Sherlock and Nighthawks

7:00 AM

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

(This post refers to the clip from 22:57, where the video should start, to 27:13).

BBC's Sherlock is only one of countless adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th-century mystery stories.  But the British channel remodels Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson's adventures and situates them in present-day London, fundamentally changing each mystery with the advent of cell phones, fast transport, and the internet. Each episode echoes one of Doyle's works -- "A Study in Scarlet" becomes "A Study in Pink," "The Sign of Four" turns into "The Sign of Three," and so on.  But despite the evolved stories, the aspect of the show that has been most altered is the characters.  Sherlock Holmes' most well-known quality, in both the books and the television series, is his power of deduction, by which he can surmise most peoples' life stories at a glance. He becomes a self-proclaimed "consulting detective," solving crimes with New Scotland Yard with the help of new colleague Dr. John Watson. He lives for intellectual stimulation by solving crimes and suffers from an otherwise constant state of manic-depressive boredom, conducting science experiments and shooting holes in the walls of his ill-kept flat.

The central figure of "Nighthawks" sits alone at the bar, evidently isolated but also trapped in the exit-less building, staring at either the social interaction across the room or maybe his drink. A similarly dressed man with his white mug in the same position as the central figure's sits next to the woman in red, so the figure might even envision himself by her side, a surrogate of himself caught up in the alien banter. The man with the turned back, in any case, does not seem quite content in his solitude.

The clip above comes from the newest season and shows Sherlock's slow evolution into a sympathetic character. At the beginning of the scene, John has just asked a dumbstruck Sherlock to be his best man, and the video transitions to Sherlock's best man speech at John's wedding. While his written words are eloquent, he cannot quite seem to understand his audience's reactions and is uncomprehending when they get teary and need him to pause. He, ironically, has acute powers of perception but cannot comprehend others' emotions.  Sherlock is Hopper's man with the turned back, observing from afar but never quite in touch with others.  It is no wonder that he leaves the wedding early and alone. Other characters speculate on Holmes' mental condition and seeming inability to empathize, labeling him a psychopath (to which he counters, "high-functioning sociopath"). Sherlock wears his self-diagnosed mental illnesses like a shield against emotion and acknowledging his loneliness.

The figure in the painting could also be John Watson, a recently returned and psychologically average Afghanistan veteran who becomes Sherlock's flatmate. Sherlock recruits him on his adventures for his skills as an army doctor, and Watson eagerly follows along. He allegedly seeks a normal life and relationship away from government and criminal intrigue despite his continual involvement in it. Sherlock asserts that John has an addiction to a dangerous lifestyle, as many of the people around him that he has befriended turn out to be psychopaths with shady histories (but no spoilers). The dismayed Watson refuses to accept this part of himself but also will not turn away from the people he has welcomed into his life.

The innovation of BBC's adaptation comes from the binary character study and the evolution from two lonely people, as in "Nighthawks," into a tentative and unique friendship.

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