Warning: Contains plot spoilers for series 3 (and for August Rush)
I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Matin Freeman are great actors, and the BBC have made a very stylish production of Sherlock with complex and nuanced characters. Both Sherlock’s use of drugs and the relationship between the two men has been portrayed in an interesting and convincing way. I particularly enjoyed the hint of Asperger’s in the way that Sherlock can use his visual observation skills and visual memory to reason in a way that seems almost impossible to a layperson, whilst struggling with interpersonal relationships. So it was with high expectations that I watched the latest set of episodes, and found them sorely disappointing.
I should say that it isn’t the first time I’ve built up my expectations of a film or show only for the reality to not live up to them. I have long identified a pattern I call “the Total Recall effect” whereby films seem to vary in their quality according to my expectations. The first time I watched Total Recall (the 1990 original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) I thought it sounded like a weak premise with a wooden actor, but was pleasantly surprised. The second time I watched it, some years later, I remembered it as a good film and was sorely disappointed. The third time I watched it, after several more years, I nearly turned it off, remembering it to be dire. However, it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end. I learnt that my expectations influenced my subjective experience; hence naming the Total Recall effect.
I also hate films that mix realism with implausibility. I’m fine with suspending belief entirely for a fantastical tale, or for enjoying the interplay of characters in a different time or place (eg I love Firefly’s futuristic western set in space) but I hate it when stories that are designed to seem within a stretch of reality suddenly take a leap into the impossible. In the film August Rush, for example, I had that experience of a semi-plausible plot jumping the shark. It was a stretch I could just about tolerate for the boy to reject family placements and stay in the care system in the hope of finding his real parents, and to then run away in search of them (despite the fact he’d have been adopted as an infant, would never have known anything but the love and belonging of his adoptive family, and wouldn’t have felt quite the same yearning). His relationship with music was beautifully captured and was the highlight of the film. But the grand finale where everything fell into place, and his parents were both seeking him and each other, and were present in the right place at the right time to hear the concert and recognised it calling to them, then recognised each other and him, made it all fall apart.
That accounts for some aspects of my disappointment with Sherlock but not all. To be honest, whilst I applaud the idea of also including female characters and narrative as a general aspiration for all media, I wasn’t a fan of Watson’s wife being an international espionage expert (it felt a bit like the second series of Heroes, where everyone got superpowers). Likewise I didn’t buy Sherlock having a sister. They felt like a step away from the source material that wasn’t in keeping with the rest. I also found it frustrating that each episode spent three quarters of its time laying out a riddle, and then wrapped it up far too quickly and neatly in the final quarter. I also felt cheated that unlike earlier shows, we didn’t see how Sherlock put together the clues to reach his conclusion. It was presented in an abstract way, a bit like magic. Viewers were left to assume that the song combined with some numbers in the graveyard could be rearranged to lead to a sentence that unlocked the location of the well. But why those graves, and how did it unlock the location – we were short-changed in the explanation.
As ever, huge amounts of trauma were included in the plot, without an appropriate scale of emotional response. The repeated prompts to be soldiers wasn’t sufficient to carry the uneven emotional responses (smashing the coffin because he had upset the pathologist, whilst being unmoved by four murders and recovering from feeling responsible for a suicide in less than a minute). Likewise later scenes showed the repair of 221b Baker Street to its former state, indicating that the explosion that would have supposedly killed Mrs Hudson in the flat below, and threw them out of the windows in bursts of flame had not only caused them no injuries, but hadn’t even penetrated the floor boards of the flat.
However, my main grumble was with the character of Eurus and the plot that surrounded her. The actress playing her was good, and the twist of her being several characters was fun, but the story and back story they gave her was appalling. This woman was supposed to have been born a dangerous psychopath, and to have spent her entire life from the age of around seven in solitary confinement as a result. She was supposed to be lonely, anxious and delusional but to express that by doing nothing for two decades and then engineering plots that skipped continents and killed multiple people without emotional response. Well I call bingo on the theme of propagating negative myths about mental health, with zero points for reality.
First, it reinforced the association between mental health problems and risk of committing crime, when people with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims of crime. Second, it gave the impression that mental health problems are things that you can be born with, and unrelated to your life experience. For example, we didn’t see that Eurus had been emotionally and sexually abused to create her distress and anger. We saw a highly intelligent child in a highly intelligent family that felt a little left out when her brother had a friend, and as a result decided to kill the friend, then burn the house down, and wanted to kill her brother. She was portrayed as a petty and jealous child, whilst presumably nobody in this highly intelligent family was able to show her affection or to help her regulate her emotions. And nobody recognised the risk or tried to intervene in a supportive way.
Eurus was supposedly unable to tell the difference between laughing and screaming, and was portrayed as being entirely without empathy, yet she had the subtle social insight to see (from her minimal observations whilst supposedly secured in a prison island) that her brother was unable to communicate any affection for the woman who was in love with him. Then, despite the lack of normal human interaction for most of her life it transpired that she had developed sufficient mind control to reprogram others within minutes of conversation. She had never done so as a practise, or in a way that was unsuccessful or aroused concern, however. But after 20 years she had suddenly taken over the entire prison/asylum island sufficiently to get people all over the place to transport her to and from the island, to set up her murder scenarios, to dangle three men in front of the window and cut the ropes to make them fall off the cliff to their deaths. No single person in the entire staff of the island failed to fall under her thrall, or had any moral doubts about her plans that were sufficient to breach her conditioning enough to raise an alarm (whilst the prison governor was able to disobey her to commit suicide in his attempt to save his wife). And she was able to set explosives, procure sedative darts and transport Holmes and Watson to an entire set created at her old family home. And this frightened, lonely girl who had supposedly only killed a child once in a failed attempt to play was suddenly killing many as experiments to test her brothers.
Sherlock, despite his intellect and his “mind palace” of perfect visual memories, was supposed to have entirely erased the existence of his best friend being murdered by his sister, or even of having a sister at all. When he spent the evening with the daughter of the famous serial killer, he could notice the drips of water and the line on her dress from her exit from the taxi, but not the fact that she was his own sister in disguise, putting on a false accent. Likewise he could predict that Watson would be at a particular location in two weeks time, but not see anything suspect in his flirtation with the woman on the bus. Meanwhile, despite the whole of MI6 and the intellect of Mycroft being involved in her supervision, Eurus could come and go from her prison island enough to make a therapy practise that both Watson and Holmes thought to be bona fide. And in the finale, Sherlock could believe that the voice of an adult woman he had been interacting with, communicated from an attic in the rain or a prison island, was that of a small girl in a crashing aeroplane.
In short, once you apply any critical thought, this series was a woeful disappointment, despite the stellar cast, impressive budget and stylish delivery.