On Sherlock Season 3 – Get Back to Work, Sherlock!

*Contains spoilers for season 3 of Sherlock*

Now that season 3 of Sherlock is over – all 3 feature-length episodes of it – it’s time to try and separate it from the massive hype that surrounded it. Season 3 of Sherlock went down a lot of new avenues: Sherlock gets a girlfriend; John gets married; Sherlock is more understanding about the emotional role John plays in his life. You could say he’s “growing as a person” or “developing as a character”. There’s slightly less case-solving, particularly in the first two episodes, and more analysis of relationships and feelings. This is quite different from other Sherlocks, especially canon.

In the whole canon by Arthur Conan Doyle, 56 short stories, and 4 novels, there’s no story not revolving around a case where certain strange occurences are revealed by Holmes to belong to some design, usually criminal, and the architect of the occurences is unmasked. That’s what structures the stories, and very little room is given to exploring Holmes’ feelings. That’s kind of the point: he doesn’t think about emotions, he just gets really, really into his job, all his mind and body is on it:

His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard, black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downwards, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whip-cord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him, that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or at the most only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.

Pretty intense. It’s maybe that total immersion in the work that’s so compelling; we’d all love to like our jobs that much. Of course there’s a lot of dialogue between Holmes and Watson not strictly on the case at hand. Usually, it’s Holmes’ theorizing on the nature of detection, on psychology, on knowledge or on life in general. Holmes’ theorizing or philosophizing to Watson often opens the stories, and sometimes the actual talk, serious but leavened with a certain bantering between the two, is actually the best part of the story – some of the plots are pretty forgettable, while some are unforgettable (“The Red-Headed League” is maybe my favourite). What he never talks about is himself, his background, his emotions, what made him what he is. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself: why he is so different, and so obsessed by deduction. He doesn’t need to, he’s so zoned in on his work that he doesn’t question it or worry about his own unconventional personality.

In this respect of Holmes’ unselfconscious nature, Doyle is very consistent. Holmes is always himself, and never says or does anything that jars: I honestly can’t think of one Holmesian episode that’s implausible within the terms of his character set out in the beginning, in A Study in Scarlet (some of his knowledge is inconsistent with Watson’s description of his areas of expertise set out in that book, though). In other words, Holmes never jumps the shark. Jumping the shark involves stunt plot development and stunt character developments and occurs when a series’ premise is exhausted or the writer’ have lost touch with it. The opposite danger for a long running series is formulaism, and this Conan Doyle probably does fall into, with some story lines repeating earlier ones. “The Three Garridebs” is quite like the aforementioned “The Red-Headed League”, for example. But still, Holmes in T3G is still Holmes doing what Holmes does, and he hasn’t changed.

A caveat: I’m giving Doyle a pass on the killing off of Holmes in “The Reichenback Falls” and bringing him back in “The Empty House”, partly because almost ten years passed between them, so it obviously wasn’t his way of making things happen to ensure more stories; and partly because he did it in the first place to kill off Holmes, and it seems he did sincerely mean to kill him off, before the constant public calls for the Great Detective wore him down. That development was so out of character from the rest of the stories we can let it slide.

Sidney Paget illustration from first publication of "The Musgrave Ritual"

Sidney Paget illustration from first publication of “The Musgrave Ritual”

But series 3 of Sherlock has seen a lot of Sherlock and everyone behaving oddly. There’s a very thin line between developing a character, and falling back on generic plot developments like marriages, new relationships, and the ultimate shark-jumper, returns from the dead. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Marge is watching a really dumb daytime soap and it has a priest rush in the door:

WOMAN Father McGrath, I thought you were dead!


In other words someone coming back from the dead is lame, the paradigmatic instance of shark-jumping. But Sherlock S3 did it not only with Holmes himself (and without Doyle’s extenuating circumstances; they always meant to bring him back – the “death” was specifically for suspense purposes), but, it turned out, with Moriarty as well. We saw Moriarty shoot himself in the head in S2! How can he come back from that? If it turns out they had this planned and have a good explanation I’ll recant, but I have a suspicion that it was a post-facto decision, necessitated by the need to introduce a cliffhanger at S3’s end. Here we see how Doyle was helped avoid jumping the shark by the structure of the detective story: no need for cliffhangers; entirely self-contained. I wish the makers of Sherlock had allowed themselves dispense with the cliffhanger, but modern serials demand it. I can imagine the corporate types insist on it, as a means of keeping the great bovine public talking about the series during the fallow period. The cliffhanger, though, is not a good artistic technique, and doesn’t help neat, well-structured, self-contained storytelling.

Doyle always used to complain about the difficulty making up a detective plot, and the writers of Sherlock seem to have discovered the same, maybe explaining why S3 was so character-driven. Episode 1 managed to escape having an overarching detection plot by dealing with Sherlock’s return and John’s reaction. Episode 2 went further again, and devoted itself mostly to the lead-up to John’s wedding and the event itself. Sherlock is best man, and consequently rather than detecting, observing and  deducing his way  through  the episode, he’s going on a stag-night, preparing a speech, etc. The wedding itself takes up much of the episode, eventually including a murder mystery, but ending on another meditation of Sherlock’s loneliness after John’s marriage. Then there’s all this talk of “redbeard”. Who or what is “redbeard”? Evidently some sort of emotional trigger for Sherlock, some clue to why he is as he is, taking its cue from Citizen Kane’s “rosebud” or maybe even James Bond’s “Skyfall”. Again this points to the psychoanalyzing focus of the series. What is this need to establish one single point from which a personality such as Holmes is built? My view of Holmes is that for the character to work best his unselfconsciousness needs to be accepted, as does the idea that his methods and their results justify themselves – they don’t need to be traced back to childhood trauma. And even if they did the idea of a single incident creating Sherlock, and the single word that represents it, is too pat, and a bit of a cliché, as the examples above illustrate.

Overall if you break down the episodes into their constituent functions, working out the functional and indicial content of every piece of dialogue, every camera angle, those with reference to Sherlock and John’s characters, relationships and (in Sherlock’s case) personal backgrounds would surely prevail over those related to detection (I’m not going to do it, though). The problem with this is, if it’s about character, as the series go on:

Things will have to happen to the characters.

This is a problem. That will lead to boring repetition because the things that happen to people are limited and trivial – witness any long-running serial drama: marriages, affairs, divorces and romantic relationships in all their forms are the staple. All of which fits quite awkwardly with Holmes. It has to come down to the detection, and to interesting things happening, and Holmes involving himself with them, rather than interesting things happening directly to Holmes (which is unsustainable).

But even Holmes detection skills let him down in the last episode of S3. He can’t find anything on arch-villain Magnusson, such is the fiendish cunning of the man, so he shoots him in the head, killing him. That’s not clever at all! Yes, it’s a dramatic gasp-inducing ending. But at what cost to the character? Holmes loses his uniqueness when he’s reduced to shooting people. Even worse, when something this dramatic happens, the writers will feel the need to “top” it for the end of the next series. Sherlock has died (S2), killed – basically in cold blood (S3), so where is left to go on the personal drama scale? But I’d imagine the benefits of this development in plotting for the writers was twofold: it’s dramatic, as I said; and it’s easier to write than a detection-style denouement, which relies on a moment where Holmes reveals an observation that simultaneously obvious (when pointed out) and unpredictable. A tough trick.

So it’s easier to focus on Holmes’ character and to give him inherently dramatic actions. There’s a whole army of generic drama tropes to be called on. It’s just that these standard plot developments can’t be reconciled with Holmes. Drama doesn’t happen to him; he stands above the drama, observing, deducing and ultimately judging. That’s why I love Holmes; he can step outside of all the normal relationshippy things and live a life of total engagement with his great work, something we can all envy. Once he and his writers get selfconscious about that, he’s lost his thing: he’s just an awkward guy doing something rubbish like looking for love or trying to find his place in the world. He doesn’t need to find it. He’s already exactly where he needs to be, doing exactly what he’s good at doing. So, Holmes, my message for you is: stop trying to be like everybody else, and get back to bloody work!