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 understand that the undercurrent of intimate partner abuse in the Watson family was wholly unintentional, and it reminds me of the criticisms of 50 Shades of Gray. In both cases, two-dimensional characters (“Action Barbie” and “Sexy Troubled Billionaire”) there solely to serve the plot – not function as decision-making protagonists in their own lives – were the problem. (Yes, I just compared Sherlock to 50 Shades of Gray. At least 50 Shades of Gray had the excuse of a novice writer wrangling with the knottiness of a BDSM relationship as an excuse. Moftiss should know better.) Nevertheless, as much as I disliked the Mary Watson character, as much side eye as I gave her and John’s frankly dubious “love story”, I was appalled by Moftiss icing her so Sherlock could figure out he needs to check his ego. She was just there to sacrifice herself for Sherlock after his douchery got a bullet fired at him and to give John something to shake and sob about. The entire storyline of their “strong female character” was essentially a morality play aimed at teaching Sherlock about the dangers of hubris and a fulcrum to lever up the man-tear quotient. Then they turned their BAMF assassin into the benevolent spirit providing emotional instruction via DVD from beyond the veil. *vomiting emoji*
The Lying Detective at least provided relief from all the incoherent punching and shooting and rappelling of The Six Thatchers, even if it brought with it the lazy construct of the hallucinated spouse as an expression of grief (for real, though, the handling of the Mary Watson character and storyline is a masterclass in what not to do – so incredibly misjudged). One of the major issues I have with Moftiss’s writing is their careless, insensitive handling of serious mental health issues. Using auditory and visual hallucinations as shortcuts to say “I’m devastated by the loss of my wife” really rubbed me the wrong way. John wasn’t just talking to Mary in his head or forgetting she was dead, which happens to many people who lose a loved one suddenly. He was seeing her, hearing her – he couldn’t separate her spectre from reality. Those are not manifestations of grief; they are signs of profound psychological disturbance and distress that require urgent medical intervention, maybe even hospitalisation. They could have tied John’s extreme symptoms to sleep-deprivation from having to deal with Rosie at all hours of the night. The sleep-deprivation could have been exacerbated by insomnia brought on by feelings of guilt. But, no. They did it because real grief, presented the way a well-adjusted, middle-aged adult would experience it just wasn’t sexy enough.
I never found the “high-functioning sociopath” line funny, but thought they might take it to an interesting place. What is sociopathy? How does it manifest itself? How would it manifest itself in Sherlock Holmes? Why does Sherlock label himself this way? Was he misdiagnosed (he’s obviously not a sociopath)? Was he self-diagnosed? I don’t think Moftiss ever genuinely considered how having a personality disorder would affect a character’s behaviour outside of giving him funny quirks and making him a bit rude. “High-functioning sociopath” was just there as a clapback to Anderson then as something gangster to say before Sherlock shot Magnusson in the face. They never thought it all the way through. By way of comparison, Arthur Conan Doyle described Sherlock Holmes as a law unto himself, as the final arbiter. He was also called “masterful” – able to impose his will on others. When he chose, he had “an ingratiating quality” and could easily earn people’s trust. He was also an accomplished actor and master of disguise, who was able to fool even his dear Watson. There is a grandiose, manipulative psychology at work there that is knitted together with a deep sense of fair play and commitment to justice. While sometimes churlish and short-tempered, he could be profoundly empathetic. He also had nervous breakdowns, what we call major depressive episodes today, and used hard drugs to self-medicate. Sherlock Holmes’s psychology is full of fascinating contradictions. Everything Moftiss needed was in the original text, but they never got beneath the surface. So, while they’ve hit on some of these traits, they’ve never been fully integrated into a complete character because I just don’t think they’ve made the effort to understand mental illness and related drug abuse. There’s actually an interview of Steven Moffat describing Sherlock as “clinically insane”. The fundamental misunderstanding of what that means is why The Final Problem ultimately failed.
The appearance of the evil, secret sister telegraphed that we were heading into telenovela territory, and I wasn’t surprised by the contrivance of the Maze of Moral Abyss, all those macabre labours for Sherlock, John and Mycroft to perform – a steroidal re-hash of The Great Game. It was like something out of a 90s action film – The Rock meets a Die Hard With a Vengeance, and I watched it as such. I half expected Bruce Willis or some other 90s throwback to come bounding in, armed to the teeth, start flinging grenades and just command them to shoot their way out. Even so, The Final Problem was the best of the three episodes this season – at least them spending nearly the entire episode at Sherrinford meant that it was cohesive tonally. I still don’t quite know what to make of them choosing to ground the entire plot – all those games, all those deaths – in Eurus’s cry for help. It is possible to humanise a psychopath within the constraints of their diagnosis. They have inner lives that aren’t limited to the monstrous, but they’re not like us – the emo play is always a loser – you can only out-manipulate them. They have an internally consistent view of the world, and once you understand the rules they follow, you can predict their behaviour and outflank them (it’s the basis of criminal profiling), but you have to empathise with them. Do you see how understanding all that not only helps with characterisation but buttresses the plotting and would have avoided the anti-climax of the ending? Answering the question: “What does Eurus really want?” then having Sherlock, John and Mycroft connive a way to give it to her would have been much more interesting.
The obvious pop cultural point of connection with The Final Problem is The Silence of the Lambs. We all were drawn to Hannibal Lecter – we couldn’t help liking him and felt conflicted about it. At the end of the film when Clarice says she knows he won’t come after her because he would consider it “rude” – now that’s interesting. What is Eurus’s “That would be rude”? My inability to answer that question gets to the heart of my problem with Sherlock – I don’t feel like I understand any of the characters or what is motivating them. Superimposing the tropes of storytelling onto the episodes and trying to read between the lines is the only way to make sense of them. They’ve been building to this Eurus confrontation for literally half a decade, and it still fell flat. They gave her whole backstory, and I still don’t understand her. By way of comparison, The Silence of the Lambs is 2 hours and 18 minutes long, and Anthony Hopkins appears on screen for only fifteen minutes, yet we all understood exactly who Hannibal Lecter was, what he was capable of, what he wanted and why. I’ll grant that The Silence of the Lambs is an unfairly high bar, but it provided a clear blueprint for the complex, charismatic, psychopathic serial killer pulling the strings. At the end of The Final Problem, Moftiss asks us to believe that the answer to Eurus’s “problem” was the love of her family. She obviously coveted Sherlock’s attention enough to murder poor Victor Trevor and set her elaborate stage, but anyone who understands even the basic contours of her psychology knows her shaking and crying in a burnt out house and needing a hug from her brother isn’t how that story ends.
I seriously wonder how much better Sherlock would have turned out if at some point in the last 5 years Moftiss had just googled Cluster B Personality Disorders and spent a few days boning up. They wouldn’t have made such a hash of Mary, and Eurus wouldn’t have been “Female Moriarty Who Lost Her Bottle in the End” – utterly anticlimactic. Or did they do the research, but they just couldn’t give a woman the minerals to be a proper villain?
To be clear: I wouldn’t have many of the complaints I’ve laid out if I hadn’t constantly been told Sherlock is the cleverest show on television. It’s not. It never was. The plotting of the first two seasons got it pretty close to being included in that conversation, but it’s no The Sopranos, no The Wire, no Mad Men. At this point, I’d say any workmanlike police procedural has it beat, hands down. Remember all those arguments about which was the better show, Elementary or Sherlock? Well, Elementary won. And that unsexy police procedural structure is why. The show has an identity, a solid foundation – it’s consistent. Moftiss can’t seem to decide what Sherlock is about, and that’s why so much of Season 4 felt like lurching in and out of a Jason Statham film, a Masterpiece Theatre offering and a Lifetime movie. At least The Final Problem managed to break that pattern. It was essentially the Sherlock Holmes origin story, and it took us back to the ancestral home, back to the first tragedy. Even just visually, we were clearly in Skyfall, which shows that Ralph Jones picked up exactly what Moftiss were putting down when he called them out on the “James Bonding” of Sherlock. (The literary beef that ensued was entertaining, and Jones bodied Gatiss with “The Second Letter” – the cipher in the cipher was the mortal wound.)
The argument about the Bonding of the franchise was really about a lack of depth – the flash of fight sequences over the substance of watching a precise but troubled mind at work – and Jones clearly made a valid point. Gatiss shooting back that Sherlock being a BAMF is canon didn’t address the heart of the criticism. I think the Daniel Craig Bond films are much better than anything on offer in post-Season 2 Sherlock. Even with all the camp, sneering baddies and always slightly ridiculous plots, they never got anywhere near anything as radioactively, intergalactically idiotic as “That was surgery.” In a Bond film, when someone is shot in the chest at close range, it’s TO SHOOT THEM IN THE CHEST SO THEY STOP EXISTING. If they manage to survive, it’s a bit of a turn-up. Guns and bullets don’t magically become surgical implements. Yet Sherlock used this physics-defying rebuke of basic human anatomy to convince intelligent, educated people to go along with the rehabilitation of Mary Watson (why they chose to make her silly storyline so important is baffling). They then doubled down on that narrative in The Six Thatchers, piling on a barrage of action that was essentially extraneous to the story. All to get us to the moment in the aquarium where Mary dives in front of a bullet to save Sherlock, who for some unfathomable reason decided to talk over any attempts to pacify Norbury and all but commanded her to shoot him. Then Mary was kind of a ghost but not really. Then they introduced a long-lost evil sister and an island prison. Do all that if you want; just don’t insult my intelligence by smugly telling me it’s clever then hide behind Arthur Conan Doyle’s skirts when you get called out on it. If from the beginning Moftiss had just owned up to having wanted to write a glossy, slightly absurd, mainstream actioner with soliloquizing villains, I would have gladly gone along with it. But I’ve continuously been told I’m watching The Usual Suspects or some other complex thriller with a sense of humour when it’s clear I’m watching Bad Boys 2 with British accents. Again: that’s fine in the name of pure entertainment; just know that insisting it’s clever feels like a straight-up troll. At some point all the cognitive dissonance had to become too much to bear.
So what’s the result of all this?
The fanfiction is better.
Even relatively inexperienced fanfic writers with a limited set of tools at least attempted to flesh out the characters and give them backstories and lives, fully formed personalities. It didn’t always work, but the effort was appreciated. The superstars of the genre used the hiatus to write stories that surpassed anything Moftiss gave us in Season 4, particularly in terms of character development. When characters’ motivations drive the plot, the story is not only more cohesive narratively, it’s more engaging and lasting because all the shocks and gasps are earned and move beyond cheap manipulation for the sake of entertainment. At the heart of the narrative success of the top-tier fanfiction is empathy. The writers got inside the characters’ heads and asked, “Who are these people? Where are they from? What experiences shaped them? What do they want? What are they afraid of? Whom do they love?” Moftiss seemed to reverse engineer everyone’s behaviour and emotional reactions by working backwards from the plot – everyone is just there to be manipulated, to be made to speak or act because the plot demands it, so those questions can’t really be answered. That labyrinth Eurus runs Sherlock, John and Mycroft through is a microcosm of the entire franchise. If I didn’t read fanfiction, maybe I could have gone along for the ride with Moftiss, but I knew there were fully realised characters out there whose hurt wasn’t manufactured, whose choices mattered beyond setting up a gag or a plot twist, who were protagonists in their own lives no matter how small their roles were.
Not even Sherlock escapes this poor treatment.
Here’s what exactly none of the plot-driven, post-Season 3 Sherlock fanfiction I’ve read failed to consider: Sherlock dealing with the fallout of having been captured and tortured in Serbia then being shot by Mary. Do you know why they all went there? Because being the victim of that kind of brutal violence tends to affect people psychologically, and those effects ripple into the lives of their friends and family. But in Moftiss Land, Sherlock being chained and beaten at the opening of the third season was just there so we could watch Mycroft crack wise while wearing a fur hat. Mary shooting him was meant to “Red Wedding” us, nothing more. There were no lingering physical or psychological effects from Sherlock having been tortured. It’s never come up again, not even as an aside. Really think about that and what it means about the quality of the writing, about the depth of the characterisation, about the empathy being deployed towards the eponymous hero. Sherlock is obviously the character Moftiss hold in the highest esteem, but Season 3 proved Sherlock is just a prop to them – their most beloved prop but still just a thing, a toy. The only real narrative through lines in Sherlock are the twists, and they’re the only elements that aren’t played right on the surface. Everything else is meant to be taken at face value. There is no subtlety, no subtext. There are Easter eggs and other markers laid down mostly for plot payoffs – a puzzle to solve – but no emotional depth, no narrative consistency. Sherlock is and always has been elementary – there were just too few episodes for most of us to suss it out sooner.
A few people saw through all the flash of Sherlock from the very beginning, and I tip my hat to them for being far more perceptive than I. (If they’re running around being insufferable and shouting, “I told you so!” they’ve more than earned the right.) The first two seasons were a fresh, shiny new take on the somewhat musty image of the great detective, and we all got to watch Benedict Cumberbatch take command and come into his own. But the real reason those early episodes were of such a higher quality was the low budgets: they handcuffed Moftiss. They couldn’t get all the helicopters, Aston Martins and rappelling super soldiers on their juvenile wish list, so the plot twists actually had to be interesting not just turned up to eleven. We all mistakenly assumed that character development that would match the level of the plotting would come later. What those early critics of Sherlock understood (and what has come to pass) was that the reverse would happen: the plotting would sink to meet the level of the poor characterisation. What most of us took for slight faux pas we could overlook, they realised were portents of the slide in quality we’ve all witnessed. They knew Moftiss weren’t to be trusted to dock the ship, and they were absolutely right. Once Moftiss were truly given free rein, the true heart of Sherlock was revealed, and it’s just confused but lacks the self-awareness to realise or do anything about it.
Being “the smart kids” is part of the hardcore Sherlock fandom’s identity, and I don’t see many of them being able to admit that Moftiss bamboozled them. (We all got took, guys.) The capricious characterisation, careening plot and disjointed editing have thus far been interpreted as intentional, as Moftiss hiding the ball, as further evidence of their diabolical cleverness – all the incoherence taken as a collection of hidden clues to be thoroughly investigated. Even though Season 3 made it clear the story was spinning out of control and Season 4 has seen it hurl itself off a cliff (but only just miss smashing its head on the rocks), much of the earnest analysis will likely continue. Many of the casuals are in it for the slick deductions and probably embraced all the high-octane thrills. (There will be an inevitable backlash, though – you can’t fool all the people all the time.) The excellent ratings of Season 4 mean the bean counters will want a Season 5, or at the very least more Christmas Specials. Enough of the audience is probably still on board to justify it financially. I can only hope Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have enough sense to withhold their participation. The Final Problem wasn’t the unmitigated disaster I was expecting, but everything from Season 3 onwards has made it clear the show can’t live up to its early potential and that the problems with the storytelling are baked in. So, it’s best this latest Sherlock Holmes incarnation just come to a close before it becomes a career-devouring black hole.
Thank goodness the fanfiction provides someplace the characters can live on.