Sherlock Sunday: “A Study in Pink” by Steven Moffat: Beginnings

00015-Sherlock Since we’re starting our Sherlock Binge Watch with “A Study in Pink,” the first episode of the Sherlock series, let’s talk about beginnings.

The beginning of your story is a promise you make to the reader. That means everything in that first scene, especially everything on the first page, sets up all of the rest of the story. I had a creative writing professor who said that the first line eliminates 90% of the possibilities in your story. I don’t know about percentages, but I know that readers (and viewers) are inveterate world builders, story collaborators, who will seize on the first clues they encounter, deduce where the story is going, and set those deductions in stone, treating any diversions from those assumptions as betrayals.

That means establishing who the protagonist is, why the reader/viewer should sympathize with him, where he’s standing and when he’s standing there (setting), and how the story is going to present itself (mood) has to happen in the beginning or your reader will take your story away from you or, much worse, reject it entirely. If you’re writing for film, you have a little more time to hold your audience; people tend to settle in when they’re in front of a screen, and they’ll keep watching long after they’d have thrown a book against the wall. But the basic idea is the same: You’re welcoming your reader/viewer into a particular and specific world, asking her to identify with your protagonist (vulnerability is a big help here), hoping to engage her in the trouble/conflict that protagonist is struggling with. Forget about writing hooks; that’s a cheap trick. Hit the ground running by writing story from the first line, and if you start in the right place, your story will be so interesting that the first line will be a hook anyway.

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Which brings us to “A Study in Pink.” Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss had to clear a big hurdle from the beginning: They were working with the most famous and possibly most beloved character in fiction, a character that has been interpreted and reinterpreted dozens of times. That meant that before they filmed the first line of their series, people already had some expectations set in stone: Sherlock Holmes would be a great detective, a genius in the art and science of deduction. He would partner with a doctor named Watson. He would live at 221B Baker Street with his landlady, Mrs. Hudson. And he would be at odds with/work with a detective named Lestrade. Then they upped those set-in-stone expectations with the title of the first episode. Calling the pilot “A Study in Pink” meant that every Holmes fan knew they were paying homage to the first story of the original Sherlock, “A Study in Scarlet,” which meant there had better be a dead body in an empty house with the word “Rache” scratched somewhere in blood.

On the other hand, Moffat and Gatiss had also given themselves a big advantage in their choice of homage: everybody loves Sherlock Holmes. All they really had to do was Not Screw It Up. That they are succeeding so brilliantly is due in no small part to their great beginning.

Moffat opens the episode with a series of vignettes. First, there’s a hazy nightmare of guns firing, men at war, while a man (Martin Freeman, the world’s favorite Everyman) tosses and turns in his bed. Then he’s sitting on a bed in a sterile, yellowed room, staring into space. Then he’s walking to his desk with the use of a cane; he opens the drawer and there’s a glimpse of a gun as he pulls out a laptop and turns it on, loading a page identified as John Watson’s blog. And then he’s in his therapist’s office, hearing her say he has trust issues, that it’s important that he write down the things that are happening to him, which prompts the last line of the Watson vignettes: “Nothing ever happens to me.”

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That’s the first three and a half minutes of the ninety-minute story. Those vignettes establish John Watson as our stake in the story; not just our main point of view in the story, but our emotional connection. You can argue that he’s an observer narrator, that Sherlock Holmes must be the protagonist, but I think this is The Great Gatsby approach to story protagonist: the protagonist really is Watson because he’s the one who changes the most. Nick Carroway may spend his novel talking about Gatsby, but Gatsby never changes; his main service to the story is serving as the impetus for Nick’s evolution into a wiser man. In the same way, John’s going to change into a happier if more exasperated man by the end of this story because of his association with Sherlock Holmes, a man who doesn’t change at all (at least not in this episode). I would argue that another thirty seconds of John staring hopelessly into space would have been a deal-breaker, and that the understated conflict with his therapist is probably the only thing that saves it at the two minute mark, but the choice of opening with John is a good one because it establishes his trouble, which means it establishes his vulnerability, which means it establishes our vulnerability in the story. We’re not going to worry about Sherlock, but John is like us, our placeholder, and he’s in a bad place, and we sympathize. Another good reason to start with John instead of Sherlock: That’s what Arthur Conan Doyle did in “A Study in Scarlet.”

Then there are the credits, which any filmgoer sits through, so they’re pretty much not an aspect of beginning a story. However, Moffat follows up the credits with another series of vignettes, this time of three suicides. They’re beautifully acted and beautifully filmed, and there are three of them so they fit the classic storytelling rule of three-that-make-a-whole, but now we’re seven and a half minutes into the story and all we’ve had are vignettes. Something better happen pretty soon, and by “something,” most viewers would mean “Sherlock Holmes.”

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Moffat does something clever here: he gives the viewer Sherlock Holmes without putting him on stage yet. At a press conference, Inspector Lestrade is being hammered by reporters who want him to say that there’s a serial killer in London while he maintains all the deaths were suicides. What could be just info dump–Lestrade explaining the circumstances of the deaths and the police response–is turned into a conflict scene when his explanations are interrupted three times (never underestimate the power of three in storytelling) with one-word texts to every cellphone in the room: “Wrong.” Moffat does his viewers the courtesy of assuming they’re smart enough to know that’s Sherlock, and then ends with a private text to the harried Lestrade: “You know where to find me. SH.”

Then it’s back to John since we’ve been away from him for over six minutes, a lifetime on film. Now he’s sitting again, this time talking to an old friend from med school days. I’m assuming this scene is there for two reasons: it’s the bridge to get Watson and Sherlock together, and it’s a callback to “A Study in Scarlet,” the first direct parallel so far. His friend invites him back to the med school to meet somebody, and everybody knows that’s going to be Sherlock. The expectation established with “Nothing ever happens to me” is now even greater.

But there’s another delay: Sherlock is in the morgue, talking to Molly, the pathologist, a recurring character who has a crush on him. It’s a short scene that establishes Sherlock’s appalling coldness, not only in his treatment of Molly but also in his treatment of a corpse, and it works because we don’t have to attach to him; we have John already established for that. Another benefit to this short scene: this is the guy our vulnerable placeholder is going to spend the rest of the movie with. What’s going to happen when our wounded warrior meets the genius jerk?

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And then FINALLY, Watson meets Holmes, in a direct parallel to a scene in “A Study in Scarlet,” updated but not violated, ending with Holmes’ last words to Watson, an invitation to meet him the following evening at the legendary 222B Baker Street. The promise has been made, the important information has been given, expectations founded in the original Doyle stories have been recast into Moffat-Gatiss expectations, and the game is afoot. Or as the New Sherlock says, “The game is on.”

So in the first fourteen minutes of the ninety minute story, Moffat has
• Introduced John Watson as a vulnerable character
• Shown a serial-deaths montage to establish a killer on the loose
• Introduced Lestrade and given more information about the deaths in the press conference and foreshadowed Sherlock’s entrance
• Shown John resisting change/optimism in the encounter with an old friend
• Introduced Sherlock Holmes being a jerk to Molly
• Shown Sherlock meeting John, beginning John’s character arc from its starting point of “Nothing ever happens to me.”

That means that in those fourteen minutes, Moffat has established:
Protagonist/POV character and his trouble/vulnerability
• Conflict (somebody’s murdering people)
• Subplot (Sherlock vs Lestrade/police/ordinary minds)
• Subplot (Sherlock vs Molly; unrequited crush)
• Main plot (Watson vs Sherlock: “Nothing ever happens to me.”)

Yeah, I know, it still seems as though Sherlock must be the protagonist. He’s Sherlock Holmes. And if you look at the series as a whole, as the episodes as chapters in a novel, I might go along with that, even with Watson introduced first. But looking at just the story of “A Study in Pink,” if Sherlock is the protagonist, then Watson’s “Nothing ever happens to me” will be overwhelmed by Sherlock vs The Killer; we’ll forget John’s vulnerability and become more interested in how Sherlock puzzles out the crime. But if Watson is the protagonist, then we’ll care more about what’s happening to him than about whether the killer is caught.

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The best way to judge if the promise of the beginning has been kept: What happens at the climax? Who defeats the killer and ends the conflict? if it’s Sherlock, the opening is a lie. If it’s Watson, the opening is a promise kept, a demonstration that his life where nothing ever happened has irrevocably changed and made him a new man. And in fact, Watson does call the shot at the climax; the passive, wounded recluse becomes the hero, saving his friend with one highly skilled action.

This crucial link between beginning and ending is the reason that you really can’t know where to start your story until you know where it finishes: the beginning is just the set-up, the invitation to the ending. And it’s an invitation that Moffat offers beautifully in “A Study in Pink.”

SECOND THOUGHTS:
Watching this again, I was amazed all over again at the sheer beauty of this story. Not just the way it’s filmed, which is stunning, but the elegance of the character development, especially the way Watson is developed as a quietly complex person next to the brilliant simplicity of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is a puzzle solver in this episode, gleeful about being the smartest person in the room, driven to get the right answer and surpass everyone else. That’s a simple character. But John Watson with his psychomatic injuries and longing for action, his native conservatism at war with his lust for adventure, even his belief in law and structure which he shatters at the end to serve a higher law, saving his friend, John is a complex, layered character revealed by his interactions with others, not just Sherlock but with Mycroft (a brilliant red herring scene), with Mycroft’s female assistant faux-Anthea, with Gregson and Mrs. Hudson and Sally, every character interaction tells us more about a character who’s so quiet, he’s damn near mute. The fact that Moffat cast extraordinary actors for these roles makes a difference, but so does the spare writing and beautiful film design.

69 thoughts on “Sherlock Sunday: “A Study in Pink” by Steven Moffat: Beginnings

  1. Did you go back and read the novel after we first/last talked about it when we first saw this series? Because I remember you mentioning the murderous Mormons and being glad it was left out.
    This retelling is more than just “modern-day Sherlocke” because it follows the beats of the first. The changes from one to another play with viewers who know the books: pocket-watch into cellphone, Harry into Harriet, Rache-as-revenge into Rache-as-Rachel. All these things give me a smug feeling of knowingness but the pace and conflict still make it watchable. I care enough about the characters to want to know what is going to happen next.

    The writers didn’t write the parts that people skip.

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        1. I only watched The Hound of Baskervilles once, so I can’t remember. The whole episode was so appalling, I never went back. That would be the only one, I think.

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          1. Even Doyle wanted to posit it as part of a mercy killing:

            “Precisely so,” answered Holmes. Now would you mind going down and fetching that poor little devil of a terrier which has been bad so long, and which the landlady wanted you to put out of its pain yesterday?”

            I went downstairs and carried the dog upstairs in my arms. Its labored breathing and glazing eye showed that it was not far from its end. Indeed, its snow-white muzzle proclaimed that it had already exceeded the usual term of canine existence. I placed it upon a cushion on the rug.

            “I will now cut one of these pills in two,” said Holmes, and drawing his penknife he suited the action to the word.

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  2. I love this analysis – and I follow your argument regarding the Watson:Nick parallel. That was a real revelation to me at CherryCon, and it really crystalized the concept of the protagonist for me.
    I think I am probably not the only writer who has struggled, thinking that I must stick to a beginning, and had a hard time getting to the ending, rather than letting the story develop and remembering the beginning can be fixed.

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  3. Watson is definitely the protagonist here. Somehow managed to dodge Gatsby in high school, so I think of it more in terms of “Rose.” John is our connection in the beginning the same way Rose is at the beginning of Who, and it’s the right choice in both cases. Because it’s TV, you can focus more on Sherlock later on, but any character arc for him is going to take a lot longer than one episode, and he isn’t vulnerable the way John is.

    Seeing John go from “Nothing ever happens” to serial-killer-stopping action hero is a lot of fun. But I love the end of this episode not just because it’s a great climax for the mystery and for John’s arc, but also because it so perfectly lays the foundation for their friendship. It shows how well they complement each other, how well they work together, and hints at what they will be for each other (as partners and as friends). John is pretty clearly the only person Sherlock has any kind of bond with, and someone who can ground him and keep him from making self-destructive choices, like taking pills given to him by a serial killer.

    I need to watch the original 60 min. version of this to see how it compares. Were the vignettes of the victims in that version? Never been sure how I feel about those scenes, not because they delay things, but because I feel like it gives the audience more information than the characters have. I could tell just from the vignettes the killer was a cab driver the first time I saw it, and it seems to take Sherlock a little too long to get there.

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    1. I was going to apply most of this change to the fact that Watson has a 1rst person POV in the books (or at least A Study in Scarlet — it’s been too long since I’ve read the stories), but he’s a 3rd person POV in the TV show. We just SEE him better, or at least I do. (-: What an insight that would have been as a teenager to see him as a slightly older, PSTD -ridden vet. But I didn’t catch that at all as a teen, when I last read the books.

      But it sounds like the movie makers also missed that connection.

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    2. “Seeing John go from “Nothing ever happens” to serial-killer-stopping action hero is a lot of fun”

      That for me was the biggest draw for this series. In most versions, Watson is just there for Sherlock to be superior to. Yes, the friendship is there; but it’s hard to understand why. But what they did here was establish Watson as a valid character in his own right. He thinks what Sherlock does is amazing, he’s impressed; but he is never subordinate. And Sherlock needs somebody like that. He needs somebody who is strong enough to prick Sherlock’s balloon from time to time, comfortably enough to allow Holmes to be Holmes. And they, and Freeman, did this perfectly. Then they put the cherry on the whipped cream by having Watson save the day, firmly establishing him as being an equal. And how!

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      1. This episode does establish him as an equal; it’s one the things I think the show does really well, making Watson essential to solving the case. He’s a partner, not a sidekick. That’s great writing in terms of Watson’s character, and it helps cement the relationship between him and Sherlock. Just watched “Sign of Three,” and you get to hear Sherlock acknowledge that. Can’t wait until we get to that one on Argh.

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  4. I think that not copping to the cab driver bit is the major weakness here, but I forgive that for all the character stuff. There’s so much here to love, like Sherlock’s realization at the end that he’s describing John: “I’m in shock. Look, I’ve got a blanket.” Lovely.

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  5. I’m just popping in to thank you for this new series. I skipped all the Whovian analyses because I haven’t watched DR. WHO since the days of Tom Baker. But I love SHERLOCK and your study will only increase my pleasure. Guess I’d better watch them all again before the new season starts next week.

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  6. So glad you’re doing this. I had a passing familiarity with the Sherlock stories, but no deep love of them, but I loved “Study in Pink” anyway. Just a great, clever story. My husband, on the other hand, knows the Sherlock stories back to front and he was in awe of this episode. His admiration prompted me to go back and re-read the stories and I have to say – Moffat and Gatiss did a magnificent job of staying true to the essential plot of “A Study in Scarlet.” I especially liked the updating of the pocket watch to an iPhone (the scene in which Sherlock deduces that John is on the outs with a sibling who has a drinking problem).

    I also really enjoy this fresh take on Watson – not a fat, blustery old dimwit, but a youngish military veteran with PTSD and a longing for some new adrenaline rush.

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    1. That version of Watson is from the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies. In the books he’s a competent, reliable retired military doctor. I loved the movies, but they were wrong about Watson.

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    2. Exactly what Maine Betty said.

      The BBC did a huge set of Holmes radio plays (very good, and readily available via iTunes or Amazon these days) which were very well done–and also much closer to the stories. As were the many Jeremy Brett TV episodes of Holmes filmed in the 1990s, also British. In both of those version, Watson is as Doyle wrote him, a dignified, intelligent man and competent doctor. (But I also have a great fondness for the Nigel Bruce version.)

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      1. BBC does an excellent job with their dramas. You may not like them all, but they are magnificently executed. I never liked Dr. Who. I grew up with the early days of it and was probably too young, but nurtured on the early silly wheely things called Daleks, I didn’t give the more sophisticated modern take on this Dr. Who I fell between the two evolutions.

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    3. ” but a youngish military veteran with PTSD and a longing for some new adrenaline rush.”

      Yes, I thought the essence of this Watson was captured when Mycroft says to him, “You’re not haunted by the war. You miss it.”

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      1. There’s a lovely push-pull to Watson’s character in this. He thinks he wants a normal, quiet life, and I think he’s a little ashamed of how much he enjoyed the excitement of war, not of people dying but of the potential of danger for himself. I love the way Mycroft nails that (and I love Mark Gatiss as Mycroft), but my favorite part of John’s epiphany is the moment at the door when the restauranteur brings back John’s cane after he’s run all over London with Sherlock.

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        1. Yes–and I’d say that’s a key difference between this 21st century Watson and Doyle’s Watson–who really DID want a normal, settled life. He didn’t want to eliminate his interesting or exciting experiences with Holmes, but he got married (twice) and in at least one of the stories (more than that, IIRC) he tells Holmes, who’s so uninterested in conventional domestic life that he’s cranky about it, that unlike Holmes, he (Watson), needs a certain amount of settled normalcy in his life. But, of course, Doyle’s Watson reflects a very different era (as well as sometimes reflecting Doyle’s regular attempts to retire the duo and stop writing Sherlock stories).

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    4. It’s a fine line to walk to satisfy people who love the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and the people who have never read them and just want a story they can understand. (The Arrow writers are threading the same path.) I have to admit that one of the many reasons I love this series is that I know the old stories and it’s so much fun to see the shout-outs. I really loved it when Anderson said that “rache” was German for revenge, and Sherlock pretty much told him he as an idiot, it was obviously the name “Rachel,” inverting one of the least plausible clues in the original story.

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      1. For someone who knows the stories well (I know them pretty well, though certainly not with the encylopedic dedication of a Sherlockian or Baker Street Irregular), enjoying new/various/alternate interpretations depends on whether you can enjoy them as works that use Doyle’s Holmes as a touchstone (I can), or whether you ardently want to see Doyle’s stories strictly adhered to (which probably spoils the fun of everything written about Holmes since Sir Arthur put down his pen).

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  7. Just watched episode 2 of the third series with my mum, who keeps complaining that Sherlock is nothing like he was in her day – but she’s not read the stories, just seen film adaptations. I’ve read most of the stories while copy-editing them for Penguin editions, and like Lynn I do think that the TV series updates many of them brilliantly. I thought that first episode was such fun (and I couldn’t read any of the text messages on my old 14 inch TV). I also love the way London is almost another character in the stories, which is again true to the originals I think.

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  8. My recollection is that you dislike prologues–a dislike I don’t share. I think sometimes a prologue works and/or sometimes it’s needed.

    So I happened to think of you last night, Jenny, because I read a prologue that I loved! I was organizing the gazillion Kindle books I’ve downloaded since buying my beloved iPad Mini about 6 months ago, and I found an urban fantasy by an author whose name I didn’t recognize (Zander Marks) from a publisher I don’t know, called DEATH AIN’T BUT A WORD, and I wondered why on earth I’d bought it, maybe it was a freebie, I’d take just a quick look before I deleted it (as I was doing with some impulse acquisitions I’m never going to get around to reading). And after reading the prologue, instead of deleting it, I abandoned my task to start reading the book (which is so far living up to the promise of the prologue). And since I loathe hooks, gimmicks, etc., I think it was just the good start of a good story.

    A hooker climbs out of a city ditch and speaks to a boy. We realize after a moment that she’s dead, and the two of them are looking at her corpse–which they agree will be found in the morning. Then the boy reveals that his own body has never been found. Spare writing, matter-of-fact dialogue, whole prologue maybe 300 words long. And I turned the page and kept reading, because after the prologue, I wanted to know who they were, how they’d died, what would happen to these entities, who would find the bodies, what would happen to the finder, would the killer(s) be pursued, etc.

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    1. I’m not sure that’s a prologue. It happens in the now of the story, right? That is, it doesn’t happen before the story starts? Are the ghosts characters in the story?
      I know, go download the preview and look for myself.

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      1. I also would not call that a prologue. I’d label it extended book jacket blurb.A hook. That isn’t by necessity a bad thing to have either. The most important part of a book when push comes to shove is the marketing.

        You need the talent to get through to the end.. but the hook does what it’s supposed to do. Hawl you in.

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    2. Well, I’m a simple person. If the author has written PROLOGUE at the head of the scene, it’s a prologue in my world. Regardless of whether or not I like the book, I don’t second-guess or redefine the author’s use of that heading.

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  9. Your comments about Watson being the audience’s emotional “in” to this series made me realize what was wrong with House. Wilson was likeable, but he was such a weak player compared to House that we couldn’t connect with him. And no one could connect with House. I only started watching it in the later seasons–now I want to go back and see how it all started. It was on for a very long time, so they must have done something right.

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    1. I think in House, his minion doctors generally were our “ins.” They are vulnerable because they’re under the control and direction of this mercurial mad genius — he’s got the hospital’s protection, but the residents are disposable.

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  10. You know I reached a point where your piece brings to mind BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. The main character is not the one who changes. The sub character, the story teller is the one who changes as a result of his observations. It is something that isn’t obvious until you point it out. An interesting twist. That Gatsby approach. The message is almost subliminal.

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  11. I loved this episode by far the most of all six Sherlock episodes I’ve seen, and I think it was because it had so much depth in its examination of the Sherlock/Watson relationship. I’m one of those viewers who gets tired of the endless ratcheting up of the suspense and the danger and the violence, and I’m not really recompensed by the showoff announcements of all the deductions, except in that it shows some of Sherlock’s inner attention, and gives you a sense of the character of those who are reacting to him.

    What I like best are the relationship bits, and in that it seems to be a wonderful mix of writing, acting, and casting. I’d never seen Martin Freeman in anything where he was actually playing a complicated adult, and I’ve been very impressed with his skill and subtlety at doing that.

    The only episode that has come close to this for me is the sixth episode — the cliffhanger of the second season, which had many of the same qualities.

    Oh, and the text & image fragments/thought balloons are a wonderful addition to the bag of cinematic tricks. Really loved the flavor they gave so many scenes.

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  12. Watching Sherlock’s character is like watching a smartaleck third-grader, in that you have no idea what outrageous thing he’ll say next. He’s great, but I adore John. I might not even still be watching if it weren’t for how well-drawn (and well-played) his character is. Seeing him dash off out of the restaurant without his cane made me cheer out loud. This was the second episode I watched, after seeing the post Jenny wrote years ago about Belgravia and being intrigued enough to hunt for it. (Can I just say “thanks” for that? It sounds so inadequate in retrospect.) I really loved seeing how awkwardly their relationship began after seeing how great they were together in Belgravia. Martin Freeman deserved the awards he won for this series, and the only other thing I’d seen him in before this was as half the naked couple in Love Actually.

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    1. He’s one of the jerk superior officers in Hot Fuzz. He’s just in a couple of scenes, but he’s brilliant. I think he’s in all the Cornetto Trilogy movies. And The Hobbit stuff. I’ve never seen him be anything but great in whatever he’s in. Plus he has two dachshund rescues. My kind of guy.

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      1. He was Tim in the original UK version of The Office (named Jim in the US version), too. Very much the relatable everyman.

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      2. When you get a chance, if you’re so inclined, I highly recommend checking out Wild Target, a quirky little Brit comedy, in which Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman are rival assassins.

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        1. I tried it. I bought it and tried it, I really did, and I LOVE those actors, Bill Nighy is always great, but I just couldn’t get into it. I think it’s because I wanted to strangle Emily Blunt. I kept hoping Bill Nighy would.

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  13. You know, I love, love, love the deduction parts — always did, even as a teenager reading the original. But, they really are just finely plaited strings of bullshit. I realized as I fumbled around, trying to near-sightedly plug my charger into my phone while my spouse was sleeping in the dark bedroom. (Not alcoholic, nor any of the other things Sherlock deduced from the scratched-up charger port.)

    Still, as long as I don’t think too hard, I think Sherlock’s a brilliant detective, and I love him having this “real” super-power. (I wasn’t as impressed by Elementary’s Sherlock in the first several episodes — I absolutely hate it when I see something coming before Sherlock does. It doesn’t make me feel smart; it makes me feel betrayed.) What a very hard thing to have to balance! To create a detective smarter than most viewers, but not stupidly smart.

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  14. Oh, question. So, just what is Sherlock doing in the story? Is there a name for the type of role he (or the Great Gatsby) plays? Is he the antagonist in the main plot? And if he’s the antagonist, then what’s the bad guy? The Trouble?

    No Sherlock, no story. No cabbie, no story. No Watson, there’s still a story, but it’s not nearly as nice . . . . I’m going to be chasing these thoughts all night long . . . .

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    1. He’s the antagonist, the character who shapes the story by dragging John-who-thinks-he’s-injured into a run across the city. John thinks he wants a quiet life, mired in depression, and Sherlock blasts him out of it because he’s selfish and needs John to help him. The fact that he’s selfish makes it all possible; John wouldn’t accept sympathy but the combination of Sherlock’s confident demands and his own sublimated need for adventure work together to defeat his goal so that Sherlock wins.

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      1. That’s a brilliant insight. If Sherlock had been kind or pitying, the relationship with Watson would never have worked. It works because he’s selfish. Why didn’t I see that?

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  15. Netflix failed me with Sherlock, but I just rewatched “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” which is the first episode of Buffy. Every line of dialog, every beat, every scene introduces a key element of things to come. I couldn’t remember the first scene–who was in it. Answer: Darla! Lapidary.

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    1. That first scene sets up the entire series: the one who’ll kick your ass is the little blonde, payback for every teen female victim in every horror film.

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  16. Using the criteria vulnerable protagonist, strong antagonist who shapes the story, and as the litmus test, what happens at the climax?, I’d say that A Study in Pink is Watson v Holmes, but the episode also does a lot of work to set the stage for the series battle, which is Holmes v Moriarty.
    The cabbie is paid to become a serial killer by Moriarty in order to entrap Holmes, and the whole final segment with the cabbie establishes Holmes as vulnerable: come on, play the game/can you beat me?/that’s what you’re really addicted to/are you clever enough to bet your life/you’re not bored now, are you? Moriarty’s already driving the action; we’ve learned he’s powerful and scary, he’s obsessed with Sherlock, and his name ends the episode, setting up Sherlock v Moriarty, initially by proxy and finally mano a mano.

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    1. I’d argue that’s a subplot that feeds into the Watson vs Holmes main plot. It’s the action plot that propels the psychological war between Watson and Holmes. It’s the reason Holmes has to involve Watson, and it’s the reason he becomes emotionally attached to Watson (he sacrifices the chance to be clever at the end when he refuses to identify John as the killer).
      When you say “series,” you mean “series one”? Because that conflict isn’t resolved at the end of the Great Game, there’s that stupid cliffhanger, so it would have to be series one and two. It’s why I’m thinking it might be best to look at these as individual episodes. It’s Holmes vs. Moriary in The Great Game, but it’s Holmes vs. Adler in Scandal in Belgravia. The fact that Moriarty is still behind the scenes there is irrelevant to that story; Irene is the one who beats him and then is herself beater; Moriarty is just watching the show, probably with popcorn.

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      1. I agree that Watson is the protagonist of this episode. Love that Sherlock drags him back to life and love that he saves Sherlock at the end. I think it’s the perfect beginning because it engages us emotionally, makes us care, and it also establishes Watson as a person of importance, not just the sidekick, even though he is the sidekick in every other episode (I think).

        I was thinking of Series 1 and Series 2 together, with each episode having its own protagonist and antagonist (can’t wait for Holmes v Adler) but the whole being Holmes v Moriarty action plot with Watson v Holmes as a strong emotional sub-plot. Maybe the two are almost equal. Maybe we could revisit it when we get to the end of Series 2?

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        1. Also (in case I forget), I’d love to re-visit A Study In Pink when we get to The Empty Hearse? Empty Hearse is a new beginning and when we get there I’d be very interested to compare the two.

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        2. It’s an interesting question: What is the story? That is, do we look at them episode by episode, season by season, or a series as a whole.
          I never really got the feeling that the first season was a three-part story, the way Buffy seasons were. This may be in part to their dumb decision to end on a cliffhanger (HATE THOSE, SO DUMB), but while there’s a Moriary thread running through everything, it’s not really important until The Great Game. So I have a harder time seeing that. But I think, yes, looking at the three years of episodes as a whole at the end is a great idea. Remind me, will you? Because I’ll forget.

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          1. I was trying to tiptoe around the fact that Empty Hearse has already shown here, but it meant I saw it just before I re-watched A Study in Pink. Worth revisiting the two side-by-side. End of sort-of-spoiler.
            I had in mind Series 1 and 2 as a whole, with the Great Game cliff-hanger as midpoint and the Reichenbach Fall at the end. Series 3 feels like a new beginning, but it will be interesting to see. I will definitely remind you when we get there!

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          2. Possibly worth noting here: We *are* talking about Moffat and Gatiss. Some of their Doctor Who storylines took six seasons to resolve. (Mainly thinking of the 50th anniversary special and how it explains the Doctor’s increasingly youthful appearance up to that point.)

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  17. You can definitely get away with stuff on a tv show or a movie that you wouldn’t likely do in a book… Unless you are Clive Cussler, who generally has 2 prologues. The opening with John Watson & the vignettes of the pill deaths did take considerable time & I don’t think they’d fly in a book. But… we expect certain things in movies (especially episode and series pilots) so we are actually conditioned to expect them… Using them in the show was more efficient & quicker than trying to explain either later. It brought us in fast, established the character and the problem and we were immediately “in” and along for the ride. I think they established both Holmes & Watson well and fast and best… You mentioned “keeping promises” – by the end of this episode they’ve done it. We are vested in the characters and better we’ve gotten the first glimpse of them beginning to change because of each other and it gives us so much to look forward to. I like the comments that Watson saving Holmes at the end does seal them as equals that are different.

    I LOVE how they visually (& quite quickly) show us Holmes thinking… Again something that works in this media, but not a book- a great way to embrace the best of what you’re doing.

    Is it just me or did Holmes actually, seriously thinking of taking the pills bother anyone else. I know he’s ego driven, but really?! That drove me nuts. He’s brilliant (& those kind of folk can get a bit distracted), but that notion of actually listening to the guy and trying it was waaaaay too stupid for Holmes. I kept thinking of the Princess Bride and the iocane poison the whole time- that was making it tougher as well. It was almost like they were using it as a device so John could save him. I think it was out of character for Holmes, and was breaking me of him to have such a lazy set up for John to save. Of course it didn’t break me and I was totally hooked.

    I’m hoping we can figure out why I love this show so much so I can incorporate that knowledge back into my characters & stories.

    I can’t wait to get to season 3…. My gosh- how increasingly brilliant!

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    1. I think the cabbie was right in that he’s bored and the pills were new. I think his ego might make him accept the challenge. But I was never sure he was going to take it. What did bother me was that the cabbie had won at Russian Roulette four times. Unless the pills were both poison and he was immune, I found that hard to believe. So that’s what I believed. I’m a simple audience.

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      1. The pills might have been something you need to take for an aneurysm . . . so he developed an immunity. (-: I have no idea what that would be. The guy really doesn’t seem to be the type of “let God decide” person. I am almost sure that he’d be just the type to give God a little helping hand.

        I just went back and read A Study in Scarlet, and was amazed. What a VOICE Doyle has! I liked them when I was a teen, and they are still interesting more than 30 years later. You can’t carry every story into middle-age like that.

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  18. I watched this again last night, concentrating on Watson as the protagonist, and there are so many brilliant touches.
    They’re at the murder scene, and Sherlock yells, “Pink!” and runs out, and a lesser writer would have followed him since he’s all the excitement and action, but instead we stay with John, and when Sally asks him who he is, he says, “Nobody.” And then he goes out and gets kidnapped by Mycroft and he’s amazing: strong, steady, calm, professional, loyal, and honorable. That whole scene is quiet, but it screams, “John is a hero.” I love that contrast. Then Mycroft says, “Time to choose a side,” and John goes and gets his gun. Lovely.
    I also love the way Moffat makes every info dump scene a conflict so that it’s about so much more than information being relayed, it also arcs character and moves plot. (There’s a mantra the McD students heard a lot.)
    And then at the end, Sherlock meets his doppelgänger (they both thing everybody else is stupid and they’re the smartest guy in the room) and sits quietly while John is the one racing through London to end it. It’s just such brilliant writing. But I really love the denouement the most, Sherlock’s “I’m in shock,” giving up being the smartest guy in the room to protect John, who then walks away with him without a cane.
    This really is a brilliant episode. Well, it’s Moffat.

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    1. Jenny wrote: “I also love the way Moffat makes every info dump scene a conflict so that it’s about so much more than information being relayed, it also arcs character and moves plot.”

      I had not thought about that. I really like that point and will be thinking about it for a while, in terms of my own work.

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  19. Thinking about that episode there’s only one line that rings false to me. It’s when Watson says “Damn my leg!” Every time I see it, that outburst seems off. Seeing Watson in other episodes it still seems out of character. Martin Freeman plays Watson as very contained. There are forceful outbursts sometimes but they are usually heated, not shouted, or they are physical (“I have bad days” while choking Sherlock in A Scandal in Belgravia for instance). Does that moment strike anyone else as being off?

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    1. I think it speaks to his frustration because he immediately apologizes. If he hadn’t apologized, I’d have said yes, that was out of character. I do love the “I had bad days” line.

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    2. It’s a minor complaint. I think it’s the actual shouting of the line that trips me up, not the line. If Watson had gritted it out while banging his fist on his thigh, I wouldn’t have noticed. Sherlock, on the other hand, would shout.

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      1. I took the shouting as all that pent-up energy Watson is still (at this point in the story) trying to sublimate to get on with his “normal” life, erupting through all that stultified calm.

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  20. You are spot on about Watson. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of the protagonist, but I have thought that the key to a modern Holmes story is Watson. He (or she?) must be strong so that Holmes can be interesting. Watson must go beyond the Nigel Bruce foil, which has been somewhat unsatisfying, and A Study in Pink sets up the series for eccentricities in Holmes that Watson must help both overcome and use, as needed. Thanks for the analysis and thoughts on beginnings and endings.

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  21. Sorry, I am so late to the show! (and I haven’t read the other comments yet so I’m bound to stick my foot in my mouth or repeat something…)

    I’m thinking that John had to be the protagonist. As much as I admire Sherlock I can’t relate to him, and I’m not sure I’d want to be in his head. I don’t think I’d sympathize with his emotionless view of the world. I’ve been thinking back over this episode, my first exposure to the brilliant Sherlock writing. How captivating the story was for me, and I really think Sherlock and Watson need each other. The annoyance factor is pretty high – in that they both annoy the other – but when Sherlock says “come with me,” John does. I think he’s showing off for John, bouncing ideas off him but also looking for his approval. I think Sherlock is not only bored but also lonely and manic. He needs Johns steady presence. But John needs a reason to live, to leave behind the past that haunts him. To be pulled out of himself and Sherlock is like an electric shock – he changes everything.

    I also like that John is not a toady. He speaks up. He contradicts Sherlock when he doesn’t think he’s right. He’s teaching Sherlock how to treat people, how to become a more whole person. I can’t wait for the next season!

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