Sherlock Season 4 Review: An Uneven Season That Adds Depth to its Canon
(Spoilers Follow) Three years have passed since Sherlock Season 3 ended, and we now know the answers to many of the questions that ‘His Last Vow’ left us with. Before I discuss the quality of this season, I think we should examine all the things this season had to do. It was the first season after a long hiatus, it had to resolve the mystery of Moriarty, it had to conclude Mary’s storyline, it had to answer the questions it set up regarding Sherlock’s long lost sibling, it had to show us Watson’s newborn child, it had to deliver a finale without knowing if there would be another season, and it had to live up to the sky-high standards the show had set for itself.
Unfortunately, season four did not manage to accomplish everything on this long checklist, but it did manage to pull off a surprising amount.
This season has been very divisive among fans of the show, a divide that was evident the moment ‘The Six Thatchers’ premiered. In my opinion, this is the worst episode of Sherlock to date. It started by quickly erasing any complications that had been created in ‘His Last Vow’, during which Sherlock had killed Magnussen to protect Watson and Moriarty had reappeared in video form, by altering the video of Magnussen’s murder and allowing Sherlock to head towards Baker Street and simply wait for Moriarty’s plan to reveal itself.
From there, we were introduced to a series of confusing cases involving statues of Margret Thatcher’s head. We then learn that a mercenary, who Mary used to work with, had been searching for a USB drive within those statues, while also making attempts to find and kill Mary Watson. Mary then leaves Britain for a few minutes during a globetrotting montage, before Sherlock, Watson, and her hunter track her down. It was during the moment, when Sherlock and Watson were hiding behind walls as a spy attempted to kill Mary somewhere in the middle-east, that I thought to myself “since when is this Sherlock?”
Upon reexamination, I have found that the last few minutes of season two, and the first few minutes of season three, made decisions that seriously damaged season four. For one, the death of Moriarty left a vacuum that the show seemed to have no interest in filling, resulting in a barrage of (mostly) phenomenal villains who were only around for an episode or two. ‘The Lying Detective’ (which I will delve into later) showcases this perfectly. It presents a fantastic villain, who is quickly taken away to make room for the next one.
Augustus Magnussen was a perfect villain who could have lived through season three and played a major part in season four, but instead he was killed off to make way for Moriarty. Then Mary’s past caught up with her, and a new villain appeared for the first episode of season four. She was quickly dealt with to make way for the rich, untouchable serial killer in ‘The Lying Detective’, who was hastily arrested in order to make way for Sherlock’s long lost sister Eurus Holmes.
While Season one, two, and three had villains who only lasted one episode, the difference is that a major villain was pulling the strings throughout the entire season. Moriarty called the shots in the first two seasons, and Magnussen manipulated the main characters for most of season three. Head writers Moffat and Gatiss decided to kill off Magnussen and replace him with Eurus Holmes, but the reason why Eurus did not feel as powerful as Magnussen or Moriarty is because her presence was not felt throughout the show. She does appear here and there in disguise, but she does nothing menacing. She is essentially an internet troll for the first two episodes: using minimal energy to stalk and annoy Watson and Sherlock. And since the mystery of Moriarty is largely abandoned for most of the season, when it is revealed that Eurus was behind it all, the revelation bears little weight.
The second problem was the introduction of Mary Watson, who was easily the largest hindrance on season four. ‘The Six Thatchers’ is solely focused on wrapping up her storyline, but since the best thing to ever come out of her character was a villain largely separate from her (Magnussen) how were the writers expected to present a satisfying episode?
They couldn’t, and when Mary died at the end of ‘The Six Thatchers’ I felt nothing but relief. She had done nothing but interfere with the relationship between Sherlock and John, and her exit paved the way for one of the best episodes yet: ‘The Lying Detective’.
‘The Lying Detective’ is Sherlock at its very best: smart, grim, fast, and intense. It centers on both the aftermath of Mary’s death, mainly being Sherlock and Watson’s shattered relationship, and the threat of an untouchable serial killer. The writing felt clever, without feeling arrogant. Unlike the previous episode, the moments that were supposed to feel smart actually felt smart instead of quickly spoken nonsense.
The rift that had opened after Mary’s death was not closed in the opening scenes, and isn’t resolved until the closing scenes of the episode. Throughout the episode, Sherlock and John heal their conflict by facing off against Culverton Smith: a rich philanthropist who uses his wealth to occasionally kill people.
Toby Jones plays the villain perfectly: giving an edge of filth to a disturbing performance. Every line that Moffat wrote for him was perfection, and beyond the performance and dialogue, what was great about his character was that he felt so different than any previous Sherlock villain.
Every previous villain, who has been a credible threat, has been a genius. Whether it was Irene Alder or Moriarty, the villains have always been smarter than the rest of us. Culverton Smith, while fairly bright, is not portrayed to be as hyper-intelligent as Sherlock or Mycroft. Instead, he uses his wealth and privilege to kill his victims while simultaneously covering up the murder.
Around an hour through the episode, a twist is revealed that made me question whether Smith was actually a serial killer, even if it was only for a moment. Sherlock discovers that the person who had claimed to be Smith’s daughter looked different than his actual daughter, and in his moment of confusion he attempts to kill Smith with a knife. It is at this moment, that Watson disarms Sherlock, pins him up against the wall, and beats him to a pulp. As the hits keep flying, it takes a second to realize that Watson isn’t upset about Sherlock’s latest mistake.
Eventually, Smith is revealed to be a murderer and is arrested by the police. Sherlock and Watson’s relationship is healed, and Irene Adler is hinted at. But it is during the final moments of ‘The Lying Detective’ that the true twist is revealed: the woman who had visited Sherlock and claimed to be Smith’s daughter, and the woman who had impersonated John’s therapist, were both Sherlock’s long lost sister: Eurus Holmes.
This leads into ‘The Final Problem’, an episode that has divided many Sherlock fans and professional critics alike. It is an episode that has also conflicted me.
Once Mycroft admits that Sherlock has had a sister, and that she has been trapped on an island-prison called Sherrinford to protect the world from her evil genius, Watson, Sherlock, and Mycroft travel to the island, and from here the episode stops being Sherlock, but with a much better result than ‘The Six Thatchers’.
The three discover that Eurus has taken over the prison by simply talking to its commander, and are placed in the cell that she had been in for many years. The three are forced through a series of disturbing puzzles by Eurus, which very clearly reminded me of a masterful film: The Dark Knight. Eurus, cold, uncompassionate, and distant, felt like Sherlock’s (more subtle) take on the Joker, while Sherlock becomes a (more subtle) version of Batman.
And from the perspective of an individual seeking quality entertainment, I feel the episode largely works. ‘The Final Problem’ is intense, fascinating, eerie, and incredibly fun to watch. Eurus Holmes is a great villain, even if her resolution is unsatisfying. Her dialogue is both interesting to listen to and disturbing to think about, even if I had seen some of her arguments in Moffat’s writing before.
The episode truly falters in its setting, tone, and chronological placement. This may end up being the series finale of one of the most beloved adaptations, of one of the most beloved characters of all time: Sherlock Holmes. Ending a series such as Sherlock is a mighty task, doing so with a break from the show’s conventional setting and plot is even riskier.
I saw many comparisons to James Bond when ‘The Six Thatchers’ premiered, and I largely agreed with them because Sherlock felt as if it had shifted from a mystery show to a spy thriller. This episode though, felt more like a Batman story than a Sherlock Holmes story, and while that is a closer match, it still isn’t Sherlock, even if it was well executed.
And I don’t think that these choices are on accident. Moffat changed season nine of Doctor Who to consist of more two-part episodes because, in his words “For a long while, those 45-minute stories were the backbone of Doctor Who. They felt new and fresh and different. It just started to feel to me, that as a member of the audience, you were getting too acquainted with the rhythm of it. You sort of think, ‘Well, now it’s about time for the music to come up…Writing the first two-parter that I had done in years I just thought, I’m liking this. This feels more unpredictable.’ Because you don’t know how far you’re going to get through the story…”
Moffat is a man who avoids convention and repetition. He wants the story to surprise you as much as it does him. This is an amazing mindset to use while writing Doctor Who, because the Doctor can take you anywhere, whether it be a creepy detective story like ‘Blink’ or a sweeping episode about the moral responsibilities one faces during war like ‘The Zygon Inversion’ or ‘The Day of the Doctor’.
Sherlock Holmes, however, isn’t as versatile. Sherlock Holmes is a detective who solves mysteries, and is largely locked to London. He isn’t a time-traveling mad man, he isn’t a crime-fighting superhero, and he isn’t he a globetrotting secret agent.
From the perspective of a writer, ‘The Final Problem’ is a break from Sherlock convention that goes too far with its setting and tone.
For all its faults, I must commend the finale on how it reframes the previous episodes. We learn that the reason Sherlock is so distant is because Eurus murdered his best friend while he was a child. To cope with this, he cut off his emotions and became a drug-addicted recluse.
This changes something that has irritated me for the entirety of the show’s run.
Sherlock has presented a subtle theme throughout its run, which is that geniuses are not as friendly, good-hearted, or compassionate as the masses. Every single genius, from Irene Alder to Augustus Magnussen, has been cold-hearted or insane in one way or another.
Now however, the reason why Sherlock is cold-hearted isn’t because he is smart, it is because he is damaged.
Sherlock can now be seen as the story of a broken, repressive man being brought back into the light by his only friend John Watson. While I have flaws with this season in and of itself, the way in which it adds depth to each past season, and its spectacular second episode, push me to rate season four as a strong season.