Rather than spend time recapping episodes of Sherlock, we prefer to look at the whole picture and try and figure out what it means. So come along with us, as we enter the Mind Palace…
Spoilers might be the most hated thing in popular culture right now. Whether it’s an episode of TV that aired last night, or a movie that came out 20 years ago, people hate to be spoiled. This is a complex issue, and we won’t be able to break the whole thing down now. However, a big crux of the thinking when it comes to spoilers is that finding out about the plot of a thing somehow make watching the thing worse.
This idea, that a piece of entertainment: TV show, book, movie, whatever, is better when it is able to present the story on it’s own terms, is uniquely modern. Until very recently, it was impossible for somebody to ruin something for you because everybody watched it at the same time. Home video sales and DVR technology has rapidly advanced our ability to time shift our entertainment. And that ability has brought with it this sense of cultural responsibility not to spoil the ending of something our friends have put off watching.
It is also a relatively modern idea because of our modern fixation on the idea of ‘plot’. Until recently, the plot of a story was not the only reason to become invested in a story. The story that was being told was part and parcel to how it was being told. And not ‘how it was being told’ in the modern Shyamalan, Nolan, Abrahams way of manipulating a story to hide a big reveal until the very end. But the artistic choices that were being made: allegory, cinematography, set design. The actual method being used to tell the story was as important as the story itself. But as ‘plot twists’ have risen in popularity, so too has the importance of plot itself. It is now a categorical truth that if something unexpected is going to happen in a film, nine times out of ten it will be something having to do with the plot.
This isn’t a uniquely modern problem. Modern technology has certainly increased the accessibility of entertainment and made the ‘spoiler situation’ more wide-spread than ever before. But for as long as we have had the written word, there have been some people who know things that other people do not…yet. Which is why the issue of spoilers is uniquely tied to Sherlock Holmes and the idea of the detective stories.
Arthur Conan Doyle certainly did not invent the detective story, but his stories were so beloved by an adoring public that early Sherlock Holmes fans could’ve given modern Sherlock fans a run for their money. Doyle’s stories were well defined in their style or story telling. It is hard to say with any certainty what made Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, such a popular character in Victorian England. It is easy to guess though that it might have had something to do with the predictability of his adventures. Here is Holmes. Here is Watson. Here is a dead body. Question the suspects. Look for clues. And then, at the end, a twist on everything suddenly makes the whole case fall into place and, Voila! There’s your murderer.
The other mainstay that Conan Doyle’s readers could always count on was a simple promise. “If you pay attention, and if you are as clever as Sherlock Holmes, you can solve this mystery too. All the pieces you need are right in front of you”. Of course, readers were at a stark disadvantage considering they were real people trying to solve these cases and not fictional, super intelligent, consulting detectives. But that promise may very well be what drove Conan Doyle’s fans to mania for each new story. One can just image a Victorian era reader picking up a new story and thinking “This time. This time I’ll figure it out before he does!”.
It isn’t a feeling that all that hard to sympathize with for anyone who has been watching Sherlock on BBC or PBS for the last few years. Over the first three seasons, to varying levels of success, the show has delivered on that same promise. “Pay attention, and you’ll figure it out”. And then of course the mystery is all but closed up when we jump up and shout “I’ve got it!” but we walk away from the episode thinking “Next time I’ll figure it out before he does!”. The delivery of that promise may be the way in which this show has been most true to honoring the original source material, which it tries so hard to honor whenever it can.
And perhaps that’s why viewers have begun to sour on the show. What started out as a clearly defined show about a consulting detective solving crimes faster than anyone around him can, has become a show about a man deeply embroiled in international espionage. The new direction, while interesting, has felt less like Sherlock Holmes and more like James Bond. There’s nothing left to solve. Or, if there is, it’s in a much more sort of out-of-left-field kind of way that leaves a riveted audience thinking “There’s literally no way I could’ve solved that” instead of “Oh, I was so close. I’ll get him next time”. Pay attention as close as you like, you’re not going to figure this one out.
This is ironic in some ways. What Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done, effectively, is to spoiler-proof their show. Sure, there are still major elements that you could reveal to a friend that would be disappointing to them. But knowing “Who done it” doesn’t bring down the overall entertainment value at all. Because the show has become less about solving the crime, and more about the circumstances surrounding the crime, unmasking the villain never feels like the high point of the episode. Instead of a feeling of satisfaction at knowing who committed the crime of the week, we’re left with loose threads that we can pull on for days or weeks or years, just to keep us entertained until the next episode comes along.
In a certain way, this sort of baiting of the audience makes sense. Any form of entertainment that has to follow up on something great will always feel the need to raise the stakes. Sherlock is no exception. Season 1 presented one-off cases that were fun to solve. Season 2 was more of the same, but with the promise of Moriarty. Season 3, and now Season 4, seems to be dangling the idea of Moriarty in front of the audience to convince them to wander- without their knowledge or consent- away from the detective mysteries into a world of spies, assassins, and black-ops code names.
The most classic trope of the detective story is the idea of the locked door mystery. It is the most barebones case a detective can solve. A room, usually with a dead body in it, that has all the clues a good detective will need in order to solve the case. Find just one or two, and follow those down the trail that will lead to the perpetrator. At it’s best, Sherlock has literally given us these types of cases. Recently however, the show has become so hamstrung by it’s own premise that it has begun to rely on narrative through lines and logical jumps that may defy even the great Sherlock Holmes.
When revisiting one of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, it is so easy to feel dumb. Once one knows the ending, everything else suddenly becomes so obvious. Clues that were overlooked the first time suddenly leap out as so important. That is why we remain convinced that we could have solved the mystery. Like Doctor Watson, when Holmes explains his reasoning, we are astonished by how easy solving the crime should have been. In short, if solving the crime is not “Elementary”, then it just is not my dear Sherlock Holmes.