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"These are very deep waters" [SPEC] 

[Editor's Note: this is the 11th in our series of reviews of Sherlock Series 4. And if we have to tell you that there are spoilers below, you really need to spend more time with us.]

Dear readers, I may review books from time to time, but I am not a media critic. The nuances of film, etc., slide right past me, unnoticed, and I am remarkably unpicky. Basically, I want a good story and characters I can care about. For the past six years, BBC's Sherlock has delivered that in big heaping covered plattersful. Lest anyone think that I am completely uncritical of Moffat and Gatiss’ creation, let me say that the first time I saw Sherlock, I was unimpressed. I was a new Sherlockian, a zealous guardian of the Canon, and when I happened onto the middle of “The Blind Banker” on PBS, I thought it was really boring and possibly even stupid. Was Watson in love with that girl? Sherlock Holmes doesn’t look like that. Dudes.


Perhaps a year later, I decided to try the show again, this time starting at the beginning. By this time, I had read dozens of pastiches. I had begun to look at the Canon in a historical context, and had become more acquainted with Sir Arthur’s personal life than he would think proper. I could slide in and out of 1895 at will, and this time, I was enchanted by the time Benedict Cumberbatch said “Afghanistan or Iraq?”

And I stayed that way. Friends, I was very loyal, very quickly. Did I love every single thing the writers came up with? Of course not. I still think “The Blind Banker” is a little lame, but it has some wonderful lines. I feel the same way about “The Hounds of Baskerville,” but as a Hoosier who has actually been to Liberty, Indiana, I can forgive the DEVI/HOUN fusion that deprived me of a giant, phosphorescent hound (Plus, does anyone miss the whole icky “she’s my sister” bit? I thought not). When Series 3 came along, however, I was bowled over, because this—this is what I came for.

"it is a matter of history" [BRUC]

For most of my life, I have been enthralled, not by fiction, but by history. So many people, so like, so different, separated from us only by ticking seconds. We “learn” about them, or at least we think we do. You, and I, and most of the Sherlockians we know can cite birth and death and publication dates. We can list the important events in Arthur Conan Doyle’s life; we have one diary, a roman à clef, letters, and an autobiography. But if I think of my life, and you think of yours, I think we might agree that the most important moments in both are not those we can plot on a calendar. Sir Arthur remembered March 15th as the day he met his second wife, Jean Leckie, but at what moment did he finally give himself permission to love her? When did he know that his father could no longer be his father? When did he begin to replace his actual son with the “spirit” he “spoke” with?  For me, there was the moment my daughter was born, and the moment I became a mother. There are the things we do, and the things we are, and they are not necessarily one and the same.

In the Canon, we read quite a lot about the things Holmes and Watson do. They meet, they have adventures, they solve crimes. Watson gets married twice. Holmes does the occasional (legal!) drug and smokes a lot. There is excellent banter and fog. There are puzzles and clever deductions, all in Conan Doyle’s pleasantly stripped-down prose. For a lot of Sherlockians, I think, this is enough. We see a man we admire (or with whom we identify), using science and logic to serve the cause of Right. We see a friendship that never ends, mostly unencumbered by jobs and spouses and family and even “death.” We know who the bad guys are.

For me, however (and for a lot of people—I am not unique here), the best parts of the Canon are the ones Conan Doyle occasionally let slip. “It must tend to some end.” “…there still remains the cocaine bottle.”  “For years I had gradually weaned….” “It was worth a wound….”  

Sir Arthur was a romantic, passionate man in an age of emotional repression. He gave us the things Holmes and Watson did, while the men they were remained largely hidden. I would argue that, with a few exceptions (Jeremy Brett’s Holmes providing many of them) most film adaptations pre-2009 have done the same, taking at face value Conan Doyle’s view of his detective as “a calculating machine.”

"a new element has been introduced" [SILV]

Moffat and Gatiss have never pretended that their Sherlock Holmes is a machine, no matter what John shouts at him in frustration. A sociopath, “high-functioning” or otherwise?  Please. Series 1 and 2 hint at this, somewhat canonically, but Series 3 decides to go deeper. How do you respond if you’re John Watson and your best friend has just returned from the dead? What do you think, when you’re Sherlock Holmes and your only friend punches you in the face when you gave up nearly everything to save him and the family you’ve made for yourself?

One of the fascinating things about Cumberbatch’s Holmes is that a lot of people have been able to identify with what may seem to be problematic aspects of his character. For me, the portrayal of an introvert who is very sure he doesn’t fit in with “normal” people, who wants to connect but overinvests and withdraws from friends in turn, and who demands reassurance of their affection in subtle (or for Sherlock, not so subtle) ways rang strikingly true. To see Sherlock gradually begin to realize that he had friends who liked him, and that, while their lives changed in ways his did not, he remained important to them, was touching. He grew during that season, arguably in ways that the canonical Holmes did not.

Because of this, I could look past the silly “knife in the belt” thing and the really uncomfortable “let’s play murder” bit in “The Sign of Three” to see the real event. If, as they often do in weddings, someone read 1 Corinthians 13 for the Watsons, it was actually Sherlock, believing all things and not self-seeking, and not Love, who kept them together in “His Last Vow,” again at a cost no one fully appreciates. 

In fact, as we begin Season 4, John and Sherlock both seem to believe that Sherlock has some sort of magical ability to keep everyone safe—which, of course, he does not. The general takeaway from that episode is that Sherlock was humbled by the realization that the deductions he used as bullets had unintentional ricochets, but I think the wider lesson is that no matter how clever we are, or how much we love and are loved, we will all keep an appointment in Samara. Obviously this was most traumatic for John, and the fact that his marriage was in a normal, post-baby rough patch before Mary’s sudden death didn’t make it better. 

I know that many people were bothered by his beating Sherlock in Episode 2, which is good, because frankly, that behavior is not okay. But at the same time, I understood that even very good people, under particular sorts of stress, can lose control. I’ve seen it happen. In the throes of new emotional pain, people blame, they strike out, they anesthetize themselves with all sorts of substances. None of this works, and it cannot continue. “It is what it is” isn’t a platitude, or some sort of brush-off. It’s the acknowledgement that some parts of life are horrible. They really, really are, and they cannot be fixed. Sometimes, too, we do awful things that we cannot ever take back. In each case, the only way to take away the power of either is not to fight, and not to run: instead, only by looking at death and guilt straight on can Sherlock and John start to clean up the emotional wreckage that damages and separates them.

Which brings us to "The Final Problem." 

I don’t avoid spoilers, so having read the first batch of reactions, I felt some trepidation as the show began. After all, I was one of the people who didn’t quite get “The Abominable Bride” the first time through, and despite everything I wrote above, there were bits of the season’s first two episodes that I found underwhelming. I didn’t really buy that Mary, a new mother, would sacrifice herself for Sherlock—however much I—er—she—loves him. I liked knowing that Mrs. Hudson has a Secret Sports Car, but I felt that scene was a little silly—and I certainly hope her funds come from an offshore account and not a side hustle. I had also been excited each time Mofftiss announced that Magnussen and Culverton Smith were Supremely Evil Villains—only to feel that they just didn’t have enough time to develop either one. It was inevitable that the finale also had its own hits and misses for me:
  • That was a lot of convenient DVD, Mary.
  • Moriarty! I love you so much! Although the ticking was annoying.
  • I’m going to assume that at least a few people ended up dead because Eurus could not manipulate them.
  • And speaking of Eurus—she was the villain I expected in Magnussen and Culverton Smith. I hated her. I enjoyed hating her and may have called her bad names out loud. I’m glad her own name is really hideous. Even now, I want to pummel her into the ground. Well done, Mofftiss, well done.

In the end, we learn, the Holmes family did produce a true sociopath (or, perhaps more correctly defined as a psychopath). Not Mycroft, the man who knows good from evil, and believes he is serving the greatest version of the former, even if his methods are dubious and indirect. Not Sherlock, who has, for self-preservation, sublimated his emotions and modeled himself after his older brother, becoming, essentially, a Mycroft who would get his hands dirty when he believes it required. 

No, of course it’s Eurus, at once the embodiment of (seemingly) pure intellect and the repository of very primitive, child-like and self-centered emotions. Her brother didn’t play with her, so she murdered his friend. She kills and damages and manipulates for her own gain while insisting on seeing herself as a scared little girl on an out-of-control plane. It may seem to some that Eurus undergoes some character changes during this episode—development, healing, whatever. No. She doesn’t. She’s just manipulating you, too. Her brothers, however—now that’s different.

"Mycroft Holmes struggled" [BRUC] 

My best friends and I, all oldest children, agreed that the entire episode gave us “eldest child feels.” Mycroft like many older siblings, is bossy, pretty sure he knows best, and has an enormous sense of responsibility; for him, it extends beyond his immediate family to the entire United Kingdom. He worries about them. Constantly. And he’s made decisions for all of them, some of which he was not really qualified to make.  

It wasn’t okay to tell his younger brother that “caring is not an advantage.” It wasn’t kinder to tell his parents their daughter had died. And it did not protect the citizens of Britain, or the world at large, to give Eurus five unsupervised minutes with Moriarty in order to have her predict terrorist plots. 

In episode three, Mycroft is forced to see himself as he really is: someone who believes the ends justifies the means—as long as they cannot be traced back to him; someone who, for all of his intelligence, can’t predict the outcome of his actions; and someone who, in trying to do the right thing, has, instead, hurt the people he loves and serves. He is fully humbled, as he needed to be, and by the time Sherlock is given the impossible choice, he has not only taken responsibility, he is willing to pay the most loving price he can imagine. This was, to me, the most powerful scene in the entire series.

So, if you’re making a list: with Eurus, we have pure intellect. With Mycroft, we have intellect tempered by ethics (of a sort) and responsibility. And then we have Sherlock.

"with an evident effort he got a grip upon his own emotions" [VALL]

There is a lot of talk about how life with John “humanizes” Sherlock. I’m not so sure that’s true, as much as John’s friendship allows Sherlock to feel safe enough to be human. When Eurus killed Victor, she taught her brother that love was dangerous, and in his reactions to this, he ensured that it also became unattainable. 

Gradually, however, through his interactions with the people Mycroft considers “goldfish,” he’s learned a different lesson. He no longer has to take refuge in a sense of superiority, as his brother does. He knows he can fall, spectacularly, and still be loved. He’s feeling brave enough to venture out into some sort of arrangement with Irene. And he loves Molly.

You can see it dawn on him when she is about to hang up during that crucial phone call. Molly loves Sherlock in ways in which he does not love her, but she also loves him in that deep, permanent way which puts another’s interest ahead of one’s own. At first, Sherlock feels guilty for seeming to toy with her affections—notice that he doesn’t just give her what he knows might work—but, as she’s about to end the call, he realizes that yes, he does love her. This won’t be the death of an elderly blind woman he will feel the weight of being unable to prevent. This won’t be Mary’s willing sacrifice. This will be a loss he won’t be able to bear, and so, when he says he loves her like he means it, he means it. Utterly. Just as he loves John, and Greg, Mrs. Hudson, and his parents.

And Eurus? I’ve heard someone people say that Sherlock has forgiven her, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I believe that Sherlock feels pity for her, but he also knows exactly who he is dealing with. This is why he plays the violin with her, but doesn’t speak, staying three feet away from the glass. The whole thing is sad. It’s incomprehensible. Eurus used to be a little girl and perhaps she has diminished culpability.  But she is who she is.

The last episode of Series 4 was, to me, the perfect mix of what Sherlock does, as well as who he is. 

Having, in effect, solved the puzzle of his own life, the 21st century Holmes can be who he was always meant to be: a quirky genius whose intellect and emotions are tempered with compassion, humanity, and love. It is this integration, and not the identity of “the other one,” or even Redbeard, which is the true solution to the final problem.

Sherlock Holmes finally is who he is, and whom we love: the Great (and Good) Detective.