Monday, April 15, 2013

Sherlock, mad bombers, and the way forward

This afternoon explosions wounded and killed a number of people at the Boston Marathon, prompting me to continue to write about Sherlock. This will make sense, I promise (as much as these glimpses into my brain ever do).

My other post on Sherlock was largely about Irene Adler, but I did touch on what I believe to be a flaw in the first two seasons of Sherlock, which is its outsized emphasis on Jim Moriarty, Sherlock’s incarnation of Professor Moriarty. My beef with the character in that post was, to briefly sum up, that he was basically everywhere. If you know the canon, his presence hangs over the first episode, because of the admittedly wonderful misdirect midway through the episode. Watson receives calls and texts from someone named ‘M’ who tells him not to get involved with Holmes. Eventually he is picked up on the street by a car with a woman who reveals little information. He’s taken to an empty warehouse, where he meets someone who fits the archetype of Moriarty perfectly; he is posh, upper-class, clearly intelligent, dresses well, and even has a cane.

When you’re watching an adaptation and you know the source material, there’s often something in the back of your head that’s comparing what you’re seeing to the source, and also something that’s picking out every new element you see and running it through a database of references back to the original. ‘M’ is very obviously set up to tweak that sense, but as I said, it turns out to be a brilliant misdirect, because ‘M’ is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, warning Watson off for far less sinister reasons than he might have if he actually had been Moriarty. This gives us a thrill, but it also plants this thought: “If he’s not Moriarty, who is?” It sets us up for the reveal at the end of the episode, where the murderer reveals he was approached by Moriarty and was compensated by him for every murder he committed. The first season was filmed out of sequence, with the initial 60-minute pilot that formed the basis of the first episode completely re-worked and filmed last; the finale, where Moriarty is revealed and squares off against Holmes, was filmed first.

If you know that, it makes complete sense that references to him would be seeded into the first two episodes, because Andrew Scott’s Jim Moriarty is an astonishing creation. My comparison in the other post to Batman and the Joker was purposeful, because Scott’s Moriarty has a similar psychopathic quality to him; at times playful and other times violently aggressive, and all the while capable of great violence. He is like no other Moriarty I’ve ever seen.

The finale of season two, “The Reichenbach Fall,” features Moriarty at his height, perpetrating a series of public crimes that get him arrested and put on trial. His plan, however, is to publicly embarrass and discredit Holmes, which is accomplishes quite adeptly, establishing Holmes as a fraud by befriending a reporter (who Holmes insults early in the episode) and establishing himself as an actor hired by Holmes to play the part of “Moriarty.” By the end of the episode, Holmes has met Moriarty on a rooftop and is faced with an ultimatum. Leap from the top of the building, or assassins will kill everyone close to Holmes. By this point Holmes is on the run from the police and discredited in the press (Watson’s blog and subsequent media coverage have, over the course of the season, made him a sensation) and seemingly has nothing left to lose. He briefly rallies when he realizes that as long as Moriarty is alive there’s a way to prove he isn’t a fraud; Moriarty’s response is to shoot himself in the head. Holmes is left, seemingly, with no way out; he calls Watson and confesses that he is a fraud (a confession that we know is a lie, by the way; this is not a Christopher Nolan film where we’re shown flashbacks that reveal Holmes has been faking it the entire time) and leaps from the rooftop, seemingly killed by the impact.

He isn’t, of course. The last shot of the season, after Watson has mourned at Holmes’ grave, is that of Holmes, standing hidden, watching, and clearly alive. So there’s that. His reputation has been destroyed and most of his relationships damaged. Moriarty hasn’t quite won, but neither has he lost. He set out to ruin Holmes and he largely succeeded, and here’s where I start to have problems with Sherlock and with the overarching Moriarty story the series decided to tell with its first two seasons.

The ultimate message here seems to be, “if someone decides to ruin your life, they will, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.” Which is an entirely understandable subtext from anything created after 9/11, or Aurora, or Newtown, or Boston. Looked at in a certain light these tragedies all have in common the idea that things were normal, and then, suddenly, they weren’t, forever. It’s easy to draw a line from Adam Lanza or James Holmes to Moriarty, to reduce them down to their one monstrous act and extrapolate from that a giddy imp who sows chaos wherever he wants, ruining lives haphazardly, destroying whatever he touches. Its absolutely tempting, but it leaves the viewer with nothing but fear; it offers no way forward, nothing but nihilism and the nothing that if someone decided to ruin your life, they will, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.

There is always a way forward. Wounds heal, the pain of loss eases. Property can be rebuilt, possessions can be replaced. The capacity of humanity to weather adversity is limitless.

I am exaggerating my case slightly, because of the day; Sherlock not as bleak as it could be (it's not as bleak as, for example, anything Neil LaBute ever wrote, given that seeing or reading LaBute is like staring into the mouth of God as he screams, "FUCK YOU," for 90 minutes). I am also not begging my escapism for a moral lifeline; I am not coming down the mountain with Sherlock etched on one stone tablet and The Wire on the other, living my life according to fiction, holding a mirror up to the mirror held up to nature, eating and choking on my own tail. I know the way forward (short version: embrace peace in your hearts, you fuckholes), and I think it's only responsible for art and artists to do the same.

So as much as I love Sherlock as a series, I'm uncomfortable with the way it ends, for the moment. We have at least six more episodes on the way, and Andrew Scott has mostly confirmed that his character is dead; this means nothing in television, of course, because as soon as someone has a good story, back Moriarty will come, springing down the lane with a mad grin and a bomb in his coat pocket. But for now I'm very much looking forward to seeing Alanon Bumbershoot portray Holmes as he shines his intellect into the dark corners of the world. Perhaps when season three commences, he will show us the way back.


  1. Add to the solution or go home. Yeah. Why spread nihilism around? There is too much beauty in the world.

  2. I disagree, Jake. Well written, but I don't think that's the message. Sherlock wins- not by chance, but because he has somehow outsmarted Moriarty. How does a resurrection communicate failure? The power of evil to prevail?