In “Bad Boys” Joe Pantoliano’s Captain Howard is in the process of berating Detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) after Miami Dade Police Department has been robbed of seized drugs. He says: “Just do what you do; only faster.” That’s the exact pep talk that you imagine Mark Gatiss and Stephan Moffatt having with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as they return to Baker Street for the fourth series of “Sherlock.”
Sherlock’s fourth series sees the eponymous detective (Cumberbatch), John Watson (Freeman), and John’s mysterious wife, Mary (Amanda Abbington) who Aja Romano described as; “a red herring for ... whatever the show has up its sleeve next,” reeling in the wake of a video message from Moriarty in the third season cliff-hanger finale.
The first episode of the series, “The Six Thatchers,” sees Sherlock lassoed back from an exile after the unceremonious murder at the conclusion of season three. Sherlock isn’t intent on seeking out whatever traps his dead (?) nemesis Moriarty has laid, but is sure that he’ll see the game emerge in his work. In the process of a murder case he discovers that someone is breaking busts of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It’s in this strange destruction of political totems that Sherlock catches the scent of a game.
‘Thatchers’ is written by Gatiss, who also plays Mycroft Holmes in the show. He’s assumed the key creative role in guiding the character and has barely made a misstep. ‘Thatchers’ storms into a mystery and in mere moments there are repercussions to characters and threads that look to alter the trajectory of the series. It’s an episode that moves at breakneck speed, so much so that the exposition and flashbacks feel like they’re coming at you in fast-forward until you arrive abruptly at the destination. The moments in the episode where the characters are simply interacting feel out of place because it’s like the engine of the vehicle has stalled.
Mary’s injection into the series as more than simply a woman to break-up the homoeroticism (known as the ‘Aunt Harriet manoeuvre’ - see Batman ’66) is both fulfilled and auto-corrected in the opening episodes of the series. Mary’s role as new mother and key member of the team has rendered John rudderless. Gatiss quickly finds a way to return this crowd to a company. As Romano astutely alluded, Mary triggers the direction of the season. The very thing that resulted in Sherlock shooting last season’s villain Charles Augustus Magnussen point blank in the face to protect has refused to go quietly into that good night…equal and opposite reactions and all that. We gain insights into Mary’s past and final mission where her team of operatives were betrayed and ambushed. Mary escaped; a member of her team was captured. After years of torture, and clues he’d gleaned from his captors he believes that Mary is to blame and will stop at nothing to get revenge.
The first of the three episodes in the series contains (what should be) the series’ most emotionally significant moment; Mary stepping in front of a bullet for Sherlock. However, it’s approached with such efficiency that as the credits roll you’re almost numb to event. The show’s rhythm, perhaps due to the spaces between seasons means that the first episodes of the series often attempt to load up and set the tempo for the series.
Series co-creator Moffatt (“Dr. Who” Yoda) pens the following episode, “The Lying Detective,” which I would say emphatically, is one of the most powerful and moving of the entire “Sherlock” series. In the process of his first visit to a new psychologist, he’s interrupted by Ms Hudson screeching up to a property in an Aston Martin; a drug addled Sherlock locked in her truck ranting about Culverton Smith (Toby Jones), a philanthropist he claims is a murderer.
It takes us back to the thrill of reimagining Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in a modern world. The episode crafts a phenomenal stand-alone tale (with well hidden tendrils to other threads of the story) with style and timing that doesn’t feel like it’s streaming towards the conclusion but a way to find emotion in a character who has really become a formulaic, problem solving android. John is back in therapy attempting to cope with Mary’s death. Sherlock’s lack of connection to John is a lack of connection to the world. Mary’s sacrifice to save Sherlock and leave him a widower and new father; restoring him back to the factory settings and incompatible with the life serving people alongside Sherlock. There’s finally time spent on the character’s evolving and their little model of the world being knocked out of its orbit.
Stylistically, “The Lying Detective” was the best of the series. Director Nick Hurran does a tremendous job of bringing the audience into the perspective of varying styles of mind altering substances. Smith to confess his sins to drug addled employees resulting in the memory of the events immediately slipping away and Sherlock’s substance abuse lets us in on (potentially) imagined clients.
The conclusion of the episode is confessional in nature. An apparition of Mary haunts John and brings about a shocking reveal. Sherlock’s suspicions are true and he risks death to wake John from his apathy. The final moments of the episode result in a huge bombshell; Sherlock and Mycroft have a sister named Eurus and she’s been posing as John’s therapist and a client to manipulate the Baker Street Boys; the episode ends with Eurus nursing a gun to John’s chest.
The final episode of the short series, aptly titled “The Final Problem,” sees Sherlock and John (fortunately tranquillised) exploring the bombshell that Sherlock and Mycroft have a sister (Sian Brooke) who is smarter than Mycroft, has more deductive power than Sherlock and yet is a raving, apathetic sociopath. Mycroft is forced to confess that she’d been locked away because she was a danger to the public and that he had been using her in controlled doses to disrupt enemies of Britain. Sherlock must explore the recesses of his mind for the repressed memories of his, so far, hidden sister. While Moriarty’s messages are revealed to be recordings that Eurus has used to torment and toy with her brother, Mary’s own recorded messages become the constant reminder of her devotion to John and Sherlock and the importance of their work. They’re effectively guided and manipulated by the ghosts of those pivotal entities that the series has left behind.
The series’ purpose is to reinforce the importance of the Holmes and Watson partnership. The first episode of the series asks how John is relevant in the world of Sherlock if someone like Mary is in the world. Her espionage experience and smarts makes her a very apt and possibly more suitable sparring partner for Sherlock than John. John is Sherlock’s primary connection to the world. Mary’s untimely demise triggers the events that eventually result in the forward momentum of both characters and a restoration of their relationship.
The comparisons between James Bond and Sherlock are inescapable this season. Gatiss and Moffatt use the template set from Bond’s “Skyfall” arc (digging into J.B’s past and returning to his family home), and use it in “The Final Problem” as a means to get deeper into the origins of Sherlock character. The question is; how could such a deductive mind, omit a sister? The series does a job answering. There are several moments in this series where their influences tread that fine line between homage and knock-offs.
Cumberbatch is far better when he’s given the space to take Sherlock to more emotional places. The fun of Sherlock’s apathy toward desperately silly clients is in fact that he’s got the capacity to feel. In the final pull of the trigger of the season three, you can’t help but get an ill feeling about the possibility that Sherlock is the high functioning sociopath that he proclaims to be. Freeman’s timing for the comedic moments, playing the straight man as it were, is impeccable; he is a large contributor to the success of one of the greatest television comedies of all time (“The Office” – Gervais/Merchant). However, Freeman’s dramatic chops get a workout in the “The Lying Detective” and remind us that John is indeed a soldier, yearning to serve and carries the emotional scars of war.
At the end of the series it’s clear; Gatiss and Moffatt aren’t going to continue series spanning conspiracies and stretch them out for the years between the next entries. The lads back to Baker Street, waiting for their next case. I for one am happy to waiting for their next go round.