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Difference and the Critical Possibility of Sherlock

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While I have a love-hate relationship with, Todd Van Der Werff’s fantastic essay on the critique of angry white masculinity in Breaking Bad was easily one of the better things I read last year. More than that, it’s given me food for thought in trying to locate John Watson, who seems to have gone a bit AWOL in series three of Sherlock. Until now, we’ve watched Sherlock - both show and character - through John’s eyes; both his breathless awe at Sherlock’s fantastic feats of deduction and his scandalized shock over Sherlock’s more audacious infractions of social mores have all been ours. We’ve been invited by John to see Sherlock as he does: more than a man, superlative, extraordinary. And until recently, Sherlock has always seemed to thrive on John’s hyperbole.

Series three gives us a new perspective - Sherlock’s. For the first time, we’re invited to identify with him, to see through his eyes, and one of the most striking differences between his and John’s point-of-view turns out to be the very different ways each understands Sherlock’s place in the world. Where John has looked at Sherlock and seen someone uncommon and fantastic, Sherlock looks at himself and sees a more garden-variety kind of difference. Of course, series three isn’t our first glimpse of Sherlock’s comparatively less besotted view of himself; as early as A Study in Pink, we see that Sherlock has internalized a lifetime of negative reactions to his clever deductions, and this is why John’s quick and ready appreciation of them affects him so strongly. Like John, albeit for different reasons, Sherlock is disinclined to trust people - but he trusts John almost immediately because John has not just seen, but delighted in, the outward manifestation of Sherlock’s essential difference. And though John proceeds to backtrack repeatedly over the course of the first two series, expressing dismay over Sherlock’s easy manipulativeness and callous disregard for the feelings of others, in the end, while he can scarcely admit it to himself, it’s Sherlock’s difference - his ability and willingness to work outside the boundaries of so-called normalcy and polite society - that draws John back to Sherlock again and again.


It’s what he likes

And, as it turns out, this is what Sherlock falls in love with, for whatever definition of ‘love’ you may choose to apply: John’s ability to see past surfaces to the person underneath. Sherlock loves John for everything that John’s love of him says about the man underneath his facade of mundaneity.

But John is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he has a (nascent) ability to not just see, but appreciate, people for who they are; on the other, it’s tightly constrained by the way he - and men like him - understand the world and their role in it, and this is where I situate the potential critique of normative masculinity that Sherlock has to offer. Before anything else, John is a white, cisgendered, ostensibly heterosexual, neurotypical man in present-day England. He is “Everyman,” for a certain definition of “every,” and as such his life is defined both by certain self-perceived responsibilities and certain privileges. He’s a soldier and a breadwinner - he fights, he destroys, he upholds. He’s a man in search of a woman, not because he seems to have any great chemistry with them (Sarah, even more than Mary, comes closest - at least we witness that early spark of interest), but because that’s part of what defines masculinity - as John sees it and society defines it. John identifies himself (and others) through neat labels: soldier, doctor, not-gay, colleague, boyfriend, husband; wife, genius, machine. As relentlessly as Sherlock categorizes information, John categorizes people, and in such a way as to leave little room for difference - in others, but most viciously in himself. Indeed, where he’s most frustrating to the viewer - insisting “I’m not gay” at every opportunity, his ‘typical male’ indifference to inner lives of his girlfriends and even wife, his essentialized and almost willful misunderstanding of Sherlock as a “machine” to his “man” - is where he’s most assertive of an identity that hews to strict categorization.

Which is to say, we are least connected to John - most alienated from his point of view - when he’s clinging to the very things that make him such a quintessential Everyman, and this because, throughout series one and two, we get just enough information that John doesn’t have to know that it’s never that simple. When John storms away leaving Sherlock at Bart’s, we see Sherlock alone afterwards, and having learned through experience that the expressions Sherlock makes when he’s alone are the only ones we can completely trust to be real, we know what John doesn’t - and that foregrounds the extent of John’s self-delusion better than any subsequent explanation of events. Having been asked to identify with John throughout series one and two, we’re thus put in the position of being able to see where John is wrong, where he’s flawed and disadvantaged for not being able to see past categories and surfaces. And this is a potentially interesting position into which to place the viewer.

Series three, then, takes all of that and throws it into sharp relief. For the first time, we’re largely privy to what Sherlock is thinking and planning, with the effect that we come away with both an intensified appreciation of what Johncan be - a friend to misfits, a healer, affectionate, loyal, and forgiving - in spite of the ways he chooses to identify himself, as well as an even greater degree of frustration that he seems to retreat behind a wall of strict subjectivity at the first sign of his own weakness. 

To a greater extent than in the previous two series, series three is about nothing so much as difference - how Sherlock accepts it in himself and others, how John rails against the same. We are both told and shown the extent to which it defines Sherlock’s experience of the world: donning the wool hat and taking on someone else’s ridiculous difference, then later embracing his own when he puts on the deerstalker; sensing, if not quite seeing, Mary’s own difference - analogous, perhaps, to that of the ‘best man’ (and incidental garroter) he’s ever known, and seeming to respect it even after she’s shot him; his appreciation of his homeless network (and isn’t this a far cry from the callousness of his first mention of them in series one) and, in particular, of Billy’s unique skill set. He notes, approvingly, that he knew Mary - of everyone looking for him - would talk to the people others would overlook; he hates Magnussen for no reason other than that he targets the different and preys on their secrets.

In this sense, it’s interesting how Sherlock deploys his own difference in series three. He’s called himself a ‘high-functioning sociopath’ in the past, using the term as a descriptor meant to distinguish him from the “psychopath” of Anderson’s imagination. In series three, however, Sherlock wields the label against those who would fear, or prey on, his difference. When he invokes it against Mary’s ex-boyfriend, he’s making no threat - just letting the man’s own fear of difference do the work for him. And when he shoots Magnussen… the more I think about it, the more I think his final words are meant for John, not for Magnussen himself - one last attempt, after so many throughout His Last Vow, to push John away, to give him permission to leave him to his solitary extra-ordinariness and go have as normal a life as he’s going to be able to have with an ex?-assassin for a wife.

Which brings us back to John, and our utter frustration with him by the end of His Last Vow. After an introduction that drives home how very lost and unbalanced John is without Sherlock, in which John all but gets down on one knee and begs Sherlock to take him back at 221B through a song-and-dance that involves remarking on his missing chair and how “nice it is to be missed,” asking outright if Sherlock is trying to put him off, and gaping in some combination of amusement/dismay/horror at Sherlock and Janine, John seems to decide that Sherlock is, after all, devoid of human sentiment - bigger than life, super-human rather than just a man. And for his part, Sherlock lets him - encourages it, even, yet throughout it all so clearly in pain over his estrangement from John that we wonder that John cannot, or won’t, see it. No one scene says as much about what John means to Sherlock as the mind palace sequence; where the people in Sherlock’s life inhabit its rooms and corridors, the mind palace itself (as others have discussed) is nothing less than an amalgam of all things John: where they worked their first case together, where John shot the cabbie, where they lived together - Sherlock brushing his fingers along the wallpaper at 221B. When Mary shoots him, a bride whose bullet rips through his chest, Sherlock screams in agony; when he’s died on the operating table, it’s only the thought of John - always John - that brings him back.

And John sees… none of it. Or, rather, we’re not allowed to see him see it. From the point at which Sherlock is shot, we are deliberately kept from John - specifically, we are kept from seeing John and Sherlock together for a period of months. With the exception of their departure for Appledore, a bittersweet bit reminiscent of days apparently since past, John and Sherlock share only three scenes following his hospitalization: the confrontation with Mary, in which Sherlock is more bystander than participant, the confrontation with Magnussen, and their frustrating farewell on the tarmac. In each, rather than witnessing John standing with Sherlock as he’s done so often in the past, we see him pointedly moving away. John categorizes Sherlock as a psychopath, aligning only briefly with him and only against Mary, but otherwise packing him away in a tidy box with a neat label, the better to keep himself safe from any hint of Sherlock’s fallibility and sentiment and human frailty. By the time of the confrontation with Magnussen, John has ceased to see Sherlock altogether. As Magnussen watches in amusement at Sherlock’s blatant display of love for John in the bonfire video, and Sherlock looks on with an expression that’s less resignation than complete acceptance - he has no issues with his love for John here, and he’s attempting to hide nothing from him (far from it, in fact) - John sees nothing but himself being used as a pawn. Which, fair enough; and yet, insofar as the only way Sherlock could be clearer about both his utter, flawed humanity and, in particular, his weakness - his love - for John would be to stamp it across his forehead, it’s particularly frustrating for the viewer that John patently fails to see it.

In the end, Sherlock sacrifices his freedom and (very nearly) his life to save Mary (John) from Magnussen’s manipulations, and John has no idea what to do with this act. Sherlock pushes John away one final time - not only through his act of murder, but in a telling moment when he says, in an uncharacteristically booming voice over the noise of the helicopters, “Tell Mary she’s safe now,” to John’s utter disbelief and shock. But we stay with Sherlock. We see him turn away, into the light and wind of the helicopters, the red sights of numerous rifles, and we see what John can’t - Sherlock’s wide-eyed, unspeakable despair. That John is kept at a distance from there on in is to interesting effect. Remember, we were asked to identify with John very early on. He was our eyes and ears on Sherlock Holmes. His frustrations with Sherlock were ours; his shock and disbelief and delight were all ours. Now, at the end, we can’t fully relinquish that identification, but we’ve learned how uninformed, how misunderstanding, how unobservant it is. We know what Sherlock feels - his every expression and movement speaks of nothing but his love for John - and our frustration finds a target in John, with whom we identify.

In Breaking Bad, we’re asked early on to identify with Walter White; as discussed in the Salon essay, this works to particularly nice effect, insofar as that identification calls into question values and ‘norms’ that we ourselves might hold dear. I think our identification with John, in the face of everything he’s doing wrong, might have a similar effect, albeit to somewhat more redemptive ends. If John’s great failure here is to have ceased to appreciate the differences that make Sherlock special, choosing only to see them as somehow reinforcing a sense of Sherlock’s superhuman indestructibility (and abetted, of course, by Sherlock, who only once - “that’s me, by the way” - suggests otherwise), it’s not ours. We’ve learned to appreciate Sherlock’s difference in a way that John’s forgotten; we’ve surpassed John, and in so doing we’ve opened ourselves up to the very difference that Sherlock represents. And this, to me, is the critical work of Sherlock; in positioning our hopes for future series on our intense desire to see John remember and embrace Sherlock’s difference, too, we begin to allow for the possibility that there’s perhaps more than one way to be a man, more than one kind of masculinity to which all must hew. There’s a way out of the ruthless suppression of sentiment and acceptance, out of pigeonholes and conformity, if John - if we - will only take it. 


It’s still what he likes