By Chris B
The fourth series of the BBC’s Sherlock, for better or for worse, is over.
This installment offered a number of delicious twists, from Mrs. Hudson as a bad-ass stunt driver to the revelation of the Holmes brothers’ third sibling, a sister, as the most devastatingly clever of them all.
One aspect that always deserves praise is the quality of the acting. True to form, the series leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, are stellar. They both compel the audience to watch the screen intently, because every glance, every micro-expression, is meaningful and enthralling. This degree of skill is wonderful to witness.
A superb addition to the cast this season was actress Sian Brooke as the many faces of Eurus Holmes. Her uncanny ability to transform herself from a suicidal young woman, to a middle-aged German therapist, to the coldly insane patient at the Sherrinford institution, is remarkable. She is successful in masking her identity from the audience until the moment of her revelation, truly hiding in plain sight.
However, there are many ways in which this series strayed painfully from its long-standing reputation for quality writing, tight construction, and consistent characterization. In doing so, it has violated some of its own verbal tenants, words that echo in the background of a very tumultuous run.
Below are three critical ways that the latest three episodes of Sherlock rewrote its own memories, much as it titular character did; in doing so, it lost sight of itself and its own infamously careful path.
“The game was too elaborate.”
It is the undoing of Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Belgravia.” She flaunts her cleverness in front of her audience, forgetting that they (Sherlock and Mycroft) are just as clever as she; she overestimates her abilities, and when she feels invincible, she ends up revealing her fallibility (in the form of Sherlock’s name as her phone passcode). She loses, in a big way; were it not for the compassion of Sherlock and his subsequent efforts to save her, she’d have been unceremoniously beheaded in the desert.
Her near demise seems to have gone unheeded in the planning of Sherlock’s fourth series. The plot arc became an untenable monster, one that could not be covered to any satisfying degree within a mere three episodes. In 4.5 hours, it is utterly impossible to adequately handle the twists and turns of Mary’s backstory, the true nature of the Watsons’ marriage issues, Mary’s demise, Sherlock’s drug binges, a murderous celebrity, a secret sister, a Shutter Island fortress from Hell, the Saw Olympics at Eurus’s behest, the entire Holmes family backstory, the destruction and resurrection of 221B, and the recapitulation of Jim Moriarty.
Gatiss and Moffat undoubtedly are clever men, and they clearly had big plans. They had every reason to ride high on the show’s popularity and the ravenous anticipation for the new series to be released. But when anyone, regardless of innate talent, attempts essentially to stuff a month’s worth of clothing into an overnight bag, failure is imminent. It cannot be done. Inevitably, nothing fits; the items end up wrinkled, you leave out what you need most, and you cannot zip the whole bag together at all, making it a confusing, sloppy mess.
Thus, what we ended up with in Series 4 ceased to be fast-paced; it became rushed. We get a couple of flashbacks of Mary on the job, but no information about her heinous acts that would’ve gotten the attention of Magnussen in Series 3. Toby Jones’s Culverton Smith had been much lauded as the sickest villain ever, but we see just a couple of scenes of him before he’s brought down with relative ease, though why he was even necessary is a mystery when the really intriguing villains, Mary Morstan or Eurus Holmes, could easily have toyed with our heroes more thoroughly and with higher stakes, if given the space to really work their hideous genius upon John and Sherlock.
A saving grace? The show’s loyal fans. Whether from respect or kindness, some have actually theorized that this implosion of quality was really a self-inflicted, conscious sabotage to make a point; others suggest that there is a magical fourth episode waiting in the wings that will allow all of us to climb successfully out of the massive plot sinkholes. That is how much the audience cares about the show and respects its team: it looks for ways to bail them out, to pick them up when they seem to stumble. And it’s a good thing. If not for that dedication, Sherlock could figuratively suffer far worse than that decapitation in the sand.
“I don’t like loose ends. Not on my watch.”
Mycroft is most adamant about this dictum, yet there are enough loose threads hanging in Series 4 to choke a yak.
In “The Six Thatchers,” for instance, why is John typing a fake blog? He clicks away at it, though we can clearly see that the screen holds a fixed image. More, though, why had John already published a blog entry about The Six Thatchers, one that is never mentioned? Later, why do John and Mary receive such drastically different texts from Sherlock about coming to the aquarium? Mary’s is a call-back to Sherlock’s interactions with Moriarty, which is highly suggestive, but it is dropped, just like the reason why Mary is referred to as a shark-like villain before the episode airs, but there’s no content to support that dire foreshadowing and she emerges as some kind of shining hero. Also, what was in the note John wrote to Sherlock? The fact that he hasn’t spoken to his best friend at all yet takes the time to sit down to pen his thoughts seems relevant, but this goes nowhere. And what was gained from the session with John’s original therapist? What was Sherlock’s recurring dream?
For “The Lying Detective,” what becomes of the memory drug that Smith uses on his friends? It is suggested that it may have been utilized on Sherlock as well, causing his hallucinatory state (beyond his concocted smack), but that is, ironically enough, forgotten. At the end of the episode, why does Eurus shoot John with a tranquilizer dart (when the image we see is of a smoking gun) and then just leave him there to be found? If she’s the “era-defining genius” and dangerous psychotic that we are led to believe, this is awfully sloppy, or bizarrely kind, behavior.
“The Final Problem” has many lingering questions, not the least of which is how Eurus arranged all of her shenanigans—painting the walls, getting delivery of a fake coffin to an unknown island, acquiring and labeling a dog bowl for a victim who she knows is really a child, constructing a fake room in the Holmes front yard; and capturing, transporting, and stringing up of a bevy of Garridebs. We are led to believe that she “enslaves” people, but this would take a degree of planning and funding that pushes credulity to its limits. Further, did her enslavement capabilities mean she reprogrammed Jim Moriarty, too? Was she responsible for his actions with respect to Sherlock’s fall? What did they discuss in those fateful five minutes on Christmas?
Then, in the film of Eurus enslaving Sherrinford’s governor, why do we hear her echo a corrupted version of what Mary had said in the first of her DVD set to Sherlock: “Helping someone is the best way you can help yourself”? John seems to take note, looking suddenly at the screen, but nothing more comes of that. Immediately after, we see John go out to the balcony overlooking the sea; he is strangely anxious, as if seeing something of concern out there or recalling a specific trauma, but that, too, goes nowhere.
And when and how did Sherlock doctor a movie film of Mycroft’s and set up pictures in his home to bleed? If time is of the essence as the East wind blows their way, why bother? Still, if Eurus is free to come and go as she pleases from Sherrinford, why does she ever return to it? Why bother? In addition, how do John and Sherlock leap from a high level of a building onto a concrete city street, showered with glass and flaming debris, with nary a broken bone nor tiny scratch? Later, how does John escape from the well via rope when he’s chained to the ground? Did Eurus produce some kind of skeleton key from underneath her nighty? For that matter, how could a well have existed on that property and not have been searched years ago when Victor went missing? And why would Sherlock have been associated with water imagery his whole life when he had no idea where his childhood friend had ended up? If the well was never searched, why would water have traumatized or fascinated an adult Sherlock?
I guess puzzling over the answers, tying its own knots in the strands of thread, is the audience’s final problem.
“I know who you really are.”
Before Series 4, character is the primary thing that Sherlock got exactly right. Without this, there is no way that the audience could have attached to the show as it has; characters are the bridge, the key reason to consume any work of fiction. If we do not care about the people, we will not care about their exploits. We watch them subtly grow and change, evolving as they should, in ways that make sense to their core personalities and true heart.
This is why seeing the characters suddenly behave in ways contrary to who they have been is as jarring as fingernails down a chalkboard.
An example of this is Molly Hooper. Her infatuation with Sherlock was quite clear as the series began, and though he never returned her romantic feelings, she continued to moon for him until the beginning of series three. In “The Empty Hearse,” Molly has a brief and unsuccessful run as a stand-in for John, helping with a couple of Sherlock’s cases. However, doing so makes both Sherlock and her each realize important facts: there is no substitute for John in Sherlock’s heart, and Molly (for her own preservation) cannot keep pretending that she ever will be more than Sherlock’s friend. They reach this understanding and literally go their separate ways on the sidewalk.
After that, then, it makes no sense why “The Final Problem” would attempt to dredge that up again, showing Molly to be weepy and sniveling over Sherlock, claiming to be still in love with him, to the point
where she cannot say the words aloud, even just for a case, because it is too painful. This sudden, gushing turn doesn’t reveal anything about Molly, nor Sherlock; rather, it simply undercuts Molly’s previous development. It is a waste of her time, and ours, to see a resolved problem scraped off the wall and re-pasted here.
Another character anomaly occurs with John. The doctor is much beloved for his loyalty and strength. Thus, for him to have engaged in an emotional affair with a random woman on a bus was most unexpected. But, truthfully, I could buy this. Given a context of significant strife and distance between he and Mary, it might be comprehensible.
Really, it is very early in their marriage when John discovers his wife is a lying psychopath; then, they have “months of silence” before John agrees to forgive her in “His Last Vow” (though his face when he hugs her indicates he’s not prepared to do anything of the kind). Immediately after that, Magnussen is killed and Sherlock is put on a plane for a mere four minutes; since Mary is very pregnant at that point, it cannot be more than a few more weeks until Rosie is born.
If one takes the timeline into account, then it would start to make sense how John’s actions might fit the character that we know. He has never been happily married to Mary. He followed through with his obligations, but seeing his perpetual glass of alcohol and his repressed expression when Mary abruptly decides the child’s name without even consulting her husband, he has had a hard time maintaining that sham. It still is hard to imagine the staid John Watson as any kind of a cheater, but as Sherlock reassures him, John is only human, just like the rest of us.
John turning on Sherlock, though, makes no sense. The vitriol that he sprayed on his closest friend is not supported by the “You made a vow!” accusation. This is the man who was willing to die for John twice, the one who’s sacrificed himself time and again so John could be safe. It does not gel that John would blame Sherlock for Mary leaping in front of the bullet; John has not witnessed Sherlock’s taunting of Ms. Norbury, so he’s no basis to believe that Sherlock had anything to do with it. Even if John is only dumping his own guilt onto a safe target, it does not explain how he could have savagely beat Sherlock in the morgue, pounding and kicking him until blood pools on the floor. That is unacceptable from the John Watson we know.
Then, as he, Mycroft, and Sherlock are engaged in Eurus’s experiments, we see more uncharacteristic behavior from John. At one point, Sherlock refuses to play along, pointing the gun at himself, ready to die instead of kill. What is John’s response to seeing the person he loves most place a gun to his own throat? Nothing. He just waits while Sherlock counts down from ten. He doesn’t try to talk to him, he doesn’t offer comfort, he doesn’t cry. He just stands there. After everything that had happened, from Mary’s death to the emotional reconnection in 221B, would John be so passive? Not a chance.
Sherlock, too, is muted in the finale. Without a thought, Sherlock dives into and pulls John from a burning fire in “The Empty Hearse.” He’s emotionally devastated when John rejects him in “The Six Thatchers,” haunted by images of the doctor from their early days. John is, by his own admission, his one true friend. So when he learns that John is trapped in a well that is rapidly filling with water, how does he respond? “Try as long as possible not to drown.” That’s pithy, Sherlock. We do not visibly see Sherlock make the devastating leap between losing a playmate years before and losing his soulmate in the present. Instead, he puts John off with a flippant remark, solves his sister’s song riddle, then has a chat and a hug with her in a burned-out bedroom. Yes, he must be delicate, but his subsequent request for her help in finding his friend almost feels like an afterthought, lacking the soul and emotion that the character has supposedly grown into in this series.
A final character swerve is with Mary. She is primed to be an excellent villain. In “The Empty Hearse,” she uses the exact same phrase on John that Charles Magnussen later would: “You should have that on a t-shirt.” Since the universe rarely offers such coincidence, it seems an omen. When we learn that she is actually a trained assassin who chooses to shoot Sherlock in the chest instead of simply talking to him, she ups the stakes. Then, in “The Abominable Bride,” we get the suggestion that she’s secretly working for Mycroft and might have other shady dealings yet to be revealed.
“The Six Thatchers” drags Mary’s AGRA past to the forefront. When the betrayal of her team resurfaces for her, she drugs Sherlock and goes on the run again, not giving her husband more than a note of good-bye. Bizarrely, though, we are to believe that Mary redeems herself with her leap in front of Sherlock. Good as it may have been, with that single act, she becomes an elevated martyr; she abruptly turns from self-serving stealth agent to self-sacrificing saint. There is no arc to the redemption. We do not get to see her lay a path to forgiveness, change her ways through her consistent behavior, earn our love. She simply “gave herself permission to have an ordinary life,” and when that didn’t seem to work out, she took off, not wanting John and Sherlock “hanging off her gun arm,” only returning when she’s tracked down by the duo and the other surviving member of her team. Despite this, taking the bullet in the aquarium wiped her slate clean.
It is even more difficult to swallow that Mary then becomes the voice that instructs John and Sherlock how to behave. Mary never seemed to treat John with much respect, let alone to know the inner workings of John’s heart; Sherlock is the one who loves John more than anyone (if we take the fact that he never once considers shooting John over Mycroft in “The Final Problem”) and can predict John’s behavior weeks out, so why is Mary the one offering the infomercial on how John operates internally? It is believable for Mrs. Hudson to throw the boys back together—she’s lived with them, cares for them as her own sons, and truly wants them to be happy. But Mary has not fairly achieved that right.
And Mary certainly did not earn the last word of the series in which she blithely informs John and Sherlock that she knows “who you really are…but who you really are doesn’t matter.” In a show that has billed itself not as a detective story, but as a story about a detective, how could that ever be true? If she tells them (and the audience) to focus only on the adventures and not the men behind the myth, then we all will have missed the very point of this entire show.
“It’s gone before you know it.”
“There must be something comforting about the number three; people always give up after three.”
To stop after the third point, like Culverton Smith, would be to ignore a necessary element—in this case, the fundamental way that Sherlock can make things right: by returning focus to its heart, the core duo of Sherlock and John.
There have been many reasons previously established for why John and Sherlock should be an official romantic couple. Series Four did nothing to change this; in fact, it only solidified why this is essential, should a fifth series become a reality.
When Sherlock is taken from him in “The Reichenbach Fall,” John is inconsolable; we see him catatonic in his chair, barefoot, non-functional. Just as meeting Sherlock had cured his limp, being without him causes pain to return, and we see John at the beginning of “The Lying Detective” standing in the shadows, rubbing the old war wound on his shoulder. Similarly, when John cuts Sherlock out of his life at the end of “The Six Thatchers,” Sherlock is unable to cope; the next episode has him strung out and plagued with flashbacks of John. He loses his keen observation skills, falling for Eurus’s ruse as Faith Smith. Thus, it is made clear that each needs the other to function. Once they are able to find their way back to one another in “The Lying Detective,” they are able to begin to heal from the damage that had been done by recent events.
It is important to also point out that it is not Mary’s intervention that makes the healing begin. Once John starts to engage with Sherlock, the images of Mary become less important; he briefly loses sight of her at the hospital, and at 221B, she disappears completely. Mary is only a device of John’s brain, his way to somehow externalize his emotions; everything that Ghost Mary says is really just John—the one who can’t stop thinking about Sherlock; the one who wants to linger and talk; the one who thinks of Sherlock as “[his] monster.”
For his part, Sherlock is so desperate to get John back that he puts himself in the mortal danger, both by compromising his health and by putting himself directly in the path of a serial killer. Then, when he sees that John is piqued by the well-timed text from Irene Adler, his first reaction is to pretend he hasn’t heard the sound, then to downplay it and suggest that the noise could have come from a different number, all to instinctively soothe John’s obvious spike of jealousy (which is confirmed by John’s internal snark at the “posh boy [who] is never knowingly under-cliched”). Their connection to one another is clear, and that is even before John finally lets his defenses down, and Sherlock enfolds him in a most intimate and tender embrace.
Ultimately, we are granted a small suggestion of a future, a rolling sequence in “The Final Problem” that shows John and Sherlock rebuilding their home, getting back to work, greeting friends, and caring for Rosie together. This glimpse is a positive step on the path that can lead us to back to what matters.
But for a series that purposely invokes the words of Oscar Wilde and is founded upon what is termed “the greatest love story never told,” and since it is a show that has the capacity to do justice to both, Sherlock needs to take the leap. As John himself would implore, “Do you have the first idea how lucky you are?” This production has the golden opportunity to give us—to give the characters—what no one ever has had the guts or the wisdom to do before.
It is time for the Sherlock team to heed its own words—
And get the hell on with it.