I hope it’s no spoiler to consider for a moment how the structure of BBC’s Sherlock has become more self-aware. To be sure, Doyle’s original mediated our view of Holmes through Watson’s frame. (“As readers, we are always aware of Watson,” Mark Gatiss, one of the show’s creators, said in a recent documentary). The new series, in one sense, simply increases the frame rate: stories collapse into other stories, or rather, they hurtle out of one another, like the creation of an erupting phoropter, before being unified to a single point of focus in the thrilling final moments, when the truth is seen.
I wonder if the dizzying ramification of the embedded narrative technique is another expert way that Gatiss and Steven Moffat have stayed true to the original text by finding analogues in today’s climate for the conditions of Doyle's Europe (as they have done with the technology Holmes and Watson employ).
After all, a few years after Doyle studied ophthalmology in Vienna, as he was crafting his stories of precise detection in southern England, a man back in Vienna was also hard at work creating a systematic way to interpret the apparent so that latent cause could be seen. In his seminal book on the structure of the mind, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud stresses the importance of “nodal points” (images and concepts emerging from the process of psychoanalysis that contain the greatest concentration of causal meaning). To describe the formation of these points, he summons Goethe’s Mephistopheles, who, in Faust, describes the "fabric of thought”:
The little shuttles to and fro Fly, and the threads unnoted flow; One throw links up a thousand threads.
Isn’t that just what happens at the end of the second episode of Sherlock’s third season? With a sudden flick of his mind’s wefting power, Sherlock links every narrative thread that, until then, was warping our perspective.
But Freudianism, along with the flying shuttle, is now largely obsolete. His methods, as Jeremy D. Safran wrote last year in Psychology Today, have come to seem "limited [in their] appreciation of the social and political factors that affect [our daily] lives.”That appreciation is, of course, one of the defining characteristics of our age, as we have become aware of myriad frames that condition our lives and perspectives: geography, race, gender, nationality—the list goes on. Macolm Gladwell even makes the case in Outliers that a significant percentage of professional hockey players in Canada can trace their success to being born in the first half of the year.
With its multiplication of embedded narratives, Sherlock takes as proven the claim literary critic Roberta Seelinger Trites makes in a recent article: nested narratives demonstrate that "life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and that it is finally impossible to know where one frame ends and another begins.”
And that is what makes Sherlock as thrilling—and as consoling—to us in 2014 as he was in 1900. Our awareness of determinant frames that exist in the world, and of the overlapping number that exist within each of us, continues to grow at a dizzying rate. Making sense of just how many narratives our story is composed of and embedded within—personally and as a society—can seem impossible, and thus make meaningful action, whether to change our own course or to prevent others from harm, seem beyond the reach of our crude abilities. That is what heroes are for.