This post contains spoilers for the season 4 premiere of “Sherlock,” “The Six Thatchers.”
It’s time to end “Sherlock.”
Even though there have been only 11 episodes, “Sherlock” has changed dramatically between its premiere six-and-a-half years ago. It’s only gotten messier and worse.
“Sherlock” has always been an odd, and special, show.
It adapts the classic Arthur Conan Doyle stories in the present day with remarkable fidelity to the original stories. Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a quick-witted asexual genius living in 221B Baker Street in London. Martin Freeman plays John Watson, a doctor and veteran of the War in Afghanistan (rather than the Second Anglo-Afghan War from Doyle’s books) who blogs about their adventures. Each episode is 90 minutes long, with the duo solving a seemingly unsolvable mystery.
It’s all within the framework of building up a big showdown against a more clever villain moving behind the scenes across the season’s three episodes. It’s droll, sharp, and a lot of fun.
The latest episode, “The Six Thatchers,”shows just how far downhill the show has gone.
Within the first 20 minutes, Sherlock is presented with and solves a mystery. A minister’s son turns up dead in his car in the driveway. But he appeared to be in Thailand at the time. Aha, Sherlock says: The boy disguised himself as a car seat and sent a prerecorded video to his dad to make it look like he was in Thailand so he could surprise him. Then he had a seizure while in his disguise, leaving him dead and hidden for a week.
The solution is ludicrous. The show doesn’t care, though, because that’s when “Sherlock” stumbles on the real mystery. It’s this mystery that demonstrates that the show is less interested in solving puzzles and developing its characters and more into exploring international criminal conspiracies.
While visiting the minister’s home, Sherlock notices that a bust of Margaret Thatcher has been stolen and destroyed. It turns out, there’s some guy running around trying to find a flash drive he left in a particular Thatcher bust six years ago.
The flash drive contains secret information on the past life of Mary, Watson’s wife and Holmes-like savant. It’s exciting, at first, because the drive was mentioned back in season three. Now we’re primed to learn Mary’s real secret.
Unfortunately, it’s more annoying than exciting. Mary, it turns out, was a member of an international assassination syndicate. It operates a bit like The Winter Soldier from the Marvel universe, conducting political operations to take down governments and line pockets.
At this point, “Sherlock” becomes a dull spy movie. Mary decides to leave John Watson and their newborn daughter to trek across the world and lead away the guy who’s trying to kill her. Sherlock tracks her down anyway, hoping to bring her home. In the process, the show reveals to us scraps of information that shape a larger criminal universe.
That information raises the stakes on Mary’s life, but it all feels meaningless. It doesn’t add intrigue for the audience, it feels like the screenwriters are just filling in information about Mary. The anticipation is undercut when Sherlock finds Mary after just a couple of scenes, anyway.
Mary’s past life and big escape also muddles, rather than clarifies, the world that “Sherlock” operates in. The larger universe of the show becomes so mysterious, with its spies, assassinations, double-crosses, and shadowy organisations, that I expect the villain to whisper “Hail HYDRA” and for Samuel L. Jackson to show up wearing an eyepatch at the end of the episode and invite Sherlock Holmes to the Avengers.
Structurally, the plot is barely a mystery. We’re given a few hints about the person who led a chain of events that lead to Mary being hunted down. At one point early in the episode Mary comments, “You’d be amazed what a receptionist picks up. They know everything.” Apparently a secretary to a government employee was secretly controlling her boss to use Mary’s assassination syndicate as her own political tool. Why? We might never know, and the show doesn’t seem to care. The writers don’t seem to be interested anymore in solving the mysteries in a satisfying, cohesive way.
Instead, the show’s biggest development is Mary and John’s weird relationship. Mary thinks it’s better to travel across the world instead of staying with John once she finds out she has a target on his back. Even when the two are together, we learn that John has been sexting a stranger he met on the bus — all while he has a newborn child! And somehow, he thought he could get away with this even though his best friend and wife are both polymath savants. While the characters were once the most compelling part of “Sherlock,” now we learn that John is a total scumbag.
By the end of the episode, Mary is killed, literally jumping in front of a bullet to save Sherlock’s life. Showrunner Steven Moffat told Enetertainment Weekly that “Sherlock” needed to get back to two characters.
“The reality of this, of course, is that Sherlock Holmes is about Sherlock and Dr. Watson and it’s always going to come back to that — always always always,” Moffat said. “They had fun making it a trio but it doesn’t work long term. Mary was always going to go and we were always going to get back to the two blokes. That’s the format.”
Moffat says this is all in the name of integrity to Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision. It’s a strange argument. He had no qualms about ignoring Doyle’s vision when he made Mary an arse-kicking savant superspy, as revealed in the third season. But suddenly he thinks it’s relevant again when it’s time to kill her, as in the first episode of the fourth season.
This is all, according to Moffat, grist for the mill of Sherlock and Watson’s relationship.
“We take that rift head-on in the remainder of the [season]. We don’t ignore it,” Moffat told Entertainment Weekly. “We don’t have John come back and say, ‘Well I’ve thought about it and it’s all fine.’ If anything, the rift gets worse. We decided if we were doing this we’re doing grief properly. We were doing the consequences properly.”
The show has drowned in other missteps. “The Abonimable Bride,” a one-off special which aired a year ago, was a disposable episode set in an alternate timeline. It ends in an unsufferable “it was all just a dream” reveal.
And then there is Sherlock’s obsession over Moriarty, who shot himself in the head several episodes ago. He was a thrilling villain when he was alive, but that was two seasons ago. He is much less interesting in death. Yet Sherlock is preoccupied with various plans Moriarty set into motion before he died, all of them boring. It’s time to let the ghost go.
On top of all of this, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have moved on to bigger and better things. It took two years between seasons two and three, and three years between seasons three and four. Cumberbatch is officially a Marvel superhero, playing Doctor Strange, and is a near-perennial Oscar contender. Freeman starred as Bilbo Baggins in the “Hobbit” trilogy and has been picking up good roles since it ended. (Cumberbatch also played Smaug in the “Hobbit” movies, and Freeman plays Everett Ross in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) It’s long enough for fans to lose interest.
Cumberbatch waved away the fact that it takes so long to film new episodes, telling TVLine that he likes stretching the show out over time.
“There’s no reason for us to stop if it’s still being adored and we still enjoy doing it,” Cumberbatch said. “We only do three [episodes] at a time, so I think the normal fear of over-stretching the mark and just doing too many [doesn’t apply]. It’s good to leave people wanting more. I’d like to see [Sherlock] getting older.”
As the series progresses, though, they do seem to be stretching the premise. Watching Sherlock and Watson grow old together, like a sort of Masterpiece Theatre version of Before Sunrise, does sound appealing but only if it remains a mystery show instead of becoming about international conspiracy theories.
The idea also becomes less appealing knowing that John is a guy who sexts random women on the bus after having a newborn child. It also becomes less interesting when you realise “Sherlock” is the kind of show that introduces badass, interesting women only to make them less interesting and kill them off later so that they will serve as a subplot for a couple of men. The show has hit its peak and fulfilled its purpose long ago. It’s time for Cumberbatch to hang up his deerstalker and put down his pipe.
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