TV Review: BBC Sherlock, Season 4

Heads up, this one is long and chock full of spoilers below the cut. TL;DR – As a long-time BBC Sherlock fan, I am disappointed with Season 4.

I will say upfront that I was able to largely enjoy each episode of Season 4 as I was watching it. The acting was still excellent, and there were certainly scenes and parts of episodes that were fantastic. But once I had seen them all and had a chance to step back and look at the season as a whole, I had more and more problems with it. Ultimately, I am disappointed in the writers for not really living up to their own standards, which they set quite high during the first three seasons.

To be honest, I was worried about this season from the moment that Moffat and Gatiss started making public comments that season 4 was going to be especially “dark.” My worries were not unfounded. Let me see if I can articulate what I mean.

Some stories (whether books, movies, or TV shows) are dark stories. By this, I would generally mean a story where the plot or overall context of the world the story is set in necessitate that bad things are going to happen to many of the characters: some of them may die or be killed; many will suffer violence, possibly very brutal violence, either physical or mental; they may have to make choices or do things that go against their beliefs; a happy ending is not guaranteed.

Season 4 of Sherlock certainly fits this definition. The problem is that, at least for me, the previous three seasons do not set this up. There is nothing in the first nine episodes of the series which necessitates the events of the last three, which is very problematic for the story as a whole.

I would contrast this with a story that is and is meant to be a dark story. I may not have a lot of really good examples here, since I do not myself prefer dark stories and don’t tend to watch/read many of them. From what I know of it, Game of Thrones probably falls into this category. I would categorize much of Anne Bishop’s writing (the Black Jewels series, the Ephemera trilogy) as darker stories, albeit set up so that any happy endings which do occur are earned and make sense in the context of the story. For both of those series, the characters are fighting civilization- or world-destroying levels of evil, and so the fact that a great deal of suffering occurs is expected and makes sense in the context of the story. In the realm of movies, V for Vendetta comes to mind. The characters are fighting a brutal dictatorship, and must become brutal themselves in many ways, in order to survive and accomplish their goals. Here again, the darkness of the story is expected, and fitting.

The Sherlock Holmes stories do not fall into this category.

There are dark moments, and dark things that sometimes happen, in any incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes stories – obviously, since they are detective stories often centered around trying to solve murders. But as a whole, the Sherlock Holmes universe is not a brutally dark universe, and that is not the tone that the stories take.

BBC Sherlock has been, from the beginning, probably a bit darker take on the series than the original stories were (although not by much, from my memory of reading them some years back). It is more realistic, in a way, being set in modern times, and there were certainly dark parts in the first three seasons (again, murders, plus a crazy criminal mastermind). None of that was a problem, because they still felt like Sherlock Holmes stories.

For whatever reason, Moffat and Gatiss decided that that was no longer good enough, and that season 4 needed to be “darker.” I strongly believe that this was a mistake, and indeed will always be a mistake for any story that is not already set up in a darker world or universe.

In order to achieve their goal of “darker,” the writers seem to have decided that the plot of season 4 should be “make John and Sherlock suffer as much as possible, in every way, conceivable or not.” This goal then trumped all other considerations, including (in my opinion): plot, characterization in general, meaningful character interaction in many cases, and proper closure of various storylines. (Here come the spoilers.)

As best I can tell, Mary Watson is killed (in this manner and at this point in the story) for the sole purpose of making John suffer, so that Sherlock has to suffer in order to get John back. John is (in a manner that struck me as extremely out of character) “unfaithful” to Mary by text-flirting with a random lady on the bus (which turns out to be a setup, of course, but that doesn’t change John’s choices). This out-of-character-ness seems to have been done mainly so that John can feel guiltier when Mary dies so that he can be angrier at Sherlock. John has to be angry at Sherlock so that Sherlock is forced to “go to hell” in order to convince John that he needs John’s help and John should come back to save him.

The character of Euros, similarly, is introduced solely for the purpose of putting Sherlock, John, and Mycroft through hell in the last episode. She has no other presence in the story prior to this season (that I can recall, someone feel free to correct me if I missed something in the earlier seasons, which is possible), and no other purpose in the story at all.

(I should say that I don’t fundamentally have a problem with the introduction of a third Holmes sibling; the original stories do include a brief mention of a third brother, Sherrinford. Since we don’t actually know anything about Sherrinford, obviously the writers have some leeway in making up this third sibling character, and the gender-switch doesn’t particularly matter.) (ETA: It has been pointed out to me that this is not the case! The third sibling was made up by a later editor of Conan Doyle’s stories, but was not ever mentioned by Conan Doyle himself. Just for clarification.)

But to make her be a complete psychopath that Sherlock has utterly forgotten about? Whom Mycroft is idiotic enough to keep alive for years after it becomes clear that she is a danger to everyone around her? Who was somehow able to set up this twisted game for them to play, resulting in the deaths of yet more people, which Sherlock and Mycroft between them are not smart enough to get out of?

I’m sorry, but my suspension of disbelief only goes so high.

The first two episodes mostly make sense, inasmuch as they are predicated on what I consider to be the unnecessary event of Mary’s death. There are some continuity issues, specifically from the end of the first episode: Molly gives Sherlock a letter that John wrote him, and Sherlock goes to see John’s old therapist. Presumably these events have some kind of importance, but they are never mentioned again, and do not appear to have impacted the story at all. What was the point of those scenes? Still, the immediate plots of each episode can be followed, and the main mysteries are explained.

For me, at least (and I know I am not alone in this), the last episode does not make any sense.

The whole point of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that we are meant to get an explanation at the end; the mystery is meant to be solved. The Final Problem does none of that. How has Sherlock recovered from his addiction so quickly? How do he and Mycroft and John get out of the explosion at Baker Street without any serious injuries? Why does Sherlock (also rather out of character, in my opinion) ignore John’s “Vatican Cameos” warning? If the airplane is a metaphor/fantasy in Euros’ head, then who is the little girl that Sherlock is actually talking to throughout her “game”? (Obviously there could be an explanation for this, but that explanation is not given to us, the viewers.) When Victor Trevor went missing, why on earth was a proper search not conducted for him, and why did no adult think to check the well? (Sherlock obviously knows where the well is when he goes to rescue John, so it doesn’t seem to have been a secret.) Why the hell is Euros still being kept alive after all of this?

None of these things are explained, and we are simply meant to accept at the end that Sherlock starts spending time with his sister in spite of all the evil things she has done, and that everything between Sherlock and John is back to business as usual, with no discussion of what has happened between them, or apologies, or anything. We can, perhaps, assume that they had those conversations, but we are not shown them.

Personally, I liked that Sherlock was more emotional during this season (and to a certain extent in season 3). He is older, wiser, and more understanding that emotion is not the handicap that he once believed it was. Since I’m a firm believer that the rationality-emotion dichotomy is a false one, it was gratifying to see a character learn and grow and move away from that. But given that growth in Sherlock’s character, and after everything they have been through both separately and together, I believe we deserved to see an honest conversation between John and Sherlock about how much they care about each other, and what they wanted from life together going forward. We did not get that conversation, and that is deeply disappointing to me.

Overall, I think it is always a mistake to try and make a story “dark” just for the sake of making it dark. When you do that with a story that doesn’t need it, then you are likely to fall back on making your characters suffer just for the hell of it, and in order to make that happen, the rest of your story will necessarily suffer too. Unfortunately, Season 4 of Sherlock turned out to be a clear example of this.

Okay, I will stop there. I’ve been obsessing about this in my head for several weeks now, so I thought it was probably better to get it written down. Some will undoubtedly disagree with me about much of this, and that’s fine, but I needed to get my own thoughts out. I am still a fan of the series, and would certainly recommend the first three seasons and the Christmas special. I will probably watch season 4 again, just to make sure that I wasn’t missing things that would help to explain some of these issues, but after that, I don’t know how much I will be rewatching season 4.


4 thoughts on “TV Review: BBC Sherlock, Season 4

  1. Dear Miss Webb,

    I generally agree that Season 4 wasn’t the ending that the series deserved, but I think I am more sympathetic towards the direction the creators were attempting to go in.

    First of all, (and I think this is the fundamental) I do think that there is an important reason why series introduce novel dark elements as they progress.

    In a certain sense, the introduction of novel dark elements is the only way that stories can progress. The introduction of conflicts which tear the characters in different directions in new and deeper ways is the only way that you can make a series play out like a contiguous story.

    One way to avoid this is to simply not develop the overarching story in any significant way, but that leads to these sort of episodic series where the ending doesn’t seem necessitated by anything. It could have just gone on forever.

    There have been series (such as Red vs. Blue) which have been able to make a long series end in a way which ties back (relatively) neatly with the initial premise, bringing everything back to the beginning, but this is very difficult to do, since you can’t go back and re-write the beginning of the series to set up an ending. Also, it tends to introduce darker elements.

    You see darker elements being uncovered in the progression of Rurouni Kenshin, Harry Potter, and Firefly, (even if you don’t count the events of Serenity).

    Now, for a series like Star Trek: Voyager (spoilers!), the story is about a ship and crew trying to get home, and in the end, they get home, and they do so through a dramatic confrontation with the Borg Queen, and although the Captain gets put through some extreme trials, the ending wasn’t something which brought the story to a darker place in any fundamental sense. So I think it’s possible to bring a story to an end, so long as there’s something somewhere to set up the ending, and this doesn’t have to be a new element which changes the atmosphere.

    But I think that kind of situation is rare. Usually you need to change the atmosphere so that it’s clear that the story now can’t go on as it has been going, and then once that gets resolved, it makes sense to end it.

    Ultimately there doesn’t seem to be much available material in the first three seasons to make a satisfying ending. I think the series is better for having tried, but I agree that there were a lot of problems.

    Certainly if John and Sherlock were a little more honest with eachother, they could have come to a more explicit understanding about what they mean to eachother. However, I don’t think this would have been enough to give the story an ending, and I’m of the opinion that the plot situation as it played out does a good enough job of dramatizing both the characters’ significance to eachother and their recognition of that fact.

    There’s a very moving scene from Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis where (spoilers!) the two main characters discover their home collapsed in a pile of rubble while each was expecting the other to be inside. This moment played a major role in breaking down any pretense on either side that either would ever be happy without the other.

    However, even for that story, where the issue of whether these two characters can really make it together is constantly at issue (for the first three books at least) something more is needed to bring the series to a close.

    And for the Sherlock series, this issue doesn’t arise with the same gravity, because John and Sherlock achieve a relationship leaving little to be desired relatively quickly in the story. Then it’s just a matter of whether sources of conflict can be uncovered, and there’s some of that, and then it’s a matter of whether a wedge can be driven between them, and that doesn’t last. I don’t know how you develop that story to a conclusion.

    I think that some of the specific plot issues you point out were satisfactorily explained, but not all of them were. I’m leaving that aside because I think the more fundamental issue is why Eurus is in the story.

    Now, I think part of the explanation given in the story is very lacking. Basically, Mycroft tells Sherlock that he didn’t make himself, but rather that he is the product of his experiences growing up with Eurus. So now we have an explanation for Sherlock, but none for Eurus, so this revelation achieves nothing for the story.

    If we look a bit deeper though, there is a thematic rift drawn between man’s capacity to understand and his capacity to care. The super-intelligent characters, Sherlock, Mycroft, and Moriarty, to varying degrees reduce the world around them to nuts and bolts, viewing the moral ideals, goals, and concerns held by people to be foolish illusions all too transparent to the power of their intellects.

    Over time, through his interactions with John, Sherlock develops and discovers a valued friendship, and through this comes to grasp the basis of value judgements (although arguably in an incomplete way).

    In my opinion, this alone isn’t enough to bring the story to a conclusion, because Sherlock isn’t characterized as a totally soulless husk who transforms into human being. He starts out as someone one could imagine being friends with (although perhaps not the ideal friend).

    So the hard case for this theme has to be someone who’s much more intelligent than Sherlock, who’s also a complete psychopath. Sherlock can’t outsmart such a being, so his only hope in overcoming such an opponent is to figure out how to lead them to values.

    Anyway, I agree that they could have done a better job, and again, I think that the quality of the storytelling in the first three seasons deserved a better conclusion, but I also think that there is an enormous challenge in bringing the audience from the end of Season 3 to a conclusion which brings unifying significance to the general course the series took up until that point. I also think that something similar to what they tried could have worked much better.

  2. I think you’ve better identified what they were going for than I did! I agree that they were trying to work up towards a climax and a conclusion to the story.

    Unfortunately, for me (obviously other viewers may feel differently), this doesn’t actually change much of what I had to say above.

    You pointed out: “In a certain sense, the introduction of novel dark elements is the only way that stories can progress. The introduction of conflicts which tear the characters in different directions in new and deeper ways is the only way that you can make a series play out like a contiguous story.

    One way to avoid this is to simply not develop the overarching story in any significant way, but that leads to these sort of episodic series where the ending doesn’t seem necessitated by anything. It could have just gone on forever.”

    I agree with you about this. However, Sherlock Holmes is (to the best of my recollection) an episodic series which does just sort of “go on forever” and I am very okay with that. I neither needed nor really wanted a big, dramatic climax and conclusion for this story. Therefore, getting one that was poorly handled was really much worse than getting none at all.

    A lot of my thoughts and opinions here are stemming from the fact that I am a big fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I loved the first two season of this BBC version, I think, especially because they were so brilliantly handled as a modern adaptation of those original stories; there were lots of twists and new takes on things, but at some fundamental level, they stayed very true to the originals. Season 3 was still pretty good in this respect, but the creators clearly moved away from the original stories in this last season. Any connections to original SH story plots in the final episode are minimal at best, so it’s not surprising that for me, that is by far my least favorite episode. I have most enjoyed this series /as an adaptation of the originals,/ and not so much as something completely new and divorced from them.

    You are right in identifying the caring/understanding rift as a theme of the series, and probably given that they chose to go that route, it was necessary to bring that to some kind of conclusion. I guess that my disappointment over how it was handled (especially in contrast to the rest of the series), is great enough to override a lot of my sympathy for their intentions.

    I’m glad you were able to enjoy it more than I did!

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