A Few (Subjective) Truths about Sherlock, Series 4

As we’re hurtling towards the inevitably tense and mind-boggling (in either the positive or the negative sense of the word) conclusion of the series (and possibly the show), here’s a few things that I wanted to write about that I haven’t really touched on in my reviews so far.

They’re important, and I’ve needed some time to articulate what this series means to and for me overall. In truth, it’s taken me about three years, because the last time I wrote about Sherlock in any holistic sense was when I used it as the subject of my BA thesis (after Series 1 and 2), and I haven’t really puzzled out what it was that made everything as of The Empty Hearse feel different.

Why Sherlock Feels So Different These Days

It could have been…

  • The distinct feeling of, ‘If I never have to see 221B again, it’ll be too soon’ that is inevitable after spending an entire semester working on nothing but one thing.
  • After getting so deep into the first two series, there was, of course, a stark drop in familiarity with the source material when Series 3 rolled around. Inevitably, the show as I had taken it apart and rebuilt in my head did not match up with what returned; not least because of the shift in perspective to Sherlock as our focal character.
  • Watching Series 3 didn’t quite feel like coming home.

I also felt deeply uncomfortable because I knew that Mary wouldn’t make it. Her callous demise in ACD canon meant that, from the moment I knew Amanda had been cast, I steeled myself for the way they’d inevitably get rid of her. Considering the show’s track record with women, I wasn’t confident as to what would happen to her.

Add to that the transformation that fandom went through in the past few years. (I should link here to a great piece by Aja Romano that details very succinctly how Sherlock fandom has changed and been changed.) I know many feel that the show has jumped about a dozen sharks since the first series, but for me the moment my activity in the fandom (meaning, mostly, tumblr) was majorly affected was when Amanda was cast as Mary and the hate started happening pretty much immediately.

And then came the theories that Mary is working for Moriarty, and everything went batshit crazy when Mary shot Sherlock in His Last Vow. From then on, ‘Mary is the Big Villain’ was accepted as gospel, and dissent was tantamount to being gullible at best and fandom excommunication at worst. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, so every single piece of ‘evidence’ was made to suit that theory. The one thing Sherlock tells us not to do.

sherlock-twisting-facts-to-suit-theories
Different Sherlock, but you get my meaning.

The absolute conviction that this was true and the rejection of anything that could be good about Mary really put me right off my pie. Not least because we all knew what was coming, and what it would do to John (and Sherlock, by extension) — and the fact that so many couldn’t wait until the witch was finally dead was really ugly. Because the only way through that was immense and terrifying pain, for both of them.

And, of course, in case that wasn’t obvious enough, I’m a big fan of the OT3. I’m also a supporter of Johnlock, I’m just not a part of TJLC. I wear slash-shipping goggles when watching this show, and I’m right there on the train with the rest of them when I say that, Yes, it’s there in the subtext and, yes, their relationship is one of the most touching I’ve ever written about. I’ve written about codification and parallels with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes till my fingers turned blue. When being accused of “making them gay,” I simply respond that I’m not forcing my interpretation on anyone, I just write about what I see. If my interpretation doesn’t match up with other people’s, I have no problem with that. I just wish that they do me the same courtesy and don’t try to convince me that my interpretation is wrong “because it’s not canon.” I’ve written and read fanfic, I’ve defended my wearing slash goggles in re: the show and the RDJ!Holmes movies on this blog numerous times, just in case anyone’s wondering about my shipper credentials.

What I don’t understand is the refusal to see this as a journey for a near-OTP to an OT3 and back to an OTP after the loss of their third.

And, yes, I written and spoken extensively about the various possibilities regarding Mary’s character, including the theories about her working for Moriarty the entire time. However, just because I write about it, doesn’t mean I have to like it. I just have to consider it if I want to be serious about this; but I’m not into twisting evidence because conclusion X is the only one I’ll accept.

That said, I have a preference. Of course I do, I’ve got feelings, haven’t I?

I think they could have handled Mary worse. All in all, they gave her a far more interesting backstory than I was expecting, with actual shape to her character and the willingness to make her a morally grey character on top of it, even on pain of incurring immense dislike for her.

Of course, ultimately, she was a plot device. Mark Gatiss has gone on record saying that she was always going to die, and the story was always going to come back ’round to Sherlock and John as the central relationship. And while for many that was cause for celebration, I’m sad about it. She served to create conflict and drama, and her death was the catalyst for Sherlock and John to cross the chasm and finally talk about their feelings~. That was her purpose as she went into the fridge, because they couldn’t go and have them do it on their own. That would have been too healthy.

Unpopular opinion time: I’d have preferred Mary to live. I didn’t see her as the obstacle between John and Sherlock, far more I think she was enabling them. And, in popular interpretation, she was the one who confirmed bisexual!John Watson for us when reminding Sherlock, “none of us were the first” in The Sign of Three. There were many similarities between Major Sholto and Sherlock, in fact. And, last but not least, Mary calls what they both feel for John ‘love,’ and there is no distinction made. When in doubt, go polyamory. Why should John Watson not have his cake, and eat it too?

As for Johnlock becoming canon: I realise why it’s important to so many fans that they do so explicitly rather than through codification. Representation is a thing, and the creators’ relationship with fandom is fraught with miscommunication that too easily feels like condescension (because it is). [Insert obligatory disclaimer that sending hate on social media or otherwise is *not* cool.]

I would advocate that the creators missed a huge chance in the event of it not becoming canon explicitly. It’s not like it shakes up canon a whole lot more than introducing the Lost Holmes Sibling, really. Holmes/Watson has history and precedent.

The unconditional love part is already canon. It’s right there. (And it has to be unconditional, because John spends a lot of time forgiving Sherlock for one thing or another. And then he beats him up.) It’s right there in the Guy Ritchie movies, too. It’s there in Elementary. Whether that love is expressed romantically and/or sexually or not is of differing importance to people, and I don’t mean to trivialise it by saying that. Obviously, it matters hugely to many people I know, some of them among my best friends. I only feel — and fear! — that the profound optimism and conviction I’ve seen in so many TJLC shippers this series will hurt them in the end.

Whether’s it’s all going to end up being a steaming vat of queerbaiting, I don’t know, and whether screaming co-dependency is really romance is anyone’s guess.

Since I mentioned Elementary: I’m glad they aren’t a couple on that show solely because they’re man and woman. That said, I totally get fans who’d love for them to be together because they’d be a highly visible and prominent interracial couple on a network show. (Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller have amazing chemistry, too.) So… which concern is more important?
Trick question: neither. We have to negotiate what’s “best” on a case-by-case basis.

Sherlock — Consulting Detective. Human.

@ajaromano made another excellent point on twitter a few days ago:

And that’s true. Until Sherlock actually lives in the world and is affected by something that’s not only part of his own story, he’s not really part of it. While I would contend that the arrival of Rosie changed some part of that, in the end she, too, is John’s daughter and her life will get as tangled up in Sherlock’s madness as her father’s; and John’s old room in 221B is probably gonna be hers at some point.

Steven Moffat said at the BFI screening that “Sherlock is going to show us the heart that we never doubted he had.” Which… is good. As I said, Sherlock’s human in the sense that he’s got feelings, he’s just scared of them. And John’s tragedy is making him confront them in a way he’s never done before; and makes him be upfront about them, too. That’s the main conceit of the entire show, that John Watson is humanising Sherlock Holmes. The other main conceit is that Sherlock exists outside of the world, because he’s cleverer than everyone else and therefore stands apart. These two conceits are now colliding and resolving that trainwreck is going to be… interesting. And I’m not sure it’s going to be entirely successful; not with the way the third episode is shaping up in previews.

It’s Not a Game Anymore, or: the Fallacy of Amping up the Drama

That’s another thing — the tagline for this series is “It’s not a game anymore,” and I just… when I saw the first full trailer for the series, I got this uncomfortable feeling that they’re falling down the pit of raising the stakes until there’s literally no ceiling left.

It’s this thing so many TV shows do: the stakes get higher, the crime conspiracies, supernatural threats, and general danger are amped up until there’s basically nowhere to go from there. Supernatural is the prime example in current pop culture. It gets worse and worse and worse and worse and worse every season, and the wheel of misery never stops spinning.

Series 1 and 2 of Sherlock had consistent pacing when it came to this. In both series, Moriarty was the main threat, hidden for most of Series 1 and then ever-present in Series 2. It made sense. The sense of danger had precedent and felt earned, and The Reichenbach Fall was the logical conclusion. From Series 3 on, certain villains are played up equally as increasingly bigger and more evil Big Bads. Magnussen was basically the devil in Series 3, equally as invisible as Moriarty at first, and then escalated a lot more quickly, and with a lot more drama, but again with Sherlock pointing a gun at a man who can in a great suit, all to save John Watson. And now, Culverton Smith was sprung on us in the space of one episode, built up as the “coagulation of human evil” and then dispatched within the hour. And now, we’ve got Euros with a gun on John, and Mycroft, in the preview for The Final Problem, saying that everything Sherlock’s ever done was shaped by the memory of his sister. Which… how does that even work? In any case, there it is. Every series now, the villain is worse than the one that came before, and everything goes from bad to worse. I mean… they’re gonna blow up Baker Street. What. They’ve done that before, with the house opposite, but that… wasn’t the same, and it certainly wasn’t advertised like this.
Especially for Series 4, I think it’s ok to criticize the creators (and the BBC’s marketing department) of trying a little too hard. I mean, just look at the differences in promo images from Series 1 to 2 to 3 to 4.

sherlockblog15001

sherlock1

Sherlock and John exclusive Series 3

Sherlock The Abominable Bride SHJW 2

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They’re always serious, it’s just that Martin can never quite decide whether Watson’s sucking on a lemon or knows something we don’t. When I saw the promo photos for Series 4, my first feeling was, ‘oh man, they’ve really had the life sucked out of them.’

The trailers are hardly recognizable. Trailers always make everything look more dramatic than it is, in the end, it’s their job to get people hooked and draw them into watching the new season based on enticing out-of-context snapshots.

I’m just, personally, not a fan of the Everything Has to Get Worse conceit of popular TV. Not everything has to get progressively grittier and darker and more emotionally horrific; because at some point, you have no more worse places to go. Whatever happens on Sunday, I dread to think that Series 5 will try to amp it up again, because then I think I might actually get off the train.

Series 3 and 4 are event series, if you will, far more than Series 2. Series 2 also worked towards an inevitable conclusion (that being Sherlock’s “death”), but the build-up felt different. I know that people argue that we’ve long left the cases behind in favour of John and Sherlock’s relationship, but I’d argue that that’s not quite the case. As long as every week hinges on a case being solved, the show retains elements of the procedural formula. It has to, since every single case follows the same narrative structure.

Presentation of the case. Sherlock accepts the case. Sherlock and John follow the clues, get into some hot water, get themselves out of it. Sherlock teases Lestrade, John rolls his eyes. Sherlock has the case figured out, doesn’t tell John yet, waits until he can show off how clever he is at the very end. Lestrade takes the perp into custody, John and Sherlock go and have dinner.

That’s it, that’s the show. Even the event cases work like this, in the end. But the fact that everything hinges on the villain presenting a real danger to life and limb rather than simply an interesting puzzle means that everything has to be so, so much more spectacular. And it’s wearing me out, it really is. A big part of that is that I’m a sucker for harmony and I just want my characters to be happy; but mostly it’s just watching writers pitching us, the audience, more and more tension and constant “This Is the Biggest Season Yet” crap that I’m just… desensitized. And, damn, I’d have wished that Sherlock didn’t have to stumble into that trap.

So while I stand by my feelings that The Lying Detective was one of the best Sherlock episodes I’ve seen in terms of the episode doing its job showcasing the relationship, the show has, since Series 3, become a lot more difficult to enjoy for me; and I feel like I’ll probably appreciate a bit of a break after this one.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrea, concerning this particular Holmes suite, I don’t think you struck a single sour note. There can be no doubt Sherlock has taken on a whole different feel since series two. I would even be willing to venture, that in hindsight—some years from now—it might even be welcomed, as episodes from series three and four will appear unique—offering a unusual take on the pairing. Yes, they currently seem rather curious (if not somewhat out of place) in their departure from the canon as devotees know it. I myself, though—reflecting back on series three—enjoyed the generous splashes of humor, and Sherlock’ evolving into a true and devoted friend. There was Sherlock’s hilarious references to Watson growing a mustache, “Well we’ll have to do something about that.” and “He looks ancient. I can’t be seen to be wondering around with an old man.” in “The Empty Hearse. Then there was the hilarious bachelor party in “The Sign of Three” where John and Sherlock got drunk. Their helping a client, with Sherlock eventually throwing up at the end of a set deductions, was a delightful way to show how close the two men have become. Then this was topped off with Greg (Lestrade, who’s affection for both men is wonderful) referring to both of them as a couple of lightweights—well, when it comes to drinking. And then in “His Last Vow” how Sherlock’s devotion to John and Mary (loved the closeness of Mary and Sherlock’s friendship) forced him to commit the unthinkable, in order to spare them both. In all three episodes there were wonderful deductions galore and, although, appearing a little off at times, they each explored an area of Holmes and Watson’s relationship in a way that no other production ever has. Of course, series four has been much darker, but full of shock and surprise (if not shock and awe), and yet, the deductive reasoning has been nothing short of brilliant. There has been an evolving, and at times, uneasy growth throughout the series. Yet, I feel that somehow this different feel may serve this series well in the years to come, because it is so beautifully unique. One last insight: I, like you Andrea, dislike the idea that each villain has been promoted as one step more evil than Moriarty. It sets the show to an eventual unattainable standard of villainy if not, at times, a letdown. A break (not an end I hope) in production, may reveal this to be true to Moffat and Gatiss. It might even help them to see villains as fascinating, but deviously different. Still, I’ve loved the series much the way I loved the Jeremy Brett series. Consequently, it’s hard to imagine a newer version of Sherlock Holmes ever capturing our imaginations like this ever again. Nevertheless… who knows?

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    1. Andrea says:

      Thank you! I had originally only planned on taking a few notes this week to eventually get to a post like this, but then yesterday morning the words just sort of happened, and here we are. So some of it is certainly still half-cooked and I’ll come back to this before Series 5 (or any sort of special they might produce), but I’m satisfied with what’s in there now.

      The progression of the series is exactly as you describe it — John and Sherlock’s relationship was always important, but the cues were more subtle in the first two series. We only saw Sherlock’s emotions flickering through when he was sure John wasn’t looking; and this was confirmed by Molly (who did, indeed, learn to see right through his bullshit very early on). And John wouldn’t let his feelings show, either, only in Reichenbach did he show open concern rather than couching it in exasperation or sarcasm. As of Series 3, the shift in perspective gave us a better window into Sherlock’s heart, culminating in his best man speech. John being forced to contend with Sherlock’s return and Mary’s past being revealed also meant that he acted more openly. And I welcomed this, I wanted that to happen, I wanted them to explore how they are both changed by each other. So, in that sense, the relationships between the characters became the heart of the show with cases dotted around it, but the writers sought to balance this by making the villains bigger and more menacing; thus creating the sort of “event episodes” as I called them above. And where Moriarty threatened to burn the heart out of Sherlock because he was a threat to his crime empire; Magnussen seemed to do so merely because he could. And Culverton Smith is, quite simply, a murderous bastard.
      I didn’t find either of them toothless or boring, but the element of surprise I had enjoyed so much with Jim was, by necessity, gone. You don’t pull the same trick twice, and that’s fair. But ramping up expectations every series is bound not to work out.
      But with Sherlock’s mind becoming our lens, there was also a shift in directing and the storytelling became a lot less linear. Sherlock was always a fast-paced show, but with the advent of Sherlock’s consciousness, Series 1 and 2 look downright sedate in comparison. (And sometimes, I’m just a little kid and I want that back. Can’t help it, I’m only human.) Since you mention the Granada series: prime example of consistent narrative pace. Sherlock’s revulsion at some of the villains they face is clear, as is the impact Moriarty has on them. The Brett series didn’t go Bigger and Badder every series, but that doesn’t mean the show didn’t carry suspense. I realise that if Sherlock were to present like this, it’d probably be mocked and called “Midsomer Murders at Baker Street,” but sometimes I think they could afford to slow down a little in the future. Breathless is fine, hyperventilating is bad news for brainwork.

      I usually embrace change in TV shows, unless there’s cast changes I mourn (looking at you, Sleepy Hollow) or the quality of the script drops dramatically (looking at you, Suits), I roll with the punches. And if I don’t like it anymore, I stop watching and that’s it. So I’ve been grappling with my understanding of Sherlock simply because I want to appreciate the artistic decisions behind the shift we saw in Series 3 (some of which I loved, some of which not so much), and I’d hate to not enjoy the show anymore simply because it’s different. I don’t like that “I want the show back as it used to be” thinking. It is what it is, indeed. So yes, the growth has definitely been uneasy, but hopefully Series 5, if it comes, will see them find their footing and, well, calm things down a bit.

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      1. I concur, the series has always been about their relationship with the cases they encountered, giving each character a chance to explore the emotions they arouse in one another. Indeed, there was that shift to the emotions being worn on their sleeves, so to speak, and as a result, some very humorous and sensitive interactions developed. I haven’t cared much for the idea, that since Moriarty each villain has been presented as being more evil, and perhaps, even more of a genius, but I understand where the producers came to feel that might be necessary (although, it wasn’t) to up the ante for Sherlock, if only to involve the viewers—which again, really wasn’t essential for the show to remain a success. I guess Moffat and Gattis chose to go deeper (which certainly made their exploration into Holmes and Watson different), but it seem to come at the cost of the show remaining sequential—after all. you can only showcase so much in 90 minutes. I too, would have preferred the pace, and focus, of the first two series as well, but I suspect as the years roll by and we look back on these episodes, there may well be a greater appreciation for the show having gone where no Holmes had gone before—because it was different—but time will be the judge of that. Last nights ending seems to suggest a return that original approach (if the series returns-in some way) but perhaps with each character having a greater appreciation (and even greater affection and concern) for the people around them. Looking forward to indulging in your assessment of “The Final Problem.” :O)

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      2. Andrea says:

        So, my in-depth opinion on this series conclusion is gonna come tomorrow, and it’s not going to be entirely favourable. I see the value in doing something different and boldly Holmes-ing where no-one has Holmes-ed before, but different isn’t always a value onto itself. That’s one thing.

        The other: I figured out why it’s such a huge mistake to tease villains bigger and badder than Moriarty. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because NOBODY (ha) is as good as Andrew Scott. No-one. GOD, I have missed that man. I know he’s dead, and I knew it was a flashback from the first second, but he still scares the living daylights out of me. Andrew Scott, man. Andrew Scott. Genius.

        All in all, I liked it, but the script wasn’t as good as it could have been. As for emotional pay-off, it was satisfying. To be honest, I would be fine if this were the final series. We came full circle on a lot of stuff, and though they left the door open, the characters are in a good place. If they do return, I would certainly wish them to stay away from further ‘event series.’

        Once more onto the breach!

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      3. I like your final statement. If they do return I feel they need to get on with it, so to speak, and tell the stories (beautifully tweaked and updated as they have been in the past) without going any deeper into their past. Certain elements were good in the final, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for. But, I did love the closing moments (but not completely) at the finish (which was heartbreaking in my opinion), but well stated by, Mary. Yep, there will never be another, Moriarty quite like, Andrew Scott’s. In hindsight I remember some folks complained about his interpretation of Moriarty at the time, but boy has that perception changed over time. :O)

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      4. Andrea says:

        I don’t wanna be all ‘I loved Andrew’s Moriarty before it was cool,’ but…… I totally loved Andrew’s Moriarty before it was cool 😀
        No, seriously, I think he’ll go down in history as one of the best ever, and deservedly so. All the awards!

        I loved the closing moments simply because it shows them safe and happy, and an ending like that can work to reconcile me with a lot of things I didn’t like — because I’m a sappy idiot like that. But realistically speaking, Series 4 wasn’t as good as it could have been. That said, I still appreciate everybody’s work on it, be it writing, casting, actors, production design, directing… it’s clearly a labour of love. And they said they’d only return of it still feels like that, so we’ll just see. 🙂

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      5. I have to say that from the moment Andrew Scott’s, Moriarty, first appeared… I was taken in. Not only was his tone of voice different—modulating from calm in control threat, manipulator of all things, only to suddenly erupt and burst into a lilting soprano aloofness—he also had facial features that suggested true slow burn, but calculating menace which lied behind that face. A real cool customer of deep thought, whose youthful appearance deceptively masked his true evil genius. His, Moriarty, was a more than capable match for Cumbermatch’s, Holmes. I always felt that they could have kept him lurking in the shadows for years to come, while periodically implying (by the occasional cameo) that he was actually behind some of the more mysterious crimes they may have encountered. That way, his Moriarty could occasionally turn up in an episode from time-to-time, only to be outdone by Sherlock, thus explaining why he despised Holmes so much. Missed opportunity and all because Moffat and Gattis wrote themselves into a corner—something they seem to frequently do. Yes, the closing moments were wonderful and perhaps the time away from the production might help them regain perspective.

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