Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Unresolved Sexual Tension

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the BBC’s Sherlock episode 3, “The Great Game” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” (assuming you can spoil a 100-year-old short story).

What is it about Sherlock Holmes? It was a cult series in the 1890s, when no one had heard of a cult series. It was the go-to for scripts when radio dramas began, and again with the advent of film. And even now, 122 years after Doyle first published “A Study in Scarlet,” audiences still can’t get enough. Not only is Robert Downey Jr. taking on the famed detective in Guy Ritchie’s high-grossing blockbusters, but the BBC’s Sherlock, a modern-day retelling with Benedict Cumberpatch as Holmes, is also garnering acclaim and attention on both sides of the pond. What is at the heart of this story that makes it so attractive and timeless?

As well as Holmes and Dr. John Watson, both new productions feature Professor Moriarty, the man whose name has become nearly synonymous with terms like “arch-nemesis” and “criminal mastermind.” Moriarty appears in only one of Doyle’s stories and features in only one other story. He is not a recurring villain in Doyle’s stories, but only because he couldn’t be. Moriarty is Holmes’ equal and opposite number, a villain just as smart as the detective. When Holmes discovers Moriarty and his extensive criminal endeavors, he won’t rest until one or both of them is dead. And when Moriarty discovers Holmes’ meddling, he likewise won’t let him keep poking around. So their cat and mouse game is played once, and only once. “The Final Problem.”

“The Final Problem” is the name of the 1893 story in which Moriarty appears, and in which Doyle kills both him and Holmes off (though Holmes would later be “resurrected”). Neither the film nor the television show are, strictly speaking, adaptations of this or any other story. There’s plenty of original material and even substantial differences in the plot. They each have their own (very good) writers who deserve the credit for their work. But both these re-imaginings have stayed remarkably true to the original material, down to incorporating at least a little bit of the original dialogue (as we shall see).

The early Holmes films and radio dramas tended to be direct adaptations of Doyle’s stories. But the new versions are instead re-imaginings. Although Doyle’s stories don’t directly adapt to something palatable to today’s audiences, they contain all the necessary ingredients, and these new works are a delight to fans for the way in which they mix up those ingredients into something new, but with the heart of the original. Which brings us back to my original question: What is it about Holmes? What is it about Moriarty? And what if it’s really about Watson?
We can get at these questions by examining a pivotal scene from that short story which is adapted remarkably faithfully in both the most recent adaptations of the franchise. In the story, after Holmes has painstakingly investigated Moriarty and linked him to a good number of his crimes, Moriarty shows up at his door, allegedly to give him a chance to back off and live. But of course, he knows Holmes will do no such thing. The two men, set up as they are as perfectly equal, opposite numbers, have no hope of convincing the other to give up. The meeting is just an excuse to meet the object of their admiration. As men of intellect, as artists in their minds, they’ve come to spar and to see one another, like two generals meeting before a battle under a white flag.
In Doyle’s story, Moriarty initiates the meeting at Holmes’ apartment. In Ritchie’s film, Holmes initiates it in Moriarty’s study. In Sherlock, Holmes tracks Moriarty to a swimming pool, the site of the first case they were, unbeknownst to the other, both involved with. In both the original story and the BBC adaptation, Holmes spends the encounter pointing a pistol at Moriarty, a fact which Moriarty immediately points out despite the weapon being concealed. Then, in Doyle’s story, the crux of the interview takes only a few lines:
“You evidently don’t know me” said he [Moriarty].
“On the contrary,” I [Holmes] answered, “I think it is fairly evident that I do. Please take a seat. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.”
“All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,” said he.
“Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,” I replied.
“You stand fast?”
“Absolutely.”
The two “crossed your mind” lines serve as the cliff-hanger ending of Sherlock‘s first season, while Ritchie’s film ends the interview the same way Doyle does, with Moriarty saying “If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you,” and Holmes replying “if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.”
Holmes and Moriarty’s interaction can be described as flirtatious. In fact, in Sherlock, Moriarty even calls it flirting. This is interesting because of the similarity between Holmes’ relationship with Moriarty and his relationship with his one canon “love interest,” Irene Adler. Holmes is primarily attracted to Adler because she was able to outsmart him. Even in his enemy, Holmes hungers for an intellect that matches his, so although he despises Moriarty, he enjoys, even craves facing off against him. This is a compelling hero-villain dynamic, and one that has been co-opted by many subsequent authors. It’s love and hate mixed into one. It’s also a little bit of narcissism – the closest thing Holmes can feel to love is the sight of his own brilliance in another person.
But if two’s company, three’s a crowd, and surely this is at least a love triangle. In the midst of Holmes’ and Moriarty’s love-hate is Watson. Watson is pointedly not Holmes’ intellectual equal, and he can never fulfill that role. But he is, perhaps, Holmes’ only friend. And the compassion they feel for one another, though always covered by antagonistic bantering, is deep. At one point in one of the short stories Holmes tells a henchman, “Had you killed Watson, you would not have left this room alive.” So while Holmes’ “love” for Moriarty is narcissistic, his love for Watson is bizarrely pure.
Only the BBC puts Watson in the room for Moriarty and Holmes’ conversation, which certainly highlights the triangular dynamic. But the film uses Watson’s marriage, and Holmes’ constant irritation with it, to draw out the closeness of the two men. In the portrayal of Moriarty, however, and the imagery used in it, Ritchie shies away from the romantic imagery, opting instead for a pure battle of wits, complete with ripe chess symmetry. Still and all, as Holmes and Moriarty plunge into their final abyss, it is with their arms locked around each other, and Ritchie frames Watson between them, watching in horror as they fall.
I think the love triangle between Holmes, Moriarty, and Watson, and the two complex relationships folded into it, is what makes this story so compelling. Holmes is a brilliant man and a true hero, saving and helping people every day. But he isn’t likeable, nor is he prone to liking anyone. At the end of the day, there are only two men he can relate to. Watson is intellectually unworthy of him, but he is just as unworthy of Watson’s dogged loyalty and compassion. Then there is Moriarty, whom Holmes is honor-bound to destroy, but for whom he is so steeped in admiration as to almost be in love.
And in the end, as the two tumble together toward the abyss, Moriarty and Holmes are matched together in a sort of narrative eternity, while Watson is left to watch, helpless and grieving. Or to put it another way, Holmes gives up his future with Watson (the loss of which, due to Watson’s marriage, he has been struggling to cope with) in order to eliminate Moriarty.
No matter how you frame these relationships, they are deep, timeless and compelling. Holmes and Watsons’ bromance and Holmes and Moriartys’ flirtatious hatred will likely keep fans coming back to Doyle’s work for generations more.

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