Mental Illness, Trauma, and ‘Sherlock’ Series 4

I think we can all agree it’s been a memorable January on multiple fronts. I’ve had a lot to say about the current political climate—indeed, I sometimes feel like all I ever talk about these days is politics (and I imagine some of y’all feel the same)—but there are other items of interest to talk about, and I’m going to talk about one them now.

The fourth (and possibly final) series of the BBC show, Sherlock, aired from January 1 to January 15 and drew a bevy of highly mixed reviews. My feelings about the show, like those of many viewers, were likewise mixed, and it’s taken me a while to get a handle on them. I thought that the most recent series featured a number of very fine character moments (and performances) but that the plots of the individual episodes—and of the season as a whole—were generally clunky, bordering on nonsensical in places. I can live with all of that, however. It’s something else entirely, I’ve come to realize, that hasn’t been sitting entirely well with me.

Spoilers follow.

BBC Sherlock Publicity Still

The overarching mystery of series 4 is a dark and traumatic secret from Sherlock’s past: he had a younger sister who was psychotic and who murdered his childhood best friend before trying to burn down the family estate and being confined to a mental institution for life. This secret was so dark and so traumatic that Sherlock repressed all memory of it and spent the rest of his life subconsciously shutting himself off from any and all emotional response. As the series draws to a close, events force him to at last confront his memories. He allows himself to remember his traumatic past, reaches out to his sister, and is then able (through the power of a montage sequence) (montage!) (even Rocky had a montage!) to begin a healing process.

On the one hand, there is a feeling of well-rounded character development. On the other hand, it’s deeply disturbing that Sherlock’s previous emotional reticence is ultimately tied to horrifying trauma. In making the connection between trauma and emotional reserve implicit, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock‘s showrunners) abnormalize an aspect of Sherlock’s personality that had been beautifully normalized up until that point.

As a somewhat emotionally reticent person myself, the depiction of a character who was less emotionally involved (or less emotionally expressive) with the people around him than is expected—or respected—by society was really refreshing. I liked that Sherlock simply was the way he was; that nothing had made him that way. I liked that his preference for cold reason wasn’t a defect; that it was merely an aspect of his personality that the people around him needed to understand. Over the course of the show, Sherlock had to learn about the value of, if not kindness, at least consideration, but he didn’t need to learn their value because a tortured past had deprived him of the faculty to appreciate them, or because that past had imbued in him an unconquerable fear. His brain simply hadn’t been hardwired with them to begin with, and that was fantastic.

I loved that Sherlock’s personality was not the result of trauma. I hated that, in series 4, his personality became the result of trauma. Before the advent of the secret psychotic sister, Sherlock’s personality was—though not easy to deal with—a normal part of who he was. It was a kind of mental disability, but one which could be managed and about which there was no need to feel shame. After her, his personality became a defect. Something that should not have happened. Something that would not have happened in the so-called “normal” course of things. All of the beautifully inclusive representation that Moffat and Gatiss set up was utterly undone.

That, for me—more than the sometimes sloppy writing, the periodic lack of narrative cohesion, the occasionally out-of-character characters—is what made series 4 problematic. I can handle a less-than-wieldy plot, but reductive representation of mental illness is one of my bugaboos. And I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally comfortable with the direction Sherlock went in the end.


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