My favorite TV show, Sherlock, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the namesake detective and Martin Freeman as the famous sleuth’s best friend and crime-solving partner Dr. John Watson, does a brilliant job establishing context in general, but especially at the beginning of the first episode of the whole series. A dictionary definition of context is, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” We can also take this to mean the circumstances that form the setting for a character.
At the very beginning of the first episode of Sherlock, there are a few very important bits of information we get about Dr. John Watson: he’s haunted and traumatized by his violent experiences in the military; he lives alone; and he regularly sees a therapist about his transition back to civilian life, which has been dreadfully dull for Dr. Watson. Each of these facts about John Watson are shown to the viewer in the first sixty seconds of the episode, and what’s brilliant about this is the way Steven Moffat (who wrote “A Study in Pink,” the first episode of Sherlock) gradually layers more significance to these facts over the course of the episode by depicting Dr. John Watson’s transformation.
It’s important that the facts the viewer sees about John Watson are confirmed by the dialogue and actions of other characters, and most of this happens through Sherlock Holmes, by taking on Dr. Watson as a flat-mate, crime-solving partner, and by the end of the episode, as a friend. The crime they solve together in this episode is the real meat of the plot, but it doesn’t really mean anything to the characters without some context; you couldn’t just give two guys a crime to solve and watch them go, because, even if it was kind of exciting, it wouldn’t mean much in the end.
A Study in Pink is such a memorable episode is because Dr. John Watson starts out as a lonely, miserable, handicapped war-vet, but because of his meeting Sherlock Holmes, his life transforms from the awful picture we see in the first sixty seconds of the episode to him saving the day. Spoiler alert: when Sherlock Holmes is in mortal danger, John Watson puts his military skills to use and fires a fatal shot to save his new friend from a serial killer. Without context, John Watson would just be some guy who was compelled to protect his partner by circumstances; but because of what we know about John Watson from the very beginning–that he’s haunted by violent memories, lonely, and miserable–the kill shot he fires to save Sherlock suddenly means so much more: Dr. Watson has just grown as a human being, and he’s clearly a different person than he was at the beginning.
He’s now a hero, whereas before, nothing exciting happened in his life; he was traumatized by violent memories, but now he’s overcome that torture by finding a new kind of battle field; and now he’s got a best friend, whereas before there was no one he could turn to. The viewer needs all this context at the beginning, and to see it developed throughout the plot, in order for these changes to be meaningful and exciting. It’s a testament to how essential context is for clarity and the overall point of the story. Communicators of all kinds would benefit from a better grasp on this important quality!
What are some of your favorite TV shows, movies, or books, and what have you found interesting about the information they give you regarding their characters? I want to hear your thoughts!