Sherlock Holmes and The Case of Internet Hate

Pop Culture

Sherlock Holmes and The Case of Internet Hate

Illustration: Akshita Monga

As the finale for BBC’s critically acclaimed and commercially adored series aired this Sunday, birthing a slew of anticipation over the possibility of another season and vitriol toward the season that was, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson went back to solving cases on 221B Baker Street. The East Wind blew Sherlock’s delusions of a cold, high-functioning sociopathy wide open, and in his trauma, he found redemption. One sanguine montage later, chaos was restored. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The same applies in a sadder context to the reaction pieces that sprouted like fungi all over the internet, a few hours later. In 2016, Season 4 of Sherlock was its most highly anticipated one yet; in 2017, it is the worst received one yet. Culture critics all over the world are aghast at the blatant sentimentality, the “obvious” leaps in logic that the storyline seemed to take – Mary’s needless death, Watson’s whale-inspired wails at the sight of her body, Sherlock’s melancholy moustache, Mycroft’s sex life, and worst of all, the sappy, emotional tenor of the show. Like our favourite super sleuth, the interweb is rife with deductions. Lazy performances, tired writing, Gatiss and Moffat losing interest, Mary’s death (please get over the last one, Dr Watson already has) – there is a lingering scent of betrayal on the internet’s breath. It’s the classic end of the chase of a relationship, where upon discovering that the aloof, feline object of your affection is alive with emotional baggage of her own. We tend to sigh, act disappointed, and let the flame recede to embers. And so be it of our love affair with Sherlock. He’s clearly no high-functioning sociopath. He loves his siblings and his best friend. What a dick.

Except that he isn’t, just like Gatiss and Moffat aren’t amateur fan-fiction writers or reddit trolls whose writing is so fresh out of depth and research that they have to plug the gaps with fan service. Let us not flatter ourselves. The showrunners of this series are certifiable Doyle scholars and any pandering on their part to our comment thread-based demands is their gracious thank you to our obsessive Tumblr-laden affections. “The Final Problem” is an incandescent display of their mastery over the retelling of an age-old story. Canonically speaking, this is the part where Sherlock finally kills Moriarty after years of being haunted by his nemesis. In Moffat’s version, Sherlock exorcises the ghost of Moriarty’s game playing, carried out by his sister Eurus, one torturous step at a time, as the collective demons conjured by these two forces of nature drag Sherlock to hell. The setting of this disturbing experiment is Sherrinford, a high-security Alcatrazesque prison where the third Holmes sibling has been stashed since she was a child who burnt the Holmes family house down. The most terrifying aspect of this narrative is that, that it’s not the worst thing she did.

Sherrinford is almost too surreal a location for this face off, akin to a decrepit version of Sherlock’s mind palace. It’s interesting to consider that Sherrinford was the name that Doyle wanted to give Sherlock when he first conceptualised this series. In a way, Sherrinford is a metaphor for Sherlock’s mind and the internal journey he takes to the center of his spirit. Watson, in a moment of loaded brevity, simply says Sherlock gave Eurus context. But through the final installment of this series, the entire legend of Sherlock Holmes is contextualised – his hankering for a heartless state of being triggered by the heartbreak caused by the death of his best friend. He repressed this memory through drugs and adrenaline, vowed to solve all the puzzles he was ever given, and alienated himself from all human connection. But even Sherlock Holmes could not outrun himself forever.

When the first book on Sherlock came out, Arthur Conan Doyle was in his twenties. A Study in Scarlet lead to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who was then described as “cold, calculating, and awkward”.

People don’t seem to want the empathic detective who agonises over torturing a girl who is in unrequited love with him. They wilt at the sight of a man who’d rather kill himself than let his best friend die. His brother’s attempts to goad Sherlock into shooting him are deemed insincere. It is sappy to see him talking to his long-lost sister through violins played in tandem. Every display of emotion is vulgar. Short version: The internet is pissed. Never mind that not only is none of this out of character for Sherlock, canonically speaking, but also very much in line with the arc that Doyle intended.

When the first book on Sherlock came out, Arthur Conan Doyle was in his twenties. A Study in Scarlet lead to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who was then described as “cold, calculating, and awkward”. He detested emotions to a degree that Watson had to grudgingly admit that they were “abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind”. But over the course of 50 years and thousands of stories, Sherlock becomes a man who professes his love for his best friend in a fit of vulnerability, participates in weddings and romances, and espouses Mary Morstan’s many qualities as a fitting balance for John’s. By the time Doyle published The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the last piece of the series to ever come out, Sherlock had changed from an indifferent boy to a man who was in possession of “a great heart as well as of a great brain” or in Inspector Greg Lestrade’s words, “Not just a great man, but a good man.”

Since the point of the legend was never the cases that Sherlock solves, because they’re only plot devices to aid his journey as a person, Doyle did not mince words when it came to emotionally loading his story. Even the placement of Dr Watson in this narrative is contrived. He is a proxy of the reader. A smart man, who chronicles this volatile genius at work, and jumps to the most obvious rationalisation of his antics, he echoes everything we feel – the awe, the anger, the frustration, and the inability of reconciliation of all of these disparate reactions that Holmes draws out of us, and of him. From a theoretical standpoint, Moffat and Gatiss have not betrayed the structure of this story for as much as a second. In fact, the artwork that is their filmmaking traces all the steps of the humanisation of Sherlock Holmes, one crack in the wall at a time.

But forget that, for just a minute and regard this. The purpose of all art, no matter how it is crafted, is to invoke a feeling. And bile is a feeling. We’re not angry with Sherlock because we think it’s badly written when most of us have enough self-awareness to know that we may never be able write something that magnificent in our lives. We’re angry because we like our heroes to be alien to us. We don’t like seeing chinks in the armour where the battle-axe falls. We don’t want to hear about their trauma and intellectualise their gifts. We simply want to witness it in action, unsullied by reality and devoid of roots.So before you get carried away in the hate wave of the internet remember this, whether you like it or you don’t, Sherlock Holmes is only human.

Doyle didn’t want it any other way.