Nonlinear Storytelling in Sherlock Series 3

So one thing that’s really been weirding me out series 3 is the use of nonlinear storytelling, which I feel has been dialed way up from previous series. mid0nz has some gorgeous analysis of the bomb scene’s interruption by Sherlock’s confession, but other than that, I haven’t heard people talking a whole lot about the structure of the episodes so far. If I’ve missed it, please, please, point me that way!

What follows is probably way too involved, and it doesn’t really reach any conclusions, so sorry about that, but here I go anyway:

Most books we read and TV shows and movies we watch treat time in pretty much the same way, according to what Joan Silber calls “classic time”: “a brief natural span–a month, a season, a year–handled in scene-and-summary” (Time in the Art of Fiction 8) – this is the convention of traditional realist fiction, which takes for granted that most of us would agree that we experience time as a generally forward-moving, chronologically coherent force. It’s certainly what we’re familiar most with, although I have the sense that contemporary audiences are increasingly comfortable with unconventional treatments of time. We don’t even bat an eyelash at flash backs (which Silber calls “switchback time”), and shows like How I Met Your Mother are in fact predicated on a nonlinear structure. OK, I’m getting way too in-depth with this, but long story short, my point is that classic time is still more or less our default.

Classic time also seems to be the default for the first two series of Sherlock. This is not to say there aren’t disruptions to straightforward chronology in s1&2. Film and TV mysteries often utilize a bit of non-linear storytelling to dramatize the resolution of a case – rather than Miss Marple simply sitting everyone down and explaining what happened, we see it play out in front of us, jumping back in time to the moment the crime was committed. We see this in Sherlock, for instance, when Joe confesses to murdering Andrew West in TGG, or when Sherlock reveals he was really taking Irene’s pulse in ASIB. In the first two series of Sherlock, this happens fairly frequently – we quickly flash back to the moment in question, often focused on the crucial clues we may have missed the first time around. And of course, these aren’t the only times the show breaks a linear pattern in the first two series, either. We get flashbacks in ASIB (Sherlock saving Irene) and in TRF (Mycroft admitting he interrogated Moriarty), for instance, and I’m sure there are lots of other examples. So it’s not like nonlinear storytelling is terribly unusual in Sherlock, but, again, classic time is has pretty much been the show’s default. I don’t think the structure in its own right has ever been nearly so programmatically disordered as it seems to be in s3.

That the structural choices of s3 have departed from those in s1&2 is made jarringly evident in TEH. While the story unfolds more or less in a chronological fashion (this isn’t Memento, here), there are a lot of choices that take us out of classic time in the strictest sense and call attention to the structure of the episode itself. Right away, our sense of the chronological movement of the episode is disturbed – we begin thinking we’re picking up where we left off at the end of TRF, but the writers very loudly tell us this is “bollocks” (via Lestrade) and then jump two years forward in time. The recurrence of the various Reichenbach survival theories throughout the episode is another conceit that exists on the level of storytelling, not on the level of the characters – that is, it’s the writers manipulating the structure of the episode in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to do with that naturalistic assumption of classic time. Structurally, the Reichenbach theories seem to be operating almost as a way to mark each act – Anderson’s starts us off, Sharon Rooney’s Sheriarty theory marks the half-hour point almost to the minute, and Sherlock’s real strategy literally comes in the middle of the resolution of the episode. And what makes the insertion of the confession scene into the middle of the bomb countdown so bizarre is the way is disjoints time. Like, seriously, when is Sherlock telling Anderson all this? Is it taking place before John and Sherlock went down into the Tube station, or after? It’s completely out of any context in time. I love everything mid0nz has to say about how this moment allows Gatiss and Moffat, et al, to rewrite John Watson’s last words (if he were dying, he’d no longer say “Please god, let me live,” but instead, “Of course I forgive you”).  I also love her point that the confession he makes to Anderson is one that he’ll never make to John, and I agree that this is a very important choice in terms of his character. But even with all that said, I’m still not sure I understand why the writers made the choice to put Sherlock’s confession smack-dab in the middle of the bomb scene.

As confusing at this is to me, though, it pales in comparison to what happens in TSOT, because while TEH may have this one really pointed chronological rupture, TSOT is basically about as wibbly wobbly timey wimey as you can get. OK, that’s an overstatement, but it’s really freaking nonlinear.

I mean, Sherlock’s best man speech is constantly being intercut with flash backs. He can hardly get two words out before we’re jumping back to another case or an interlude of Mrs. Hudson laughing like she was torturing an owl or what have you. I’m not saying I didn’t love all of those moments, because I did, but when you include all the flash backs, Sherlock’s speech, which is actually probably only a few minutes long, winds up taking up a full half of the episode. But even before that, we’re jumping all over the shop in terms of the relationship to time, first in the quick summary of Lestrade’s 18-month pursuit with the Waters gang, and then after the wedding we leap back to Sherlock’s confrontation with Mary’s ex and his bonding with Archie over maggots. This isn’t just switchback time, this is – I don’t know what, super mega switchback time on steroids.

What I can’t work out for the life of me is–why? I mean, yes, all the switchbacking comes together in the end, when the penny finally drops and Sherlock realizes that the nurse used John’s middle name. We move forward fairly propulsively from there, but it’s a long lead-up to that point. We basically have an hour’s worth of preamble and setup and a half hour of denouement – which, actually, probably isn’t all that disproportionate in terms of classic rising action and all that, but because it’s been doled out in these tiny little disordered chunks, I’m left feeling like we didn’t actually get to see anything happen in front of us in this episode.

The other thing that niggles at me is the way scene and summary are operating here. In the course of his speech, Sherlock basically summarizes at least seven months that we only get to see tiny little slivers of. This applies both to the cases and to John and Mary’s engagement. I think we can all agree that some of the most heart-rending moments of TSOT are when Sherlock is attempting to cope with John’s impending marriage (the serviettes, interviewing/intimidating old flames, I mean, this stuff is comedy gold but it’s also so, so sad). And I just can’t help imagining what this series would have been like if we had another episode or two to see all those events unfold in realtime, rather than simply having them summarized to us in Sherlock’s speech.

The obvious result would be that all of those cases would be developed further – and not just on John’s blog (if one can call that development). And while some of them might not stand up to much greater scrutiny, I would certainly have enjoyed seeing the boys on the case more. The other result, I think, of giving those seven months more screen time would have been that we’d actually get to see the development of John and Mary’s relationship and we’d witness the slow building up of pressure within Sherlock as their wedding day comes closer and closer. We certainly get glimpses of it in TSOT, but I think there could have been the potential for a truly excruciating slow-burn to have been accomplished if the events of this episode had been approached chronologically over the course of, say, two episodes.

Of course, that would never happen for lots of reasons (productions constraints being perhaps foremost among them). And, again, I’m not saying I don’t really enjoy the episode as it’s organized now. But I also think it’s worth thinking about what consequences the structure has – not only on how we receive it, but also in terms of what it allows the writers to accomplish, and what a different choice could have made room for.

OK, that got way out of hand. A million points to you if you stuck it out to the end. And now I will ask: anyone else have any other thoughts about the structure and approach to time in these episodes?

Speculation meta about Sherlock S3 and drugs.

This is a little meta drabble about all the speculation about Sherlock being back on/at risk of taking drugs in light of season 3. buckle up.

I want to start out by pointing out something a lot of people haven’t really noticed. In the scene where Mrs. Hudson brings Sherlock his morning tea and talks about her bridesmaid, right after she leaves, Sherlock looks over at John’s chair. You could think he’s simply missing John, but there’s something else, in the background;

See it? No? How about when I show you this scene:

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