Friday, February 14, 2014

Come Back, Sherlock! All Is Forgiven!

OK, I give up. I'm Sherlocked. I even have the T-shirt.

Not one of the T-shirts that people inexplicably kept telling John Watson he should have, in two out of three episodes this season. (As Genevieve Valentine wrote in a terrific blogreview, "[A]t this point, I can only be surprised that episode two didn't feature someone telling Watson to put something on a T-shirt.”) No, I have a real T-shirt that really says “I am SHER-locked" and I really am.

Yes, I remain Sherlocked – in spite of all the self-referencing touches, fake-outs, and generally too much fun “Sherlock” show-runners Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss have been having in Season 3. Someone certainly should have given them that essential writer's advice (which apparently we owe to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, not Dorothy Parker), “Murder your darlings.” There have been way too many darlings in Season 3. There have also been plot holes you could drive a lorry through, maudlin moments, forced humor, and missed connections,  none of it due to the amazing actors.

In spite of all that, I am in awe of the brilliance that is "Sherlock." Most of all, I appreciate the show's regard for the canon, the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Moffat and Gatiss really know their Sherlockian stuff, yet they feel free to recombine it like mad scientists playing with DNA. Episode titles and content are full of punning plays on one or more of the original stories, without respect to chronology. Yet somehow, as with DNA, crucial elements of the original are preserved.

For instance, the episode entitled "His Last Vow," which aired in the U.S. on February 2, combines elements from the Doyle stories "His Last Bow," (obviously), "The Man with the Twisted Lip," and "The Affair of Charles August Milverton." The story "His Last Bow" is the last chronological appearance of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, bringing him out of retirement on the eve of World War I. Holmes poses as a double agent selling state secrets in order to capture a foreign news mogul -- I mean, spy. The weight of both personal and world history is heavy in this elegiac story. Towards the end, Holmes says to Watson, "
Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have." Holmes speaks of the coming east wind, meaning of course the coming war: "[S]uch a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast." The east wind spoken of in this episode of "Sherlock" appears to be personal rather than world-historical; I was slightly disappointed that it wasn't a more far-reaching metaphor.

On the other hand, the opening segment of "His Last Vow" is lifted almost intact from 
"The Man with the Twisted Lip," and it works as well as it ever did. In Doyle's story, Watson searches for a missing neighbor in a sinister opium den, only to find -- surprise! -- Sherlock Holmes working undercover. The steadfast Watson created by Doyle doesn't doubt for a moment that Holmes is in fact working a case. Not so our contemporary John, who, finding Sherlock in a smack house, immediately forces him to get drug tested. The results are positive, judging by several wicked slaps from lab tech Molly, and the audience is left to wonder, along with John, if Sherlock is really an active addict or just carrying verisimilitude to extremes.

"The Affair of Charles August Milverton," Holmes tries to obtain a lady's compromising letters from a despicable blackmailer. When negotiations fail, Holmes romances -- in fact becomes engaged to -- the villain's maid in order to get access to his personal papers. Surprised in the act of burglary, Holmes and Watson witness the murder of the blackmailer by a mysterious woman, but Holmes allows her to escape. All of this, of course, was incorporated into the "Sherlock" episode. In addition to all that, there was a reveal about John's wife Mary that left me gasping.

Which leads us to the mysterious affair of the second Mrs. Watson. In "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," one of the two stories narrated by Holmes himself, Holmes mentions that Watson "had deserted me for a wife," in January 1903. Clearly this couldn't be Watson's first wife, Mary Morstan, who died during Holmes' three-year absence after his disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls in 1893. Was this truly a second wife or just a failure of memory, perhaps a simple confusion of dates?

This little mystery joins the well-known conundrum of the Jezail bullet that wounded Watson in the shoulder -- or was it the leg? Moffat and Gatiss did such a neat job of updating the shoulder/leg question in the first episode of "Sherlock" it was enough to make me fall in love with the show right there. Similarly, in "His Last Vow," there appears a kind of shadow Mrs. Watson, a completely different person from the Mary Morstan we (and John) thought we knew -- and a nifty resolution to the two-wife problem.  (Lest you think I'm reading too much into Moffatt and Gatiss' mastery of the canon, let me point out that Sherlock quotes directly from the "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" in his best man speech in  the episode "The Sign of Three.")

But how many times do we have to say goodbye? Bad enough that there are only three episodes to a season, and that we have had to wait up to two years between seasons. (One can only imagine the anguish of the British reading public waiting ten years, from 1893 to 1903, for Doyle to resurrect the world's most beloved detective.) Now, just as we got our Sherlock back, he breaks our hearts in "The Sign of Three" and threatens to disappear again in "His Last Vow." I can't take another parting scene between Sherlock and John!

In spite of (or maybe because of) the skewed chronology, Moffatt and Gatiss have once again tapped into the essence of the Holmes mystique. The original Holmes stories rely heavily on nostalgia. As late as 1927, Doyle is still writing stories set in the 1890s, full of hansom cabs and opera capes. And, yes, we miss the romance of those gaslit times, but really
 we are always missing Sherlock. He is elusive, disappearing from 221B Baker Street for days at a time, or seemingly dying before our eyes -- not once but twice (a second time in "The Dying Detective") -- or retiring to the Sussex Downs. Even when he is present, he is constantly leaving, lost in his own thought process, scraping on the violin, or reaching for the needle. More important, Watson leaves Holmes. After only two short novels, at the end of "The Sign of Four," Watson announces his engagement to Mary Morstan, saying "I fear that [this] may be the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods." Thus from the very beginning of the short stories, the tone is colored by longing for an earlier time, a time of complete freedom and easy camaraderie.

Or, as Sherlock says to John at the end of "His Last Vow," "To the best of times, John!"

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mad About -- Or At -- "Sherlock"?

Twenty-four hours ago, I would have waxed eloquent about the pitch-perfect brilliance of the contemporary BBC "Sherlock," starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Updated to the 21st century, with all the bells and whistles (texting, advanced forensic science, cool special effects), "Sherlock" nevertheless stayed true to the canon, full of nods and winks, and, in fact, whole passages and set pieces borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle. The first two seasons of this new incarnation of our favorite detective felt like a love letter to Sherlockians. Unfortunately, the first episode of Season Three, "The Empty Hearse," felt more like hate mail.

As the whole world knows, Sherlock dove off a building at the end of the last episode, forced to commit suicide by Moriarty, whose lethal network promised death for Sherlock's only friends (John Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Inspector Lestrade) if he didn't comply. We also know, however, that Sherlock is still alive, since we saw him eavesdropping at his own graveside in the last shot of Season Two. Fan interest has reached fever pitch, mostly focused on "howdunit," since unlike in the Doyle original, this time we actually saw the death, and saw the dead body. Ah, the hubris of trying to top Arthur Conan Doyle! In this case it has led to farce where there should have been real emotion, and a winking condescension instead of a respectful nod to the fans.

There are so many wrong notes in "The Empty Hearse" I hardly know where to begin. One of the few scenes that does not strike a false note occurs between John Watson and Mrs. Hudson, when John revisits Baker Street early in the episode, after almost two years incommunicado following Sherlock's apparent death. Mrs. Hudson's plaintive, "One phone call, John!" prefigures the larger betrayal of John by Sherlock -- leaving a friend alone to suffer grief that could be assuaged. But there is easy forgiveness and lovely chemistry between Mrs. Hudson and John. Between John and Sherlock? Not so much.

After Sherlock is rescued by Mycroft (huh???) from an unfortunate Serbian situation and brought back to London, Sherlock decides it will be fun to surprise John at the restaurant where he's dining with his almost-fiancee, Mary. For unknown reasons, Sherlock pretends to be a French waiter, complete with a goofy Inspector Clouseau accent, glasses, and a pencil moustache, and waits for John to recognize him. John's response is, understandably, fury. What is not understandable is Sherlock's explanation, or really lack thereof, as to why he kept John in the dark for two years about his apparent death. (By contrast, the various explanations of how the death was faked are fun and farcical and inconclusive in a marvelously tantalizing way, perhaps the best thing about the episode.)

To be fair, writers Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss have really just fallen into the huge chasm in the Doyle canon: Why did Holmes leave Watson to grieve for three years after he disappeared at the Reichenbach Falls?  In Doyle's story, "The Adventure of the Empty House," Holmes insensitively admits that he feels he had "an extraordinarily lucky chance" to eliminate Moriarty's henchmen, who would all be seeking vengeance if they knew that Holmes was alive. Doyle's version glosses over Holmes' lack of trust. His secret was known only by Mycroft, because, as Holmes says to Watson, "I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret." But, after all, Holmes' life was at stake. Our 21st century Sherlock has no such excuse! He vaguely mentions to Mycroft that he was cleaning up Moriarty's network. He doesn't explain himself to John at all, but he does admit that he let a couple of dozen other people in on the secret. Worse, Sherlock continues to play with and mock John long after it should have been clear, even to a sociopath, that he was being hurtful.

All might have been forgiven at the end, however. [SPOILER ALERT] After (sort of) reconciling when Sherlock saves John from being burned to death in a Guy Fawkes bonfire, our boys eventually uncover a plot to blow up Parliament. They find themselves in an abandoned subway car which is itself an enormous ticking bomb, and Sherlock confesses that he is unable to defuse it. Apparently facing certain death, Sherlock deeply apologizes for the hurt he caused and asks John to forgive him. In Doyle's famous words, John says, "You were the best and wisest man I've ever known. Of course I forgive you."

Finally! Genuine reconciliation, right? Wrong. Sherlock, shoulders shaking with laughter, reveals that the bomb has been turned off all along. (Because of course it had an off switch.) He has tricked John into forgiving him. So much for rebuilding trust, which both actors and writers have spoken of as the theme of this episode.

No wonder Cumberbatch and Freeman, in character as Sherlock and John, look so very sheepish in the last shot, as they face the press outside 221B! They must know, or at least suspect deep down, how bogus this whole episode has been. The case, a simple terrorist plot, was completely lame, hinging on the discovery of an "unknown" abandoned tube station directly underneath Westminster, along with very few deductions by Sherlock. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- lots of cute and even intriguing touches (for instance, the first appearance of Sherlock's parents, played by Benedict Cumberbatch's real parents), the whole episode rang false, way too arch, and downright mean-spirited. Bottom line: "the best and wisest man" John Watson has ever known would never be so cruel.