TV REVIEW: Sherlock Season 4 – The Six Thatchers: A Nearly Good Comeback
Which is better? To stick to the chaotic mud of mediocrity or to tease excellence only to then nosedive back into the mire? Last year’s Sherlock Christmas Special, The Abominable Bride, was a badly structured mess. Its problems were glaring even from a superficial glance. The opening episode of season four, however, is a more complicated beast.
The Six Thatchers demonstrates something I’ve suspected for years: Sherlock is at its best when it has an actual mystery to chew on and for maybe 50 minutes that’s exactly what we got. Season four’s opening mystery isn’t quite as vexing or elaborate as the show’s greatest hits, but for a while it was enough. It’s clear now though, that Sherlock’s writers no longer see mysteries as the central audience draw they really are.
Sherlock’s Plan To Do Nothing
Anyway, plot. Remember how Sherlock was off to prison or something for shooting that guy? Then the Moriarty message showed up and Sherlock had that horrendous Victorian hallucination? Turns out the British security services have fobbed the evidence of his little murder so he gets off – they need their brilliant detective to figure out what Moriarty has planned. There was no rush though – Sherlock’s strategy for stopping his (definitely dead) arch-nemesis is to do nothing. Wait for something to happen.
It’s the sort of move Sherlock has pulled before. In this case though, it led to ten long minutes of nothing really happening. Sherlock was all Sherlocky, solving cases we’re not told about and being disinterested in Watson and Mary’s new baby. I worry that this playing families fan service is what Sherlock’s writers now believe their audience wants.
What’s the actual mystery then? Well, first there’s a matter of a government ministers son being dead, burnt to a crisp in his car when he was supposed to be in Tibet. Sherlock solves this in five minutes though. The episode’s real mystery comes from a missing bust of Margaret Thatcher at the government minister’s house. It’s part of a pattern of Thatcher head thefts and Sherlock is determined to find out what’s behind it.
With some actual detective work to dig into the episode actually becomes more or less watchable. There’s a fight scene between Sherlock and a mysterious thief which is both fresh and visually interesting. Now that Benedict Cumberbatch has been in action movies who’d be stupid enough to waste that?
More importantly, it turns out the central mystery ties back to Watson’s super spy wife Mary. I don’t suppose you last long enough to become a retired super spy without making enemies. Mary gets some pretty interesting character development here, showing a flair for detective work which has Sherlock wondering if she’d make a better investigative partner than Watson. When mortal danger threatens to encroach on their world, Mary’s determination to protect the people she cares about mirrors the vow Sherlock makes to do the same.
But then the writers did a boring, stupid thing.
The ‘Clever’ Twist
It’s time to confront the mastermind of the mystery in a London aquarium. Sherlock and Mary are there, because Mary is a super spy and likely pretty handy in a showdown. Except Sherlock is being arrogant and using his deductive skills to belittle the villain, and oh wait the villain is now shooting him.
Welcome to bullet time. The bullet is moving like a snail intent on making a damp red stain in Sherlock’s trench coat. But Wait! Is that Mary jumping in the way?
Yes it is, and now she’s dying. ‘Wow, bet you didn’t expect that to happen, did you?’ the writers seem to wink. ‘What a clever twist, am I right? You can never rest on your laurels with our show.’
I’m being harsh, but it’s not the job of a critic to ingratiate themselves to creators. Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss are undoubtedly talented writers, and there are a fair few positive things I can say about their work without it being naked flattery. With the death of Mary Watson though, Sherlock has betrayed its fatal flaw: it has come to believe itself smarter and more cunning than it actually is.
Killing off your central female character to give your two male leads some emotional turmoil to contend with is no small miscalculation. First, it leads to a rather reasonable backlash from female fans who, quite frankly, must be pretty done with being dealt this sort of hand. But more simply, it’s so cliched it crosses the line into hackneyed writing. The death of Mary Watson as told in this episode plays out like cheap melodrama. This is a Stephen Moffat show of course, and if there’s one thing you can rely on in his writing it’s that a death is almost never just a death. But still.
The Good Old Days
This trend of ‘thinks it’s so cunning’ is at least partially earned. Sherlock’s first season deserved at least some of the praise lavished upon it. Part of the reason I’m so harsh is because I know how good this series once was. It surrounded Sherlock Holmes with big mysteries which appeared impossible to solve and let him unravel them with logic and precision. John and Sherlock were an old married couple and it was great. There was an obvious lack of developed female characters, certainly, but if Sherlock turned its attention to this problem surely it would handle it with the same care and precision as everything else.
What Sherlock has evolved into, as of The Six Thatchers, is a fairly solid and well structured detective drama struggling with its female characters and an odd habit of self congratulation. Because when it actually wants to be about a mystery, Sherlock is no worse than other case of the week shows like The Blacklist or its American cousin Elementary. Except both those shows manage to churn out twenty episodes a year. Sherlock manages perhaps three episodes every other year, and it really wants you to know how clever it is.
It really isn’t, and its latest effort to prove its genius has let down one of its most compelling characters.