Another season of Sherlock on PBS is upon us. For those who can’t quite cotton to Downton Abbey then maybe this updating of the Holmes saga is your cup of tea, although I bet most would enjoy taking both.
Personified by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mesmerizing performance, this Sherlock successfully updates the Holmes’ setting from the Victorian era to our iPhone age. The current writers have kept Sherlock a curio by maintaining his oddness and not quite of this world countenance. He is prickly and prideful. He is dismissive toward those who would be irritable and put off by his antics.
In this updating of the classic John Watson continues as a stand in for the audience to identify with. What would being around the brilliant Sherlock Holmes feel like? Martin Freeman as Watson is less hapless and bumbling and more of a character in his own right. He has his own personal traumas and his backstory is very important to the series. Freeman is at times bewildered and befuddled. But more often Freeman has surprising reserves of gravitas making him more Samwise Gamgee to Frodo Baggins than inept Carlos Castaneda of the early volumes of the Don Juan stories.
So what about the self-diagnosis?
Over the course of series, Sherlock has referenced himself as a sociopath. Not an official term found in DSM 5 (aka the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association), the current default diagnosis is Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Let me choose the 3 aspects cited in the DSM that could conceivably make the case for Sherlock being correct.
1) Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Part of Sherlocks schtick is that he so brilliant, what appears illegal, and often is, becomes tolerated because he gets results, much to the consternation of Scotland Yard. His ends-justifies-the-means schema can look anywhere from positively genius to monomaniachally, well, sociopathic.
2) Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- When Sherlock resorts to these tactics, he has his reasons. However there is a curious subplot which comes off positively 20th century. It has Cumberbatch plying “gotcha” with Freeman when it comes to feelings of love and regard, apparently something that manly men still don’t profess. For example we see Holmes feigning incapacity to stop a bomb from going off in the Underground Subway to extract Freeman’s confession of deepest sentiment. Given the show has suggested a homoerotic tension between the two, at least in the eyes of their landlady Mrs Hudson, played by the delightful Una Stubbs, this allusion of the the love that dare not speak its name seems dubiously puerile, even for Holmes. So does this rise to the level of sociopathy or is it just a mean spirited psychological defense shielding Holmes from his own yearning of what he mocks?
3) Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
- Here we have perhaps the strongest case for Holmes’ sociopathy. In the words of Watson, he can be an absolute “dick.” Or perhaps what we have here are the boundaries of a continuum ranging from dick to sociopath, with Watson placing Sherlock at the lighter end of the scale.
The thing about the most successful evil sociopaths is that though they are damn good at predicting the behavior of those “normals” of whom they would take advantage. Lacking this ability, a sociopath would just be an oafish klutz of which, no doubt, there are many examples. But the truly remarkable sociopath has charm even if it is crazed c.f. Hannibal Lector. Sherlock exudes charm to manipulate others when it serves his purpose. Maybe we can’t totally dismiss his claim to his diagnosis.
Also, Cumberbatch alludes to the old saw that were he not in the catching criminal side of the ledger he might be in the criminal perpetrating business.
In a purer form we could call Cumberbatch a case of adaptive sociopathy. However Dexter, the Showtime series, has this angle so deeply mined that Sherlock only rates as a lightweight. Still, conjuring an image like Godzilla versus Mothra, wouldn’t you kill to see a season of Sherlock versus Dexter?
But is there a better diagnosis?
I suppose the leading candidate would be called Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. This the current catchall in DSM 5 for what used to be called Asperger Syndrome or AS.
Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder 315.39
The obvious candidate is Asperger Syndrome, which like Sociopathy is nowhere found in DSM 5. The new diagnosis is Autism Spectrum Disorder. The principle characteristics are as follows:
• limited or inappropriate social interactions
• “robotic” or repetitive speech
• challenges with nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression, etc.) coupled with average to above average verbal skills
• tendency to discuss self rather than others
• inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases
• lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversation
• obsession with specific, often unusual, topics
• one-sided conversations
• awkward movements and/or mannerisms
Benedict’s ability to and dance argues against this diagnosis, but his social awkwardness and obliviousness is an argument in favor.
Bill Gates has been said to have AS. But the caricature of Asperger’s that comes to mind is Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. We get a little of that in Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.
The other contender would be something in the direction of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Here the lack of empathy to others is what makes NPD a consideration. But how does narcissism differ from sociopathy? One can think of narcissist as an sociopath minus the malice and, perhaps, cunning.
One can make the case for Sherlock’s character to have elements of sociopathy, AS, and narcissism. But let’s not get too serious. His best diagnosis may just be, “Brilliant.”
At the end of the day it adds up to a fascinating personality and entertaining television and for me that’s the takeaway.
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Sherlock Season 3 trailer: