Tori Brazier reviews the first episode of the eagerly-awaited fourth series of Sherlock…
It’s been three years since the last series of Sherlock aired, and with suggestions that this fourth run could be the last, expectations are at their peak. Last January the BBC aired a one-off, stand-alone Victorian-set Sherlock caper – ‘The Abominable Bride’ – to a mixed reception. The scope was vast, the timelines Inception-esque in their confusion, and the production design deliciously gothic and macabre. Things then ended rather disappointingly when the episode seemed to suggest – rather bizarrely – that feminism was the ‘bad guy’…?
‘The Six Thatchers’ follows on directly from the frantic and high-speed events of 2014’s series finale, and the government (i.e. Mark Gatiss’s smarmy Mycroft) are in cover-up mode when it comes to the death of blackmailer Magnussen. That storyline tidily disposed of, things zoom forward through Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of her and Watson’s daughter Rosie. Sherlock, meanwhile, is obsessing over Jim Moriarty, as always, waiting for the continuation of the ‘game’ that he is convinced Moriarty devised before his death. Cumberbatch in Sherlock obsessive mode is as enjoyable as ever, dismissing cases in an abrupt one-sentence answer or five-second video call – he’s also arrogant as ever. When Lestrade (Rupert Graves, game as ever) arrives with the unsolved murder of a teenager, Sherlock seizes on the details and is off case-solving again for the Met. At the house of the deceased’s parents, the ‘Thatchers’ of the title are revealed – a series of busts of Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, that are being smashed – and as Sherlock goes haring off in the hopes of besting Moriarty, the episode truly gets underway.
‘The Six Thatchers’ is an ambitious piece of television, with a plot that eventually pieces together in the final few minutes – as expected from Sherlock. Sometimes, however, its ambitions get the better of it: it’s a game for the viewer to work out the case, just as much as it is for Sherlock, but things end up a little too convoluted and drawn out. The crux of the storyline actually hinging on Mary is an interesting move, particularly with the fun competitive element to her and Watson’s relationship when Sherlock pits them against one another (and they have a baby to juggle). Her questionable past and alliances smack of repetition, however. We’ve been deep in this intrigue before in the previous full series, which culminated in Mary shooting Sherlock. Amanda Abbington does juggle this dubiousness well though, although perhaps at the expense of her character’s likeability. The small snatch of extra footage post-credits also, exhaustingly, presents another possible twist in her true motivation.
Moriarty’s teased involvement is similarly familiar, with brief flashbacks courtesy of Sherlock nipping into his mind palace for a bit of mulling over possible crime connections. Is Sherlock’s nemesis alive or dead? It’s a frustrating piece of stalling in what will clearly be a series-long plot arc – but you can’t blame writer Mark Gatiss too much when Andrew Scott has proven so sensationally vindictive and unhinged in the role. Almost everyone would warmly welcome his (confirmed?) return as a worthy adversary of Sherlock. It is clear that a bit of patience is necessary on the viewers’ part, to suspend disbelief and judgement until the series’ end when every answer has (hopefully) been revealed.
Smart lines and witty repartee are essential in Sherlock, and there was a nice smattering to enjoy here, from Lestrade and Watson’s conversation about nannying Sherlock (under the pretence of discussing the baby) to the mother of the dead teenager asking if Sherlock, in one of his more ‘Sherlock-y’ moments, is “quite mad?”. Watson quickly ‘defends’ his friend with: “He’s an arsehole. It’s an easy mistake.” The relationship between Cumberbatch and Freeman is still sparky, with Watson giving as good as he gets. There’s also the added dimension of the upright Watson being tarnished slightly by an intriguing ‘textual’ relationship with a lady on a bus (more on that later, surely?) as well as the devastating rift in the friends’ relationship following the shock killing of Mary at the episode’s end. Vivian Norbury (Marcia Warren) as the killer, and ‘she’ that betrayed Mary’s elite assassin team AGRA, was also a shrewd and neatly handled decision, having been introduced – but not too heavily – with a daft conversation about ice lollies at the episode’s opening. She was certainly well-primed to be the villain, but dismissed cleverly in the audience’s mind with her seeming insignificance as far as Sherlock was concerned.
Unsurprisingly, Sherlock attracts a high calibre of guest actor, even in relatively small roles – ‘The Six Thatchers’ featured Lindsay Duncan as a no-nonsense government associate of Mycroft’s, Lady Smallwood, Charles Edwards and Amanda Root as the grieving parents of the dead teenager, and Sacha Dhawan as AJ, an ex-AGRA colleague of Mary’s. Sherlock stalwarts Molly and Mrs Hudson were, of course, also present and correct, but only in small doses. Hopefully the next two episodes will provide them with more to do.
This first episode is as crammed as ever with hints, Easter eggs and red herrings, primed juicily for hardcore fans to theorise and squirm over – but is it at the expense of appealing to the more relaxed viewer? For one who wants to ‘get’ everything, plot-wise, without too much work or possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge/remembrance of previous episodes, it is undoubtedly a frustrating episode. One easily-grasped tidbit, though, is that of Mycroft and his phone call to ‘Sherrinford’ – we last see him waiting to be put through. Many fans expect this to be the third Holmes brother, and possibly played by Tom Hiddleston, but is this now too obvious?
In the past, Sherlock has been accused of being too clever or smug for its own good, and in some places this is evident – the various smokescreens in the first forty minutes or so, for example, as Sherlock tracks down his Thatchers. This next case, however, set by Mary herself, is to “save John Watson” – most likely from his grief, but maybe from something else? The stakes seem appropriately high. The game is (still) on.