Sherlock jumped the shark

Warning: Contains plot spoilers for series 3 (and for August Rush)

I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Matin Freeman are great actors, and the BBC have made a very stylish production of Sherlock with complex and nuanced characters. Both Sherlock’s use of drugs and the relationship between the two men has been portrayed in an interesting and convincing way. I particularly enjoyed the hint of Asperger’s in the way that Sherlock can use his visual observation skills and visual memory to reason in a way that seems almost impossible to a layperson, whilst struggling with interpersonal relationships. So it was with high expectations that I watched the latest set of episodes, and found them sorely disappointing.

I should say that it isn’t the first time I’ve built up my expectations of a film or show only for the reality to not live up to them. I have long identified a pattern I call “the Total Recall effect” whereby films seem to vary in their quality according to my expectations. The first time I watched Total Recall (the 1990 original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) I thought it sounded like a weak premise with a wooden actor, but was pleasantly surprised. The second time I watched it, some years later, I remembered it as a good film and was sorely disappointed. The third time I watched it, after several more years,  I nearly turned it off, remembering it to be dire. However, it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end. I learnt that my expectations influenced my subjective experience; hence naming the Total Recall effect.

I also hate films that mix realism with implausibility. I’m fine with suspending belief entirely for a fantastical tale, or for enjoying the interplay of characters in a different time or place (eg I love Firefly’s futuristic western set in space) but I hate it when stories that are designed to seem within a stretch of reality suddenly take a leap into the impossible. In the film August Rush, for example, I had that experience of a semi-plausible plot jumping the shark. It was a stretch I could just about tolerate for the boy to reject family placements and stay in the care system in the hope of finding his real parents, and to then run away in search of them (despite the fact he’d have been adopted as an infant, would never have known anything but the love and belonging of his adoptive family, and wouldn’t have felt quite the same yearning). His relationship with music was beautifully captured and was the highlight of the film. But the grand finale where everything fell into place, and his parents were both seeking him and each other, and were present in the right place at the right time to hear the concert and recognised it calling to them, then recognised each other and him, made it all fall apart.

That accounts for some aspects of my disappointment with Sherlock but not all. To be honest, whilst I applaud the idea of also including female characters and narrative as a general aspiration for all media, I wasn’t a fan of Watson’s wife being an international espionage expert (it felt a bit like the second series of Heroes, where everyone got superpowers). Likewise I didn’t buy Sherlock having a sister. They felt like a step away from the source material that wasn’t in keeping with the rest. I also found it frustrating that each episode spent three quarters of its time laying out a riddle, and then wrapped it up far too quickly and neatly in the final quarter. I also felt cheated that unlike earlier shows, we didn’t see how Sherlock put together the clues to reach his conclusion. It was presented in an abstract way, a bit like magic. Viewers were left to assume that the song combined with some numbers in the graveyard could be rearranged to lead to a sentence that unlocked the location of the well. But why those graves, and how did it unlock the location – we were short-changed in the explanation.

As ever, huge amounts of trauma were included in the plot, without an appropriate scale of emotional response. The repeated prompts to be soldiers wasn’t sufficient to carry the uneven emotional responses (smashing the coffin because he had upset the pathologist, whilst being unmoved by four murders and recovering from feeling responsible for a suicide in less than a minute). Likewise later scenes showed the repair of 221b Baker Street to its former state, indicating that the explosion that would have supposedly killed Mrs Hudson in the flat below, and threw them out of the windows in bursts of flame had not only caused them no injuries, but hadn’t even penetrated the floor boards of the flat.

However, my main grumble was with the character of Eurus and the plot that surrounded her. The actress playing her was good, and the twist of her being several characters was fun, but the story and back story they gave her was appalling. This woman was supposed to have been born a dangerous psychopath, and to have spent her entire life from the age of around seven in solitary confinement as a result. She was supposed to be lonely, anxious and delusional but to express that by doing nothing for two decades and then engineering plots that skipped continents and killed multiple people without emotional response. Well I call bingo on the theme of propagating negative myths about mental health, with zero points for reality.

First, it reinforced the association between mental health problems and risk of committing crime, when people with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims of crime. Second, it gave the impression that mental health problems are things that you can be born with, and unrelated to your life experience. For example, we didn’t see that Eurus had been emotionally and sexually abused to create her distress and anger. We saw a highly intelligent child in a highly intelligent family that felt a little left out when her brother had a friend, and as a result decided to kill the friend, then burn the house down, and wanted to kill her brother. She was portrayed as a petty and jealous child, whilst presumably nobody in this highly intelligent family was able to show her affection or to help her regulate her emotions. And nobody recognised the risk or tried to intervene in a supportive way.

Eurus was supposedly unable to tell the difference between laughing and screaming, and was portrayed as being entirely without empathy, yet she had the subtle social insight to see (from her minimal observations whilst supposedly secured in a prison island) that her brother was unable to communicate any affection for the woman who was in love with him. Then, despite the lack of normal human interaction for most of her life it transpired that she had developed sufficient mind control to reprogram others within minutes of conversation. She had never done so as a practise, or in a way that was unsuccessful or aroused concern, however. But after 20 years she had suddenly taken over the entire prison/asylum island sufficiently to get people all over the place to transport her to and from the island, to set up her murder scenarios, to dangle three men in front of the window and cut the ropes to make them fall off the cliff to their deaths. No single person in the entire staff of the island failed to fall under her thrall, or had any moral doubts about her plans that were sufficient to breach her conditioning enough to raise an alarm (whilst the prison governor was able to disobey her to commit suicide in his attempt to save his wife). And she was able to set explosives, procure sedative darts and transport Holmes and Watson to an entire set created at her old family home. And this frightened, lonely girl who had supposedly only killed a child once in a failed attempt to play was suddenly killing many as experiments to test her brothers.

Sherlock, despite his intellect and his “mind palace” of perfect visual memories, was supposed to have entirely erased the existence of his best friend being murdered by his sister, or even of having a sister at all. When he spent the evening with the daughter of the famous serial killer, he could notice the drips of water and the line on her dress from her exit from the taxi, but not the fact that she was his own sister in disguise, putting on a false accent. Likewise he could predict that Watson would be at a particular location in two weeks time, but not see anything suspect in his flirtation with the woman on the bus. Meanwhile, despite the whole of MI6 and the intellect of Mycroft being involved in her supervision, Eurus could come and go from her prison island enough to make a therapy practise that both Watson and Holmes thought to be bona fide. And in the finale, Sherlock could believe that the voice of an adult woman he had been interacting with, communicated from an attic in the rain or a prison island, was that of a small girl in a crashing aeroplane.

In short, once you apply any critical thought, this series was a woeful disappointment, despite the stellar cast, impressive budget and stylish delivery.

 

Happily ever after: Some thoughts on trauma in the movies

I watched a romantic drama this evening in which a man and a woman who has a child from her past relationship fall in love. The ex-boyfriend is controlling, threatening and manipulative and tries to sabotage the relationship. He is shown getting drunk and grabbing the woman’s arm tightly to stop her leaving twice, and at another point he threatens the man with a weapon. Towards the end of the film the ex-boyfriend is drunk and upset. He threatens to take the child, who runs away and falls into a river. The ex-boyfriend rescues the child at the cost of his own life, and the mother and child witness him meeting a sudden grizzly death. Then the couple get together, become a family with the child and the film ends, leaving them to live happily ever after.

Having watched a set of characters for an hour and a half that were portrayed sympathetically and realistically enough to feel invested in, this seemed like a weird ending. I was left with this really disconcerting feeling that the writers, producers and large numbers of reviewers of this film (who gave it respectable scores on Amazon and IMDB) thought that this climactic scene tied up the ends neatly and left us with the uplifting moral righteousness of the baddie getting his just deserts, the couple unimpeded in their romance and a perfect nuclear family.

But how could a child who just witnessed his father’s death (and probably felt responsible for it) not have any emotional reaction to that? Would it not be yet another loss of a close male relationship for this young child, who had already lost others as part of the back-story? How could the mother not have complex feelings about the death of a guy who has been emotionally and potentially physically abusing her for five years? Would her relief perhaps be tinged with guilt that her new romance triggered these events, or at being relieved to see the back of him? Would a mother not feel sadness in empathy for her child’s experience of trauma and loss? Would she not feel echoes of the loss of her own father in childhood, or her brother the previous year? Perhaps their different ways of dealing with grief and loss would challenge the romantic relationship? How about our leading man, who was mourning lost friends and showing signs of PTSD at the beginning of the film. Would it not re-awaken all the unresolved grief he is repressing? And what of the ex-boyfriend’s parents and their stoical thanks to those that tried to rescue him? Does nobody cry for this man, who gave his life up to save his child? Was his inept handling of the relationship that resulted from an unplanned pregnancy in his teens so bad that he deserved to die?

Why couldn’t the film have been one that illustrated the reality and complexity of modern family relationships? Surely the alternative was for the father to have shown his priority was the wellbeing of the child, during the rescue scene, but to have survived and been part of a renegotiated family configuration in which the child was able to have both a positive experience of contact with him and to live in the new family unit with Mum and step-Dad? As I often tell children who feel that any affection to foster or adoptive carers is disloyal to their birth family, love is not like a cake where you have a finite amount to share out between all your relationships, love is like candles where using your fire to light others just creates more brightness for everyone. But if the father had to die, then they needed to show the emotional fallout of that. They can’t have one without the other, any more than they could show a person standing in sunshine without showing their shadow.

As it stood, the film profoundly failed to acknowledge the impact of trauma on the different characters. And this film was far from alone in that. So many traumas occur in films and TV shows that it seems they are very much part of the expectation nowadays. In every vampire franchise I’ve seen the head counts of characters close to the main protagonists who die are extraordinary, and yet they briefly mourn and then move on. In Vampire Diaries, an average of 19 characters shown on screen die per episode, and the main character, Elena, has lost almost every living relative and most of her friends, as well as dying herself, twice! Many other shows track medical emergencies, murderers, serious crimes, drug dealing and power battles, yet they are dealt with in an entirely sanitised, emotion-free way. Sure, a pathologist would be well-used to the physical nature of human corpses, but even in the most hardened professionals some cases creep through the cracks into your psyche. The person that looks a little like someone you know, or reminds you of something in your past. The tragic story that becomes apparent from the cause of death, or the untimely demise of a child. We are not robots analysing data, surely we recognise that people are like us and the people we care about?

The latest Star Wars film showed planet-scale genocide without that even being acknowledged by the cast. It’s a really good film otherwise, and I really enjoyed it, but the scriptwriters chose to show genocide as shorthand to make the baddies bad. It could equally have done so through less wide-scale slaughter, or by showing the snatching of children to indoctrinate as stormtroopers or many other plot devices. Including the slaughter of millions of people was a plot choice, and given that the film is part of a historical franchise that is pitched to the whole family and used to market toys to children, that is a pretty weird choice of plot. To then skim over making light of it makes that more disturbing, rather than less, once you think about it. I’m not saying the main characters should have processed the emotional impact there and then; I’m sure if you are busy fighting for your life or have 20 minutes to save the world and see some planets blow up, that isn’t the moment you down tools, lie down and cry. But even an extra second of footage showing sad faces, one person humanising the loss by mention of having lost individuals there, or an additional comment about how awful that loss was, would have given some hint of the emotional connections of all the people whose lives were extinguished in an instant. In the original trilogy when Alderaan was destroyed they used the change in the force to acknowledge how monstrous it was. I still remember the scale and momentousness given by the line “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” And this is what was missing in The Force Awakens.

But I think this lack of acknowledgement of millions of deaths was also illustrating something very poignant about human processing of events; we identify much more emotionally with death or distress at the individual scale than we do at a population level. Think of how the discovery of the body of young Aylan Kurdi humanised the treatment of Syrian refugees in the news narratives, for example. Prior to that point, they were treated like an invading army of ants, but in the weeks immediately afterwards some individual stories were told and people felt more sympathetic and we were shown footage of refugees being welcomed into various European countries. I think that change in response according to the scale of deaths is part of human nature, as is our ability to shut off from suffering and get on with life, if that is necessary to our survival. At the extreme end, people living through wars or in areas of high risk or conflict are probably coping by living in “survival mode” and using more primitive parts of the brain in favour of the prefrontal cortex, which has reduced activity under threat. It makes sense, logically, as we do have to compartmentalise awful stuff to just keep on going sometimes. I think back to all the life events that happened whilst I was pregnant (including a car accident, my granddad dying, a close colleague dying unexpectedly, my job being placed at risk, my babies being born very prematurely) and think I only coped with everything I couldn’t avoid by going into a psychological bubble and putting all that bad news aside to deal with later.

Maybe these fictional narratives of unacknowledged loss that have become so prevalent in TV and film are using this tendency – our ability to put emotional distance between ourselves and tragedy through various forms of displacement. If something awful happens far away, or it happened in the past, or in a different cultural context, or in fiction, then we are able to distance ourselves from it and deal with it at a purely cognitive level. We think about it but don’t feel it. The shame is that this seems to be how many politicians and decision makers deal with the problems affecting people in our day to day lives. Although it is ‘psychologically expensive’ to allow emotions in, it is only with empathy that we can really make informed decisions. So in real life as well as in fiction, I think a bit more feeling would be a good thing.