A Critical Analysis of BBC's Sherlock
Give Up After Three is a Critical Analysis of BBC’s Sherlock examining each episode of BBC’s Sherlock to understand how things went so wrong that fans invented a secret final episode to justify why the show had been so bad all along (Linnea, 2017).
BBC’s Sherlock premiered on 25 July 2010, a modern imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, created by industry alums Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (Pbs Publicity, 2015; Sweney, 2010). Fresh off the heels penning some of the most critically acclaimed episodes of Doctor Who, Moffat’s modern interpretation infused Sir Conan Doyle’s work with snarky Whedonesque dialogue and centralised the relationship of Watson and Holmes, far more a character action adventure than mystery story (Sweney, 2010).
Motherboard’s Gita Jackson (2021) explains that characters written in this style are “often imprecise in their language, letting sentences trail off as they struggle to articulate themselves. They turn nouns into verbs and vice versa. They say ‘thing’ or ‘thingy’ or ‘stuff’ in place of more descriptive terms” and frequently comment on their surroundings or circumstances with a level of metatexutality, dissolving the barrier between character, dialogue and creator (Jackson, 2021). This style of dialogue “winks” at the audience, placing focus on cleverness at the expense of characterisation or drama.
Jackson (2021) goes on to explain that if every character speaks this way it can distance the audience from the characters, making it challenging to relate or care about their inner world. The jokes aim to impress the audience, lending to the trend of quoting Sherlock’s one-liners on Tumblr or embroidering certain exchanges on graphic tees (221 BoyLove, 2016).
And all of Sherlock’s characters speak like this. From the queer-coded villain Jim Moriarty to Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs Hudson, none are exempt from Moffat’s Whedonesque presentation of intellect. The few characters who escape this curve are either background figures of no consequence, or stooges for Sherlock and his friends to out shine.
The challenge this presents is multilayered, but leads to one inevitable consequence: characters and plot must constantly one-up themselves. Must be smarter. Must be quipier. Must be even more mind blowing. When intellectual spectacle is the accelerant, the story eventually either sets the neighbourhood on fire, or swings too big and self-immolates. In Sherlock’s case, the result was a final episode so contrived and poorly written that fans speculated a secret final episode existed that would recontextualise the prior work, explain away the terrible plot threads and make the show good again (Harris Bomberguy, 2017): ultimately, the show incinerated itself from the inside out.
In their pursuit of the ever-climbing curve of intellectual showmanship, Moffat and Gatiss wrote themselves into a corner by the close of the show. The third episode of series four, the show’s finale, features a plane full of passengers threatened by the deceased Jim Moriarty. However, the story reveals that Moriarty is still dead, his voice recordings were procured by Sherlock’s sister Euros who he forgot because Euros killed Sherlock’s childhood dog Redbeard, who Sherlock also forgot was really his childhood best friend and not a dog at all (Tyler, 2020). To say that BBC’s Sherlock represents the limitations of this mode of storytelling is to understate the absurdity of this script, and the critical reaction to this season. The episode was so contrived that audiences invented another episode to explain away the destructive writing choices.
Sherlock’s absurd stylistic challenges do not exist in a vacuum: the Whedonspeak has infiltrated Doctor Who, Netflix’s Cowboy Beebop and sits at the core of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Jackson, 2021). This style of character writing originated in Buffy and Firefly, yes, but Sherlock’s influence on the style of British Television’s largest intellectual properties prompts further study to answer, once and for all: how did the terrible Euros episode come to be and why did fans believe it was written badly on purpose in service of a secret fourth “good” Sherlock episode?
Episode 1 Summary
Across London, people are taking their own lives by swallowing a mysterious poisoned pill. We see three unrelated people break down into tears, then take a pink capsule, marking their death. Deputy Inspector Lestrade holds a press conference to calm the public, assuring that there is no link between these deaths. At this moment, every mobile mobile in the room receives a text with the word “WRONG!” - Lestrade ignores this message, and eventually receives a text that reads: "You know where to find me. SH."
We meet Holmes in the morgue, performing an experiment on a corpse while the mousy Molly Hooper attempts to flirt with him. Watson is introduced via a mutual friend, and Holmes performs some deductive magic, impressing Watson. Holmes leaves his address before disappearing.
Watson moves in with Holmes, and a few days later Deputy Inspector Lestrade turns to the unconventional Sherlock Holmes, a consulting Detective with a penchant for insulting Lestrade’s team and ignoring procedure for assistance: a new body has been found.
Holmes takes Watson with him to the crime scene - along the way, Holmes deduces that Watson’s limp is psychosomatic while performing another piece of magic reasoning to reveal that Watson’s sister is an alcoholic, missing only one detail: missing that Harry is short for Harriet. The two attend the crime scene of Jennifer Wilson who has scratched “Rache” on the floor as she died. Wilson’s garish pink coat is soaked with rain, while the pink umbrella in her pocket is dry.
Holmes deduces that she was in windy, rainy weather, so windy to prevent the use of an umbrella. And, using the lesson he learned in the cab on the way over, Holmes concludes Wilson was scratching Rachel as she died.
Holmes flees the crime scene to pursue a lead. Watson is treated to a side adventure, abducted by a mysterious car, and taken to the enigmatic Mycroft Holmes. Watson returns to Baker Street, where Holmes has successfully located Wilson’s pink suitcase. Holmes has Watson text Wilson’s phone as they chat, and gradually reveals that the only thing missing from the suitcase and her coat was her phone. Watson realises he has just texted the killer.
The mystery now turns to the question of method: how is the killer able to move so freely around London without being spotted. At that moment, a taxi stops in front of 22 Northumberland Street and the passenger in the back looks around but does not get out. Holmes and Watson take off after the cab, cutting through back alleys until they confront the cab, only to discover it is a tourist.
Back at Baker Street, the police are tearing Holmes’ apartment to pieces, looking for evidence of Holmes’ guilt, along with drugs. The pink suitcase looks bad for Holmes, Lestrade explains. The police argue with Holmes as Mrs Hudson, flustered, reminds Holmes that his taxi has arrived. Holmes tells everyone to shut up as he concludes that Wilson planted her phone on the killer, and the word Rachel was the password to her smartphone account. The police and Holmes use this to discover the location of the killer.
John sits down, discovering that he phone is indicating it is at 221B Baker Street. Having just come up the stairs to the edge of the room, the cabbie, #71126, waits patiently. It dawns on Holmes the cabbie fits the profile of the killer, and that he has the missing phone.
Holmes enters the cab. The cabbie explains he knows Holmes from reading his website, and drives Holmes to an empty school at gun point. Holmes and the cabbie face each other in a study room, where the cabbie proposes a battle of wits. The cabbie places two bottles, each with a large pink pill. One pill is harmless, the other lethal. The game is simple: choose a pill, and the cabbie will consume the other.
The cabbie reveals he is terminal, and looks at the left bottle. Holmes decides this is the deadly pill. Holmes asks why he can’t just walk out, and the cabbie draws a gun on Holmes, demanding he play. Holmes decides to be shot, confident the gun is a lighter.
The cabbie taunts Holmes again, and Holmes confirms the game is “child’s play” and not worth his time. Holmes selects the bottle in front of the cabbie. Meanwhile, John spies the pair from across the street. Holmes stalls, inspecting the pill in the light, preparing to take it, as John fires a shot through the window. The cabbie is hit in the chest.
Holmes demands to know if his guess was right, but the cabbie smiles at him. Holmes demands the name of the killer’s sponsor, and the cabbie screams “Moriarty!” before he dies.
The police arrive, along with Mycroft Holmes who squabbles with Holmes, revealing his position in British Intelligence. The story resolves with Holmes and Watson leaving the crime scene in the hands of the police, while Mycroft increases the surveillance status of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Watson’s limp is cured and Sherlock has a new flatmate and partner.
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