The Game is Never Over, John: BBC’s “Sherlock” and the Common Human Experience

If you sign into Netflix, you’ll see a sad sight. More accurately, there’s something that you won’t see. As of last weekend, BBC’s Sherlock has gone away. Netflix is no longer 221 B Baker Street.

I’ll admit that I’m more Sherlocked than most. I don’t think many people were mourning its Reichenbach fall from Netflix like I did, drinking coffee at 2 am while hurriedly finishing the entire show for the umpteenth time before it departed early in the morning on May 15th. The show predates the excitement and publicity surrounding Netflix originals. Its nerdy fans mostly bonded and connected over Tumblr, the social media platform that hearkens back to the first societal hit of social media buzz. But despite its accelerating old age in an era of instant releases for streaming, Sherlock is still widely considered to be one of the best shows to grace Netflix and 21st century TV. Not only that, but it holds deep emotional value for the fans who grew up with the show. I started watching Sherlock in 8th grade, one of the hardest years of my life, and have loved the show ever since. When I saw that it was leaving Netflix, I experienced a sense of loss even though I hadn’t watched the show in ages. No matter what was happening in life, Sherlock was always available. It always brought comfort.

I don’t think those sentiments are wrong to have. TV can be used as a drug, something to numb out pain or stress and allow for separation from real life. But TV shows can also be a form of modern art. Modern art tends to use beauty to provoke and ask a question. Sherlock is no exception to this. At the heart of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ take on the legendary sleuth lies the question: What is it to be human?

The director of my high school Great Books program loves to probe the topic of the common human experience. Odysseus is really not so different from the 14-year old student first stumbling through the churning pages of Homer. When Solomon wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”1 thousands of years ago, he was living in the same fallen world surrounded by the temptations, joys, and loves that we human souls experience even in the 21st century. That question of the common human experience is critical to anyone navigating life and earnestly seeking after virtue and authentic happiness. And it’s not just something we learn through Aristotle and Shakespeare, but also while tracking serial killers with Sherlock and John.

The way that Sherlock explores the common human experience2 is rather ingenious. In the pilot episode, Sherlock is true to his self-proclaimed identity as “a high functioning sociopath.” He seems like more of a robot than a man, “A bit of a weirdo, if you ask me.”3 Sherlock may be a consulting detective of the highest caliber, but the man is also a painfully awkward and sadistic loner who remains impenetrable to both the hatred and affection of others. But through his adventures and more importantly, his growth in friendship with John Watson, Sherlock slowly learns what it is to be human. The writers of the show are able to portray the facets of the human soul individually, as we see a previously cold man experience friendship, loyalty, passion, rage, betrayal, broken pride, heartbreak, and love for the first time that he can remember.

As a viewer, watching Sherlock develop can be conflicting. Yes, it’s deeply moving to watch him sacrifice himself in The Reichenbach Fall (well, when we learn it was a sacrifice and not an act of despair), but when we see just how much he adores John and Mary and endure his meltdown over Molly in The Final Problem, we find ourselves squirming because Sherlock isn’t supposed to be like that. He’s supposed to be the calculating machine that Scotland Yard resorts to, not a man who needs his friends and who is capable of romantic heartbreak. It’s argued that the show began to go downhill as soon as Mary, John’s wife, entered the story. And while it’s true in my opinion that the final series was far less polished than the previous series, I think that part of our collective criticism is that we didn’t like it when Sherlock became less of a computer and more flesh and blood. We don’t like things as much when they’re real, when they’re messy. “Love is a…vicious motivator,” Sherlock claims in A Study in Pink. That vicious quality of the human soul isn’t welcome in a society that is fixated on control.

But no matter how much we idolize control, it’s generally a facade within the common human experience. The audience can’t help but feel sorry for John, a man who is so desperate for a quiet ordinary life, but is surrounded by an ever-growing list of sociopaths, criminals, and special agents for comrades. His brilliant best friend also shares in his powerlessness to an extent. No matter how incandescent Sherlock is, he still can’t foresee every move of his adversaries. And he has no control over that East Wind that had unknowingly haunted him his whole life, the lost sister who killed his childhood best friend and left him shattered and unable to love.

Yes, the experience of crippling grief and broken trust is a central theme explored in Sherlock. The two unlikely flatmates would never have met if it wasn’t for the toll that trauma had inflicted on them both. Over and over we see John lose loved ones and feel our own hearts strain as he returns to his alert, soldierly stance in the cemeteries of Sherlock and then Mary. We witness horrible deeds committed not only by criminals, but in Mycroft’s betrayal of Sherlock, Sherlock’s forgetfulness or schadenfreude in not telling John about his fake suicide, and John’s infidelity to Mary.

But in those moments when control is lost and suffering is imminent, when Jim turns the gun on himself and Sherlock learns that he has lost to Magnussen, viewers are invited to contemplate the higher aspects of the common human experience. We see Sherlock risk his life and sacrifice his reputation to save John’s life. We are privileged to glimpse Molly’s steadfast charity and feminine genius, even in the face of ingratitude. We hear John forgive Mary for what most would deem unforgivable. We catch our breath at Mycroft’s instant willingness to die in the place of John during The Final Problem. We weep when Mary takes the bullet for Sherlock. Over and over, we see men and women lay down their lives for one another and demonstrate the fiercest loyalty and deepest friendship. We see heroism.

However, the final lesson of Sherlock is not merely about heroic deeds. It is about the vital need of all heroes for beauty. The final spoken words in the series4 come from Sherlock’s mother after she learns that Eurus is in fact alive, but physically and mentally unreachable. “What are we to do?” she asks Sherlock.

Sherlock – no longer a broken machine, but a man, a friend, and hero – responds by playing music. Through his violin and his invitation to Eurus to join him in experiencing and creating beauty, he gives both of them permission to heal. Sherlock’s deductions can solve a murder and John’s intuition and experience can save a life, but it is beauty that offers restoration. It is beauty that unlocks the innermost cells where scarred and scared prisoners hide.

Sherlock shows the ugliness of humanity. We take a glimpse into the most depraved criminal minds and are forced to be witnesses of heinous acts. But we also peek into broken hearts as they heal, are witnesses to the first genuine smiles of Sherlock and John, and see that love is not a passion, but the highest virtue. In Sherlock we are taught that while the game afoot may be dangerous, it is truly beautiful to be human.

The writers of Sherlock ask, “What is it to be human?” The answer that they offer is so intricate and so marvelous that only music is capable of whispering it.

1 – Ecclesiastes 1:9

2 – (which I started abbreviating as CHE in my high school notebooks because of how often we talked about it)

3 – Chief Superintendent, The Reichenbach Fall

4 – Not counting Mary’s voiceover

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