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"Of all ruins, that of a noble mind is the most deplorable." [DYIN] 

[Editor's Note: this is the seventh in our series of reviews for Series 4 of Sherlock. There are spoilers below. Consider yourself forewarned.]

“We often say it’s a show about a detective, not a detective show.”Mark Gatiss, Vanity Fair 

“I worry that we’re sort of getting into a world where people just want warm paste fed to them. Why can’t things be challenging?” – Mark Gatiss, BBC

The above quotes are from show runner Mark Gatiss in regards to complaints that “The Abominable Bride” was too confusing, and it’s what I’m clinging to right now, because I have to quite frankly admit that I have no idea what is going on. In fact, I’m feeling a bit like the poor Sherlock Holmes in "The Hounds of Baskerville," wherein he was dosed with a mind-altering drug and could not tell what was real. Moffat and Gatiss seem to have slipped us a bit of radix pedis diaboli, and the ensuing fog is deeply disconcerting.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. I’m fully on the side of Moffat and Gatiss in believing that television should not be warm paste, and not knowing what the hell is going on is refreshing. It’s challenging, and it’s exciting.

In the previous episode of Sherlock, “The Six Thatchers,” we saw reality and narrative structure break down, mostly because (as far as we could tell) we saw it all from Sherlock’s perspective, and something was very wrong with Sherlock. I speculated that the episode was intentionally nonsensical, a reflection of Sherlock’s disintegrating state of mind. In “The Lying Detective,” that theory seems to have been confirmed, as Sherlock has indeed descended into the depths of a drug-fueled madness.

And yet, that doesn’t seem to quite explain what’s going on. After all, the story has shifted from the first-person of Sherlock’s point of view – gone, for example, are his voiceovers from the last episode – to the usual third person, and it still doesn’t make any sense. It’s furthermore disconcerting because the very nature of Sherlock Holmes, the very heart of what he stands for, is reason itself. The very premise of Sherlock Holmes – as a person, as a character, as a set of stories – is that there’s an inherent coherency and logic to the world ("This agency stands flat-footed on the ground." [SUSS]). Things make sense, and if you just look at them in the right way and think everything through, the pieces will fall into place. There’s always clues to read and signs to interpret, and by the end, the crime is solved, order is restored, and Sherlock explains how he does it.

The same is usually true of Sherlock (well, except for some questionable narrative choices in “The Empty Hearse”), which has always, for the most part, had narrative coherency, consistency, and a certain logic in its fictional reality. The viewer could know that a clue was indeed a clue, that a hint or sign we saw had meaning, that a scene we saw actually happened. If there was a narrative thread left untied, or a detail left unexplained, there’s usually enough clues and possibilities to go on to construct one’s own potential explanation.

All that’s out the window this season. Since the previous episode, it’s been very difficult to tell what is going on, if any of it is even real, and, most importantly, if any of it means anything in the first place. The world of Sherlock has fundamentally transformed: it’s gone from a world where questions have answers, clues lead to conclusions, words have meaning, and signs refer to things, to a world where they….don’t. The world in which a drop of water leads inevitably to the Niagara has disintegrated, and the chain of reasoning that takes us there is broken.  

In this world, the meanings of words are arbitrary and unverifiable (as the semioticians would happily remind us). Any clue could lead in any direction. Any word could mean anything. Mary’s “Go to Hell,” which seemed so telling and obvious last episode, has (rather predictably, I must admit) acquired an entirely different meaning of “go to Hell and back for John Watson.” The iconic phrase from “His Last Bow,” “there’s an east wind coming,” has suddenly turned into a reference to Sherlock’s long-lost sibling, Sherrinford. Molly’s statement from last episode that John would rather have “anyone” suddenly, nonsensically, morphs into the solution of who Culverton has murdered – “anyone” and everyone, it seems. The game’s either on, or it’s afoot, or both, but it’s impossible to tell which, and why.

From the reasonable, logical world of Sherlock Holmes, we seem to have gone to the very deconstruction of it. Deduction has made way for the means of lesser men: it’s telling that for the second episode in a row, Sherlock overwhelmingly eschews deductions and probability in favor of trackers and listening devices. Cumberbatch’s monologues of Sherlockian deduction are conspicuously absent from the narrative (a fact that’s difficult to miss, since they’re such a highlight of the show).

Sherlock Holmes isn’t going mad; rather, the very foundation of his existence seems to be evaporating.

To be quite frank, I’m not sure how I feel about this. On an intellectual level, I quite enjoyed the episode. There is artistic merit (and intellectual interest) in taking the world of Sherlock Holmes apart at the seams and digging into its foundations, as Moffat and Gatiss have done. The promotions for this season have claimed that “It’s not a game anymore,” and perhaps that can be taken quite literally: it’s not a game anymore, because the game is no longer afoot, or on. Moffat and Gatiss have not shied away from stating that this is their darkest season yet, and it really is. The darkness creeps in as the very foundation of the Sherlockian world – the guiding light of logic and reason, the coherency of reality – is pulled out from under us, and we’re left stumbling.

I loved the fact that the very foundations of the fiction I have come to love were taken away, so that I had to question everything I knew and watch actively rather than passively. Moffat and Gatiss have suggested Sherlock isn’t about the cases, but about the characters and their world (stating that it’s not a detective show, but a show about a detective) and quite frankly, I can’t disagree. Granada’s already faithfully, and practically to the letter, adapted most of the Canon – why do it again? Sherlock has focused instead on exploring the very nature of the Sherlockian world and the Canon, and for a mind that rebels at stagnation, it’s much more stimulating to watch a show that rocks the foundations of a world we’ve come to love rather than adapting it word-for-word.

On the other hand, even with everything this episode gives me to think about, I do miss the Holmes-Watson partnership, and I recall with fond nostalgia seasons one and two, where there was mystery-solving and the partnership of Holmes and Watson, where, though the world explode, these two survive. The comfortable pattern of solving mysteries together and then returning to 221B is familiar and missed.

Admittedly, there are character moments that shine through in this episode. Martin “I can do that with a blink” Freeman delivered his usual BAFTA-worthy performance, but I found my heart breaking for Sherlock Holmes, who, without his John Watson, is falling apart. Cumberbatch delivered a heart wrenching performance of a seemingly emotionless man willing to go to Hell and back for John Watson, and every nuance, every subtle emotion behind Sherlock’s veneer, every tear skillfully shed by Freeman, tore at my heartstrings.

And yet…it wasn’t enough. There were moments of a partnership I’ve grown to love, glimpses of the trials and tribulations of an immortal friendship, but they were overshadowed by the narrative derring-do and the meta-fictional deconstruction of literary reality. My mind, rebelling at stagnation, was intrigued, but my heart yearned for the warmer, more poignant episodes of the past. 

Heart and mind: it’s a dilemma I’m sure Holmes is more familiar with than he’d like to admit.