“They were the footprints of a gigantic hound.”
It’s all in the phrasing, darlings. That single thing, the choice of the archaic term ‘hound’ is what puts Sherlock on the scent. I know, nice choice of words.
This adaptation of one of the most acclaimed Sherlock Holmes stories is much further away from the original than any of the previous ones have been, simply because ghost stories just aren’t as avant-garde anymore as they once were, and because this is a modernization of the stuff, so naturally some of the patina had to go. In this day and age, genetic experimentation in a secret army base named Baskerville makes for more exciting stuff than someone savaging a dog for the purpose of getting a hold on the family fortune. A simple adaptation can be done by anyone—but taking the piece and making it contemporary while retaining all the elements of horror, now, that is the challenge. Mark Gatiss, the resident master of horror, knows how to do it.
All the characters from the original story are there, with a few consolidations and additions on the way: Dr Mortimer is now Henry’s gender-swapped therapist, with no husband with a taste for the supernatural attached. There’s Dr Stapleton, equally gender-swapped, with no actual designs on Henry. There’s Barrymore, formerly butler of Baskerville Hall, now major in the army base Baskerville and a real bastard, also lost his wife on the way; although there’s still a convict out on the moor, apparently. Who’s new is Dr Frankland, who seems to know more about what’s going on than anyone might guess at first. His little brother is getting himself into trouble, and Mycroft is worried enough about all of this to send Greg Lestrade of the Yard to Dartmoor to keep an eye on the situation (Lestrade also appeared in a minor capacity in the original novel, by the way). Now, this is making a lot of fangirls’ dreams come true:
“And I don’t just do what your brother tells me.”
Oh, but some of us think there are certain other situations in which you do just that, Greg… ahem. Anyway, it’s actually great to have the three of them together out in the country, chasing after crazed scientists, they’re a great trio.
And then, there’s the hound. Or, rather, the H.O.U.N.D. in Liberty, Indiana. As part of a CIA operation, scientists developed a drug working on the basis of fear and stimulus, supposed to render the enemy helpless on the battlefield; but as they figured out that the effect on the subjects was too violent, the project was terminated, except someone couldn’t let go—Frankland. With a chemical minefield in the hollow, the dog that the innkeepers couldn’t bear to have put down becomes a vicious monster.
Sherlock is confounded and scared—though I’d suggest that the shaking and the unstable mental state are just as much results of him having been drugged—by what he’s seen out on the moor that first night. He’s doubting himself, for the first time. Is there something that his rational mind cannot explain? It gets so bad, his body betraying the uproar inside of him that John struggles to ground him. The emotional distance, also found in the character of a certain Vulcan, isn’t working…
John: “Alright, Spock… just.. take it easy.”
… and it’s scaring the crap out of Sherlock, so much so that he’s retreating back into his shell, putting John off until he finally leaves. Emotions are what throws him off balance, so he must get rid of the one person that symbolizes emotion for him: John. He will realize his mistake soon, but he needs time to come to terms with it, even though John is quick to forgive him.
“Yeah, you were saying sorry a minute ago, don’t spoil it.”
It’s only later that John understands Sherlock’s violent reaction first-hand—when he himself has been under the influence of the drug and completely freaked out. John is pretty fearless, he needs the battlefield to feel steady, remember? He’s not haunted by the war, he misses it, but then why does his encounter with the hound shake him up so much? It’s tremendous acting by both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Fuck-You-I-Won-a-BAFTA Freeman in these scenes full of fear that adds brilliantly to the delightfully done horror scenes. You can hear it. You can almost feel its breath in your neck, and John is completely terrified by this creature, and the worst thing is that he feels helpless. Now, there is pure editing genius, because: it’s there in the music. That piece of music we hear in the background of that scene is the one we heard in the very beginning, in the opening scenes of A Study in Pink. John was helpless before he met Sherlock, but afterwards, we’ve never heard that tune again. Now it’s back, and John is scared out of his mind. The only difference being that before Sherlock, it would have been, ‘Please, God, let me live.’ Now, it’s “Sherlock, get me out of here.” Except it’s Sherlock who is producing the sounds. You bastard. It’s only fair payback that, with prolonged exposure, Sherlock really starts seeing something else himself, the one thing he truly fears: Jim Moriarty. (Who, by the way, has been locked in a cell by Mycroft’s people and has been scratching SHERLOCK into every available surface. That’s not good. Oh, and he has already put a preview on John’s blog, rather without authorisation… it’s creepy. It’s reeeeeeeaaaally creepy.)
Anyway: thus, Sherlock solves a murder case and proves a conspiracy theory—”they’re only nutters when they’re wrong”—before the man responsible lets himself be blown to smithereens by one of the landmines outside Baskerville.
Russell Tovey remains a little pale in his role as Henry Knight—then again, his role basically consists of being very, very scared and slowly going bonkers, and that he does very well.
Going back to the beginning: it’s the mark of their relationship strengthening and blossoming that John stays sitting in his chair the entire time that Sherlock is raving for some cigarettes at the beginning of the episode; the way they banter throughout shows how close they are. Sherlock lets John guide him through quitting smoking, and he doesn’t bother to hide his agitation from him, just as John doesn’t bother to stop talking when Sherlock inhales someone else’s cigarette smoke to compensate—it’s insane, yet living with Sherlock is always insane, so why make a scene of it. They know each other so well by now that they can complete each other’s thoughts—as evidenced by John already lifting his index finger to signal, “AHA!” before Sherlock voices his analysis of the door bell ringing: A CLIENT! And the few things that do yet surprise them will only serve to bring them closer together still, because they want to understand each other—John wants Sherlock to apologize to Mrs Hudson for ruining her hopes concerning the sandwich shop owner, which Sherlock rejects. Then, later, he hurts John by implying that they weren’t friends… which he apologizes for, profusely, only a short time afterwards. John is Sherlock’s home—Sherlock’s human, if you will, and his reactions are the only ones that Sherlock truly bothers with, because John always comes first. John is the one who understands. That’s why there are so many reaction shots of John in this episode, more so than in Series 1 or in last week’s A Scandal in Belgravia—John knows him best, and the way his reactions have developed over time shows that. When Sherlock turns up his collar against the weather, John snaps.
“Oh, please, can we not do this, this time?”
“You, being all mysterious, with your… cheekbones and turning your coat collar up so you look cool!”
“I don’t do that!”
“Yeah, you do.”
Earlier, Sherlock deduces everything there is to deduce about Henry Knight (the wonderful Midshipman Frame! Er… Russell Tovey) with his usual smug air. In Series 1, he exclaimed in fascination—as Sherlock so sensitively points out to Irene, John has expressed the amazing qualities of deduction using every adequate word in the English language. Now, John just looks at the ceiling, waiting for it to pass. In a month or, rather, in Series 3 WHICH HAS BEEN CONFIRMED BY PRODUCER REBECCA EATON, he won’t even do that anymore, it will have become an integral part of his life.
“You’re just showing off!”
“Of course, I am a show-off, it’s what we do!”
‘We’ does the trick here—they’re a team, no-one would dare to question that, least of all themselves. They’re not just working together because it makes sense to pay the rent or because they don’t have anything else to do, but because they want to, because they’re good together. At least until…
“If I wanted poetry, I’d read John’s emails to his girlfriends.”
That DOES get a sigh from John. Then again, not much more than a sigh. Reading one’s emails to one’s girlfriends is just about the most privacy-invading thing you can do, and yet John’s alright with it, because there are some social conventions that will always completely escape Sherlock. And whereas The Blind Banker’s John angrily ripped his laptop away from Sherlock, Scandal‘s John merely points out that Sherlock does steal it from time to time, and Baskerville‘s John merely sighs because, really, privacy concerns are neither here nor there because nothing Sherlock finds when he pokes around John’s stuff is going anywhere. Sherlock doesn’t use it against him, not really, and his secrets are safe with the consulting detective. He trusts him implicitly, and vice versa. Because “mates are mates,” as Henry puts it. The two don’t seem to go together, goodness knows many people don’t understand why John puts up with Sherlock, and why Sherlock would bother with John if he considers himself so much above ordinary humans—and yet, they’re mates. As simple as that. Oh, and, er… Sherlock is driving. Sherlock is driving. It’s too adorable for words.
And when the one gets stuck, the other takes over—when Sherlock doesn’t seem to intimidate the young corporal enough to get him to show them around the premises, John does something we haven’t seen him do before: he digs up his soldier persona, using his natural authority as an officer—Captain, to be precise (Harkness, Watson, all the great ones are Captains!)—to demand the full tour, effectively doing Sherlock proud, who knows very well why he chose Dr John Watson as his companion—not just as a conductor of light, but because he’s impressive.
“Oh, I haven’t pulled rank in ages.”
And then there is the thing where Sherlock wants John to interview a witness, and when John’s still too pissed off with him to say yes, he sends photographic proof that she’s pretty.
“Oh, you’re a bad man.”
Except that then Dr Frankland goes on to mention that John’s Sherlock’s “PA… live-in PA,” and Dr Mortimer immediately gets that twinge of disappointment as she sighs, “live-in…” because then Sherlock Holmes must be the man John’s worried about enough to ask her about her client and Baskerville, and then surely he can’t be straight and actually interested in her. Do you see where this is going? Eternal spinsterhood is where, John Watson, if you’re not careful. (That thing with ‘Why don’t you buy him a drink? I think he likes you,’ was a rather cheap shot, though.)
Now, there is this thing with the homoerotic subtext. There are those who say Mark Gatiss only uses Sherlock as a front for homoerotic giggling, but that’s not the case at all, even though of course us fans happily pick him up on that dimension of the writing. However, it doesn’t matter whether we are writing slash, ’cause we’d never expect them to actually start shagging on the show. It is merely the way these two are emotionally co-dependent that attracts everyone with a pulse—they are in love, Mark Gatiss himself said it: it’s the deepest and most fantastic relationship that’s ever been created, and it doesn’t matter whether you slap on the label ‘GAAAAAAAY’ or not, because that’s not the point. The point is that they are as close to each other as a couple, sex or no, because love transcends concepts of sexuality.
In sexually liberated England, you can just have everyone from your supporting cast think the two are gay, because you would assume, seeing them together, that they are a couple, which would at first glance and simply defining a garden variety ‘couple’ include having sex—so, often slash fans who write fanfiction like to take it further than the show does just for the hell of it (read: ’cause we love a bit of smut). But they don’t seriously want the writers to, too, because they realize that the message of the show is that you can love someone just as deeply without being generally attracted to their sex or to them as physical beings, even—John isn’t a “fixed” heterosexual turned homosexual upon meeting Sherlock, he just prefers Sherlock over everyone else, emotionally and as his partner in crime solving. Sherlock probably still has no interest in having sex with anyone, including John, but in every other aspect of his life, John is his partner, in every way.
To John, being a couple includes sex, which is why he keeps correcting people—he is sexually straight, alright, it’s just that his relationship with Sherlock doesn’t give a damn about sexually straight, because it’s not about sex. It’s about the fact that these two can’t live without each other, and that their bond is as close as that of people who’d marry each other in a heartbeat if they thought of it. It’s that he is Sherlock’s only, only friend, it’s about the fact that Sherlock is so in tune with his feelings now that he can tell John that he is the one who matters most, to his face.
“Listen, what I said before, John, I meant it. I don’t have friends. I’ve just got one.”
Are you seeing the look on his face? That’s love, man. What else is love: drinking the coffee your best friend has made you even though it’s with sugar and you therefore hate it. John thought Sherlock was still apologizing—which, in a way, he was, by being observant enough to know how John takes his coffee though John always has to make it himself—and in an effort to appreciate the gesture, drank it. John hates it even more, though, when Sherlock drugs him; or, at least, thinks he’s going to. And for the first time in his long career of drugging people or dogs (poor Gladstone, when’s he gonna turn up, anyway?), Sherlock’s sorry. You can see it in the way he smiles at John for a moment. Smiles at John or Mrs Hudson are the only genuine ones you’re getting out of Sherlock for the time being, and in the way that this little one vanishes so quickly after John looks away again doesn’t mean that Sherlock’s using him, the way the falling smile indicated in Molly’s case in The Blind Banker, but that he’s feeling uncomfortable about it. It doesn’t sit right with him; and he’s both curious as to whether John will drink enough of the brew for the supposed drug to take effect, as he’s weirdly touched that John drinks it even though he doesn’t like it. Emotions. Wondrous things.
John wouldn’t have left him even if he hadn’t apologized, but it would have caused a rift between them that would have taken time to repair, and it’s the mark of how much John has changed Sherlock that the self-diagnosed sociopath acknowledges that he doesn’t want that to happen, that he’s trying to break the ice by his own initiative rather than wait until John comes around, which is what dispels John’s anger almost immediately, because he knows how hard it is for Sherlock to admit he’s wrong.
Which is why fans are so emotionally invested with the show, which in turn is a huge compliment paid by the writers, Mark Gatiss especially, to our intelligence, because they give us the fun with the serious subtext. The script operates on two levels here, playing with the genre: in the same lines, for example John’s cheekbone speech, or the gay inn-keeper and his cook boyfriend apologizing for not having a double room for them and John giving up on correcting him, there is the blatant homoerotic not-so-sub subtext. Then there is the serious observation concerning the depth and strength of this relationship in every interaction between Sherlock and John, always building the foundation for the overt fun the script is having with them. It’s fun because it absolutely, happily and willingly gives ammunition to those who want to write slash fiction in their backyard, simply because the usual definition of being a couple includes sex, and it is heartrendingly beautiful in its depiction of two men who need each other to be happy. The sex is never going to happen in canon, but the show doesn’t discourage it, either. That’s remarkable.
Next: The Reichenbach Fall. Just read the BBC’s synopsis:
James Moriarty possesses the greatest criminal mind that the world has ever seen. Sherlock and John knew he wouldn’t stay hidden for long. But even they never guessed the sheer scale and audacity of the crime that would propel Moriarty back into the headlines. The crime of the century. The Tower of London, the Bank of England and Pentonville prison – all sprung open on the same day, as if by magic! But Moriarty’s plans don’t stop there…
Sherlock and John lock horns with their old enemy in one final problem that tests loyalty and courage to their very limits. Sherlock must fight for his reputation, his sanity and his life. But is he all he claims to be?
Oh, dear. In a really twisted way, I’m looking forward to having my heart ripped out by them next week.