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“For there is no friend like a sister…” —Christina RossettiIn the latest—and perhaps last—series of BBC’s Sherlock, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat deftly wade into the murky waters of Holmes non-canon by introducing Sherlock’s third sibling as the series’ Big Bad. The show has included an extended subtextual examination of family dynamics—Sherlock’s sibling rivalry with his older brother, Mycroft; John and Mary’s marriage and family; Sherlock and John’s chosen family; and Sherlock’s role as John and Mary’s “child.” With the revelation of Eurus, another, smarter Holmes[i], Sherlock further develops its ongoing interest in familial bonds, both blood family and chosen family, while providing Holmes with a much needed foil of equal, perhaps superior, abilities who threatens his emotionally detached perspective. His sister is not only Sherlock’s greatest adversary, but, by forcing him to confront his feelings by engaging his sympathy and empathy, also serves as the catalyst to his maturation.
One of the major limitations of adapting the Holmes stories is the lack of strong antagonists, ones who can match Holmes’s superior mental (and, when it’s convenient, physical) prowess. When Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his “Napoleon of crime,” Professor James Moriarty, the sole purpose was to find a way to end the series Conan Doyle had grown tired of writing.
Moriarty, though universally hailed as Holmes’s arch-nemesis, appears in only one short story, “The Final Problem” and in a late and very inferior novel, The Valley of Fear. But even within these original short stories, Moriarty’s place as Holmes’s equal is subtly drawn by characterizing him as a symbolic brother, a technique Conan Doyle used a number of times throughout the stories and identified by Michael Atkinson in the excellent The Secret Marriage of Sherlock Holmes and Other Eccentric Readings. In Moriarty and Holmes, we see traces of ancient brother battles, Cain and Abel, Gilgamesh.
Sherlock made excellent use of Moriarty (played with menacing camp by Andrew Scott), emphasizing his importance as Sherlock’s equal by alluding to his presence and showing his influence throughout Series One and Two, and then (sort of) bringing him back at the end of Series Three as a surprise postlude. But, like the canonical Holmes stories, once Moriarty exits the narratives, all other criminals seem somehow second rate by comparison.
In introducing Eurus, a Holmes sister, Gatiss and Moffat create an antagonist who pushes Holmes not only mentally but emotionally and further some of the interesting feminist groundwork laid in Victorian-era special, “The Abominable Bride.” She actualizes the archetypal relationship Conan Doyle often uses—she’s his actual sister and therefore his equal—but she has a unique way of challenging Sherlock’s very identity and ways of perceiving the world. Her attempts to battle Holmes require him to push himself further, engaging honestly with the strong emotional connections he has made despite his cold, logical perspective. As emotions are traditionally considered “female,” the revelation of a secret sister allows Gatiss and Moffat to reimagine the overly masculine source material in which Holmes is frequently dismissive of women and emotions to explore the power of feelings.
Eurus pushes Holmes with logical problems behind a backdrop of emotional manipulation. With each puzzle, Holmes must also directly confront his own powerful feelings and attachments; he must face an endangered child, choose whether to kill Mycroft (his blood brother) or John (his chosen brother), and (most gutwrenchingly) manipulate Molly Hooper into saying “I love you.”
One of the strengths of Sherlock has been its awkward relationship to the course material. While generally faithful to spirit of the law, though not the letter, Gatiss and Moffat have created an intelligent and engaging show that’s as much an exploration of human relationships as it is of mystery. They took minor characters like Mycroft (who only appears in two stories and is mentioned in two others) and Mary, to create a rich tapestry of textual and subtextual narratives.
In battling his sister, Sherlock solves a mystery of himself, the subconscious reasons he is the way he is. And, like we see after any significant battle, Sherlock bears the scars of his victory. He’s changed: less arrogant, more emotionally mature—and this makes him a better hero and a better man.
[i] There has long been speculation of the existence of another Holmes brother, sometimes named Sherrinford, a name Doyle once considered using for his detective before settling on Sherlock Gatiss and Moffat pay homage to this by naming the facility that houses Eurus “Sherrinford.”
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.