We all know that Sherlock Holmes retires and becomes a hobbyist beekeeper. It’s in the books, it’s in the Mr. Holmes movie, but what’s his backstory? How does he become Basil Rathbone and all them? It turns out, this modern Sherlock TV show is, in a weird way, actually the backstory of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. This is where Sherlock first discovers his emotions and their usefulness, where he learns that he is not by nature a sociopath but had simply had his memories “reprogrammed” as a result of a traumatic event during his childhood. In dredging up the past, the Sherlock going forward beyond season 4 will be a new Sherlock… well, an old Sherlock, anyway. But let’s back up and look at season 4 and how we got there. Spoilers ahead.
Episode 1, The Six Thatchers
“The Six Thatchers,” a title that is a spin on “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” has been criticized as being too Bond or Bourne. The once-loved one-off mysteries are mere red herrings in a complex story arc involving the backstory of Mary, a character we’ve barely gotten to know as a decent human being before she betrays us again by not being normal and boring the way her new facet as a mother promised. PopMatters calls the episode “like a bum-dialed phone call to someone you were once good friends with, but now it’s just awkward, embarrassing, and you no longer share the same interests.” Ultimately, though, the episode does two things necessary for us to enter season 4: it reminds us the emotional structure of the show (we go from comical to action to tragedy) and we get rid of Mary. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see the writers include a female character who can hold her own against Sherlock and Watson, but there’s now one too many clever people in the room, and that new clever person is interrupting the chemistry between Sherlock and Watson. We also need to see Watson’s character take a powerful evolution forward. As a single father, that is bound to happen.
Episode 2, The Lying Detective
Toby Jones makes a captivating Culverton Smith, a serial killer who gets under Sherlock’s skin because he unveils that serial killers do not all follow a pattern: only the types that get caught do. The episode uses lots of clever devices, and I don’t just mean stepping into Sherlock’s mind palace as he draws diagrams in the street, though there certainly is that. Different scenes fold on top of each other, out of chronological order. We see Watson’s confession to LeStrade about the scalpel interspliced inside of the scene with the scalpel, heightening the tension. What’s going to happen? Who has the scalpel?
Sherlock is drugged out. Watson is seeing ghosts. They are following orders from a dead person on DVD and also trying to be one step ahead of Moriarty, who has been dead for two seasons now. It’s no wonder they miss the fact that the girl Watson has been text-flirting with is also the woman he’s hired to be his therapist… is also the lady pretending to be Culverton’s daughter.
Episode 3, The Final Problem
But you have to remember where Mark Gatiss comes from. If anyone can pull off a disguise stunt with as little makeup as possible, it’s going to be one of the League of Gentlemen, a collective known for playing one hundred characters between the three of them with little to no prosthetics. Sian Brooke isn’t the only one who gets to dress up, though. You know that Gatiss was going to get in on that action, too, getting to trick us all into thinking he’s a fisherman. Finally, in this episode, we get to see some depth and point to Mycroft’s character.
The title of the episode is an obvious reference to something said by archnemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), so it begs the question: Is Moriarty really dead? Well, yes. I think most of us assumed that he was really dead because he doesn’t need to be alive in order to taunt Sherlock, especially since his death was planned out in great detail. The only reason we don’t see his brains splatter in “The Reichenbach Fall” is because the show was broadcast too early in the day. What we didn’t see coming was that Moriarty’s taunting from beyond the grave was not at the hand of Moriarty at all. He is the willing pawn of a much greater villain, Sherlock’s sister Eurus (Sian Brooke). A satisfying twist and conclusion to the Moriarty arc, especially considering that fans of Moriarty got a special flashback scene to enjoy. We had to have that. There are too many Moriarty fans. Moffat and Gatiss are fans, too. It’s recently been revealed that Moriarty was meant to be a behind-the-scenes villain with only one or two brief scenes, but upon seeing Andrew Scott’s audition (“I will burn the heart out of you”), they wrote him in more and more.
Eurus ultimately teaches Sherlock that what he sees as flaws, not being as clever as Mycroft perhaps, are actually his strengths. Eurus is more clever than either Sherlock or Mycroft, so clever in fact that her mental abilities seem to take on an almost paranormal element. She can reprogram people. There’s a lovely moment when we realize that Eurus is controlling everyone in the asylum (a tidbit apparently unnoticed by Stuart Heritage who criticizes in The Guardian the unlikeliness of Eurus leaving the asylum for so long without getting noticed: they did notice, they are under her “spell”). There is always a trade-off. Her deduction thing is so much more powerful than Sherlock’s but at the cost of her empathy. She doesn’t even recognize pain when she feels it. Sherlock’s memory, which has been rewired due to trauma and Mycroft’s coaxing, has edited out the fact that Eurus murdered his childhood best friend. Sherlock was never the same after that, it is said. This is the reason for Sherlock’s sociopath ways, not because he is fundamentally without empathy. Now Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has finally become Conan Doyle’s Sherlock.