An Officer and A Sociopath

Spoilers follow. You’ve been warned.

Even the name of the first episode sounded silly to me: “A Study in Pink,” what’s that all about? And you’re going to take away one of the best parts about Sherlock Holmes, which is the setting, and make it modern? I just… I just didn’t know about this new show that everyone had started talking about. House was one thing, a broad nod to Joseph Bell, but it made no pretentions about trying to recreate the Holmes stories in a modern setting. That was always where I drew then line with my fan-fiction reading habits: modernity. I can stretch my mind for Holmes living to see the start of World War II, but even that is pushing my tolerance to the limit. I gave Sherlock a shot once, in the early days of the show, made some appropriately disgusted noises about it being not as good as the originals, and went back to my Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica (both of which I hadn’t started watching until well after the rest of the world had caught on to how good they were).

So, really, how hard was I trying there, to fool myself? I knew I’d be back, even though you would have had to rib me pretty hard then to get me to admit it. By the time I sat down to watch Sherlock, there were 6 episodes out, and what had made me make the U-Turn back to the first episode was a) the fact that I’d found out two of my favorite Doctor Who writers were behind the show, b) the first series was on Netflix and thus easily accessible, c) I was intrigued by Benedict Cumberbatch’s face, and d) I have loved Martin Freedman since the original, British Office. Guess how long it took me to get through all 6 episodes? If you guessed less than a week – in fact 4 days – congratulations, high five yourself.

So, about this weirdly titled first showing, “A Study in Pink.” I still hate the title, but then again so does Sherlock, so at least I got to feel a little justified there. It’s important to note here that the titles of the episodes are also the titles of Watson’s blog posts about the cases, in the world of the show.

What really hit me as incredibly compelling and very well-done (and what didn’t even register with me the first time I watched the beginning of this show) was the sequence of John Watson being injured in Afghanistan and returning home with an honorable discharge, a wounded army doctor.  How fitting that almost 200 years later Britain is back in Afghanistan fighting a different war against the same country.

One of the most major inconsistencies in the old Holmes stories was Watson’s “wandering wound,” which seemed to jump from his leg to his arm and back again, as if Conan Doyle didn’t particularly care to remember where he had put the wound the last time he wrote about it. Steven Moffat chooses to recast that discrepancy as symptoms of a psychosomatic injury. Moreover, Moffat manages to work in another phenomenon of modern warfare which has only been really studied/surveyed post-Vietnam: the plight of the soldier who was trained for years to kill, who then spent years killing and trying to avoid being killed, only to return home – the long awaited home – to a society that expects him or her to forget those instincts overnight. Moffat’s Watson sure as hell can’t do that and, frankly, doesn’t want to. When Holmes asks him if Watson wants to see some more of what he saw during his time at war, Watson answers, “Oh god yes.”  And as soon as a chase after a potential serial killer arises, he ditches the cane in a restaurant and forgets all about the supposed leg injury.  Just as Sherlock can read this aspect of Watson, so too can Holmes’s brother, Mycroft.  In an unexpected interview – during what must certainly be one of the longest nights on television – Mycroft observes, “You’re not haunted by the war Dr. Watson.  You miss it.”

Thus, this Watson adds a dimension to the Holmes-Watson relationship that the old one did not. Sherlock always needed Watson to temper the chill of his raw intellect and to help him be more human. The new, modern Watson needs Holmes on a much deeper level than the classic Watson, for what Sherlock is able to give him: a connection to the violent world he left behind in Afghanistan: the thrill of chasing down the enemy, avoiding being murdered by him and, better yet, saving the lives of others. After all, Watson is, ostensibly, a doctor, though the new version plays more towards soldier and away from physician. The poor man attempts to get a job in a small clinic, but can’t be bothered to show up for work on time (or stay awake when he gets there) once a serial killer turns up and Holmes is sent after him. Holmes still needs his Watson, and this Watson needs his Holmes just as much. The Conan Doyle Watson only seems to need Holmes for his friendship, which is a noble reason, but I still always felt that that Watson gave more to his counterpart than Holmes ever gave back.

As you can probably tell already, this episode, for me, wasn’t about the case at hand. The character development was so spot-on and so entertaining to watch, that the plot fades into the background, for me.

And Holmes? While Martin Freeman manages to make Watson all soft and hard in just the right places, Benedict Cumberbatch completely looks the part. In addition to the frame (long, lanky, a tad too thin), which is probably the easier of the two things to find in an actor, he has the face. As I said before, I love this face. He looks like, by all rights, he should be an ugly fella, and yet… you want to keep looking. He’s aquiline and hawkish and all those good, crisp Conan Doyle words, and maybe even handsome? Elegant? Now, thirdly, the voice. Enough said, I could listen to him talk all day.  There’s a reason Conan Doyle writes that “the stage lost a great actor” when Holmes decided to become a consulting detective – the man knows how to command a room, he has presence.  Cumberbatch brings that weight to the character, making it easier to see why people (Molly, Watson, even Moriarty) are drawn to his company.

© Hartswood Films Ltd 2009

Llastly, the clothes. I could probably talk about the clothes all day (really, I can talk about character wardrobe from just about any era, but I’ll keep myself focused for now). In the old stories Holmes is a man who couldn’t give less of a damn about how clean, organized, or decorated his suroundings are. He leaves chemistry experiments bubbling in the sitting room, pipe tobacco in an old slipper by the hearth, and shoots bullets at the wall when he’s bored. While we’re at it, he shoots drugs into his veins when REALLY bored, goes without eating for days, and smokes like a stack when he needs to think (which is essentially always). He must look a wreck half the time. But. BUT. From Conan Doyle, you also get a sense that Holmes cleans up very well. He seems at ease with government officials, queens, kings, and heads of state, well-to-do ladies, members of the peerage, and even attends the opera when it’s in town. All things that require a certain high level of grooming in order to blend in. Thankfully, Moffat and Gatniss have thus far spared us a drug-addled Benedict Cumberbatch, and even gave him nicotine patches to wear rather than have him mar that weird, lovely face with a smoking habit, leaving only the pale gauntness that adds to the character’s mystique. He also lacks the appropriate amount of fastidiousness about his surroundings (poor flatmate Watson).

But when it comes to the look of him, the way he dresses… his hair is coiffed just so, always looking that sort of messy you know takes a few minutes in the mirror to fabricate, his shirts look like they were made to his measurements exactly, rather than being bought in a store, and his coat looks like the kind of thing you have to hunt around for, a perfect piece you cherish for the way it makes you look rather than any old overcoat you pick up in a department store. I wouldn’t mind owning it myself, in the ladies’ version. Watson accuses Holmes, at one point later in the series, of “being all mysterious with your… cheekbones. And turning your coat collar up so you look cool.” Holmes feigns ignorance, but we’re all pretty sure he knows exactly what he’s about. Watson may own his fair-share of colorful sweaters and tight-fitting shirts, but Holmes seems to be the more metro one. Even his jammies look coordinated!

Also notably, “A Study in Pink” tries – almost too hard – to conjure up a cloud of doubt surrounding Holmes’ morality.  Classic Sherlock was cold, of course, but unfailingly prim, and most often polite.  That character never would have spun around his sitting room giggling at the thought of a serial murderer on the loose.  The modern Sherlock describes himself as “a high-functioning sociopath,” when two of his critics in the police force accuse him (probably for the hundredth time) of being a psycopath.  This too-pat self-diagnosis seems to be a straw man Moffat and Gatniss are setting up so that they can slowly knock it down as the series progresses.  We can get a glimpse of this work beginning at the very end of “A Study in Pink,” when Sherlock starts to work out for Lestrade who shot the murderous cabbie, realizes it can only be Watson, and then immediately shuts up.  Lestrade, perhaps sensing that Sherlock was about to reach a conclusion, even pushes him for the end of his sentence, but gets nowhere.  If all Holmes cared about was getting at the solution to a mystery (or, conversely, if he cared nothing for Watson and only for the case), would he really have kept his silence?  I, for one, don’t think so.  If anything, Sherlock as a whole humanizes the detective more than the majority of adaptations.

The cabbie also teases us, and Sherlock, with a  mention of Moriarty at the end of the episode… but he doesn’t truly show up (except in name) until the last episode in the first series.

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