This article first appeared on DoWntime in March 2018. It was originally part of a longer series, but this material was written independently, and is posted here as a record.
I. Accounting for Taste
About 14 minutes into his feature-length whinge that 90-minute television episodes from the 2010s are not, in fact, short prose stories from the 1890s, Hbomberguy addresses the changes made between the unaired 60-minute pilot of Sherlock and the 90-minute A Study in Pink. He asserts a number of problems with the story as eventually broadcast, but takes particular issue with the introduction of Mycroft Holmes:
“The pilot seems to demonstrate this [theory that art benefits from rigorous editing] happening in reverse, where the full show was given an extra half an hour, so they thought ‘oh great, that gives us time to insert the co-writer of the show’s character early, and have intrigue that doesn’t go anywhere because he turns out to be, like, just a normal guy who’s worried about his brother, and also connect a nice and simple first story to Moriarty for no reason!'”
Aside from showcasing the video’s irritating habit of creating maliciously incompetent caricatures of the people making Sherlock, this is a mind-blowingly sloppy piece of criticism, veering from a reasonably sensible premise to misleading half-truths followed by a deeply revealing statement of values, such that dissecting it will serve us well going forward. With that in mind, let’s crack open the mind palace.
The initial proposition, that Sherlock suffered from the shift to 90-minute episodes, is not, prima facie, unreasonable. I think it’s terribly unimaginative, and ignores later episodes such as The Sign of Three or The Abominable Bride, whose plot structures take advantage of the greater space devoted to them, but series one in particular can be fairly accused of resorting to delaying tactics. Stuff like the separate mini-adventures in The Great Game, or indeed the business with Mycroft in A Study in Pink, while fun, are clearly examples of the writers reacting to a late decision to extend the episode lengths. So when Hbomberguy accuses the Mycroft subplot in A Study of Pink of being, essentially, filler grafted onto a 60-minute story, he is still within the realm of moderate sense.
Where this argument starts to go wrong is in the details, or rather the lack thereof. Because Hbomberguy elides a crucial detail in his summary of the ‘extra bits’ added to A Study in Pink, and as such he spectacularly misses what the episode is doing with Mycroft. When Hbomberguy says (through his ventriloquised author), that “[we can] have intrigue that doesn’t go anywhere because [Mycroft] turns out to be, like, just a normal guy who’s worried about his brother, and also connect a nice and simple first story to Moriarty” he implies that these two events (the intrigue with Mycroft and the connection to Moriarty) are in some way separate, when the episode itself deliberately blends those two aspects of its plot.
When John is kidnapped partway through the episode, he is taken to a sinister-looking abandoned warehouse, where he meets an oily posh man in a suit who is apparently able to have people kidnapped on a whim, and who displays an apparent flair for the theatrical. (John objects that “You know, I’ve got a phone. Very clever, all that, but you could just phone me on my phone!”) The man, who neither John nor the audience actually knows is Mycroft yet, proceeds to archly refuse to confirm his identity, and suggests he bears some ill will towards Sherlock himself:
“JOHN: Who are you?
MYCROFT: An interested party.
JOHN: Interested in Sherlock? Why? I’m guessing you’re not friends.
MYCROFT: You’ve met him. How many friends do you imagine he has? I’m the closest thing Sherlock Holmes is capable of having to a friend.
JOHN: And what’s that?
MYCROFT: An enemy.
JOHN: (Almost laughs) An enemy?
MYCROFT: In his mind, certainly. If you asked him he’d probably say his arch enemy. He does love to be dramatic.
JOHN: Well thank God you’re above all that.”
A little self-indulgent, perhaps, but by no means subtle: the episode clearly expects its audience to assume that Mark Gatiss is playing Moriarty. Even the shooting script plays along, coyly referring to Gatiss’s character only as ‘M’. It’s an assumption which makes sense, given what we have seen so far. Mark Gatiss is an actor specialising in oily, besuited English villains, and kidnapping someone off the street reads far more intuitively as the action of a villain than that of a sympathetic supporting cast member. All of this helps set up the mystery around Mycroft, such that the revelation he is actually (albeit problematically) sympathetic comes as a surprise.
(The logic by which a man with the power to do such things with impunity is read as “an ordinary guy,” however, remains obscure, and Hbomberguy misrepresents this subplot in his phrasing and presentation. That the summary collapses multiple scenes into one sentence can be forgiven for the purposes of brevity, but by hanging on the abandoned warehouse scene for this section of narration, Hbomberguy implies that these revelations all happen in one scene. Germane to his argument that the subplot goes nowhere, but conveniently eliding the fact that the episode goes to several places, most notably an abandoned school and an ambulance, before this subplot is complete. By showcasing this subplot entirely with one of its initial setup scenes, Hbomberguy depicts as static and inessential what is a more elaborate and interesting bit of misdirection in the episode itself).
The Mycroft subplot in A Study in Pink also sets up one of the main things Sherlock as a show is interested in (and one of the aspects best served by feature-length episodes), namely its extensive play in the details of the Holmes canon. The implied viewer of A Study in Pink is one who knows Sherlock Holmes well enough that they will assume the Big Bad for Series One of a modern re-telling will be some version of Professor Moriarty, and is dimly aware, if at all, that in the Doyle version Sherlock had a brother named Mycroft Holmes. As this level of knowledge more-or-less corresponds to that of the average British TV viewer in 2010, the reveal works and feels terribly clever, while any diehard Doylists who happen to be in the audience get to feel rewarded for knowing who Mycroft is. It’s a trick that relies on the fact that the audience will be more familiar with Moriarty than with Mycroft, but the existence of Mycroft in the Doyle canon is the connection that allows the reveal of who Gatiss is playing to not feel like a cheat.
Whether you find any of this impressive is another matter, of course. Certainly the observation that it contributes essentially nothing to the main ‘catch the killer’ plot is fair enough. But it does indicate that Sherlock is a show interested in this kind of textual game, as well as (and increasingly instead of) catching killers or solving crimes as such.
Which brings us to the most telling part of the spiel quoted above, namely that the episode “connect[s] a nice and simple first story to Moriarty for no reason.” The second part of this quotation is the most ridiculous on its face; the reason to connect the first episode to Moriarty is pretty damn obvious. He’s the Series Big Bad. He will turn up for another connection in Episode Two, and then a Final Confrontation in the Finale. This is how a modern series of television works, and yet this appears to be precisely what Hbomberguy objects to. Which makes the first part of this quotation all the more revealing; the problem with these subplots and textual games, apparently, is that they detract from what is otherwise a “nice and simple” story.
That one could read Sherlock as setting out to be in any way nice or simple is so farcical as to be dismissed without comment. But it does reveal the crux of Hbomberguy’s objection to Sherlock. Sherlock, you see, does not give a shit about solving mysteries. Hbomberguy, on the other hand, sees this as its primary reason to exist. That he finds the resulting episodes disappointing is therefore sensible, but it does not make his view any less odd, or less detached from the content and aesthetic goals of the show. Throughout his video, Hbomberguy stresses that his main source of pleasure in Sherlock Holmes stories is the mechanics of mystery-solving. He praises the first episode of Elementary for some canny play with the possible, however improbable, and he repeatedly demands to know when Benedict Cumberbatch will solve a crime.
The pleasures of procedural mystery-solving are certainly present in multiple iterations of Sherlock Holmes, and the detective genre more generally, but it would be an extremely reductive view that stated that was all there was to it, or all it could possibly be. Raymond Chandler viewed the detective plot as principally a battle for one’s soul. Jimmy McGovern viewed it as means of angry polemic. More recently, Hannibal built an elaborate sitcom-cum-torture-porn-cum-Miltonian epic out of the stock elements of police procedurals, True Detective fooled everyone into thinking it was interesting by flirting with Weird Fiction, and Collateral built a sprawling State of the Nation drama out of a generic police investigation. The detective genre, as well as an end in itself, can also be a means to other things, and ‘metafictional examination of the legacy of Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘interrogation of masculinity,’ and ‘ostentatiously clever hyperreal romp’ are clearly among the things it can be now. Yet here Hbomberguy is, blithely demanding that instead of all that, Sherlock should simply recreate the genre as it stood in the late nineteenth century, absent more than a century of development, and indeed absent the idiosyncrasies (and, it must be admitted, the self-indulgences) of its authors.
I should stress, Hbomberguy’s reasons for disliking Sherlock are entirely understandable. If one’s primary pleasure in detective stories is the mechanics of Solving A Crime, then one is clearly not going to be satisfied by Sherlock. It is perfectly valid to enjoy the snap of a mystery coming into focus, just as it is perfectly valid to not find pleasure in something that does not offer that experience. Similarly, it is perfectly valid to enjoy the serialised, 25-minutes-a-week-with-a-cliffhanger structure of classic Doctor Who, and to be disappointed that this structure is absent in the new series. Different viewers will take pleasure from different aspects of a text, and sometimes those pleasures are taken from aspects unique to one particular version of a text, or to something that primarily existed to serve the needs of a given time or medium.
Where this becomes a problem, however, is in treating the pleasures one takes from a particular version of a text as intrinsic to any and all versions of that text, or of being blind to the differing goals of differing iterations. It is precisely this kind of chauvinism which leads the more blinkered among Doctor Who fandom to treat the new series’ sparing use of cliffhangers as a serious lack, and causes Hbomberguy to treat the lack of focus on logical deductions in Sherlock as a similar lack. This despite the show repeatedly telling us that this version of the character, and indeed show, is more about character and emotion, even as Sherlock himself insists otherwise. (Sean Dillon perfectly summarises the show as defined by “Sherlock’s repeated claims that he’s an emotionless being who is pure logic, typically done while shouting emotionally”).
This kind of chauvinism, as well as leading to pretty weak literary criticism, can cause one’s aesthetics to twist in odd ways (for instance, by declaring The Blind Banker to be ‘one of the good ones’). More broadly, the ways in which such chauvinistic readings go wrong is indicative of the larger failings of pop criticism in general, and a sobering reminder that, in the wake of the author’s death, the reader must be more attentive to their text than ever before. If you are going to make a hatchet job, then for God’s sake, do your research.
II. The Lying Detective
It’s all the more infuriating, because Sherlock has offered a much better self-critique than any of its YouTube detractors. Unsurprisingly, it comes in series four. Series four, of course, is the story of Sherlock tearing itself apart, beginning by killing off its best character, and meticulously unravelling everything that made the show unique, eventually collapsing into a nice and simple series of detective yarns too boring to ever broadcast, a hellish condemnation to single vision and Newton’s sleep.
In the midst of this comes The Lying Detective, which more than any other episode presents the moral case that this version of Sherlock Holmes has outlived his usefulness. Hbomberguy, of course, spectacularly misses this. In a stunning feat of superficial reading, he is apparently unaware that the villain of The Lying Detective is a Jimmy Savile analogue, asserting that
“The villain of episode two is Culverton Smith. There’s no evidence that he’s a criminal. But you begin the episode knowing he’s a bad guy, because his daughter says to Sherlock that he remembers him saying he’s a murderer. So we already have his confession. Then it twists and says ‘oh, she was fake.’ Then within about five minutes it untwists because he did do it. So… again what was the fucking point?”
Oh, I don’t know, perhaps that society is set up in such a way that obvious monsters can hide in plain sight, deploying obfuscating techniques to ensure that their crimes go unreported, while at the same time openly talking about those crimes? You know, like Jimmy Savile did? Hbomberguy goes on to assert that the episode would have been more interesting had Culverton turned out to be innocent, which, while perhaps an amusing enough structure for a mystery story, would be completely wrong for a story about Savile. Which The Lying Detective obviously is.
Even more telling is Hbomberguy’s complaint about Eurus’s involvement in the plot: “They never explain, of course, how Sherlock’s sister figured out that Culverton Smith was a villain.” Yeah, because it’s not like he admits to being a serial killer on television within the episode or anything. Again, Hbomberguy myopically focuses on deduction mechanics, and misses what the show is actually trying to do, namely tell a story about how a society can allow an obvious predator to thrive, and how such predators abuse and gaslight the vulnerable to maintain their positions. The tastefulness of doing ‘Sherlock Holmes versus Jimmy Savile’ can absolutely be questioned, but Hbomberguy isn’t even doing that. He’s still just arguing that Sherlock should function more like every other damn cop show, at the expense of criticising the actual episode.
Because The Lying Detective is not just a story about how the British establishment enables people like Savile to survive and thrive. It’s a story that ruthlessly implicates Sherlock, and indeed Sherlock, in that same establishment. (Note that one of Culverton Smith’s mind-wiped accomplices “sits on the board of a prominent broadcaster”). The focal point of this is the much-discussed deduction/drug withdrawal sequence, covered in an irritatingly superficial video by the Nerd Writer (in five minutes of analysis, he manages to not once utter the names ‘Steven Moffat’ or ‘Nick Hurran’, and much of his analysis boils down to what Sam Keeper memorably calls “the one thing nerds love most of all to replace literary criticism with: Number crunching”).
Because the brilliant thing about this sequence is how thunderingly obvious Sherlock’s epiphany is. The Nerd Writer describes it as Sherlock “grappl[ing] with the thought of how many serial killers might be hiding behind wealth and fame like Culverton Smith.” This is almost, but not quite, accurate; the revelation is in fact much broader than that. Let’s have a look at the relevant dialogue:
“SHERLOCK: They’re always poor… and lonely, and strange. But those are only the ones we catch.
WIGGINS: Who do we catch?
SHERLOCK: Serial killers. What if you were rich and… powerful and necessary. What if… you had the compulsion to kill, and money? What then?”
The real brilliance of this sequence, past the (in practice) obvious reveal that Culverton Smith is the bad guy, is the spectacle of Sherlock having the most elaborate Nick Hurran trip in the show’s vivid history, only to realise something that should be blindingly obvious: that institutional abuses of power are a thing. This should not be a shocking revelation for anyone with half a brain, especially not to a mind as supposedly brilliant as Sherlock’s, and yet it clearly is. Hurran’s direction ramps up accordingly, diving into the almost self-parodic as Sherlock starts walking up the walls at the realisation that, holy shit, if you were rich, and wanted to kill people, no-one could stop you! That Sherlock could be so ostentatiously brilliant, and yet so utterly lacking in awareness of how the world works, is a pretty damning assessment, but it’s not more than a restatement of what we already know about the character. Sherlock Holmes is a bohemian aristocrat, so rich in leisure time that he gets involved in adventures from the comfort of his flat in central London (that he can hold such a place without an actual job is telling in itself). Sherlock is the ultimate oblivious posh boy. Of course he’s going to be blindsided by the idea that the rich and privileged could abuse their power. (Note the choice of Wiggins as Sherlock’s foil in this scene, the most unambiguously working class member of Sherlock’s supporting cast, whose reaction to Sherlock’s babbling is largely elided).
This, like the treatment of the Twelfth Doctor in his final series, is a pretty brave decision for Steven Moffat to take. The admission that your hero is fatally flawed and myopic does rather raise the question of why the audience should continue following their adventures. In Doctor Who, the answer is ‘because the hero can change, along with the entire creative team.’ For Sherlock, that answer is off the table. Once you have reached the fundamental limits of the character (and ‘he is a member of the same institutional hierarchy that enables and facilitates systematic abuse’ is a pretty fundamental limit) there is little more to do except abandon him in his stupid little crime-solving cul-de-sac. As Mary Watson says, we are done with having the world explained to us by a man. This, then, is the true brilliance of The Lying Detective. The story so good it killed off Sherlock forever. It’s a surprise Hbomberguy didn’t like it more, really.