Why I might have to file Sherlock under “guilty pleasures”

I confess, I don’t think I would have actually ended up writing this one if Mihir Fadnavis hadn’t written this piece on Sherlock. But reading how happy he was with season 3 made me… well, it made me write about 2,000 words. Sigh. An edited version of this is up on Firstpost.


If you’re a fan of BBC’s Sherlock, a modern reimagining of the fictional “consulting detective” created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, then you remember seeing the show’s first episode with tingling clarity. I watched it because I was bored, nothing else that was new looked interesting, and because I like murder mysteries.

Remembering the nonchalance with which I’d started watching Sherlock is amusing because three episodes later, the first season was over, and I’d turned into a rabid Sherlock junkie. Waiting for the second season to air, I re-read the original stories, devoured blog posts, scuttled through analyses on Tumblr, and came very close to counting down to the premiere. As much as I adore Benedict  Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, it wasn’t the appeal of a man with otter doppelgangers and his hobbity partner that made me a fan of the show. It was Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s writing.

The stories in Sherlock were dazzling: intelligent, contemporary, original and yet full of the geeky glee of fan fiction. The sharp repartee and meticulous plotting in the stories were matched by the extraordinary care invested in the production design, masterful direction and superb acting. Simply put, Sherlock was the cleverest detective show I’d seen in ages. The writing was good enough for me to not grumble (much) about how Moffat and Gattis trussed up a fabulous woman character from the Sherlock Holmes canon – Irene Adler – into a damsel in distress who must be saved by Sherlock. (They may have done the same to the unnamed woman shooter who kills Milverton in “The Last Bow”, by making her Mary Watson, the assassin who fails to make a kill shot, in the third season.)

Cut to January 2014. Sherlock aired on Indian television before it reached America, much to my delight. The last episode of Sherlock‘s third season came to a close last week, ending with a twisty flourish that is intended to keep Tumblr buzzing for the next few months: Jim Moriarty is alive.

It was a meta moment: Moriarty appeared looking like one of the gifs that are so popular on Tumblr, on tv screens that were being seen on tv screens. “Did you miss me?” he asked. And all I could think of was the climax of Coolie, when Kader Khan kept shooting Amitabh Bachchan, but wrapped up in a holy (and blindingly shiny) chador, the latter just would not die.

For those who haven’t inherited a legacy of heroes who defy death on a regular basis, no doubt it’s deeply exciting to figure out how first Irene Adler, then Sherlock and now Moriarty can outwit death. (Someone please write a piece offering Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s CAPS-LOCK-SPEAKING Death’s opinion on these mortals who evade him.) But for us Bollywood-wallahs, this death-defying behaviour is not cool, it’s just filmi. It was at that moment, as season three ended and part of me wept at how I need season four *now*, another part of me wondered whether it was time to file Sherlock under “guilty pleasure” in my mind 1BHK (not all of us can have palaces).

There were many amazing moments and gripping performances in the third season of Sherlock, but when it came to story, every episode was weak in comparison to all of season one and most of season two. The dialogue still crackled and the modern makeovers were interesting, but the focus of the writing was on fandom and tricks, rather than story.

hair-ruffleMost of the first episode, “The Empty Hearse”, turned Tumblr posts trying to explain Sherlock’s death at the end of season two into beautifully televised scenes (complete with a Sherlock hair ruffle that was quite obviously meant to become a trending topic). A mystery was tacked on at the end in a half-hearted rush. As introductions to arch villains go, the last scene of “The Empty Hearse” was a pretty bland one. Worse, the failure to solve this mystery didn’t seem to needle Sherlock.

The second episode was an ode to the bromance between Sherlock and John. It contained sprinkles of past mysteries and a brief appearance by Irene Adler, who was established as an erotic distraction while Mycroft and Watson featured as aides or helpful hecklers in Sherlock’s head. As a story, “The Sign of Three” was better plotted than “The Empty Hearse”, with the central mystery unfurling cleverly across the wandering events of the episode. However, it lacked the tight, ominous quality that characterised the show. This was Sherlock in rom-com territory.

Finally, there was the finale: “His Last Vow”, which played on Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’s final case, “The Last Bow”. Shuttling as it did between the revelation of Mary’s actual identity and the extent of information at Charles Augustus Magnussen’s command, the episode left the viewer with many questions. For one, we only learn that Mary has assumed an identity and is probably foreign; we don’t find out who she was or why she came to England. Mary’s story distracted attention from Magnussen, who didn’t really get to flaunt his evil powers much, barring the episode’s brilliant opening sequence. That he comes across as villainous is more a testament to the acting than the story. While in the first two seasons, there was a subtle but strong live wire connecting the different mysteries to Moriarty, Magnussen doesn’t enjoy that kind of arch villain characterisation in season three.

I’m not good at coining hashtags, but here are the two that sum up season three for me: #SherlockFails and #Where’sMyBro? Sherlock spends more time getting things wrong rather than reaching the right conclusions in this season. Unsolved mysteries, Mary’s identity and intent, Janine’s vindictiveness, Magnussen’s mind palace – the catalogue of things Sherlock doesn’t anticipate runs long. He’s outwitted repeatedly and it’s a punishing blow to Sherlock’s past brilliance that a kid is able to spot connections that he misses. (Who figures out the connection between guardsman’s murder and what’s being plotted at John and Mary’s wedding? Not Sherlock.)

Ultimately, Sherlock is a pawn – he’s not the prize that Magnussen wants; Mycroft is. There are few moments sadder than when Sherlock realises he was completely wrong about Magnussen and his method. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s a crack addict who can deduce almost as well as Sherlock can, which only serves to make Sherlock seem less unique and therefore less awesome.

Meanwhile, mushy first-man speeches notwithstanding, there’s a yawning emotional distance between Sherlock and John. In the first two seasons, they weren’t shown indulging in male bonding exercises as they do in this last season, but there was an easy synergy between the two of them as they worked together. This time, they were drinking together and talking about one another’s feelings, but ironically, they’re strangely disjointed as a crime-solving duo. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the episode is when Sherlock claws himself back to life because he refuses to leave John with “that wife”. But when it comes to dealing with Magnussen, the two flounder, unable to aid one another and helplessly watching the other being played.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots to love in the third season and I am already suffering from withdrawal symptoms (why do you think I’m writing all this?). The season contains delicious little hints that you piece together later. Like, for instance, the scene from the second episode, when Sherlock read the best wishes sent to John and Mary by those who couldn’t attend their wedding. One was from someone called Cam, who sent Mary “oodles of love” and wished her family could have seen this day. When Charles Augustus Magnussen was introduced at the start of episode three, my first reaction was “Omg, it wasn’t Cam, but CAM!”, followed by frantic YouTubing for that precise moment from episode two, staring unblinkingly at how disturbed Mary is at the mentions of CAM and her family.

(I’m not the only one who thought of this, in case you think my mind1BHK deserves a cameo on Sherlock.)

Magnussen, played by Lars Mikkelsen, is a fantastic villain. He’s cold, clinical and intensely slimy, which is quite an acting feat when you consider how delicious Mikkelsen is without the trappings of villainy.

Come on. Admit it. He's pretty darn hot.
Come on. Admit it. He’s pretty darn hot.

Magnussen obviously contains elements of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch and the media’s power over people’s lives and opinions cast a long but faint shadow over the last episode of the third season. I kept remembering that unforgettable first episode of Black Mirror, which tackled the issue of media, power and politics with such chilling perfection. In “His Last Vow”, Magnussen is a wonderful character, but his story doesn’t do either him justice. Magnussen doesn’t just have a mind palace that rivals Sherlock’s, he has a media empire to turn anything he wants into the truth. He has news outlets at his command for any information he may want and if evidence can’t be procured against a target, Magnussen can create the evidence needs. That is way cooler, in an evil way, than Google Glass. Unfortunately, the episode just touches upon this theme, instead of exploring it.

In contrast to the purity of Magnussen’s evil is Ms Ambiguity herself, Mary Morstan. Amanda Abbington as Mary added a cheerful sprinkle of feisty femininity in the first two episodes. There were no laboured attempts at making hers a Strong Woman Character. She felt real and seemed the perfect complement to both Sherlock and John. By the end of the third episode, the only thing that we can be sure about, as far as Mary is concerned, is that she’s a woman. All the little moments that made us love her in the past now have a sinister edge to them. In “The Sign of Three”, it was cute how she was able to make both Sherlock and John think they were doing her a favour by going out to solve a case. Now, it comes across as expert manipulation. How do you trust someone who can manipulate Sherlock Holmes? Especially when she follows up nearly-killing him with gun-toting threats.

Sherlock later tells John they can trust Mary, but he doesn’t explain how “that wife” became an ally. Are we expected to forget that when she shot him, he was convinced the shot was meant to kill him? Sherlock’s tour de force in the mind palace is pivoted on him thinking that bullet is going to kill him. There’s never any doubt of this even though he later comes to the conclusion that this was Mary’s way of salvaging a tricky situation. However, don’t forget: the first thing he does after Mary pays him a visit in the hospital is leave, returning only after John knows the truth about Mary and will therefore be keeping an eye on her.

Mary is one of the two people – three, if you suspect Mycroft is always a few steps ahead of his little brother – who outwit Holmes repeatedly in the third season. What makes her more dangerous than Magnussen is that she’s alive, safe and the USB that was the only record of her past, labelled “A.G.R.A.” – am I the only one who’s hoping against hope that the Sherlock crew will descend upon north India when shooting the next season? – has been destroyed.

Of course, given Sherlock’s track record, maybe Magnussen will also pull a Lazarus on us and revive himself. But leaving that aside, Mary muddles the basic setup of the finale. Magnussen said there was no real archive and Mary is in possession of her files, so why was she bothering to kill him and why is Sherlock going after him? Not just that, given Mary was about to shoot Magnussen and not asking for a tour of his vaults, it seems she knew all the information was in Magnussen’s  mind palace. Why didn’t she drop Sherlock a hint? Is Mary connected to the Eastern European network of Moriarty’s that Sherlock was dismantling while pretending to be dead? Could it be a coincidence that when Mary and John aren’t on talking terms because John doesn’t trust her, there’s an assignment in Eastern Europe for Sherlock that Mycroft is certain will have him killed within six months? How curious that just when Mary has won back John’s trust, Moriarty appears on the telly and Sherlock doesn’t need to go to Eastern Europe anymore.

The endings of the first two seasons of Sherlock left viewers with questions of what would happen next. This time, Moffat and Gatiss have ended the season with an invitation to speculate what may have happened beyond the onscreen action. It’s lazier writing that seems to rely upon the frenzied interest of fans rather than the writers’ considerable skills.  Sherlock is the last show I thought would become a guilty pleasure; something that’s not really satisfying, but ends up being enjoyable despite obvious flaws. Then again, rumour has it that the next season will air around Christmas 2014 and that Irene Adler will be back. So maybe this is all an elaborate setup for the return of the old Sherlock, of acerbic wit and watertight plots. Until then, there’s Tumblr.



3 thoughts on “Why I might have to file Sherlock under “guilty pleasures””

    1. Definitely not appreciative enough for the Cumberbitch label, but I did love the first season of the show and one and a half episodes of the second season. I think I’m more enamoured of Mark Gatiss.

      1. season 1 – sigh. its always season one that is good. very rarely do shows pick up after the first stellar season. e.g. downton, fringe, etc

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