Sherlock is, like its titular character, a clever show. It’s made no secret of that: the very premise of any Sherlock Holmes adaptation is grounded in the concept that the writing must be as smart as the character it portrays. After three seasons, Sherlock has proven its ability to handle Holmes and the sprawling suite of characters that occupy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of novels. Many of the individual stories of Sherlock are intended to capture the imagination, bringing the viewer along for a wild ride where Holmes’s fascinating deductive powers are put to the test. The anticipation of seeing Holmes dive into someone’s past, present, and future simply by smelling a sheet of paper is exactly what makes Sherlock so great. Those clever moments, where you sit in awe as you listen to the logical explanation for the solution to each puzzle, are where it shines. The intimate, quick, and ultimately emotional stories that Sherlock can tell through the dynamic characters that occupy its space is its forte.
Yet the newest season, released in January and two years and thousands of Internet comments after the last, feels frustratingly incoherent as it attempts to move away from the concepts that characterized the first several seasons. Sherlock’s very nature is a difficult mess of intricacies to juggle, and where the newest season fails is where those balls—consistencies in characters, plot, and events—seem to drop from the air.
In terms of narrative structure, a TV show can be one of several things. The first is to be heavily serialized, where each episode directs the next, and the narrative of the story could be looked at almost like an extended movie. The second is for episodes to each carry a closed story that leaves the characters exactly as they started, popular in many comedies and animated shows. The third option is some mix of those two, where episodes can be self-contained, but whose individual elements can indicate a larger story arc.
Sherlock has always been a mix: each episode holds strong on its own, but also fits into a larger picture. But more than ever, the newest season follows a serialized nature. And while there is nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t work out here, because the show’s writers are ambivalent about whether they want to uphold the status quo or progress the narrative forward. Instead of then trying to do one or the other, they attempt both, and, predictably, it fails.
The first episode of the season focuses on answering questions raised in the last episode of the third season—namely, diving into the backstory of who Mary Watson really is. “The Six Thatchers” digs wholeheartedly into her past, disguising the story at first as a traditional puzzle for Sherlock to solve. At the end of the episode, however, Mary jumps in front of a gunshot, sacrificing not only herself but the entire backstory that took an hour and a half to tell. Mary’s intricate past makes her into an entirely new character, but then this character dies almost as soon as she’s introduced. Thus, her past dies with her: the adventures and character development that came along with her revealing her past to Watson and Sherlock in the finale of the third season is ultimately abandoned in favor of her death.
With the path of a third detective joining the crew closed, a new path opens: how will Watson deal with the death of his wife? It’s an interesting question, as Watson is someone who depends on the faith and trust of others. Losing his wife is perhaps the most devastating thing that could happen to him, as he loses his closest personal connection. But, apparently, the worst we see of his grief is screaming at the end of the first episode. Subsequently, he finds a therapist in “The Lying Detective” and forgives Sherlock, as he always does, and by the third episode of the season, he’s practically back to his old self. The character whose potential destruction we witnessed at the end of the premiere is back to normal, without much more than the bat of an eye. What’s more, even Watson’s child completely disappears in the second and third episodes, as if the writers decided that maybe Watson was a character better off without a family. Such a notion is bewildering, if only because we, the audience, have already spent so much time watching him grow as a person with his family’s help.
Even the new season’s strongest moments result in poor execution. Easily one of the best scenes of the season is Sherlock’s frantic call to Molly to get her to say “I love you” in order to save her from a bomb planted in her apartment in the finale, “The Final Problem.” It’s emotionally devastating to watch as Sherlock breaks Molly apart in an attempt to save her life. Sherlock, too, is forced immediately to cope with his actions. It seems that there is no way to get back to the relationship between Molly and Sherlock that once was, which, in and of itself, is an exciting concept: characters are forced into new territory, their ability to withstand emotional turbulence is thoroughly tested, and their recovery from those wounds becomes an upcoming hurdle. But the very next time we see Molly, it appears that everything is exactly back to normal: she is smiling, happy, and shows no signs of what had happened just minutes earlier in the episode. And so too is Sherlock back to exactly where he came from. This lack of consistency in narrative – this jumpiness that serves to string the viewer along – is incredibly frustrating. Sherlock hints at a different relationship, new developments, and a shift in tone of characters that we think we understand, but fails to commit. Each twist and turn seems interesting at first, but is tossed away just as quickly as it is introduced.
If Sherlock is trying to serialize itself, it must not be afraid to progress the story. It needs to give its characters challenges that they haven’t already faced, which would result in stories that would otherwise be impossible to tell. Unfortunately, the show can’t; instead, it leaves character development behind in favor of trying to progress a story that doesn’t have a clear direction. The season finale feels like a series finale, complete with a High School Musical jump burned onto the screen as the final shot. But if “The Final Problem” is the finale, then it’s a frustrating one.
In the penultimate episode, Culverton Smith, the billionaire serial killer, smiles ominously at his friends and family and poses a simple question: “What’s the very worst thing you can do to your very best friends? Tell them your darkest secret. Because if you tell them, and they decide they’d rather not know, you can’t take it back.”
Sherlock has told us its secrets. We know that Moriarty is dead, that Sherlock has a sister, and that Mary made a whole bunch of DVD’s before she died. The question now is whether Sherlock has more tricks up its sleeve. And apparently, it’s with a sour taste in our mouths that we must wait apprehensively for a dubious fifth season—for whatever secrets Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss haven’t yet told us.