Cumberbatch in the 1890s costume (and the expression on his face in the contemporary scenes match)
Friends and readers,
Once more on these Sherlocks: my general assessment and a recap have been ably set forth by both my daughters (general assessment by Miss Izzy; perceptive recap by Anibundel). As Izzy says, the scenes were far too short, the lines ludicrously overproduced and action made over-melodramatic as movies and TV too are becoming more and more as a matter of course (or it would be not so oddly abruptly comic) aka script is crude. So far I agree. What interests me in Anibundel is the word “oddest:” “this was quite possibly, the oddest episode of Sherlock I’ve ever seen.”
I explore some of these odd elements in this exhausted reprise/coda of the third season of Sherlock (many months after the previous three, Last Vow, “Camp becomes Sentiment”). I suggest that at heart the series has all along had a gay sensibility, which, because the writers have now used up anything they had really to riff off of the original stories and films, faute de mieux came out very strongly in this coda. Rather like Alice in Wonderland everything else has shrunk or grown impossibly large.
First, as a retrospective on all we’ve had before (from A Study in Pink to The Reichenback Fall) this New Year’s special reduces the dazzling center of all of them to a drive to be super-clever, cleverer than any other costume drama on the block. As I think back I find the first season much better than that, and the second, especially actually having contemporary thematic relevance, though the obsessive repeating scenes of this and thus its overt central theme, hatred, fear, retreat, and paranoia have real purchase on what is displayed as news in public media this past year and enacted by the armies of many states.
But look at what that hatred is embodied in: an abominable bride herself, a dreadful creature, over-made-up, with dripping red lips, who appears to be a riff on one of the more memorable horror movies of the 1930s, sheerly on the basis of the bride’s appearance:
The team outdoes The Bride of Frankenstein, and Natasha O’Keeffe is given a camp opera diva name: Emilia Ricoletti. Remember Have Gun will Travel where Matt’s gun was all phallus? What an enormous one is here.
This is not just an outbreak of male insecurity (alluded to it when people refer to the misogyny run wild of this episode)? This mad image reappears several times, and is matched by Amanda Abbington as Mrs Watson turning up in a bridal outfit as elaborate and detailed and lacy as Diana Spencer’s, only she’s in black and with her head and utterly covered. No eyes to be seen even. Is this an allusion to the Muslim burka? Or is it fear of brides. Or, as in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book, a send-up of quintessential heterosexual sexual customs?
Open screen, all dissolving away
Structurally this is a time-traveling film which begins in the past, then fast forwards to now, then reverts, and then fast forward, revert, fast forward with a final revert: at first the 1890s are the reality, and then the 1890s are a dream/nightmare endured by a 21st century Sherlock, then the 1890s erupt again (like some Jekyll), take over for a while, and then suddenly Sherlock awakens, and we are to take this crazed past as dream, only the camera moves so swiftly and blends the time capsules so that when we end in the 1890s the inference is the contemporary age is the dream.
Periods twisting like a mobius strip
Within this moving remit, there are continual self-reflexive remarks about the events we are seeing, those remembered and those to come as written by Dr Watson, who is himself controlled (it seems) by an illustrator who has invented ludicrous hats and mustaches, as well as some inexorable material forcing him to keep Mrs Hudson to the margins of the text. Una Stubbs complains in the form of a caricature of her role in Conan Doyle’s stories:
Mrs Hudson: And I noticed you’ve published another of your stories, Dr. Watson.
Dr Watson: – Yes, did you enjoy it?
Mrs Hudson – No.
Dr Watson: Oh?
Mrs Hudson: – I never enjoy them.
Dr Watson: – Why not?
Mrs Hudson: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
Dr Watson: Well, within the narrative, that is, broadly speaking, your function.
Mrs Hudson: My what?!
Dr Watson: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs. Hudson, I’m hardly in the dog one.
Mrs Hudson: “The dog one?” I’m your landlady, not a plot device. Do you mean The Hound Of The Baskervilles? And you make the rooms so drab and dingy.
Dr Watson: Oh, blame it on the illustrator, he’s out of control! I’ve had to grow this moustache just so people will recognise me.
What she could complain about more cogently with respect to this episode and the whole of the third season is this: the inset story is though one dependent on mad femme fatales, with a crazed bride wants to murder her bridegroom and succeeds. None of this has any serious reality. Where there is some is in thee women at the margins of the film and they function as mainstream reassurance: they stand and wait for and on their men. That is the use of Mary Watson (as we all know, Freeman’s partner in real life). The film-makers use the recurring woman characters in this series for reassurance of emotional warmth and continuity, stability — a sop to the mainstream audience oddly out of place. I’ve read the Mary Marston will be killed off if this series ever recurs again. Because the shows don’t care in the least about women
One of her piquant gestures
This includes Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) as a woman in the 1890s living as a man, dressed, acting as a man (tranvestite anyone?) in order to have the active male career she was denied in 2015. it’s reassuring to recognize her. Remember how hard she was slapped, anyone? Some women viewers have kept asserting how the women in this Sherlock series are strong. If so, they are hardly ever there, getting 5% of a typical program (an exception was the episode which featured Lindsay Duncan as a Mrs Thatcher type), and continually as mainstream conventional as the males are individually questioning norms of all sorts.
There is also the attempt of Watson humanly to reach Holmes. To reach the depth of gravitas somehow conveyed by Bernard Cumberbatch now and again, and more frequently by Freeman (especially when he’s given lines from Conan Doyle as he is several times). This sort of thing could have been the heart of the story and given it some meaning, especially when because there are some telling stills and a dialogue between Watson and Sherlock at a still central point of the whirling:
Watson: Holmes, against absolutely no opposition whatsoever, I am your closest friend.
Holmes: I concede it.
Watson: I am currently attempting to have a perfectly normal conversation with you.
Holmes: — Please don’t.
Watson: — Why do you need to be alone?
Holmes: If you are referring to romantic entanglement, Watson, which I rather fear you are, as I have often explained before, all emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument.
Watson: — The crack in the lens.
Holmes: — The crack in the lens.
Holmes: Well, there you are, you see, I’ve said it all before.
Watson: No, I wrote all that.
Holmes: You’re quoting yourself from The Strand Magazine.
Watson: — Well, exactly.
Holmes: — Those are my words, not yours!
Watson: That is the version of you that I present to the public.
Holmes: The brain without a heart. The calculating machine.
Watson: I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up. But I do not believe it.
Holmes: Well, I’ve a good mind to write to your editor.
Watson: You are a living, breathing man.
– You’ve lived a life, you have a past.
Holmes: — A what?!
Watson: — Well, you must have had
Holmes: — Had what?
Watson: — You know.
Holmes: — No.
Holmes: Pass me your revolver, I have a sudden need to use it.
Watson: Damn it, Holmes, you are flesh and blood, you have feelings, you have You must have Impulses.
Holmes: Dear Lord, I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.
Watson: As your friend, as someone who worries about you. Wwhat made you like this?
Holmes: Oh, Watson Nothing made me. (DOG YELPS) I made me.
In this still it would seem Sherlock is a figment of Watson’s mind
Their words suggest that Gatis and Moffatt have fallen for the shallow view of the Doyle’s hero that he is cold, inhuman, and somehow sick because not sociable. The cant of the last 30 years has been that people only come alive when socializing. So this moment is not developed into anything beyond the literal surface meaning at all. Yet the 1st and 2nd seasons of the series showed they were much more intelligent and aware than that. So they kept this superficial. If you can credit third grade psychology Sherlock is a horrible person, but the world has been filled with all sorts of people who lived and thrived and wrote and created mostly for long periods alone. Thoreau, anyone? Is he disabled? He denies it and this dialogue certainly gives us nothing to suggest he is. If it had been delivered less abruptly, it would have been witty.
The only depth of emotion permitted is fraternal: implicitly if it were allowed (as it was in the 1st and 2nd seasons) between Watson and Sherlock, between Rupert Graves as Lestrade (yes) and Sherlock, affection strong. We have two Mycrofts, and here is the core of this piece, the give-away. The startling reconfiguration of Mark Gatiss as the caring Mycroft in 2015 as the indifferent gross obscenely fat Mycroft of the 1890s. The grotesqueries of his hands, his face, his stomach are insisted on; we watch him eat like some spider and it’s made disgusting, the actor or computer image of Gatiss filmed so as to arouse recoil. I’ve seen this in Sondheim: the grotesque male or female body: made hugely large (as in Sally Potter’s lesbian Orlando out of Virginia Woolf’s book). He matches the bride’s overgrown gun. And he seethes with hatred of Holmes. Gatiss’ hidden nightmare self.
So the scenes with Moriarity seem oddly beside the point, not worked into any of the stories: Andrew Scott like some dead wax figure. The scene beside the falls can be seen as sheer contrast to all the concern (moving into the sentiment of the third season) the other characters display for the alienated Sherlock. Or its another hallucination, matching the crazed murderous bride. All coming out of whose mind? From where? in the third season we met quite a conventional pair of parents for Sherlock (the father played by Cumberbatch’s real actor father) and Gatiss as the caring brother (recurs here).
One obvious explanation for the existence of this curious on one level inexplicable travesty of all that went before is money and advertisers. I understand an enormous number of people tuned in to watch in the UK and US and wherever else the show reached. Appointment TV returns. It’s to be rerun on PBS and to be put on their website for 10 days (“only”) starting a week from now. The film-makers themselves invite us to see it this way. They tell us this was a chance to dress the actors up in Edwardian dress. They want to feel they made a crude, abrupt comic soup, ratcheted up by computer techniques, in the background the usual clanging music. Camp.
But if you watch and pay attention, Freeman as Watson has the same longing disquieted look he had in the first season. The key is to relate this to all the grotesque imagery found in many gay works, the gravity with which we are given bizarre camp images. The disability is not to be found in any character of this series. It could be located in the society around them, only the film-makers elected not to allow us to believe in any outside society (the way we do in Conan Doyle and most of the Sherlock films, including the most recent, Mr Holmes). So they are condemned to go ricocheting round and round because their target is closed off.
A typical expression of Watson not only in this episode but throughout the series, from his first psychiatric session on …