Tag Archives: queerbaiting

Sherlock S4 recap: A cavalcade of WTF?

Robert Viglasky, Hartswood Films/BBC

Sherlock Season 4 | “The Final Problem” | Aired Jan. 15, 2017

So…what was that?!

Look, let me say upfront for the diehard fans that there were parts of “The Final Problem” that actually started tugging at my heartstrings and had me visibly scared and tense. The treatment of Eurus’ tests was over-the-top (more on that), but the emotional effects, as shown through Sherlock, John and Mycroft’s conversations, were what sold the scenes. I do have to give it up to Benedict Cumberbatch for handling his share of volatile emotions in this episode. This was the episode where we finally saw Sherlock break down all of his walls to once again become that emotional little boy he was at his ancestral home many years ago.

But let’s get real, here—this episode was a head-to-toe mess. I read a Daily Mail review by Christopher Stevens, and he’s not wrong. This episode featured Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss at their most indulgent, most self-congratulatory, and possibly most offensive. Let’s go through each thing I’ve got to say with bullet points.

The treatment of women: We already know Moffat has a record of strange treatment of his female characters. But I have to say that the treatment of women throughout this season in particular was largely rudimentary at absolute best, and paternally coddling at worst. I’m not sure if that last description gets truly at the heart of what I’m trying to put into words, but the jist of it is that the women characters in this season were mostly written to provide (as Eurus kept saying) emotional context to the men (and the default Stars-with-a-capital-S) of this series.

Every woman exists because of how they serve the emotional arc of a man. Mary was underwritten so as not to completely get in the way of John and Sherlock’s friendship/romance/bromance, but then she was also hilariously written as a spy. We never get to know her well enough to know why she ever fell in that line of work, which makes the whole “She’s a spy!” exercise pointless. Yes, there should be well-rounded, tough women on screen, but they can’t just be doing stuff for the sake of doing it; they have to be actual characters with 3D emotions. The case with Mary was that she was never made to be a well-rounded character. We never get to know her, her motivations, her likes or dislikes–all we know is that she loves John, impossibly and immediately loves Sherlock (even Sherlock came back from the dead during their date) and is besotted with the idea of matchmaking her husband to his best friend (like, what even was that last DVD message?). Does any of that make sense for a married woman’s emotional motivation or characterization? Not to me, it doesn’t. Then, to top it off, Mary’s death occurs to give John an emotional character moment and to bring John and Sherlock back together as a team (or more, seeing how Mary kept trying to get them together).

Mrs. Hudson is also loosely defined as a “tough” woman character, even though we never get to know her really. Like Mary, she’s largely an archetype, something that will play well on Tumblr and other social networks where the hardcore fans will eat up her mannerisms and almost non-sequiturs as witty British humor. IT’S NOT WITTY BRITISH HUMOR! It’s ill-defined characterization! As much as Mrs. Hudson might say she’s not their bloody houskeeper, she’s still their bloody housekeeper. More accurately, she’s their bloody mom. Her whole character is designed to take care of Sherlock without question. That’s such a limiting position to be in for her character.

Molly is much in the same vein, but to a more tragic degree. Molly is the person Sherlock has an emotionally abusive relationship with. For much of the earlier seasons, it seemed like he only took delight in making her upset. Now, we’re supposed to believe that Sherlock and Molly are all right? Especially after this particular episode, when Sherlock had to get Molly to say something she didn’t want to say because she didn’t want to get hurt? There’s no fallout from that?

Molly was in literal tears during this episode, and are we supposed to believe that even though she showed backbone during that scene and finally had enough of Sherlock’s games (at the wrong time, of course—Eurus was threatening to kill her) that Molly is still an eternal well of support and love for Sherlock at the very end of the episode? SIGH. All of the emotional depth she showed in that scene, which did define Molly as an individual character with feeling, got erased when we see her at the end, smiling, seemingly having forgotten all of the trauma Sherlock put her through (in order to save her, I know, but still…) It also puts Molly in the position of acting as a Female Companion to Prove Sherlock Is Not Straight, something I’ll get into later.

Even Eurus, who was the smartest woman in this series (even more so than Irene, who is also designed just to serve as an emotional counterpoint to Sherlock) ends up serving the men in this story. For much of the episode, we see Eurus as someone who can’t understand emotion and therefore creates horrifying games and experiments to study human interaction. For much of the episode, she’s completely in control. But when we actually need to get the mystery solved, she becomes a completely different character.

Sherlock finds out that all Eurus wants is her brother to pay attention to her, and her mind seems to regress back to the state of a child. But whereas we should be focusing more on Eurus’ mental distress, we’re focused more on how this news affects Sherlock. Eurus might be the killer here, but she’s also the one who’s been in mental distress for decades, locked in her own head, whereas Sherlock at least had the mercy of grief distorting his memories. While we hear Eurus talk about her distress, we always see Sherlock live his–we see his memories as he pieces them back together. We see through his eyes all the time. We only see Eurus, whether in adult or flashback kid form, as an observer looking in.

The women could have been written stronger, and I think this lack of character strength really brings down the entirety of the season. If you’re going to have women on your show, make them actually autonomous beings with their own end goals. Don’t make them solely serve the character arcs of the men.

BBC

The treatment of mental illness: I’m saying upfront that I’m not clinician when it comes to mental illness, so forgive me if I get some things wrong, but I’m also someone who researches, so I’m linking to everything I’m using for this particular segment.

To me, it seems like there was a conflation of ideas when it came to autism and clinical psychopathy. First, let’s get into autism and autism spectrum disorder, which doesn’t have just one defined way of appearing in a person. As WebMD states:

Autism is a complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. Because of the range of symptoms, this condition is now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Symptoms of autism include, according to WebMD:

  • Social interactions and relationships. Symptoms may include:

    • Significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills, such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expressions, and body posture.
    • Failure to establish friendships with children the same age.
    • Lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people.
    • Lack of empathy. People with autism may have difficulty understanding another person’s feelings, such as pain or sorrow.
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication. Symptoms may include:

    • Delay in, or lack of, learning to talk. As many as 40% of people with autism never speak.1
    • Problems taking steps to start a conversation. Also, people with autism have difficulties continuing a conversation after it has begun.
    • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language. People with autism often repeat over and over a phrase they have heard previously (echolalia).
    • Difficulty understanding their listener’s perspective. For example, a person with autism may not understand that someone is using humor. They may interpret the communication word for word and fail to catch the implied meaning.
  • Limited interests in activities or play. Symptoms may include:

    • An unusual focus on pieces. Younger children with autism often focus on parts of toys, such as the wheels on a car, rather than playing with the entire toy.

    • Preoccupation with certain topics. For example, older children and adults may be fascinated by video games, trading cards, or license plates.

    • A need for sameness and routines. For example, a child with autism may always need to eat bread before salad and insist on driving the same route every day to school.

    • Stereotyped behaviors. These may include body rocking and hand flapping.

You can also visit The Babble Out for more about autism, its symptoms, and management.

Conversely, clinical psychopathy is defined, according to William Hirstein, Ph.D of Psychology Today, involves these symptoms:

Being uncaring and showing a lack of empathy, exhibiting shallow or lack of emotion, such as guilt, embarrassment, fear, and shame, insincere speech (aka lying), the inability to take blame for their actions, overconfidence and a narrowing of attention. Kara Mayer Robinson for WebMD goes further and says that psychopaths, not sociopaths, don’t have a conscience.

A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” [L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. of the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center] says.

To me, it seems like the writing tried to make Eurus fall in between a flat reading of autism (what with Eurus saying several times that she has trouble reading emotions and body language) and psychopathy. In other words, the writing took the “greatest hits,” if you will, of both conditions and used that to create a villainous character that they tried to humanize by the end, despite the fact that her claim to villain fame was being a cold-blooded killer.

But did it have to be this way? It’s really a cliche at this point to make the psychopath or a sociopath a killer, when not everyone diagnosed as such becomes a criminal. Most of the time, they’re only out to meet their own needs or wants. To quote Robinson:

In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the villains who kill or torture innocent people. In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.

“At worst, they’re cold, calculating killers,” [Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex] says. Others, he says, are skilled at climbing their way up the corporate ladder, even if they have to hurt someone to get there.

The stereotype of the clinical psychopath as a killer is pervasive in our culture. Now, I’m not saying we have to excuse behavior, but it would be cool of a show decided to not make their killer have some kind of mental issue or, as you’ll see below, be linked to queerness.

BBC

The treatment of high- and low-key LGBT themes in this episode and throughout the entire four seasons: I could go into deep detail about every moment in the series that queerbaits the audience, but this season both provides Johnlock shippers with a Johnlock ending while still providing the men with women-as-beards (yet again utilizing women as props for the men’s character development). This season, we have Molly that becomes the last beard for Sherlock (of course, there’s still Irene, who’s mentioned in this episode in relation to love) and the last beard for this series.

There’s no way Sherlock actually loves Molly outside of friendship, and there’s no way Sherlock and Irene would ever make sense as a couple, just like Mary and John’s relationship made no sense. First, it doesn’t help that the women are written within cookie-cutter parameters. But what also doesn’t help is how Mark Gatiss himself has said that he indulges in teasing the audience about the will-they/won’t-they aspect of Sherlock and John’s relationship. Or better yet, he indulges in teasing about whether John realizes he is along a sexual spectrum and how okay he is with that. As I wrote recently, Irene’s conversation with John in Season 2 basically acted as a canonical way of telling John that he does, in fact, have feelings for Sherlock. The fact that this conversation is never brought up again is a character development moment that went undefined.

But outside of John and Sherlock’s relationship, we have Moriarty, who has been confirmed as being, if not gay, bisexual or pansexual. Also, Sherlock insinuates that Eurus may have raped a female guard. First, the fact that rape is casually discussed in this season is appalling by itself. But also disturbing is how LGBT characters are linked to criminality and violence, once again associating queerness with villainy. That’s a trope that has long been beaten to death, so it’s sad that it’s happening in a show of supposedly high caliber as Sherlock.

Lastly, the seeming dismissal of the fans by the creators is little irritating. You can’t bait the audience and then get mad when they don’t get what they were expecting. There is a reason Sherlock Holmes books and this show are at the center of queer media critique, and there should be a level of respect for that type of decades-long scholarship.

Robert Viglasky, Hartswood Films/BBC

 

The actual episode itself: Overall, I think the characters were largely all over the place. Perhaps the most consistent character was Mycroft, but that’s also because he’s broad. But Sherlock was uncharacteristically emotional, even considering the fact that his proverbial walls were coming down, and John was back to the old John before Mary, which seemed to show just how throwaway Mary ended up being as a character.

The editing tried to make up for the fact that there were gaping plotholes in the plot. How do they survive the jump from 221B after the explosion? How did they end up on that boat? How did Eurus get the glass removed and suspend the signs? How could Sherlock not realize there wasn’t glass when there were never reflections? How did things like that get past the writers? And why were the transitions, which were clearly made to distract you from the bad plot, so bad? Particularly bad was that transition after John gets pistolwhipped after Eurus tried to first kill Sherlock. The screen spins around as if it was an Adam West Batman sequence. I was floored. Equally floored was the freeze-frame ending featuring John and Sherlock running towards the next case. I have seen bad stuff before, but that was horrendous. Worse, it was lazy, for all of the effort put into it.

Robert Viglasky, Hartswood Films/BBC

Final thoughts (since this might be the series finale): The acting is the only thing that carried this finale through. But the treatment of the characters, particularly Sherlock, is really sad. If you think back to the first-ever episode, you can tell how well-defined the characters are. They are also characters defined by the real world; there would have never been an Eurus who can control people (how?) and seemingly electronics (again, how??). Instead, what we had was Sherlock who was tied to his mobile phone, Mycroft and his assistant, disaffected government officials who also live on their phones. Lestrade and his police crew who can’t live with Sherlock and can’t live without him. All of these characters, even Sherlock, seem like someone you could possibly run into (perhaps you might only run into someone like Sherlock or Mycroft at a MENSA meeting or something, but that’s also me devolving into stereotype). What I’m saying is they were relatable, regardless of how extraordinary they were. They were human and they were developed characters.

What we’ve gotten now is a show that is so satisfied with itself that it’s gotten lazy. For me the coup the grace was the level of nepotism involved in the later seasons’ cast. Cumberbatch’s parents as Sherlock’s parents, Amanda Abbington—Martin Freeman’s partner—as Mary, and Gatiss, one of the co-writers as one of the main secondary characters? That’s a lot. The writing also seems to take itself too seriously, thinking it’s so funny, so insightful, so witty. The gag is that the script isn’t saying anything new, even though it thinks it is. It’s just an exercise in ego. As Stevens said in his review, the show has become twee, to an antagonizing degree.

Overall, this last episode was largely crap, with only golden moments clumped together towards the middle. It’s a sad way to end the series.

Update: Information on autism now from WebMD to reflect concerns over the ethics of AutismSpeaks

Sherlock’s obsession with queerbaiting is more frustrating than ever

BBC

Sherlock Season/Series 4 is upon us! I’m sure there are a ton of us excited for Sunday’s first episode of the new season on PBS Masterpiece, which I shall be livetweeting via my personal Twitter handle @moniqueblognet. But before we flip out as we watch the first movie-length episode, I need to flip out about some things I’m already annoyed with.

First, let’s watch the two teasers together.

Okay, so what am I flipping out about, you ask? First, Moriarty’s alive? Come on now. Now, I’m a beginner-to-intermediate fan of the Sherlock Holmes literature, but there are other villains aside from Moriarty, right? I know he’s the biggest big bad Sherlock’s ever faced, but since Sherlock diverges from the canon all the time, why not make some other lesser known villain a supreme big bad for the screen? I don’t know, just some thoughts. I just hate seeing story ideas/plot devices get repeated.

Also, isn’t the basic “Moriarty” character now typecasting Andrew Scott in the ultimate way? Almost every time I see or hear him lately, he’s playing a skeevy character. He’s been so typecast, that even when he was in Garrow’s Law as an actual victim, his character was still lying through his teeth. Sure, he was lying to protect his lover at the time, sure, since this show is set in the 1700s when same-sex relationships were outlawed, but still, the character still painted himself as a skeevy villain.

Anyways, this Moriarty thing isn’t even the biggest concern I have. My ultimate pet peeve right now is when shows decide to queerbait vulnerable audience members, and Sherlock is the British king of queerbaiting.

In the second trailer, you see Sherlock telling someone, “I love you.” Previous to that, you have Toby Jones’ Culverton Smith saying that Sherlock will have to reveal his deepest, darkest secret. For big fans of the show, and particularly big fans who are also well aware of Sherlock‘s gay subtext, the trailer wants you think that Sherlock’s biggest, deepest, darkest secret is that he’s in love with someone so meaningful to him, that if he tells this person his truest feelings, it could wreck their entire friendship and, indeed, Sherlock’s entire world. The only person who fits that description is John.

There was a time when I was quite heavy into exploring the subtextual story in both the original Sherlock Holmes literature and Sherlock the show. A lot of that scholarship (if you wish to call it such) is still available via the Wayback Machine. But the jist of it was discussing why the show indulges in queerbaiting when it doesn’t have to. With the UK being in the 21st century and with Mark Gatiss—a gay man who seems to understand the subtext of the subject matter—as 1/2 of the executive producing/writing duo, there’s no reason why Sherlock has to be coy about asserting the queerer aspects of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

The most queerbaitiest of Sherlock episodes ISN’T the first episode ever, in which Sherlock thinks John is asking him out over a candelit Italian dinner, although that’s a popular example. The most queerbaitiest episode is actually the first episode of Season 2, when Irene Adler comes to town.

Irene is used as both a beard for Sherlock (by the writers) and as confirmation for the audience’s belief about/confusion surrounding John’s amorphous feelings over his friend and flatmate. Irene’s purpose as truth-teller to the audience comes when Irene realizes John is obviously jealous over Sherlock’s surprising interest in her.

To quote myself from 2012:

Thanks to livejournal user bizarremain, we have the transcript of what exactly was said during this scene:

Irene: “You jealous?”
John: “We’re not a couple.”
Irene: “Yes, you are.”
John: “Who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes? But, for the record, if anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.”
Irene:”Well, I am. Look at the both of us.”

What she’s saying is that she and John are both two people who aren’t attracted to men. Yet, here they are, attracted to one man, not because he’s a man, because he’s this amazing being. What Irene was getting at is that it doesn’t matter what Sherlock is, it’s that he is who he is what’s so attractive and magnetic. It’s not so much that he’s the magical male that can change Irene into a heterosexual–the episode never says she’s changed to a heterosexual woman; it’s that she’s attracted to him, no matter what he is, and that’s what makes the whole thing interesting.

…By alluding to [sexual fluidity], Irene is also saying that John is in the same boat as she is. …Irene is saying to John that he needs to analyze what is going on with him and Sherlock and realize that even though he’s attracted to women (just like she is), he’s just as attracted to Sherlock. In fact, Irene is also intimating that Sherlock might be the one for John. Never once does she say that she’d actually like to have a relationship with Sherlock. She’s mostly just got a mixture of intrigue and lust when it comes to him. To me, Irene summed up John’s relationship with Sherlock in just a few words.

To piggy-back off that, John is getting a lot of hints from the universe that he is meant to be with Sherlock, whether as friends or as more-than-friends. Sherlock is naked in a sheet–John takes a look before even asking Sherlock if he’s naked under it. John’s new girlfriend breaks up with him–the umpteenth girlfriend to do so. She says to his face that he’s a better boyfriend to Sherlock than he is to her. The whole Irene scene I just blabbed on about. And, frankly, I think Irene herself is a big clue to John that there’s more to his relationship with Sherlock than he even realizes yet. By Irene constantly asking him if he’s jealous of her and telling him that he’s in a relationship with Sherlock, coupled with his string of bad relationships due to his dependence on Sherlock, John slowly seems to be mulling over how his relationship with his friend is perceived, which is interesting.

And yet, the season progresses without much mention of this illuminating moment again. After this, probably the most progressive moment in Sherlock, the writing seems to have swung towards a weird place where either the writers, the characters, or both are afraid of admitting that the subtext is more than likely text.

For instance, John’s wife Mary calls John out on treating Sherlock like his boyfriend all the time, such as when she clocks him for getting spruced up more often once Sherlock comes back from the dead. However, Mary is also unnervingly okay with this, which strikes me as a little disingenuous, particularly because her characterization was basically acting as an avatar for the Tumblrites who want to squee over John and Sherlock.

Also, Sherlock acts like he’s completely happy at John’s wedding, but later on, we see that he’s clearly not. That’s keeping with his own dependence on John as his soundboard and wingman-of-sorts, but then we later see him act wildly out of character, even for Sherlock, by “getting a girlfriend,” only to later use said girlfriend’s emotions to crack a case. Even Sherlock of Season 1 would think that was going a little too far. The writing in this season both provides Sherlock and John with beards, as if to say, “SEE, BBC VIEWERS!? THEY’RE TOTALLY NOT GAY!!” But when they are with their respective significant others, nothing about the relationships seem real (and in the case of Sherlock’s, it actually isn’t real).

(If I can go on a tangent—The writing for that season wasn’t particularly strong; it was more about filling out the character beats the Tumblr fans wanted, to me, than it was about properly building character and realistic character moments. Out of that season, the only person who came out looking sane was John, who was rightly frustrated with the fact that everyone around him has lied to him in some way. Talk about gaslighting! The mental abuse John suffered during the third season is another reason why I don’t like it.)

Now here we are with Season 4, with Sherlock telling someone that he loves them. Chances are it’s not John, and that’s not even because John is standing behind him when he says it. For all we know, “I love you” could be another “I am Sherlocked.” (Also: If Irene was worth her salt as a dominatrix hardcore woman, she would never use such teeny-bopper language as “I am Sherlocked” for a cell phone passcode.)

The show loves baiting its audience and has gotten good at raising expectations only to have them tied in knots later on. Gatiss has said that he likes playing with the latent homoeroticism in Sherlock, but there comes a point when playfully exploring a theme becomes hanging a dangling carrot over fans heads, only to yank it away each season. I say either the show decides Sherlock actually loves John, and not in a platonic brother-in-arms kind of way, or it quits using homoeroticism as a crutch to keep people tuned in. At this point in time, the media we ingest, including Sherlock, can no longer have it both ways.