Season 4 of Sherlock has finally arrived, and this time, the series seems to have become slightly better at delivering the darkness that its showrunners keep on promising. For both the viewers and Sherlock himself, the game may be back on, but now the consequences cut deep (or at least deeper than they used to).
“The Six Thatchers,” the first episode of Season 4, picks up where Season 3 left off. A video of Moriarty asking “Did you miss me?” has been broadcast all through England, and worried Cabinet officials have ended Sherlock’s brief (four minutes to be exact) exile so that he can deal with the seeming resurrection of his arch nemesis. To their disbelief, Sherlock’s decided course of action is one of inaction. He is going to wait because, as Sherlock reasons, he’s Moriarty’s target and waiting is what targets do.
A case of an impossible death of a boy who was supposed to be halfway across the world catches Sherlock’s attention, but like most of the episode itself, this particular case is merely a red herring, a preamble whose sole purpose seems merely to distract the viewers for awhile before introducing them to the bigger enigmas of “The Six Thatchers.” Sherlock immediately solves the case of the impossible death, but becomes engrossed by the mystery of a shattered bust of Margaret Thatcher in the deceased boy’s home. After Lestrade reports more cases of destroyed busts of Thatcher, all of which belong to the same mold, Sherlock becomes convinced that this is part of Moriarty’s grand, posthumous game.
Sherlock manages to intercept the burglar before he gets his hands on the last Thatcher bust, resulting in one of the most action-heavy, Bourne-esque fight scenes in the history of the show. After gaining an upper hand in the fight, Sherlock smashes the Thatcher bust, confident that the bust contains the famous black pearl of the Borgias, a pearl that has been missing and which is believed to be in connection with Moriarty. Instead, Sherlock sees a memory disk marked “A.G.R.A,” a memory disk that is the exact replica of the memory disk Mary said held all the secrets of her past.
So what initially seemed like an episode about Moriarty turns out to be an episode about Mary instead. The past comes back to haunt her as Ajay, a former partner of hers who believes that Mary had betrayed him and the other members of “A.G.R.A” (the team of agents-for-hire that Mary was part of) in a mission in Tbilisi, Georgia, six years ago, is determined to seek vengeance and kill her. Sherlock’s search for the true betrayer eventually leads to a tragic denouement. During a confrontation with Vivian Norbury, the mousy British government secretary who turns out to be the culprit, Sherlock’s callousness and brashness leads Norbury to shoot him. Mary dives in the way to save Sherlock and the bullet ends up killing her.
“The Six Thatchers” is not the first episode of Sherlock to explore the more unpleasant repercussions of Sherlock’s arrogance. In fact, the show enjoys tearing down its hero almost as much as it revels in building the extraordinariness of its main character. While Sherlock is able to perceive and make deductions on a near superhuman level, he is far from infallible in his logic. And throughout the series, Sherlock often gets it wrong or has a blinkered approach when the problem at hand concerns the people he cares about (such were the cases with Irene Adler in Season 2 and Mary in Season 3). While he eventually does get to the bottom of the mystery at the end of “The Six Thatchers” (the few wrong turns notwithstanding), Sherlock’s hubris and unrelenting harshness, traits that fans love and regard as quirks, become his downfall as they cost him Mary’s life.
Mary’s death makes the opening of Season 4 comparatively bleaker than the previous season premieres. The grimness of the episode is something that the actors also apparently felt keenly. According to Digital Spy, Martin Freeman found the Sherlock scene to be difficult to shoot.
“You have to do it justice, obviously, but it’s very easy to over-do it, so yeah, it’s a careful line to walk. I had to act that Amanda’s just been shot and that’s pretty difficult, that’s pretty tough, even when you know it’s coming.”
Benedict Cumberbatch also echoed similar sentiments in regard to the death scene in “The Six Thatchers.”
“It was a very upsetting scene to film. It’s a big moment – two became three, and then this incredibly important part of what Sherlock is suddenly is no more, in the most violent way imaginable.”
The darker turn of Season 4 has been teased by Cumberbatch and Sherlock‘s co-creator Mark Gatiss in Vanity Fair, and the frequent references to mortality in “The Sixth Thatchers” seem like a harbinger of even weightier things to come. While Mary’s death does lend a degree of gravitas to a show that has averted killing off characters close to the viewers’ hearts, reviewers from websites like IGN have pointed out that the element of crime-solving, which many believe to be the core of Sherlock, plays second fiddle to the exploration of Mary’s espionage past in this episode.
IGN is not alone in its impatience to have more good old-fashioned Sherlockian mysteries back in the show. According to Vulture, the balance between emotional sequences and puzzle-solving mysteries is slightly off in “The Six Thatchers.”
“It’s a bit of a Sherlockian thing to say, but all this emotional stuff just gets in the way of the mysteries, which are, after all, the reason why we’re here. ‘The Six Thatchers’ seems to have used such heartstring-tuggers to make up for the thinness of its central case.”
Ironically, the “emotional stuff,” which has crowded out the crime-solving that people believe to be the show’s bread and butter, doesn’t entirely pay off in this episode. Despite the brilliant performance of Amanda Abbington, the character of Mary has always been more plot device than fully fleshed-out character. Mary’s whole existence within Sherlock has been to complement the Sherlock-John duo and when the narrative requires it, throw curveballs in their relationship for the sake of dramatic momentum. Her death in “The Six Thatchers” is no exception, and it seems to be doled out by the showrunners to create tension between the two main characters and hit that elusive tone of darkness that Sherlock‘s showrunners have been so keen on exploring (to varying degrees of success) since Season 3. The showrunners manage to get away with it, just barely, and its shaky success has more to do with the actors’ performances, rather than the strength of the episode itself.
“The Lying Detective,” the second episode of Season 4, airs on BBC and PBS on January 8.
[Feature Image by PBS]