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“The Work vs The Game: Perceptions of Labor and Leisure in Sherlock,” by notagarroter

Curator’s Note: This is the second in two meta this week looking at the tension between passion and productivity, this time in a textual sense through an examination of work and play in BBC Sherlock.


“All that matters to me is the work.”
“The game, Mrs Hudson, is on.”

I’ve been puzzling lately over the mixed messages in Sherlock with regards to work and play.  Why is it that sometimes Sherlock refers to his detecting and deductions as “the work” and other times it’s described as a game?  Work is labor, games are leisure – aren’t they directly opposed to each other?  How can one occupation be both?

The answer seems to be: with difficulty.  BBC Sherlock is a show that navigates the sometimes porous boundaries between work and play very carefully.

The distinction is not a trivial one to the characters.  Consider John and Sherlock’s first cab-ride conversation: John thoughtlessly refers to Sherlock as an amateur detective, and Sherlock instantly becomes defensive.  He proves that he is not an amateur by engaging in a extremely complex deduction, and that seems to satisfy John.


But being good at what you do doesn’t keep you from being an amateur.  Regardless of skill level, an amateur is someone who doesn’t get paid.

DONOVAN: You know why he’s here? He’s not paid or anything. He likes it. He gets off on it. The weirder the crime, the more he gets off. 

It’s in the etymology of the word itself: amateurs do things not for money, but for love.  Why does Sherlock resist this description?  Because he considers it an insult.  Professionalism confers respectability, seriousness.  In this situation, being considered an amateur seems frivolous.

But that’s not always the case.

SEBASTIAN: This is an advance. Tell me how he got in, there’s a bigger one on its way.
SHERLOCK: I don’t need an incentive, Sebastian.
(He walks away.)

Here, Sherlock is clearly insulted by Sebastian’s offer to pay him, and it’s only through John’s practical mindedness that he gets paid at all.  Why is it insulting to be considered an amateur, and also insulting to be considered a professional?

This kind of contradiction and ambivalence about paid work is not the exception on Sherlock, but the rule…  particularly among the major villains.   Throughout the show, there are suggestions that working is respectable if dull, but enjoying your work is dangerous and quite possibly wicked.

When we are first introduced to Moriarty, it’s as a professional: he’s Sherlock’s mirror, the consulting criminal to Sherlock’s consulting detective.  Sherlock makes Moriarty’s status as a laborer even more explicit in the trial scene:


SHERLOCK: James Moriarty is for hire.

For all that Moriarty is operating on the wrong side of the law, there is a veneer of respectability to this description of him as a “tradesman”.  A tradesman (the sort who’d fix your heating) is almost the archetype of an honest laborer.  And yet, we know that Moriarty can’t ever be satisfied with such a prosaic occupation.  Just like Sherlock, Moriarty needs to play:

JIM: Although I have loved this – this little game of ours.

Come and play.
Tower Hill.
Jim Moriarty x.

Similarly, Magnussen wraps his bad deeds in respectability by referring to himself as a “businessman”, fully and decently embedded in capitalism.  But it’s the unwholesome pleasure he takes in the trivial game of flicking John’s face that ultimately is his undoing.


Jeff Hope is our only working class villain, and his employment as a cabbie is central to his identity (indeed, we only know his name from Doyle – in the show, he’s referred to as “the cabbie”.)  And yet, he appears embarrassed by his status as a laborer.  He’s anxious that people won’t believe a cabbie could be a “proper genius”, and he even resists revealing that Moriarty is paying him to murder people.  Rather than admit to being a professional, he insists over and over that what he is doing with Sherlock is “fun” and “a game”.

JEFF: I’ve outlived four people. That’s the most fun you can ’ave on an aneurism.

JEFF (chuckling): Come on. Play the game.

But perhaps the most explicit examination of the tension between pleasure and labor Irene Adler.  Adler is already a complex figure because she is a sex worker.  In normal polite society, sex is supposed to be separate from work: sex is (officially) pleasure, not labor.  Does Irene get pleasure from her work?  We don’t really know – she implies that she does, but it may be part of the job to let people believe that.  Sex work always involves ambiguities of this sort, which is one of the reasons society is uncomfortable with it.

Sex isn’t Irene’s only work, however.  Her work also involves blackmail and spycraft, and sexuality is a tool she uses to further those goals.  What’s interesting for our purposes is that Irene and Sherlock explicitly discuss the relationship between pleasure and work:


SHERLOCK: You were enjoying yourself too much.
IRENE: No such thing as too much.
SHERLOCK (walking closer and looking down at her): Oh, enjoying the thrill of the chase is fine, craving the distraction of the game – I sympathise entirely – but sentiment? Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.

Here, Sherlock acts as an enforcer of capitalist ideology, regulating how much pleasure, and what kind, is allowable in the realm of work.  It’s acceptable to be thrilled by the chase, but if you enjoy it too much, you will fail at it.  It has crossed over from work to love, which causes the work-aspect to fall apart.

This passage also brings in the idea of sentiment.  Where does that fall on the continuum between work and pleasure?  An interesting question for a man who describes himself as “married to his work.”  Of course, Sherlock didn’t invent this expression – people use it all the time.  But it’s usually said with disapproval…  as a society, we frown on people who confuse love and work, who treat their job like it’s a person or treat a person like a job.  But for Sherlock, this is not something he is embarrassed or apologetic about – this is what defines him.

In a thousand little ways, the show lets us know that this expression is not, for Sherlock, purely a metaphor.  The way his eyelids flutter and he lets out a little “oh!” whenever he has a case-related epiphany clearly signal that Sherlock has an erotic relationship with his work.


Which is part of what makes him an interesting and sometimes unsettling character.

Another instructive example is Sherlock’s drug use in HLV, which he defends on the grounds that it was “for a case”.  Drugs are designed to give pleasure, but that kind of pleasure is frowned on by society.  But can an off-limits pleasure be justified by combining it with “work”?  Is Sherlock’s defense successful or not?  Perhaps not, if, as has been suggested by the show a number of times, Sherlock’s relationship to his work is like that of a junkie to his fix.


SHERLOCK: Your best friend is a sociopath who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high.

If Sherlock’s occupation is such a source of sensual pleasure, can it be considered work at all?  Or, on the other hand, is Sherlock being positioned as a kind of uber-capitalist – a model of productivity – as all his human cravings have been redirected into labor?

(Don’t even get me started on Cluedo…)

The Work vs The Game: Perceptions of Labor and Leisure in Sherlock” ©notagarroter, originally posted on 18 March 2015

One comment on ““The Work vs The Game: Perceptions of Labor and Leisure in Sherlock,” by notagarroter

  1. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2015 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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