Contains some spoilers
With the singular exception of Doctor Who I tend not to write more than one post on any given television show per season, unless something occurs that significantly changes my initial take on it, so I hadn’t intended to contribute any more thoughts about the latest series of Sherlock following my review of the New Year’s Day episode. But since it appears that this might be the very last we see of the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss incarnation of the consulting detective, an exception seemed called for in order for us to take one final look at the whole of season 4.
As regular readers might recall, I rather enjoyed “The Six Thatchers” which was the first of this run of three episodes, although some were put off by the Bond/Bourne overtures and pined for the time when the show ‘just solved mysteries’ (which was never the point of Sherlock.) I did however grumble about the final 20 minutes which seemed clunky and mis-paced after what had gone before.
Having now watched the entire series, the reason for that ending becomes much clearer: it’s all necessary set-up for the second episode, “The Lying Detective”, all of which has to be got out of the way so that the story that follows can immediately get down to business and show Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) already a long way down his personal road to complete collapse, drug-addled and seemingly terminally ill as a result of the remorse that he feels from the shattering events at the end of the season opener. It’s left him estranged from the usually dependable John H Watson (Martin Freeman), who is preoccupied with his snappy conversations with his wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) that are awkwardly too reminiscent of the Doctor’s dialogue with a ghostly River Song in 2013’s “The Name of the Doctor.”
Moffat and episode director Nick Hurran throw literally everything including the kitchen sink into displaying Sherlock’s splintered psyche at the start of “The Lying Detective”, and I’ll confess that it was so frantic and surreal that I couldn’t help but feel rather restive and frustrated that absolutely nothing made much sense no matter how stylish it looked. At the same time I was fully aware that the show was busy pulling all sorts of ‘fast ones’ on the audience in plain sight that we don’t have a hope of spotting until our fifth or sixth rewatch. But that’s nothing we haven’t seen before from Moffat, and the only response in the face of such an all-out assault on our senses is to hold on tight and wait for him to unveil his secrets, secure in the knowledge that Moffat is one of very few writers in the world capable of bringing in such an endeavour successfully without a messy crashlanding at the end.
And that’s exactly what he does: gradually everything comes into focus and all is explained more or less satisfactorily to tell the tale of a Jimmy Savile-esque fiend hiding in plain sight in the glare of celebrity. If I’m honest then as much of a fan as I am of Toby Jones, I did find his portrayal of Culverton Smith painfully oversized; but then how do you parody a notorious figure who was already so outrageously over the top in the first place? Cumberbatch is also allowed to let rip, even getting to throw in some Henry V to the top of his lungs as Sherlock loses his senses – although even in this pitiable state he’s still two weeks ahead of everyone else in his deductions, planning and execution.
Just when you think there are a few loose ends that can’t be explained away, there’s another coda at the end (just as happened in “The Six Thatchers”, but this time rather more seamless and satisfying) which scoops up all those oversights and reveals that they are part of the biggest, boldest shock of them all – the reveal of Eurus (Sian Brooke). The episode is so impressive that it leaves you wondering how they can possibly top that in the season finale. And the answer to that is … they can’t.
For me at least, “The Final Problem” was a disappointment, failing to deliver on what the show had been building up to over the last three years. Not only was it underwhelming, it was also – amazingly – somewhat boring in parts. I appreciate that this isn’t the majority verdict on the episode and that others found it much, much better, but it didn’t work for me at all. Maybe it’s a case of my not having properly managed my expectations in advance to seeing it; the episode is certainly not materially bad, it was just, well, anti-climactic.
“The Final Problem” – the only title that Moffat and Gatiss have used unaltered from the Conan Doyle canon, although ironically containing almost no plot DNA from the Holmes short stories and novels – starts with a self-indulgent scene featuring Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes putting in his best John Steed audition. After a brief but explosive visit to 221b Baker Street it’s off to the Sherrinford coastal resort for the criminal insane and a nod to The Silence of the Lambs as we meet Eurus who is incarcerated in a glass-walled cell. Naturally the minute Mycroft explains the impenetrable security precautions in place we know we’re only minutes away from Eurus breaking out and taking over, a scenario that reminded me of how The Master takes charge of a similar island facility in the Doctor Who story “The Sea Devils” all the way back in 1972. That said, even through we’re fully expecting it, the moment when Sherlock reaches out to touch the glass cell wall is a beautiful shock.
It’s unfortunately pretty much the last big card the show has to play. After that we slow down to a series of ‘puzzles’ which Sherlock, John and Mycroft have to solve on pain of death, but the idea of Eurus being a supervillain with almost godlike powers of cunning and manipulation along the lines of Hannibal Lector or Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall asks for too much suspension of disbelief. The suggestion that she can take over the entire facility based on a five minute meeting five years previously with one Jim Moriarty (a splendid show-stealing cameo from Andrew Scott) put the show into comic book territory. Moreover, the psychological tests that Eurus subjects Sherlock, John and Mycroft to are obvious and laboured, closer to a 1990s TV game show than a drama, and nothing that we haven’t seen before. It might work if these tests succeeded in revealing something genuinely new about our lead characters, but in fact they respond in precisely the way we expect them to at every step. Failing that there needs to be a sense of real jeopardy, but it never seems likely that any of the trio will die while the overarching threat involving an unnamed young girl alone in an airplane about to crash into London if Sherlock can’t help her never feels real or authentic. That said, I confess I didn’t see the actual reveal coming – only that there would be one.
The strange thing is how quickly the show goes from that reveal to wrapping up the entire affair. Almost before we know it we’re back in 221b tidying up and getting ready for new cases in an unexpectedly entirely happy ending. There are cameos from Rupert Graves as Lestrade, Una Stubbs as a heavy metal-listening Mrs Hudson, Louise Brealey as Molly Hooper, and even Cumberbatch’s real life parents Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham popping up again as Sherlock and Mycroft’s father and mother. It creates a sense that the show is getting all its players together for one last curtain call, and that feeling is enhanced by Mary’s paean to the enduring appeal of the characters of Holmes and Watson and to the original Conan Doyle stories, which it confidently predicts will live on for many years to come.
But not necessarily, you suspect, in this incarnation. The door is certainly kept open – Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Freeman have all expressed a desire to return for season 5 should there be an opportunity and the right story to tell. However there’s a distinct sense of Sherlock the show saying goodbye rather than au revoir. Maybe that would be for the best, because for the first time the show tried desperately hard to keep all the plates spinning but ended up falling short, unable to pull off the trick all the way to the finishing line as it has done so often in the past.
One way or another, it seems that the game is over. For now at least.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Sherlock season 4 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on January 23 2017.