**This post contains spoilers for Series 3 of BBC’s Sherlock.**
I was very disappointed in the third series of the BBC’s Sherlock.
I’m not angry, I’m not bitter, I’m not upset. I admit that I was all of those things during the first half-hour of 3.03, “His Last Vow,” when it originally aired in the United Kingdom on January 12th: John Watson busts into a run down house to rescue his neighbor, where he encounters Sherlock Holmes… who is high on heroin.
Of all things. Heroin.
But I’ll come back to that, because I want to talk about the season as a whole.
Sherlock has been underground for two years, working to take down Moriarty’s network from the inside. “The Empty Hearse” opens with Sherlock being rescued from what looks to be a botched operation by his dear brother, who tells him it’s time to return to Baker Street. It turns out Mycroft was in on the fake death the whole time, as were Sherlock’s parents and, as we already knew, Molly Hooper. The only people who didn’t know were John, Detective Inspector Lestrade, and poor grief-ridden Anderson.
He returns to John and expects his best friend to be happy to see him alive and well, and John’s actual reaction surprises him. Through four scenes, we watch John erupt into rages and physically attack Sherlock, who still expects John’s forgiveness the whole time. If the dynamic looks familiar, that’s because it is familiar: It’s emotional manipulation, bordering on emotional abuse. If you think that’s bad, it’s nothing compared to Sherlock’s treatment of John at the end of the episode, as they stand over a ticking bomb in an abandoned subway tunnel. Sherlock figures out a way to switch off the bomb, but he lets it continue ticking as John panics. He waits for his best friend to finally forgive him for the grief he’s endured for the past two years. It’s no surprise when John forgives him, because that’s what John does. Sherlock’s grin at his best friend after he switches off the bomb is particularly cruel.
Viewers were subjected to bait-and-switch tactics regarding Sherlock’s survival of the Reichenbach Fall, starting with bungee cords and a kiss with Molly and ending with a complicated group effort involving Sherlock’s homeless network. The problem with this tactic was that even when Sherlock tells Anderson what he claims to be the true version of how he coordinated the fall, we still don’t believe it. For all intents and purposes, we still don’t know how he did it. (Picture Gatiss and Moffatt clapping each other on the back and congratulating themselves on being so clever.) If the audience can’t fix themselves on the truth of Sherlock’s survival, what do we have to cling to? His word? It means nothing these days.
The second episode, “The Sign of Three,” was lighter fare and worked hard to humanize Sherlock a bit, because that’s what’s been lacking from this version: a reason to sympathize with Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch can be as expressive as he wants, but there’s no getting around the clinical writing and the cold tone with which he delivers his lines. This time, however, we watch as Sherlock agonizes over a best man’s speech, and over being the best man in the first place. It seems to be news to him that he’s John’s best friend and first choice for the role.
The episode itself is the most stylized of the three, with a heavy reliance on flashbacks and text graphics as Sherlock awkwardly toasts at John and Mary’s wedding reception.
He accidentally makes everyone cry and even asks John if he did something wrong, and then he begins recalling some of their cases in the quest to tell funny stories about John. He starts with “The Bloody Guardsman,” which he calls, “the most perfect locked-room mystery of which I am aware.” He follows that with “The Mayfly Man,” which happened during his and John’s bachelor party pub crawl. But at the end of his toast, he realizes the Mayfly Man is at the wedding itself, with intent to kill, and that the Bloody Guardsman case was also part of the plot. It’s all wrapped up nicely, the photographer is arrested and hauled away by Lestrade, and then it’s time for the first dance. Sherlock plays a beautiful waltz for John and Mary’s first dance, and he becomes emotional when he guesses that Mary is pregnant (the sign of three) before he leaves the party, early and alone.
“The Sign of Three” did a lot to make Sherlock more relatable, but the problem is that it’s followed up by “His Last Vow,” an episode which takes place a month after the wedding. John is craving adventure and Sherlock is claiming to be “undercover” as he shoots up heroin. I’ve done my best not to compare this show to CBS’ Elementary, because to do so is ultimately unfair; while both shows draw from the same source material, they’re such different beasts that aside from familiar names and less familiar cases, they’re practically unrelated.
That doesn’t change the fact that when a new Sherlock Holmes-based show was announced by CBS, Sherlock fandom and writers alike took to the internet to air their grievances. Lawsuits were threatened, infringement was claimed, and feelings were very clearly hurt. Sue Vertue, executive producer of Sherlock (and wife of Steven Moffat) made her thoughts on the matter crystal clear* in early 2012, when Elementary was still in pre-production. The demarcation was clear: Elementary was ordered to stay as far away from Sherlock’s styling, writing, and concept as humanly possible, or they would suffer the consequences.
After two years and around 40 episodes, Elementary has not only successfully differentiated itself from its BBC predecessor, it’s thrown down a gauntlet. The one element missing from the BBC version is the human element, the ability to sympathize (or even empathize) with the lead as much as we do with the side characters, but Elementary has that in abundance, from the great and flawed Sherlock Holmes himself all the way down to his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, who has only appeared once so far. The relationship between Elementary’s Sherlock and his Watson, Joan, is more balanced and healthy for both of them; they’re codependent in a way where each would be devastated to lose the other, but neither is able to emotionally manipulate the other to get what they want. (It’s not for lack of trying on Sherlock’s part, because he’s still Sherlock Holmes, but Elementary rewrites the book on emotional manipulation when their Sherlock finally meets his Moriarty.)
So after all of the media surrounding this upstart American network and their gall to modernize their own version of Sherlock Holmes (and move him to New York, the nerve!), BBC’s Sherlock returned in January to a bit of an uphill battle. Stylized episodes and fanservice will only get you so far; they needed that human element, especially after what their Sherlock had just put John through for the past two years.
In the first two series, we got hints that Sherlock at least dabbled in drugs: he insists at one point that he’s clean; he is threatened with a drugs bust by Lestrade, and when John proclaims that the police would never find drugs in his apartment, Sherlock instructs him to shut up; and a there are a couple of hints from Mycroft along the way. At no point does anyone indicate that Sherlock is a recovering drug addict or was ever addicted to anything stronger than cigarettes, even though in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon, Sherlock does cocaine on several occasions.
But now, suddenly, Sherlock is found in a drug den with heroin in his system. He’s slapped by Molly three times and reprimanded for “wasting his gift,” and then he’s greeted at Baker Street by his brother, who says of their parents, “It wouldn’t be the first time that your substance abuse has wreaked havoc with their line dancing.” Sure, there was no evidence that Sherlock didn’t have a problem with substances in the past, but sticking it in now, at the end of series 3, seems like this show’s version of a Hail Mary: “Well just throw this emotional backstory of substance abuse up in the air and see who catches it! But we won’t talk about it again after the first half-hour!”
And, not to be that guy, but heroin? Sherlock has the means and ability to obtain cocaine, which he used in canon (albeit diluted) so one has to wonder… why heroin, of all things? It’s frustrating, as a fan of both shows, to speculate that Sherlock was taking a deliberate shot at its American counterpart. Their Sherlock doesn’t need a sober companion or Narcotics Anonymous! He’s just over the heroin, he’s ready to solve a case! He has a higher-functioning mind, he doesn’t need such things as meetings and sponsors! That sort of commentary on drug addiction is insulting and degrading to people who are dealing with a very real issue.
“His Last Vow” also revealed Mary Morstan’s true backstory to an unsuspecting Sherlock and John. She’s being blackmailed by a villain named Charles Augustus Magnussen, who is supposed to be creepy, so much so that Sherlock claims he “turns my stomach” more than the terrorists and serial killers that he’s encountered before. But besides being another character with an eidetic memory (he has his own Mind Palace, they’re all the rage right now) and a predilection for licking strange women’s faces, Magnussen is not all that scary. The files he claims to have in order to blackmail his victims are all in his mind… so how does he do it, exactly? He can’t print or clip newspaper articles from his Mind Palace, so does he cut out letters from magazines, form them into a threat, and paste them to a piece of paper? He wants power, but how does he get it without the physical evidence to back it up?
Sherlock discovers Mary holding Magnussen at gunpoint, but she shoots Sherlock and sends him into his own Mind Palace, where Molly’s hanging out and instructing him on how to live through a bullet to the chest. In the end, Magnussen was blackmailing Mary to get to John, so he could get to Sherlock, and through Sherlock he would get to Mycroft, one of the most powerful men in the British government. Does that seem unnecessarily labyrinthine to you? Complex, sorry, they’d use the word complex.
The case of Magnussen is ultimately a letdown, because Sherlock reasonably (if slowly) figures out that the only course of action is to… shoot Magnussen in the head. All of his blackmail material is in his mind, so why not? This is what ultimately undermines Sherlock’s fear of the man, because what sort of edietic genius wouldn’t have a backup plan for security purposes? He was already held at gunpoint by Mary earlier in the episode, so he knew it was a likely scenario. Most smart villains have bombshells stored in safety deposit boxes, to be released upon their death, as a way of leveraging people like Sherlock. So again, what was it about Magnussen that was supposed to scare us? Why was Sherlock so sure that Magnussen had a physical vault?
Narratively, Magnussen did his job: he revealed Mary’s true identity to John and Sherlock, and he revealed Sherlock to be Mycroft’s true pressure point. The frustrating part is that it essentially turned a rather prominent villain from the canon into nothing more than a plot device.
More frustrating is the way both Mary and Sherlock insist that John knew what he was getting into when he married Mary. If the viewers saw what John (and even Sherlock) saw in the first two episodes, there was very little indication that Mary was a former spy or agent. Sherlock himself was stunned when he saw Mary holding Magnussen at gunpoint, and his initial deduction of her in 3.01 didn’t yield any signs of deception. When John is (understandably) upset at the revelation that his wife is a former assassin, Sherlock says John is addicted to a certain lifestyle. He was a doctor who went to war, his best friend is a sociopath who solves crime, and the landlady used to run a drug cartel. John tearfully tells Sherlock that Mary was supposed to be different.
“Why is she like that?”
“Because you chose her.”
“Why is everything always my fault?”
Such is the narrative of an emotionally manipulative relationship, but it’s an excuse that Mary attaches herself to when she starts explaining her conundrum to John and Sherlock. Magnussen had information on her that he intended to use to blackmail her, and she was willing to do anything to protect herself and her marriage from that information coming to light. So when she tells John the ugly truth of her past:
“That’s what you were? An assassin. How could I not see that?”
“You did see that. And you married me. Because he’s right — it’s what you like.”
And ultimately, at Christmas, John forgives her. Things don’t really change between them, John takes the necessity of fleshing out their backstories off the table, and these characters and their relationships mean that much less. Moffat and Gatiss may call it “complex” and “layered” but I prefer to call a spade a spade: It’s convoluted, and in the end, it’s always John shouting and stomping his feet before rolling over for the people around him. His marriage was supposed to be different, it was supposed to be the thing that kept him grounded in a world where Sherlock Holmes drags him to the brink of death at least three times a year.
Instead, he’s married the female version of his best friend, and Moffat and Gatiss are probably proud of how elegantly the two separate parts of John’s life have dovetailed. Maybe I should be happy that he’s happy, and I have nothing against Mary, but there were a lot of ways this story and this marriage could’ve gone, and this wasn’t a shining moment for this show.
And speaking of Mary, she has no say in her own blackmailing? I haven’t read the stories, but I did my research, and in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, the story on which this episode is based, Milverton is shot and killed by one of his female victims. In this episode, Sherlock drugs a pregnant woman who had previously held her blackmailer at gunpoint and robs her of the opportunity to bring about her own justice. Why? To protect her virtue? She was already a killer and she was willing to shoot her blackmailer before Sherlock caught her. To keep the pregnant woman from danger? Drugging her isn’t a logical alternative.
In the end, Mary went from a vibrant woman who was witty enough to keep Sherlock on his toes to a glorified plot device. Moffat and Gatiss used smoke and mirrors to make us think she was empowered, but Mary was forced to choose sentiment over logic, she was tricked into telling her husband the truth about her past without her knowledge, she was forced to sit and watch as Sherlock and John debated whether or not to help her, and then she was drugged and knocked out for the episode’s anticlimactic resolution. What part of that was empowerment, exactly? I would’ve preferred a Mary with her plain orphan backstory to this.
But while the scene was bad for Mary, it was a great moment when John was revealed to be sitting at the end of the hallway; the look on his face was pure hatred and betrayal, and he was far more convincing there than I would’ve expected.
The worst scene, by far, was the reveal at the end: Moriarty is alive. It’s like they couldn’t help themselves. I have no desire to watch more of Moriarty’s brand of antics, especially now that Sherlock’s two years of exile have been rendered pointless by Moriarty’s survival. If the show refuses to build up its character relationships organically, or even create a new villain for Sherlock to spar with, then I have no real interest in watching series 4. Only one thing could change my mind:
*Special thanks to Moff (no relation to Steven) for finding those links to Sue Vertue’s interviews.