Series 4, Episode 4 - "The Six Thatchers"
Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Amanda Abbington
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm
US: 1 Jan 2017
Holmes’ abductive methodology, through which an observed inference is arrived at through considering the known facts, may prove useful in understanding the crime at work within the Sherlock series four opener, “The Six Thatchers”: namely that the episode is really quite terrible.
It’s the first episode of Sherlock where I wanted the story to end a good 20 minutes before the conclusion and, after said dénouement, wished I had just turned the TV off and buried it in the garden, leaving a greater mystery for future detectives (my partner and my therapist) to solve.
One breadcrumb in this great unpacking might be that we’ve become so apparently inured to the spectacular nature of Holmesian detection that the viewer now has to be given an amplified barrage of data, which seems to be a visualized representation of the detective process, but ultimately serves very little function within the show. “Oh look, Sherlock is using his phone an awful lot. What a rude sort of fellow, yet one can’t help but find some kind of empathy with a man who, when finally caving in to cultural expectations of the digital era, uses it in a deliberate attempt to negate actual social responsibility. Clever Cumberbatch. In this way we’re all a bit like Sherlock … hang on, what’s the actual point of this texting-during-a-Christening scene?” I don’t know either, but how cute was the pointlessly included bloodhound? At times, Sherlock feels more like it should be called ‘Houdini’, given how much misdirection and diversionary showmanship, signifying nothing, is involved.
Might one compare Holmes’ (Benedict Cumberbatch) confidence with constructing text messages behind his back to co-creator Mark Gatiss’ assured ability to manipulate and update the Sherlock text itself? Only if you believe in the quality of the final product. “The Six Thatchers” is more like a bum-dialed phone call to someone you were once good friends with, but now it’s just awkward, embarrassing, and you no longer share the same interests; in many ways a bit like having a conversation with the modern iterations of Doctor Who, but not quite as cloying or sanctimonious.
Increasingly, it’s all becoming nonsensical fan-service devoid of weight, which in this episode becomes haphazardly bundled with vaguely tangential links to Holmes’ later serious vows to get serious when things get serious, but things don’t go so well, so everyone else then gets equally, if not more, serious in the final scenes where Watson (Martin Freeman) lets out an unnatural shriekish howl as a wizened, clueless pensioner (Marcia Warren) has a grand day out in the local aquarium. This leads to a serious final-final scene that’s been lazily stretching out from the erstwhile dog days of meta-flippancy to embrace the bromantic tensions that arise when one of them suddenly becomes a widower. Looking ahead, the rest of the season will not be a fun romp: it’ll be solemn. More tears will be shed. An even darker color filter will be applied to the streets of London. This is now BBC Drama serious.
Think about how annoying the bait and switch was in the Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride”, which laid out an exciting 19th-century mystery to only thoroughly undercut it with waffle-y, modern-day bunkum. If the mind-palace of “The Abominable Bride” was a Victorian folly, then “The Six Thatchers” goes several Disneylands further along the path of Hollywood incredulity.
The shattered busts of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher don’t lead to the black pearl of the Borgias, as they do in Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” (which is briefly floated in the 2017 reworking); that would be too gratifying.
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Instead, the busts (surprisingly devoid of any notable social metaphor), lead towards a USB stick, which leads towards an assassin who looks a little foreign but turns out to also be British (Sacha Dhawan), which leads toward Sherlock engaging in ridiculous combat with the aforementioned super-soldier (it’s like The Matrix meets some vaudevillian frying-pan fight), and Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington) going on a gap-year aboard (presumably because it’s easier to film Abbington in a travel montage than it is to get more scenes shot with Cumberbatch and Freeman, or meaningfully develop a story in which the viewer can be even a little bit invested), and so on, through to a culmination of cascading James Bond-esque events that are far less interesting than a straight detective story would’ve been.
Regarding tired tropes, there’s also the case of “Watson and the bus-stop broad”, which takes place through text messages, knowing glances, and other ploys to make things like character development seem easily won. This secrecy rings all the more hollow when one considers he’s cheating on the female Jason Bourne and his friend, the world’s greatest detective, hasn’t noticed either. Watson’s shenanigans also make him look needlessly foolish, and tinge his wife’s final sacrifice with a bitter taste.
Mary Watson: annoying as a female character whose sole function is to be a plot device that stimulates the male relationships in the show. Mary Watson: even more annoying as a plot device that’s expected to die when she’s no longer useful to the Sherlock/John relationship. In series three’s “His Last Vow”, Sherlock was shot by Mary, and in “The Six Thatchers”, Mary throws herself in front of Sherlock, to take a bullet for him. With all the facts, this scene might feel like the closing of a circle; based on the one episode, however, it just feels cheap and convenient.
These tonal issues stem from the show reaching for sincere and meaningful or action-packed moments before they’re properly developed within the story, making Big Moment decisions seem out of character.
Even Holmes spends the story hoping for a better plot to unravel, and I can’t blame him.