Nothing is more frustrating to write than a negative review of something you had high hopes for. A bad review of something I expected to hate like New Moon? It’s a blast to write. A positive review of something I was excited about like Star Wars: The Force Awakens? It’s like reliving it. A positive review of something I expected to hate like Un Gallo Con Muchos Huevos? It makes me excited to watch more things I dread. But sadly, there are times I have to gut a thing I expected so much from.
Thus we’re here and I’m forced to autopsy season 4 of Sherlock.
Sherlock s4 not living up to expectations is hardly a controversial stance, admittedly. Very few fans were satisfied with the show’s muddled, boring, and ultimately highly problematic plot this season. The show resolved a cliffhanger after several years only to leave fans unsatisfied by the answer. Aside from the direction and a few performances by supporting actors, nobody involved seemed to care. I could leave it at that and it’d be enough.
But I think this season is worth studying as a prime example of what happens when a franchise outlives its peak. The problems in this season aren’t in isolation. Other franchises suffer from the same issues. This show just seems to gleam a bit worse for them due to its unique structure.
Sherlock in its prime was a rather electrifying thing to behold. Season one felt like what Arthur Conan Doyle would’ve done today. The characters were sharp. The mysteries were well crafted. It was well made. The second season was even stronger, though the Baskerville Hound was a weaker entry. Then there was season 3, which wasn’t as good but still had some utterly crackling beats and three fairly solid episodes. (Yes I like the premiere.)
Then we hit the special. Ooof. It was a great idea, going back to Doyle’s era, but the plot was an incomprehensible mess. Admittedly the basic case was fantastic and it had great ideas. But as with all dream sequence stories, it became an excuse for silly surrealism. Self indulgence was all over it. Better to end with the reveal it was all a dream and play it straight until the end. Sadly it was a sign of what was to come.
Season 4 of Sherlock is defined by several problems but none is more glaring than this: It’s transparently obvious Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat had no idea how to resolve season 3’s cliffhanger. They wrote themselves into a corner trying to figure out how Moriarty could be the villain yet stay dead. There was a good idea implied by the special, that his name and image was taken up by his followers, but that got discarded. Indeed any resolution was denied us for 2/3 of the season, a highly annoying stall tactic.
Because once there was a resolution, it didn’t feel like a resolution we waited three years for. The entire idea of the lost Holmes sister wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it was a clumsily handled retcon that wound up feeling like the cheat it was. There hadn’t been a bit of setup in the preceding seasons to suggest that a third Holmes existed. The idea that Sherlock conveniently repressed any memories of her was an insult to the viewer.
Making things even worse, Eurus Holmes didn’t feel like a worthy choice for the grand ultimate villain. I need to stress that Sian Brooke’s performance in the role isn’t what I’m trashing as I think she did a spectacular job with utterly rancid material. Eurus Holmes isn’t so much a character as a walking copout. She’s “crazy” in that galling way that bears zero resemblance to real mental illness. She’s basically Jigsaw in her methods. Oh and at the end we learn she just wants to be loved. This is not your archvillain.
Ultimately it’s impossible to ignore the hard truth that the show never should’ve killed Moriarty. Andrew Scott makes a brief flashback cameo in the finale and at every moment reminds me what a great villain he was. He worked because he was a contrast to Sherlock. Sherlock is pure icy logic while Moriarty is a fountain of rage and emotion who acts impulsively. His over the top nature was life. The show needed him.
All of that said, the villain problem was the major problem but it wasn’t the only one. There were far too many other issues to blame just one.
For one, it was so very clear Benedict Cumberbatch wanted to be elsewhere throughout the season. I don’t blame him. When you’ve spoken the words of everybody from Shakespeare to Massawyrm from AICN, you get bored with the job you started with. That’s especially true when the writing is this limp. He’s also edited around worse than when The X-Files had to write out a leading cast member for reshoots. Seriously, rewatch the season and notice how little he actually is in it. It’s sad.
Moffat’s legendary misogyny reached a peak this season. 2/3 of the villains were women who felt wronged by the men in their lives. The positive women, Mrs. Hudson aside, went’s exactly glowing either. Molly Hooper was given a single scene of such profound humiliation that it’s amazing the next shot wasn’t her taking her own life. Instead of even getting a second of a reaction shot from her, we got Sherlock raging. Her degradation only served to hurt a man. And all that need be said for poor Mary Watson was she died to save the life of a man she barely tolerated. This is fridging at its worst.
It also got tiring to see Sherlock dealing with the biggest mysteries possible. The first episode was figuring out the truth of a terrorist attack. The second episode put him up against a tycoon, which was admittedly not out of character. The third episode was Saw. The previous season finale was another epic itself. This just isn’t nearly as much fun as the small scale mysteries of Doyle. I didn’t care about Holmes saving the UK. I wanted the clues, the fun.
What all of this amounts to is a taint on the show. When 3 of the last 4 episodes of a show that only has 17 episodes aren’t satisfying then the work itself is damaged. The show’s format was a ton of fun in the early seasons but the demand that everything be epic and everything be important got old fast I fear. The joy went out of the show and I hate that.
I stress, not everything about the season is bad. The second episode is even rather good until the end which sadly introduces us to Eurus Holmes. Amanda Abbington is great as Mary Watson until she dies a useless death. Mark Gatiss is fun as Mycroft. It was fun to see the Holmes parents, played once more by Cumberbatch’s actual parents. It was well directed in the first ep.
But ultimately it is what it is. Should the show go on? I don’t think so. I feel like all involved have made it clear they’re done. And that’s fine. Sherlock Holmes is a character who belongs to pop culture as a whole. This iteration has reached its end. Now time for a new approach.