Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sherlock Season Finale Review: "His Last Vow" - The Smartest Man in the Room

Lars Mikkelsen shows off Magnusson's "vault" in "Sherlock"

Sherlock Holmes is a man of legend.  He is usually portrayed as a veritable polymath, though Arthur Conan Doyle described him as a man who knows “nil” about quite a few subjects, at least those topics that were of little use to his work.  While his Sherlock believed the mind was a finite space,* it’s clear that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is the owner of an infinite mind palace, as he so ably demonstrated at John’s insistence in the season premiere.  The Sherlock Holmes of Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock is invariably the smartest man in the room if only because of the company he keeps.  Or, as he said in last week’s best man speech, “Indeed any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes from the extraordinary contrast John so helpfully provides.”

* "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” – A Study in Scarlet

What Sherlock Holmes is also portrayed as, however, at least in this variation, is a sociopath: a man with no real connection to the world.  Sherlock Holmes is a man who is incapable of feeling even the slightest bit of guilt over leading a woman on and faking a marriage proposal just so that he can get access to her boss’s office.  Granted, he seems to have deduced that Janine, herself, wasn’t in the relationship for the most morally upstanding of reasons, but still, it takes an enormous amount “not-giving-a-crap” to willingly con a woman all the way to marriage just to solve a case.

What’s amazing, then, about Sherlock Holmes, is how his intelligence and surprising human connection with John are able to mostly mute his sociopathic tendencies.  While he is more than willing to say whatever crosses his mind, his actions belie at least some empathy and an understanding that other people are affected by his decisions.  He’s more than willing to put his own life in danger, but rarely does he risk the lives of others, unless it’s Watson, who has willingly come along for the ride.

It’s been interesting, then, watching the third season of Sherlock because these three episodes (and especially the finale) have played around a great deal with the question, “What happens when Sherlock Holmes is not the smartest man in the room”?  What happens when you take a man who always believes he can think his way out of any problem and put him up against a variety of opponents who are all his intellectual superior?  This was one thing the Sherlock Holmes movies got right about the Moriarity story.  Moriarty beat Holmes.  He outwitted and outfought the detective, leaving Sherlock with only option: murder-suicide.  Sherlock kind of botched that story by having Moriarity commit suicide and then have Holmes exonerated off-screen by the police.  But the three episodes of this season all paired Sherlock with an intellectual match.

In the season premiere, we get a brief but illuminating discussion between the Holmes brothers where it is revealed that Mycroft was always the smarter one and that the two thought Sherlock was an idiot until they met other children.  One would think this would instill a sense of humbleness in Sherlock, but instead it seems to have made him bitter and jealous to know that no matter how intelligent he seems, he’ll never best his brother in either smarts or social skills.

In last week’s episode, “The Sign of Three,” Holmes gets lucky.  He needs a child to help him connect the dots (“the invisible man did it”) and, as Sherlock himself admits, the villain might have gotten away with it if only he had driven a little faster, not to mention that it was only Mary’s perfect memory that allowed them to save Major Sharlto in time. 

This week, Sherlock spent the entire episode on his heels, consistently being fooled not only by newspaper magnate Charles Magnusson (ably played by Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Bond villain and “Hannibal” star Mads Mikkelsen) but by Mary Watson as well.  By all accounts, Sherlock should be dead or in prison by the end of this episode, so badly was he played.  The show would like us to believe that it was his observational and deduction abilities that saved him but, in truth, Sherlock was saved by Mary’s love for John.  And it was his arrogance that put him in that exact position.  Even as John gave him an alternate explanation for the Clair de Lune perfume whose scent was present in Magnusson’s office, Sherlock stormed forward, convinced that he knew all of the players who were involved and exactly how the situation was going to play out.  Even his luring of Mary into confessing to John would have resulted in his death were it not, again, for Mary actually, truly loving John and wanting to keep him from experiencing pain.  Among other things, this pretty clearly differentiates Mary from Sherlock and removes her from the realm of sociopathy, but we’ll get to that later.

Where things really go terribly for Sherlock is during his confrontation with Magnusson.  He is bested at every step of the way.  He fails to realize that Magnusson’s glasses are just glasses, that his “vault” isn’t really a vault, but his own mind palace, and that Magnusson couldn’t care less about Mycroft’s laptop, given the certainty of its recovery.  Holmes is outwitted and outmaneuvered at every step of the way.  If he felt like a “mental lightweight” in the company of his brother, I can’t imagine what he feels like when faced off against Magnusson.  There’s no competition.  Magnusson is miles ahead of Holmes.

So what happens to a sociopathic know-it-all when he discovers that he’s not the smartest man in the room?  He lashes out.  He improvises.  He attempts to erase all evidence of his failure, and puts a bullet in Charles Magnusson’s brainpan.  It’s a moment that is supposed to be shocking but really feels inevitable as soon as Magnusson reveals his empty “vault”.  What most disappoints, however, is how familiar the whole thing feels and how it reveals, as much as anything, the extent to which Sherlock botched the Moriarty storyline. 

It may seem odd to return to season two’s Big Bad at this point, two years later (though the allusion to his return may suggest otherwise), but the fact is that Charles Magnusson’s ignominious end really only duplicates Moriarity’s, except that the gun is in Holmes’s hand this time.  You see, James Moriarty is a largely undeveloped character in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon.  His role is mostly to be the criminal mastermind who “kills” Holmes.  As a character, Moriarty is largely a blank slate for writers to play with.  Elementary, surprisingly enough, realized this in its freshman season.  By combining the characters of Moriarity and Irene Adler, Elementary turned the story of Moriarty into a personal, emotional story for Sherlock Holmes.  The lover and the devil became one, forcing Holmes to turn introspective, even as he was facing the Big Bad.

On Sherlock, however, Moriarty became just another criminal mastermind, and introducing a smarter, more devilish Magnusson (even if his motives were different) only reinforced that idea.  Moriarty is no longer special.  He’s just another in a seemingly endless line of brilliant super-villains.  His brief appearance at the end of the season finale didn’t really get me excited since I don’t see what his presence will bring that Magnusson’s didn’t. 

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I was ultimately disappointed by the third season of Sherlock.  The performances were great as usual but it felt like Moffat, Gattis, and Stephen Thompson were just trying way too hard.  I had the pleasure of watching the first two episodes of the series a couple of weeks ago and was startled by how relatively straightforward they were.  There were simple mysteries and clues and Sherlock followed them all to relatively banal conclusions.  Season three, on the other hand, had an attempted bombing of the British Parliament, multiple mysteries converging together, an unexpected character twist, and a surprising execution.  It seemed as though the writers weren’t content with just telling good stories but felt the need to keep turning the audience’s heads with twist after twist.  It’s a shame, too, because the characters are well-developed enough and the actors more than good enough to support basic investigative storytelling that the bells and whistles aren’t necessary to make an entertaining series.  This season, they only served to distract from everything the show was doing great.

A couple of spare thoughts –

I wasn’t opposed to the reveal of Mary as a former intelligence agent trying to hide from past.  What I did object to, however, was the idea that it was somehow John’s fault that she turned out to be more than she initially appeared.  I get that he’s attracted to a somewhat dangerous lifestyle, but there’s no evidence that he was in any way aware of Mary’s past or personality and, in fact, it would seem to completely destroy the idea of Mary is a super-secret agent if John were somehow able to intuit her true nature.  Again, it wasn’t a terrible plot twist; I just didn’t care for the “blame it on John” aspect.

Also, despite the episode’s attestations otherwise, Mary is not a sociopath.  Sociopaths are incapable of empathy and caring about others.  The fact that Mary is desperate to protect John not just from physical harm but from emotional damage as well pretty convincingly shows that she is not a sociopath.

The finale had another scant mystery that basically ended halfway through the episode.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the season’s best episode was its second, which largely told two straightforward stories (or as straightforward as Sherlock Holmes mysteries can be).  Sherlock doesn’t need tricks and twists to be compelling television.  The actors and characters are compelling enough.  They just need to tell interesting stories.

John: “But it’s Christmas!”
Sherlock: “I feel the same!  Oh, you mean it’s actually Christmas.”

John: “I don’t understand.”
Magnusson: “You should put that on a t-shirt.”
John: “I still don’t understand.”
Magnusson: “And there’s the back of the shirt.”

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me that my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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