Needless to say, this is a spoilerfest.
I had my problems with all of Season 3 of Sherlock, to be honest. “The Empty Hearse” was overstuffed with endless montages of swooping shots of Central London and hectic jump cuts around the Tube, all of which seemed designed to illustrate mental activity but really only worked as visual filler. Aren’t the floating text bits a little stale and cheesy by now? And what about that music? Where did all those soaring, blockbuster-style strings come from, and what are they supposed to tell me? Most disappointingly, though, I thought the resolution of the flimsy plot was unspeakably callous — if Holmes is this nasty, why should Watson still be his friend, and why should we remain interested in him at all? (A friend of mine has aptly described both Moffat’s Sherlock universe and the world of his Doctor Who as largely devoid of consequences: neither male hero is ever made to regret anything lastingly and consistently. There’s always eventually an out. No matter how much Sherlock acts like a total and utter shit, Watson will be there for him.)
But whatever — that’s me. (There were good things, too. I liked that they left open the question of how Sherlock pulled off the stunt that ended Season Two, although that could also be seen as a fairly major cop out. Mycroft’s expanded role largely works. The Les Mis jokes were funny.)
“The Sign of Three” struck me as one huge exercise in fan-service, with an even less interesting and even more implausible case than the first episode. At this point it seems obvious that Sherlock, for better or worse, is not really a detective show anymore. Partly, that’s because the cases themselves simply suck. Partly, it’s because Gatiss and Moffat have written themselves into a corner with this season’s version of their detective. Sherlock as a character is now so much of a so-called “high-functioning sociopath” that he cannot read people’s responses and can’t recall the names of police officers with whom he has worked multiple times; but he’s ALSO rivalled only by his brother in his ability to read people. It’s one thing to be an expert interpreter of clues who is emotionally aloof and profoundly indifferent to the feelings of others (in many ways, that’s now Mycroft’s character). It’s quite another thing to be incapable of understanding a whole range of emotions. Doyle’s Holmes was the former in his worse moments, but never the latter. Gatiss and Moffat’s Sherlock, as they keep reminding us, is clearly the latter — his behaviour is pathological, not a matter of choice. I don’t see how someone with as limited a vision of human interactions as this season’s Sherlock could ever read correctly the signs and traces of the myriad of human interactions he observes throughout the three seasons. This is now a broken character.
But whatever. Consistency be damned.
And then came “His Last Vow.” A wonderfully creepy villain — viscerally unpleasant, and quite funny too (the T-shirt joke? Gold. The flicking of John’s face? Marvellously vexing). And the revelation of Mary Watson as international assassin. Interesting.
Unfortunately, what came with “His Last Vow” was the reappearance of Moffat’s tried-and-true knack for writing plots more sexist than the Victorian originals he draws on — a skill on fine display in “Scandal in Belgravia,” and no less evident in this latest episode. Charles Augustus Magnussen is based on Charles Augustus Milverton, “the worst man in London.” Many details of Doyle’s story find their way into Moffat’s plot: Sherlock’s engagement to Magnussen’s PA is straight from Doyle (though Holmes is marginally less callous about it), Sherlock’s repeated miscalculations in his struggle with Magnussen are mirror-images of similar errors of judgment Holmes makes when sparring with Milverton, and both plots end with the blackmailer getting shot. There is one crucial difference, though.
Here’s what happens in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” Holmes and Watson have broken into Milverton’s house to steal incriminating documents from his safe. Holmes is certain the villain is asleep. Holmes is wrong. He is in fact meeting with a veiled woman who seems to be about to sell him new material. As Holmes and Watson watch from behind a curtain, this is what unfolds instead:
“–Great heavens, is it you?”
The woman, without a word, had raised her veil and dropped the mantle from her chin. It was a dark, handsome, clear-cut face which confronted Milverton– a face with a curved nose, strong, dark eyebrows shading hard, glittering eyes, and a straight, thin-lipped mouth set in a dangerous smile.
“It is I,” she said, “the woman whose life you have ruined.”
Milverton laughed, but fear vibrated in his voice. “You were so very obstinate,” said he. “Why did you drive me to such extremities? I assure you I wouldn’t hurt a fly of my own accord, but every man has his business, and what was I to do? I put the price well within your means. You would not pay.”
“So you sent the letters to my husband, and he–the noblest gentleman that ever lived, a man whose boots I was never worthy to lace–he broke his gallant heart and died. You remember that last night, when I came through that door, I begged and prayed you for mercy, and you laughed in my face as you are trying to laugh now, only your coward heart cannot keep your lips from twitching. Yes, you never thought to see me here again, but it was that night which taught me how I could meet you face to face, and alone. Well, Charles Milverton, what have you to say?”
“Don’t imagine that you can bully me,” said he, rising to his feet. “I have only to raise my voice, and I could call my servants and have you arrested. But I will make allowance for your natural anger. Leave the room at once as you came, and I will say no more.”
The woman stood with her hand buried in her bosom, and the same deadly smile on her thin lips.
“You will ruin no more lives as you have ruined mine. You will wring no more hearts as you wrung mine. I will free the world of a poisonous thing. Take that, you hound–and that!–and that!–and that!–and that!”
She had drawn a little gleaming revolver, and emptied barrel after barrel into Milverton’s body, the muzzle within two feet of his shirt front. He shrank away and then fell forward upon the table, coughing furiously and clawing among the papers. Then he staggered to his feet, received another shot, and rolled upon the floor. “You’ve done me,” he cried, and lay still. The woman looked at him intently, and ground her heel into his upturned face. She looked again, but there was no sound or movement. I heard a sharp rustle, the night air blew into the heated room, and the avenger was gone.
No interference upon our part could have saved the man from his fate, but, as the woman poured bullet after bullet into Milverton’s shrinking body I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes’s cold, strong grasp upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip–that it was no affair of ours, that justice had overtaken a villain, that we had our own duties and our own objects, which were not to be lost sight of.
To recap: as Holmes and Watson watch, one of Milverton’s victims tricks him into letting her into his study in the middle of the night, where she let’s him have it, first verbally, then by gunfire, then with her heel in his face. And while good old Watson tries to be decent, Holmes makes sure justice, delivered by the lady, runs its course for the worst man in London.
Moffat’s take on that version of events? Good of you to ask. This:
“We reckoned Watson was lying to protect his friend.” Because it’s obviously, self-evidently, naturally absurd, right, to believe that a woman could take action like that, on her own, without any help from the great man. Right? (Also: parading your friend and yourself as accessories to murder is surely a pretty feeble protective gesture?)
In “His Last Vow,” naturally, the story pans out rather differently. There is a woman with a gun to Magnussen’s head, to be sure — good old assassin queen Mary (or, as the script insists on calling her, “Mrs Watson”). But she doesn’t get to shoot her tormentor. Instead, she turns to Sherlock for help (why, exactly?) and ends up drugged and fast asleep while Sherlock, like Holmes, proceeds to be wrong about Magnussen. Then, however, unlike Holmes, Sherlock gets the upper hand yet again, when Magnussen is in turn wrong about him (the stupid blackmailer failed to understood that Sherlock is a “high-functioning sociopath”) — which costs him his life. At Sherlock’s hands. Naturally.
To recap: in Doyle, Holmes is wrong, repeatedly, about Milverton. He is lucky to get a chance to destroy the papers that incriminate his clients, but he has nothing to do with stopping the blackmailer for good. He doesn’t win.
In Moffat’s version, Sherlock is wrong, repeatedly, about Magnussen. And then Magnussen is wrong about Sherlock, and Sherlock shoots him. While the trained assassin is asleep on the sofa, presumably because she is, you know, a she. Can’t have her take Magnussen out. What an anticlimactic ending that would be. Instead, Sherlock wins, gun in hand.
OF COURSE you might say, well, it was necessary for Sherlock to kill Magnussen like that, because otherwise we wouldn’t have got Mycroft’s ever-so-devastated “Oh, Sherlock,” and the story could have just gone on, without Sherlock being banished to the Eastern European wilds. And that wouldn’t do: got to wrap things up with Sherl out of the picture after all. Oh wait.
There’s more to say. There’s the weird way in which Molly, veteran doormat of eight episodes, gets to stand on her own two sensibly-shod feet — by slapping Sherlock, over and over. Because that’s what strong Moffat women do. There’s the increasingly unpleasant way Sherlock treats Mrs Hudson. (Just not funny anymore. At. All.) There’s the nasty red herring of building up a female character capable of silencing Sherlock with a cutting witticism for two episodes; turning her into the archetype of Moffatian female strength in “His Last Vow,” by reinventing her as a vicious killer; and then taking even that weird version of power away from her — first in a way that leaves a plot hole Doctor Who could be proud of, and then by drugging her and giving her no role whatsoever to play in the resolution of her own blackmail plot. There’s the sudden extreme level of sentimentality in how Mycroft’s feelings for his brother are portrayed. And there’s Sherlock’s killing of Magnussen, coming on the heels of a long sequence of humiliations, a turn so nasty (“Merry Christmas”? Seriously?) and, in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal, so out-of-control angry that it would have to read as Sherlock’s lowest moment in the season — if it weren’t for the fact that shortly thereafter he gets to kid around with Watson about baby names and then gets reclaimed as Albion’s indispensable saviour in the closing shots of the episode. In other words, if killing and hitting people is as strong as women get in Moffat, living out angry revenge fantasies is ultimately a perfectly acceptable male response to belittlement. Either way, aggression and violence are the hallmarks of the winner in Moffat’s universe; and the winner, at the end of the story, is a man.
There’s more to say indeed. But as far as I’m concerned, none of this actually trumps Moffat’s single most baffling achievement as a writer, now successfully accomplished in successive seasons: he is better than anyone else I know at taking a Victorian story, translating it into the 21st century, and making it MORE sexist than the original in the process. That’s a pretty impressively abject feat. Steven Moffat really is the king of unreconstructed men.
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