The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 4

Sherlock, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories, is what one would consider a modern revamp of the classic tales. Created by Doctor Who‘s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Homes, and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. The series can be noted for helping usher both Cumberbatch and Freeman into the mainstream.

Series 4 could be considered the longest season, as elements in The Abominable Bride peter out into subsequent episodes, making the season four episodes long, rather than the usual three. One of the main themes of the season was the antagonist hiding in plain sight, while the second was Sherlock’s origins, in the word, Sherrinford, which according to the Romper article, “Who Is Sherrinford On ‘Sherlock’? The Name Has Significance In The Story“:

One of Sherlock Season 3’s biggest reveals was Mycroft’s allusion to the existence of a third, estranged Holmes sibling. Many fans wondered whether the tidbit would get unpacked during Season 4, and now that we’re two-thirds of the way through it, we know that it does. Eurus Holmes was revealed as Sherlock and Mycroft’s sister, which leaves fans with a big clue from showrunner Steven Moffat that has yet to be resolved. He’d previously teased the importance of Sherrinford, who was believed to be the third Holmes brother. So who is Sherrinford on Sherlock? There are a few different theories floating around.

First, Sherrinford has been established as a hypothesized eldest Holmes brother from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series. He first came up in Doyle’s early notes on the stories as a proposed name for his leading detective before he eventually settled on Sherlock. William S. Baring-Gould, a Sherlock Holmes scholar, later wrote a fictional biography of Holmes, proposing Sherrinford as his and Mycroft’s oldest brother. It’s established in the original series that Holmes’ family members were “country squires,” which, at that time, meant that the oldest brother would have stayed on the family estate to run it. That explains why Sherlock and Mycroft are in London, but their third brother is off in the country. It also explains Mycroft’s role as a senior civil servant, which would have been a logical position for a son of the gentry without an inheritance to take.

In Season 4 of the show, Mycroft has mentioned Sherrinford several times.

We know that “Thatcher” refers to the busts of Margaret Thatcher from the first episode of the season, “The Six Thatchers.” “Smith” refers to Faith Smith, the woman Eurus posed as when she first met Sherlock in Episode 2. So the “Sherrinford” reference should presumably become clear in Episode 3.

Some fans speculate that there will actually be a fourth Holmes sibling named Sherrinford revealed, possibly played by Tom Hiddleston, who was first rumored to play the third brother. There’s potentially a hint at this in the second episode, when Sherlock says, “Must be something comforting about the number three. Everyone always gives up after three.” Perhaps there is a fourth sibling waiting in the wings after all.

But Vanity Fair theorizes another possibility that’s actually quite genius: what if Sherrinford is not a person, but a place?


The Best:

The Lying Detective


This could possibly be the last great episode of the show, if another season is not picked up, but there is good reason for this. The Lying Detective, clearly referring to Sherlock, is both a superb story with an awesome cliffhanger, and beautifully directed by Nick Hurran (Doctor Who‘s The Girl Who WaitedThe God ComplexAsylum of the DaleksThe Angels Take Manhattan, and The Day of the Doctor) that comes together in all the greatest storytelling ways. It even gets a little meta, much like The Abominable Bride, though not nearly as obvious if you aren’t skilled in certain lore!

The key reveal of Eurus as the antagonist, the lost Homes sister, reminded me so much of the reveal of Missy the Master during Doctor Who‘s Dark Water cliffhanger. Notably, she was hiding in plain sight.

A long-standing fandom rumor within Doctor Who lore is that, in fact, The Master is The Doctor’s brother, as seen in this TARDIS Archives video. Much like Eurus turned out to be Sherlock’s lost sister.

Similarly, the hallucinations of Mary by Dr. John Watson, as his consciousness, was all too familiar of River Song in The Name of the Doctor. But, of course, in the case of Mary here (and River, there), this depiction reduces her now to merely a Background Decoration (see Feminist Frequency‘s Women as Background Decoration series).

Culverton Smith, played by Toby Jones (Christopher and His Kind, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Snow White and the Huntsman), is an utterly fantastic villain. I would say the best villain in the series after Charles Augustus Magnussen, and James Moriarty. Additionally, Katy Wix (Rhiannon Davies in Torchwood: Children of Earth) also played a role.

According to The A.V. Club review:

It crops up, both on the page and (repeatedly) the screen: Watson sees, but does not observe. To him, a ripped hem likely passes unnoticed, or if seen, is likely dismissed. To Sherlock, of course, it’s one piece of data that helps to construct a larger picture. He observes, and so he deduces, and so he solves problems and catches bad guys and gets to wear the hat. His powers of observation are so great that, even when he can’t really handle it, that brain keeps ticking away, taking in information to assemble the picture in his head.

What makes “The Lying Detective” such a gripping installment of Sherlock isn’t merely this tremendous gift of his, and the fascinating horror show of watching it overrun his drug-added mind. In this state, or perhaps in every state, Sherlock’s tremendous capacity for taking in and analyzing information can do more than outrun him. It can blind him to what should, to a mind like his, be obvious. He can observe, but not see.

Just so, “The Lying Detective” does what it does so dazzlingly well that it’s easy to overlook its misses. It’s got the whip-quick dialogue of the best installments of the series, the nimble marriage of character arc to source material that made outings like ”The Reichenbach Fall” so gripping, and a villain—a pair of villains, really—that rival (and may soon, in one case, surpass) Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. It’s got a couple of good twists, some familiar to readers of the stories and others not. It’s affecting and funny and moving and smart, and in short, a great script. But just because something checks all the right boxes doesn’t mean it totally works, and Steven Moffat’s script falls a bit flat where it really counts. It’s as if he’s blinded to the big picture by his own considerable gifts. This is a great Sherlock/Watson story with time to spare for everything but them.

To be clear, nearly all the things this episode does with its 90 minutes are good. Hell, they’re great sometimes. The first smart move here: the choice of source material. “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” is well worth a read, if you haven’t had the pleasure. In it, Holmes uses Watson’s concern for him as a friend and physician both as a tool and as bait. He has a plan, but chooses not to loop Watson in so that his friend’s concern would be the final and most convincing element in the carefully constructed trap he’s set for Culverton Smith. Here, the trap’s for Smith (Toby Jones), but also for Watson, a piece of high-stakes emotional trickery that forces him to move past his understandably complicated feelings toward Sherlock (not unlike the climax of “The Empty Hearse,” in which Watson’s tricked into thinking an explosion is imminent so he’ll get over that whole faked-death thing).

Weaponizing Watson’s decency to use against him isn’t a new idea for Sherlock, but a few things save it from feeling like a mere retreat. It’s a clever adaptive choice, linking the plot mechanics of the source material to the point to which Holmes returned over and over again in “The Sign of Three”: John Watson saves lives. Is it bafflingly manipulative? God, yes, but this time it’s Sherlock who serves as the bait in the trap, not Watson, and it’s not Holmes who’s designed such a perfect plan, but Mary. The fundamental elements of the plot remain intact, but its emotional resonances run far, far deeper. At least they’re intended to do so.

In the overall arc of the series, this choice serves to move the Sherlock/Watson relationship along its path, but the story itself is a good one. There’s no real suspense in who the villain is—you don’t hire Toby Jones to play a decoy—but that’s not what matters here. As Smith, Jones plays his scenes to the hilt, coming just shy of chewing the scenery in a way that’s both upsetting and a lot of fun to watch. He seems to have taken one of Smith’s later assertions, that people will look past pretty much anything if you’re rich and loved, to heart, and makes it obvious from his first lines that he’s a monster. By the time we’ve arrived at “I make people into things,” he’s likely to have made even the most stoic viewer’s skin crawl at least a little.

That last bit’s true of Cumberbatch as Holmes, as well. In the story, it’s Watson whose commitment needs to be absolute, while Holmes’s illness is more than half feigned. Here, Mary’s request of Sherlock requires him to dive into a dark place, and Cumberbatch laces the twitchy, frenetic energy he called on last week through with something much sadder and more broken. He practically reels through the episode, and the chaos is made all the more painful when it’s contrasted with rare moments of stillness and calm, particularly those in his scenes with Faith. Since Sherlock’s high for nearly the entire episode, Cumberbatch is also saddled with most of the episode’s visual trickery, and unlike some less successful installments, here these sequences serve to heighten, rather than diminish, the performance.

What sequences they are, too. It’s tough to pick a highlight from the episode’s more trippy first half, though the explanation of Sherlock’s deductions about the kitchen is perhaps the most lovely. Even without the visual trickery, it’s striking and superbly edited, leaping without warning from a scene to some brief, unsettling clip of Smith on television, then back to another, somehow related scene. Other transitions have a more playful feel, such as the mirrored window that slides up to reveal the hospital to which they’re traveling. Most affectingly, simple, clever choices in the directing and editing draw the eye away from a woman on who we’re not meant to linger, or reveal Mary leaning in a doorway or sitting in a limousine, always with John though not always seen.

It’s something of a relief to see Amanda Abbington here, though still one wishes she had a function beyond that of a Lost Lenore. She’s a good enough performer to transcend the trope, however, and she and Martin Freeman together create an intimate portrait of grief and guilt. In playing John’s hallucinations or daydreams of Mary, Abbington’s essentially also playing John Watson, and the combination of her warmth and compassion with his (mostly) restrained pain says more about that character’s journey than even an actor of Freeman’s caliber could do alone. This remains a badly bungled plot development, but “The Lying Detective” adds some of the emotional resonance that its predecessor sorely lacked.

Freeman is excellent, as always. That’s no surprise. In hindsight, the sparsity of good material for him in last week’s installment may have been one of its greatest weaknesses; as good as Cumberbatch is, the show never quite lands when he’s not at or very near its emotional center. If the final moments had never occurred, it’s likely that the big, memorable moments here would be John and Sherlock’s brutal brawl in the mortuary and their eventual reconciliation. It’s a scene that’s surely a delight for ‘shippers, but more importantly, it gives Cumberbatch and Freeman a chance to do the thing they do best together, the thing that’s always key when Sherlock succeeds: it lets them sit down and have a real, gently paced, and character-driven conversation.

Each of their scenes together works independently, but the emotional climax of their arc doesn’t land as it should, because there doesn’t actually seem to be much to repair. In an episode more willing to spend time with the two together, in pained silences or unuttered grievances, that final embrace may have landed like a punch to the gut. Instead, it’s a showcase for a terrific pair of actors, one of many moments scene that seems like it should be affecting, rather that one that actually manages that task.

Of course, when we look back on this episode in the years to come, none of this will leap immediately to mind. It’ll be the final scene that dominates, a reveal that’s genuinely unexpected. Some may have guessed that Sherlock’s mystery brother was actually a sister—if nothing else, it’s a nice parallel to the Harriet moment in the first episode. In this episode, some may have recognized Faith as the woman from the bus, or noticed that the woman at Smith’s table wasn’t the one who ate chips. (Full disclosure: I recognized her in those first two roles, but not the third, and never suspected she’d be the third Holmes.) Even the few who may have recognized the woman behind the therapists’ glasses, however, must acknowledge the remarkable, thorough transformations of Siân Brooke.

If this is truly the penultimate episode of Sherlock, the lateness of this addition to the cast will be a terrific shame. Brooke’s aided by some smart makeup and costuming choices, as well as the aforementioned cleverness in the direction (from Nick Hurran) and editing, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to her. It’s a masterful piece of acting, each with a voice utterly different from the others (and not simply in with regard to dialects, though that’s certainly an element) and a wildly different physicality. All of them pale in comparison to the briefly glimpsed Eurus Holmes, who’s more frightening in her few minutes than Charles Magnusson was in the entire third season. With one contact in and the other out, she’s a picture of imbalance, and while there‘s certainly still a chance this character could fall flat, it’s a hell of an introduction.

Through it all, we’ve got moments of Redbeard, a potential love interest for Mycroft (is Eurus under Lindsey Duncan’s face, too?), the looming specter of Moriarty and the question of his relationship to this lost Holmes sister, and dangling threads aplenty. It’s incredibly unlikely that next week’s big finish will provide satisfying answers and with an ending to the story of this friendship. Given that this may very well be the end of the line for Sherlock, that means viewers may have lingering disappointments for years to come. But failing all else, we’ll have one more showcase for some remarkable talents, and it’s just a little thrilling to know that there’s at least one new face in the mix.


The Worst:

The Six Thatchers, and The Final Problem

The Six Thatchers, unfortunately, deals with the antagonists, Mary Watson and Vivian Norbury (equally hiding in plain sight) as simply actors in a revenge plot (on Vivian’s behalf). Mary, in particular, gets seriously thrown under the bus though, as according to the Vox article, “Sherlock season 4 premiere: “The Six Thatchers” offers a disappointing end to a 3-year-old mystery“:

The trouble with Mary

Amanda Abbington’s arrival as Mary Morstan at the start of Sherlock season three seemed to accompany a shift in the show’s overall direction away from crime solving and toward a rhetorical plot cycle in which John attempts to swap his dysfunctional relationship with Sherlock for something healthier, only to fail because in the world of Sherlock, all roads and all people ultimately lead back to the title character himself. The people around him, even John, ultimately seem to exist only as extras in his world, showing up when needed to lecture, scold, or spurn him into a renewed sense of purpose or a showing of human decency. (This trait is so well developed that all the characters who appeared in 2016’s one-off, 1890s-set holiday special turned out to be Sherlock’s mental representation of them as pieces of his conscience.)

Mary, who was initially the only character whose storyline seemed totally independent of Sherlock’s, fully upset this pattern for a moment. Ultimately, however, the show gave her very little autonomy; in the final episode of season three, her entire mysterious and unrevealed history — which fans have spent the past three years debating — was framed as an insight into John’s character rather than Mary herself. We learned that she was a secretive former assassin, and that she lied her way into John’s life after stealing a new identity; but this entire story was framed as a story about John, not Mary — a story of how John was drawn to her because he was a reckless thrill seeker.

The larger questions season three raised about Mary — whom or what she had been working for, what her new role would be now that her old career was known, and how the birth of a wee baby Watson would affect her and John’s relationship with Sherlock — were shelved until this season. Alas, Moffat does not have the world’s most excellent track record for giving women arcs with agency and satisfying plot resolutions, and it seems Mary is no exception to this pattern.

Who is Mary Morstan? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.

Although “The Six Thatchers” gave Mary plenty of chances to be badass, the episode revealed her entire assassin arc to be not a foray into independence from Sherlock and his radius of dysfunction, but an enabling of it.

“The Six Thatchers” casts Mary as the victim of a routine revenge plot carried out by a former co-agent of hers from her days as a hired assassin. Through total coincidence, Sherlock is the one who figures out that someone is attempting to kill her, which prompts him to embark on a misguided attempt to protect her that ultimately results in her death. After identifying the shadowy government figure behind a plot to kill Mary and her fellow agents, Sherlock unnecessarily goads the suspect into taking a shot at him.

This moment is the inevitable result of three seasons’ worth of Sherlock’s hubris and refusal to heed warnings or take seriously the judgment of anyone besides himself; and when Mary just as inevitably jumps in front of him, sacrificing her own life for his, it should feel like a wake-up call and a moment of reckoning. Sherlock registers a glimmer of self-awareness that her death is his fault, but by this point, the show seems to be so far immersed in the cult of worship around its antihero that the scene is hardly more than an afterthought. By episode’s end, Mary herself — via posthumous “If you’re reading this, I’m dead” message sent to Sherlock via a video file — is giving Sherlock permission to insert himself right back into the center of John’s life, thus making her death all about his relationship with his best friend.

John, meanwhile, had cheated on Mary emotionally before her death; his grief sees him processing his obvious guilt as anger toward Sherlock for failing to protect her. Given all the terrible things Sherlock has done to John directly over the course of their friendship that John has inexplicably managed to forgive — including lying to John, drugging John, sending John into a PTSD-triggering war zone, and making John watch as Sherlock faked his death before pretending to be dead for two years — the fact that Sherlock’s failure to save Mary is the final straw that threatens to cause a permanent rift in John and Sherlock’s friendship does even more injustice to Mary’s narrative. Her story was never her own story; it was always about fueling the heart of the series, the relationship between Sherlock and John.

Just as Mary came into the picture, married John, and gave birth to their child, she ceases to matter just like that. Such a waste of a character, but not surprising.

While The Six Thatchers ends Mary’s story to further Sherlock and Watson’s development, The Final Problem is such a magical busy mess that undermines the show itself. Moffat is not known to me for not really ending story arcs well. Take Doctor Who’s The Time of the Doctor, which concludes the Silence Will Fall/Cracks in the Universe/Oldest Question in the Universe/Trenzalore story arcs throughout the Eleventh Doctor era. It’s just as incoherent and ridiculous as this Sherlock story. For example:

  • Why did Eurus reprogram Moriarty, but not Mycroft?
  •  If she was the one who sent out Moriarty’s image across England, how would she expect Sherlock to know that it wasn’t Moriarty, but actually her?
  • Why did Eurus-as-E, Eurus-as-Faith, or Eurus-as-therapist never come up during this story? Seems odd that for such an important element of Watson cheating on Mary with her, or her meeting with Sherlock, it would just never come up. Furthermore, why pose as Faith to get near Sherlock, only to do nothing with that at all?
  • What exactly was the point of blowing up Sherlock’s flat?


The general depiction of Eurus in this episode was, by far, incredibly problematic, as according to the Den of Geek review:

All Eurus needed was love too. Trapped in her Mind Palace, she simply wanted her brother’s love, but, typical woman, instead of asking him outright, dropped hints, wrote him a coded song, flew a grenade drone into his flat, trapped him in the Crystal Maze of doom, invented a metaphorical plane, killed a bunch of non-metaphorical people and almost drowned his best friend.

Appearing to have the resources of a Bond baddie and the mutant powers of all the X-Men combined (we never saw her sprout wings or grow blue fur, but I’m sure she could have if she’d wanted to) Eurus made a fair supervillain. Her comic-book name? Intellecto perhaps, or Professor E.

The speed of her transformation from evil genius to vulnerable child though, was this episode’s toughest sell. As soon as Sherlock solved her cry-for-help riddle and bounded up those stairs her malevolence powered down so completely that she could be trusted back in the same cell she’d effortlessly broken free of in the same prison-asylum she’d turned into her own personal human experimentation lab. That must have been some hug. He should have tried it on Moriarty and saved everyone a lot of bother.

Up until Eurus’ 360, the episode’s liberties taken with logic were easier to ignore. (If she was so worried about Sherlock putting that gun to his head, why explode 221B Baker Street with him inside? Would a family really never mention a dead child? Just how good were the transport links to and from this island that she could skip about flirting on buses, giving therapy sessions and eating chips without Mycroft hearing of it, no matter how many people she’d brainwashed? We could go on.)

In the same way it was hard to understand Madame Kovarian’s motivations during Doctor Who Series 6, it’s just as difficult to understand Eurus’ motivation.

And yet the moment I saw the girl in the airplane, I knew it was Eurus, because I know Moffat’s writing. It also seemed re-used from Doctor Who‘s The Bells of Saint John as well.

The elements of Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft waking up in Sherrinford, and even more so when Sherlock and Watson wake up near the Homes family estate, Musgrave, seems to have influences from Saw.

This is compounded by Eurus and Moriarty seen on the video inside Sherrinford, much like Jigsaw has done before.

Watson’s scene in the Well also seemed to remind me of Rachel Keller in a similar situation from The Ring.

When Sherlock visits Eurus inside Sherrinford, her hair looks remarkably similar to Samara from The Ring as well, when she attacks him. Apparently, this was a cross-genre story.

The brief scenes of Moriarty was relatively pointless, and much of the clips of him seen throughout the episode were very much obnoxiousness. Eurus is no Moriarty, and in this episode, Moriarty was nothing more than a shadow. Are video clips of dead characters supposed to be scary? I think not.

The Sherrinford location reminded me an awful lot of the Gothic castle setting seen in Doctor Who‘s Heaven Sent.

Additionally, The Final Problem, as inspiration, was also a problem, having been witnessed twice in Sherlock: The first time in The Reichenbach Fall, where Sherlock faked his death, and the second inside Sherlock’s Mind Palace during The Abominable Bride. This made it the third time, and it was not the charm.

Additionally, Sherlock playing a violin to communicate with Eurus reminds me of the Star Trek: Voyager episode, “The Void,” which features Fantome, a species native to the Void, who communicate through music.

And finally, Mycroft is depicted here as being “stupid” regarding Eurus, yet in the previous episode, The Empty Hearse, Myrcroft is shown to having similar abilities to Sherlock. Continuity error, most certainly.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Six Thatchers:

“Friends? Well, he only has the one.”

Near the end of Alan Cumming’s otherwise charming introduction to the PBS airing of Sherlock, he lets that little sentence drop, complete with a wry smile. It’s a fitting moment—honest, affectionate, and a little disappointing. The series spent considerable time in the last two seasons telling us that Sherlock Holmes has friends beyond Watson (though he’s clearly the most important). Moriarty even uses this against Sherlock in the climactic rooftop scene in “The Reichenbach Fall”—John, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade all have guns trained on them—and the fact that he fails to include Molly in that group plays a key role in Sherlock’s survival. Add Mary and you’ve got five friends, but you wouldn’t know it here: the story of “The Six Thatchers” makes it clear that there’s really only one that matters to the show runners, for better or worse. Here, it’s a little of both.

There’s certainly plenty of better. “The Six Thatchers” is a solid season-opener, an entertaining and sometimes affecting entry that’s light on the mystery but doesn’t want for plot development. The mystery of the six Thatchers mostly serves as a set-up to dig into the realities and repercussions of Mary’s backstory, and whether or not that works for you likely depends on whether or not you’re bothered by the whole detective business taking a backseat. If you’re not, there’s plenty to like here: some fun hijinks with a dog and a baby, there’s a rattle involved, lots of dashed-off cases, and a hell of a fight scene with one of Mary’s former secret agent pals. The twist in the Thatcher case, modeled after “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” feels completely organic, a clever bait-and-switch that neatly sends the episode into its back half. Add in a great guest turn from Marcia Warren and there’s no shortage of things to admire.

Still, the meat here is in the changing nature of the show’s relationships, in Sherlock’s flaws, now truly fatal, and the costs of living a dangerous life. That’s particularly true when you treat everything like a game, and turn those around you into players, risks be damned. In some ways, it feels that the whole series has been building to Sherlock’s taunting monologue to an armed woman with nothing to lose, and it’s likely that all that remains will spin painfully, chaotically out from it, too.

It seems at first a bit comical as a theme, given the last-minute reversal in “His Last Vow,” but “The Six Thatchers” is about consequences. From “An Appointment in Samarra” to Mary’s final message, episode writer Mark Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft) makes it plain that the actions taken by the show’s central trio send ripples out into the world. The merchant in Baghdad, Rosamund/Mary, and Norbury can’t outrun those ripples. John can’t outrun the reality of his choices.

And then there’s Sherlock, who for the first time seems to be dealing with what his actions can cost others. At the episode’s beginning, he’s getting away with murder, quite literally. By the end, he’s dealing with the death of a friend and the loss of the most important relationship in his life, with a task that seems impossible to complete left to him by a woman he cannot possibly refuse. “Go to hell, Sherlock,” she says. It seems all but certain that, metaphorically at least, he will.

The best episodes of Sherlock share this thematic richness, and so ”The Six Thatchers” seems like it should join that group. It’s got a classic, somewhat faithfully adapted Holmes tale that ties into the larger story, in therms of both plot and theme; it gives a group of world-class actors the chance to dig their teeth into this juicy material; it blends off-kilter humor with moments that twist the knife, and contributes to the development of two character studies as good as nearly any others on television (though in this episode, Holmes gets the lion’s share). Yet it’s somewhat unsatisfying, an episode that feels like it should be excellent rather than one that‘s content to be good. And key to that dissonance is the aforementioned issue of Sherlock’s friends, particularly the one that dies.

Amanda Abbington is terrific, as always, giving a performance that’s thoughtful, funny, warm, and even chilling at times. It makes perfect sense that a character actually trained to do the things Sherlock and John run around doing would take a bullet. In doing so she clears a debt, protects a friend and her husband, and confronts what (based on the video) she clearly thought was likely inevitable: that her past would catch up with her in violent fashion. Mary’s death scene is deeply affecting and not a little unexpected, even with all that foreshadowing, and yet it doesn’t quite land.

Despite the fact that the character’s choice seems justified and underlines her friendship with Sherlock, Mary’s death feels like a pure, undiluted plot device. Arriving as it does, with John ready to rush in so she can die in his arms, it’s an event that screams set-up in its every particular. Mary may choose to die for reasons that matter, but Gatiss and Steven Moffat handle it in such a way that almost before the moment has passed, it’s stopped being about Mary and started being about that Watson-Holmes dynamic we love so. She died so they could react. Her death is about them, not about her.

That’s not to say that either the writing or the actors give Mary’s death short shrift—it drives Sherlock to therapy, for crying out loud, one of three instances in which someone else fills Watson’s traditional place in the chairs. (The others: Mrs. Hudson, as they discuss Mary’s death, and a red balloon that’s a funny sight gag at first and an unsettling visual in hindsight.) Benedict Cumberbatch may never have been better as Sherlock than he is as Mary dies; grief, shock, and dawning horror at his role in her death run across his face, making it the most expressive moment Sherlock has ever had. Martin Freeman’s keening is, if possible, even more upsetting on a second viewing, and as ever, he’s a master of saying a great deal with the simplest of gestures (watch the way he holds her head). Everyone in the scene does their best work, so naturally, it works.

So, yes, it’s all affecting stuff. Still, there’s no avoiding that it feels a bit convenient, even cheap. It’s always disappointing when a compelling character gets reduced to a plot device in this way, particularly when it’s a woman (because it happens so frequently). All Sherlock fans welcome a complex storyline for John and Sherlock, but in this case, what’s desired comes at a cost. In this case, the cost is a satisfying death for a character that deserves better.

All that aside, it’s hard not to be impressed and encouraged by “The Six Thatchers.” Director Rachel Talalay (also behind Doctor Who’s terrific “Death in Heaven”) nimbly adopts the show’s visual style, bringing back the shimmering light of what at first seems to be a pool (a la ”The Great Game”) but is revealed to be the aquarium; there’s also a terrific moment there a fragment of Thatcher’s broken face replaces Sherlock’s. That poolside fight with A.J. is a highpoint for action in the series, and as always, Sherlock excels at leaving tantalizing threads dangling. It’s a bit convoluted at points, and Mary’s death may be a bit of a disappointment, but for the most part this is solid Sherlock. It was well worth the long, long wait.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Final Problem:

If this is the end of Sherlock, the last we’ll see of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson—and all protestations aside, this felt every inch a series finale—it makes for a lousy farewell.

Sherlock has never been a perfect show. There have been consistent elements, to be sure. It was from the beginning, and remains, a terrific showcase for a talented ensemble headed by two world-class performers, each in a role uniquely suited to his abilities. It’s a great place to turn for hallucinatory visuals and pithy dialogue, for twists and turns and unapologetic theatrics. For a better or worse, it’s a mystery series that always at least attempted to put character development first and answers second (something that’s held true from “A Study in Pink”). Sometimes it was just fun, and that was fun. Sometimes it was more, and that was great. Sometimes it was a mess, and that is what it is. “The Final Problem” is all of those things, but above all else, it’s a mess.

The strengths and weaknesses of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s series have always been echoed in its titular character. It flies high and is brought low by its own cleverness; it treats selflessness and compassion as the most sacred of values while mistreating the compassionate, selfless people who inhabit its world. Many of Sherlock’s finest moments have come when the show either took its characters very seriously or itself much less so. Nearly all its worst moments have come when the series seemed to car more about its own brilliance than these people and the story they inhabit. Now we’ve got a new exhibit A, an episode that’s so close to incoherent that it’s easy to overlook the wonderful moments threaded throughout the bullshit.

It’s a shame, because there’s something to the overall arc that “The Final Problem” gives to Sherlock as a whole (or, at best, as the first long chapter in some longer story). If this is the story of a man who has spent his whole life believing himself incapable or simply above everyday human emotions, then his end as a part of two families feels fitting. The revelation that this person who believes himself to be a sociopath was driven to his state of loneliness and cruelty by a severe childhood trauma might be a bit much, but it makes sense. It makes the story of Watson and Holmes one in which a friendship saves two men from horrors visited on them in their lives. Unfortunately, it’s all so mired in twists and turns and torture that neither the friendship nor the mysteries that brought these men together get to play much of a role. We’re too busy being ricocheted from the scary clown to the drone grenade to the boat capture to the costumes and the violin and the dangling brothers and the plane, the plane.

Things are never simple with this series. There’s brilliance and blunders and things that are both. As this might be the last time we do this dance, let’s make room for each.

“The Final Problem” has a problem with coherence

How do Sherlock, Mycroft, and John infiltrate Sherrinford? By stealing some boats and wearing some costumes, apparently. How exactly does Eurus end up presumed dead and in the world’s most high-security prison? Something about Uncle Rudy and Mycroft, who was maybe a child but also maybe not a child at the time. Why does Sherlock hire a clown to scare Mycroft into confessing the truth about their sister? No idea.

Sherlock wouldn’t be Sherlock without bizarre left turns and inexplicable acts. It never mattered which pill was poisoned in “A Study in Pink,” and while the show’s gleeful insistence that all would be explained made “The Empty Hearse” just a little bit intolerable, the means by which Sherlock escaped his fall didn’t matter much, either. There’s no shortage of logic and reason at play, but this show has always left questions unanswered. It doesn’t matter how Sherlock landed on the roof of that boat, or how he and John made Mycroft’s paintings cry blood. What matters is why, and what we’re meant to take from it—and that’s a total damn mystery (and not the good kind).

The closest one can come to summarizing this episode in one sentence would probably go something like this: “Sherlock gets tortured by his sister until he realizes all she really wanted was love, and they all live happily ever after.” It’s a strange and reductive ending, but Eurus’s story fails to satisfy for reasons beyond the trite. Look at the final two scenes between the pair, and try to draw a line from those moments to the reappearance of Moriarty at the end of “His Last Vow.” We’re shown that this plan has been in motion for at least five years, since prior to the arrival of Eurus’s Christmas treat (also, as it turns out, a treat for viewers like you). A lifelong fixation on a long-lost brother? Fine. A plot years in the making designed to punish him? Fine. The end-game, though? It simply doesn’t scan.

Eurus (Sian Brooke, captivating and largely wasted) can manipulate anyone into doing anything, we’re told. Yet to get her brother to be nice to her, she has to create an elaborate deathtrap and murder at least six people along the way (the three brothers, the governor and his wife, and the woman who was supposed to be John’s new therapist). She’s capable of identifying the dates and times of future terrorist attacks after spending an hour of Twitter but can’t bend her troubled brother to her will without getting someone else to record a load of crazy videos on her behalf and playing them on a loop (the return of Andrew Scott is extremely welcome, but perhaps Moriarty’s contribution to this scheme could have been more than a glorified cameo). And when all the shouting’s done, all she really wanted was for someone to figure out that she was the girl on the plane, because the plane was a metaphor and she never got to be a pirate. The best way to get to be a pirate seems to be to attempt to murder another friend of her brother’s, this time the one she already shot—with a tranquilizer, for no apparent reason.

This lack of sense is echoed elsewhere, and while some of it can be ascribed to the many blindspots of the Holmes brothers, one can only suspend so much disbelief with characters we’ve grown to know so well. It’s as though Moffat and Gatiss, who co-wrote the episode, simply forgot to make sure that the characters were in character, and that their stories made sense. Confusion is to be expected, even welcomed, and ambiguity can be even richer than certainty at times. This isn’t ambiguous. It’s a muddled, showboating mess. The fact that there’s not much mystery to this mystery is really the least of its problems.

Molly Hooper, John Watson, and the trouble with consequences

One of the most affecting, well-acted scenes in “The Final Problem” arrives near the middle of Eurus’s elaborate “experiment.” In a series of tests seemingly designed to determine how effectively Sherlock has choked off his emotional life, Eurus forces him to make choices that will result in devastation and death. This one, though, requires no bullets or death sentences—Eurus forces Sherlock to get Molly Hooper to say the words “I love you,” and if he doesn’t succeed, she’ll die.

It’s an emotionally rich and nuanced scene, and features some of Louise Brealey’s best work as Molly. It’s arguably Cumberbatch’s best scene in the episode as well—he balances fear and anger with shame, sorrow, and remorse. Her refusal to pick up the phone stings. Her acknowledgment of his cruelty hits still harder. Her insistence that he say those words first, and his first forced attempt gives way to a devastatingly simple one that’s ripe with the aforementioned ambiguity these writers do so well, when they so choose. It’s a gripping scene with an ending that cuts deep: of course there was no bomb. Sherlock just wrecked that poor woman, and himself, for nothing.

And that’s it. No consequences. It hurts, but doesn’t linger. So what if it relegates a character, once again, to the position of lovelorn girl friday? We’ve got to get on to the next epic set piece.

The biggest issue with Sherlock’s typically brief fourth season is exactly that: nothing seems to stick. By episode’s end, Molly’s skipping in the door with a smile on her face; whether she’s arriving in response to a message Sherlock sent to a person unnamed, we’ll never know. There’s no price to pay for years of mistreatment capped off with a doozy of a phone call like that.

Much the same can be said of John Watson, who seems to have left any grief and guilt he had concerning the death of his wife in the same place Sherlock left his drug abuse. Beyond the appearance of Eurus, a brief mention of John’s marriage, and a final, incredibly trite DVD from Mary, nothing in “The Final Problem” connects to the serious and damaging events of the previous two episodes. John’s emotional affair with the disguised Eurus, his potentially orphaned daughter, the tremendous strain on his friendship with Sherlock, Sherlock’s failing health and struggles with addiction—all are set side. So, yes, watching Molly Hooper’s heart break stings like nothing else. Watching John Watson volunteer to die means a great deal. But there’s no proof that these things stick, and why would they? Nothing else does.

Oh, and Mycroft gets told off by his parents. That’s a consequence.

“Which one’s pain?”

In spite of it all, this is still Sherlock, a frustrating but often brilliant adaptation of stories about a frustrating but often brilliant man and the people who populate his world. If this is to be their swan song, let no one say that Moffat and Gatiss phoned it in. For its many, many flaws and its total misfire of an ending, “The Final Problem” offers a few scenes, images, and pieces of writing that rival the best the series has ever achieved.

Unexpectedly, the episode’s MVP may be Gatiss himself. While it’s unfortunate that Mycroft seemed to get dumber just in time for the finale, Gatiss gives what’s without question his best performance of the series. He, Freeman and Cumberbatch make a great deal of their restrained, grenade-side conversation, his wily smile as he’s revealed to be the grizzled sea captain is a beauty to behold, and his ice-cold recitation of Eurus’s childhood question, “Which one’s pain?,” is a brilliant moment of both writing and acting. Top of the list, however, is the moment in which Mycroft attempts to bait Sherlock into killing him, so that he won’t be quite so tortured by the choice. Freeman and Cumberbatch are, expectedly, terrific in this scene as well, Freeman especially so, but it’s Mycroft’s turn to shine, and Gatiss really makes the most of it.

He’s not alone in this, however. As mentioned above, Sian Brooke is once again riveting, though she’s given much less to do with much more screen time. Brealey, Una Stubbs (Mrs. Hudson), and poor Amanda Abbington all do terrific work with what they’re given, brief though it may be. And the bizarre, blissful return of Andrew Scott gives us the episode’s most Internet-friendly moment, thanks to a grandiose and appropriately off-kilter entrance soundtracked by Queen. The fact that it’s all a flashback doesn’t make his almost-return-from-the-dead any less satisfying (though the abundance of video clips afterward do).

Still, the best moment of the episode belongs to the trio of men who’ve sat closest to its center all along, and it’s the closest the episode comes to really capturing what its final moments so desperately oversell:

SHERLOCK: John stays.

MYCROFT: It’s family!

SHERLOCK: That’s why he stays.

It’s a moment of pitch-perfect acting and writing, capturing so much of this long, complicated relationship in three quick lines and one brief, slightly sad smile from Martin Freeman. This is the kind of reward one hopes for at the end of a long, lovely run.

Last, while the episode contains more visual clunkers than the average Sherlock outing—that Mycroft scare sequence is only unsettling for the briefest of moments, and the explosion of 221B has to be the single worst visual effect the show has ever filmed—it’s still a treat for the eyes, particularly the moment in which the walls of Sherlock’s prison fall away to reveal Musgrave. It’s worth the ridiculous notion that Sherlock would fail to notice the lack of glass between he and his sister for the breathtaking moment in which their hands meet, and the show’s familiar perspective-altering pans and falls remain surprising and unnerving.

Even sub-par Sherlock still has moments of pure, unadulterated brilliance. Even the shoddiest storytelling gives world-class artists a chance to shine. And even at its, and his, lowest, Sherlock remains as captivating as ever. It‘s easy to wish for a better goodbye, for a final episode that doesn’t undermine so much of what came before. It would be nice for a finale that comes closer to the lovely character studies and perfect little mysteries that made Sherlock so special in the first place. But like the great reasoner himself, Sherlock is what it is, flaws and all. The chance to curse and marvel at it, in equal measure, is one we will surely miss.


Next in the best and worst is Series 3.

6 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 4

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