Thursday, February 16, 2017

Regarding Sherlock

A few of weeks ago, after the British Broadcasting Corporation’s second episode of Sherlock (Season Four) aired on American public television, critics of various shades took to social media. “The Lying Detective,” like “The Six Thatchers” before it, offered plenty of opportunities for critical arrows. Charles Prepolec, a Canadian of recent acquaintance and newly-minted Baker Street Irregular (the preeminent North American Sherlockian literary society), kept his arrows quivered while remarking on Facebook: “Have tackled the newest Sherlock episode a couple times now and still can't decide how I feel about it. That's probably not a good sign.” Good sign or not, I joined the fray and commented on his post: “Waiting to complete the story arc for this season before rendering any criticism, such as it might be. General sense to this point: Gatiss and Moffat are building toward something. I’m interested in what they’re building. But then, I’ll acknowledge my “big tent” inclusive bias. It comes with the job.”

I am not a practicing critic. My “big tent” perspective comes from being a curator at the University of Minnesota and steward to the world’s largest gathering of material related to Sherlock Holmes as a cultural icon. From such a vantage point, critic or not, allow me to expand my social media-induced shorthand analysis.

Sherlock Co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were building toward something. What that “something” is, only they can say. I’ve not yet taken time to read or watch interviews with them or the cast in order to add additional data in support of my hypothesis. Instead, I took a little bit of time to go back and view the first episode of Season One, “A Study in Pink.” Like an amateur detective wannabe, or a Watson understudy, I reexamined the beginning of the Gatiss-Moffat narrative arc, looking, as it were, for clues. Holmes might scold me for such misguided methodology, conducted in a vacuum, and argue instead for an interrogation of principal suspects. For the moment, I prefer to play my own game, the musings of an admirer who enjoyed the entire series. If what I rediscovered in that first episode comes anywhere close to the truth, then I hope Gatiss and Moffat—should they ever stumble across these words—will be pleased; or at least mildly amused.

Partial inspiration for my hypothesis—that Sherlock is a superbly creative invention designed to encompass the entire world of Mr. Holmes, and in that embrace offer commentary on an extraordinary friendship (and friendship, generally)—comes from author Bonnie MacBird’s confession that she loves “Sherlock for exactly what it is—a very creative riff on canon, written and performed by some immensely talented guys….Those characters, those vulnerabilities, have been carefully constructed, consistently built throughout the series. It’s not the Canon, it’s a version of these characters which is consistent within the longer arc of the Sherlock series.[1] My premise includes not only Canon, but Apocrypha, parody, pastiche, fandom (broadly defined as running the spectrum from traditionalist to convention-attending cosplayer)—in short, anything having to do with Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson—in all media. Feel free to slap me back to reality, but data from “A Study in Pink” leads me in this direction.

What I found in this inaugural episode of Sherlock surprised me. I attended primarily to spoken clues, although visual clues abound. There is, for instance, an introductory panning camera shot of Baker Street that is a direct homage to Granada Television’s opening sequence in the Jeremy Brett series. Others more visually literate will have certainly spotted references throughout the series to other productions. In this instance, allow me to sprinkle in a few additional references to other visuals and episodes while concentrating on the libretto of this mesmerizing opera.

Secondary characters help frame this study in friendship, for that is the ultimate aim of Sherlock. Beyond the police tape, outside the crime scene, Sergeant Sally Donovan of the Metropolitan Police warns Watson (and us) in no uncertain terms: “Stay away from Sherlock Holmes.” Like the good doctor, we are unable to heed her warning and proceed to the investigation. Once inside the Holmesian perimeter, we receive a second admonition from Donovan’s superior, Detective Inspector Lestrade: “I’m breaking every rule letting you in here.”[2] What immediately follows this warning is, in essence, an existential call and response featuring Holmes and Lestrade that speaks to our longings as an audience. Holmes, in reply to Lestrade’s half-hearted rebuke of “letting you in here,” begins our litany: “Yes, because you need me,” to which we (as Lestrade) reply, “Yes, I do. God help me.” It is a collective confession and cry for assistance from someone, or something, beyond ourselves. We need Sherlock Holmes. But why?

As audience, we find ourselves in the roles of these perimeter players, but also, more closely, as Watson. It is Conan Doyle’s canonical invention taken to new heights. Once on the crime scene, we (as Watson) still require Lestrade’s permission to assist Holmes, which our Scotland Yarder readily grants. “Oh, do as he says. Help yourself.” The Detective Inspector gives us both marching orders and authorization. Our roles as onlookers to this episodic adventure are set. We should follow Sherlock’s dictates and yet enjoy ourselves a bit along the way. Or does Lestrade’s idiomatic phrase exhibit a double edge? Are we welcomed to take what we want, or do what we want without asking permission—“help yourself”—while at the same time directed toward introspection and self-care (a kind of care famously absent from Holmes’s life)? In an oblique and unconscious way, is Lestrade summoning the ancient Socratic dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living?” Confused by this existential double entendre we, like Watson, remain puzzled in our role. This puzzling, pondering, brooding will continue until the denouement of “The Final Problem” in the series’ fourth season.

Having drifted through the opening scenes of “A Study in Pink,” we still wonder how we fit into this relationship. What is the bond between us? It is a question that will dog us until series’ end. Our experience tells us that it is something more than simply being Sherlock’s flatmate, or audience. We are, after all, standing in the midst of a crime scene. But we remain confused. Watson, now psychosomatically crouched beside the dead body of a lady in pink, asks: “What am I doing here?” Holmes enigmatically replies: “Helping me make a point.” What point? It is another question we’ll add to the pile and ponder throughout the series. Watson thinks he’s helping pay the rent, but for Sherlock it is much more than that. “Yeah, well, this is more fun.” Flabbergasted, Watson replies: “Fun? There’s a woman lying dead.” Holmes prods us. “Perfectly sound analysis, but I was hoping you’d go deeper.”

It is this Sherlockian hope to go deeper that adds to my enjoyment of the series and intensifies my argument, found in clues from the first episode, that Sherlock is designed to explore the meaning of friendship while touching on the entire world—past and present—of Mr. Holmes and his followers. Characters large and small are freed from their canonical restraints, reflecting our own frantic expansion of Conan Doyle’s original players over the past 130 years through multiple genres transmitted across manifold channels.

Similarly, it is an expansion of our enthusiasms. Holmes and Watson are no longer the exclusive property of their creator or a select group of devotees, if they ever were. Conan Doyle’s cast now plays to (and with) a diverse audience. And it is an ever-widening cast. Whoever, or whatever our mysterious Holmesian third sibling, Eurus, represents in Sherlock’s final season, I venture to suggest that she symbolizes an evolution of audience, in a similar manner to the progressive work of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (the oldest women’s Sherlockian literary society) vis-Ă -vis the Baker Street Irregulars (founded in 1934, who finally admitted women as members in 1991). Eurus is outnumbered by her brothers, two to one, but those days may be numbered (if not already here).

As an aside, we might contemplate the relationship of Sergeant Donovan and Philip Anderson, one-time member of the Metropolitan Police forensic unit (and sometime paramour with Donovan), as a mirror in which to view Sherlockian fandom. In this scenario, Donovan’s warning to stay away from Holmes can be viewed as an admonition by traditional Sherlockians to refrain from tinkering (or worse) with canon, characters, and Victorian settings. Anderson, equally antagonistic toward Holmes in earlier episodes, appears to have a change of heart which separates him from Donovan (and traditional devotees). Following Sherlock’s apparent death (dramatized at the end of the second season), and dismissed from his position at the Met (as we learn in the third season), Anderson confesses his belief to Lestrade that Holmes is still alive: “I believe in Sherlock Holmes.” Contrarily, Lestrade believes Holmes is dead, but together he and Anderson raise their coffee cups to “absent friends.” Sometime after Holmes’s death, Anderson forms a fan club, ‘The Empty Hearse,’ “so like-minded people could meet [and] discuss theories [of Holmes’s survival or death]....” Anderson, convinced that “Sherlock’s still out there,” is suddenly blown away by news that Holmes is alive and eventually collapses in a fit of hysteria following a conversation with Holmes in the flesh. It is a resurrection scene lifted straight from Holy Writ. Anderson’s hysteria (representing a newer fandom) does not sit well with a traditionalist’s view of canon. Such events are seen by old-school hobbyists as outside a fundamentalist Doylean norm and unworthy of Holmes.

Nevertheless, as Cheryll Fong and I argue in a soon-to-be published article in a special Sherlockian issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, we are living on the outer edges of a Holmesian “Big Bang” that began in 1887 with the publication of the first Sherlockian adventure, A Study in Scarlet. There is a new normal that is both canonical and extra-canonical. Sherlock, as with its American counterpart, Elementary (and an ever growing list of fan fiction found in online platforms such as Archive of Our Own) are not explosions in Holmesian space, but expansions of that space. Such an expansion takes place in Sherlock.  Season One’s “A Study in Pink” may be closest to canon, Season Four’s “The Final Problem” farthest away. Canonical or not, it may not matter. Like Watson, we are liberated from our past, forget our cane, spring from the table, and sprint through the streets of London in pursuit of our quarry.

And yet, there’s always someone who returns our mislaid walking stick and in the process reminds us that we were traumatized. Holmes and Watson are no exception; they both suffered in earlier times—Holmes with his Redbeard, Watson his Afghanistan. Watson’s overcoming—or at least managing—his post-traumatic stress disorder helps us recall that this is a friendship in process. It is a fraught relationship in competition or conflict with previous bonds, on both sides. (Witness those Best Man antics displayed by our dynamic duo in “The Sign of Three.”) Those with previously established relations play their part and then, with few exceptions, move off stage. Mike Stamford, for example, is “an old friend,” but once a new flat is secured he moves into the shadows. John’s girlfriend, Sarah, in “The Blind Banker” endures a near-death experience, but disappears from his life. Holmes sarcastically describes Donovan as an “old friend” while she addresses him as “freak.” Donovan, puzzling over who Watson really is, concludes that he is not Sherlock’s friend. “He doesn’t have friends. So who are you?” Watson, himself unsure, replies “I’m…I’m nobody. I just met him.” John is more than a nobody, but both he and Sherlock struggle with the meaning of friendship throughout the series.

Those friendships orbiting closer to our champions are similarly more complex, if not always detailed in full over the episodes. Watson is estranged from his drinking, divorcing sister, Harriet (aka Harry). “Harry and me don’t get on, never have.” A reclusive and formative friend, Major Sholto, appears at Watson’s wedding, is surreptitiously stabbed by an avenging photographer, and ultimately saved by an appeal to his better nature. Irene Adler, “The Woman,” is secretly rescued by Sherlock despite her dominatrix tendencies. To both Holmes and Watson, Mrs. Hudson is “your landlady, dear, not your housekeeper.” (We know better, especially after she pops out of her Aston Martin in “The Lying Detective.”) Holmes’s skull on the mantel of 221B is a “friend of mine,” but Mrs. Hudson later removes it. John thinks: “So I’m basically filling in for your skull?” Sherlock assures him: “Relax, you’re doing fine.” In each instance we glimpse clues to the meaning of friendship, while wondering if we’re really “doing fine.”

Wrapped in this wondering are those thorniest of bonds: Molly, Mary Morstan, Moriarty, and Mycroft; the “four Ms.” Each character could be the subject of a separate essay, but for the moment let us return to “A Study in Pink” and concentrate on perhaps the most conflicted relationship: the one that exists between the Holmes brothers.

In his initial encounter with Mycroft, Watson engages in a dialogue with this mysterious personage that brings together many of our meditations on friendship, roles, and existential meaning (and our own attraction to Holmes):

MH: You don’t seem very afraid.
JW: You don’t seem very frightening.
MH: Ah, yes. The bravery of the soldier. Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity, don’t you think? What is your connection to Sherlock Holmes?
JW: I don’t have one. I barely know him. I met him...yesterday.
MH: Mmm, and since yesterday you’ve moved in with him and now you’re solving crimes together. Might we expect a happy announcement by the end of the week?
JW: Who are you?
MH: An interested party.
JW: Interested in Sherlock? Why? I’m guessing you’re not friends.
MH: You’ve met him. How many ‘friends’ do you imagine he has? I am the closest thing to a friend that Sherlock Holmes is capable of having.
JW: And what’s that?
MH: An enemy.
JW: An enemy?
MH: In his mind, certainly. If you were to ask him, he’d probably say his arch-enemy. He does love to be dramatic.

Later in the encounter, Mycroft observes: “You don’t seem the kind to make friends easily.” John doesn’t answer the question. Mycroft—undeterred and aware of the Afghanistan-induced stress—addresses John’s physical and mental states by asking to inspect Watson’s hand. Reluctantly, John agrees to the examination. (A similarly revealing examination takes place later, as Watson presents his face to Magnusson in “His Last Vow.”) Mycroft continues: “I imagine people have already warned you to stay away from him, but I can see from your left hand that’s not going to happen.” Watson’s hand (and by extension, his growing trust in Holmes) remains unshaken. In a roundabout way, Mycroft is calling John back to action and intentionally (or not) bringing our duo closer together. “Most people blunder round this city, and all they see are streets and shops and cars. When you walk with Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield. You’ve seen it already, haven’t you?” Watson, still fixated on Mycroft’s examination of his hand, is slow to get the point. The elder brother pronounces his diagnosis and issues a call to arms. “You’re not haunted by the war, Doctor miss it. Welcome back….Time to choose a side….”

It is a welcome and challenge that invites a continual search for role and meaning in life. In sometimes minor, yet fundamentally meaningful ways these encounters between Sherlockian characters point to an exploration into the meaning of friendship. Watson makes a pass at Mycroft’s assistant, a Bondian “Miss Moneypenny” character operating under the alias of Anthea, only to be turned away.  Over dinner, while keeping an eye on 22 Northumberland Street, Holmes and Watson explore their sexuality. Watson continues to battle his analyst, yet it is she who uncovers his true identity: “John, you’re a soldier.” It is Watson retrieving his pistol in the opening episode and wrestling with the moral implications of using a similar firearm in “The Final Problem.” It is Holmes, wondering why a stillborn infant, dead for fourteen years, still matters to her mother. “That was ages ago. Why would she still be upset?” It is Watson, offering the last words or thoughts of a murder victim, “Please, God, let me live,” while being chided by Holmes to “use your imagination,” to which Watson sharply replies, “I don’t have to.” It is Donovan chastising us when Holmes exits a scene. “I told you, he does that. He bloody left again. We’re wasting our time!...Does it matter? Does any of it? He’s just a lunatic and he’ll always let you down. And you’re wasting your time. All our time.” It is an examination of our intellect and how we use it. “Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains. It must be so boring.” It is the cabbie, gun in hand, asking Holmes “You don’t wanna phone a friend?” It is Holmes, in reply, observing that the cabbie “didn’t just kill four people because you’re bitter. Bitterness is a paralytic. Love is a much more vicious motivator.” It is an exercise, like the choice of pill-laden bottles, of free will. It is an exploration of what it means to be human.    

In the beginning it was John joining Sherlock in the adventure. “I said ‘dangerous,’ and here you are.” Ever mystified, Watson still wonders: “That’s how you get your kicks, isn’t it? You risk your life to prove you’re clever.” Holmes replies: “Why would I do that?” to which Watson answers, “Because you’re an idiot.”

But we know Holmes is not an idiot. In the end, it is Sherlock who joins John in the ranks of soldiers. “Into battle,” a phrase uttered by Holmes as he prepares to dress for John’s wedding, marks this transition. Likewise, the frontline watchword, “Vatican cameos,” alerts our friends to impending danger. In the midst of their ongoing battles—as might be the way of soldiers—Watson asks Lestrade an existential question. “So why do you put up with him?” In reply, the inspector answers, “Because I’m desperate, that’s why. And because Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.” Brother Mycroft offers a final word. “Interesting, that soldier fellow. He could be the making of my brother…or make him worse than ever.” Happily for us, it is the making of a remarkable friendship, worth pondering for a lifetime.

[2] My thanks go to Ariane DeVere aka Callie Sullivan for creating the transcript of this (and other) Sherlock episodes. The transcript for “A Study in Pink” may be found at In addition, the BBC recently released scripts to Season One:

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