Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ wonderful series Sherlock returned in 2017 for a three-episode series four. I have adored this series, a modern-day reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, since the beginning. I admire its intelligence and sophistication and the way the series has allowed us to fall in love with these wonderfully bizarre characters.
As always, three episodes feels like far too little after such a long wait for new installments. Because of such a long wait between series (or seasons, in American parlance), and because we get so few new episodes each time, I feel like the producers put an impossible amount of pressure on themselves to make each of the rare new episodes perfect.
Well, none of the new episodes in series four are perfect, and there is a plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t care for at all, and that colored this whole new series in an unfavorable way for me. But these three new episodes remain wonderfully entertaining, impressively-crafted pieces of television entertainment. The third episode is probably the most ambitious episode the series has ever done, with an extraordinary scope and amazing production design.
This is a darker season of the show than we’ve seen before. Generally, this show has been able to be fun while also maintaining true dramatic stakes for all the characters. The plot twist at the end of episode one, though, throws all that out the window. While I understand the show-runners’ desire to shake up the status quo and not just keep doing the same things, and while I was ultimately satisfied with how the story begun in that terrible moment resolves itself by the end of episode three, I felt that event unbalanced this season to a degree that bothered me. It was hard to find much joy in Sherlock after that moment. The writers clearly understood that and went there anyways. For me, personally, I wish they’d have made a different choice.
OK, let’s take a deeper dive into these three episodes! Beware SPOILERS ahead.
The Six Thatchers — We get several engaging mysteries in this episode. First is the mystery of the college student found dead in a car in his parents’ driveway, despite his being abroad at the time and in fact having Skyped with his father at the moment he was apparently killed. Then there is the titular mystery of a series of apparently unconnected crimes linked only by the commonality that a statue of Margaret Thatcher was destroyed in each instance. Then there is the more important-to-the-series exploration of the backstory of John Watson’s wife Mary’s mysterious past, and the apparent resurrection of her former soldier/assassin partner she’d thought dead years previously.
As a viewer, I didn’t need to know any more about Mary’s past than we already did. I was not burning to know exactly what information was on that A.G.R.A. thumb-drive that John through into the fire last season. And yet, I can understand why the show-runners wanted to explore that backstory, and I was reasonably satisfied by what we learned.
Amanda Abbington, who plays Mary, is terrific in this spotlight episode, which makes her death in the show’s final minutes all the more painful. I had grown to love, in season three, the new dynamic in which the Sherlock-Watson twosome had grown into a threesome that included Mary. That was elevated even further in this episode, which showed what a warm, close relationship each member of this triad had with the other, and how well they worked together. I could have happily watched many future seasons of this threesome in action. Mary’s death was made further painful to me by the fact that, by this episode, the threesome was actually a foursome, in that Mary had recently given birth to her and John’s daughter. That Mary died leaving behind a baby who would never know her mother made this plot twist particularly unsettling to me. I want Sherlock to have dramatic tension and real emotional stakes for the characters. That’s why the show is as gripping as it has always been. But this is a show whose greatness has also always been tied to how FUN it is to watch. From the very beginning, despite the often gruesome murders and attempted murders the show has depicted, Sherlock has been so winning because of its light touch and sense of humor. This episode irrevocably damaged that carefully balanced tone for me. How can I ever laugh at this show again? How can I ever forget the consequences of a baby girl left without a mother? That feels like a long shadow that will hang over any future adventures of this show, which is the main reason why this plot-twist feels like such a mistake to me.
This episode broke my heart a second time with the revelation that John had been cheating on Mary, though this would (thankfully) get somewhat walked back before the end of the season.
“It’s never twins.” I love this recurring joke!
I also have to comment at how mystified I was that this episode brushed aside the mystery of Moriarty’s apparent return. His message to all of London seemed like an emergency situation — one of such importance that Mycroft was allowed to bring Sherlock back from his banishment only minutes after it had begun (as seen in the season three finale, “His Last Vow”). Why isn’t this national news across the U.K.? Why isn’t Sherlock, and everyone else, rushing to figure out what’s going on with Moriarty? In a similar vein, I was surprised that there don’t seem to be any negative repercussions for Sherlock after murdering one of the most prominent men in the U.K. in cold blood at the end of “His Last Vow.” I know Magnussen was a villain, and we know that the higher-ups in the British government knew that as well, but still, for Sherlock to get off scott-free stretches credulity. (I’d also think there would be emotional issues to explore for Sherlock’s brutal act, even if there were no legal ramifications for him.)
When considered on its own, the engaging multiple mysteries and the Sherlock-John-Mary character work make “The Six Thatchers” a very enjoyable episode of the show. It is unsatisfying, though, in the way it brushes aside the season-three-ending cliffhanger and for the ultimately very disappointing choice of killing off Mary.
The Lying Detective — As the episode begins, John Watson is lost in grief over the death of his wife, and filled with anger at Sherlock, who Watson holds responsible. This set-up was problematic for me, because I didn’t think the previous episode sold the idea that Sherlock should bear any blame for Mary’s murder. Yes, Sherlock can treat human beings as pawns in a game, and perhaps he shouldn’t have taunted that old woman with nothing to lose, but Mary chose to step in front of that bullet. That was her decision, not Sherlock’s. And so John’s behavior just seems foolish to me as a viewer, which undercuts the power of what should be this emotional episode-long exploration of the schism in his and Sherlock’s relationship.
What makes the episode work is how spectacular Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are in these roles. This episode is a smashing showcase for both gentlemen, and it is the power of their work that makes their characters’ (predictable) reconciliation at the end of the episode so rewarding.
I also loved Toby Jones’ work as the villain Culverton Smith. Mr. Jones dominated every second he was on screen. I would have loved to have seen more of this character, perhaps in an episode that wasn’t mostly focused on the Watson-Sherlock relationship. On the other hand, while I enjoyed this new villain a lot, his weird memory-erasing board meetings didn’t make a lick of sense to me, and this is the second evil billionaire businessman we’ve gotten in three episodes.
The scenes between Sherlock and the young woman he thought was Culverton’s daughter were sweet and sad, and the shock ending with Watson’s therapist and the revelation of Eurus Holmes was head-spinningly great. I was pleased that the little hints we’d gotten in previous seasons about a possible third Holmes sibling finally bore fruit. The idea that Sherlock and Mycroft would have a sister, as opposed to another brother, was a great twist.
I was pleased that Amanda Abbington continued to play a part in this episode, appearing as Mary in scenes taking place inside John Watson’s head. This is not a terribly original development, but it works as a way of literalizing the process of John’s grief, and it gives us an excuse to enjoy more scenes between Mr. Freeman and Ms. Abbington, who are great together. (That despite the fact that this real-life couple had apparently split up immediately before filming these latest episodes. Watching “The Six Thatchers,” I wondered if they wrote Mary out of the series because Mr. Freeman and Ms. Abbington had split up, but I haven’t found any evidence for that.)
This episode also further explores the well-tread ground of Sherlock’s drug addiction. Sherlock appears to be falling down a dangerous drug-abuse rabbit hole, but because of Mary’s secret video message to Sherlock, as seen at the end of “The Six Thatchers”, we suspect that this is just a ruse, and indeed in the end that appears to be right. Plot-wise this works, but emotionally it results in this aspect of the episode feeling hollow to me. I thought it was narratively richer in previous episodes in which Sherlock’s drug abuse was treated as a dangerous, life-threatening habit by his friends and by Mycroft, rather than here where it is basically just a ploy to expose the bad guy.
I was also surprised and disappointed that Molly seems to be relegated to taking care of John Watson’s baby this season. Why is this smart single woman put into this role? It feels like a choice made simply because other than Mrs. Hudson she is the only surviving major female character on the show. But it feels out of character for the socially awkward Molly, and a disappointing use of this great character.
Best part of the episode? All of that great business with Mrs. Hudson and her fancy sports car. I adore this character, and I love how the writers have built up her crazy lifestyle that happens just off-screen.
Second best part of the episode? That text from Irene Adler!! Irene’s spotlight episode (“A Scandal in Belgravia”) remains my very favorite episode of Sherlock, and I have been hoping for years that Irene would return to the series. This will have to suffice.
The Final Problem — I liked but didn’t love the first two episodes of this season, but I was blown away by the finale, “The Final Problem”. Even this episode is not without flaws, but I was nevertheless gripped by this thrilling, edge of your seat adventure. Sherlock has never before had an episode of such sustained tension. And I was struck by the dark, dangerous new tone. This has been a grim season, but this episode went far beyond what we had seen before. As I wrote above, this is not my preferred tone for the show, but if you’re going to go dark, then go for it and go DARK, and this episode did that in spades.
This episode finally brings back to the huge dangling plot-line of Moriarty’s apparent return from the dead, something we viewers have been waiting to see resolved since the end of season three several years ago. It winds up being somewhat anticlimactic because, of course, Moriarty isn’t really back from the dead. Though I will freely admit, I loved the fake-out with the sequence of Moriarty landing in the helicopter, scenes that later are revealed to have happened in the past. While the specter of Moriarty’s resurrection made a great season-ending cliffhanger at the end of “His Last Vow”, I’d have rather they hadn’t teased his return if they weren’t really going to go there. As I just commented, the resolution that Moriarty is still dead winds up being anticlimactic, because how could it not?
On the other hand, I LOVED the notion that actually the big bad villain of season four would be the never-before-seen third Holmes sibling. Sian Brooke is terrific as the dangerous and insane Eurus Holmes. For the first time in the series, both Sherlock and Mycroft seem truly outmatched. This episode wrings tremendous tension out of Eurus’ torturing of her brothers and John Watson, as she presents them with a series of increasingly impossible challenges. This is as grim as the show has ever gotten, as time and again our three heroes are powerless to stop innocent people from being murdered by Eurus all around them. I could hardly believe what I was watching.
I also really found myself admiring the look of this episode. Every aspect of the production seemed to be firing on all cylinders, making this the most visually impressive episode of Sherlock I had ever seen. In particular, I though the sets were extraordinary. This was as expansive as I think the show had ever gotten, with it’s depiction of a super-secret island prison. It was also thrillingly intimate, with much of the episode’s drama taking place in small dark rooms or a prison cell surrounded by glass. (By the way, I loved that twist about the glass around Eurus’ cell!! That was great.)
If this episode has a weakness, it’s that perhaps there were a few too many twists and turns about the exact nature of the long-in-the-works plot developed by Eurus and Moriarty. I’m not sure it really makes any sense. (Just when did Moriarty record all those videos???)
That being said, I did not at all expect the episode to wrap up in a return to Skyfall, um, I’m sorry, I mean the ancestral Holmes home (say that five times fast), and the revelations about Redbeard and the childhood tragedies that linked Sherlock and Eurus. Here again, I’m not quite sure all of these plot twists truly made sense, but emotionally they worked in a powerful way.
While Eurus was the episode’s focus, I was also happy to see Mycroft Holmes (played so well by series co-creator Mark Gatiss) also spotlighted in this episode. The scene in which Mycroft tries to trick Sherlock into killing him, so as to avoid the pain of Sherlock’s having to make an impossible choice as set up by Eurus, was deeply moving.
I was also pleased to see the Holmes parents again at the end of the episode. Since we’d met them in season three, it would have been a big oversight to not see them in this episode that was so focused on the Holmes family, so I was pleased by that attention to detail.
Unlike every previous season of the show, this season-ending episode did not end on a cliffhanger. I was surprised, but pleasantly so, by that choice! Its nice to get an actual ending, as opposed to lingering questions. There are rumors that this will be the final season of this show. If that is indeed the case, then the final minutes of this episode will serve as a fine finale to this terrific series. I was pleased that the Holmes-Watson relationship, so damaged at the start of this season, had been repaired by the end of it, and I loved that closing montage of the show’s characters, and the final image of Sherlock and Watson rushing off to new adventures. (Also great: Mary’s final summation of Holmes and Watson: “a junkie who solves crimes to get high, and a doctor who never came back from the war.”)
On the other hand: where the heck was Molly in that final montage?? I’d been disappointed by her being relegated to the role of babysitter for much of this season, but the emotional phone call between her and Sherlock in this episode mostly made up for that. But how could the show not explore the repercussions of that phone call?? How could that be the last we ever see of Molly?? That was a big disappointment for me.
(Some fans have suggested Sherlock’s “you know where to find me” text was to Molly, but my read on that was that it was either to Irene, or to a generic client as a means of suggesting that Sherlock is happily back at work as a “consulting detective.”)
Sherlock series four was an imperfect season, but with so much hype built up over the series’ long hiatus, I’m not sure anything could have lived up to my expectations. This was a sometimes frustrating season, but it was also thrilling and wondrous as only a truly great TV show can be. I didn’t like many of the narrative choices made in this season, but I respect show-runners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for not just doing the same old thing, and instead taking their show and these characters into new and darker waters.
I would dearly love for there to be many futures season of this show lying ahead. But if this is the end, then I am satisfied, and thankful for the incredible entertainment this show has given me. It has been a remarkable achievement, and one I know that I will frequently revisit in the future.