Wednesday, January 22, 2014

SherLinks

One of the good things about the long, two-year gap between Sherlock's second and third seasons (aside from the fact that in it we discovered Elementary, and suddenly Sherlock and its flaws seemed a lot less important) is that in that time the mainstream conversation about the show shifted from a tug-of-war between near-ecstatic praise and near-total denigration to a more universal acceptance of the show's massive flaws--which leaves more space to acknowledge its good qualities.  (This shift, I suspect, has a lot to do with the increasingly fatigued reactions to Stephen Moffat's work on Doctor Who; it's easier to see the same flaws occurring in Sherlock when you've already cataloged them on a show that is more blatantly running out of steam.)  If you're a fan of pop culture criticism, this is a bonanza; fewer people are attacking or defending the show, and more are considering it more deeply, and from different angles.  I've collected a few interesting examples, and my comments, below.
  • I linked to this essay already in my own review of the third season, but in case you didn't click through, it is worth taking a look at cesperanza's interpretation of the train scene in "The Empty Hearse" as representing a masochistic (or, to take a dimmer view of it, abusive) relationship between both Sherlock and John and the show and its fans.

    A reaction I'm seeing a lot, to both "The Empty Hearse" and that scene in particular, is that it makes the Sherlock/John relationship (in whatever guise you choose to interpret it) seem untenable--it's no longer clear what John gets out of the relationship or why he would continue as Sherlock's friend.  cesperanza's conclusion is that he either enjoys the mistreatment or is being genuinely pathological; "His Last Vow" makes the only slightly more palatable claim that he craves the excitement and is willing to put up with the abuse in order to get it.  What both of these interpretations are ignoring is that by the time the third season ends, Sherlock and John are, for better or worse, no longer the show's central relationship.  In fact it's arguable that the relationship never fully recovers from Sherlock's departure and abrupt return, and instead becomes something completely one-sided.  Sherlock spends the season either doing things to John (surprising him at the restaurant and tricking him into believing that he's about to die in "The Empty Hearse") or for John (making sure his wedding day goes perfectly in "The Sign of Three"; murdering Magnussen so that he and Mary can live in peace in "His Last Vow").  But John himself is focused on Mary--even the former partners' last hurrah as an investigative duo happens at her instigation.  I wonder how much of this is deliberate--despite Freeman being wonderful in the role, Sherlock has always been more comfortable envisioning its hero as a lone, Doctor-ish superhero rather than part of a duo, and it may prefer to keep John as merely one of the people in Sherlock's orbit.

  • Some reviews: Dan Hartland wonders if the third season represents the show realigning itself and its idea of what it wants to be.  Emily Nussbaum discusses Sherlock's relationship with its fans in the season's first two episodes.  Genevieve Valentine is reviewing the show for the AV Club: her long and detailed look at "The Empty Hearse" is a sharp examination of its many problems.

  • My recollections of "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" begin with Holmes's famous line about finding Milverton more odious than many murderers (which has been cropping up regularly in discussions since Sherlock's emergence, as a counterpoint to the argument that the show's take on Holmes as a sociopath is in line with canon; perhaps as a response, Moffat has Sherlock quote the line in "His Last Vow," but the character's general indifference to anyone not closely connected to him means that it falls flat), and ends with the plot point in which Holmes seduces a maid in Milverton's house in order to gain access to his blackmail material (which "His Last Vow" handles rather more convincingly).  Which is why I needed several other venues to point out that Sherlock has done it again: take a story written in the 19th century and update it in the 21st in a way that actually makes it more sexist, and gives the women in it less agency and power than they originally had.  In the original story, it isn't Holmes who kills Milverton but a woman who breaks into his house at the same time Holmes and Watson do, but in an interview about the episode Moffat and Gatiss have said that they take this as a cover for the more "believable" interpretation, that Holmes did the deed himself.  "His Last Vow" parallels the original story up until the discovery that Mary is about to kill Magnussen while Sherlock and John are trying to retrieve the client's letters, but as The Daily Dot points out, there's no real justification for her failure to carry out that plan, and for her passivity during the rest of the episode.
    This means that Mary, much like Gatiss and Moffat’s interpretation of the lady from "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Magnussen," has effectively been written out of her own story. Supposedly a deadly assassin, she doesn’t get to confront her blackmailer, and instead is drugged by Sherlock so he and John can have a proper showdown with Magnussen. A dramatic scene that allows Sherlock to seem more badass and morally ambiguous than before, while a heavily pregnant Mary gets to wake up from her drug-induced slumber to discover that she's now free to go back to being Mrs. Watson once again.
  • Paul Kincaid watched the third season shortly after watching both versions of Danny Boyle's production of Frankenstein, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Elementary's Johnny Lee Miller alternated the roles of Frankenstein and the creature.  In this post at Big Other, he discusses Cumberbatch's and Miller's different approaches to the two roles, and how he sees those approaches reflected in their versions of Holmes:
    In a show as frenetic as Sherlock, in which the camera is in constant motion, scenes flicker across the screen almost before we can take them in, unreadable captions bloom and fade at high speed, the only choice is stillness. And this suits Cumberbatch, who is particularly fine at showing there is a mind working rapidly if invisibly behind that sharply chiselled face. His Holmes is also his Victor Frankenstein, a man so in love with his own thought processes that he has virtually no awareness of their consequences. (This Sherlock is not a sociopath, no matter how much Moffatt loves to tell us that he is.) When there is action (and every episode features a scene where he is running, just so we can relish the texture of that long coat), he becomes like the Creature, jerky, somewhat uncoordinated.
  • Matt Cheney, meanwhile, has been watching Sherlock in conjunction with Hannibal.  Like pretty much everyone who isn't me, he's quite taken with the latter show, finding in it a level of tension and character complexity that I could never connect to.  His comparison between the two shows, however, in which he contrasts Sherlock with both Hannibal and Will Graham, gives Matt the chance to examine how both shows manipulate their audience and source material, and the way they both approach central characters who are abnormal, and more observant than the rest of us:
    The Sherlock Holmes stories have always thrived because audiences love stories that fit a certain post-Enlightenment, pre-Modernism rationality. ... Hannibal is more pre-Enlightenment and post-Modernist. The world does not add up; its forces and flows can only be glimpsed, and those glimpses often redirect what they glimpse, and shards of reality are all that can be perceived. Compare Will to Sherlock — both have extraordinary powers of figuring out why particular events happen, but Sherlock knows how he does it and Will does not. For Will, it's simply a mysterious and torturous talent; for Sherlock, it is a skill. Will's ability to reconstruct murder scenes is mystical; Sherlock's ability to "deduce" all the details of a person's life is sold to us as rational. But from the days of Conan Doyle to now, most of Sherlock's deductions have been fanciful, even quite obviously ridiculous, because the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is a world where reason rules and human behavior is, like the emotional behavior of the dedicated Sherlock fan, patterned, predictable, determined, scrutable.
  • Carrying on from that last point, this tumblr post by Ami Angelwings isn't strictly about Sherlock, but its observations about the seductive but dangerous appeal of applying Holmes-style deduction to real life feel germane to discussions of the show:
    But somebody could just pick that out.  HEY LOOK AT THIS.  DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMEBODY WHO HAD JUST BEEN ASSAULTED?  And later on she did XYZ, does that sound like the behaviour of somebody who was assaulted?  And look at this picture of her, she doesn’t appear to have any wounds on her… and etc etc… I got a degree of this from some ex-friends who read the big long detailed write up of what I wrote, that I didn’t fight back, that he didn’t hurt me enough, that I should have done this, or that, that according to what I wrote it sounds like he could have just not known, or the layout of the room from what they pieced together was…, or whatever… the point is they were Holmes and they decided from their internet detectiving that I must be a liar and look how smart they are.  And this is how people SHOULD behave, and you didn’t, so, liar.
    At its most basic level, this feels like a good excuse to trot out a Terry Pratchett quote that should probably come up in every discussion of Sherlock Holmes:
    he distrusted the kind of person who'd take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, "Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times," and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he'd been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience! 
    But more seriously, what this post made me think about is that a completely unexamined assumption of the Holmes character type is that he has total empathy.  That, in essence, his intellect and observation skills negate the effects of privilege.  Women, LGBT people, and people of color are used to having to explain the basic facts of their world to the privileged, often being met with the response that "you must be wrong; I've never seen what you're talking about, therefore it must not exist."  Holmes is a straight, white, cisgendered, upper class man who nevertheless has total understanding of everyone he meets, no matter how different from him.  In theory, this could be fantastic--Holmes could use his privileged position to put his famously rationalist stamp of approval on the experiences of people who are used to having their take on the world discounted.  In practice, however, the game is rigged.  As Pratchett and Cheney both note, in order to support Holmes's powers of deduction, the rich and chaotic variety of human experience has to be whittled down to very specific, clearly-defined types of behavior, any deviation from which can be declared irrational (if it exists at all).  And of course, those types of behavior are the kind that our privileged, male protagonist--and his privileged, male writers--can understand and sympathize with.  The result is that Sherlock's world (and, in fairness, Elementary's as well) is all but bereft of people whose life experiences are foreign to the great detective.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Detective Dances: Thoughts on Sherlock's Third Season

As the 2014 Sherlock extravaganza draws to a close, let's pause and reflect on a single moment.  The star of the show is buttonholed.  In front of an expectant audience, he's asked to read words not of his own composition.  Words of an emotional, overheated nature.  Words that might be considered embarrassing.  Great merriment is had, both at his embarrassment and discomfort, and at the silliness of what he's saying in those plummy, aristocratic tones.

I could, of course, be talking about the by-now infamous incident at the BFI preview event for Sherlock's third season, in which Times columnist Caitlin Moran asked Benedict Cumberbatch (and Martin Freeman) to read an explicit Sherlock/John fanfic out loud.  But just as easily, I could be talking about an incident from the third season itself.  In the season's middle episode "The Sign of Three," Sherlock, acting as John Watson's best man at his wedding to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), has the task of reading the "telegrams" sent by absent well-wishers (this is apparently a British wedding tradition).  The audience is clearly supposed to be entertained as he stumbles over such terms of endearment as "poppet" and "oodles of love."  In both instances, the authors of the joke clearly think that it is much funnier than it actually is--Moran has, quite rightly, been taken to task for not only embarrassing Cumberbatch and Freeman but humiliating the hapless author of the fanfic she asked them to read, and while "Sign of Three" writer Steve Thompson shows us Mrs. Hudson nearly incapacitated with laughter at the mere thought of how silly Sherlock will look reading out sweet nothings, I doubt that anyone watching at home was more than mildly tickled.  The incongruity of life and art dovetailing in this manner, however, points to another reason why both jokes fall flat.  Moran and Thompson both assume that making Sherlock say things like "big squishy cuddles," or express his ardent lust for John, is funny because these are things that he would never do.  But in order for that to be true, Sherlock itself would have to have a firm grasp on who its title character is, and where the limits of his realistic behavior lie.  As the third season amply demonstrates, this is very much not the case.

Sherlock is, of course, fanfic.  As Laurie Penny has pointed out in this astute piece in the New Statesman, the show represents "a chance to see what modern fan fiction would look like if it was written by well-paid, well-respected middle-aged men with a big fat budget," which confers upon it a legitimacy that other, less laddish and coolness-obsessed variants on the great detective have been denied.[1]  It's this legitimacy that makes it possible for Moran to mock one kind of fanfic while lauding another, and not even notice the contradiction.  What surprised me about Sherlock's third season, however, was how much the show seemed to be aware of its own fanfic nature--even, in some ways, playing up to it.

Take the season's first episode, "The Empty Hearse" by Mark Gatiss, in which Sherlock returns to London after a two-year absence, eager to resume his partnership with John--who has finally climbed out of the deep well of grief he plunged into after Sherlock's apparent suicide at the end of the second season, and is about to become engaged to Mary--and befuddled when he is greeted with incandescent rage and flat rejection.  My first reaction when I watched the episode--which in general I think vies with "The Blind Banker" and "The Hounds of Baskerville" for the title of Sherlock's very worst installment--was "I've read this fanfic, and I liked it better then."  Almost every plot detail in "The Empty Hearse"--John's anger and its eruption into violence upon first seeing Sherlock alive; the existence of Mary and her willingness to help repair the relationship between the former partners; even actual lines, such as Sherlock telling Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) that "Moriarty slipped up... the one person he thought didn't matter at all to me was the one person that mattered the most"--has appeared in countless fanfics that have imagined the aftermath of "The Reichenbach Fall," almost all of them cleverer and more interesting than the official version of the story[2].  Part of the problem, of course, is that two years have passed for us, the fans, as well as the characters, and in that time the wisdom of crowds was almost bound to produce something more satisfying and adventurous than any single, "official" writer.  But the problem runs much deeper.  Despite having John, quite wisely, proclaim that "I don't dare how you faked [your death], Sherlock.  I want to know why," "The Empty Hearse" gets bogged down in "how," in the logistics of getting Sherlock and John back together--which it does in the most predictable, perfunctory way possible--instead of the next chapter of their story.

Almost the only way to read "The Empty Hearse" as anything but a colossal waste of its premise (not to mention a full third of the season's running time) is to take it as a purely metafictional exercise, in which the damaged, years-dormant relationship between Sherlock and John is a stand-in for the relationship between Sherlock and its fans.  That relationship has been semi-adversarial at best, with Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat often seeming chagrined that their fame and success have been handed to them by a largely-female, relationship-oriented fanbase.  On one level, "The Empty Hearse" persists in this tone of disdain.  It features a Sherlock fan club whose members are obsessed with figuring out how he faked his death, and one of the theories suggested (which function as a sort of fanfic-within-fanfic) feels like an encapsulation of Moffat and Gatiss's stereotypical take on their fandom--it involves Sherlock tricking John with a dummy and then dissolving into a kiss with Moriarty (Andrew Scott), and is raised by a fat girl in a t-shirt (Sharon Rooney).

There is also, however, an edge of self-effacement to this depiction.  Intentionally or not, the girl writing Sherlock/Moriarty fanfic is a sympathetic figure.  She punctures the officiousness of Anderson (Jonathan Aris), a former policeman turned Sherlock fanatic--protesting, for example, his decree that members of the club should wear deerstalker hats.  She also doesn't share his obsequiousness before Sherlock, whom she treats as an entertainment, one that she can twist into whatever form pleases her, rather than someone whose dignity must be respected.  Later in the episode, when Sherlock tells Anderson how he really faked his death (repeating almost word for word the conclusions that fandom had reached shortly after "The Reichenbach Fall" aired), Anderson quite rightly points out that the solution isn't very satisfactory, and has more than a few holes in it.  "Everyone's a critic," Sherlock huffs, but for once there's a sense that that criticism isn't inherently illegitimate.  The fantastically cruel scene late in the episode, in which Sherlock tricks John into forgiving him by pretending that they are both about to die, and then laughs at John's terror, can be taken as a statement by the show to its fans--you love it when I hurt you, Gatiss seems to be saying, and you keep coming back for more, so I'm going to keep doing it.  But at the same time, "The Empty Hearse" ends with a celebration of John and Mary's engagement, decisively puncturing Sherlock's earlier-stated conviction that after two years, John will just be waiting for him in Baker Street, his life paused while Sherlock was away--suggesting that Sherlock, too, needs to adjust to the fact that its fans have moved on (Mary as a metaphor for Elementary?).  It's hardly a justification for the episode, and it doesn't make "The Empty Hearse" any easier to watch, but an acknowledgment that Sherlock the show can develop a smidgeon of humility even if the character can't is certainly welcome.

The next episode, "The Sign of Three," is fanfic of a completely different stripe, a frothy, sitcommy affair in which the sadistic, uncaring Sherlock of "The Empty Hearse" becomes a defanged, adorably inept woobie, whose insults and malapropisms stem from cluelessness, not callousness, and anyway hurt him more than anyone else.  Spanning the day of John and Mary's wedding, the episode revolves around Sherlock's anxiety over his duties as best man, which conceals a deeper anxiety over whether the marriage will leave him out in the cold.  Structurally, "The Sign of Three" is the most successful of the third season's three episodes.  Though padded at points (the 90 minute running time remains an albatross around the show's neck), it uses the framing device of Sherlock's best man toast to segue into several secondary stories, which it then ties together as Sherlock realizes that one of the wedding guests is about to be murdered.  The intercutting between framing story and internal stories, between the build-up to the wedding and the day itself, and between reality and Sherlock's mind as he tries to puzzle out the mystery while still giving his toast, is Sherlock at its sharpest, a reminder of why this show, despite being so flawed in so many ways, can still sometimes feel like one of the most exciting things on TV[3].

What it isn't, in any recognizable way, is an episode of Sherlock, but rather one of those fanfics that shift the tone and genre of their source material, in this case towards the comedic and sentimental.  This is an episode in which John steps out of a room for a moment, and when he comes back Sherlock is surrounded by a dozen napkins folded in the shape of the Sydney opera house, shame-facedly explaining that "that just... sort of... happened."  An episode in which Sherlock writes a waltz for the violin for John and Mary to dance to as their first dance, after which he tearfully promises to always be at their side.  An episode in which Sherlock increasingly warms to maid of honor Janine (Yasmine Akram), becoming disarmingly flirtatious before finally confiding in her that he loves to dance ("it rarely comes up in crime-work, but I live in hope of the right case").  It's charming and funny (not to mention something of a relief, after an episode that seemed positively confrontational about Sherlock's relationship with its fans, to get an episode that seems so determined to court them) but the more one watches, the clearer it becomes that we're in some sort of alternate universe, one slightly adjacent to the show's world but not really part of it.

In my first post about Sherlock, I wrote that Thompson and Gatiss's episodes felt less like a coherent part of the show's world, and more as if they were writing fanfic in Moffat's universe, using the same setting and cast of characters, but unable to (or uninterested in) capturing his tone.  As I've written, their episodes in the third season take that fanfic approach to extremes, so it's perhaps unsurprising that it's only Moffat's episode, the concluding "His Last Vow," that feels like a genuine story set in the Sherlock universe, rather than a commentary on the show and its fandom.  Neither as solipsistic as "The Empty Hearse," nor as silly as "The Sign of Three," "His Last Vow" nevertheless feels more than a little mechanical, and in many ways a retread of "The Reichenbach Fall," complete with a conclusion in which Sherlock, cornered by his opponent and facing imminent danger to his friends, sacrifices himself for them.  The story, a thin gloss on "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," is just barely enough to sustain the episode, and its power is rooted mainly in the discovery that Mary (who is now pregnant) is actually an assassin on the run, and in the crisis this precipitates between her and John, as Sherlock scrambles to protect them both and save their marriage[4].  Freeman and Abbington's chemistry is strong enough (as well it might be, since the actors are long-term partners in real life) that the threat to their relationship feels devastating even though it's just been introduced, and "His Last Vow" also features the series's only effective use of the dreaded (and decidedly un-Holmes-ian) Mind Palace device, when Sherlock must scramble all his mental resources to will himself to survive after being shot.  But none of this quite gets around the gaping plot hole in the middle of the episode--Sherlock's efforts to secure the blackmailer's vault of incriminating material are scuttled when it's revealed that he has a mind palace of his own, and has no incriminating documents; but every blackmailer knows that the reason you keep a vault isn't so you can prove your allegations, but so as to dissuade your victims from blowing your brains out, which is indeed what happens at the episode's end.

More importantly, while "His Last Vow" might close out the third season out on a more solid, dependable note than the previous episodes, it can't do enough to correct the fact that Sherlock has lost sight of its title character.  It isn't impossible draw a line between "Hearse"'s cruel manipulator, "Three"'s sad clown, and "Vow"'s brave child, who will do anything to protect the people he loves except tell them he loves them[5].  But Sherlock doesn't seem particularly interested in drawing that line, and the tonal shifts between its three episodes, the way they each seem to take place in a subtly different world to the others, only intensifies the feeling that they also represent three different takes on the same character rather than three facets of the same person.  Moffat's writing has always been characterized by a desire to hit the big emotional payoff without doing any of the work of earning it, and Sherlock's stylistic quirks only intensify that flaw.  So that when Sherlock once again declares, before shooting Magnussen at the end of "His Final Vow," that he is a high-functioning sociopath, this feels more like empty posturing, the repetition of a by-now meaningless phrase, than any true insight into the character (besides which, Moffat has grown far too fond of the sociopath label, sprinkling it liberally on multiple characters in both Sherlock and Doctor Who as a substitute for actually developing them as people).

If Sherlock has grown increasingly cipher-like, however, one definite point in the third season's favor is how it allows the rest of the cast to blossom around him.  Freeman's John has always been Sherlock's greatest asset, and the third season functions almost as a character study of him, overturning his perception of himself as an island of normalcy and culminating in a scene in which Sherlock and Mary both insist that John is drawn to monsters of their type and the excitement they offer him.  Molly Hooper continues the growth she began in "The Reichenbach Fall," finding new layers in her relationship with Sherlock, which turns alternately respectful, teasing, and demanding.  Best of all, however, is Gatiss's Mycroft, whom previous seasons had kept at a distance, a grey eminence who showed up to jump-start a story or clean up Sherlock's mess.  The third season expands on the relationship between the Holmes brothers--in fact one might argue that the season's most powerful throughline is their reconciliation, as it begins with Sherlock accusing Mycroft of enjoying the sight of his torture, and ends with Mycroft telling Sherlock that "your loss would break my heart"--and also gives us a better look at Mycroft as a person, and the ways in which he both resembles and differs from his brother.[6]

It's these character notes that leave me, on the whole, feeling fairly satisfied with Sherlock's third season.  This is, obviously, to be taken advisedly.  Sherlock still suffers from its perennial, frustrating flaws.  Its plots are still tissue-thin at best, insultingly stupid at worst.  Its pacing is still awful.  It is still, despite spotty improvements like Molly (or Janine, who in "His Last Vow" is taken advantage of by Sherlock but is then given the chance to tell him that he should have trusted her enough to ask for her help), vilely misogynistic.  And, as a special treat this season, it seems to have lost all interest in Holmes-ian mystery (it's terrifying to think this, but the fluffy "Sign of Three" is the closest the season comes to a Conan Doyle-style story).  But these were all flaws I expected to find going into the season.  What I wasn't expecting was that the show would own up to at least some of them, as well as its fraught, dysfunctional relationship with its fans.  And I certainly wasn't expecting Sherlock to try to make human beings out of anyone but its main character, something that Doctor Who, for example, is profoundly uninterested in.  As I wrote in my post about the second season, Sherlock is a show that is terrible as often as it is brilliant.  The third season can't get away from this truth, but it does manage to find that brilliance in new and unexpected places.



[1] Though, in fairness, it should be noted that while Sherlock shares with other, official Holmes fanfic like House or the Guy Ritchie films a fawning admiration for its main character and his general disdain for anyone not as smart, cool, or funny as he is, the world of Holmes fanfic is not as starkly divided between these and explicit fanworks as Penny seems to be suggesting.  Other official fanfic like Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels, whose Mary Sue-ish heroine captures Holmes's admiration and then his heart, and of course Elementary, are far less guy-oriented without relinquishing the gloss of legitimacy that fan-authored works lack.

[2] The episode's actual plot, meanwhile, in which Sherlock is recalled to London to stop an impending terror attack, is so forgettable that the show itself can't seem to bother giving it a real effort, padding it out with endless cut scenes of Sherlock exploring underground stations or his "mind palace."  It also draws attention to Sherlock's unfortunate tendency to only take an interest in its title character's adventures when these involve matters of national security, when part of the charm of Conan Doyle's original stories was how often they revolved around the seemingly trivial and mundane, only for Holmes to reveal the fascinating mystery that lay beneath.

[3] A particular standout is a beautifully shot and staged scene that visualizes Sherlock's conversation, on an online forum, with women who claim to have dated a ghost.  Given this show's history, however, it was perhaps unfortunate to have chosen to put Sherlock in a room full of women whom he can turn on and off and make speak on command.

[4] Moffat no doubt imagined that another source of appeal would be Lars Mikkelsen's performance as Milverton (here called Magnussen), an odious fellow who is introduced licking the face of one of his blackmail victims, pees in Sherlock's fireplace in his second appearance, and uses his power over Mary to force John to let him flick his face in his third.  It's an extremely effective performance, in that by the end of the episode the mere sight of the man was enough to turn my stomach, but it's also too clearly a manipulative one, an attempt to justify Magnussen's fast-approaching murder.

[5] After all, the eleventh Doctor, upon whom Sherlock is so blatantly based, seems to run this gamut once an episode.

[6] The exception to this celebration of character is, alas, Mary.  While Abbington is excellent and, as noted, has great chemistry with Freeman, Mary never emerges as a real person so much as a wife-shaped cutout who can be perfect for John without threatening (and in fact encouraging) his bond with Sherlock.  The fact that this blankness turns out to have been deliberate, a function of Mary's own sociopathy, doesn't really address the problem, since she can never hope to compete with the sociopath already at the show's center.  Ultimately, Mary is a character defined by her lack of personality--her reconciliation with John, after all, is signaled by his refusal to read her file and find out anything about her.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Becoming Something Else: Thoughts on Arrow

For the last decade and a half, as superheroes have migrated from the pages of comics to the very heart of mainstream pop culture, they've been almost exclusively the purview of feature films.  This despite the fact that the long-running, episodic, open-ended comics medium and the bite-sized film medium map very poorly onto one another, a disconnect that has told in what passes for most superhero films' plots.  So the X-Men films have warped an ensemble story into a star vehicle for one character, the Marvel films have uniformly sketchy plots and forgettable villains, the Spider-Man films remain, even before the unnecessary reboot, caught in the gravity well of their hero's origin story, and the Superman films have simply failed to take off.  Only Christopher Nolan's Batman films, for all their problems, have managed to tell an actual story, and even then, it's a story that tends towards its hero's abdication of his heroic role, not his continuing adventures.  Television seems like a much better fit for superhero stories, to the extent that superhero conventions have been showing up in procedural TV series for years--Angel and Person of Interest both have a great deal of Batman in their DNA, for example.  And yet with one glaring exception, attempts to translate existing comics properties into television series have fizzled and died, while original superhero series like Heroes have found themselves stranded in a no man's land between the two mediums' conventions. 

That glaring exception is, of course, Smallville, whose long shadow (quite literally--it's terrifying to think this, but it holds the record for longest-running American genre series) might have something to do with the chilly reception that other attempts to port comics characters to TV have met.  It's certainly a big part of the reason that I was so singularly unimpressed with the pilot for Arrow, a show that, now in the middle of its second season, might just prove to be another exception to the no superheroes on TV rule.  In its pilot episode, Arrow seemed to indulge in all of Smallville's (and the CW network's, the home of both shows) most annoying traits--blandly handsome, wooden leads, an emphasis on romance as overbearing as it is puerile, overheated emotions declared in too-obvious speeches, a tangled backstory involving the hero's father, and an aversion to the supposedly campy tropes of the comics, like costumes and catchphrases, that does absolutely nothing to make either show seems mature or realistic.  In the year and a half since this violently negative reaction, however, Arrow has slowly gained in popularity and acclaim, which finally encouraged me to give it another look.  What I found was a series that, while still suffering from a lot of CW-ish flaws, is nevertheless a lot better and more enjoyable than anyone watching its pilot could ever have hoped.  More importantly, Arrow is a series that actually takes advantage of the television medium to do something comics-like, and uses it to offer a genuine engagement with the superhero concept.

Based on the lesser-known DC character the Green Arrow[1], Arrow begins with the return of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) to his home of Starling City, having been cast away on an island for five years after being shipwrecked while sailing with his father, billionaire industrialist Robert Queen (Jamie Sheridan).  The reactions to Oliver's return are decidedly mixed--his mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), sister Thea (Willa Holland), and best friend Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell) are overjoyed but also unsure how to cope with the changes in his behavior and personality, while his former girlfriend Laurel (Katie Cassidy) and her father, police detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) are incensed, since Oliver went on the ill-fated trip with Laurel's sister Sarah, whose loss has decimated their family.  Oliver, meanwhile, has returned to Starling City with a purpose, a list of names bequeathed to him by his father of people who have failed Starling City--corrupt politicians, embezzling bankers, slum-lords and mobsters.  Though by day he continues to play the shallow, hardy-partying playboy he was before his ordeal, by night Oliver poses as a vigilante known as The Hood, using the archery and martial arts skills he learned on the island to hunt these people down and force them to atone for their sins--or, if they refuse, simply kill them.

This is, to say the least, an unpromising beginning.  The show's premise is, at one and the same time, too reminiscent of Batman (in particular, Nolan's Batman Begins, a similarity that persists throughout the first season) and steeped in a sub-Occupy rhetoric that feels exploitative and skin-deep.  The fact that Oliver seems not only to have survived on the island but to have become a super-soldier on it (it is strongly implied, for example, that the timing of his return isn't coincidental but a choice, and that he could have arranged for his rescue to happen far sooner than it did), promises a Lost-like missing backstory--which is to say, a show more interested in filling in the missing pieces of its past than in developing its story and characters into their future--which is indeed doled out in flashbacks interspersed with each episode.  The show immediately begins teasing the resumption of Oliver and Laurel's romance, in the time-honored fashion of establishing a love triangle between them and Tommy, which would be groan-worthy even if it didn't require us to ignore the surely insurmountable obstacles to such a reconciliation.  Most importantly, the fact that Oliver is an unrepentant killer--and not just of the people on his father's list, but of their henchmen and lackeys--is shocking and unpleasant, all the more so because he is so unconflicted about it.  The impression formed is of a show trying to trade on Smallville-style soapiness, Batman-style darkness, and the hot button issues of the day without any real sense of what any of these components mean in themselves, and of what kind of story it wants to tell.

And yet, as the first season draws on, Arrow steadily improves into a compelling, engaging series.  Partly, this is simply a matter of execution.  After a dozen or so forgettable one-percenter-of-the-week episodes, the show's storytelling kicks dramatically into gear, barreling through plot twists and complications with little in the way of narrative dead weight.[2]  Visually, too, Arrow is impressive, utilizing what must be a limited budget to deliver top-notch, masterfully shot and choreographed fight scenes.  Whatever the show's narrative failings, after the middle of its first season, it is never boring to watch.

At least one of those narrative failings, however, Arrow's seemingly muddled definition of heroism, turns out to be a deliberate choice.  "To save my city," Oliver tells us in every episode's opening narration, "I must become something else."  It takes a while to realize this, but Arrow's central thesis is that Oliver has no idea what that something else is, and that he is making many mistakes and wrong turns on his path to figuring that question out, and to becoming an actual hero.  That Oliver's original mission in Starling City, crossing off the names in his father's list, is unheroic both in concept and execution is something that is repeatedly drummed into us--through Detective Lance's disgust at the carnage he leaves behind him, but even more than that, through Oliver's own inability to defend it.  When other vigilantes emerge in Starling City, either independently of Oliver or in emulation of him, he moves to neutralize them without ever being able to articulate, to them or to himself, just what makes his vigilantism different and justifiable.

When, over the course of the first season, other people learn Oliver's secret, their initial reactions are almost invariably dismay and rejection.  The first of these is John Diggle (David Ramsey), Oliver's driver and bodyguard, who is brought into the fold early on.  Diggle's induction into Oliver's team would be a welcome change if only because it gives Oliver someone with whom he can discuss his nocturnal activities, thus eliminating the tortuous voiceovers that plague the show's first few episodes, but he quickly becomes one of Arrow's most important components.  Though his initial reaction to learning Oliver's secret is to declare that "You really did lose your mind on that island" and call him a criminal and a murderer, Diggle comes around to Oliver's arguments that Starling City needs extra-legal protection from the predation of people too rich to be touched by the law.  But he continues to challenge Oliver's ideas of how that protection should look, encouraging him to look past the straightforward mission of his father's list and address crime wherever he finds it.  Later in the season, the team is joined by techie Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), who also declares her ambivalence towards Oliver's methods, and agrees to help him and keep his secret only in exchange for his help on her own project.  Though that thread is underplayed for the rest of the season--Felicity quickly buys into the vigilante party line[3]--it's her focus on this alleged side project that leads Oliver to discover the season's central villain, and takes him to the next level on his journey towards true heroism.

The most important character to discover Oliver's secret in the first season, however, is Tommy.  Arrow places trauma, the recovery from it and the failure to recover, at the center of most of its character work, suggesting, for example, that Oliver's experiences on the island--where he encountered a host of violent enemies and was forced to endure and commit heinous acts in order to survive--make his difficulties in reintegrating to his old life not dissimilar from those of a soldier returning from war.  The rest of the cast, too, is coping with their own traumatic experiences--Diggle is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and is also reeling from the death of his brother; Laurel and Quentin are still picking the pieces up from Sarah's death and the destruction of their family; when Oliver challenges Thea for acting out, she reminds him that "my brother and my father died... you guys all act like it's cool, let's just forget about the last five years.  Well I can't.  For me it's kind of permanently in there."  That trauma, the realization of the world's fundamental unfairness and of their own smallness and vulnerability before it, is what lies at the heart of most of the characters' willingness to at least consider that the vigilante is a force for good, so Tommy, as the only member of the cast who is relatively un-traumatized, plays a vital role as the voice of normalcy and sanity.  Unlike Diggle and Felicity, he can't talk himself into Oliver's point of view, decisively declaring that Oliver is "a serial killer" and eventually cutting off their friendship.  Before that happens, however, Arrow puts us into Tommy's headspace, in an episode in which he's forced to bribe a city official who wants to investigate Oliver's lair, which lies under the nightclub they've opened together, and then stall the police who want to search it.  The episode makes it clear how seedy and underhanded these actions seem to Tommy, and all to protect a friend whose compulsions he neither respects nor understands.

Of course, Arrow isn't Watchmen.  Even in its early episodes it ultimately comes down on Oliver's side, and is clearly moving towards a wholehearted embrace of his vigilantism.  But the format of a television series gives the show more room and time to build up to that point organically, and in unexpected ways.  When we watch a Spider-Man movie, we know that Peter Parker's uncle Ben will die because of Peter's indifference.  What should be a defining, life-altering trauma becomes just another set-piece to get through before the actual story can start.  Arrow, because it's taking such a long, meandering path through Oliver's origin story, can embroider it in interesting ways--as when Oliver forms a bond with a woman who, like him, is stalking the streets at night killing criminals, going so far as to invite her on his crime-fighting escapades, only to realize that she lacks even his flawed judgement and self-control.

Arrow allows characters like Diggle, Quentin Lance, and Tommy room to express their disapproval of Oliver without him having a good answer for them, because at that point in the show's story such an answer doesn't exist.  More importantly, it allows him to learn from their criticism and slowly refine his idea of what the "something else" he wants to be actually is.  Tommy's rejection of Oliver in the first season leads him to reconcile with his estranged father Malcolm (John Barrowman), who turns out to be the season's main villain.  This eventually leads to Tommy's death, an event that so shatters Oliver that he leaves Starling City and goes back to the island--as bold a declaration of his failure to reintegrate into his old life and find a place for himself in it as he could possibly make.  When he returns, Oliver announces a new mission, one of heroism and personal example rather than vengeance and violence, but his progress towards achieving that goal has been haphazard.  He resolves to stop killing, but already in the first half of the second season there have been occasions on which he's been unable to keep that resolution; he changes his moniker from the Hood to the Arrow, but most of the citizens of Starling City use the two names interchangeably, and some still call him simply "the vigilante."  This suggests a series in which it might take several seasons for Oliver to become the Green Arrow that comic book readers know, and one in which we can be privy to the process of developing that character's image and credo.

Somewhat less successful, but still quite interesting, is Arrow's handling of class.  One of the few things I did pick up about the comics' Green Arrow is that he's considered the left-wing answer to Batman, and especially in the current political climate, in which the fascism of the Nolan Batman films has been getting more and more pushback as people notice how problematic it is for a billionaire to go out at night and attack poor criminals, there's space for a story in which the Batman analogue is focused on systemic, economic crime.  As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, Arrow's social consciousness initially seems skin-deep, but as the first season draws on it becomes clear that issues of class are baked into every aspect of the show's world--in which the class war is a literal one, with the privileged classes drawing first blood.  Malcolm Merlyn turns out to have been the leader of a group, which also included Oliver's parents, of rich people who have felt the sting of street crime in Starling City--Malcolm's wife was murdered by muggers outside the free clinic she established in the Glades, Starling City's worst neighborhood; another member's daughter was raped.  In a Batman-style story, these people would be the heroes, cleaning up the streets of riffraff and scum.  In Arrow, they're the villains, who have failed to realize that their suffering is a symptom of a disease they've helped cause, and whose proposed "solution," dubbed The Undertaking, is to level the Glades and kill its inhabitants.  Despite his best efforts, Oliver is only able to partially prevent the Undertaking; at the end of the first season, a large segment of the Glades is destroyed and hundreds of people are killed.

As I've said, there are some obvious similarities here to Batman Begins, which revolves around a plan by the League of Assassins (who also appear as villains in Arrow's second season) to destroy Gotham because they perceive it as hopelessly corrupt, and believe, as Malcolm Merlyn does of the Glades, that "it can't be saved, because the people there don't want it to be saved... They deserve to die.  All of them."  As in Arrow, that plan is only partially successful, encompassing only the Narrows, Gotham's own bad, crime-riddled neighborhood.  The difference between Arrow and Nolan's Batman films, however, is that after Batman Begins, the Narrows--whose inhabitants were driven mad, but not killed, by the League of Assassins's neurotoxin--are never mentioned again.  In Arrow, the Glades, and the aftermath of the Undertaking, remain a central component of the show.  In response to the outrage of the Undertaking, some of the citizens of the Glades respond by emulating their supposed champion, forming posses of masked vigilantes who set out to murder the alleged architects of the attack, or simply the random rich.  Some of the comic's central villains emerge as a direct response to the Undertaking, most prominently Sebastian Blood (Kevin Alejandro), a mayoral candidate who has made retaking the city for its ordinary citizens his rallying cry (and is using Oliver and his family as whipping boys to rally support to his cause), even as he amasses an army of super-soldiers for some as-yet undisclosed purpose.[4]

As refreshing as it is to see class issues addressed so baldly on American TV--and in genre TV, no less--Arrow's handling of these issues often leaves something to be desired.  It is, for example, enormously problematic that the only reaction to the Undertaking to emerge from the Glades is a villainous one.  Even more of a problem is the fact that the voices of ordinary Glades citizens are almost entirely absent from the show.  Arrow does a good job of humanizing the Undertaking's architects: Malcom Merlyn is believably damaged (or, again, traumatized) by his wife's murder, and is shown to justify his monstrous actions by claiming to be protecting his son (when a shocked Tommy protests at his father killing a disarmed opponent, Malcom explains that he killed the man "as surely as he would have killed you"); even more interesting is Moira Queen, whose participation in the Undertaking is grudging at best--she knows that Malcolm is responsible for the sinking of Robert's yacht, and he has threatened Oliver and Thea--but who fails to grasp, until it's very nearly too late, that she has a responsibility to the hundreds of other families who are also in danger.  But, perhaps predictably for a series whose champion of the oppressed is himself a billionaire, the voices of the ordinary citizens of the Glades are entirely absent from Arrow's second season.  When Moira is acquitted of murder for her role in the Undertaking (an acquittal that, we later learn, was orchestrated by Malcolm, who intimidated the jury), we see Oliver's ambivalence about the verdict, but not the outrage of the people whose homes she helped destroy and whose loved ones she helped kill.[5]

Nevertheless, Arrow is committed to the notion of crime as a social, rather than individual, problem, and of economic crime as being equally destructive as street crime, if not more so.  It's particularly notable that even at his most unheroic moments, Oliver can be remarkably sympathetic towards people who are driven to crime, much more so than Diggle, who encourages him to address street crime (which Oliver dismisses as "a symptom") but also takes a much more black and white view of it.  When Oliver investigates, at Diggle's urging, a bank robbery that left a cop critically injured (even in his later, crime-fighting incarnations, Oliver doesn't really care about property crime), he discovers that the thieves are a family who fell on hard times after his father closed the factory where their father was employed.  Though Diggle insists that the robbers are guilty regardless of their misfortunes, Oliver tries to reason with the older man, and to give him an out that would prevent any further robberies without the family going to prison.[6]  At the same time, Arrow doesn't shy away from the fact of its main character's privilege, and how it can blind him.  There's a strong sense that Oliver's certainty that his vigilantism is justified (while other vigilantes must be stopped) is merely an extension of his pre-island personality, the spoiled rich kid who could have anything he wanted and hadn't heard the word "no" often enough.  And in the second season, when Oliver arranges for Felicity and Diggle to be close to him in his everyday life by making them, respectively, his assistant and driver, it falls to them to remind him how humiliating these subservient roles are for people who, in reality, are his partners and allies.

For all the good things I've said about it, I wouldn't want to oversell Arrow.  This is still a CW show, which can mean soapy storylines, too-obvious dialogue, and some infelicities in the writing.  In Arrow's case, a particular problem are the island flashback scenes.  Though they've grown more interesting as the show has progressed, and introduced some appealing characters--most notably, Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett, best "known" as the Hobbit films' Azog), a mercenary who becomes Oliver's friend and mentor, but with whom he had a bitter falling out--these sequences are still rather inelegantly presented, dumping a portion of backstory into each episode with little attempt to tie into the present day events or maintain an even pacing.  Another sort of problem is the show's diversity, or lack thereof.  In its rich neighborhoods and its poor ones, Starling City is almost uniformly white, and there's no sense that it contains ethnic enclaves--black characters, like Diggle or Moira's second husband Walter (Colin Salmon) seem to exist in isolation, not as part of a community.  And perhaps most importantly, as the show has drawn on and as Oliver comes closer to his destiny as the Green Arrow, its rooting in real world economic issues is beginning to fade.  However problematic Oliver's mission against one percenters was in the first season, it did have real world implications.  In the second season, his enemies are more and more often comic book villains, whose roots in socio-economic issues are growing more difficult to discern.

Nevertheless, Arrow is still worth a look--for a fun story, for good action scenes, for compelling characters (I've said little here about the acting, but Amell in particular has surprised me by growing into his role, ably conveying the many facets of Oliver's personality and his emotional journey as he rejoins the human race).  Most of all, for its handling, however flawed, of class issues, and for being, at least for the moment, the most interesting live-action treatment of a superhero story, in film or TV.



[1]Lesser-known, that is, to people like myself, who get their superheroes through cultural osmosis and film/TV adaptations, not comics--where the Green Arrow is, I gather, a central figure.  A lot of the discussions I've seen of Arrow have focused on how the show adapts its source material and how beholden it feels to it, but my interest is in the series as its own entity.

[2]Other reviewers have referred to this breakneck pace as Arrow learning the lesson of The Vampire Diaries, another CW series that overcame an inauspicious premise and pilot by being fearless with its plotting, but since I never gave that show a second chance, my frame of reference is a little different--the show that Arrow reminds me of, whenever I look up to realize that so much has already happened and yet we're barely at the middle of the episode, is Scandal.

[3]In general, Felicity is Arrow's most problematic character, a fact that surprised me since one of the few things I knew about the show going in was that she was a fan favorite.  Rickards is a fine performer who imbues her character with presence and verve, and her rapport with Amell is winning (it's easy to see why Oliver and Felicity have become fandom's favorite pairing), but all this only serves to obscure the fact that she has little in the way of a personality.  Especially after the fig leaf of her reason for keeping Oliver's secret is done away with, it's simply taken for granted that she will stick around and continue risking death or imprisonment for no discernible reason.  While most other characters on the show--even the generally-disliked Laurel, who has spent the second season in a well-earned but hard to watch downward spiral that still feels more realistic than anything Felicity has ever done--are given their own friends, family history, and interests, Felicity appears not to exist outside of Oliver and his mission.

[4]For all that their political perspectives on the same story are so diametrically opposed, something that Arrow and Batman Begins have in common is that neither one acknowledges the role of government and social policy in addressing (or exacerbating) economic inequality and the root causes of crime.  In the Batman films, the only department of Gotham's government we see is the police (while homeless orphan are left to billionaires like Bruce Wayne to see to).  In Arrow, Oliver seems aware of how limited his power to affect society on a large scale actually is, even in his guise as the philanthropic CEO of his father's company, but doesn't make the obvious connection to agitating for welfare and pro-equality laws and policies, while Sebastian Blood, though he talks about the importance of government and is running for mayor, obviously has other ideas about how to achieve change.  It's tempting to blame this on bad writing, but really it strikes me as a symptom of a larger trend in American pop culture (and culture in general), in which the role of government to do anything but punish wrongdoers is only rarely understood or admired.

[5]This is also an aspect of the show in which its CW-ness works against it--though some characters, like Diggle or Thea's boyfriend Roy (Colton Haynes) are supposedly from the Glades, they look like the standard CW actor, who spends two hours at the gym every day and whose hair is professionally styled.  Even more importantly, there is no sense of a cultural gap between the Glades and Starling City's upper class--Roy has no problem dressing for a party at Thea's house, or switching between the modes of behavior in the Glades and those of the Queens' mansion.

[6]Another amusing example of Diggle's law and order mentality comes later in the first season, when Oliver, having realized that his mother has some connection to his father's list, confronts her in his guise as the Hood, only for Moira--alone among all the one percenters that Oliver has attacked--to pull out a gun and shoot him.  Diggle's response--that Moira must be guilty if she wouldn't trust the word of a known killer who has promised not to hurt her--was rather different than mine--that Oliver clearly gets badass-ness from his mother.