SHERLOCK Jumps The Shark

bbc-sherlock-1600 “The Sign Of Three”, episode 2 of season three of BBC’s Sherlock series was in my mind the best Sherlock Holmes story ever told, in any medium, by any writer.

Sorry, Sir Arthur.

It had everything one could hope for in a Sherlock Holmes story and more: Nifty mystery, ingenious solution, plenty of glimpses into the private lives of Holmes & Dr. John Watson. But more than that, it was a story that involved Holmes & Watson on a personal level, not as puzzle-solvers-for-hire. It unfolded in a seemingly lackadaisical, disjointed fashion, apparently being about one thing before spiraling tightly on another thing which, in the end, proved to be about the first thing after all.[1]

But as delighted as I was by “The Sign Of Three”, the season closer “His Final Vow” seemed to go out of its way to undo all the good things about the previous episode.

The good parts were very good: The villain was suitably villainous and a better (which is to say, worse) foe for Holmes than Moriarity. The build up to the first Major Plot Twist was primo Sherlock, and even though Holmes was heartlessly manipulative of another person, while dismaying it was still within his character.

Oh, but that Major Plot Twist…

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Okay, the series is right on the money when it points out Watson is a danger junkie, that he seeks out people, relationships, and situations that feed that addiction. Doyle alluded to as much (albeit not in those terms) in his original stories.

But what Sherlock the series fails to pick up on is that Watson, not Holmes, is Doyle’s wish fulfillment character. Doyle was much too bourgeois in real life to want to be “a high functioning sociopath” like Holmes; he wanted to be the staid, steadfast upper-middle class Englishman with a wife and a home and a pipe and a prestigious career, but with the ability to go off at his own discretion for daring adventures on the side.

Watson is essentially Doyle’s Mary Sue in his fan fic about Holmes.[2]

So, yes, Watson would indeed gravitate towards dangerous people, but not all people he gravitates towards would be dangerous nor does he want them to be.

Watson, like Doyle, feels comfortable in a world where everything is exactly what it seems to be -- and despite puzzling clues, in the end they all end up meaning one thing and one thing only.[3] He knows Holmes is an insensitive wanker because that is how Holmes always presents himself. He knows clients can be disingenuous or even dishonest because that’s how they present themselves.

But he also knows certain people are trustworthy because no matter what their social circumstances, they will never present themselves falsely. Watson, like Holmes, can trust junkies and thieves and beggars and gang members provided they never fly under false flags.[4]

In a nutshell, at arguably one of the most basic, primal levels of Watson’s emotional life, he has a person who presents themselves under a false flag. He might very well have continued his relationship with this person knowing they had a somewhat tawdry past, but it doesn’t play true to either the BBC series or the entire Holmes / Watson oeuvre if they presented themselves as one thing and then revealed themselves to be another.

As bad as that was, however, it was only the smallest shark that Sherlock jumped.

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As noted, the villain was truly good (in a bad way, if you catch my drift), and a better match for Holmes than Moriarity. He was, in fact, the anti-Holmes, more so that Holmes own brother, Mycroft (or Mike, as people kept referring to him in this episode much to his annoyance; nice touch, that). In the end the villain was seemingly victorious, he had out maneuvered Holmes, Holmes was forced to admit to Watson he had no plan on how to deal with him.

Which, of course, is precisely the moment where Holmes does something that reveals he’s been two steps ahead of the bad guy all the time and the seemingly insurmountable fix that he and Watson are in is actually all part of his well laid plan to turn the tables on the villain and hoist him by his own petard.

Only that doesn’t happen.

Instead, Holmes settles (one can’t say “solves”) the matter in a manner more befitting of Mike Hammer, John Shaft, or even Philip Marlowe.

This is not to say that Holmes is incapable of or even unwilling to use direct means, but they are always punctuation marks to carefully laid out lines of thought.

The main plotline ends with Holmes facing banishment (read “suicide mission”) as a penance for his atypical resolution to the case. While not as much of a downer as the season two faux suicide, it’s still a grim ending to the season.

…and apparently the producers felt the same way because reaching so far into their arses that they could tickle their uvulas, they yanked out the biggest shark of all.

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Some genres you can get away with they-are-only-dead-if-you-have-a-body-and-even-then-only-maybe; Dracula and Frankenstein are quite literally unkillable and nobody bats an eye when they pop back.

But non-fantasy characters can’t be treated so cavalierly. In the nearest analogy to the Holmes / Moriarity match-up, James Bond never actually killed or presumed he had killed Blofeld until the villain’s final appearance in the books (You Only Live Twice) or films (For Your Eyes Only[5]). Bouncing back from the dead is something to be used very sparingly and since Bond had already done it in his own series, Fleming and later the films’ producers opted not to have any villain come back for seconds after being officially killed off.

Holmes and Moriarity both were killed in the season two closer. If somebody is going to get a call back, it’s going to be Holmes. Sherlock has fun with the ridiculousness of his return in the season three opener, presenting three mutually contradictory explanations while implying none were true. They can get away with that because the tone of the series is light enough for viewers to swallow one such huge implausibility, and because whatever ruse was used to fake Holmes’ death, it clearly involved an army of confederates (“No more than 25,” Holmes explains) to pull it off.

Those confederates would not overlook Moriarity’s corpse -- or lack there of -- in the aftermath. At the very least Holmes would be aware Moriarity faked his own death and, once Holmes’ own resurrection was revealed, would have no reason not to warn Watson that their old nemesis was still on the loose.

Further, Mycroft and the British government clearly felt Moriarity’s death had been proved to their satisfaction, so their reaction to the bizarre video announcing Moriarity’s apparent return from the dead is puzzling.

The most obvious conclusion is that it is not Moriarity hizzownsef who jacked the nation’s video channels but either a still surviving confederate or an entirely new villain who seeks to capitalize on Moriarity’s notoriety for whatever reason.[6]

One final thought: Who exactly is this series about? It is not Sherlock Holmes, for despite his name on the title he remains an elusive enigma as a character. We like him (but he is not likeable) yet his character growth is pretty much nonexistent other than begrudgingly realizing he likes Watson and needs people like Molly and Mrs. Hudson in his life.

Rather, everything in the series seems to revolve around Watson. In the first episode we see his problems, and his build up prior to Holmes being sprung on us virtually unannounced (albeit brilliantly so). Watson was grown from a PTSD victim to an active agent in his own life, he has grown emotionally and opened himself up to others.

Where are the creators taking us with this? Are we going to learn in the end that this whole series has been about the distress / recovery / healing of Watson’s mind?

[1] I’m really trying to avoid spoilers here.

[2] A theory long expounded since the very beginning of Holmes’ literary career; people wishing to write their own Sherlock Holmes stories would be well advised to leave Watson out of it and come up with their own Mary Sue to interact with Holmes. It would be truer to the original form than adding a second level of projection onto the tale.

[3] Watson would be driven to distraction if he had to work with Perry Mason.

[4] There’s a lot more to this line of thought, and those interested would be well advised to seek out The Amazing Randi’s thoughts on the subject. Randi’s central thesis is that far from being open to a wide range of possibilities, Holmes is actually confined by a narrow range of stereotypes in which all things can mean only one unique thing, and false conclusions derived from same are the fault of the deducer, not of the things failing to be what they are presumed to be.

[5] Yes, he used Blofeld’s mini-sub as a battering ram in Diamonds Are Forever, but Blofeld was still protected by a thick pressure resistant hull and was never shown dying on screen; further, since his two henchmen came after Bond aboard the cruise ship, one could only assume Blofeld was alive and still paying them as they would have no incentive to tangle with Bond otherwise.

[6] Or it could be Mycroft simply getting his brother out of a jam by creating a bogus new threat that only the great Sherlock Holmes can solve. Which would imply Holmes’ actions at the end of “His Final Vow” were part of a plan sanctioned by the British government. The problem with rabbit holes is that the rabbits keep digging more…


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