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

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 28, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 28, 2013 |

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 You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.