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!"