Allow me to digress from the hallowed grounds of science fiction and venture into neighbouring pastures. I have become increasingly drawn to the genre of detective fiction in recent years – the archetype of the detective can be found in numerous science-fictional texts, and the two genres share a very blurred boundary. At the heartland of detective fiction is, of course, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. And the best modern portrayal of the detective is Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s Sherlock.
Ever since the third season was broadcast earlier this year, some friends and I have been debating which season is the best. I enjoyed the third season – who wouldn’t?! – but I still think season two was far superior. So here are the reasons why season three didn’t quite work for me…
It should be noted that all of my objections to season three are purely as a writer. As a fan of Sherlock, I was enormously excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch pull on the coat and deerstalker again.
1. Sherlock’s Hero’s Journey has already ended
An essential part of any narrative is the growth and development of the protagonist – the Hero’s Journey. Famously described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), the Hero’s Journey is a pattern of character development that can be found in numerous mythologies and narratives. It has been used successfully in numerous texts – most famously in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings – and it is equally applicable to Sherlock.
Our detective receives his call to adventure in the first episode, and is saddled with Dr Watson, who will aid him in his quest. As he develops throughout the series, he encounters many of the stages that Campbell describes in the Hero’s Journey, including the meeting with the goddess (or temptress), Irene Adler, and the atonement with the father (who, in this case, is represented in Mycroft). In the final episode of season two, Sherlock faces his archnemesis and apparently dies in his efforts to thwart his plans. The end of the episode reveals that Sherlock is still alive – he has overcome death, the ultimate challenge. In Campbell’s terms, Sherlock has become the Master of Two Worlds.
His Hero’s Journey has thus come to an end. No single threat will ever compare to what Sherlock faced on the rooftop of St. Bart’s Hospital, because Sherlock has already defeated death itself. This is my major issue with season three, because Sherlock’s greatest challenge is already in his past. What threat could the writers possibly conjure that would compare to the confrontation with Moriarty? Where does a character go when he has already mastered death?
In my mind, this makes Sherlock immortal. Death is no longer a threat to him. And this makes him less interesting.
2. No Moriarty
The character of Moriarty is constructed quite differently in Sherlock than in the Conan Doyle stories. Although writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have borrowed extensively from the stories, they have also elaborated heavily, building an antagonist that is a perfect inversion of Sherlock himself.
Moriarty is Sherlock’s doppelganger. Doppelgangers are abound in literature – two characters locked in perpetual struggle, unable to be defined without reference to the other. Coppola and Coppelius; Frankenstein and his monster; Harry Potter and Voldemort; Batman and the Joker.
Sherlock represents reason and order; Moriarty represents chaos and confusion. Sherlock is the consulting detective; Moriarty is the consulting criminal. From the very first episode, we know that as Sherlock tries to bring order to the streets of London, Moriarty is trying to undo it. It is Moriarty’s crimes that make Sherlock famous. It is Sherlock’s detective work that stymies Moriarty. They are exact inversions of each other, and one cannot exist without the other.
Yet, in season three of Sherlock, we are presented with a Sherlock who no longer has a doppelganger. He therefore exists without a purpose – there is no one to thwart his plans. We are presented with Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has his own mind palace that rivals Sherlocks, but Magnussen is no Moriarty. And he was introduced far too late in the season to be established as a real threat. The thing that I relished about Moriarty was that his chaos and confusion were the perfect antidotes to Sherlock’s scientific rationalism. He was a threat because he threatened the very nature of Sherlock himself.
Another minor point, but Andrew Scott was so, so good as Jim Moriarty. I loved his voice, his expressions, everything! His death upset me almost as much as Sherlock’s.
I’m painfully – painfully – aware that Moriarty seems to be resurrected from the dead at the end of season three. I am curious to see what Moffat and Gatiss have in store for us – I’m sure it won’t be quite as simple as that. And I am a little disappointed: it seems like a plot twist created purely for shock-value than any narrative purpose.
3. John’s wife is an assassin
This revelation was one of the great disappointments of the series.
Mary is supposed to represent the “normal” person. She’s no Sherlock; she’s no Watson. She is the person that Watson turns to when he’s finished adventuring with Sherlock – she is his best chance at an ordinary life.
Yes, I get it: John isn’t destined for an ordinary life. He subconsciously seeks out danger. That’s why he married Mary. And, yes, the fact that she has done horrible things in her past is literally the driving point behind the third episode. Magnussen owns Mary; Magnussen owns Mycroft.
But… really? Can’t we just give Watson a break? It seemed like another plot twist that was done entirely for shock value.
4. Too cool for school
At some point, it seems like Moffat and Gatiss suddenly realised that Sherlock was hot property. Cumberbatch has a certain British swagger when he adopts the role, which has – understandably – won him a lot of fans. And let’s face it, I’m not immune to his charms.
Yet season three seems to be a bit too conscious of his appeal. There are lingering shots in each episode of him swinging his coat around and giving that smouldering stare. The opening scenes of “The Empty Hearse” illustrate my point nicely. Sherlock comes swinging in through the window and gives Molly that much-desired kiss. Of course, it all turns out to be a fictional account of Sherlock’s escape, but Gatiss was definitely acknowledging Cumberbatch’s sex symbol status. I preferred it when Sherlock was kind of oblivious to his charms. There was something endearing in the way that he had no idea how to respond to Molly.
I can’t really blame Moffat and Gatiss on this one, though. Since the show has made Cumberbatch a sex symbol and pop culture icon, they need to give the fans what they want.
5. Season two used the best Conan Doyle plots
The three episodes of season two used elements from the best of Conan Doyle’s canon. It would be hard to beat these, especially because those elements are so well-known.
The first episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia”, introduced Irene Adler and borrowed extensively from the short story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Despite appearing in only one Sherlock Holmes story, Adler is one of the most popular characters in the entire canon – she is the one woman who outwitted Sherlock. And – yes, I’ll admit it – Lara Pulver is just so phenomenally sexy in this role. The chemistry between her and Benedict Cumberbatch is electrifying.
“The Hounds of Baskerville” was based on – no surprises here, kids – “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Which is, without doubt, the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Not only was it the novel that resurrected the detective from his death when it was first published, but it’s since gone on to become an iconic moment in the character’s life.
The final episode of season two, “The Reichenbach Fall”, is based – albeit loosely – on “The Final Problem”, the story in which Sherlock and Moriarty fall to their apparent deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. This is probably one of the most exciting moments in the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. When the story was first published in December 1893, disgruntled fans actually assaulted Arthur Conan Doyle in the street. He’d ruined their Christmas!
So with these three amazing plots already used in season two, it’s no wonder that the stories used for season three didn’t quite compare.
6. Sherlock’s parents
The inclusion of Sherlock’s parents in season three felt unnecessary. It’s a rather hackneyed device used in sitcoms: when the characters are becoming a bit stagnant or a new plotline is needed, the writers will often have the parents or a relative come to stay. The parents are usually the exact opposite of what we expect, and they clash with the protagonist’s lifestyle. Hilarity ensues. This really wasn’t needed for Sherlock.
His parents functioned best when they were an enigma. They worked best off-camera, as the people that Mycroft and Sherlock could always allude to when they spoke about their strange childhood together. We were always left to wonder – what sort of people could possibly raise such precocious children as Mycroft and Sherlock? But now we know. The answer was always going to be disappointing.
Having written all of the above, I could write another entire post about the things I loved about this season. Especially from the point of view of a fan of the show. I actually loved seeing Cumberbatch’s real parents on screen, acting as Sherlock’s parents. And I loved the evolving relationships between all the characters. Watching John forgive Mary was quite moving. And Sherlock’s solution to the Magnussen problem was so blunt, yet so clever.
Feel free to disagree with me on the above points – I’d love to hear your opinions.