The fourth (final?) season premiere illustrates how far Sherlock has moved away from being a detective show.
I always know when the game is on. You know why? Because I love it.
Mary Watson had to die; the only question was how.
Steven Moffat, Sue Vertue, and Mark Gatiss (who penned “The Six Thatchers”) have always found creative, often odd ways of sticking to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon. Over the course of now eleven installments, bits of plot and snatches of dialogue have been lifted from unrelated stories; this one puts a spin on “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” and winks at it in the dialogue. But the broad strokes of what makes Sherlock and Watson — well, Sherlock and Watson — have always remained. Their meet-cute with the riding crop back in “A Study in Pink;” Holmes’s fake death at the hands of Moriarty; the beguiling Irene Adler, the only woman that Sherlock lets play games with his heart.
So it was no surprise that Mrs. Watson’s untimely demise was on the horizon in a season already promised to be “dark” and “shocking.” It was also no surprise that for this creative team, an unfortunate illness wouldn’t be enough — no, not after the super-spy backstory they created for her. That she jumps in front of a bullet meant for Sherlock, paying off her debt from “His Last Vow,” is poetic enough. And as confidently played by Amanda Abbington, Mary (née Rosamund) had become an indispensable member of the team: whip-smart, good in a fight, and capable of calling out Sherlock for his nonsense with him not even minding it. She’ll be missed, for sure. So why does the emotional blow of “The Six Thatchers” land so limply?
Two reasons for this, and both may inform the direction of the series going forward — or at least for the final two episodes, if they are indeed final. First, beginning with last season’s “The Empty Hearse,” Sherlock is now much more of a character show than a mystery show. Inevitably, whatever case Sherlock is chasing takes a back seat to what’s going on between him and John, or John and Mary, or Mary and Sherlock. The most we can hope for of “normal Sherlock” comes in the montage at the beginning of this week’s episode, itself serving only to illustrate how Sherlock is killing time while waiting for, he believes, a posthumous “game” issued by Moriarty. (Indeed, he can’t even be bothered to look up from his phone as he casually tosses out solutions.)
The “banger” that Lestrade offers up, the poor son who has a stroke in his car while waiting to surprise his parents, is cleared up in a matter of minutes, and Sherlock is immediately (and coincidentally) distracted by what we believe will be the real case: Who is smashing busts of Margaret Thatcher, and why? And even this is all answered by the hour mark (even MORE coincidentally), with the third act entirely devoted to the fallout within the Watson/Holmes triad, and then the fallout to the fallout. It’s hard for me to say whether Sherlock has become a demonstrably worse show with this shifted focus, or just a different show that isn’t content to give the people what they want — something Sherlock himself says never to do, because “people are stupid.” Hey, if this is post-Brexit Britain, he might have a point.
Meanwhile, the looming threat over this episode doesn’t come from Moriarty’s ghost, or AGRA, or whoever Toby Jones is playing, but from the real world. Specifically, as fans have been grieving since the news broke, the dissolution of Abbington and Martin Freeman’s actual marriage. It added a tint of melancholy to all of their interactions (“Is it too early for a divorce?” was particularly cruel), and, I’d bet, an extra punch on set to Mary’s death scene in Watson’s arms. Freeman here sinks into something deeply primal, and deeply unsettling, and Cumberbatch plays Sherlock’s shock and shame — for it’s his fault, pushing the seemingly harmless secretary Norbury too far with his taunts — brilliantly as well. Watson seethes “You made a vow,” and we’re forced to tally up just how many times Sherlock has ruined Watson’s life (faking his death, revealing Mary’s secret, and now this), and wonder if their relationship can ever recover.
And that leads directly into the second problem: Mary’s death isn’t really about Mary, any more than her life was, as capable and haunted as the script allowed her to be. (For what it’s worth, my favorite episode is still “The Sign of Three,” a purely joyous adventure with an actual case to solve, before we had to be told that Mary couldn’t just be an intellectual challenge to Sherlock on her own, but because she was trained.) No, her death is about Sherlock. It’s always about Sherlock. Now he has to live with the guilt of his arrogance (even going to visit Watson’s therapist), and take on Mary’s final mission to “save” John from himself.
Even in death, Mary must depend on Sherlock to make things right. Did she leave a video message for her husband? We don’t know. Did we need the COMPLETELY UNMOTIVATED subplot of John’s text flirtations with the redhead on the bus? Definitely not. Mary says with her dying breath that “being Mary Watson was the only life worth living,” and we cry because it’s sad, and for the redemption that she believes was just out of her reach, but also because her death is so plainly designed as a plot obstacle for Sherlock to overcome. In the very first scene, the episode lets him literally get away with murder. He’s been “humbled” before, but no one he cares about has had to die for him until now. Now, who here thinks the series will actually end with Sherlock and Watson forever estranged? Didn’t think so.
It’s frustrating because Sherlock, being Sherlock, is still enormously fun when it gets out of its own way. Even an episode like “The Abominable Bride,” where Moffat & Gatiss’s script essentially eats its own tail, is a zippy brain-teaser anchored by Cumberbatch and Freeman’s unimpeachable brilliance. This week, Rachel Talalay (responsible for the brilliant Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent”) brings a lot of visual flair, with dynamic transitions, effective use of text and video screens, and one of Sherlock’s better fistfights with all those blue lights and motion-controlled pool jets. But the accidental metaphor is John’s red balloon stand-in, full of life to the point that we take it for granted, until next thing we know we’re staring at something sad and limp. I don’t think Sherlock is limping to the finish, but it’s clearly changed the rules of the game.
Odds and Ends:
- I’d love to get a lot more Lestrade this season, because Rupert Graves’s weary humor makes a needed counterpoint to Sherlock and Watson’s angst. I loved his feeble protesting about not being “a credit junkie.” The man does have a professional reputation to maintain, after all.
- Someone I’d like less of, however? Mycroft. Mark Gatiss’s brand of oily arrogance is best in small doses, though his genuine confusion about the Watsons’ baby (“Looks very…fully-functioning”) was a funny character moment. I don’t know why he needed to have also had a hand in shutting down MI6’s use of freelancers post-AGRA, except to make a largely incomprehensible reveal slightly more comprehensible.
- Oh yeah, I shouldn’t go the whole time without mentioning Mary’s absurdly long travel-by-map montage. Talalay clearly knew it was ridiculous to milk it, and does it for so long that Sherlock’s appearance at the end of it was one of the episode’s better surprises. More work for Rachel Talalay, please!
- The bit about the dog is lifted from “The Sign of Four,” where Sherlock similarly does a long-winded buildup about a certain character that will be helping them, only to borrow the man’s dog for tracking. I hope that’s not the last we see of it, either, because that’s too good an introduction to waste on a fruitless trip to a meat market.
- “I delete all of John’s texts. I delete any text that begins Hi.”