So, let’s play pretend for a second:
You have spent the past three years desperately mourning the loss of your best friend. The circumstances around his death were sudden and tragic; heroic, even. There was never a body recovered, so closure was always an iffy thing anyway, and what is closure, really? You’ve been doing SUCH a good job of dealing with his death that you’ve been obsessively following any and all even slightly interesting crimes reported in the paper and just recently found yourself hanging around outside a crime scene. Oh, and let’s not forget that during these three years, you’ve also lost your spouse, further eradicating what little support system you had even further.
You’ve probably found yourself bargaining with God once or twice in the intervening time – “Please don’t let him really be dead.” “I would do anything if he just isn’t dead.” “There’s no body, that means he isn’t really dead, right?” But it’s been three years, and that’s a lot of time to hold out hope in the face of unsurmountable evidence. Part of you has probably just managed to accept the truth and started to maybe, finally, consider moving on.
And then it happens: one night, you find yourself staring at the face of your old friend as he stands in the middle of your office. He looks a little thinner, a little paler, a little worse for wear than when you last saw him, but he’s just.right.there. He’s not even a hallucination. He’s real. Your prayers have been answered! He was never really dead to begin with, you see. It’s all been a complex ruse in order to draw out some enemies that would’ve made it impossible for him to live safely in London – and for anyone else to live safely around him. In that moment, when faced with the reality of the situation, do you:
- Rush over and hug your friend, just relieved to have him back;
- Faint, because the sight of him is so shocking it overwhelms you; or
- Punch him in his lying face and demand to know why the f**k he left you to suffer through the loss of him for THREE GODDAMNED YEARS without a word.
If you picked option 2, you’re canon John Watson. If you picked option 3, you’re Martin Freeman’s version, as well as being a logical, rational human being properly reacting to someone putting you through hell. I don’t know who option 1 is. A far more forgiving person than me, that’s for sure.
Yes, today we’re talking about “The Empty House,” and that means talking about the return of Sherlock Holmes and the absolutely insanely quick absolution Watson provides him for the whole Reichenbach deception. (Hey, that sounds like a really good title *files it away for later*) If “The Final Problem” was Doyle’s way of exorcising the Holmes Demon from his life, “Empty House” is the invitation to let Hell stroll right back in. Like most deals with the Devil, there was a monetary consideration behind Holmes’ resurrection; Sherlock Holmes always has been highly profitable, and Doyle found himself needing the financial boost his blasted creation brought. (The Hound of the Baskervilles was reportedly written because Doyle needed to put a bit more money into Undershaw, the home he was living in at the time.)
Watson, and the reader, learn that Holmes realized how much easier it would be for him to bring down the rest of Moriarty’s lieutenants if they thought him dead. Of course, he screwed up that plan almost as soon as he launched it – Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s most deadly compatriot, saw Holmes scale the falls and hide out in a little overhang and tried to flatten him with a few boulders. But that’s beside the point! Holmes still spent a few years hiding out in Tibet and roaming around while waiting for his chance to slip in and take Moran down, thus fully ending Moriarty’s scheming. When opportunity arises, he goes right to his good friend, his trusty biographer, his ever-patient partner, and Watson leaps right back into the game without a moment’s hesitation in order to catch Moran and save the day.
And that’s my problem with this story. Watson forgives Holmes far too easily relative to the trauma caused. I mean, I get it – there is instant, endless relief in the realization that this person is alive and (one of) the worst moment(s) of his life is/are over. But when that passes, I can’t imagine just swallowing the anger and betrayal that would follow, especially considering that at some point in those three years, Watson also lost his wife. That is a hell of a one-two punch to a man who frequently, over the course of the stories, points out the fragile state his experience in the war left him in. I know I spent a portion of a post two weeks ago disagreeing with the “Watson lost his mind and started hallucinating Holmes was still with him” theory, but that’s not because I think it impossible that the doctor had some very rough times. Grief, as I can attest, messes you up. Grief compounded by a fresh wave of mourning when you’re still working through the first one? Can knock the ground from beneath your feet. That Watson didn’t lose his mind is probably a testament to his strength of character (or a writer uninterested in exploring how broken his character really could/should be). But Holmes is never really made, in the canon, to face the very real damage he did to their friendship.
That bugs me.
I fully realize I’ve expressed that sentiment, or a similar one, two posts in a row now. It’s not my fault Holmes keeps finding himself on my shit list.
This is (partly) why I love the BBC Sherlock episode “The Empty Hearse.” Freeman’s Watson doesn’t let Sherlock off the hook. He Option 3’s him at least three times in the first 20 minutes of the episode. Deservedly! Sherlock is forced to accept that there are actual consequences to his actions, and one of those is the loss of trust and devotion from Watson. He has to work at regaining that. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Jude Law’s Watson reacts in the new Guy Ritchie-verse “Holmes”, whenever it is we finally get that. I will be highly disappointed if there isn’t at least one punch thrown. It’s not as if that relationship isn’t already fraught with random, deserved violence.
Just as an aside – I’m not a naturally violent person. I’ve never thrown a real punch myself, even if I am frequently heard saying that “so-and-so needs a punch in the nose.” I’m also often offering to kick someone for someone else, but I’ve never actually followed through. I can just see that certain actions are probably worthy of mildly violent response. Like faking your death and not telling the person closest to you in the world and leaving them to mourn you, horribly, for THREE FREAKING YEARS. That? Punch-worthy.
Do you know what else I always think about whenever I read “The Empty House”? What could Watson have done with himself if Holmes had really been dead? What kind of adventures could a Watson, packed full of Holmesian knowledge and left adrift by a pair of horrible losses, find for himself? Maybe I’ll give that a go this week, instead of dabbling in the Charlotte-verse…