Sherlock: Canon, Characters, and Conspiracies

Yesterday the fourth season finale and potentially the series finale of the hit show Sherlock aired. I have yet to see the latest episode, but I wanted to do some reflection on the show and some implications.

First, if you are unaware of Sherlock, I do in fact recommend at least the first two seasons. Season three brought a bit of a drop off in interest for me as it felt like the show had succumbed to an identity crisis. Aware of it or not, you have Sherlock to thank for the rise of Benedict Cumberbatch in major American films like Star Trek: Into the Darkness and Doctor Strange. It also bulked up Martin Freeman’s filmography such that it now consists of roles as Dr. John Watson, a Hobbit, and generic quintessentially British guys. Though it is hard to choose a favorite individual or manner in any of the recent Holmes productions, be it Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui in Elementary or Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Holmes, it seems undebatable that Cumberbatch and Freeman make the best pairing. There is my pitch for watching Sherlock, which is available on Netflix.

I think it is important, when considering updated material, especially updates that shift the medium from one level of engagement to another, what one does with the concept of canon. For those of you not familiar with literary discussions, canon is the concept that delineates the original or genuine texts in a discussion. Canon, for example, is a central issue of biblical literature. Which books of the Bible are in and why and which are out and why is an issue played upon by atheist biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman and fiction writers like Dan Brown (Angels and Demons, Da Vinci Code, Lost Symbol, and Inferno). Canon is also an aspect of heavy debate in college courses in Western Literature. The reason being, much of the western literary canon consisting of approximately 160 texts has been accused of being xenoncentric, heavily favoring such cultures as Greeks, Romans, and British, and neglecting works by West Africans and South Americans. 

When we consider a venture such as Sherlock, we must deal with the question of how one understands the holmesian canon. Is it okay to go off book (pun intended)? And how far is too far? The subtleties of modern society open up jokes about Sherlock and John being romantically involved (much to Watson’s chagrin) in the BBC telling. A subtle change that plays on the awkwardness of such close friends living together after the advent of the homosexual revolution. Probably acceptable gag. What about casting an Asian woman as Dr. Joan Watson in Elementary? Not to mention the confusion of turning Moriarty and Irene Adler into the same character. How far can you go?

I don’t really have an answer for this question, but I will say that I am less pleased with Elementary‘s liberties, though a bit more understanding of them given the shake up in timeline (when the series begins, Watson and Holmes are just meeting, but Moriarty/Adler have been dealt with and remain, for much of the series firmly in the past). Sherlock has sought to adhere more closely to the originals, all the early episodes come from the pages of Conan Doyle’s work though with significant changes to both throw the viewer familiar with the originals and out of necessity in bringing the stories into modern times. The primary issue I take with the liberties of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s rendition is the straying from storyline. In season two, the introduction of super-criminal and villain for hire Jim Moriarty upped the ante of each episode. They were not just crimes now, but interlocking strings in the complicated web spun by Sherlock’s nemesis. It worked very well for season two. However, rather than returning to solving interesting and complicated cases in season three, it seems the writers felt that they could not deescalate the stakes that Sherlock was playing for. Thus they introduced a new super-villain who is significantly less interesting and seemingly unmotivated. Season three sought to deepen the portrait of the main characters, but did so at the cost flattening all the other characters in the show. So I will now tune into season four only interested in the fate of Holmes and Watson. Molly, Lestradt, Ms. Hudson, Mycroft are all less interesting to me now because they seem less interesting to Sherlock.

This brings up a second issue, characters. One issue I am constantly bothered by in modern entertainment (film, literature, and even sports) is that everything has to be larger-than-life, everything has to be extraordinary. With the exception of the titular character, Sherlock had done an amazing job of making other characters believable as real people. Dr. Watson, true to canon, was an army doctor. Trained in combat and in medicine, a helpful companion to have. When Watson returns to the life of a citizen, he gets a job working at an ordinary clinic. He is not a brain surgeon. He is not a diagnostic specialist. He is an intelligent and capable man, whose friend happens to be the world’s greatest detective. But it seems that the creators of Sherlock have a difficult time thinking ordinary people are interesting any more. This is modeled in no one better than the Mrs. Dr. John Watson, Mary. In one episode we are introduced to Mary and she seems fantastic. In fact she quickly grew on me as a new edition to the cast for the first two episodes. But, then, they made her a retired assassin. Completely unnecessary. I don’t know that anyone else has stated this point more clearly than the editors at the theological periodical First Things

My main issue with such unnecessary drama is that it feeds into a current ideological climate sustained and promoted by much of social media. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram we post idealized versions of our lives. Pictures of the extreme moments. Amazing meals, unbelievable trips, blemishes headshots. It implicitly gives the impression that our lives are far more exciting, adventurous, and charming than they actually are. Now, when it comes to social media, this is an inescapable side effect. To engage in social media in a healthy manner, it must be accepted and acknowledged. But it need not be so in film and television. People can be interesting without a superpower. Ms. Hudson is interesting in her frailty and craftiness. Molly Hooper is interesting in her girlish crush and penetrating observation. Lestradt was interesting as the leader of one team and the interested observer of another. Oddly enough, it was giving Mary a wet-work back ground that flattened her character a bit. In the first two episodes of the season I was interested to see who she would be in terms of the cast, it is clear at the close of season three that she only serves to draw out aspects of the main characters. She will most likely become stock.

Since these are all inter-related, I will double-back to something I mentioned previously, the drive to conspiracy. My hope is that season four returns to the form of season one, making the underlying theme the development of Sherlock and Watson’s lives with different crazy cases to be thrown in. Watson is a husband and father, it will be interesting to see how that impedes and augments his ability to be a side-kick. However that is not likely to happen, as the last season ended with a prelude of a resurrected Moriarty.

This seems to be the case with many shows, I hope Sherlock is able to recover from it. The worst offender is the decade old medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. I am almost certain that more doctors have died in that hospital then patients at this point. At each season finale the stakes have to be higher. In Grey’s that might mean killing off a main character or three. In Sherlock it means increasingly complex, increasingly dangerous, increasingly sinister plots, murders, and villains. But you can only get so sinister. In fact Moriarty is about as good as it gets in that department. 

In reality, and the variation of reality of Sherlock, not every interesting case is linked to some great conspiracy, some extravagant and entangled web. Making it appear to be so in terms of the meta-narrative of the series and its individual seasons will detach the series from its grounding in reality. It will also steam roll the characters. The last season saw the flattening of several major characters, this one will likely see the introduction of more flat characters. The reason for this, as the First Things editors discuss in their podcast, is that the world becomes simultaneously too small and too big. The grand conspiracies stretch the setting of the narrative to a global scale. At the same time the lack of concern with difficult, albeit mundane nature of crime will push the story arc entirely onto Sherlock Holmes. All the crimes will involve him, like the Moriarty plot line, they seek to get his attention. That is why they are of interest to him. Ironically, then, as they attempt to humanize Holmes through his friendship with Watson they will make Holmes selfish obsessed with only that which concerns him.

Well, this is a strange post to kick the new iteration of my blog off with. Most of my posts will deal with theology, philosophy, masculinity, and such. This is more of a cultural critique plus a kind of anticipation of what quickly became a favorite television show of mine. My apologies if this bored you, but thanks for reading.

t.d.h.

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