No Shit Sherlock? – A review of Sherlock Season 4
This post was written in January 2017
2017 is one of those rare years when the stars align correctly and we are granted another smattering of episodes of the BBC’s probably-autistic-but-let’s-not-look-at-it-too-closely detective, Sherlock. Once again, they were able to trap Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the UK for long enough to stick a camera in front of them and throw some mysteries at them to solve. Let’s take a look at each of the episodes and see what they managed to do after this time off the air.
The first episode kicks off pretty much exactly where last year’s special ended. Moriarty is possibly back and Sherlock has just shot some guy from the last proper episode that most people probably can’t remember. Oh yes, and Sherlock is still off his face on drugs. Fortunately, having friends/brothers in high places means he is able to get off easily with some simple video editing. With that all nicely dealt with we are back to solve mysteries!
Except, Sherlock has little interest in creating a murder mystery show. Sherlock and Watson are given a barrage of jobs, but they are all solved instantly. How are they solved? Because Sherlock is a genius. Like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, Sherlock just has to waggle his intellect at something and it is sorted. Just as we think we might have a death on our hands that would wrinkle Jonathan Creek’s brow, a case involving the body of a son in a blown up car, despite the son being out of the country, Sherlock just casually announces the solution without looking at any evidence or examining the scene or talking to anyone involved. How does he do it? Genius.
Whilst standing in the home of the dead man’s parents, instead of the death of this family’s son, Sherlock is much more interested in a gap in a shrine to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Turns out that someone broke into the house and smashed a bust of the PM. And here begins a big bombastic story that involves global travel, secret special forces, revenge and fisticuffs.
This first episode does a nice job of highlighting where the big failings of this modern take of Sherlock Holmes appear. This attempt to go large at best feels out of place and at worst cringe worthy. For example, when Sherlock eventually confronts the man that has been going around London destroying these busts we are presented with a fight sequence. It is a fight that is well put together, but goes on far too long. It is then followed by the police arriving, who are merely represented by flashing blue lights. It is made worse when the “burglar” is supposedly addressing the police, but it just feels like he is mumbling to someone in the corner of the room rather than what we are supposed to believe is a large army of police waiting outside. A sequence that probably did cost quite a substantial amount just ends up feeling cheap as a result of this attempt to do too much.
Worse is the fact that the plot makes little sense when you think about it for much more than a few seconds. The premise is that Watson’s wife, Mary, was previously part of a secret special forces team. Each member carried a USB drive containing details of each other (we saw Mary destroy her drive in the previous series). One member, who believed he was betrayed by Mary hid his drive in a limited edition bust of Thatcher and is now searching for the drive. So, if we somehow get over the fact that this team of highly secret and specialist armed soldiers who are sent out to do jobs that no one is meant to acknowledge carry around with them all their personal details for some reason, we are then also meant to accept that these busts of Thatcher just so happen to be located at the place where their failed ops takes place, that they just so happen to be limited edition, so that they can be tracked down. They also just so happen to be all located with easy access to each other, rather than all over the globe (surprising, considering the busts were supposedly not made in the UK).
Ultimately, the episode reveals an act of treason that resulted in the death of most of this squad. The final resolution is mostly satisfying and does bring the episode full circle, with the concluding confrontation and the sacrifice of a character being the most interesting parts of the episode. I’m not sure it completely works, but there are some brave choices made by the writers and performers, in particular Freeman’s Watson, who stands out from the rest in this episode. It is clearly a moment that colours the rest of the series and I believe for the better. It does not redeem the missteps of this episode, nor of the ones that have led up to it, but it suggests some interesting times ahead for our characters.
The episode also does a good job of reminding us why we do enjoy spending time with these characters. The opening sequence is fun with plenty of laugh out loud moments. The same is true with the montage of cases that follows it and most of the time that you have Cumberbatch, Freeman and/or Gatis on screen together. It is clear that they love being these characters and you can’t deny they are good at it. Then the international plot takes over, with its hacking and moments of coincidences that we are just supposed to accept. Things just fall apart. I left the episode disappointed, but still interested to see what would follow.
What followed was Toby Jones.
Following the events of the previous episode, we are presented with a much more character driven story this time around and it stands out as a much stronger outing. As Watson attempts to deal with his loss (or avoid dealing with it), Sherlock also is attempting to deal with losing two friends in the only way that he knows how; filling his system with copious amounts of drugs. As with many a classic noir film, he is dragged back into the world when a woman brings him a case about her father, the previously mentioned Toby Jones, the philanthropist and powerful businessman, Culverton Smith. She has a memory of him confessing that he was going to kill someone, but she was drugged to forget it all and was unable to write the name down in time. Sherlock and the woman spend the night wandering the rainy streets of London, eating chips and discussing the case (as well as sending a message to his watchful brother in particularly great moment of sibling rivalry).
Sherlock ultimately figures out that the someone that the woman cannot remember the name of is in fact not an individual, but “anyone.” Culverton is a serial killer. Sherlock, fuelled by the drugs, becomes obsessed with trying to catch him out. This leads to a cat and mouse game between the two characters. Following what we have seen Sherlock previously achieve, it seems unlikely that he would struggle so much to catch up with the clearly psychopathic Culverton. Jones gives one of the hammiest performances of a serial killer that you could possibly imagine. At times this is enjoyable, but it often crosses the line into absurdity, particularly when we are given extreme close ups of Jones’s face as he lets out manic laughter. The plot does give some reason as to why Sherlock may not want to catch up with the killer too quickly, but the slightly less brilliant Sherlock turns out to be a welcome departure from his usual image of being bored by all of these piffling cases he has to put up with. There are some times where the back and forth between Jones and Cumberbatch drag the episode done a bit though. This is a story that feels like it perhaps did not require the hour and a half running time. It certainly could have had ten to fifteen minutes shaven off without too much difficulty.
The slower pace does allow us to spend more time with these characters though. We get much more of Una Stubbs’s Mrs. Hudson, who really comes into her own in this episode with some great scenes. Freeman gets to show off his acting skills too, with a great portrayal of his grief, with much more subtlety than his explosion in the previous episode. The relationship between Watson and Sherlock plays out really well, building into the overall plot effectively and also dodging the ever increasingly tiresome bromance that plagues many male relationships on screen, including previously on Sherlock.
Ultimately, the plot with Jones feels a little bit throwaway, but this is a minor issue when the episode’s main goal is to develop the main characters and their relationships. It is definitely more welcome than the previous episode putting far too much emphasis on having a big plot with little care of the characters. It is also nice to see that despite much of the happenings all turning out to be part of Sherlock’s plan, it does ultimately resolve on a moment of luck. Often frowned upon by people when talking about stories, it is actually nice to see that Sherlock doesn’t just always fall back on its lead character’s intellect to get out of problems.
It is also worth mentioning the final sequence, which sets up the next and last episode. Perhaps it is the nature of these shorter seasons or a result of being a very popular series and not just having a dedicated niche audience, but Sherlock does have a habit of throwing out plot points to set up the next episode, even though the episodes themselves are fairly self-contained. As will be seen in the following episode, not a great deal of the previous episodes play much of a part. There are some character moments that lend weight to the proceedings, but those that have missed everything up to this point are not going to get lost in any nuisances, consciously or otherwise. Is it a missed opportunity to not put more emphasis on an escalating story or is it better to have these more self-contained episodes? Well, it comes down to a matter of opinion. In my eyes, what this series would really benefit from is longer seasons. Even just a couple more episodes would allow for a better mix of standalone and a larger arc.
But enough of those ponderings. On with the last episode of what may be the last season.
And we are going big again. Explosions, infiltrating island fortresses, a crashing aeroplane and so on. Where the first episode fails quite thoroughly though, this almost succeeds, with only a few stumbling blocks.
We are now introduced to a brand-new Holmes. A sister (a gender switch from the third brother in the books,) named Eurus, who has been completely forgotten by Sherlock and covered up by Mycroft. Briefly shown at the end of the previous episode supposedly shooting Watson and also revealed to be the woman that Sherlock had spent the night on the London streets with, rather than the daughter of Culverton as he was led to believe. Turns out that it is actually impossible for her to be at either of those places, as she is currently incarcerated in a highly secret high security prison in the middle of the ocean and has been since some event in her childhood.
First things first, Sherlock is forced to try and get this information out of Mycroft. For some reason, he decides the best way to do this is by setting up his home as a haunted house ride. Perhaps it is just my hatred of clowns (genuinely, one of the scariest things I have seen is an episode Supernatural in which a creature disguises itself as a clown,) but this sequences does feel a little bit like padding. Of course, it is another moment in which we see a bit of that twisted relationship the Holmes brothers have, but it feels a tad out of place in the rest of the episode. The Sherlock Holmes stories often had a sense of the macabre about them, but this sequence felt more suited to a creepy episode of Doctor Who than of Sherlock. Not helping matters, is another sequence that doesn’t fit quite right either, when Sherlock’s Baker Street flat is destroyed by an explosive device. The destruction of his home should have been a big moment in the episode, almost on the level of a death of a character, but it all just happens and is moved on from very quickly. It barely works as a moment of exciting action, with some rather terrible bit of CGI that accompanies Freeman and Cumberbatch diving out of the window with the explosion behind them. This episode was also being broadcast to cinema screens across the country and I can only imagine how awful it must have looked blown up to that scale.
As soon as that is over, we are off for some hijinks on a boat, as Sherlock and Watson commandeer a vessel to aid in them breaking into the high security prison. As with most fictional high security prisons, the security really isn’t that great and they are able to get in without too much problem and Sherlock is able to confront his sister on how she managed to get out of her jail. Mind control, apparently. This is really brushed over, but she is a Holmes so gets the same genius rule as the rest.
With the reveal of her freedom done with, the episode feels like it really starts. And everything starts to get a little better with Sherlock being put through a series of trials. There isn’t anything here that is particularly unique, but we are given an opportunity to witness him under pressure, attempting to save as many lives as possible, limiting the casualties that Eurus causes, all the while hopefully getting more information about a mysterious girl on a soon to crash plane that Eurus allows to talk to Sherlock in between each test. Dealing with a psychopath means that she inevitably going to lie most of the time, “did I say I was going to kill just one of them? Whoops, I killed them all.” “Did I say I was going to kill that person? Oh, I forgot to plant the bomb that would have killed them if you hadn’t humiliated yourself and the ones you care for.” It is all a bit obvious, but once again the show focuses on its characters and it gets away with it… just.
Ultimately, the conclusion of the Holmes back story is a dark, but satisfying one. The reveal to him grows the character in a new direction and does make this episode feel like an ending, at least of a sort. There may not be any great deaths and the final montage with the reconstruction of his Baker Street flat (a moment that would have been more powerful if its destruction had not of been so downplayed,) suggests that life will go on for the crime solving duo, but there is a sense that things will not remain the same. There are always whispers that the show will return, as well as whispers that they won’t be able to get the actors back, but if those stars do align once more I sense a back to basics feel to season 5. How long the writers could maintain that without getting overly excited about exploding things or creating twisty turny plots is anyone’s guess, but it would certainly be much more welcome.