the cast to blossom around him.  Freeman's John has always been Sherlock's greatest asset, and the third season functions almost as a character study of him, overturning his perception of himself as an island of normalcy and culminating in a scene in which Sherlock and Mary both insist that John is drawn to monsters of their type and the excitement they offer him.  Molly Hooper continues the growth she began in "The Reichenbach Fall," finding new layers in her relationship with Sherlock, which turns alternately respectful, teasing, and demanding.  Best of all, however, is Gatiss's Mycroft, whom previous seasons had kept at a distance, a grey eminence who showed up to jump-start a story or clean up Sherlock's mess.  The third season expands on the relationship between the Holmes brothers--in fact one might argue that the season's most powerful throughline is their reconciliation, as it begins with Sherlock accusing Mycroft of enjoying the sight of his torture, and ends with Mycroft telling Sherlock that "your loss would break my heart"--and also gives us a better look at Mycroft as a person, and the ways in which he both resembles and differs from his brother.[6]

It's these character notes that leave me, on the whole, feeling fairly satisfied with Sherlock's third season.  This is, obviously, to be taken advisedly.  Sherlock still suffers from its perennial, frustrating flaws.  Its plots are still tissue-thin at best, insultingly stupid at worst.  Its pacing is still awful.  It is still, despite spotty improvements like Molly (or Janine, who in "His Last Vow" is taken advantage of by Sherlock but is then given the chance to tell him that he should have trusted her enough to ask for her help), vilely misogynistic.  And, as a special treat this season, it seems to have lost all interest in Holmes-ian mystery (it's terrifying to think this, but the fluffy "Sign of Three" is the closest the season comes to a Conan Doyle-style story).  But these were all flaws I expected to find going into the season.  What I wasn't expecting was that the show would own up to at least some of them, as well as its fraught, dysfunctional relationship with its fans.  And I certainly wasn't expecting Sherlock to try to make human beings out of anyone but its main character, something that Doctor Who, for example, is profoundly uninterested in.  As I wrote in my post about the second season, Sherlock is a show that is terrible as often as it is brilliant.  The third season can't get away from this truth, but it does manage to find that brilliance in new and unexpected places.

[1] Though, in fairness, it should be noted that while Sherlock shares with other, official Holmes fanfic like House or the Guy Ritchie films a fawning admiration for its main character and his general disdain for anyone not as smart, cool, or funny as he is, the world of Holmes fanfic is not as starkly divided between these and explicit fanworks as Penny seems to be suggesting.  Other official fanfic like Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels, whose Mary Sue-ish heroine captures Holmes's admiration and then his heart, and of course Elementary, are far less guy-oriented without relinquishing the gloss of legitimacy that fan-authored works lack.

[2] The episode's actual plot, meanwhile, in which Sherlock is recalled to London to stop an impending terror attack, is so forgettable that the show itself can't seem to bother giving it a real effort, padding it out with endless cut scenes of Sherlock exploring underground stations or his "mind palace."  It also draws attention to Sherlock's unfortunate tendency to only take an interest in its title character's adventures when these involve matters of national security, when part of the charm of Conan Doyle's original stories was how often they revolved around the seemingly trivial and mundane, only for Holmes to reveal the fascinating mystery that lay beneath.

[3] A particular standout is a beautifully shot and staged scene that visualizes Sherlock's conversation, on an online forum, with women who claim to have dated a ghost.  Given this show's history, however, it was perhaps unfortunate to have chosen to put Sherlock in a room full of women whom he can turn on and off and make speak on command.

[4] Moffat no doubt imagined that another source of appeal would be Lars Mikkelsen's performance as Milverton (here called Magnussen), an odious fellow who is introduced licking the face of one of his blackmail victims, pees in Sherlock's fireplace in his second appearance, and uses his power over Mary to force John to let him flick his face in his third.  It's an extremely effective performance, in that by the end of the episode the mere sight of the man was enough to turn my stomach, but it's also too clearly a manipulative one, an attempt to justify Magnussen's fast-approaching murder.

[5] After all, the eleventh Doctor, upon whom Sherlock is so blatantly based, seems to run this gamut once an episode.

[6] The exception to this celebration of character is, alas, Mary.  While Abbington is excellent and, as noted, has great chemistry with Freeman, Mary never emerges as a real person so much as a wife-shaped cutout who can be perfect for John without threatening (and in fact encouraging) his bond with Sherlock.  The fact that this blankness turns out to have been deliberate, a function of Mary's own sociopathy, doesn't really address the problem, since she can never hope to compete with the sociopath already at the show's center.  Ultimately, Mary is a character defined by her lack of personality--her reconciliation with John, after all, is signaled by his refusal to read her file and find out anything about her.


ibmiller said…
Interesting - I did note the incredibly fandom-meta nature of "Hearse," and the really strong variance of tone of "Three" (though the fact that apparently all three writers co-wrote that episode makes it all the more confusing to try to figure out what is happening with the show's tone). I didn't catch the hint of self-awareness that you draw out here - I'll have to think about that - but I do think the show itself wants to be Sherlock - too cool, inconsistent, and armored from any criticism to really change for the better.
JP said…
Holmes explicitly speaks about the mind as an attic stored with memories in A Study In Scarlet, so the idea of him using a memory palace is hardly un-Holmesian.
The exact quote from A Study in Scarlet goes:

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it."

In other words, Holmes picks the facts that he considers "useful" and discards the rest, the exact opposite of the mind palace concept - which John describes, in "The Empty Hearse," as Sherlock having "all the facts in the universe" socked away in his head. On the contrary, another quote from A Study in Scarlet describes Holmes as being ignorant of everyday facts such as whether the Earth revolves around the sun, because he doesn't consider them germane to his investigative work (Sherlock even gave its Holmes the same ignorance in "The Great Game," before it decided that the mind palace was such a nifty idea).
Unknown said…
Sherlock describes having to "delete" things as late as 3x02 when he can't remember the guy's room number. John's statements about how the thing works can hardly be considered authoritative.
Anonymous said…
This is really stellar critique for the most part but I'm more than a little tired of the criticism of Sherlock (the character) because the entire premise of the show is to meet a younger-than-usual Sherlock Holmes and watch him evolve into the Brett-esque character we remember him to be from canon-compliant versions. One who is still quite cold and removed but perfectly able to express warmth, humor and delight when the situation calls for it. This disjointed, dualistic quality (the fact that he can look grossed out saying "poppet" and then go on to delivery a speech dripping with emotion) is the essence of Sherlock Holmes and I, for one, loved that the series is moving him there. I appreciate that for some people it seemed like the character was inconsistent this season but even Moffat has EXPLICITLY said in interviews that Sherlock is not a sociopath. He's only a man who thinks emotions make him less smart and so tries to keep them locked away and now he's slowly failing at that. The evolution, for me, is the most interesting part of the show. Full stop. I'm behind any criticism of this show except one that doesn't at least consider the disjointed quality of the character to be a result of that constant battle between emotions and wanting to be a purely reasonable machine.

Otherwise, though, really stellar reading of the nature and quality of the writing and the show vs. its fans. I really enjoyed it.

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