Warning: “Sherlock” spoilers ahead, duh.
Shrewd, deliberate, unsentimental. These are, apparently, the qualities we value in a fictional detective, as evidenced by the fan communities devoted to Sherlock Holmes, which seem only ever to be growing.
Clear-eyed, but not full-hearted, Holmes is the antithesis of all things post-truth, which might be why his stories are still celebrated today in spite of being over a century old. There’s an appetite for blunt, truth-telling iconoclasm.
But in the BBC’s adaptation of the detective stories, another factor is at play. Over the course of the series’ four seasons, Sherlock has grown from charmingly priggish and work-obsessed into someone who actually cares about the people he surrounds himself with, a relatable human with a superhuman mind.
And last week, his character arc culminated in an episode that trumpeted the value of “emotional context” as an important component of crime-solving, a complement to fact collecting.
Fans of the detective will tell you that his character, at least as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is gifted with a rare ability to suspend emotional value judgments in favor of clear-headed, objective deductions. When a desperate man or woman walks into his office at 221B Baker Street, he isn’t inclined to turn his nose up based on outward appearance; rather, he takes in information as a computer might, storing and analyzing without bias.
This trait led to seasons’ worth of impressive crime-solving, and scene after scene of Cumberbatch rattling off his deductions at a clip, wowing viewers, police officers, and his eventual sidekick, John Watson (Martin Freeman). A watch, a stain, a suntan ― anything was ripe for analysis. A man’s faded forearm tattoo clued him into precisely when the man became single, and whether the man still harbored feelings for his ex (he didn’t; if he was truly still heartbroken, he’d have finished getting the tattoo removed).
By the third season, the fast-paced crime-solving began to feel at its best like a parlor trick and at its worst like a mansplain-y attempt to claim that feeling individuals are less-than. It’s a tricky problem for a series that was founded on adventure, not character development. How can Sherlock Holmes be made as complex and interesting as the cases he cracks? For creators Steven Moffatt and Mark Gattis, the answer was simple: make him learn to feel.
The series had been leading up to this. Over and over, Sherlock takes John, Mrs. Hudson and Molly Hooper for granted, the joke being that his personal insights are completely lacking. In Season 4, the fault becomes more than a farce; it gets in the way of the duo’s work, too.
In “The Six Thatchers,” Watson’s wife, Mary, sacrifices her life for the sake of Sherlock’s, a move that leaves Watson bitter and avoidant toward his closest friend. In “The Lying Detective,” Sherlock pays it forward by giving himself over to a serial killer, putting his own life danger in order to will John out of his malaise. The key to solving the crime, then, is John’s realization that his friend’s concern for his well-being supersedes a selfish want for crime-solving thrills.
In “The Final Problem” ― an episode that, if the rumors are true, may be the last of the BBC series, or at least the last for a while ― emotional calculations prove to be as valuable as intellectual ones. We’ve learned at the close of the previous episode that Sherlock and Mycroft have a sister named Eurus (which means “the East Wind”) who’s cleverer than them both and doubly dangerous, too. Due to childhood violence and arson, she’s kept in a high-security prison. But, due to gifts bequeathed from Mycroft, including five minutes spent unsupervised with villain Moriarty, she takes over the entire facility, trapping the two brothers and Watson there for a series of tests.
It becomes clear halfway through the episode that Eurus ― a sociopathic character who argues that closely followed personal mores are inherently selfish ― intends to make Sherlock kill either his brother or his best friend, using a gun with a single bullet. Unwilling to engage with such a cruel game, he angles the gun towards himself and counts down, demanding that Eurus ― who’s communicating with them via video ― set them free. And she does; his selflessness and ability to read the true intent underlying her words gets him out of hot water. And, his ability to empathize with Eurus’ perspective, as a woman who’s been locked up since childhood, winds up being central to the case.
Had Sherlock stuck with his usual deductive process, Watson might’ve died. So, the show runners make their opinion clear: objective reasoning matters, but so does emotional context. And for all the series’ problems, it managed to use that message to construct an interesting character arc for a hero that’s been written and re-written into the ground.
In an interview with Vulture, Moffat said, “It would be the final stage of Sherlock learning to place some faith in his ability to make human connections. Obviously, the story of our series has been about Sherlock finding his way into that, starting to understand that all these things are not worthless, there are strengths to be gained from them.”
Is emotional context post-truth? Of course not. It’s a means of making the truth of facts more rigorous still, by considering not just numbers, but individuals; not just cause, but potential effect; not just what has happened, but what could.
You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.