There was much weeping and wailing on social media at the shocking development that took place in the first episode of Sherlock, series four last Sunday night. The negative outcry was itself a tribute to the show’s appeal, proving that three full years after the last series of the BBC show aired — that’s three centuries in pop culture — people still care. “The Six Thatchers,” the first of three new episodes, beat everything else on TV in Britain last Sunday (it aired the same night in America on PBS).
The show has been a triumph on every level since its 2010 launch, propelling stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson into the Hollywood stratosphere. The show’s leisurely pace has slowed to a crawl as schedules are juggled: Ten episodes over seven years is parsimonious even by the standards of British television, though they clock in at a healthy 90 minutes.
The character interplay remains faithful to the original Holmes and Watson, with every episode making subtle allusions to the Arthur Conan Doyle canon (down to split-second references on take-out menus) without descending into straight homage. The stylized art direction even makes texting exciting.
Creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who also plays Sherlock’s “smart” brother Mycroft, have brought the iconic Victorian-era detective character into modern-day London, still ensconced at 221B Baker Street and hosted by the querulous housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, still insufferably arrogant, inarguably brilliant, and accurately self-described as a “high-functioning sociopath.”
Sherlock Grows More Complex
Moffat and Gatiss, who also participated in the successful re-launch of Doctor Who, have created a delightfully sinister London, crawling with evil geniuses, with Sherlock the smug spider in the web, keeping tabs via the Twittering of his fingers, before a dash of diabolically clever deduction followed by a spring into action, often with a quippy tip of the hat to Conan Doyle: “The game is on.”
Yet as the show goes on, a more complicated picture of Sherlock is emerging, flawed and fallible, whose weak spots of arrogance and self-absorption are fitfully controlled by a growing self-awareness and humanization. All the while he wittily battles fiendishly clever villains (repurposed Conan Doyle characters like Moriarty and Irene Adler) to rough psychological draws that are nonetheless deeply satisfying, and in series two made for transcendent television.
“The Six Thatchers” is a winding path of multiple mysteries, starting with a grim, intriguing death puzzle in a car, and picking up many threads that may or may not become important later. Dark family matters brim on both sides of the Sherlock-Watson relationship, threatening to overflow. Stylistically it’s a change of pace, with far-flung locales and some cloak and dagger involving memory sticks and mercenaries and SWAT teams coming through the ceilings, as the checkered past of John’s wife Mary comes back to haunt them all. The family psychodrama may be a drag for those who most enjoy the banter and puzzle-box escapism. The show is fond of showdowns with villains in aquatic environments, and the water motifs in the first episode could stock a school of red herrings.
New Cases Have Gotten Old
“The Six Thatchers” is threaded with the tale of the “Appointment in Samarra,” about the Baghdad merchant who spots Death coming for him and flees to Samarra, only to find Death waiting there. That theme of irrevocable fate promises to hang over the last two shows, given the dark tone, bordering on dank, of the Series 4 trailer.
There’s not enough of Mrs. Hudson or pathologist Molly Hooper, both reduced to minding John and Mary’s new baby (more family drama). The debut features some trademark quality quipping, but suffers from a paucity of actual Sherlockian deduction, and the deathly conclusion, while highly dramatic, is itself part of a worrisome pattern of the show that manifested in series three.
Doctor Who actually had the same problem: Eventually, it was not enough to showcase a monster of the week for the doctor to fight. Here, it’s no longer enough for Sherlock to have a clever case to solve. The creators, operating under a long lag time and fevered audience anticipation, seem pressured to shake up Sherlock’s universe every time out. With so much on the line, the show risks becoming overwrought and wearying on the viewer.
Still, the show’s jittery consciousness keeps you on edge, ever alert for clues. This Sunday promises “The Lying Detective,” followed by the ominously titled series finale, “The Final Problem.” That was the title of Conan Doyle’s failed attempt to kill off the popular character. That detail, plus the stars’ crowded film schedules, are leading some to think this may be the last of Sherlock.
Sherlock’s Friendship with Watson Deepens
It seemed a good bet that a main character would die in series four. Since it’s all over the web now, we’ll just note here that someone did, which explains all the social media anguish. Dr. Watson’s wife Mary dies off-page in the Conan Doyle stories, so it was not totally surprising, in a show dependent on brutal plot twists, that she perishes in Sherlock, and in a way that threatens Sherlock and John’s ineffable relationship.
But, at the risk of showing problematic insensitivity to social media howls about the death of a female fictional character, Mary’s death does put the focus back on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. There’s a reason the bachelor boys are the most famous literary duo in the world.
The villain going forward will be the mysterious Culverton Smith, played by British actor Toby Jones, and described by Sherlock in a promo as “the most dangerous, the most despicable human being that I have ever encountered.” It’s another example of an angrier, more emotional Sherlock. In “The Six Thatchers,” he even sees a therapist.
It’s clear the writers are humanizing Sherlock, to make the character, in Cumberbatch’s own words, “less of a dick.” In fact, series four is shaping up as a redemption arc for the man himself. But will it come at the expense of the razor-sharp puzzles that were the hallmark of the first two series? Let the fevered Internet commentary begin, and be grateful that after the long wait, we’ll all know the answer very soon.