Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt (FDR) once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” While FDR spoke of action to alleviate suffering caused by the Great Depression, the assertion applies neatly to “The Hounds of Baskerville.” This episode brilliantly reexamined that old trope concerning the power of fear and how it can motivate or undermine us. Fear and how it distorts reality motivated Henry, the client, to seek out Sherlock. Perhaps more importantly, Sherlock’s fears were exposed. Those fears fit into the larger Series 2 arch that explores and add layers to Sherlock’s humanity as he inches closer to his collision with Moriarty, who appears to have no humanity of which to speak.
To recap, Sherlock and John are called to Baskerville by Henry who is convinced that a gigantic hound killed his father twenty years ago and has come back. He believes it could be an experiment gone awry at the Baskerville military installation. Naturally, Sherlock uses Mycroft’s stolen government ID card to gain access to the place. After much chasing and experimenting and investigating, Sherlock realizes that they’ve all been drugged, and this is why they’ve all seen the hound. The seemingly benign Dr. Franklin, who works at Baskerville, was part of a group that developed the drug many years ago and murdered Henry’s father to shut him up about it. He uses the drug in an attempt to drive Henry mad and twist his memory of the murder.
So, why “The Butthole of Baskerville”? Because Sherlock was very, well, Sherlockian in his interactions with others. The man tried to drug John’s coffee with sugar and frame it like he’s apologizing for a row they had earlier. Perhaps the kicker is that he tries to drug John to test his hypothesis about why he and his client saw a huge, black hellhound roaming the Baskerville area. To that end, Sherlock locked John (who may or may not suffer from PTSD though this writer thinks he probably does) in a lab and let him run around terrified out of his mind that the hound was upon him while Sherlock literally kicked back and relaxed as he watched John on a monitor.
Complaints about this have sprung up all over my corner of the internet with many criticizing Sherlock’s treatment of John as out of character, especially in light of “A Scandal in Belgravia” and the glimpse of a “more human” Sherlock. And, I do believe that last week’s episode demonstrated that Sherlock does, in fact, have a heart. But, I still thought Baskerville’s Sherlock completely in character and brilliantly so. When looking back at “Scandal”, some interpret his dance with Irene and any kindness toward John or others in his life as motivated by practical and selfish reasons. Others believe Sherlock’s “heart grew three sizes that day.” But, these matters are never an either/or proposition with anyone and especially a person as complex as Sherlock Holmes. Why can’t it be both? Sherlock appears to be quite feeling and, perhaps in some ways, even sentimental but manifested in a way that seems cold and uncaring to the average viewer.
John’s casual reference to Sherlock, perhaps, having Asperger’s (AS) is illuminating in this regard. Anyone familiar with autism, and AS in particular, will know that those with AS often don’t experience emotion in the same ways or read emotional and/or social cues in the same ways as those without AS (allistic individuals) may. Many with AS may display a lack of empathy, a seeming lack of caring of other’s interests or feelings, tend to fixate on things, move in repetitive ways, and may collect mounds of data on something seemingly trivial while ignoring other things (243 kinds of tobacco ash and no knowledge of the solar system?). It appears that Sherlock isn’t sociopathic as he claims to be in the first episode (contrasted with Moriarty who clearly is a psychopath). He may just be neurodivergent. With that in mind, I wish that John had acted better during his fireplace scene with Sherlock. He calls Sherlock “Spock” at one point, a jab at his seemingly unfeeling and logical disposition, while making Sherlock’s words and actions about himself instead of trying to help a friend clearly in distress. That said, he does take Sherlock’s dosing John without his consent well enough (not that he has to). It appears Sherlock doesn’t register the seriousness of his offense, and John seems to be only momentarily angry before taking great glee in telling Sherlock that he was wrong about the sugar because John was dosed elsewhere.
That said, while John’s comment is illuminating, it’s not without problems. It would be great to have an autistic main character on a mainstream TV show, and if they’re going in that direction, more power to them. But, him displaying symptoms of AS and John name dropping it without any confirmation is a bit dodgy. To clarify, I’d hate to think that Sherlock really is just a sociopathic butthole and the writers are using the possibility of AS to cover for that. AS does not a sociopath make, and it’s ableist to suggest such. But, I do not have AS, so take my analysis with as many grains of salt as needed. I defer to those with AS. When it comes down to it, I think Sherlock was partially sincere when he apologized to John. I also think that he buttered him up so that John would go with him to Baskerville and Sherlock could carry out his experiment. I think he did care for Irene Adler when he saved her and didn’t want a brilliant mind like hers snuffed out, and I also think that he wanted to one up Moriarty and fool Mycroft. It doesn’t have to be that either he’s a cold, unfeeling, manipulative butthole or he’s a human being. He’s both, and that’s part of what’s so engaging about the man. (But, seriously, he’s a butthole! John’s much more forgiving than I am.)
We saw Sherlock deal with a very base emotion in this episode: fear. Sherlock’s fears are exposed when he has a near meltdown because he’s seen the hound when he knows that it can’t possibly exist. He says himself that he doubted his own senses which he has previously always been able to trust, and he bemoans emotion controlling him instead of vice versa. Benedict Cumberbatch was wonderful in that scene with all of Sherlock’s dramatics, and I think we even saw some tears there which was a bit unsettling. The best part of the scene was Sherlock making deductions (read: inductions) about a random couple of people in the room to prove that it’s neither him nor his observational skills that are the problems here. Something else is afoot. Equally dramatic was Sherlock seeing Moriarty’s face at the end of the episode when Moriarty was, probably, nowhere near Baskerville. It was only Sherlock’s imagination that produced him, and now we know that Sherlock does fear the man and what he’ll do next.
I had a laugh at the solution to the case because clearly someone is a Batman fan. Here’s a chemical that when dispersed in aerosol form creates uncontrollable fear, hallucinations (hence the hound spottings), and causes the subjects to commit very violent acts. We saw that villain already guys. His name is Dr. Johnathan Crane, a.k.a the Scarecrow, and he was portrayed wonderfully by Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins. I suppose Sherlock standing around on buildings and rock formations with his coat billowing around him should’ve tipped me off, but this clinched it. I see your Batman fanboyism there.
Still, “Baskerville” was a wonderful episode that superbly tapped us into Sherlock’s humanity while also reminding us of exactly who this man is and isn’t (he damn sure ain’t no teddy bear). We learned about what unnerves him, and clearly Moriarty does. The final scene of a confined Moriarty having scratched Sherlock’s name into every part of his cell, and even backward in the two-way mirror for Mycroft’s benefit, demonstrates that Moriarty is as obsessed with Sherlock as Sherlock is with him. One more episode waits until their confrontation, and I’ll be over here contemplating every possible meaning of the word fall until “The Reichanbach Fall” airs.