fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

Sherlock Holmes: A Rational Giant in a Post-Rational World?

A few days, Sevenswells (LJ user sevenswells) posted a very good, critical review of the Sherlock episode “His Last Vow” along with an alternate ending that makes significantly more sense than the one Team Moffat gave us. While I don’t agree with her on every point, her criticisms did help me think about a major difference between the Doyle books and the BBC series in a more specific way than I’d managed so far. Specifically, the books give us a Sherlock who uses his spectacular brain to triumph over criminals In the TV show, on the other hand, even when he solves case, the bad guy manages to get away, or be killed, or otherwise escape arrest and jail. Sherlock may still solve the case most of the time, but this doesn’t seem to get him what he really cares about; much less ensure that justice is done.

Let’s start with the most recent example, in “His Last Vow.” There will be pretty heavy spoilers for “His Last Vow” in the next paragraph, but I’ll get back to some discussion based on the first two series. If you’re avoiding series three spoilers you can skip down to “[end of series three spoilers]” below.

Unspoiled eyes duly averted? Excellent.

In “His Last Vow,” Mary Morstan turns out to have a secret with a capital S: she’s a CIA-trained assassin who then went freelance. More to the point, the blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen knows about this, leaving John and Mary very exposed. Toward the end of “His Last Vow,” Sherlock drugs his family over Christmas dinner, steals a highly confidential laptop from Mycroft, and goes to Magnussen’s house with John, intending to trade the laptop for any documents Magnussen has about Mary. [NB: This is the surface version of events; as with all things Sherlock, it's possible things aren't as they appear.] From Magnussen’s perspective, Mary’s vulnerability leads to a pressure point he can use to manipulate John, Sherlock, and eventually Mycroft, his real target. Sherlock’s trying to remove John and Mary from that particular loop, at no small risk to himself: he’s basically committing high treason in a very traceable way.

high-functioning sociopath
by masterkhan @ Tumblr. Click through for GIFs

It should work, at least in theory, except for one rather major problem: Magnussen doesn’t’ actually have any documents. He must have seen them or otherwise learned the information at some point, but the documents we see him perusing at various points of the episode are really in his mind palace, they’re just remembered bits of information. As Magnussen eventually explains to John (taken from Ariane DeVere’s (LJ user arianedevere) transcripts, “It works like this, John. I know who Mary hurt and killed. I know where to find people who hate her. I know where they live; I know their phone numbers. All in my Mind Palace – all of it. I could phone them right now and tear your whole life down – and I will… unless you let me flick your face. This is what I do to people. This is what I do to whole countries… just because I know.

Sevenswells argues in her review that this is a completely implausible way to run a blackmail ring, but I’m not convinced on that point. First, we know he does hold on to some documents – the video of John’s near-burning in “The Empty Hearse,” for example, or the Lord Smallwood letters he produces earlier in this episode that Sevenswells mentions. I can see him holding on to material where he would find it useful to have actual proof, or just where the physical object is particulary exciting But he also seems to know the danger of holding on to those objects. He doesn’t accept Mycroft’s laptop because having it in his possession is incriminating, and the information on it doesn’t get him any more influence than just knowing Mary’s secrets does.

Speaking of Mary, I don’t find it all that big a leap to think Magnussen could blackmail her without having any actual documents on her. Sevenswells writes, “If you go up to someone and say ‘hey this woman killed someone you loved look it’s all in my head’ that person can and will call you a liar if you don’t have proof to show them.” And she’s right, if you’re stupid enough to make explicit the proof is in your head. A much smarter approach: commiserate with the person and suggest that Mary’s that person without ever offering evidence one way or the other. Trade in half-truth and suspicions. If Mary’s shot enough people there’s at least someone who will be unstable to make that leap. Or better yet, go to the police with your suspicions and have them fingerprint her, do a genetic test on biological evidence left at some scene. You can get quite far by just supplying a tip or two, no corroboration necessary.

I’m also not convinced Magnussen is actually telling the truth here. I can see some photos or witness statements or something hidden away in a Geneva bank vault. He could very well be lying to make himself look even more impressive (see how I can make you dance without even having any evidence), and I can imagine him not actually wanting to make the trade. Why would he want to? He’s interested in control over the most powerful man in Britain, which he has through Mary; that laptop won’t get him anything, and as he explains to John and Sherlock, he knows it’s a highly dangerous thing to keep in his possession. This whole meeting could just be a Christmas gift he’s given himself, a way of having a laugh. He doesn’t have any real motive to make the trade, even if he had documents to offer.

Here’s the thing, though: Sherlock has a rather brilliant way to defang Magnussen, at least when it comes to Mary, and Sevenswells points this out in both her review and in her alternate ending: call Magnussen’s bluff. If Magnussen really doesn’t have any documents, then threaten to blackmail the blackmailer, tell him you’ll go around to all his victims and let them know he has no real evidence so they won’t be afraid of him – unless he leaves Mary alone. Magnussen might come back with the claim that he really does have some documents in some cases and that until Sherlock is sure which is which his threat is meaningless. He might threaten to ruin Mary and John in a spiteful last effort. He might reveal he does have evidence on Mary but that he has absolutely no interest in making the trade because this wouldn’t really gain him anything in the end.

These are real possibilities. Sherlock’s gambit might not work here. The thing is, though, he doesn’t even try. Instead he reaches for John’s gun and shoots Magnussen dead in front of dozens of policemen. No clever triumph through raw intelligence; Sherlock falls back on brute strength because there’s no way solving the puzzle will get him out of this situation.

[end of series three spoilers]

And if this was the first time something like this happened, perhaps I’d buy this as Sherlock caring about people beyond just his immediate friends, or just not being sure his plan would work. Both understandable, even good concerns. The thing is, this scene is part of a pattern, and it seems to set the BBC’s Sherlock apart from the Doyle creation in a big way. Time after time, Sherlock has either failed to solve the case or solving the case hasn’t really gotten him what he was aiming for, not because he wasn’t smart enough but because raw intellect just doesn’t seem like enough these days. Consider:

A Study in Pink: Sherlock works out that his cab-driver is the serial murderer (sort of) which is a mark for his intellect. Rather than turn him in, he gets himself into a dangerous situation. Again, he realizes a way out of it through moderate use of intelligence (recognizing a fake gun as fake), but his addiction to excitement gets the better of him and it takes John shooting the cabbie to end the case.

The Blind Banker: Sherlock decodes the message just in time to save John and Sara, but the leader of the crime-ring escapes without being captured. (She’s later killed by Moriarty because, if apprehended, she’d present a threat to his security.) Sherlock ends the message by dashing John’s hope that the police will be able to find the rest of the network, since all they have to do is pick up another book to use as the basis for their code and they won’t be detected.

The Great Game: Sherlock solves the little crimes and captures the criminals behind them, but Moriarty escapes capture – in fact, he just walks away because he has John decked out in explosive and there’s quite literally nothing Sherlock can do to save him until Moriarty chooses to let both of them go. Moreover, in one of the cases, Sherlock solves the case but the hostage is still killed. He’s rather impotent through the whole thing in a lot of ways in this one.

A Scandal in Belgravia: Sherlock only retrieves the pictures (his main goal in this case) because the phone was given to him and, because in a bit of dumb luck, he recognizes the chemical changes people go through when they’re physically attracted to someone. Irene escapes but she isn’t able to be protected, the one thing Sherlock tried to arrange for her, and it’s only a very improbable rescue attempt on Sherlock’s part that involves more daring than intelligence. He actually comes off pretty well here, but it seems more luck and skill at impersonation than the cool use of intellect I’d expect from the books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Sherlock gets the heart of the case wrong in a rather spectacular way and manages to pull it back together because he puts some unusual phrasing together with some obscure bit of information he’d been exposed to. The case really turns on him being given access to Baskerville laboratories, for which he relies on family connections. And in the end, the criminal escapes and kills himself by running into a minefield. Yes, there are pieces of Sherlock’s intellect (his memory, his skill at guessing the base commander’s computer password) that help him out here, but his connections to Mycroft and Lestrade seem to carry him further, and the case is hardly what you’d call a roaring success in any event.

The Reichenbach Fall: This is perhaps the most obvious failure of intellect, at least in the first two series. As presented, Sherlock is outmaneuvered by Moriarty precisely because he expects things to be so clever, and is forced to fake his death (arguably, to risk his actual death) in order to keep his friends’ safe. As we learn in “The Empty Hearse” (SPOILERS if you haven’t seen it yet, and only if you accept that last account as the correct one), this was part of a plot to kill Moriarty because he was too big a threat. Even in that case, though, Sherlock couldn’t defang Moriarty on the merits of his intellect. Mycroft couldn’t do it by keeping him locked up somewhere. They had to kill him.

Granted, even in the Doyle originals Sherlock didn’t do much better; if I recall correctly, he tackled Moriarty and threw them both off a cliff. Usually, though, Sherlock is much more capable, able to solve the puzzle and identify the culprit. Over at, Josh Pease describes Sherlock as “the sensationalized personification of Henley’s captain of the soul. His powers of deduction are presented as the triumph of reason, a triumph open to all of humanity if we’d only try a little harder. In this way, Sherlock Holmes is Nietzsche’s ‘superman’. [….] He is the moral, observational and logical evolution of mankind.” (Disclaimer: I’ve written for TC in the past and hope to write for them in the future, although I had nothing to do with this particular piece.) With rare exception, in Doyle’s London Sherlock is usually able to solve the case because he’s just that smart, and because being that smart is good enough.

That’s Doyle’s Sherlock. I don’t see nearly as much of that in the BBC Sherlock (and here, to be fair, I disagree with Pease), and it bothers me quite a bit because I don’t think it would be at all plausible these days. I mean, there’s a truth of the matter but in politics or crime fighting or even personal relationships, it’s the perception that ends up really swaying things. To take just one example, many American evangelicals are concerned that certain kinds of birth control keep fertilized eggs (which on the evangelical view counts as a human person) from implanting – effectively becoming a form of murder. The trouble is, the best science we know today suggests this isn’t how the pill works at all: it prevents fertilization, not implantation. Maybe these studies are wrong. Maybe when the pill fails it does inadvertently lead to implantation. The thing is, though, that’s not usually the conversation we end up having. Usually, people against contraception point to a controversy – ignoring the differing degrees of expertise and factual evidence people have on both sides. The fact that people disagree seems to trump the question of whether they’re reasonable to disagree in these matters. In one example, a recent Christianity Today post talks about her own decision-making process as a young married evangelical. The controversy over whether hormonal BC leads to abortions is prominently featured, but whether that controversy is justified doesn’t come up.

I don’t mean to pile on to this particular issue. My point is really quite simple: on this question there is an answer, and while it may not be 100% clear some people are better equipped to investigate it than others as experts. But these days we don’t really listen to them. What is true doesn’t really matter, and it seems horribly naïve to think that, if I proved beyond all doubt that using the birth control pill never kept a fertilized egg from implanting, that everyone who understood this evidence would stop thinking of the morning-after pill and regular hormonal birth control as an abortifacients. And that’s just as true with more crimey-wimey things, the kind of things Sherlock’s case revolves around. It seems outlandish to think that if Sherlock had the goods on, say, a Wall Street banker or a high-ranking politician, that he could turn over his facts to the police and that would be the end of things. Most likely he wouldn’t really care whether they went to jail, but as a reader I do. I like the idea that being clever, getting things right, brings with it some kind of fair justice. That, along with the thrill of the chase, is a big part of what draws me to Sherlock Holmes. In most cases, being smart matters.

At the end of the day, this seems more an indictment of our world than of Team Moffat. Not that I’m averse to criticisms of Team Moffat (because, really, that HLV scene could have gone better), but I think this change in how cases are resolved makes a lot of sense, based on how the world seems to work now. Honestly, I suspect anything else would feel unrealistically idealistic, because we live in a world where something being true or good doesn’t mean it’s actually going to happen. We are getting a Sherlock trying to make his way in what you might call a post-rational world, one where truth matters much less than being rhetorically convincing or strong and quite often his Achilles heel is that he’s not entirely conscious of that fact. He expects there to be a solution that’s clever and can be addressed rationally. For my money there should be, and it leaves me a bit sad that so often it’s just not possible to get things right that way.

Still, at the same time it gives me a bit of hope that things could be just that simple, or at least come closer to that ideal. Maybe this ideal was always the impossible dream, in 1895 or in 2014. If that’s the case, I’m still glad to have Sherlock’s goal to aim for. As Vincent Starrett Week put it so memorably in his famous poem,

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote,
That age before the world went all awry.

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

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