Sherlock: What’s “The Story”?
This is the story we’ve been telling from the beginning. A story about to reach its climax. —Mark Gatiss, on Series IV
Whatever else we do, wherever we all go, all roads lead back to Baker Street — and it always feels like coming home. Ghosts of the past are rising in the lives of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson bringing adventure, romance and terror in their wake. —Mark Gatiss, on Series IV
And thus, with two comments from Mark Gatiss at the start of filming the next season of Sherlock, a spiral of speculation began, with fans mostly latching onto two words: “story” and “romance.” While I certainly celebrate fans’ differing speculation on what Gatiss’ comments might be referring to, I can’t help but want to offer up my own take on what The Story is, and what sort of climax we’re heading toward.
Sherlock, from its outset, is about John and Sherlock saving each other from being alone—and becoming two against the world. After the events of A Study in Pink, Mycroft speculates on how John might influence his baby brother: “Interesting, that soldier fellow. He could be the making of my brother. Or make him worse than ever.” This idea, of what kind of person Sherlock will be, is the core of this narrative. That’s the story we’ve been watching unfold for years, and what is moving toward a climax.
What kind of person is Sherlock, when we meet him? Consider that throughout Series I, we are presented with criminals choosing and threatening targets (some innocent, some not so much). For Sherlock, solving the puzzles mattered more. In response to John’s astonishment about that fact in The Great Game Sherlock replies, “Will caring about them help save them?” Of course by the end of that episode, Sherlock’s mode of “not caring” is put to the test when John himself is strapped in the Semtex vest. With John in danger, we see that in fact Sherlock does care. But he always has—he just doesn’t make it as obvious as John does, though. John’s able to demonstrate that emotion more easily, by grabbing Moriarty and showing he’s willing to sacrifice himself to save Sherlock. Sherlock’s caring is . . . secretive. Regardless, the end of Series I seems to ask how much caring—emotion—is a liability. Or a weakness.
Series II picks up that very thread, adding other emotions to the mix for Sherlock to deal with: attraction, fear, doubt, trust. By the time we get to The Reichenbach Fall, we’ve got Sherlock willing to sacrifice his reputation, his life, his relationship with John, all because of the extent to which he cares about his growing network of true friends. The depth of that caring remains secret, however, at least to some. All along we continue to ask, has becoming involved with people—which Mycroft scoffs at later in Series III—been a good or bad thing for Sherlock? Is he better, or worse, because of it?
Were Sherlock completely on his own (i.e. as he was before John), he could live and do The Work, free from any entanglement. In many ways Mycroft himself is an example of what that life might be like, and it’s one Sherlock questions later in The Empty Hearse. After Sherlock suggests his brother is lonely, Mycroft replies, “I’m not lonely, Sherlock.” Sherlock’s rejoinder, “How would you know?” tells us something about Sherlock’s own awareness of himself with regard to this emotion.
As Series III continues, The Story about the kind of man Sherlock is becoming—and whether that’s good or bad—becomes literally part of the language of the episodes. In The Empty Hearse John forgives Sherlock for staging his death and says, “You are the best and the wisest man that I have ever known.” Later, in The Sign of Three, this talk about being the “best” returns, as John asks Sherlock to be his Best Man for the wedding. Initially Sherlock thinks John’s asking for his opinion on who was the best man he’d ever known. His response? “Billy Kincaid, the Camden Garrotter,” who in spite of the garrottings “personally managed to save three hospitals from closure and ran the best and safest children’s homes in North England.” The good things Kincaid did were mostly unknown to the public—and as an example of a “best man,” it feels quite perfect coming from Sherlock. “Stacking up the lives saved against the garrotings . . .” he continues, before he’s interrupted by John. Sherlock’s measuring the good against the bad is interesting, because of course in spite of his talk about being a “high-functioning sociopath,” we all know he thinks about the costs of things. Or at least he does more than he used to. But again, is weighing the costs a liability, too? A weakness?
This discussion about the “best man” leads into John asking more directly for Sherlock to be his Best Man, and while he performs those duties admirably and with care, as we move toward the end of the series and the acts of His Last Vow, we see Sherlock sacrifice himself (and potentially, his life for real) for his best friend’s and Mary’s future. He is like Kincaid here, isn’t he? Performing his own version of a garroting, with the nature of his good deeds known only to a few. He becomes the best man in that moment. Perhaps. Mycroft’s assessment, that his “brother is a murderer,” isn’t exactly praise.
Tied to The Story throughout all three series, incidentally, is Moriarty, the “consulting criminal” to Sherlock’s “consulting detective.” Both highly intelligent and perceptive, both easily bored unless the game is clever enough, Moriarty’s wish to “burn the heart out of” Sherlock is to render Sherlock exactly like himself. Moriarty has loomed over every series, which is another reason he’s a key part of The Story. He’s the foil to Sherlock, and tells us what Sherlock would potentially be without heart, without emotion or caring.
All of these pieces build with great momentum by the time we get to the special The Abominable Bride. Inside Sherlock’s mind palace, Moriarty looms large, as a ghost himself who taunts his enemy from within. We already saw Moriarty locked away in Sherlock’s mind, back in His Last Vow. In the special, Moriarty isn’t locked away; he’s not even bound by the Victorian era Sherlock has created to think through his nemesis’ apparent return. “I am your weakness!” Moriarty yells, at the edge of the precipice near the end of the episode. “I keep you down!” If Moriarty is Sherlock’s weakness, though, then what does that mean for The Story? Maybe Moriarty stands in for an idea that Sherlock has always expressed in different ways, that “all emotion is abhorrent.” That’s the life Moriarty seems to live (or lived). It’s why he wants to “burn the heart out” of Sherlock; it would make Sherlock into Moriarty. Sherlock thinking emotion is a weakness is what keeps him down. The weakness isn’t emotion in other words; it’s suppressing and hiding it.
And Sherlock, on some level, knows this. It’s why he tells John, “You keep me right.” But the tension between all of these warring ideas about “being involved,” as Mycroft puts it in The Sign of Three, and being able to do The Work, will come to a head in Series IV, and be put to an ultimate test. Perhaps then we’ll see the verdict rendered on Mycroft’s speculation: is Sherlock better, or worse, thanks to John (and more generally “being involved”)? That’s what we’re going to find out, I think, in 2017.
It will likely get a lot darker before it gets better. The “romance” part, however it fits into all of this, will hopefully help all of us deal with some of the pain of the rest.
Oh, I forgot how much I love thinking through these things with the lenses you provide! You are so right, about all of it. 🙂 I was thinking as I was reading, that John in Series 3 has really become a double-edged sword, himself, going back to Mycroft’s comment about making Sherlock better or worse. In the beginning, it seems as if John makes Sherlock unequivocally better. John is Sherlock’s friend, he watches Sherlock’s back, he makes him eat, he defends him, he stands up for him, etc., etc. In Series 2, John starts to get confused – he is jealous of Irene, he doesn’t quite know what to do with Sherlock’s vulnerability and manipulation at Baskerville, and then by The Fall, he has to face the possibility that everything he believed about Sherlock might have been a lie. He rejects that possibility at Sherlock’s grave, but it comes back to rear its ugly head when Sherlock reappears in TEH. And John spends all – ALL – of Series Three so angry. And the longer he is angry and refuses to see what Sherlock has done, refuses to understand what Sherlock has sacrificed for him, the sadder Sherlock becomes and the closer he is to going back to drugs (notice that he was high on the plane, in the moment when he thought he had left John forever and John didn’t understand). What is it John says in HLV? “Who would he [Sherlock] bother protecting?” Even then John doesn’t get it yet, or has repressed the possibility of Sherlock’s emotions so much that he can’t acknowledge them even to himself.
So in other words, if John forces that repression onto Sherlock as well, if John refuses to acknowledge what Sherlock has done for him, then JOHN could very well be the catalyst that turns Sherlock into Moriarty. Refusal to acknowledge emotion goes both directions, and John suppresses a lot of it. If John has always been that tipping point for Sherlock, if knowing John has allowed Sherlock to acknowledge and admit his own emotions, then John could also make him do the exact opposite – shut down completely. Sherlock will become Moriarty if the one person who supposedly knows him the best (John) refuses to see/acknowledge him and his emotions clearly. And ironically, in some ways I think John saw Sherlock better at the pool than he has since. His own perceptions have become muddied with anger and betrayal (also things Moriarty is very good at).
I am really a hopeless Johnlock person, you see, despite all of my love of the nods and subtext and careful balance that Moftiss have struck. 🙂 But It’s interesting to me that there are all kinds of visuals and textual references to illusions and mirrors and doubles in both Series 3 and TAB. Which Sherlock is the real Sherlock – the one we all see, or the one John thinks he sees? Which Mary is the real Mary, the wife or the assassin or some combination of the two? And there are those bizarre physical ticks shared between Moriarty and Mary and the ghost bride, too. It makes me think that NO ONE in this show, at this point, is seeing anyone else clearly, and that goes double for how John is seeing Sherlock. There is too much smoke and mirrors, and John has been betrayed and so angry for so long, that he’s not seeing anything for what it really is.
The lovely way you’ve summarized John’s emotional development (or lack thereof), had me falling from the cliff into the river of tears below! John *is* so full of anger, and the Series 3 episodes that bookend TSOT focus on ways John feels betrayed by Sherlock and Mary, respectively. In the middle of that painful sandwich is that lovely, hilarious, touching wedding episode in which two people essentially make vows to John. Even so, there’s that tiny moment after Sherlock says the most amazing things about John, where John turns to Mary and says something like, “If I get up to hug him please stop me.” Mary refuses, of course, but it’s just another little example of the way John seeks to control (or suppress) his own emotional response to things. Meanwhile Sherlock lets his words and music flow.
John, meanwhile, continues to see but not observe, and that conversation on the tarmac is so sad partly because John doesn’t seem to understand the reality of Sherlock’s situation. Or does he, and he represses his response anyway? Heartbreaking. But here’s a guy who won’t face the reality of his wife’s history, either, thus pushing that down too—and incidentally, has a prepared speech so that he doesn’t speak off the cuff, emotionally . . . Dear, dear John.
And then we get TAB, which I find so difficult to talk about, but it’s utterly fascinating, and so much YES about the parallels between Moriarty and Mary. I think I like best the parts that explore the writing John does, and the “version” of Sherlock he presents to the public (of course we get all of that through Sherlock’s brain, though). “The calculating machine” is that version, but why? In spite of John knowing that Sherlock is the “most human” person he’s met, it’s funny that he wants to paint a portrait of someone who seems devoid of humanity. I love, sort of related to this, that in TAB Sherlock is (high, but) reading John’s blog post about how they met. He admits to periodically reading John’s blog posts—to “see himself through John’s eyes”—and seems to like that John makes him out to be more clever than he feels.
It’s like they both have erected some sort of perfect man statue, of a person who is controlled and clever, who is not insecure about anything or vulnerable, and in their own ways, they’re each trying to achieve that ideal. What a bunch of sillies they are.
I’m a hopeless Johnlock person too, Emily, in the end, but you know that I’ve got to at least plan for the worst case scenario. So many lovely themes and threads, that’s for sure 🙂
Oh, the tears! I know. This is another reason why I don’t write or read a lot of meta about this show, because I almost can’t stand to. I love thinking about it in short bursts, but if I thought about these two idiots all the time, I think I would be tempted to throw myself off the Falls. 🙂
“another little example of the way John seeks to control (or suppress) his own emotional response to things. Meanwhile Sherlock lets his words and music flow.”
That’s true; I hadn’t really thought of that moment as another example of John’s ability to suppress things, but it is, of course. And as you point out next, there’s also the fact that he won’t face Mary’s past, and won’t face what’s happening on the tarmac – whether he realizes what Sherlock is facing or is really completely in denial about it, he won’t acknowledge it.
All of that said, I have to wonder whether Series 4 is really going to be more about JOHN than it is about Sherlock. S1 was about the pair of them, and S2 and S3 were really about Sherlock developing as a person, as a human being with feelings, about him learning that he has emotions and does feel things for others, especially John. John has gone from admiring Sherlock and defending him, to being confused about him, to being so angry with him he can barely see straight – and he’s acknowledged none of it. At some point, he has to own up to all of that and deal with it, and understand what it means. He has to see Sherlock for the person he truly is, which means acknowledging the person he himself truly is – an adrenaline addicted danger junkie who hates conventionality. (I really wonder what made John think he wanted normal things and cling to them so desperately. Side effect of his family life pre-Sherlock?)
I think you’re right that they have both tried to erect “perfect” versions of themselves, both to the world and to each other, and those facades can only hold up for so long. Sherlock’s is down at this point, I think; he’s done everything for John short of saying “I love you,” and everyone but John seems to know it; he’s even let John see him high, which is not something he ever did up until that point in the Christmas special, post-tarmac. John is next. He can’t hold his version of “normal” up forever, when his life is so clearly not normal in any sense.
Out of curiosity, why do you find the special so difficult to talk about? I mean, it’s disturbing on a lot of levels, and challenging to talk about in terms of time and perception, since it’s all ultimately in Sherlock’s head. But was there something you found really upsetting or difficult about it?
I know that we do have to plan for the worst case scenario – and even “worst case” is not that bad. At the least, I have to believe that Sherlock and John will end up together in the end much as they were at the beginning – still flatmates, still best friends, still solving crime against the world, and Moftiss will give us yet another subtextual nod, a la ACD. That’s clearly what Sherlock wants, given how Victorian John and Sherlock were left in his mind palace. Since Moftiss’ careful tributes to ACD have been wonderful so far, I can’t believe that an ending they craft is going to be unsatisfying, no matter how they choose to go about it. (Knock on wood.)
Yep, I agree about how things will end–and all of that, whatever we get, will be lovely and fine!
As for TAB, mostly it’s just wrapping my brain around the layers. Remembering that it’s Sherlock’s interpretation of whatever and whoever . . . And I love thinking about it all, but no matter what happens or what a character says, it comes down to thinking: that’s how *Sherlock* views that person, etc., and so what does that mean, and what might we learn about that character, given that filter.
I do absolutely love that we got SO MUCH Sherlock insight in that episode, though. So utterly thankful for that!