A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Sherlock was a thundering delight at its opening, taking the world by storm. It was clever, truly clever and not too much so for its own good. The visuals were sharp, the writing winked at the audience with just the right amount of gumption, and the digitalization of the series somehow didn’t get in the way of this adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed stories feeling like the best yet. What really sealed the deal, however, were the pitch-perfect castings of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the titular Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively. Other characters could be charming, irritating, or one-note, but the primary pairing and the inherent cleverness of the series was so spot-on that those sins didn’t ever become monotonous. The cases also seemed clever without trying too hard to be so, just sharp and interesting enough to where the audience was teased but never looked down upon in a condescending fashion. Perhaps that is nostalgia speaking, but that sense of nostalgia has never been stronger, considering the overall weakness of the third series and the Christmas special that proved to be as unfortunately abominable as the title inadvertently promised. The opening episode of series four started off on an incredibly odd foot, even though it was introduced in traditional Masterpiece fashion by a thespian. Alan Cumming notes that Sherlock truly only has one friend, which could be true on some level, but this modern version of Sherlock had promised something more, something significant that was able to go beyond the paradigm of a single pairing as its only functioning organ, for lack of a better phrase. It ignores, whether it intends to or not, Sherlock’s friendships with the other characters in the show and especially Mary. That particular omission proves to be a dark moment of foreshadowing in what might prove to be the most controversial decision in the show’s history. At the very least, it’s proof that the show just doesn’t know what it’s doing at the moment and there’s only so much narrative that can coast along on witty character banter.
Moffat, as I’ve noted in my review for “The Abominable Bride” and in some reviews for Doctor Who, has two major problems as a writer. The first is that he loves to introduce mysteries that take forever to solve, which is fine if the pathway towards that resolution is as intricate and enjoyable as the answer. If that is proving not to be the case, then get to the absolution of the mystery earlier as audiences simply don’t like being teased or taken along a ride whose journey isn’t as potent as the show constantly seems to posit that it is. At a certain juncture, after all, the potency just loses itself and if the episode arrives to a point where a minor character was responsible for a major murderous event, it’s lazy and indulgent of a terrible trope in mystery stories. The script is quite enamored with itself in how sternly it believes in its cleverness, with how it pulls out a great twist even though it’s anything but. The second major problem Moffat has as a writer is properly writing and understanding the agencies and stories of his female characters. He has an inability to give them character arcs of their own that don’t conclude in serving the male character in their respective stories. There are exceptions to that generalization of course, but that only makes the rest of Moffat’s work that much more irritating. It is quite fair and necessary to note, however, that co-show runner Mark Gatiss is the primary writer credited for this hour. It’s also nevertheless important to take note of Moffat’s responsibility as a co-showrunner. He is as responsible for Sherlock as Gatiss is and if one is familiar with Moffat’s work, it isn’t difficult to see his fingerprints all over this. Gatiss himself shares those weaknesses as a writer and he is arguably the weaker writer of the two as he isn’t seemingly capable of pulling together compelling mysteries on his own. Those weaknesses coupled with an intransigent belief in the sheer superiority of show runner cleverness culminated in the death of Mary Watson.
Mary Watson was introduced in the fairly middling premiere of series three. Her marriage to John in the second episode was the highlight of an episode that otherwise also failed in the mystery department. Amanda Abbington had a natural rapport with Freeman and Cumberbatch and the twist of Mary being a secret assassin for lack of a better phrase was fantastic. It added greater purpose to the story and it rejuvenated a series that felt lackadaisical in the extreme. But while that episode went on to win an Emmy, the return of Mary in “The Abominable Bride” proved to be problematic and indicative of how the show simply didn’t know what to do with her. She was as sharp as Sherlock and while she wasn’t as astute on human psychology, she was arguably a greater match for Sherlock’s intellect than Watson. That made her particularly cringeworthy for some fans but I was interested in seeing where that went. The Three’s Company composition began to falter in “Bride”, however, when Mary’s intellect was nevertheless usurped by Sherlock. That cringeworthy scene where Sherlock explained the importance of feminism to a group of thirty women or so proved that while Mary was being written as a possible equal to Sherlock, she would always be usurped by the titular character. That makes sense to a certain degree, but either the show needs to commit to Mary’s equivalence or it just needs to step away from that. Moffat and Gatiss tried to tow the line and it’s a travesty. Mary’s death sequence first and foremost doesn’t make any sense because as a trained assassin, she should know better than to jump in front of a bullet like that. If she has time to jump in front, she has time to push Sherlock out of the way. None of the police officers actually do anything in the instance of there actually being an armed suspect ready to pull the trigger at anyone and the entire moment just reeks of being a plot device and nothing else. That her death is consequently used primarily to focus on Sherlock and Watson is palpably ridiculous. That isn’t to say their reactions and heartbreak should be ignored, but Mary’s character arc should have served her character before it served anyone else. That isn’t a difficult thing to accomplish for writers who know what they’re doing. The repercussions to Sherlock and Watson are important, but they ought to have been secondary.
The mystery was also fairly poorly stitched together, acting disappointingly safe after Gatiss’s erasure of a lot of the more political subtext present in the original short-story that served as the primary inspiration for this episode. In today’s day and age, Sherlock could have used its immense popularity to tackle immigration so when it fails to do that, it’s difficult not to be a little disappointed that the show doesn’t embrace its intelligence as much as it could have in that particular respect. The mystery of the young man being dead for a week within his car is interesting up until the point when one realizes that you could surprise your parents in a way that is much less convoluted, but I digress. While so many elements of this episode felt derivative and underwhelming, it cannot be denied as to how much of a blast it is to see these characters interacting with each other. While Moffat and Gattis have seemingly lost their sharpness in terms of their writing ability, one area in which they have actually improved is their ability to display the rapport between the characters in their creation, which naturally improves the more they write for them in the first place. Lestrade smiling when Sherlock actually calls him by his name in “Greg” is adorable and the reveal that Sherlock texts the same information to Mary and John in such different ways is hilarious. Hilarity may in turn become a scarce property as John, grappling with his guilt and fury, breaks his relationship with Sherlock but it’s clear that he isn’t doing so just out of grief for the fate that befell Mary. The infidelity route that the episode took with John felt as if the show was trying to do something human, but it simply ended up creating intense feelings of anger towards John from the audience because it felt like something John wouldn’t do at that stage. Sometimes the audience does, in spite of what Sherlock himself says, know the characters and to give them something that they wouldn’t want comes off across as not being true to the story but being spiteful. As a note of spite, Mary makes one last return at the close of the episode to gain Sherlock’s promise that he would be there for John in case of her death and even in her closing moments on the show. In that moment, Sherlock doubles down on how much Mary was viewed as a plot device to further the character arcs of Sherlock and Watson while never getting the chance to complete her own.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“I’m the target. Targets wait.”
+The rattle sequence is great
+“The Ghost Driver”
+The Black Pearl of the Borgias reference
+Rachel Talalay, coming off of her work on Doctor Who, directs this episode with a +John’s guttural noise
+Sherlock in therapy
Episode Title: The Six Thatchers
Written by: Mark Gatiss
Directed by: Rachel Talalay
Story Reference: “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”
Image Courtesy: The Empty Hearse
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