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

sherlock-4And 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.