I’m a Monster, and Other Things I Noticed During Season Four of Sherlock
When Sherlock started out, it was an episodic mystery series about two people who solved crimes, one of whom happened to be weird. Four seasons in, it’s a psychological drama about someone weird who happens to solve crimes. I don’t hate this new show, but I liked the first one more.
WTF happens in the fourth and maybe final season of Sherlock?
They don’t solve a whole lot of crimes.
People wrote think pieces about season three where they said that “friendship” was the mystery they were solving, or “relationships” or “emotions” and, in a metaphorical way, yes – those things can be mysterious. But, in terms of the literal action in the plot of this TV series, it is no longer about detective work.
In season four, the first episode is a bunch of people shooting at each other while Sherlock tries to figure out who, specifically, sold out Mary’s l33t assassin group, back when she was a l33t assassin. It ends with a somewhat surprising plot development, in that Mary gets killed (as she does in the books), but it doesn’t involve a lot of mystery.
The second episode is about a very unnerving businessman who tells us openly, during the very first scene, that he intends to kill someone. The rest of the action is mostly just Sherlock going bananas when no one will believe this guy’s a killer. Once again, the episode is mostly memorable because of a huge surprise at the end that has nothing to do with a mystery. The final scene involves the sudden introduction of this season’s villain, played by Sian Brooke. I’ll tell you more about her character in a minute, but her performance in this single scene was terrifying enough to keep me up at night… while not having a whole lot to do with deductive reasoning.
The third and final episode is a total ret-con of everything we thought we knew about Sherlock and why he is This Way, featuring a creepy riddle that the season’s new villain made up, a journey into Sherlock’s repressed memories of childhood trauma, and a big, dramatic sequence where he redeems himself for all his past mistakes and also proves he’s not a psychopath for once and all. Also, Watson gets trapped in a well.
Over the course of the season, we also experience scenes where all of the other characters stand in a circle and talk about how exquisitely sensitive and emotional Sherlock really is, Molly the morgue girl re-enacts the exact same five second scene she had last season where she slaps Sherlock because he’s killing himself – he’s killing himself!! – with the drugs, and Mycroft, for some reason, has sex with a woman he works with. I thought he was supposed to be smart.
This show has become some kind of middle school diary of angst
And, hear me out, because I am also some kind of middle school diary of angst; I’m not saying this to be mean. But, one of the things I respected about the first two seasons was that, however stylized the show was, and however much it was secretly about friendship and the emotional turmoil of the gifted, misunderstood genius, the writers kept the action anchored in this very concrete, technically difficult, complex, and – maybe most importantly – dignified activity of solving mysteries. They remembered that the core, defining characteristic of this Sherlock person is that he possesses a superhuman ability to crunch information and see things others don’t.
In seasons three and four, his core, defining characteristic is that he cries himself to sleep inside his mind palace at night because he’s lonely.
It’s not that I’m not interested in the psychology of the characters – in fact, I’m much more interested in that than I am in the mystery plots – but, there’s something about focussing on that to the exclusion of everything else that makes the story seem ungrounded. And there’s something about choosing to focus most narrative attention on areas where the main character is incompetent that makes him seem like kind of a loser.
In “The Lying Detective,” Sherlock spends the whole episode taking advice from a DVD about how to make Watson like him again, and this advice somehow leads him to conclude that he should martyr himself by a) letting Watson beat the shit out of him, and b) offering himself up as prey to a serial killer and kind of, like, crying ineffectually while the serial killer almost serial kills him. This is on top of doing coke again.
Compare that to the relatively more restrained “A Scandal in Belgravia,” in season two, where he’s ultimately still extremely smart at solving mysteries, but also embarrassed about his lack of sexual experience. The audience and the other characters can still admire him for being good at something, while also appreciating his human vulnerabilities. It’s not the vulnerability alone that makes him a compelling character – it’s the balance between strength and weakness. Which is why it doesn’t work so well when he just lies on the floor and lets someone kick him.
We need a special version of the Bechdel test for this show, where two people who aren’t Sherlock talk about something that isn’t Sherlock
So, after Mary gets suddenly killed, she comes back as a ghost just so she can talk to her husband about Sherlock. Like, not even their baby (who conveniently disappears a lot as soon as her mother is gone). Not even the affair her husband had (which is immediately rolled back into not being an affair in a very cowardly way)*. Not even a private joke or memory they had between them that didn’t involve Sherlock. Her posthumous task, as a ghost, and an image on a pre-recorded video, is to facilitate Watson and Sherlock’s friendship, just as she did in life.
That’s really weird, but it’s a symptom of a larger problem in which all of the characters who aren’t Sherlock are exclusively defined by how they relate to Sherlock.
This is weird, not just because the characters are all obsessed with him for no clear reason (especially now that he’s not good at something anymore), but also because the show seems to be confusing “cares a lot about what happens to Sherlock” with “is an awesome character.” Mrs. Hudson, Molly the morgue girl, and Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, all get these really big scenes where they’re super dramatic about how much they care about Sherlock and how much of their lives they devote to enabling him, and I feel like that was meant to endear them to me somehow.
The problem is that, when none of the characters have differentiated identities, they don’t feel real. It’s clear that they’re just bit players in a drama about the only character who’s really been developed. Honestly, the thing that made me like Mycroft the most was not any of the scenes where he was obsessed with his brother – it was the scene where he rightly didn’t give a fuck about looking at photos of his brother’s friend’s baby because that didn’t involve him.
* Yes, technically Watson and ghost!Mary talk about his infidelity, but the point of that scene is that he’s actually telling Sherlock about it.
Let’s also talk about the part where no one’s gay, because that’s a new development
Without checking Tumblr and AO3, I estimate that, after season three, there were 8,000 fanfics written about how Sherlock, Watson, and Mary ended up in some kind of poly triad. Partly because those fanfics would have been written no matter what, but also partly because the centrepiece of season three was Sherlock third-wheeling at their wedding while they fondly smiled at him.
The show has always been weirdly coy about the idea that the two main characters might be attracted to each other – usually in the direction of making jokes where people mistake them for a couple and Watson screams that he’s not gay. As I’ve said before, it bothered me because, in 2016, you should be able to make your characters gay if you want to. Playing coy little games feels outdated.
In season four, though, the only person who deals in gay innuendo is flashback!Moriarty. Watson is rightly preoccupied with his dead wife (and it would probably seem messed-up if people teased him about Sherlock at this moment), Mycroft hooks up with Lady Smallwood, and Sherlock eventually confesses that he sometimes texts with Irene Adler, which is as close as he’s come to having a girlfriend since he pretended to like Janine so he meet the man who poked her in the eye.
There’s also a very painful sequence where Sherlock has to force Molly the morgue girl to say she loves him as part of the villain’s diabolical game, and we never really find out how that affects their relationship. (Just like we never heard much more about how Janine’s boss apparently made her stand there while he poked her in the eye, but then we got that weird, meta Christmas special where the message was “This show is kind of lame about its female characters” – I digress).
As much as I appreciate them laying off the gay jokes… I still found myself disappointed that Sherlock didn’t ultimately get past being coy. It’s not that the direction they went in is bad – I think Molly can do better than Sherlock, but I’m happy to see him end up with Irene Adler – it’s just that it feels too conventional after all the years of hinting and teasing.
New New Moriarty Was Okay I Guess
Remember a couple of seasons ago, when Doctor Who introduced a female version of The Master, who was essentially a female version of Moriarty? Well, now Sherlock’s introduced a female version of Moriarty, too.
I won’t spoil all the details of this extremely confusing reveal, but, basically, we get a ret-con in the final episode explaining how female Moriarty was the real Moriarty all along, because she helped male Moriarty orchestrate all his schemes and gave him inside information on how to fuck with Sherlock and swayed back and forth with him on opposite sides of a plate glass window in a moment I really quite liked.
The best thing about this character is that she acts as a clear foil to Sherlock and enables the series to finally explain that he’s not actually a sociopath, and explore why he’s so fascinated by people who are, which is interesting, and something we lost after male Moriarty blew his brains out.
The worst thing about this character is that I have a hard time believing she exists. Not because I’m unwilling to accept this character as a woman – because I’m unwilling to accept this character as someone air-dropped into Sherlock’s past with no warning. The writers try really hard to throw up a smoke screen by telling us that, secretly, Mycroft always meant something completely different than what he literally said, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one knew this was where things were going.
If this really is the end of the whole series, I’d rather the big finale were built on the foundation we already had rather than obliterating that foundation with new information. At the same time, I’m torn, because the idea of ending the series with a final showdown between Sherlock and Moriarty, which reinterprets what it means for them to go over the falls together, and shows how much Sherlock’s grown since season two – I kind of like that. But it’s still pretty weird and messed-up.
Finally, An Elegy for Redbeard
you were a good dog
whom we were introduced to
in season three.
When I found out that you were a false memory
that Sherlock made up to block out the trauma of his childhood friend, who was nicknamed Redbeard, getting murdered
I was happy
because you weren’t dead.
I also wondered why Mycroft
never told anyone that [redacted] had murdered a neighbourhood child.
That seems like information
he should have shared.
Or why Sherlock’s parents
never questioned him
about the fake dog
he made up.
I love you, Redbeard.
And, in conclusion,
I was glad that that child got murdered
instead of an imaginary dog.