Sherlock "A Study in Pink"

A Theory on Sherlock

Growing up, I loved being the “smart kid”. I skipped a grade, got straight A’s, and graduated high school near the top of my class. My parents and teachers showered me with praise. I thought myself to be a right Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, my intelligence was never that great, which I discovered when I failed out of college. Yet I still felt an attachment and similarity to Sherlock Holmes, in particular Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character. Myself and Sherlock have both discovered emotional intelligence is more powerful than traditional intelligence.

At the beginning of the BBC’s Sherlock, the titular character is shown to be a cold, crime-solving robot detached from humanity. In his first appearance, Sherlock gives little attention to the other people in the room and remains focused on his work. He analyzes Watson and mentions Watson’s alcoholic sister with little regard to the visible discomfort it engenders in Sherlock’s future roommate. Sherlock is deficient in emotional intelligence.

Rather than focusing on interpersonal connections, Sherlock is driven by the need to prove his intelligence. At the end of the first episode “A Study in Pink”, he confronts the taxi cab murderer by himself. The cabbie reveals he forces his victims to play a game for their lives at gunpoint: Two pills are presented. One is a fatal poison. The other is harmless. Choose one to ingest, and the cabbie takes the other. So far, the cabbie has won and survived every time.

Sherlock quickly deduces the gun the cabbie uses to force his victims to play the game is a fake. But just when Sherlock has escaped playing the game and is walking away, the cabbie entices him with a challenge:

Did you figure it out? Which one’s the good bottle?…Which one would you have picked? Just so I know whether I could have beaten you. Come on! Play the game.

…Can you beat me? Are you clever enough to bet your life? I bet you get bored, don’t you? I know you do. A man like you. So clever. But what’s the point of being clever if you can’t prove it? Still the addict. But this, this is what you’re really addicted to. You’ll do anything, anything at all, to stop being bored. You’re not bored now, are you?

Just as Sherlock is about to play the game, Watson shoots the cabbie. The game is inconclusive, but the audience has drawn plenty of conclusions about the character of Sherlock Holmes. He is confident, arrogant, selfish, and, above all else, defines himself by his intelligence. This is the starting point from which the character develops.

Over the next several episodes, Sherlock begins to care more about those around him: Watson, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and Molly. Even though he retains his gruff, cold exterior, the audience sees Sherlock open up more in scenes like when he apologizes to Molly during Christmas.

Sherlock’s moment of greatest sacrifice comes at the end of series 2, “The Reichenbach Fall”. Moriarty has convinced the world Sherlock is a fraud who was never the genius detective he was portrayed to be in the media. In their final confrontation, Moriarty forces Sherlock to jump off St Bart’s Hospital, or else his loved ones will be killed. So Sherlock jumps.

Of course, Sherlock survives the fall and is back in series 3, but a sacrifice has still been made. The world no longer thinks Sherlock is clever. This is in direct contrast to the question the cabbie asked Sherlock, “What’s the point of being clever if you can’t prove it?” Sherlock has learnt the outward appearance of traditional intelligence is not important. In the second episode of series 4, “The Lying Detective”, Sherlock acts insane almost the entire episode in order to catch the serial killer Culverton Smith. Sherlock is willing to sacrifice his appearance of genius to Watson in order to catch a criminal and help emotionally repair John. Intelligence should be used to help others, not stroke your own ego.

Beyond learning the true value and purpose of traditional intelligence, Sherlock Holmes also develops better emotional intelligence. Throughout Sherlock, our protagonist learns  how to better connect with those around him. culminating in the series 4 finale “The Final Problem”. In this episode, Watson, Mycroft, and Sherlock are confronted by their smartest opponent yet, Eurus Holmes. Despite all of his intelligence, Sherlock is no match for Eurus. Instead, he is only able to stop her by emotional connecting with his sister. Eurus is lonely and only ever wanted someone to play with her. With Watson in danger of drowning, Sherlock tells her:

I’m here, Eurus…Look how brilliant you are. Your mind has created the perfect metaphor. You’re high above us, all alone in the sky, and you understand everything except how to land. Now, I’m just an idiot. But I’m on the ground. I can bring you home…It’s not too late…Open your eyes. I’m here. You’re not lost any more. You just went the wrong way last time, that’s all. This time get it right. Tell me how to save my friend. Help me save John Watson.

Traditional intelligence lets Sherlock find Eurus; emotional intelligence lets Sherlock connect with Eurus. Forgiveness and love are what ultimately crack this final case. By the end of the show, Sherlock has learnt to balance the two types of intelligence. But without a little help from his friend Watson, Sherlock would have never made it past the first episode.

In their showdown atop St. Bart’s, Sherlock demands the computer code Moriarty used to hack the Tower of London, Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison. Sherlock expects this code can crack any computer system, but Moriarty reveals the code is a lie. No few lines of programming could ever do all that Moriarty claimed. Sherlock’s archnemesis explains to him why he took the bait:

I knew you’d fall for it. That’s your weakness. You always want everything to be clever.

Sherlock can sometimes find intellectual elegance when it is not there. And that reminds us of a similar situation Sherlock once faced: the pill scene in the first episode. The cabbie won what should have been a 50-50 contest three times already. Maybe the cabbie was that strong at reading people. Or maybe we are missing something.

Perhaps the cabbie forces his victims to take the poison pill with the gun. Perhaps both pills are deadly, but the cabbie has an antidote for himself. Regardless of the actual details, it is unlikely a random London cabbie would effectively be a mind reader and win the game every time. Sherlock buys into the game though because he appreciates the beauty of its appearance, but had he played, our main character would be dead before the end of the first episode.

Watson saved Sherlock from making a stupid mistake. Sherlock’s later character growth is only possible because John Watson gave him a little push and prevented a foolish decision.

When I dropped out of school, I took a job working as an assistant manager at a grocery store. That job has taught me to be more empathetic, patient, and caring. But the only reason I grew emotionally as a person was because I had great friends and mentors to help me along the way.

Gaining traditional intelligence is easy. You can sit alone in a room with a book in order to learn facts and improve problem solving skills. However, developing emotional intelligence requires other people. Sherlock and I have both been able to prevent arrogant mistakes and grow our emotional intelligence. All you need is a little help from your friends.


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