Monday, February 17, 2014
Sherlock, Season 3
The great game
(Warning! Crucial plot points and story details to be discussed)
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' resurrection of the world's greatest detective is possibly even more inventive and better written overall than their recent incarnation of the world's most beloved Doctor--helps, I imagine, that they need only write three ninety-minute episodes per season (as opposed to thirteen or fourteen for Dr. Who), and have four novels and fifty-plus stories (not to mention over a hundred years of fan culture) to draw on for material and inspiration (Who counts on a mere fifty years).
"Oh, but it's set in modern times!" a skeptic might point out; "gets rid of all that tiresome period dress and decor." Yes, but to do so and still cleverly--at times brilliantly--evoke the 21st-century equivalent of nearly every tiny detail from the stories (a cell phone for a pocket watch; a phone's ring for an actual gold ring) implies close knowledge not only of Sherlock's original world but his present one (an ultramodern vision of London with the occasional (strikingly shot and lit) period setting). Sometimes the allusions go beyond clever to pointed sociopolitical commentary: when Sherlock's constant companion Dr. John Watson confesses to being a shell-shocked veteran from Afghanistan, one might recall that the original doctor was also a veteran of a similarly unwinnable war from the exact same region. Between the 19th and 21st century apparently much about war has failed to change.
A quick review of the episodes reveals an actual direction to the development of the series, and not just a collection of handsomely produced and performed adventures: the first season's premiere episode A Study in Pink introduces the sleuth (the sleekly intense Benedict Cumberbatch) and his singular methods, pairing him with faithful John (the more fumblingly warm, shufflingly comic Martin Freeman); witty fun, but the single most interesting moment is when Sherlock speculates on the true nature of John's trauma--not that he was stressed out by war, but by its absence. Early on Moffat gives us hints that he has novel ideas about Conan Doyle's characters, and will unveil them over time.
The first season's finale's title--The Great Game--is especially interesting: it might refer to the game played by The Baker Street Irregulars (arguably the most prestigious organization in the world devoted to Conan Doyle's fiction), who treat the characters as actual people, try explain inconsistencies among the stories; it also might refer to the Cold War (which historians called The Great Game 2), the titanic struggle between superpowers from post-World War 2 to the '90s--suggesting that Sherlock has become a power in the world, and in this episode meets his match in Jim Moriarty (memorably played as a fire-breathing sociopath by Andrew Scott). From the title the writers seem to suggest that they will flesh out the cardboard figures in Conan Doyle's fiction, and that said figures' struggles will happen on a more intense, far larger scale.
A note on Scott's Jim Moriarty--I've heard him described as "volatile" and "clearly insane." I think the key to understanding Jim in this series isn't that he's crazy--no one ever admits to being crazy (unless he has reason to do so)--the key is that he's so smart he's bored. That's why he does anything, from setting up vast criminal empires to constructing murderously elaborate puzzles: to entertain himself (it's why his voice keeps shifting wildly in pitch, tone and volume--he can't be bothered to speak the same way for an entire conversation, even an entire sentence). Jim obsesses over Sherlock not because the detective is his one worthy adversary in a world full of intellectual inferiors, but because the detective is his one consistently compelling amusement in a world full of middling fun. When villain finally bests hero (in Season 2's finale The Reichenbach Fall) he expresses not triumph but sad disappointment at the feat.
In A Scandal in Belgravia it's suggested that Sherlock may not be completely immune to the charms of women; John on the other hand actively pursues them in one episode after another, in his charmingly bumbling, near-helpless manner (which for all I know women find irresistible). With The Empty Hearse we're introduced to Mary Morstan, John's regular girlfriend; by episode's end John has proposed to Morstan, leaving it to Sherlock to crack the case at hand and save the Parliament from a Guy Fawkes-style act of terrorism; the next episode Mary moves to front and center as lynchpin of the episode's plot, with Sherlock called on to act as Best Man and write and deliver a wedding speech--arguably his greatest challenge to date (at one point he calls upon Scotland Yard for help, and they witlessly respond with assault team and helicopter).
Oh, and something else happened between The Reichenbach Fall and The Empty Hearse: Holmes died. Leaped off the roof of a building and smashed his head on the pavement below. It was the second season's stunning cliffhanger, and we waited some two years to learn not if Holmes survive the drop--Reichenbach Fall's final image revealed his unsmashed self--but how. Episode's writer Gatiss grants us a few tantalizing clues--Sherlock's brother Mycroft (played by Gatiss) was involved, as was twenty-five of the Baker Street Irregulars (not the abovementioned group but Sherlock's cadre of homeless spies)--but otherwise we never really find out. Philip Anderson--a Holmes hater turned obsessed follower--points out the impossibility of keeping Watson properly positioned; later it's suggested that Anderson was really out of his mind at the time. Arguably the most spectacular mystery in the series, and the most we're offered is a fairly plausible solution, with gaping holes large enough for a human body to fall through.
Along the way there's been a slight but steady shift of priorities throughout the series, from a show all about mysteries to a show all about the people caught up in mysteries. Sherlock survives a fatal plunge, pretends to be dead for two years? Fine, moving on--focus instead on John's violently unyielding reaction to the subterfuge, and Sherlock's struggle to earn John's forgiveness, a in my book far funnier, more engaging--and more poignant--issue than any mere faked death. The Sign of Three is a sloppily written mystery, with an even sloppier solution (can you really not notice being stabbed from behind?), but it's also a comic masterpiece (my favorite moment being Sherlock standing up to deliver The Simultaneously Worst and Best Wedding Speech in History), and a master class in character formation. We come to know John, Sherlock, and Mary; we come to care for them deeply, be invested in their fledgling happiness.
This imbalance--plot over character initially, later shifting to character over plot--is I'd say corrected in the third season's finale, His Last Vow, with the introduction of Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a foe to rival Scott's Moriarty. Magnussen trades in information (call him Moffat's take on Rupert Murdoch), with his media empire and tendency to use unscrupulous means to learn a person's 'pressure points.' Unlike Moriarty Magnussen practices caution; he is useful even to Mycroft, and occasionally serves an important function to the world--is presumably careful to continue to act in that capacity. On a personal level Magnussen is a monster: he gets up close and personal, and is not averse to being intimate with his victims, either sexually or scatologically. He has designs on Sherlock and friends, and intends to use his fabled database called Appledore--a series of gigantic vaults hidden underneath his palatial home--to destroy the three.
With The Sign of Three we see Sherlock, John and Mary forge a bond together; with His Last Vow we see those bonds bend and buckle under the stress of Magnussen. It's a thriller of an episode, no doubt of that--Sherlock penetrates Magnussen's office to try recover an incriminating piece of evidence--but it's also a revelatory one, as every twist of plot gives us key pieces of John's psychological profile (questions first put to our attention, as I've pointed out, as far back as A Study in Pink): why he's so devoted a friend to Sherlock, what actually attracted him to Mary in the first place. And as the tension escalates and the plot resolves itself it also resolves for us questions about the three respective characters: who cares for who, why, and how much--what price each are prepared to pay, in effect, for the guaranteed happiness of the other.
And here we might pause to consider what Moffat the writer's really all about. He's clever--on the basis of this series alone we know that much. He has a tendency to not kill off main characters, or if he does, to somehow negate the permanency of their death, an oft-repeated criticism of his plotting (though someday I'd like to spend a whole separate article arguing why this is actually a more not less cruel tendency in him). He betrays himself to us as early as his 2000 series Coupling, where a series of friends partake in the eponymous verb both sexually and socially amongst each other (yes it recalls a US TV series, but I'd say it compares to Friends in terms of comic and imaginative writing the way Bandello's original sex comedy must have compared to Much Ado About Nothing)--you're reminded of John's romantic flings, and eventual settling down with Mary. Moffat probably also modeled the relationship between John and Mary and Sherlock after a similarly constructed trio in his initial seasons as Dr. Who showrunner (a pair romantically linked--'coupled' if you like--plus a third hovering close, like a third wheel/best friend/guardian-godfather).
But perhaps the most revealing possible source/inspiration is Moffat's take on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the six-episode mini-series Jekyll. The writer has this irritating/fascinating tendency to reduce or sum up a character or complex situation into a single phrase or word (the Tenth Doctor: "The Man Who Regrets;" the Eleventh: "The Man Who Forgets;" Amy/Rory and The Doctor/River: "It's called marriage!"); or rather, he likes to pin a label on a person/complex situation that forces you to think about that person/situation in an entirely different way. One running gag/question that ran throughout the six episodes of Jekyll was: who or what was Hyde? By series end Moffat offered an answer: "Hyde is love." In that word and the implications of linking that word to Stevenson's famed monster we see Moffat's thoughts and attitudes towards this basic emotion, and hence his thoughts and attitudes towards John, Mary and Sherlock's cautiously constructed yet passionately maintained relationship.
It's a fine ninety minutes of television, so sleekly directed by Nick Hurran it's hard to think of as mere television. Entertaining, dramatic, funny, but also--in its own idiosyncratic, sociopathic way--poignant. Might be too much to call Sherlock the smartest series on television at the moment (I've been there before, with Breaking Bad), but somewhere along the way this series with the oversized brain and scintillating intellect has somehow grown a beating, swelling, full-blooded heart; not the worse thing in the world for a series could do.
First published in Businessworld, 2.6.14