Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Hounds of Baskerville: Review, Analysis, and Thoughts

My thoughts on Hounds of Baskerville (though there’s only one hound, unless some more are lurking in the shadows…). Spoilers below!

So, last week’s episode provided the resolution to a cliffhanger, the expansion of a 20-page story into a 90 minute episode, and thus complicated, convoluted plot. This week’s episode was much more straightforward, and, arguably, better for that reason. As fun as twists, turns, and guessing games are, there’s a point at which beautiful story arc can get too tangled. This was almost the case last week.

Of course, it could be argued that this week’s plot was overly simple and that the hallucinogens as the solution to the mystery were patently obvious. I thought not. I guess it’s just one of those things where, well, “your mileage may vary.” I didn’t suspect hallucinogens for a variety of reasons, mostly the fact that I found it difficult to believe that several people would be hallucinating the same thing so exactly. Also, Sherlock and hallucinations?

Though where they took that idea is brilliant. Sherlock and doubt. This is yet another example in which the series makes Sherlock just a bit human, just enough to be able to explore his character sufficiently, without making him into a normal, feeling, breathing human being (which he isn’t). He feels fear and doubt – but the story explores to kinds of fear that he has. One is the fear of a being of superior intellect: fear of himself. He doubts, and he fears not knowing – and hence the unknown. The other is the fear of a human being: fear for another he cares about. That’s why he sees Moriarty at the end: because he’s begun to care for John, and knows that Moriarty threatens that. This is a change, of course, from his phrase in The Great Game, “I’ve been informed that I don’t have a heart.” He’s developing one, just a bit of one, and the vulnerability that comes with it. Someone who does not feel has no vulnerabilities, and Sherlock likes to pretend he’s invincible – but he’s not. His one vulnerability is himself, both in the doubt and the sentiment that he experiences for the first time.

The story and the setting are perfect to bring to light that vulnerability. The Hound of the Baskervilles – the most famous Doyle novel - is a Gothic novel, of the supernatural explained variety. It’s supposed to be dark and scary and kind of supernatural, almost a horror story, but there’s a logical explanation at the end. That’s Doyle’s brilliance: he adopts the Gothic novel for his purposes, juxtaposes fear and the supernatural with Sherlock’s realizations. As an adaptation, the episode was brilliantly done. It was bloody scary. I don’t get scared too easily, and I can’t say I was terrified, but nevertheless, I can’t say I watched it calmly. The episode with Watson in the lab, in particular, was nerve-wracking. (in his position, I’d lock myself in the cage too. Smartest solution. Though I figured out pretty quickly it was an experiment of Sherlock’s – did anybody else?)

The interaction between Watson and Sherlock is also wonderful. I’m not quite ready to ship them together yet (I don’t think that’s where the series needs to go), but their relationship is certainly developing. They’ve gotten to the point where their friendship is strong enough that they can insult each other and yet help each other and trust each other. There are scenes where they are being complete bastards to each other: Sherlock running that experiment on Watson, Sherlock giving Watson coffee with sugar which he believes contains a hallucinogen, Watson’s inability to understand Sherlock’s fear. That last scene was particularly grating – Watson just would not shut up, and the idea that there might be something wrong with Sherlock was just so incomprehensible to him. But other scenes make up for that and which show that their friendship can survive: “I don’t have friends. I have one,” is possibly one of the best lines in the entire season. And Sherlock’s worry about John after the little “experiment” is patently genuine.

Also, can I just point out what a perfect piece of cross-referencing that Star Trek reference is? In J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek, Spock (who is having a conflict between his emotions and his cold logic, rather like Sherlock, which makes it a really apt reference), says “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” He’s quoting Sherlock, of course. So then, when Sherlock says his own line, Watson calls him Spock. Sherlock and Spock being two of my favorite fictional men (read: crushes), that was perfect. Add to that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch recently got cast as the villain in Star Trek 2 (I really hope his villain is a clever character who can have a battle of wits with Spock…then my life would be complete). And all those lens flares – remind anyone of J.J. Abrams? It’s like the writers/creators knew Benedict would be cast in the Star Trek film before he was….

And now time for the criticisms. There are few, but they exist...

The beginning, where Sherlock, to borrow an expression, “really doesn’t have his shit together.” We know that Sherlock’s mind rebels at stagnation. That it’s like an engine, always running. In fact, that phrase, “my mind rebels at stagnation,” is taken from The Sign of Four, the same one in which Holmes takes a 7-percent-solution of cocaine (hence, talking about needing something “seven percent stronger”). In said novel, Holmes calmly takes his cocaine while Watson watches in despair (at least here Watson has the guts to prevent his friend from being on drugs). Nevertheless, there are other instances throughout the stories that suggest that Holmes can occupy himself with other things: chemistry, books, his monographs. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for example, he remains at Baker Street, “buried among his old books, alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.” Clearly, Watson (and Doyle) are suggesting that, despite Holmes’ dependence on the drug, he still has the ability to occupy himself somehow. Surely that engine of a mind must be able to think of something, to solve other problems than detective ones? In any case, Holmes’ anxiety and restlessness at the beginning seem overdone, though it’s clear that they’re a setup for his later breakdown of self-doubt.

Sherlock’s mind palace. The concept is very cool (and quite real, there’s even a wikihow on how to build a mind palace). But the way it was shown was inadequate. Part of the charm of Sherlock’s brilliance is that it’s so beyond the average human mind. It’s something special and of itself. The idea of attempting to transcribe that into a visual medium through words on the screen, manipulated by Sherlock through some ridiculous gestures, is frankly a bit of an insult to Sherlock’s mental abilities. It really does look like the editors decided to have a fun time playing around with different fonts and Google image search. Not to mention that it is rather reminiscent of the slightly hallucinogenic thinking-dream of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock in the Sherlock Holmes movie.

The password. That whole scene was superfluous. It’s a top government secret – and it’s a six letter password, and a name at that? People who work in top secret government facilities are not that predictable with their passwords. And having a brilliant detective character guess the password through profiling really is the oldest trick in the detective story-writing book. It feels like the writers just needed another scene of Sherlock being clever, and this was the best they could do.

Now, on to the most important question: Moriarty the ending, and The Reichenbach Fall(s). The last ten seconds end with Moriarty being released from prison; his cell is covered in the word “Sherlock.” It’s clear that Moriarty has a very intricate plot up his sleeve. A master criminal like him would not allow himself to be caught like that. I’d guess that his arrest is a decoy for what the real crime is; scribbling Sherlock’s name all over the walls as a way to pretend to be insane seems to be a good way to do so. That scene in the teaser which Moriarty is being led from his cell to the courthouse is also rather telling (and, at the same time, not really). It is certainly brilliantly filmed, however - just as it looks like Moriarty’s starting to smile, he walks through shadow, and then his face fades away. But it’s certainly an evil smile….

Which does not bode well for Sherlock, of course. We all know what happened at Reichenbach Falls and about Sherlock’s “death,” and Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat haven’t stopped taunting fans with suggestions of the tears they will have to spill after the next episode. My two cents: we all know that Sherlock didn’t actually die when he fell off the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle brought his character back to life – apparently Holmes faked his death. Both Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are students of the Canon, and I doubt they would differ from Doyle on so important a point. And besides, the two are rather fans of what is called “trolling.” They are probably relishing the fact that we are falling for exactly what they want us to fall for. But what have they actually said?

“..only the fall remains. You have one week to brace yourselves.”

“St. Bart’s Hospital..end of route” (this was a picture that was tweeted).

“somebody certainly [dies].”

Can I point out that none of those actually confirm Sherlock’s death? Moriarty is also supposed to die at Reichenbach. And given how attached some fans are to Moriarty, isn’t it possible that this is what they’re playing off of?

Furthermore, as much as we like to pretend that art is Art with a big “A,” and not subject to things like money and what the audience want….that’s kind of not true. Sherlock is possibly because the BBC commissions it. And Sherlock is one of the BBC’s most popular shows right now. They will probably commission a third season, and our oh-so-clever screenwriters will have to find an oh-so-clever way to bring Sherlock back. Of course, I (obviously) haven’t seen the third episode, and therefore I can’t vouch for how possible it is for Holmes to come back. Benedict Cumberbatch has said that it’s “quite difficult” for Sherlock to return, but, once again, how ambiguous is that? After all, Sherlock Holmes is the master of the impossible, and besides, we’ve seen characters fake their deaths on the show before (i.e. Irene Adler). I have no doubt that Gatiss and Moffat are clever enough to think of something.

Of course, maybe I’m just in denial, because I really, truly cannot accept the idea of there being no more Sherlock. I haven’t even considered that possibility, because I know it will involve me weeping for hours on my bed. Let’s hope my logical reasoning prevails over an emotional breakdown.

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