On Sherlock, writing, and cheap tricks

Having just watched the third and final episode of Sherlock season three on BBC 1, I have some rather strong feelings on a certain event in the episode as regards to writing. If you have not seen the episode yet and want to, look away now, because this post will contain spoilers.

Here’s a nice picture of my cat Chaucer to generate a gap to make it even harder for you to accidentally see the Sherlock season 3 episode 3 spoilers that are coming after the picture of Chaucer the cat:

This is Chaucer. He is my parents' cat. He's lovely. Very sweet and affectionate. They took him in when he was a stray about three years ago, and we think he's about ten years old. He broke his leg while he was a stray so he can't jump well or run, but he does love that chair next to the fire.
This is Chaucer. He is my parents’ cat. He’s lovely. Very sweet and affectionate.

Okay, if you’ve read this far you definitely don’t mind reading Sherlock spoilers so let’s get down to what I’m a bit upset about.

People have praised this episode on twitter – I’ve seen a lot of tweets about how amazed and shocked and impressed people are. “Awesome” might have appeared in a number of tweets. I heartily disagree. Apart from the metaphor-heavy interlude when Sherlock got shot – which was stupid, seemed a bit designed to give Mark Gatiss more screen time, and for some reason involved little boy Sherlock in a manner that didn’t add to the episode one jot – most the episode was fine, if a bit mediocre. Newspaper magnate blackmailing everyone, fine, decent premise, though perhaps one the Murdoch press might find a little close to the bone.

But it was that ending that annoyed me. “Did you miss me?” from Moriarty on the TV.

Now, this might be a fakeout. “Did you miss me” is something Moriarty has said before, if I recall correctly, and it’s not impossible that Mycroft had a recording of it and managed to get it on TV for whatever purpose – to prevent Sherlock being flown off to undercover work in Eastern Europe, one assumes. But it’s a bit too high-handed for Mycroft. Anyway, it’s clear what Moffatt and Gatiss want us to think – that Moriarty Lives, as the hashtag trending on twitter as I type this takes great delight in spoiling for those who haven’t seen the episode yet.

And this is what annoys me.

Moriarty was a successful villain, from a writing point of view. He was unpredictable, intelligent, charming in a way, Sherlock’s equal in intellect, cunning, insidious, and most of all he was a lot of fun to watch. His death at the end of season two – suicide to prevent Sherlock from countermanding his orders to those under his command – demonstrated that he was willing to go to any lengths to win. He was a powerful villain.

And there it should have ended. A dead character is dead. We saw him shoot himself in the mouth. He is dead. There is no doubt about this. The only way he is not dead would be if the writer and director were lying to us. See, if it was set up that Sherlock was lying to us, there’d have to be some sort of hint that what we were being shown wasn’t as it seemed. A narrative structure to it, like a flashback in which Sherlock tells of the events. But no. If Moriarty is alive, it is Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss and their writing and directing teams who are lying to us, not the characters. And if the show’s creators are lying, what can you trust?

I can understand the concept of an unreliable narrator. I’ve played with writing it myself. But for that you need hints and clues that this is the case, and the kind of point of view that allows the scope for an unreliable narrator. The movie adaptation of Atonement achieved this, because it’s clear that Briony’s is the main point of view, and we see the older version of her telling the story in snippets. I’m not talking about an unreliable narrator in the case of Sherlock. I’m talking about a writer who is lying to his audience. A phrase that has become popular in recent seasons of Doctor Who is “The Doctor always lies.” I’m inclined to think that it’s not the Doctor lying, but Stephen Moffatt.

Going back to “a dead character is dead.” Characters die, especially characters written by Joss Whedon. Occasionally, a character might come back to life. Buffy did. But there’s a problem with characters coming back to life. It means that their deaths are trivialised. What sacrifice did they make, if they ended up alive again? Whedon did this well with Buffy’s second death – there was greater sacrifice in coming back, having been in heaven while dead, and it took her half a season to come to terms with that. It damaged her relationships with her friends and left her mentally scarred. It wasn’t just a case of “okay, I’m bck, let’s kick some vampire butt”. But all too often it’s not done well. I’m still waiting, for example, to see if Whedon has done Coulson’s return to life in Agents of SHIELD well or not, and I’m dubious about that.

In general, though, dead characters should stay dead. Any sacrifice they made – a bid to save a loved one or take down a bad guy once and for all – is made trivial if they come back to life. And once you introduce the possibility of a character coming back to life, it diminishes any death that comes thereafter, because your audience is wondering “so will they come back too?” And then when they don’t, it’s “why not?” and if the answer looks like it might be “because they’re less important to the plot than the character who did come back” then it feels very cheap indeed.

And bringing back a character in the closing seconds of the final episode of a season? The cheapest trick in the book. I’d have thought Moffatt would know better than that.

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5 thoughts on “On Sherlock, writing, and cheap tricks

  1. Yeah, I pretty much agree with all of that (although I never liked the Moriarty in the series in the first place, so the return annoys me both for the reason you outlined and because I was pretty glad when he shot himself).

    1. I rather liked Moriarty, though I agree there were frsutrating moments. I do quite like the actor though. He was so good in the episode of Garrow’s Law he was in that I watched it twice in succession.

      1. That’s odd. I watched Garrow’s Law (Lestrade was in it too, by chance) but can’t recall seeing him.

        Mind you, I can’t recall Buffy’s second death/return, either.

  2. I bet there’s some timey-wimey explanation. But yeah – Moriaty-jumped-the-shark.

    Moffat’s dialogue and pacing is very glib, to the point of constantly moving the goalposts. We start thinking that a scene is heading a certain direction. It’s obviousness is drawn out, with heart-beat sound-effects and close-camera work … and then it turns into a reversal in three glib sentences. Ta-da.

    Maybe it should be called ‘doing a Moffat’.

    We are meant to laugh, cause ‘oh, I didn’t expect that!’ – but after three series, it’s just more par for the course.

    1. Yeah, that’s exactly right. The dialogue isn’t even normal sounding. Okay, sure, Sherlock himself can sound a bit off, but other characters often have stilted or predictable dialogue that’s fairly obviously (in places) designed to make other characters look stupid – like the latest episode’s bit at the end where John repeats “I don’t understand” and I’m thinking “really? You understand it when Sherlock does a mind palace, why not Magnusson?” but really, it’s a line that is designed to enable the t-shirt quip (and, I wouldn’t be surprised, merchandising the t-shirt – or is that too cynical?)

      Anyway, I wasn’t happy with the disjointed direction of season 3 and there was so much that was meant to look clever rather than actually being clever. I like seasons 1 and 2, but season 3 was all the appearance of cleverness without actually cleverness.

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