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Death Is Meaningless: Exploring Death in 'Sherlock,' 'Agents of SHIELD,' and 'American Horror Story'

By Dave Gonzales | Think Pieces | February 5, 2014 |

By Dave Gonzales | Think Pieces | February 5, 2014 |

Warning: Spoilers for Sherlock Series 3 and American Horror Story: Coven within.

The coldness of the Sochi Winter Olympics are about to descend on television along with the dreary month of February, and recent events in the television landscape suggest this winter of mid-western-to-eastern Polar Vortexes might be colder than the grip of death.

This Super Sunday, that special cross-section of super-fans who watch BBC’s Sherlock when it airs in America but do not watch America’s most-viewed television event were treated to the final entry of Sherlock’s third-series. Standing on the brink of another hiatus, we were once again left wondering who is alive and who is dead and how if we saw them die can they still be alive? Sherlock’s second series ended in high cliffhanger fashion with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Andrew Scott’s James Moriarty locked in a rooftop stalemate that seemed to spell doom for them both. Moriarty shot himself in the head in front of Sherlock to ensure there was no way out of Moriarty’s grand plan, save Sherlock committing suicide. As a teary-eyed John Watson watched, Sherlock plunged off the roof to his apparent death. At the end of the episode, we see a very-much alive Cumberbatch observing Martin Freeman’s Watson at Holmes’ gravesite, revealing Sherlock’s ongoing … life.

Considering each series of Sherlock is three episodes long, series 3 spent an unusual amount of time with the conclusion of series 2, but not in any Holmesian explanatory way. Instead showrunners Steven Moffit and Mark Gatiss spend half of the first 90-minute episode showing us ways the stunt may have been accomplished, only to have the show shoot them down as impossible. The sum subtext of the episode seemed to be chastising the audience for caring so much during the two-year hiatus. Thusly, we see the dirty side of television production where the creators are able to interact with the audience to the point where the show feels like it must directly address the fandom by going meta.

This season was filled with little nods to the meta aspect of BBC’s Sherlock, alluding to John Watson’s blog being silly stories about two men and completely divorcing the show from its Conan Doyle roots. This season, the show took on some of the less-likable character traits of it’s titular character, no longer a show happy with being smart and clever, it now wants to beat you, the viewer, in both those categories. Strides were made in the representation of strong females department in the three-episode character arc for Mary Morston’s character, but even she must bow to the cleverness of Sherlock in the third episode.

Then, at the end of the series that began by slapping us on the knuckles for caring how Sherlock survived pulled the rug out from under the very stakes of death by revealing that Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, a character we saw shoot himself in his own head, was also back for another series … sometime in the next two years. This would have been more shocking if the first episode hadn’t been so flippant about providing answers that worked in the story world, also if I hadn’t also been watching this season’s entry into American Horror Story: Coven. AHS: Coven is a show that really knows how to take the sting out of death with virtually every main character dying at least once.

The first two series of American Horror Story made the most out if it’s anthology structure, telling complete stories that would expand into absolute Ryan Murphy craziness then decompress back into something that seemed like a plot. The first season, subtitled “Murder House” tracks the Harmon family as they fall apart and eventually all die inside the Murder House (some earlier than we all thought), Asylum ended up being about two women through the decades, a lesbian reporter and the nun that confined her to a mental institution. Coven never went beyond it’s core idea to have a series about witches that featured notable actresses of a certain age gnawing at each other, introducing a house full of witches capable of resurrection. Towards the end of the season, Queenie, the black witch played by Gabourey Sidble shoots herself in the head much like Moriarty, but is revealed to be alive two episodes later having simply spit the bullet out.

You don’t even have to watch shows on television to be aware of their marketing and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted last year to extremely high ratings based on the promise that it was bringing back a dead character, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, that everyone saw stabbed in The Avengers. That’s lowering the bar for life and death stakes, isn’t it? Not if you’ve been suckered into watching S.H.I.E.L.D., which continues to dodge the question: is death meaningful in this universe or not? American Horror Story: Coven and Sherlock might have broken the stakes of their story worlds by allowing their main characters to dance with resurrection, and it’ll be a huge blow to S.H.I.E.L.D. and it’s shared Cinematic Universe if the threat of a character’s death ends up being meaningless in the mechanics of a plot. If both Moriarty and Sherlock lived and we aren’t supposed to care how, it’s going to be harder to care about why.

Dave “Da7e” Gonzales works in cable television for MTV Networks. He podcasts weekly at and does a special Legend of Korra podcast at He founded his own production company where he made shorts, commercials, music videos, TV shows and one gay romantic comedy that won Best First Feature at Outfest (it’s on Netflix now!). He has written for online publications ranging from (gossip!) to (facts!) with a ton of movie blogs in-between. Marvel threatened him once. Michael Bay has twice said he’s full of crap. He does a weekly column on superhero movie news at He had a webcomic once that still lives at He likes cartoons and smoking. His spirit animal is the Mongoose. Follow him on Twitter.

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