The other day I mentioned several themes I saw in the BBC Sherlock episodes, a kind of progression into virtue if you’ll allow me a bit of philosopher-speak. Specifically:
S01E01, “A Study in Pink” – selfishness
S01E02, “The Blind Banker” – (growing) selflessness
S01E013, “The Great Race” – friendship
S02E01, “A Scandal in Belgravia” – romantic love
S02E02, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” – trust
S02E03, “The Reichenbach Fall” *whimpers* – self-sacrifice
I want to get to the selfishness theme in a minute. But before we get to that, I can’t quite help myself. Because Sherlock is awesome with the way it both embraces and dances with, and at the same time undercuts, fandom expectations. And you see that right at the beginning. Here’s our first glimpse of him, in maybe the third scene of the series.
Benedict Cumberbatch the actor is a sex symbol on par with Orlando Bloom around the time the Lord of the Rings movies came out. He was recently named Empire magazine’s sexiest male actor, and for a fandom that can be rather highbrow, Sherlock fans are not shy about ogling the man and joking around about how attractive he is. And the actor definitely *coughs* deserves this reputation. But Sherlock the character is downright virginal, whatever we fans might try to make of him.
There’s something awesome about introducing him in a highly sexualized, even kinky, scene – but in a way that is completely asexual. Professional. (How exactly is a riding crop part of a detective’s toolkit?) It’s all just… hilarious. Almost like Cumberbatch is daring us the audience, taunting us with this relationship we really can’t ever hope to have, even denying that the character we are quickly going to fall in love with is at all interested in that area of life. And Sherlock the character is played as completely oblivious to what’s going on. When Molly asks him if he’d like to get coffee sometime – this is right after the above clip – he reads it as her offering to bring him some later, and gives her his order. And later, in one of my favorite scenes from the episode, he and John have a charming conversation about their own lack of romantic attachment in which Sherlock declares he’s married to his work. (In the unaired pilot version of the episode he’s even more blunt: aside from his mind, everything else is transport.)
For all that razor’s edge of lovely tension between the fangirl fascination (and yes, lust – cf. the purple shirt of sex) over Benedict and the way the Sherlock character completely rebukes the need for any kind of relationship (well, at least until the woman woman, but more on that when we get to series two), even in ASIP Sherlock has some gaps in his life that need filling. He doesn’t seem to need or even naturally think of other people needing the kind of human contact that drives so much contemporary culture. There’s no romance, no need for romance with him. But he does need someone in his life to split the rent, and he finds it useful to have a companion along. Granted, he’d just as easily talk it out with his skull if it hadn’t gone missing, but he does see some value to having an actual human around.
There are hints that he has a deeper need, too, even in this first episode. Just after he and John meet, he reveals to the police chief Lestrade that he actually needs someone to help him, who will work with him unlike the Scotland Yarders who disdain him. He storms out of the apartment in a whiff of excitement (“Four serial suicides and a note! Oh, it’s Christmas!”) but returns shortly after, remembering that he’s just left an army doctor in his flat. If he needed someone to help him out who could tolerate him, he just may have found him.
I’m not sure Sherlock fully realizes how badly he needs John. Certainly he seems to approach him instrumentally, as a thing that gives him what he needs. The unaired pilot version of this story puts it in even more detail, with Sherlock’s statement about the cabbie, that the frailty of genius is it needs an audience. He’s a proper genius, too, and he seems to need to have someone see that genius. But in the final act I believe Sherlock does realize he needs more than that. When John kills the cabbie to save Sherlock’s life, Sherlock is given a choice: prove how clever he is to LeStrade, or spare his friend..
When it comes to character development, I believe that’s what we call a result, to quote someone 221Bish.
Turning to the flipside, John is just as in need of a friend, a companion, and I think he’s at least a little more conscious of this need than sherlock is. Surely he’s aware that he’s lost something. He’s suffering with PTSD and a psychosomatic limp largely because he’s, well, bored.
In this conversation, Mycroft (Sherlock’s older brother and a major force in the cloak-and-dagger side of the British government) claims that John’s not haunted by the war, he misses it. Personally I suspect it’s both based on scenes we see later on, particularly toward the end of “Baskerville,” but that doesn’t change the fact that John lost something when he was sent home from Afghanistan. A sense of purpose and camaraderie, the ability to do something that matters, I think. He’s also traumatized by it, as anyone would be, but that doesn’t change the fact that the peaceful life doesn’t seem to be agreeing with him so much.
Interpreted through this lens, Mycroft’s comment about seeing the battlefield takes on a whole other level. It’s not just that Watson is drawn to Sherlock; life in his shadows (because let’s admit it, there’s a reason Freeman was cast as a hobbit :^P ) has a taste of what Watson is missing from the war. It’s got just the right amount of excitement and transcendence beyond the ordinary. Sherlock is extreme, and those things that (rightly!) drive John crazy also draw him out of his isolation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one instance where he loses his temper is just after Sherlock gets so excited over the crime scene and rushes off without him. “Damn my leg!” indeed.
The interesting thing is, this seems to be the way relationships start. It’s too great a leap of faith for me to jump directly into a relationship based on the other person’s needs – I simply don’t care enough about them at first. It’s human nature to take the first steps beyond our isolation based on what we know best: ourselves. But give me a bit of my need that they can fill, ideally a mutual need that we can fill for each other, and that can grow into something else. Sometimes it will even get you from this:
… to something more like this:
Which will do. At least for a start.