Poetry or Truth? Interpreting BBC Sherlock S1–4

Part I: Chekhov, Absurdism, and the Meaning of The Final Problem


  • preface

i. Chekhov

  • ‘Poetic-Realism’
  • Chekhov’s Gun and The Breaking String

ii. Theatre of the Absurd

  • Aesthetic or Philosophy?
  • ‘Poetic Images’
  • Weird, Gay, and Misunderstood

iii. The Limits of Realism

  • ‘Desperately Unspoken’
  • ‘The Living Riddle’
  • ‘Love Conquers All’

[Ready for Part II? Go here!]

The Series Four finale of BBC Sherlock was… different. Unprecedented, in a lot of ways. Those of us who subscribe to TJLC went into the fourth series with a concrete theory of what was to come, based on predictions from the original Sherlock Holmes stories combined with an exhaustive analysis of the subtext and symbolism of the preceding three series. Your phone is your heart, tea is gay, alcohol is ‘liquid courage’, and Molly Hooper is a mirror for John Watson.

We read the show, we spoke their language, we did our research. We knew they were writing a romance between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

We knew.

It was possible we had set our expectations too high, destined to be disappointed.

But the S4 finale was unprecedented in the sense that it departed from the aesthetic of the rest of the show entirely and played out as a mashup of a half-dozen different horror movies.

Nothing made sense. There was the clown from It. The girl from The Ring. The island from Shutter Island. Inexplicable murder-suicide games from Saw. An umbrella-sword-gun multitool.

Mycroft’s portrait’s eyes were bleeding.

“You’re desperate to have secrets inside the umbrella, I know. […] That would have been a different show.” — Steven Moffat to Mark Gatiss, HLV DVD Commentary (x)

Even casual viewers were lost and confused. People who watched with no expectations speculated that the finale was so bizarre it had to be ‘fake’. We speculated that there was a surprise fourth episode yet to come, interpreting the finale as the show’s faked death, a metatextual echo of Sherlock’s own ‘suicide of a genius’ in TRF.

As yet, no such explanation has been forthcoming.

There were things that felt off about the first two episodes as well. Things like an Uncanny-Valley Watson flat remodel. A cameraman in the shot. A repeated case. John typing up a blog entry into (a) a screenshot of his blog about (b) changing nappies while his wife sits next to him still pregnant and while (c) the blog itself never showing any evidence of his post.

Things like the famous blue skull painting replaced by one that glowed.

What followed was an onslaught of criticism and abuse, rained down on everyone associated with the show through every possible medium. The creators, per usual, explained most things away with colossally unsatisfying answers and blatant — sometimes gleeful — lies.

But there were two responses that I felt warranted a closer look:

Louise Brealey plays Molly Hooper

Louise Brealey defended her character’s excruciating scene in which she must verbalize her (obvious, unrequited) love for Sherlock or die in an explosion with the request to ‘read some fucking Chekhov’.

Rachel Talalay, director of T6T, plead innocence with regards to her involvement, stating ‘i’m just a pawn in this theatre of the absurd’.

Rachel Talalay directed The Six Thatchers

Neither of these tweets are the reflexive responses of artists unwilling to hear the critical failure of their own work.

Both of these responses point to something more complex at play.

We approached this season with a concrete hypothesis of what was to come. When we first tested our predictive powers on TAB, we were fantastically successful. With S4, we were, in some respects, wildly incorrect. If our primary objective is to understand the intentions of the writers, we must return to the hypothesis with our new data and begin to reassess.

It really felt to me like the cast and crew of BBC Sherlock were telling us to stop complaining and hit the textbooks. So I listened.

i. Chekhov

We start first with Anton Chekhov, of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ fame, one of the greatest playwrights of modern theatre. For my homework, I read a bit of background information, delved deeper into one or two plays, and picked up Interpreting Chekhov by Geoffrey Borny on JSTOR for free (x).

To those already well-versed in the symbolism and metaphor of BBC Sherlock, the highlights of Chekhov’s contributions to literature and theatre will sound immediately familiar.


What Chekhov brings to our analysis of Sherlock is symbolism and subtext within the conventions of realism. From Interpreting Chekhov by Geoffrey Borny:

At the time of writing Ivanov, Chekhov had not yet developed his method of juxtaposing text with subtext to create the gap between aspiration and achievement, nor had he developed his technique of using the expressive power of symbolism while retaining his adherence to the conventions of realism.
The layers of meaning to “Some things aren’t supposed to sit behind glass. They’re made to be touched; to be handled,” that you can see in this glorious TBB production still.

Chekhov developed and ultimately perfected the use of subtext and symbolism within realism. Maintaining realism was equally as important as the symbolic meaning:

It was not a case of either symbolism or realism but ‘both/and’. However paradoxical the term may seem, Chekhov fits the description that Wimsatt gives of ‘poetic-realist’. As Wimsatt explains:
Sometimes the order of images in a story follows or apparently follows the lines of representational necessity or probability, though at the same time a symbolic significance in managed. Then we have realism, though realism of a superior sort, the poetic sort.
Interpreting Chekhov by Geoffrey Borny is really insightful if you’re interested in learning more about Chekhov! The full text is available free on JSTOR.

‘Realism of a superior sort, the poetic sort’ — this is precisely the niche that BBC Sherlock occupies through S3. Sherlock has never hewn to hyper-realism. Fandom will argue themselves hoarse over the likelihood of a discharged soldier-doctor having seen active combat versus having PTSD versus not having PTSD versus affording x clothing item on y pension based on n years of service, when we’re watching a story where the principal antagonist describes himself as a fairy-tale villain and our hero’s brother somehow “is” the entire government of Britain, whatever that means.

Suspension of disbelief is a normal, healthy aspect of audience participation.

Mark Gatiss himself explains that Sherlock strives for heightened realism, emphasis on the heightened:

Sherlock […] exists in a slightly exaggerated version of our own universe. (x)

Translation: every scene is contrived such that a character’s textual reaction illustrates an inner quality via metaphor. Every villain is allegorical. Side characters first and foremost serve as mirrors for the leads, and their motivations are filled in around this imperative.

Obviously this analysis sits on the shoulders of everyone who has helped to establish the use of mirroring, subtext, and consistent use of symbols in the show like the Heart-Phone Metaphor and Gay Tea.

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat teasing their John-Molly mirroring, the ‘Heart-Phone Metaphor’, and ‘Gay Tea’ in the most gleefully infuriating Q&A ever, hosted by PBS on tumblr, December 15, 2016 (x)

Analysis of symbolism and subtext was integral to TJLC well before S4 aired, and suggests that not only was our previous analysis in line with the writers’ intentions, but that we must pursue this avenue even further to understand the purpose of S4.

But not only does Chekhov confirm our general method of interpreting S1–3, but we also find that the writers have borrowed a symbol directly from Chekhov with potentially devastating implications for S4 and beyond.

Chekhov’s Gun and The Breaking String

Chekhov is probably most widely known in the context of Chekhov’s Gun, a warning for writers not to add superfluous details, and not to make promises in their work they didn’t intend to keep. Most typically stated as a gun that’s never fired, it’s reasonably been interpreted fairly literally with regards to Sherlock S4.

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
— Anton Chekhov

However, there is a glaring exception to the literal interpretation of this maxim that can be observed in Chekhov’s own work, whose relevance to Sherlock S4 will become apparent.

In his final and most famous play, The Cherry Orchard, a character named Yepikhodov, milling about rather aimlessly in a garden with a few others, pulls a revolver from his jacket and delivers a line that ‘hangs a pistol on the wall’ in the most explicit manner possible:

YEPIKHODOV. I’m a cultured sort of person and read all kinds of remarkable books, but I just can’t get a line on what it is I’m really after. Shall I go on living or shall I shoot myself, I mean? But anyway, I always carry a revolver. Here it is. [Shows them his revolver.]

Yepikhodov, a hapless sad sack if there ever was one, is depressed, contemplating suicide. He even shows us his gun.

Yet for the duration of the play, he never fires it.

Does Chekhov’s most famous play violate his most famous rule for drama?


What Chekhov writes instead is this: Yepikhodov, in this lazy garden scene, is also carrying a guitar. He has serenaded the girl he loves, and has asked to speak with her privately, but she, not interested in his attentions, deflects by asking him to go inside and bring her a shawl first. Taking his guitar, he exits on this dreadfully ominous line:

YEPIKHODOV. Oh certainly, I’m sure. At your service. Now I know what to do with my revolver.

The remaining characters chatter on a bit more, and fall silent. What follows in this silence:

[Everyone sits deep in thought. It is very quiet. All that can be heard is FIRS’ low muttering. Suddenly a distant sound is heard. It seems to come from the sky and is the sound of a breaking string. It dies away sadly.]

This ‘breaking string’ may be the most famous symbol that Chekhov ever used in any of his works. It’s the title of the 1966 textbook on Chekhov’s plays.

It also sheds new light on the meaning of one of the Sherlock S4 promotional images:

The Breaking Strings

In Interpreting Chekhov, Borny points out this apparent contradiction between the ‘Chekhov’s gun’ maxim and Yepikhodov. He explains that the breaking string is ‘firing the gun’ of Yepikhodov’s suicide. The sound is most objectively explained as a broken string of Yepikhodov’s guitar, but each character that remains on stage suggests their own explanation for the sound, projecting their own personal concerns that, in part, have caused them all to overlook Yepikhodov’s desperation.

Chekhov’s Yepikhodov is a potential suicide rather than an actual one.

Even though the actual gun is never fired, and even though Yepikhodov lives, the play sets up an expectation of suicide for the audience that can be fulfilled euphemistically using the sound of the breaking string.

In striving for realism, Chekhov prioritized the mundane over the melodramatic:

He knew that ‘in real life, people do not shoot themselves, or hang themselves, or make confessions of love every minute’. […] Chekhov was able to be ‘dramatically effective’ without resorting to the theatrics of melodrama.

In other words, subtlety is the name of the game. No phone call from the rooftop of St. Barts here. Toppled by sheer melodrama indeed.

I have already argued, after the promotional trailer of TFP was released, that our John’s Garridebs moment will be self-inflicted. The themes of suicide and self-harm surrounding Faith, the strongest of many John mirrors populating S4, combined with the ‘poetic image’ of John at the bottom of a well, form a picture that is crystal clear in my mind.

TLD’s callback to John’s sad, solitary walk home in ASIP aligns with the story of ‘Appointment in Samarra’ from the opening of S4: the narrator first flees from Death, traveling many miles, only to meet Death a second time and go willingly.

But T6T also asks the question: can Samarra be avoided?

‘The Final Problem’ is, as we know, ‘Staying Alive’.

Chekhov’s breaking string represents a potential suicide. In BBC Sherlock, that suicide belongs to John.

To attempt to reconcile that with John’s apparently being shot in the face by Sherlock’s sister, we read on.

ii. Theatre of the Absurd

‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was coined by Martin Esslin to describe a collection of post-war playwrights who were producing plays that were, to borrow a term, garbage:

When the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, and Adamov first appeared on the stage they puzzled and outraged most critics as well audiences. And no wonder. These plays flout all the standards by which drama has been judged for many centuries; they must therefore appear as a provocation to people who have come into the theatre expecting to find what they would recognize as a well-made play. A well-made play is expected to present characters that are well-observed and convincingly motivated: these plays often contain hardly any recognizable human beings and present completely unmotivated actions. A well-made play is expected to entertain by the ding-dong of witty and logically built-up dialogue: in some of these plays dialogue seems to have degenerated into meaningless babble. A well-made play is expected to have a beginning, a middle, and a neatly tied-up ending: these plays often start at an arbitrary point and seem to end just as arbitrarily. By all the traditional standards of critical appreciation of the drama, these plays are not only abominably bad, they do not even deserve the name drama.

The hallmarks of the Theatre of the Absurd: unrelatable inhuman characters, completely unmotivated actions, nonsensical dialogue, arbitrary progression of the main action. Already this is sounding unsettlingly familiar.

This list is nearly identical to the list of complaints brought against TFP. The deranged sister imprisoned in a dick-shaped fortress, the drone-delivered ‘patience grenade’, the bounce from Speedy’s awning onto a boat in the middle of the ocean, ‘Sherlock Holmes the Pirate’, among many many other inexplicable aspects of TFP tick every. Single. Box.

Whatever your opinion of the final product, it clearly is not the product of lazy writing.

But what context does Theatre of the Absurd add to our reading of the show, other than the possibility that TFP was exactly as the creators intended?

Aesthetic or Philosophy?

The essence of an absurdist view of life is contained in the opening line of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when Estragon says ‘Nothing to be done’. This one line sums up the sense of hopelessness and futility that characterises Beckett’s unchanging and unchangeable world. However Chekhov is not Beckett. What he depicts is a world in which ‘no one is doing anything’. (x)

The label of ‘the Absurd’ is used in a couple different ways, and I want to first clarify what I mean when I talk about it here. The category of ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ was first applied by Esslin — a critic — and not born out of a cohesive group of self-identifying playwrights. There is a philosophy of Absurdism; Camus identified his own work and philosophy as Absurd, and Beckett and some others absolutely do follow in that philosophical tradition. Absurdist philosophy is a sort of meeting point between Existentialism and Nihilism: it’s futile to attempt to find meaning in life and the universe, but we attempt it anyway.

On the other hand, Esslin is more interested in grouping together anything that looks like a play about nonsense, regardless of how it was intended. This caused a few of the playwrights he grouped under this label to grumble that he hadn’t understood what their work was about at all. Many plays give the appearance of Absurdism — the Aesthetic of Absurdism, if you will — but are not, in fact, ‘plays about nothing’.

My point here is that we are by no means tied to the application of strictly Absurdist philosophy based on Talalay’s tweet, because even Esslin himself relied heavily on aesthetic to define the label he created. My goal is not to argue that TFP should be interpreted as a celebration of the inherent meaninglessness of life. (Thank goodness.)

‘Poetic Images’

So: if we aren’t talking about Absurdism the Philosophy, how do we define Absurdism the Aesthetic? Esslin breaks down the difference between conventional theatre and his idea of Theater of the Absurd:

Here we touch the essential point of difference between the conventional theatre and the Theatre of the Absurd. The former, based as it is on a known framework of accepted values and a rational view of life, always starts out by indicating a fixed objective towards which the action will be moving or by posing a definite problem to which it will supply an answer. Will Hamlet revenge the murder of his father? Will lago succeed in destroying Othello? Will Nora leave her husband? In the conventional theatre the action always proceeds towards a definable end. The spectators do not know whether that end will be reached and how it will be reached. Hence, they are in suspense, eager to find out what will happen. In the Theatre of the Absurd, on the other hand, the action does not proceed in the manner of a logical syllogism. It does not go from A to B but travels from an unknown premise X towards an unknowable conclusion Y. The spectators, not knowing what their author is driving at, cannot be in suspense as to how or whether an expected objective is going to be reached. They are not, therefore, so much in suspense as to what is going to happen next (although the most unexpected and unpredictable things do happen) as they are in suspense about what the next event to take place will add to their understanding of what is happening. The action supplies an increasing number of contradictory and bewildering clues on a number of different levels, but the final question is never wholly answered. Thus, instead of being in suspense as to what will happen next, the spectators are, in the Theatre of the Absurd, put into suspense as to what the play may mean. This suspense continues even after the curtain has come down. (x)

The most interesting piece of this breakdown is the difference in what creates the suspense in the work. It is a wholly different type of suspense. People have complained that S4 really does appear to be the end of the show, because it’s the only season that hasn’t ended in an outrageously dramatic cliffhanger. Alternatively, I would suggest that ‘suspense as to what the play may mean’ describes the experience of the majority of Sherlock fans since January.

It seems, really, that TFP achieved exactly the effect that it was aiming for.

So then: how does an Absurdist work create meaning? New episodes of Sherlock only appear once every few years; we all expect new content to add some kind of new understanding of the story.

We know that conventional drama is a series of actions and reactions of the characters that logically follow from one another. These choices give us that insight into the characters. Symbolism is used within the bounds of realism to simultaneously support and reinforce the surface-level events, i.e. the main action.

When symbolic meaning drives the narrative choices of the author to some extent, while still maintaining a veneer of realism, we have Chekhov. We have, I’ve argued, Sherlock S1–3.

We break into Absurdism as soon as that veneer of realism is abandoned. The driving force of symbolism takes precedence over the logic of the surface-level narrative. On the surface, nonsensical things are happening in service of the greater symbolic intent of the art. Esslin describes the result as ‘poetic images’:

[T]he plays of the Theatre of the Absurd are primarily intended to convey a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images; they are above all a poetical form. (x)

Narratives present a character making decisions, learning, changing. The intended takeaway from poetry is a mood, a feeling.

Contrast this with the description of Chekhov as the ‘poet-realist,’ and you begin to see two control knobs at the disposal of the author: one knob for the grit of the realism attempted, and another knob for the depth and poeticism of symbolic meaning.

Poetry or truth? Many would say they’re the same thing.

Weird, Gay, and Misunderstood

Now, I’m by no means an expert on the Theatre of the Absurd, but there was something that created enough of a pattern that even I noticed in my very cursory overview: there exists a substantial overlap between playwrights designated as ‘Absurdists’ and 20th-century gay playwrights writing on the topic of sexuality.

Albee’s play mentioned by Esslin, Zoo Story, is very blatantly about two gay men cruising Central Park in the late 1950s. The play takes place around the bench where they meet, where they frankly discuss their sexual pasts and the story of a monstrous dog that they alternately feed and poison stands as a metaphor for their complex relationship with their sexualities. It ends, as these plays so often do, with a tragic yet euphemistic ‘stabbing’ death.

Jean Genet, another originator of Theatre of the Absurd, made his sexuality ‘the center of his autobiographical fiction’ (x). You may also be familiar with his play Deathwatch, known affectionately in some circles as the Leonard Nimoy gay prison threesome movie. (x)

It’s striking just how specific the overlap is at points: Esslin allows that “Brecht’s earliest plays bear the marks of the Dadaist influence and can be regarded as early examples of the Theatre of the Absurd: In the Jungle of the Cities for instance presents the audience with a totally unmotivated struggle, a series of poetic images of man fighting a senseless battle with himself.” (x) Elsewhere, a critic notes that “three of Bertolt Brecht’s first four plays […] portray sexual relationships between men, especially In the Jungle of Cities (1923) and Edward II (1924).” (x)

Absurdist plays painted an image of man’s loneliness and inability to make contact at the same time that gay artists were depicting their struggles with their sexuality and society.

For all of Albee’s specificity in Zoo Story, Esslin’s interpretation is extremely generic, even suggesting that it may be an allegory for the crucifixion before hinting at any of its sexuality. Whatever his reason for remaining silent on the overt homosexuality presented in some of these plays, you can see how Absurdist themes of general isolation and futility of human connection could be read into works that are more specifically about the isolation and futility of human connection felt by gay men in the past century.

That Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat would give a nod to these gay innovators of modern theatre aligns with their assumed mission of writing an overtly gay Holmes and Watson adaptation, and follows their pattern of celebrating and subverting the history of gay subtext and symbolism of Victorian horror in both THoB and TAB. It’s a delightful and I’m sure intentional side-effect that in order to solve their show, you must become fluent in the works of 20th century gay writers, but it hasn’t yet explained why their methods are appropriate at this specific point in the story. For that, we must continue.

iii. The Limits of Realism

So far we’ve found further evidence of themes of implicit suicide through Chekhov, and a precedent for various modern manifestations of purely symbolic theatre in Theatre of the Absurd. What connects the two?

‘Desperately Unspoken’

In order to imbue his works with deeper meaning, Chekhov perfected the technique of using subtext and symbolism within the strict confines of realism. Borny, our Chekhov scholar, identifies the ‘disguised soliloquy’ and the ‘messenger element’ as the two primary vehicles for subtext; either someone has to gossip about a character’s inner life to someone else, or the character has to bring it up themselves.

The two options for the delivery of subtext: self-disclosure, or gossip.

How much do we learn from this scene about EVERYONE based on what John has decided to tell Sherlock and Mary about his history with Sholto?? Messenger elements within messenger elements.

However, because this method is inherently constrained by realism, it relies on a character who will believably talk about their inner self in view of the audience, or about whom other characters know enough to gossip.

Any closed-off, closely-guarded, emotionally-constipated characters come immediately to mind? Anybody whose head we’ve been desperate to get inside for a couple seasons now?


Sherlock comments on the serial suicides in an early draft of ASIP: “That’s not how I’d kill myself.” Set on the roof of Barts Hospital, he both hints at his own present mental state and foreshadows his apparent suicide in TRF. At the same time, the writers also suggest this idea that each suicide is unique, styled after the personality of the victim as their last mark upon the living world.

“That’s not how I’d kill myself.” (x)

Taking the apologetic, career-capstone-at-an-unfortunate-cost martyrdom tone that Doyle’s Holmes uses in his last letter to Watson and adapting it into a melodramatic, career-dismantling confessional phone call from the top of a building makes a statement in itself. BBC’s Sherlock is a drama queen.

Now consider how you would write a suicide for John that felt fresh and authentic to him. John internalizes his despair. It’s grossly out of character for him to stand on a building and give us one of Chekhov’s ‘disguised soliloquies’ from his own mouth on which to mount the subtext that tells us what’s at stake for him. Similarly, no one sees the extent of John’s inner turmoil clearly enough to comment on it. John Watson, the master of repression, is an enigma to those around him.

To communicate a deeply meaningful emotional turning point for John, for a self-inflicted ‘Garridebs’ to convey everything at stake for him in this climactic moment, the subtextual tools of Chekhov are insufficient.

To convey this essential depth, the writers have departed from realism and adopted the dramatic conventions of the Theatre of the Absurd.

‘The Living Riddle’

Conveniently, there are myriad ways to convey the deeper meaning of a work that predate subtext and psychological realism, drawn on by the Absurdist playwrights of the 20th century and etched into the evolutionary path theatre has carved throughout history.

Rather than embedding the deeper meaning within the realism of the play as subtext, there exists a long and varied tradition of inserting a separate scene that does not take place in-universe that gives some form of allegory, comment, summary, or foreshadowing of what is to come. The play-within-a-play goes as far back as Shakespeare, but, more topically, is used by Chekhov in The Seagull. His symbolist-play-within-a-realist-play is written by none other than Konstantin Treplyov, whose textual suicide in The Seagull is contrasted with Yepikhodov’s breaking string in The Cherry Orchard.

The key connection comes at the close of Esslin’s essay, where he describes the theatrical tradition in which the Theatre of the Absurd follows:

In this respect, the Theatre of the Absurd links up with an older tradition which has almost completely disappeared from Western culture: the tradition of allegory and the symbolical representation of abstract concepts personified by characters whose costumes and accoutrements subtly suggested whether they represented Time, Chastity, Winter, Fortune, the World, etc. This is the tradition which stretches from the Italian Trionfo of the Renaissance to the English Masque, the elaborate allegorical constructions of the Spanish Auto sacramental down to Goethe’s allegorical processions and masques written for the court of Weimar at the turn of the eighteenth century. Although the living riddles the characters represented in these entertainments were by no means difficult to solve, as everyone knew that a character with a scythe and an hourglass represented Time, and although the characters soon revealed their identity and explained their attributes, there was an element of intellectual challenge which stimulated the audience in the moments between the appearance of the riddle and its solution and which provided them with the pleasure of having solved a puzzle. (x)

What Esslin describes is an allegory, a story where the personification of an abstract value acts as the spiritual guide of the main character, who must revisit old choices to gain insight into choices imminent in their future. Think of the Guardian Angel of It’s A Wonderful Life; the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future of A Christmas Carol; Virgil of Dante’s Inferno. Not ‘real’ characters, but chaperones for self-reflection and exploration of multiple possible realities.

Through this lens, S4 of BBC Sherlock becomes, in proper Sherlockian tradition, a puzzle.

The form of the puzzle is first modeled in T6T: the codeword ‘ammo’, the sound of which tortures the prisoner for years, is revealed to be a mishearing of ‘amo’, the Latin word meaning ‘I love’.

The audience is left to put theory into practice in the cliffhanger ending of the next episode. The third mysterious Holmes sibling is revealed to be named Eurus, which is Greek for the East Wind. Applying the ‘slight mispronunciation of a classical language’ rule from T6T, we find that our spiritual guide through the allegory of S4 has been Eros, now Greek for ‘romantic love’.

Eros, the god perhaps better-known in Roman mythology as Cupid.

So, you dreamed up a magic woman who told you things you didn’t know?

Well, essentially: yes.

Within the narrative, that is — broadly speaking — Eurus’ function.

‘Love Conquers All’

With Eros as our guide, Benedict Cumberbatch’s sentimental comment at the 2016 SDCC panel sharpens into a thesis:

Sounds a bit soppy, this: love conquers all. (x)

The personification of Love, sneaking into the story, masquerading under different names, mistaken for ‘Faith’, or an ‘Exx’ — a casual fling — but smashing to the forefront at a moment of vulnerability, during a therapy session of all things, guns blazing literally.

John Watson, shot by Cupid.

Note the extent to which this has been foreshadowed:

The second episode of the first season is titled The Blind Banker. Not a play on any Sherlock Holmes story, the title is nevertheless a play on the title of a poem by Doyle called The Blind Archer. The eponymous Blind Archer is, of course, Cupid, shooting people indiscriminately with his bolts of love. Among the victims is a port-drinking veteran and a celibate young priest. John, a soldier whose drinking subtext is well-established, is the obvious target. (x)

As for the celibate young priest, we have the whole of ASIB discussing Sherlock’s sex life, with Irene Adler delivering the nickname ‘The Virgin’. In ASIB, Sherlock disguises himself as said vicar on a visit to Irene, which is interrupted by the CIA. A CIA agent, who for no particular reason is named Mr. Archer, is there ordered to shoot John Watson. (x)

“Mr. Archer, on the count of three shoot Dr. Watson.”

The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Piccadilly Circus, a statue of Anteros, the god of requited love has made an appearance in the opening credits of BBC Sherlock since S1.

So when Mycroft warns of the East Wind, i.e. Eurus, he is speaking of his brother’s propensity for sentiment, and how, in Mycroft’s view, that will be his downfall.

To counter Mycroft’s dim view of sentiment, we have none other than Lady Smallwood, insisting she hasn’t done any of the things Mycroft has accused her of.

LADY SMALLWOOD: I haven’t done any of the things you’re accusing me of. Not one. Not. One.

Her codename? Love.

In essence: in S4, the creators have produced an allegory of their own show. It does not exist on the same plane of poetic realism as S1–3. There is no such person as Eurus Holmes in that universe. Eurus exists only as a guide and a driving force in this allegory, buffeting the characters from crisis to crisis. Showing them the fallout from their choices.

Asking them what they will and won’t do for Love.