Sherlock was its best at season one. The premiere “A Study in Pink” is pretty much the only episode in which the audience has anything resembling a chance of thinking along with the famous detective, and as the season goes on, we see a genuine arc of character growth towards each other from Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman). It’s a fresh new world and the intrigue is built expertly around and in it.
And then the entire series indulges in something of a pattern. An addition, really. Season two is also fairly spectacular, but it is emblematic of the problems to come, namely in disjointed episodes that culminate in a finale that mostly feels unearned, let alone the troubles of letting Sherlock lecture Watson, his clients, and the audience without so much as a whiff of effort put into letting the clues lay bare and offering the slightest possibility of someone else arriving at the same outlandish yet always accurate conclusion.
That, in a nutshell, comprises almost the entirety of what season three was: a competent but unaffecting bundle of stories that sort of tie up in a dramatic climax that gets thrown in the mix for funsies. The drama between Watson and Sherlock over the deception of his fake death was resolve almost hilariously quickly, and the reveal of Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington) and her checkered past was deft in the moment but nonsensical in context. But it did set up a fantastic mystery that would linger on until…
Season four, which is where we are now. And right out of the gate with the premiere “The Six Thatchers,” we continue on with our mild abuse. Mary, as a character, seemed to originally have great utility in drawing a world outside of that which Sherlock himself seems to construct and necessitate. Suddenly we had a plot revolving around Watson that didn’t involve Sherlock, and we were open to a show that now could feasibly cease its movie-length, serialized drama framework and delve into meaty themes and narratives.
Spoiler alert: that turns out to not be true. We learn the truth of Mary’s past, which only goes further and further into the unbelievable, and that Sherlock’s narrative gravity is so strong, not even she and Watson’s love can escape it. She sacrifices herself in a profoundly insipid way. It turns out she was just a plot device all along. (Given co-showrunner Steven Moffat’s history with writing women, though, were you even a little bit surprised?)
And then we once again find ourselves in familiar territory. Watson, in blaming Sherlock for the death of Mary (which is somewhat valid, actually), finds himself in once again similar situation of loathing the detective. The only difference now is that he has a baby, I guess? But we saw this divide following his resurrection in season three. There’s nothing interesting about revisiting it.
Save, for the fact, that there’s a new wrinkle in Watson’s hate. It has rendered him effectively broken. This, as it turns out, is the saving grace of the overarching story this season. He talks to a therapist as the ghost of his late wife haunts him, pushing him to be a better, healthier man but his internal strife refuses to let him. It finally gives a critical weakness to a character that previously held only the inability to be anything but endearing. (And, perhaps, the willingness to partake in borderline offensive queerbaiting.)
It’s truly fantastic stuff, compounding on the fact that we are treated to some of the best, most thorough, and most innovative representations of Sherlock’s thought processes we’ve ever seen. So now we have this new dramatic hook while our eyes and visceral appreciation parts of our brain our busy soaking in the razzle-dazzle of a genius at work. (And, before I forget, the tremendous performance of Toby Jones as Culverton Smith.) What we’re missing is just about anything else that’s engaging.
The second episode “The Lying Detective” falls back into old habits. Characters inexplicably fall into place around Sherlock. He engages once again in an indecipherable long con that shakes out with stunning disregard for reality that only ever (and can only) ends with his absolute and total victory, this time including yet another reconciliation with his dear Watson. Even the holiday special “The Abominable Bride” had more nuance in its treatment of the show’s chess piece characters. (Hell, its feminist response elements were more subtle.)
“The Lying Detective” bears terrible trademark development around its women, too, actually. This Vox piece breaks it down rather well, but it can best be summed up in this line: “His female characters are noticeably, bizarrely interchangeable.” Mary and Irene Adler, Molly Hooper and Mrs. Hudson. And now we have a very literal example of that in the reveal of Sherlock and Mycroft’s long lost sister Eurus (Sian Brooke) where she actually plays three roles at once.
This show, as prodigious as it is in its directing and cinematography and, of course, acting, has become more frustrating than entertaining. Everything feels remarkably inconsequential for the sake of wowing the crowd with Sherlock’s penchant for drama and theatrics. His drug addiction is nothing but a trick on par with a rabbit emerging from a hat and dismissed just as quickly. Characters develop emotional responses only to be stuffed back into their little boxes of utility.
Watson even goes so far as to point this out, remarking on how Sherlock shot a man in the face (“His Last Vow”) and suffered zero consequences. He effectively killed Mary and paid nothing. Why? Because he’s Sherlock, god dammit. Seems pretty elementary to me. Elementary and uninteresting.
We’ve got one more episode to go this season with “The Final Problem.” Let’s hope there’s something salvaged by the end of it.