In continuing with the Great Sherlock Rewatch (apparently not a one-time event), I rewatched “The Great Game” tonight. It’s hard to pick a favorite episode because each of the stories really excels in different things, but this one is near the top of the list. The only one that comes close to surpassing it for me is “Reichenbach,” and there’s a very good reason Sherlock fans are still discussing it two years after it aired. A reason beyond the fact that it’s the last episode Moffat + Co. have graced us with, I mean.
The plot is really fairly straightforward. A criminal mastermind (revealed to be Moriarty) has kidnapped several people, strapped them with massive amounts of explosives, and had them call Sherlock Holmes. They will be blown up if they do anything more than read what Moriarty types out for them, or if Sherlock doesn’t solve an unrelated murder case within a certain time-window. Sherlock also is being cajoled by Big Brother into investigating the suspicious death of a government worker and finding a missing flashdrive that belonged to the man. That’s why I keep calling it “The Great Race” when I talk about it – aside from being a similar title of a favorite movie of mine from high school, it’s both a similar title and the episode really does have all the pacing of a race.
Each of these cases could easily make an episode all on its own. People who don’t like the Great Game seem to think it’s rushed, and I can see where that comes from. I mean, it’s a trade-off in many ways – pacing for depth. But what really interested me was less the cases as the character development, or rather the deeper, better glimpse we get into Sherlock’s character here. It begins with Sherlock being quite bored for lack of a case, to the point that he shoots up the walls of his flat, and throughout the episode he’s much more swept away by the excitement of the time constraint, by the intellectually challenging case, by the fact that this is all directed at him (which is both demeaning – he refers to being made to dance at one point – and simultaneously quite an ego boost). John repeatedly is frustrated with the way Sherlock discounts the people whose lives are at risk. Usually this doesn’t matter so much – he investigates mostly murders, so the victim is typically beyond help – but here, he skirts close to the edge quite a few times. One captive, an elderly woman, is killed when she starts to describe Moriarty, and while Holmes had solved the case he’d also delayed revealing the answer so he could use the time alotted to get ahead of Moriarty, leaving the captive to suffer; who knows if she would have given away this detail if she hadn’t been so stressed. And a little boy is very nearly killed when Sherlock is so taken with his own cleverness, he almost walks off without telling Moriarty the solution he’s found.
Sherlock doesn’t seem at all focused on the human lives at risk as he solves these cases. On one level, it would be sentimental to focus on them, even maybe harm them further. But there’s a sense in which his complete focus on the goal, on what he calls the game. I don’t think that word is an accident; it calls to mind his line in “Study in Pink,” where he’s absolutely ecstatic over the suicides, and defends himself against the charge of indecency with “The Game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!” The game, in its way, defines Sherlock, giving him a world where he can excel and at the same time providing the distraction he needs to save himself from, well, himself. Yet there does seem something… inhuman about all this focus. And John is really starting to understand this about Sherlock, I think, for the first time. This exchange, taken just after the death of the older woman, really gets to the heart of the matter:
John: So why’s he doing this then, playing this game with you? D’you think he wants to be caught?
Sherlock: I think he wants to be distracted.
John: [laughs bitterly] I hope you’ll be very happy together.
Sherlock: Sorry, what?
John: There are lives at stake, Sherlock – actual human lives… Just – just so I know, do you care about that at all?
Sherlock: Will caring about them help save them?
Sherlock: Then I’ll continue not to make that mistake.
John: And you find that easy, do you?
Sherlock: Yes, very. Is that news to you?
John: No. No.
Sherlock: I’ve disappointed you.
John: That’s good – that’s a good deduction, yeah.
Sherlock: Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.
That last line is iconic, really, the kind of thing Sherlock fans insist of remaking into memes, and the basic idea (possibly even the words – can’t recall offhand) come back with a vengeance in “Reichenbach.” But what really interested me on this watching was John’s earlier question, the thing that disappointed him: not that Sherlock could move past the fact that real people’s lives were at stake – that they were sffering and he risked them suffering more – but that he could do it so easily. It seems inhuman to John that anyone could be so great that they could just move past that as effortlessly as Sherlock seems to; the only real possibility was that they weren’t sufficiently bothered by it. Sherlock’s greatness is never really in question, but his goodness, his success as a human being, definitely seems to be. Actually, it’s more than whether he succeeds at being a human; a failure to feel this connection with our fellows, even with strangers, is a failure to be human at all, in a very real sense.
All of this reminds me of a comment Lestrade makes to John just after they’ve met, regarding Sherlock: that Sherlock is a great man, and if they are all very lucky, he will one day be a good on. I think, in this episode, Sherlock is wavering a little on that border between goodness and greatness. He is clearly great – he is able to see things others just can’t, and lives get saved because of it (to say nothing of crimes being solved). But I think the fact that he is so easily able to look past the human factor is a mark of inhumanity for him. John sees that, but with absolutely no evidence to support the idea, he intuits that Sherlock really can grow beyond greatness into goodness – his self-sacrificial acts in the final scene show that quite clearly. And Sherlock, to his credit proves that he’s worthy of that trust: when Moriarty seems to leave him and John alone at the episode’s end, Sherlock’s first impulse is not to pursue Moriarty; it’s to get the bomb off Sherlock and make sure he’s okay.
There’s a glimmer of a heart there, for those Sherlock is close enough to for that connection to truly register. (And that circle is growing.) Still, I think even as Sherlock grows in human virtue, he will never truly be nice. He will be affected by risks to those close to him, by their suffering, but he will never be sensitive to the need to show it. There is a focus and an authenticity about him that crowds that normal way of displaying human goodness out.
It strikes me that it takes an army doctor to be able to relate to that. Someone who was able to say in the very first episode, when asked to imagine what he would think if he was about to die: “I don’t have to” [imagine it]. He needs some evidence of humanity, but it can be evidence shown in a uniquely Sherlockish way.
Thank goodness they have each other – because I’m honestly not sure who else could keep up with them.