Yesterday, Elizabeth Sandifer posted an essay on Sherlock‘s 2016 Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride,” on the Eruditorum Press blog. One issue raised in her essay is the sudden interest in Sherlock in Sherlock Holmes’ drug addiction, an element of the Arthur Conan Doyle canon that Sherlock hadn’t dealt with.
What follows is a comment I left on the blog that synthesizes a number of thoughts I’ve had since 2016 about the episode, specifically the extent to which Elementary, the other modern day Sherlock Holmes series, influenced latter Sherlock:
I felt at the time, and still feel, that Sherlock‘s interest in Sherlock’s drug addiction from “His Law Vow” onward was the Moftiss’s response to the other “modern day Sherlock Holmes” series, Elementary.
Of the key Sherlock players (Cumberbatch, Freeman, Moffat, Gatiss), the one known to watch Elementary is Cumberbatch; Cumberbatch has said he’s invested in the character of Sherlock Holmes and interested in what Jonny Lee Miller does with the role, and Miller has said that Cumberbatch will call him after watching an Elementary episode so they can discuss it.
A key facet of Miller’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock’s addiction to drugs; Miller’s Sherlock is a recovering heroin addict, he attends support support group meetings, and he wrestles with his sobriety, even failing as he did at the end of season 3. The addiction shapes Millerlock’s character in a variety of ways, from his relationships with support group members and mentors like Alfredo or his paternal/mentor relationship with Kitty to his companionship with Joan, his relationship with the NYPD, and his relationships with his brother and father, all of which humanize the character.
Sherlock as self-destructive addict wasn’t a facet of Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock… until it became one late in the series overall, and the final four episodes of Sherlock all deal with that addiction in some respect. The question is: why take an element of Sherlock Holmes that has been uniquely Elementary‘s, and why use it now?
Without Moffat or Gatiss explaining their reasoning, any answer will be speculative. But there are two possibilities I’ve considered.
One. Cumberbatch could have gone to Moffat and Gatiss and said, “My friend Jonny is doing this with his Sherlock. I’d be interested in exploring the addiction angle, too.”
Two. Moffat and Gatiss, seeing that Elementary played with Sherlock as addict, decided that whatever Elementary did, they could do better, so if Elementary portrayed Sherlock as an addict in recovery, Sherlock would portray Sherlock as an addict absolutely off his face.
Or, it could be a little from column A, a little from column B.
The “anything Elementary does, we can do better” view seems to be broadly applicable to Sherlock Series 4, however; Sherlock adds a non-Canonical family member to the cast, and the series’ big bad is a woman close to Sherlock with a personal connection, as though Moftiss took Elementary‘s irene Adler/Jamie Moriarty and Morland Holmes and combined them to create Eurus Holmes.
As a fan of both shows, it’s interesting to speculate whether they were in dialogue with each other. In some ways, they deliberately avoided each other, such as Elementary‘s portrayals of Moriarty and Mycroft. Other times, there seems to be a conscious or unconscious influence, like the treatment of Sherlock’s addictions. And then there are puzzling things, like Paul Cornell writing for Elementary instead of his friend Moffat’s Sherlock. (I really liked Cornell’s episode of Elementary, by the way, but I wondered after if Moffat and Gatiss had ever asked him to contribute to Sherlock.) At the time there were two, now there are three, modern day Sherlock Holmes television series, and none of them exist in a vacuum.