Season 4 of Sherlock was always going to be a tough sell for me, because the moment they revealed “she’s a secret assassin!” I stopped buying the Mary Watson character. It’s what film critic, Mark Kermode, calls the “Meg Ryan is a helicopter pilot/Keanu Reeves is an architect” problem. Amanda Abbington was just not believable to me as a spec ops assassin, and she wasn’t equipped to perform the action convincingly. And all that was before the problems with the story were even revealed. After Mary shot Sherlock, every time she turned up on the screen, my stomach clenched, because, as presented, she was capable of anything – demonstrating profoundly antisocial tendencies: lying, manipulation, self-serving extreme violence, and disregard for human life. Her total rehabilitation was simply not plausible to me and probably wouldn’t have been even if its foundation hadn’t been the unbelievably ludicrous, glib assertion: “That was surgery.” (Not how guns and bullets work!) Watching her subsequent chumminess with Sherlock, whom she shot in the chest and killed (he flatlined), made me feel like I was being gaslighted. In my mind, it wasn’t good enough for her to say, “I only hurt Sherlock because I love John so much I can’t lose him!” Go down to any battered women’s shelter and you’ll hear similar stories of abusers’ rationalisations for beating up the person their property dared to smile at in the grocery store parking lot. Watching Mary joke and laugh with the people she’d victimised so horribly while continuing to marginalise John made much of The Six Thatchers almost unwatchable for me.
I didn’t like the first episode of the new season of Sherlock, but I sincerely hoped having the risible nonsense of the Mary Watson/AGRA storyline tied up would free things up a bit. I think the Culverton Smith case might have delivered, but they went all in on the “I’m so beset by grief I’m hallucinating my dead spouse” gambit. Really? In what we keep being told is “clever” television? Grief is about absence, about a space that can’t be filled, about feeling trapped and asphyxiated by it. But we were never actually shown Mary and John’s relationship, so all the emotional heavy lifting is being done retroactively, and it’s heavy-handed, saccharine, out-of-character claptrap. John being with Rosie, struggling to parent alone would have had me in floods, but Moftiss always chooses exposition when there isn’t a gun being pulled or a joke being cracked. There is something about genuine, non-sensational emotion that seems to make them uncomfortable; it always has to be book-ended by effacing humour. As much as I dislike the “I see dead people” shortcut to exploring grief, I understand that it probably worked for most of the viewing audience, but Moftiss could have at least allowed some of those moments sink in. They just had to cut off the opening scene in the therapist’s office with police sirens and helicopters in service to a gag about Sherlock’s penchant for grand entrances.
I sent out the following tweet as I was watching The Six Thatchers, and it pretty much sums up my feelings on the episode.
Like most Sherlock episodes, it flowed best when they were in case-solving mode and dragged in the other parts. They leaned too long and hard into the jokes, and still can’t seem to get the pacing right. A quality actioner that seamlessly integrates the quieter, emotional sequences is much, much more difficult to execute than people imagine. Every time the setting changed, I felt like I was watching a completely different show cast with doppelgängers. It was like they’d trawled through the actors’ reels and spliced together bits from different films. I think I may have enjoyed each one separately, but watching them all jammed together was a bit like being on a lurching carnival ride.
I like Irene Adler. She is one of my favourite characters in the original Sherlock Holmes canon. A Scandal in Bohemia is one of my favourite of the Arthur Conan Doyle short stories. It is funny and slightly whimsical in a way the stories dealing with serious crimes can’t be. Reading A Scandal in Bohemia and The Adventure of the Yellow Face as an adult showed me just how far ahead of his time Arthur Conan Doyle was on social issues. Irene Adler gets the better of Sherlock Holmes in Doyle’s world because in Doyle’s eyes she is Holmes’s equal. It is a strong feminist statement that was made at a time when women having the right to vote was considered preposterous.