(Obviously this is gonna contain spoilers for Sherlock S4, I mean, read the title, what did you think was happening?)
It’s been a few months since the 4th series of Sherlock was released unto the world and now looking back on the (probably final) series was it the huge disappointment that many have suggested it was or was it as great as Sherlock can be at its best? My answer: a bit of both.
Let’s go episode by episode:
E1: The Six Thatchers
By a huge margin the weakest in the new series. Unfortunately the episode just managed to be boring with practically nothing memorable about it save being ‘the one where Mary died’. It’s a real shame Mary’s death was so bland, at least partially due to the killer being a character I cannot for love nor money remember the name of. In fact the main characteristic of the villain in the episode seemed to be the classic ‘woman is non-stereotypical female badass’ a trope astoundingly common in Moffat-written shows (look at Mrs Hudson, Missy, River Song, Mary) but that’s a hot-take for another day (also Mark Gatiss wrote this episode, not Moffatt but in a non-Holmesian manner I’m going to ignore all evidence that contradicts me) (2 sets of brackets in one sentence, how cool am I?).
As a character Mary was ok but written as if a small child had gone ‘I want a character that’s super-cool and is an international spy and rides a motorbike and has funny quips and loves her husband and doesn’t feel remorse for murdering a ton of people’ so I’m not too bothered by her departure. A lot of the time she just seemed a bit of a boring distraction from the 2 fleshed out, interesting characters you wanted to see interacting.
To be Frank, the end of the episode just left me baffled as well. Why would John be angry at Sherlock? From the way the scene was shot it just made no sense, it was obviously Mary’s choice to be killed and honestly, if Mary had time to get in front of Sherlock she clearly would have had time to push him out of the way. Also, why were they in an aquarium? It seemed like the show makers just wanted to have a nice background for the ‘Appointment in Samarra’ fable they were trying to tell and thought ‘while we’re here might as well film a scene’.
So in general, a pretty boring and forgettable episode, a far reach from the heights of Series 2.
E2: The Lying Detective
Now the show really gets back on firm ground, Mrs Hudson speeding through suburbs with a drugged up Sherlock in the boot and Toby Jones giving a masterfully creepy performance is exactly what the series needs to get back into gear. We return to Sherlock having gone back to the drugs in a self-destructive rampage for allowing Mary to die and losing the one person that matters most to him, John Watson. He is lost and can’t deduce with his usual flair and wit so the new case brought to him of one Culverton Smith is what is needed for him to get back into his form again.
At the same time time John Watson is struggling to come to terms with Mary’s demise leaving him as a single father as well as losing his best friend who he (for some reason) blames for her death. He’s seeing visions of his dead wife and has started speaking to a new therapist when Sherlock is forcibly returned to his life. Frankly, ghostly dead hallucination Mary is the best that Mary has been across the whole show and works perfectly as a tool to show John’s inner conflict about accepting Sherlock back into his life.
While trying to solve Smith’s case the background of Sherlock returning to old addictions works excellently and the thread throughout the episode of him not being able to differentiate reality from hallucination and trust his own thoughts kept me on edge. Especially when it comes to Smith’s daughter who, when she walks through the door in the morgue and looks eerily but not vastly different from Sherlock’s memories makes the viewer question how much of the episode, as seen through Sherlock’s drug-addled point of view, they are able to trust. This lack of distinction between Sherlocks mind and reality mirrors John’s hallucinations of Mary so while the case seems to be playing out in the foreground their mental turmoils are what are really taking centre stage in the episode. Sherlock’s return to old habits also gives us what, for my money, is one of the best moments the show has had in the Henry V monologue performed while high and tearing around 221B allowing us to peer into his maddening mind and letting Cumberbatch show of his Shakespearean skills.
The episode also employs time-jumps going back and forth between different points in Sherlock’s memory which adds to the confusion we’re supposed to feel as we lose track of events and facts as Sherlock is doing, this goes along with Smith’s supposed daughter’s confusion after being drugged adding to the unreliable nature of what we, the viewers are allowed to see. The whole episode works with this unhinged atmosphere and brings those watching into Sherlocks world as he battles both with criminals and with himself.
The Saville-esque, murderous, OTT antagonist of Smith with awkward jokes and slimy one-liners managed to be the first properly riveting villain since Moriarty, something that had been severely lacking since the evil master-mind’s departure. Jones’s performance was as excellent as he almost always is (see Marvellous for my personal favourite Toby Jones role) and really brings life into an episode that otherwise could have fallen into the same trap as His Last Vow, having an excellent plot centred around a villain I didn’t care about.
I think there is a pretty major misstep at the end of the episode in Mycroft’s decidedly odd relationship with Lady Smallwood, because, you know, Mycroft wants a girlfriend apparently (I want to make a point here about how Mycroft’s been coded gay throughout the whole show but I’ll end up in a social justice rant so let’s just say I don’t find it a believable pairing) also the idea that Sherlock ‘should’ be in a relationship with Irene Adler as John suggests is pretty bland and makes me want to shout ‘HE IS ASEXUAL!’ at the screen but I’m willing to forgive those for both the genuinely touching moment when John tells Sherlock that ‘it’s not ok’ and admits his guilt, Martin Freeman being a brilliant actor as always here, and for the genuinely surprising cliffhanger provided by the therapist at the end of the episode.
E3: The Final Problem
In the only episode with exactly the same title as one of the Conan Doyle originals (the last one, giving the viewers a clue as to the finality of the story) things are very much up and down.
Now a lot of people really trashed The Final Problem but I’m not going to. I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, no matter how over the top and non-sensical it was. I should probably preface this by saying that I saw the episode in a cinema, not sure if that effected my viewing, the only way I think it could have is the action scenes may have gone better with a bigger screen but just thought I’d say.
In the final episode we see Sherlock, John and Mycroft captured by Euros Holmes, a previously secret sibling that had been locked away because of her violent habits as a child. She makes them play crazed games testing their morals and seeing where their allegiances lie. As a central idea this is pretty enjoyable and certainly unpredictable as the stakes continuously increase. The episode ends with the reveal that Euros is an irreparably damaged individual that has been driven mad by her feeling of seclusion from humanity.
While the episode mainly focuses around the central trio the other big new player is Euros, the insane murderous Holmes sibling. I really liked her character, managing to be cold, creepy and crazed (yay for alliteration!) as well as unrelentingly broken by the way she was outcast. Sian Brooke played her well giving a solid and sad performance making those watching ill-at-ease while empathetic in the later scenes. I do wish though that if they were going to suggest that she was some long-term master villain they should have laid some groundwork A LOT earlier on, they did seem to have a lot of free time while they were cracking jokes and wedding planning in series 3 where she could have jumped in. The only other important characters were in cameos from Molly, Moriarty and Lestrade meaning that some of the time it did feel a bit of a ‘remember this person’s still here before the series ends’ fan-service sort of thing but honestly I don’t mind fan-service, there is literally nothing wrong with giving the people that enjoy and make a show successful what they want to see. I think Andrew Scott was a genius actor as always. Molly was played heartbreakingly well by Louise Brealey. I would have quite liked to have seen more of Lestrade in the fourth series as a whole considering he was a pretty major player in the earlier series and he was even given the background of having a cheating wife and an apparent interest in Molly that didn’t really go anywhere.
One tag that people seemed to be pouring on the episode is that it’s like Saw but honestly I think the two are intensely distinct in that Saw is about playing mind games to show a bit of gore and get the audience scared where as the ‘games’ in the Final Problem are about pointing out where the characters boundaries lie and pushing them to their limits so that their innermost thoughts are finally forced out in the open. It points out the obvious flaws in the logic and morality held by society, a bit unsubtly but still in a riveting edge of your seat sort of way. I’d also say that, considering it was likely to be the last episode, it allowed for some sort of real peril that one of the main characters could actually die and especially during the choosing who to kill scene that seemed fairly probable.
One big problem I did have was that some of it didn’t make sense and not in specific technical detail’s not quite right kind of way but in a huge plot points just don’t really fit kind of way. In detective fiction things not making sense is reeeealllly bad and it’s especially sad for me to see in a show as intelligently written and thoughtfully worked out as Sherlock. The big plot points that didn’t make sense (I’m not counting the rope down the well because I think it’s pretty obvious that was just a quick way to show ‘John got rescued’) are just glaringly obvious when you look at them in the context of the whole episode, so much so that you have to wonder how did no one point them out while filming. The most irritating ones include: the dog bowl, even though it turns out there’s no dog; Sherlock is nowhere near stupid enough to not notice no glass in a frame and, most frustratingly of all, how, when they have just spent 5 minutes explaining that they were definitely going to die, did they not die(?!!?!??!!).
Another criticism regularly thrown at the episode is ‘it’s not really a detective show any more’ and ‘I liked it when they just solved crimes’ but Sherlock has never been like the other Holmes adaptations where they follow the cases and the stories. In this world everything is about the actual person Holmes is. Both Moffatt and Gatiss say their favourite film is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and that’s exactly what this. Besides anything else if you watch Sherlock it’s never been about crime it’s about his character and someone’s ability to be without relationships or care about other people when they are cared for. Sherlock has no obligation to be a detective show and it never was, it was a character study of Sherlock Holmes, a broken, badly-treated intensely sad man who was saved by Dr John Watson, who was changed to understand the importance of caring for other people. If you say ‘I liked it when it was about solving crimes’ you have never seen the show because it was never about solving crimes. (Tinker-Taylor’s not about spies, Jaws isn’t about a shark, etc.)
Now, the idea that this episode is over-the-top, insane and a mile from all the other episodes, yes, I’ll give you that, those things don’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable though. In fact I was utterly hooked from start to finish. I loved the action and the way both the characters and the viewer are forced to face up to their immorality. I loved the way that Sherlock, John and Mycroft are forced to deal with how much they really care about each other. I love that every character in it is broken in some way and no one fulfils some bland flawless human trope. I love that the ending is open to the idea that Sherlock and John live their whole life happily together and take care of Rosie and go from case to case being the Holmes and Watson that the books portray them as. That isn’t to say it was perfect but I’m glad it has ended like this, quite literally with a bang.
Even with these problems I honestly do think the episode was excellent, it was dramatic and exciting and sad and the main actors got to really show off why they are now as acclaimed as they are. The ending, for me, was exactly as it should be. The show finishing so openly allows for any fan theories to still be possible, for whole stories to still be told and for Holmes and Watson to forever be solving cases in the viewers mind.
One last note:
Sherlock is my favourite TV show. It has been since the second series was released and I honestly can’t imagine that changing any time soon. I totally understand it is a flawed show but there is no perfect television and I’m willing to overlook those flaws for just how much I love the best parts of Sherlock. The dialogue, especially between Moriarty and the Holmes brothers I really do think is some of the best ever. The plot is 10 miles ahead of you and there is real heartbreak when you see how Sherlock’s has become so averse to relationships throughout his life. The set pieces are brilliance (Moriarty stealing the crown jewels is godly). All of the characters in Sherlock are broken to different extents, some breaking to the point of evil. The deductions and logic are done ingeniously with portrayals of thought shown in a truly unique way. It’s because of these things I have such a fondness for Sherlock and even at it’s worst (Blind Banker which as an episode just doesn’t make sense) manages to hold some of these elements, so sometimes the show might disappoint me but that’s just because I have such high expectations for it and know how great it has the potential to be. I really hope you enjoyed the whole show as much as I did.