Sherlock has had a history of punishing its viewers (excessive wait times between series, only three episodes per series, mind-bending cliff-hangers, uneven episode quality, not actually resolving those mind-bending cliff-hangers), but we’ve all held on, because Sherlock has just been that great. Watching the adventures of self-proclaimed high-functioning sociopathic detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his flatmate John Watson (Martin Freeman) in modern day London, aided by black cabs instead of horse-drawn carriages and smartphones instead of pocket watches, has been riveting. The showrunners, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, created a show epitomized by excellent acting, stylish direction, intelligent stories, and an excellent overall concept. Even its weaker episodes were judged in comparison to its true greats; A Study in Pink, The Great Game, and The Reichenbach Fall were fantastic crime dramas that also included humor, an excellent supporting cast, and relationships and animosities that we cared about, with notable ones including between Sherlock and his brother/rival Mycroft (Gatiss) and between Sherlock and a pathologist, Molly (Louise Brealey), who has nursed a crush on him since the first episode.
When Sherlock jumped off that hospital roof after his confrontation with Moriarty (Andrew Scott), the hearts of fans fell with him – and immediately had heart attacks when Sherlock was revealed to still be alive. Fans then spent the two year break before the next episode concocting schemes for how he could have possibly survived. Even when the third series failed to (fully) solve the cliffhanger and many complained about the decreased quality of the episodes (attributed either to excessive fanservice, the introduction of and revelations about Watson’s wife Mary Morstan [Amanda Abbington], or new supervillain Charles Augustus Magnussen [Lars Mikkelsen]’s not inability to stack up to Moriarty), it still followed in the steps of the first two phenomenal series and stayed a crime drama at heart, even when it wandered too far into the world of the superspy with the revelation that Mary was a former assassin. The Christmas special which followed – featuring Sherlock and John back in Victorian London due to a drug trip gone awry – either was seen as a light and entertaining diversion or a serious decline in form.
But the fourth series has punished us most in the most sadistic way possible – by simultaneously ruining the show, making us want more, and making us wish for what we didn’t get. The epically terrible series finale eclipsed the merely ordinary terribleness of the rest of the series and elevated it from a miscalculation to a cruel catastrophe. Let me explain why.
Going into series four, after the perceived drop in quality starting from series three and taking into account Cumberbatch and Freeman’s now busy schedules in Hollywood, many assumed that this would be the last series and hoped that Moffat and Gatiss would give us a series which would be good enough to justify the three year wait since the last series (one year since the Christmas special) and end it on a satisfying note. We had been told that the lighter series three would be followed by a dark series four, and we wondered what that would mean for the series, especially as many felt that Moffat and Gatiss were getting too full of themselves in their plotting. But we held on, and awaited the arrival of the series eagerly.
It seemed like the entire purpose of the first episode was getting rid of Mary Morstan. Already in the previous series we wondered why Mary had gotten no comeuppance for both fooling her husband about her past and shooting his best friend, yet were distracted by the flashing billboards hinting at the return of Moriarty. Here, we saw more yoyoing over whether Mary would be forgiven, whether she deserved forgiveness, whether her former career would catch up with her in the end- only for her to die more coincidentally in the end, saving Sherlock’s life, with John breaking his ties with Sherlock over her death and retreating to care for their newborn daughter. The thing which made the series so unique – the cases – was shunted into a diversion at the beginning of the episode, with the majority of the episode given over to what is essentially James Bond with angst. It was patchy, overly stylized, and featured a character digression from John Watson which was so out of character and so badly done (a texting flirtation with a woman on a bus) that we wondered whether the showrunners even remembered what the show was supposed to look like. The second episode seemed a welcome return to form- there was an actual case, for one thing, involving the daughter of a murderously insane TV personality, and while watching it it felt like Sherlock was returning to the formula that had made us fall in love with it- Sherlock and John solving cases; Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), Sherlock and John’s landlady, being awesome. The last five minutes – and the final episode – spat this back in our faces.
The number of crimes which the last episode committed is legion. Let me count only a few of the ways: First, the existence of Eurus (Sian Brooke) was its own problem. Giving Sherlock and Mycroft a previously unmentioned younger sister who is even more brilliant than they are and a psychopath could have theoretically worked, had her character been used in a realistic and nuanced way. Instead, they had her be an evil mastermind, three other characters in disguise (which completely ruined the best parts of episode two by having the entire case be a trick by her on Sherlock), and somehow mysteriously able both to move to and from her island prison whenever and to hypnotize people merely by talking to them- essentially a walking, cackling plot device. We were also expected to believe that Sherlock completely blocked his sister out of his mind due to the fact that she murdered his dog who was apparently actually his childhood best friend, Victor Trevor. (The plotting got kind of murky here.) She was sadistic and forced Sherlock, John and Mycroft essentially to kill people, but she was really just a little girl alone in a plane about to crash and all she needed was a hug from her big brother to make her better. Every part of her character was self-contradictory, made no sense, and completely messed up everything that made the previous episode good.
Second, much like the first episode, this episode uses flashy methods and plotting as a substitute for actually producing something thought-provoking. While the cinematography and directing were excellent as always, stylish does not mean quality storytelling. Plotlines were forced and emotion was pulled from the viewer gratuitously without having been earned, particularly by making Eurus’s game so randomly violent and murderous. Many reviewers likened aspects of the plot to the horror movie Saw– not exactly a comparison sought after by the makers of a prestige detective drama. The many deaths which occurred seemed not to have any payoff at the end, no matter how much tension they evinced at the moment, leaving the viewer feeling cold after the moment was over. The resolution of the Eurus plotline felt tacked on by fancy directing and camerawork so that we didn’t see how truly shoddy it is. When an episode is just a pastiche of stylishly shot scenes which don’t form a coherent and logical plot, one will not feel satisfied after viewing. It is really only the excellent acting of the cast, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss, that made the episode even seem plausible.
Third, many of the things we came to appreciate about the show were gone. There was only one real case- the girl on the plane- which ended up being fake. The set up which Eurus put Sherlock, John and Mycroft through was obviously meant to evoke the very successful format of The Great Game – a series of puzzles which Sherlock had to solve in order to prevent someone’s death- but fell flat. The scene in which Molly confronted Sherlock about her feelings for him and how she felt about Sherlock’s years of taking advantage of those feelings- something which many of the show’s longtime fans felt connected to- was essentially abandoned with no follow-through. Even the teasing of Moriarty’s return- something which not all fans even wanted- was given a very cursory follow-through which satisfied almost nobody. The only aspect of the show that felt developed was the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft- and it’s ironic that Gatiss is in some ways the standout performer of the episode but was also one of the minds who put together the travesty of a plot.
All of these were problematic, but the part where they rub it in is the epilogue, narrated by a DVD of Mary which she had made before her death (it makes marginally more sense in context), in which she tells Sherlock and John that instead of dwelling on all of the things which happened over the course of this series, they should go on and solve cases together as they had in the past- including a montage of them doing just that. Watching this, the cheesiness of the moment is completely eclipsed by feelings of betrayal- why isn’t this the kind of series that we got? Will we be able to get more episodes like this? After this travesty of a series four, why tease us with hints of the kind of show that made us love Sherlock in the first place?