'Sherlock' Season Four: The Russian Roulette of Relationships

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, S4

Sherlock Holmes is tempted, tortured, and tested -- all in the name of love.


Distributor: BBC Home Entertainment
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Amanda Abbington
Network: PBS
US release date: 20017-01-24
"Do something while there's still a chance, because that chance doesn’t last forever ... (I)t’s gone before you know it."

-- John Watson, “The Lying Detective”

In the Blu-ray extra “The Writers’ Chat”, series co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat discuss the way they came up with ideas for the season (possibly series) finalé, “The Final Problem”. The title comes directly from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story in which he kills Sherlock Holmes, only to bring him back for new adventures because of popular demand. Rest assured that Moffat and Gatiss do not kill Sherlock but, according to many fans, the finalé was so far different from the earlier case-based stories that the writers “killed” some fans’ enthusiasm.

Although Moffat declares on disc that Season Four is his favorite, not all viewers feel the same way because of the many dark turns and revelations throughout the three episodes: “The Six Thatchers”, “The Lying Detective”, and “The Final Problem”. However, that darkness and its effect on the many interrelationships among characters is precisely why fans need to see these episodes in order to fully understand this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Because of the enormous success achieved by stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (John Watson) during Sherlock’s television tenure, getting them back to shoot three episodes is increasingly difficult because of their busy schedules. Gatiss and Moffat, as John sagely reminds Sherlock in “The Lying Detective”, they may have decided to “do something” different and fulfill their wish list for the series while they still had the chance. As shown in the extras, they may have had a better time creating the episodes, especially the finalé, than some fans -- with their own wish lists -- have had watching and interpreting them.

However, Season Four is significant because it focuses on the relationships with and surrounding Sherlock and provides insights and character developments that reforge, in particular, the relationship of Sherlock and John. The life-altering events this season make that classic friendship strong enough that, by the final credits, they once again dash into danger side by side (when they are not bringing up John’s baby). Finally they are finally the unbreakable case-solving duo and eternal friends that Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington) says they should be.

As results of an unscientific online poll indicate, more than half of the three thousand Metro voters want to see Sherlock return. The poll went live within minutes of the finalé, and the results (55 percent to a high of 57 percent positive toward the finalé) through the following 24 hours suggest that this part of the audience hopes that the series will go to a fifth season. The audience for the Fathom Events screening I attended at an Altamonte Springs, Florida, cinema only one day after the finalé was broadcast on PBS, applauded at the end of the episode. These limited examples, plus plenty of Tweets, Tumblr posts, and mainstream reviews, illustrate the level of strong emotions -- pro and con -- among viewers.

Although there are flaws (e.g., plot holes) across the season, the quality of acting, little gems of moments (e.g., a John-Sherlock hug, Mrs. Hudson’s driving), and answers to questions about the way that Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) and Sherlock grew up are high points well worth another viewing.

Russian Roulette with Relationships

During this season, Sherlock brandishes a gun more than once. Whether he's shooting up the walls of 221B after shooting up illicit drugs or playing a deadly game with a gun loaded with only one bullet, this gunplay is symbolic of the Russian roulette being played with Sherlock’s closest relationships. Who should die, Sherlock or Mary? John or Mycroft? Whose emotions should be sacrificed so that a Big Bad (one in each episode) can enjoy the tension and turmoil? Should lovelorn Molly’s tender heart be shredded so that she can physically survive? Should Sherlock sacrifice his health and sobriety in the hope that John, after a nasty estrangement, will return? Should Mycroft sacrifice himself for one sibling to appease another (the promised “other one” Mycroft hinted at the conclusion of Season Three’s “His Last Vow”)? Season Four is a loaded weapon aimed at each character in turn as his or her emotions are placed under a microscope and long-hidden secrets are revealed.

The actors reveled in the dramatic scenes. In the “Sherlock Behind 221B” discussion of “The Six Thatchers”, Cumberbatch is shown going through the choreography of a fight scene. Noting how much he enjoys doing physical stunts, like fights, the actor enthused that “It’s nice to see Sherlock being physical and vicious.” He later adds that Season Four “redefines what we know of Holmes and Watson.” For the leads, playing different emotions or physically demanding scenes are a treat, which they hoped the audience would enjoy. As Freeman anticipates in the “Script to Screen” extra, the audience should be “blown away” by Season Four, a sentiment the writers took quite seriously.

The Deconstruction of Sherlock Holmes

Moffat and Gatiss quite literally blow away; props and settings explode nearly as often as detonating relationships. Season Four features, in addition to fight scenes, Sherlock breaking through a glass door, John and Sherlock being blown through the windows of 221B after a horrific (and cheesily filmed) explosion and an exploding car.

In “The Six Thatchers”, the new season starts pleasantly, with John, Mary, and Sherlock working harmoniously on a case and celebrating the arrival of Rosamund (Rosie) Watson. However, Mary’s past catches up to her, and the first two of the season’s Big Bads, former assassin colleague Ajay (Sacha Dhawan) and the Bigger Bad, their former boss, Vivian Norbury (Marcia Warren), destroy the John-Mary-Sherlock dynamic. Not only is a character “blown away,” but so is Sherlock’s contentment with his chosen family.

To regain John’s friendship and, according to Mary, “save John Watson” as well, Sherlock indulges in self-destruction by going on a drugs binge, shooting the walls in his flat, and terrorizing Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). In one of the best scenes of the season, fans see Mrs. Hudson’s pragmatism and strength -- as well as her sporty red Aston Martin and killer driving skills -- as she attempts to save Sherlock from himself and reunite Sherlock and John.

This episode’s Big Bad is Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, having a lot of fun being devious), who confesses his crimes to his daughter and colleagues only to wipe their memories. When Sherlock begins to figure out Smith’s method to his murders, he becomes Smith’s target.

Sherlock deconstructs the fantasy of being only an occasional drug user and, as Cumberbatch’s and Freeman’s superb acting illustrates, proves that Mycroft’s fears for his younger brother are well founded. Despite the tortuous way that John and Sherlock begin to rebuild their friendship in this episode, the plot falters with its cliff-hanger ending, which, unfortunately, is not the starting point for the finale, although the question of what happened next is resolved with a line of dialogue.

“The Final Problem” contains more than one problem many fans have with this episode, for all that it might be the final episode of the series and ties up loose ends. Sherlock’s and Mycroft’s psychopathic sister Eurus (Sian Brooke) -- the much prophesied coming East wind -- has been locked away on an island prison since her childhood. Her story moves Sherlock ever farther from literary canon. Nonetheless, it importantly explains Sherlock’s devotion to Redbeard, Mycroft’s micromanagement of Sherlock’s life, and the resolution to the Moriarty dilemma.

Regarding the latter, any time Andrew Scott is on screen as Moriarty he steals the scene with his careless sexual innuendo, bored attitude (at least until Eurus sparks his obsession with the Holmes brothers), and devilish intensity. Another plus is that, in this episode, Mycroft becomes heroic, as well as much more understandable. Family home movies of a playful little Sherlock are cute. The secret of Mycroft’s umbrella’s true potential is finally revealed. The little details or individual scenes are highly enjoyable.

The main problem with this episode is the gaps between many scenes or the absence of much-needed follow-up scenes (e.g., how Sherlock and Molly retain their friendship), which many creative fan fiction writers are busily filling in the days since the finale was broadcast. Some scenes -- such as John and Sherlock very briefly becoming pirates -- seem unnecessary to the plot beyond underscoring the parallel between Eurus’ jealousy of child Sherlock playing pirates with his best friend and adult Sherlock doing the same with John, with almost the same tragic consequences.

When Eurus gets her brothers’ attention by blowing up 221B while John, Sherlock, and Mycroft are discussing her, the destruction of Sherlock’s current and John’s former home is highly symbolic. Even the Blu-ray set’s cover art shows a pensive Sherlock sitting in his chair amid the rubble and John turning away from Sherlock and looking down on him. The destruction of 221B represents not only the deconstruction of Sherlock’s sense of self (and the audience’s and John’s understanding of him) but also the dissolution of the early-days friendship of Sherlock and John, when they only seemed in awe of each other. Moffat and Gatiss take great delight in tearing down their characters only to rebuild them (and their symbolic home) and bring them full circle from “A Study in Pink”.

After the horror of John, Mycroft, and Sherlock playing Eurus’ cruel games, life goes back to what passes for normal. The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” should be playing over the finale’s ending montage. What every character needs is love (or at least a good hug). The chasms created or revealed between Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock and John, Sherlock and Molly (a seriously underused Louise Brealey), Sherlock’s parents (played by Cumberbatch’s parents Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton) and Mycroft, and everyone and Eurus are bridged far too easily. Yet the ending montage provides hope that even the most damaged relationships can be healed by love.

This return to normalcy and a hint of potential Johnlock pave the way for future case stories. Not only because this season may be the last in a long while, at least, but because Sherlock is destroyed and remade--and his and John’s emotional rollercoaster made believable through the talents of Cumberbatch and Freeman--the episodes solve “The Final Problem” of understanding how Sherlock has become the more humanized man who is fallible but still incredibly brilliant. He now recognizes his capacity and need for love.

Although some characters, primarily Molly and Greg Lestrade (Rupert Graves, who gets more lines narrating the extras than he does throughout this season’s episodes), are seldom seen, everyone gets a “curtain call” during this episode. If the happiness evident in the montage seems forced after so much trauma, the season does leave John and Sherlock as many viewers want to see them--together and solving cases.

The Extras

All the extras emphasize the construction of this season’s episodes, not the deconstruction evident in each episode’s plot. The most enjoyable and informative extras are a behind-the-scenes look at the making of each episode. Each segment in “Sherlock Behind 221B” includes about 20 minutes of camera set-ups, filming of the episode’s most technically interesting scenes, and comments by the actors, director, producer, scriptwriters, stunt coordinators, and production designers. Fans typically enjoy knowing how and why a scene was filmed a certain way, and this extra one of the best on the Blu-ray set.

“The Writers’ Chat” is Gatiss’ and Moffat’s explanation of the piecemeal way that “The Final Problem” was written and the scenes organized. It also illustrates their enthusiasm, even after all these years, of writing scripts for Sherlock.

“Script to Screen” offers viewers a glimpse into a script read-through, the process of scriptwriting, the importance of the budget, the series’ production values, and set and production design.

Less successful are the very short production videos, which provide little information and only a few behind-the-scenes moments. The best scene within these videos is the warmth felt through the screen as the cast hugs Una Stubbs after her last scene.

Additional extras are a tour and rationale of the design for John’s and Mary’s home and a time-lapse construction of the 221B set.

This collection of extras provides viewers with a better understanding of the way the series has been planned and filmed, as well as a wide variety of commentaries by those in front of or behind the camera. These special segments go into more detail than other series’ disc extras, giving this set greater informational weight, which fans should appreciate.

Since 2010, Sherlock has provoked discussion as well as entertained global audiences. This adaptation’s characters have the power to shock and dismay viewers as well as endear themselves to audiences while entertaining them. Season Four doesn't portray the characters as viewers first perceived them in Season One, but by exploring each character’s weakness as well as strength, their anger as well as joy, their insecurity as well as arrogance, Sherlock continues to leave its mark not only on television, but on the legacy of Sherlock Holmes.






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