On the Side of the Angels: "Sherlock," Sociopathy, and Evil
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On the Side of the Angels: "Sherlock," Sociopathy, and Evil

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 28, 2013 | Comments ()


I finished watching the first two seasons of "Sherlock" over the weekend thanks to the magicks of the Netflix. It's brilliant television, but there are enough reviews out there to talk about that, and it should go without saying that the following contains a lethal dose of spoilers.

What struck me most was the climactic scene, the moment of final confrontation between Sherlock and Moriarty. It's been built up for hours, the human chess pieces all sliding across the board in intricate moves not quite revealed until this precise moment. And Sherlock gives voice to a theme of the series: never mistake that just because I'm on the side of the angels that I actually am one. It breaks your heart and chills you to the bone as Benedict Cumberbatch utters those lines.

It's a common theme in stories. The genius without a heart. As Sherlock describes himself, the high-functioning sociopath. But why is it exactly that we feel a need to make the genius heroes of our stories into sociopaths? What does it say about us that in our fictions we must plant this specific fatal flaw in these characters? In the same breath that describes these characters of superhuman intellects, we have to add something in there to tear them down as an afterthought. It's not just the need for characters to have complexity, to prevent them from being simplistic archetypes, because otherwise there would be variance in the flaws. But there's not; it always returns to heartlessness in the end.

The answer rests with the bad guys. The most terrifying thing, especially in a society that prizes free will above everything else, is not brute strength nor simple violence, it is the loss of control. It is the intellect so far advanced that it can slip between the cracks of our societal defenses and rip us all back down into the jungle. A brilliant character is far more likely to be a villain than a hero, because for all the immediate terror of physical brutality, the physically threatening is easily subdued. Save in comic books, the brute can be outweighed by the sum total of enough normal men. But the same does not apply to intellect. A thug as strong as ten men can be brought down by eleven, but a plotter as smart as ten men cannot be topped by the eleventh or the eleven-hundredth, but only by the solitary one who can match his wits.

And so while in reality essentially all crime is of the mundane, in our entertainment crimes are nearly always the work of the brilliant. Even a show like "Criminal Minds" is the same way, with all of its formulaic procedural baggage. There are studies out there that demonstrate quite convincingly that the profiler approach is little more than guesswork, that for all their training and study of the minds of killers they don't do any better at solving crimes than anybody pulled off of the street and asked to make their best guess.

But we so desperately want to believe that evil works differently than us, that it is something independent of the normal human condition. We pretend that killers are caught because they are somehow alien, and not simply because they screw up their parking tickets or happen to get pulled over with the latest corpse cooling in the trunk. All of these shows rationalize evil, they make it something that can be understood and ultimately fought. They make the horror external from the human condition.

And when things are external, we contract external aid. It's similar to the way that our heroes in legend always mirror the villain. How the heroic knight is just a different sort of monster, but still just as alien to the common person as the dragon he slays. Being a killer, he is missing something essential to his humanity. And so the intellectual hero is almost inevitably some gradation of sociopath, because to fight the monster, he must be the monster. And the monster he is constructed to slay is a monster of the mind, so it is his mind that must be stripped of humanity for the battle.

In "Crime and Punishment," Raskolnikov thinks he is a higher breed of man, and as such believes that it is his right to kill. He believes that the very fact that the police cannot catch him is evidence of his superiority, and thus justification for his acting above the law. But he crumbles under the weight of conscience, for despite his intelligence, he could not separate himself from humanity.

The archetype of the genius sociopath is a tragic artifact of our separating evil from its underlying humanity. And there's a terrible narrative feedback loop at play, because embedded in every hero we create is the monster that he must fight. This is not an ethical quandary with the traditional sort of hero because we are comfortable with seeing their violence as something alien and flawed that we would rather shun, tempered by the tragic necessity of fighting fire with fire. But with an intellectual hero, it becomes the intellect itself that must be the flaw. And so the only hero we can create to battle the most terrifying of modern monsters is one whose flaw and weapon is the thing we should treasure most: the mind.

And so Sherlock must always be on the outside looking in, because in our fear of our inner demons, we cannot stand to have gods walk among us.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • profession: none, or starlet

    FWIW, psychopathy and sociopathy can't be meaningfully distinguished in the accepted literature. They're pet terms of different theorists that have slipped into pop culture, not well-defined concepts. Antisocial personality disorder is the diagnosis that someone would receive at the moment.

    I don't think we even need to bring John into the debate about whether Sherlock would be diagnosed with any degree of APD; we have Mrs. Hudson. We could put his response to the CIA agents down to 'nobody touches my things', but he kisses her on the cheek in his exuberance in the first episode, hugs and comforts her after the CIA incident, and barks at Mycroft for telling her to shut up (even though he agrees).

    I think Moftiss and co. have done a great job of weaving a modern understanding of non-neurotypicality into this Sherlock. I understand him as an Aspie for whom it manifests in two key ways: he can't control or filter sensory input, and thus works obsessively as a means of being able to process and channel the overwhelming data; and he struggles to understand other people's emotions, but, being phenomenally observant and a good mimic, has taught himself to imitate them. He also finds being a 'high-functioning sociopath' convenient because it keeps people at arm's length and stops them trying to change him. Mycroft is a counterpoint; same intense intelligence but without the autism spectrum component, he is capable of being far more contained and manipulative than Sherlock because a) he actually understands how people work better b) he doesn't constantly feel like his head is going to explode.

  • Dragonchild

    OK, look, do yourself a favor and watch "Patlabor". "Good = stupid, evil = smart" is a western trope that really, REALLY needs to die. It was the sticking point for me when I watched "The Dark Knight", what would otherwise be Heath Ledger's masterpiece was basically watching Batman getting his ass kicked for over a solid hour -- UNTIL HE BECAME WILLING TO COMPROMISE. It's anti-intellectual and frustrating.

  • Fredo

    My favorite part of any Sherlock version is the direct interactions between Holmes and Moriarty -- whether the classic movies, the Young Sherlock Holmes one, the RDJ ones or the ones in this iteration. There's something intensely fascinating about two people who are so smart and yet so singularly drawn to each other for conflict.

    Now, do I think this Sherlock is a sociopath? The definition of a sociopath is one who is without any moral responsibility and I don't think Sherlock has that. Is he antisocial? Very much so. Confrontational? Yes. A jerk? No doubt. But I don't think that Sherlock goes out of his way to avoid the responsibility that his genius puts upon him. This version of Sherlock shows care and concern for Watson and Mrs. Hudson (remember how he treated the CIA agent that threatened her?). Even poor Molly and Lestrade aren't ignored by Sherlock.

    As for our portrayal of "geniuses without hearts"...thing is most geniuses are so far up their own talents' asses that they can come off as looking heartless. Combine that with the very real competitive streak that smart people have -- honestly, it gets damn annoying -- and you have characters who are often at odds with the rest of the world. Sherlock is no different. He knows how the world works. It's just he can't work within its parameters.

  • ,

    My understanding was that the psychopath is born without a conscience, while the sociopath learns that making conscience-free decisions can make him/her successful in his/her environment.

    Anyhoo, isn't there something of the "it takes a sociopathic genius to catch a sociopathic genius" in all this?

    BTW, America's No. 1 all-time psychopathic serial killer seldom gets much credit. The ironically named H.H. Holmes, the Devil in Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City," may have killed 200 people:


  • devildoggie

    Mental illness be damned,he is one of the goddammn sexiest men I have ever seen in the media..those fine longfingered hands,yummm...I cannot wait to see how he faked his death. A thoroughly enjoyable series, and I am also so happy to see that "Tim" survived David Brent. Carry on.

  • A. Smith

    This may be spoilerish so I apologize beforehand. I think Holmes jumped into the garbage truck in front of the hospital and Molly or an irregular dropped a corpse with a disfigured face and similar clothes on the spot where Holmes would have landed roughly around the time he dropped his phone from the top of the building. Anyway that's what I think, I hope I'm wrong.

  • Jerce

    Brilliant observations as always, SLW.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I would disagree that Sherlock could be labeled a sociopath at all, as Sherlock blatantly lacks any kind of capacity for emulating emotions or manipulating those of others. He's got some of the other features, but sociopaths are generally well known for being able to fake normal emotions, frequent lying and manipulative behavior. Sherlock can barely recognize the emotions of others, nevermind emulate them, he will lie but doesn't do it when it'd be most advantageous to him, and is not really able to manipulate anybody because he doesn't really get how they think. So, not a sociopath.

    Asperger's fits best, as others have pretty thoroughly outlined.

    ETA: In fact, Moriarty's entire plan to take Sherlock down is founded entirely on the premise that Sherlock cannot do social interaction in any way. What he does, with Sherlock's mind and any kind of normal personality, would be manageable by actually working with the police. Sherlock cannot conceive of the circumstance in which trying to talk it all out with Lestrade would work-- he runs and resolves to figure it out through sort of straightforward logic. He thinks he can Vulcan his way out of it, but Moriarty built a trap that works on social behaviors that A) don't really follow logic per se all that well and B) Sherlock just can't wrap his brain around.

    Moriarty and Sherlock are really two sides of a coin here. They're both insanely, blisteringly brilliant, but Moriarty's success arises from this absolutely insane ability to manipulate people, to turn anyone and everyone to his will if he needs them (the prison, the bank, the museum, all from social engineering). Sherlock, on the other hand, sees how things work. He can look at what's happened and track back, in extreme detail, all of the things that could have and probably did lead to the end result. And while some of that appears to consist of an ability to understand people, it is, all of it, physical. Moriarty can get things because he knows people, but the only thing Sherlock can do is catch people by looking at things.

  • Diana_Trestle

    Nicely written, but unfortunately, there are many examples of Sherlock's ability to fake emotion and manipulate. Most obvious would be in The Great Game, where he cried on cue (something many actors can't even do!) to manipulate the woman whose husband had been "killed". There's also the time he makes tea for Watson (in Hounds). It comes off as an awkward apologetic gesture, so that Watson can't refuse to drink. But his real aim was to drug Watson ... the guilty apologetic vibe was all faked.

    When he sets his mind to it, he's a master social manipulator. He just doesn't bother to do it to unless he wants something.

  • In_Between_Days

    As a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes for the past 15 years, I'd say the character as re-imagined in the BBC Sherlock displays more of a heart than Holmes ever did in Conan Doyle's novels. Doyle's Holmes was a borderline sociopath; borderline only because he once showed genuine concern for Watson.

    Also, many people seem to confuse sociopath with psychopath. Moriarty in this series is a psychopath, in that he not only has no emotions, but no moral compass and also a tenuous grip on reality. Sherlock describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath, but therein lies the joke that every viewer can share with John, he's actually on the high end of the autistic spectrum; he suffers from Aspergers syndrome. Perhaps the creators got this idea from the Mark Haddon novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Or perhaps they'd read Doyle's Holmes as an autistic man, something it would be easy to do now we understand the condition; in the books he's obsessed by minutiae, he's unwilling to leave Baker Street for holidays, he'll only trust the select few people he chooses to work with, he maintains the same decor and manner of dressing, he finds it difficult to know when he's upset someone, he dislikes crowds of people (the show has kept many of these same features).

    As an autistic individual, everything Sherlock does is tempered by emotion, but only emotion for those things that matter to him. The work is his obsession, it matters, therefore it inspires emotion. John becomes associated with the work, he matters, therefore he inspires emotion. Moriarty becomes an obsession, he matters (or rather getting rid of him does) therefore he inspires emotion.

    Sherlock's genius could be a product of his condition, it could be incidental, but this is what lifts him out of the more debilitating aspects of the condition and allows him to operate on some form of everyday living. But he needs John to do his job effectively, as evidenced by the fact that his obsession only becomes a career, because John sees the potential to make him famous. And he only starts to get somewhere with people because John teaches him how to be more socially acceptable.

    As a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes I would say this series is the closest to getting a handle on Doyle's creation since Jeremy Brett lost his sanity to the character in the 90's. But as everyone is free to interpret this magnificent work as they like, I'm sure there are some people who wish to believe Cumberbatch's Sherlock is a sociopath, even for some, a psychopath. For me however, the fact that he laughs (might have genuinely cried) and obviously cares about John, makes him something else entirely.

  • DominaNefret

    Well, you can also view sociopathy as being part of the Asperger's spectrum. There is a whole realm of personalities that fall under the umbrella, varying degrees of lack of empathy being the main tie that binds them. Total lack of empathy is the key symptom defining sociopathy, as well as severe Asperger's/autism.

  • demondoll

    Hounds of Baskerville episode:
    Lestrade,"I suppose it appeals to his... to his..."
    Watson, "... Asperger's?"

  • ,

    I love the series, but that episode was terrible.

    All the worse because I had been telling Mrs. , what a terrific series it was, and that was the first ep she watched.

  • No! It really was a bit of a stinker...sorry, someone should have steered Mrs. , to the right episode to start, which of course is the first one. Wait, what?

  • bibliophile

    HOW did I miss this? I worked with Autistic children for a few years, and I never made that connection. But your assessment is spot-on.

  • BWeaves

    Ever read Victorian novels? The hero or heroine is always so perfect, and too good to be true, and frankly nauseating. I think that's why flawed sociopaths are more in vogue right now. They're much more interesting to read or watch. People love Dexter, and yet, the man is a serial killer. Go figure.

  • Slash

    The thing is, I think Sherlock (as portrayed by Cumberbatch) actually does have a heart. He just doesn't bother to worry about hurting people's feelings. Which makes him an asshole, but I don't think makes him a sociopath.

    Also, I have to disagree with this: "The most terrifying thing, especially in a society that prizes free will above everything else, is not brute strength nor simple violence, it is the loss of control."

    We don't prize free will above everything else. We prize wealth and power above everything else. I thought everybody knew this. It's really pretty obvious. I mean, we here at Pajiba may prize free will, but it seems pretty clear that the powers that be do not. Quite the contrary, most of them seem determined to frustrate free will at every opportunity. The Supreme Court is deciding on a fairly important issue involving free will right now. And at least part of our government is arguing in favor of denying free will. To tax-paying, law-abiding adults.

    Also, from what I understand, sociopathy is not necessarily a "fatal flaw." It's a type of personality. In the hands of a terrible person, it can be very damaging. But apparently most sociopaths are not criminals. They may not be very nice people, but sociopath doesn't = criminal.

    I suspect that there are actually very few true sociopaths. So I don't think you can blame most criminal behavior (or "evil") on sociopaths. I think everyone is capable of being a monster. I'm not sure it matters why people do terrible things, other than providing case studies for people in the psychiatric and criminal justice fields.

    I thought Andrew Vachss described it well. Basically he said that just because you're a sociopath doesn't mean you will become a criminal (or in the case of the people he writes about, a child molester). But if you do find that you are "bent" that way, there's nothing to impede you. No empathy for the suffering of others that would stop most of us from harming a child. As a sociopath, you would feel no more sympathy for a suffering child than a cat does for the mouse it just caught.

  • chanohack

    Very true. I've read some books on sociopaths (because of reasons), and there are all kinds of sociopaths, just like there are all kinds of people. Some are ambitious, some are violent, some are lazy, some want the approval of others. It's possible for a sociopath to even "care" about another person: I think we can all agree that Sherlock likes having Watson around. Sherlock would save John's life, but that doesn't make him not a sociopath, it just means he wants to keep John. Sherlock keeps John happy enough to stick around, but that doesn't mean he cares about John's happiness (as evidenced by Sherlock sabotaging some of John's relationships). The thing that would make Sherlock not a sociopath is if one of the reasons he helps John is that he doesn't like the thought of John being in pain.

    That's the difference-- it's not the action, it's whether or not the action is fueled by empathy or guilt.

  • This iteration of Sherlock has atypical neurology, which tends to come with its own set of problems, chief among them social awkwardness and difficulty understanding other people's emotions. So describing himself as a high-functioning sociopath is in some ways a shield to deflect being called a psychopath but also provides a box in which others can place him as a way to deal with the fact that he doesn't particularly like social interaction or people in general. That doesn't mean he's heartless, merely that he doesn't make connections with most people, and the ones he does make are predicated upon them accepting him the way he is, because he recognizes that his disorder is unlikely to allow him to change. He does express regret on occasion, such as when he embarrasses Molly, but even then, he's not sure how to go about it. Living with someone like this, and knowing several others, that didn't seem to me to be a terrible flaw, but more an accurate portrayal of the problems that come with neurological differences. Perhaps that's why I identify more with John.

  • Lee

    Interesting, thanks.

  • Horatio Postlethwaite

    For the same reason girls love bad boys.

  • EliotKami

    It's also an interesting portrayal of Western society's obsession with the consequences of actions as opposed to their intentions. Everyone loves the 'dammit, I don't play by the rules but I get results!' character as opposed to the less dramatic but well-intentioned individual.

  • peggysue

    I disagree. Granted I've watched all the episodes 3 times, (once with commentary--which is awesome btw). But it's not that Sherlock doesn't have a heart; it's that he has to be removed to be that genius. he's giving up his heart as sacrifice to be the genius "consulting detective," because he can't not. (does this make sense?)

    I'm thinking of the scene btw Watson and Sherlock's brother, where the brother says something to the effect of, "he's a genius and he spends his time helping the police solving crimes, tell me what does that say about his heart?" Implying that it is precisely b/c sherlock as such a large heart that he does all of this, knowing that he must always be "on the outside" but believing it's worth it.

    I could be completely wrong (that's why i love art), but that's how i saw the character development.

  • Milly

    For Sherlock, being a sociopath is not a flaw, it is an advantage or even a blessing.

    It is odd that you refer to this aspect of the character as a negative and as something to bring him down.

  • chanohack

    A lot of sociopaths who have a high awareness that they are different view it as an advantage. They feel free of the "weaknesses" that "hold other people back." I'd have trouble ruining a colleague to ensure my own success, but a sociopath wouldn't. I wouldn't kill my neighbor's dog (EVEN THOUGH HE BARKS ALL DAY), but a sociopath doesn't have the "problem" of conscience.

    They think it's an advantage, but that doesn't make it true.

  • Milly

    It's a bad thing to you. And that is your view of it. Mine differs. Neither one is correct.

    Note that I said that "it is odd". Not that the writer was wrong, or incorrect. Just odd.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Not just Sherlock, but Watson as well. "Sherlock" the series was specifically adamant on showing John exhibiting outright violence, even killing. However, where John gets to blame it on things such as combat experience and PTSD, Sherlock gets no such explanations. But they are two sides of the same coin, and the coin itself is no different than any others, really.

  • $27019454

    Thank you for this. I am not quite sure I understood some of the particulars, but I get the (somewhat unsettling) gist. It is for some of the reasons you state that I am both proud of and concerned by my 12 year old daughter's rapt fascination with this series and this character. I love that she has the brains to grasp the finer (unsettling) points and I fear that she has the brains to grasp the finer (unsettling) points.

    But then, I mop my conscience with the gut instinct that all of that is simply a side dish to the steaming plate of budding lust she harbors for The 'batchmeister.

  • minxy

    Don't worry. It's lust.

  • $27019454

    Cool. My p[parenting methods are paying off. Yessss!

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