Well, I wasted two hours of my life last night.
No, not watching the snooze-fest that was Seattle’s absolute trouncing of Denver in Superbowl XLVIII, although that might have been preferable. No, I watched the third season finale of Sherlock, the BBC’s postmodern update and reboot of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. I watched the first season of this show when it premiered on PBS in the United States a couple of years ago, wasn’t especially impressed, and skipped the second and third seasons. I decided to give the show another look, however, when some recent late night pain and insomnia kept me up, and I needed something diverting to watch while waiting for the pain medications to kick in. Before I knew it, I was hookednot on the pain medicine, but on Sherlock. With each “season” being only three episodes long, it was a fairly simple matter to get caught up. I plowed through seasons 1 and 2, and the two previous episodes of season 3 in order to prepare for the big finale last night. What a letdown!
For those who haven’t seen the show, perhaps a few words of explanation are in order, but here there be spoilers. You have been warned. In this contemporary update of the Holmes universe, some elements and vestiges of the original stories remain, although often transmuted and transmogrified. Holmes is still a brilliant but asocial, eccentric oddball, a violinist, and a sometime nicotine addict, residing at 221B Baker Street, London, and attempting to make a living as the world’s only “consulting detective.” In his day job, he’s a pathologist at London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, but he’s forever running his own bizarre experiments on the cadavers to test equally bizarre theories that his coworkers find incomprehensible. His coworkers, however, are just as incomprehensible to Sherlock as he is to them. One of his colleagues, the timid, mousy Molly Hooper (brilliantly played by Louise Brealey) has a massive crush on him, but he’s oblivious to her attentions. When Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade of Scotland Yard (Rupert Graves) calls Holmes a psychopath, Holmes snaps back, “High functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
While Conan Doyle’s original Holmes was definitely an asocial eccentric, he could, if need be, muster a modicum of social skills, and, on occasion, a kind of gallantry, particularly, if a woman was in danger. He could rally to the defense of a damsel in distress. For much of this new series, Holmes, as played by Cumberbatch, isn’t that classy. He’s simply arrogant and condescending to anyone he considers his intellectual inferior, which is to say most people. To put it bluntly, he’s a jerk. For much of the series, Holmes insists he isn’t really interested in questions of right and wrong, good and evil, and the needs of the people who come to him for help. People are merely ciphers, minor factors in a complex intellectual problem. However, as the series progresses, we see that despite his protestations to the contrary, he really does have a sense of right and wrong and a desire to help people achieve justice. In a way, the series is as much about Sherlock’s coming out of his shell and learning to form normal social relationships as it is about solving mysteries. Sherlock matures as the series progresses, especially through his relationship with Watson, but with each season being only three episodes long, we don’t get to see that relationship develop as much as we might like.
Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, on the other hand, remains largely the same throughout the series. Brilliantly played by series co-creator Mark Gatiss, Mycroft “is the British government,” a sinister and calculating spook and spymaster, holding a shadowy but powerful position in the British intelligence services. Mycroft does have a more human side, but we don’t get to see it until the very end of the series. The long-suffering Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs), Holmes’s housemaid in the original stories, is now his landlady, who owes Sherlock a favor: he saw to it that her drug-dealing, abusive ex-husband was sent to prison.
Watson, for his part, is a veteran of the current war in Afghanistan, who has been advised by his therapist to keep a blog as a means of treating his post-traumatic stress disorder. Holmes and Watson, both in need of a roommate, are introduced through a mutual acquaintance, and a legendary partnership is born. Watson blogs about Holmes’s adventures, the website attracts new clients, and the two detectives battle an assortment of serial killers, art thieves, terrorists, assassins, and blackmailers, most of whom, it seems, are under the control of the psychotic master criminal Jim Moriarty (chillingly played by Irish actor Andrew Scott). Throughout the series there are all sorts of clever, winks, nods, and references to the original stories, from episode titles and names of characters to plot points and little passing observations Holmes makes. Often the writers will combine and update elements from two or more different Conan Doyle stories and give them a contemporary spin. Most of these references and updates are clever and well done, but not all: I wasn’t a big fan of making Irene Adler, the opera singer who actually manages to outwit Holmes in the original Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” into a high class prostitute and dominatrix in the updated version, but I was willing to overlook it because the series up to that point had been pretty good.
I suspected the show was headed for real trouble, however, as season 2 ended and season 3 began. At the end of season 2, in an episode loaded with references to the Conan Doyle story, “The Final Problem,” Holmes and Moriarty have an epic confrontation, Moriarty apparently succeeds in destroying Holmes’s reputation, Moriarty apparently commits suicide, and Holmes likewise apparently leaps from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to a bloody, suicidal death right in front of a helpless Doctor Watson. As season 3 opens, however, we find that Holmes never really died and his apparent death was all a piece of remarkably clever stagecraft managed by British Intelligence. By this time, Watson has moved on and proposed to Mary Morstan, the love of his life (who originally appears in the Conan Doyle novel, The Sign of the Four), and is furious to find that Holmes deceived him. Since we don’t get to see the relationship between Holmes and Watson develop in depth over time, and because Holmes is such a jerk for so much of the time we do see, Watson’s emotional collapse at Holmes’s apparent death and outrage at Holmes’s fraud and deception, don’t ring entirely true. The second episode of season 3, which takes place on Watson’s wedding day, is little more than a clip show and a comic relief episode in which Holmes struggles valiantly to give a best man speech, recount some “humorous” cases, and solve a mystery that’s taking place at the wedding reception itself.
The real deal-breaker for me, however came with last night’s season finale. Holmes and Watson, having forged an uneasy truce after Holmes’s deception, go up against a particularly loathsome blackmailer, tabloid magnate Charles Augustus Magnusson (“Charles Augustus Milverton” in Conan Doyle’s original story). Mary Morstan Watson, John Watson’s wife, is also going after Magnusson, because he knows that sheget ready for thisis actually a foreign intelligence agent and international assassin posing as Mary Morstan. Sherlock deduces the truth about Mary and tricks her into confessing to him and to John. John is again outraged, but somewhat incredibly, decides to forgive both Mary and Sherlock. Sherlock and John return to confront Magnusson, but discover that all the incriminating information Magnusson has about Mary is in his head, and only in his headthere are no paper documents or files on computer hard drives. When Sherlock points out that Magnusson thus has no proof of Mary’s real identity, Magnusson coolly replies, “I don’t need proof. I’m in newspapers.”
Knowing that Magnusson will be a threat to John and Mary as long as he’s alive, Sherlock calmly shoots Magnusson in cold blood. In order to save Sherlock from a long prison sentence, Mycroft proposes a deal: Sherlock can go to Eastern Europe and perform some high level espionage for the British government, or he can go to jail. Sherlock agrees to do the spy work, leading to what looks to a final parting between himself and John Watson. Just minutes into Sherlock’s exile, however, Mycroft calls him back to England; it seems none other than Moriarty is alive and up to his old tricks. End episode, roll credits.
Will there be a fourth season? I don’t know. Will I be watching it? After that turkey of an episode, I really don’t know. I don’t mind the secret agent stuff so much if it’s done in moderation. From my reading of the original stories, I know that at times, largely because of Mycroft, Holmes is called upon to be as much a secret agent as a detective, performing certain highly confidential services for Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria and the other crowned heads of Europe, so there is that precedent in the source material. This reboot, however, really overdoes that whole aspect, transforming Holmes from a nerdy science geek who solves crimes into some kind of badass James Bond-style superspy. I like James Bond and superspy stories too, but when I tune in expecting one kind of genre and get something else, it really bugs me.
It would have been perfectly plausible to imagine what might happen if Magnusson knew something incriminating about Mary Morstan. It would have also been perfectly plausible to imagine what might have happened if she had confronted him about it; but that incriminating something should have been something believable. Maybe, years before, she had embezzled from her employer, or had an affair with an important married man. She should have been what she had been portrayed as up to that point, a middle-aged woman happy to find love at last, and desperate to keep an incriminating secret; not a spy or an assassin, or some ridiculous baloney like that! Come on! And the whole “Sherlock and Mycroft at home with their parents for Christmas” subplot? Please! Honestly, sometimes I think even I could write something better than that. Why don’t I?