I just finished watching the Sherlock Series 4 premiere as I write this, and like most fans of the show, I have a lot of thoughts about it. I’m going to keep it spoiler-free to start out, though, and just talk about my feelings on the show in general. I’ll give you fair warning when I’m about to get into S4 spoiler territory.
I’ll admit it — When I first heard about the concept behind Sherlock, I was pretty skeptical about it. Sherlock Holmes in modern-day London? It sounded like just a cheap gimmick, and I saw WAY too many ways for it to go wrong for it to be worth attempting. Hell, I was such a Holmes purist that I even refused to watch the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films that put him in 1940s London fighting Nazis. Victorian London or GTFO.
But then I saw that first trailer, and I was sold.
Basically, Sherlock works because series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss knew what to change and what to leave alone. They had the sense to cast both Sherlock and Watson to type (as proved by last year’s “The Abominable Bride” special, Cumberbatch and Freeman can slip into a more traditional Sherlock adaptation without missing a beat), and most of the twists they’ve come up with are surprising yet still respectful. By modernizing the world around Sherlock Holmes, they’ve reminded us that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a period piece when it Arthur Conan Doyle started writing it. Holmes was on the cutting edge of his time, utilizing the technology of his day to solve the mysteries he was confronted with. And Moffat and Gatiss are obviously Sherlock fanboys of the first order, peppering the show with all sorts of clever references to the Doyle Canon. They’ve even mastered that great Doyle trick of dropping tantalizing references to cases we never see (Holmes: “I know the landlady, Mrs. Hudson. She owes me a favor. A few years back, her husband was sentenced to death in Florida. I was able to help out.” Watson: “You stopped her husband from being executed?” Holmes: “Oh, no, I ensured it.”).
It’s a really tough thing to do an adaptation that pleases hardcore and casual fans alike, and for the most part, Moffat and Gatiss do a beautiful job. Yeah, at times they get a bit too radical in their interpretations on these characters for my tastes (I would be quite happy if we never hear about about Sherlock’s mind palace or Watson’s danger junkie tendencies ever again), but the quality of the show is always top-notch.
Honestly, I don’t even mind the long gap between seasons too much. The Venture Bros. has trained me to be patient with shows that take their time, as long as they’re worth the wait. And Sherlock is definitely worth the wait. Every episode is jam-packed with events and ideas, sometimes almost too much so. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind if the show came out more frequently, but I also recognize that if it did, the quality would likely not be as high as it is. That’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.
If the long gaps still bug you, though, I suggest you do what I do: Don’t think of it as a TV series. Think of it as us getting three Sherlock movies every few years. Daniel Craig has played James Bond four times in the last 10 years. By the time Series 4 is done, Benedict Cumberbatch will have played Sherlock Holmes 13 times in the space of seven. That sounds a lot better, don’t you think?
SPOILER WARNING For “The Six Thatchers” after the picture of Sherlock and John!
…All clear? Good. Let’s get into it.
The Cliffhanger – We we last saw Sherlock, he had murdered media magnate and blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen to protect his friends John and Mary Watson and been exiled from England as a result. This exile lasted all of five minutes, as just after Sherlock’s plane took off, all television broadcasts in England were seemingly taken over by the deceased Jim Moriarty. But Moriarty blew his brains out in front of Sherlock at the end of Series 2. He couldn’t be back… could he?
In typical Sherlock fashion, this cliffhanger is dispensed with pretty quickly. I’m sure we’re going to come back to it later in the season, as we still don’t know who was behind the Moriarty “Miss Me?” video. But for now, the Moriarty question is swiftly moved to the back burner, as Moffat and Gatiss are eager to get back to the status quo as quickly as possible.
Similarly to “A Scandal in Belgravia” and “The Sign of Three,” we’re then treated to a montage of seemingly-unrelated cases that Holmes and Watson are engaged in, many of them humorous references to Doyle stories. Once again, we’re introduced to a case that Sherlock solves within five minutes, this one involving a boy who apparently died in England while he was travelling in Tibet. We also see the birth of John and Mary’s child, who they name Rosamund (remember that name. It’ll be significant later). Godfather Sherlock, characteristically, is texting through her entire christening ceremony.
The Bus Woman – Meanwhile, new father John Watson begins… I’m not quite sure what to call it yet. An affair? A flirtation? — with a woman he meets on the bus (bad things always seem to happen on public transportation on this show). It’s tough to know how to feel about this subplot right now, as we’re pointedly not shown just how far it goes between John and the Bus Woman. All we know for sure is that they’ve exchanged some flirty texts and John feels guilty about it. John tries to confess to Mary, but Holmes summons them both to Baker Street before he can come clean. This is a plot I don’t feel that I’m in a position to judge yet, as I have no idea where it’s going. It’s certainly a gutsy move by the show, though — How many series would actually show their most likeable protagonist on the verge of cheating on his wife?
(By the way, if you recorded “The Six Thatchers,” do yourself a favor a watch John’s first conversation with the Bus Woman again. Martin Freeman is excellent in this scene. He wants to follow his natural instincts and flirt with the pretty lady who’s interested in him, but at the same time he knows he shouldn’t. You can see that struggle play out on John’s face as he’s alternately engaging her and darting his eyes away from her. She reads it as shyness or self-consciousness, but we can clearly see it’s guilt. Just wonderful stuff.)
The Death of Mary Watson – I had a feeling that this was coming at some point this season, between the Canon reference to Watson’s “sad bereavement” and Martin Freeman & Amanda Abbington breaking up in real life, but I was surprised that it came in the very first episode. I know that Mary’s death will probably outrage some of the fanbase, but I honestly can’t get too broken up about it. As both Moffat and Gatiss have observed, the death of Mrs. Watson is a 100-year old spoiler.
And given the way the show has portrayed Mary Watson so far, it makes sense. Mary was not a character to just go gently into the good night, and having Watson’s wife and child constantly accompanying Holmes on his adventures is just too big of a break from Canon. Especially when Mrs. Watson is an ex-assassin on the run. While that might be an interesting show in its own right, it isn’t really Sherlock Holmes.
Mary’s death happens in the London Aquarium (gorgeously shot by director Rachel Talalay), with most of the main cast present. The scene contains a couple of callbacks to previous episodes of the series — The firing gun is reminiscent of Mary shooting Sherlock in “His Last Vow,” and we once again see John arrive too late to prevent the tragedy, just as he did in “The Reichenbach Fall.” I’ve got to commend Freeman and Talalay for their bold choice during Mary’s death scene – Watson’s head is turned away from the audience, as if his grief is too much for us to see. Freeman’s wail as Mary finally slips away is positively chilling.
We’re also left with the fact that Mary’s death happened almost entirely due to Sherlock’s arrogance. “The Six Thatchers” shows Sherlock at his most insufferable. He’s called back from his S3 exile in the opening minutes, to solve a case that only he can solve. He’s given a stay of execution from his suicide mission, and allowed to quite literally get away with murder, as his execution of Magnussen, a well-known media figure, is swept under the rug. He does such thoughtless things as texting during Rosamund’s christening and forgetting the gender of a murder victim in front of his parents. Sherlock thinks he can do, and get away with, anything, so it’s no surprise he thinks that his vow to protect John, Mary, and Rosamund is something within his capabilities. This hubris is also on display in his Sherlock Scan takedown of Vivian Norbury, which is several degrees more vicious than it needs to be. Sherlock is heading for a fall, and it’s quite possibly bigger than the one he took off of the roof of St. Bart’s. And just like in the Babylonian folk tale quoted in the opening minutes, Sherlock discovers that death is something that cannot be avoided or fooled, only delayed.
Speculations – So, as ever, the real question is, what comes next? Sherlock and John’s rift will apparently be repaired in some fashion in the next episode. I’m fine with that, as long as it doesn’t cover too much of the same ground as their estrangement in “The Empty Hearse.” I’m really intrigued with how the show is going to handle John as a single father — babies can really slow down mystery/adventure shows, but surely even Moffat and Gatiss wouldn’t be so heartless as to kill off the Watsons’ baby too… Would they?
The thing I’m most curious about, though, is where they’re going to go with John’s relationship with the Bus Woman. I’m sure we’re going to see her again, as she was given just a little too much attention for her not to recur. Heck, we didn’t even get her name this time out. “The Empty Hearse” told us that John got over his grief for Sherlock through his relationship with Mary. Might he turn to another romantic relationship to get over his grief for Mary? (“The fair sex is your department, Watson.”) John’s cell phone is buzzing again at the end of the episode… Is it the Bus Woman calling or texting him?
And you know… One of the few things we know about the Bus Woman is that she’s Scottish. Moriarty is a
Scottish name.* Just throwin’ that out there.
(* 1/9/17 EDIT: Yeah, I’m dumb. Moriarty is an Irish name, not Scottish, and I knew this, but I totally got it mixed up when I wrote this last Monday. I’m most embarrassed that it took me an entire week to realize my mistake.)
(OK, I just did a bit ‘o Googling, to see if I could find the name of the actress playing the Bus Woman, but the full cast list isn’t up on IMDb yet. It could be Sian Brooke, but there aren’t quite enough photos of her for me to be sure. However… I did come across a very plausible fan theory. The person that John is texting with is not the Bus Woman… It’s his estranged sister Harry. You’ll notice that their texts start with them both writing “Hey.” Not “Hey, I’m the person you met on the bus the other day,” just “Hey,” the way that previously-acquainted people start conversations. John had to program the number into his phone as a new contact, but if Harry never deleted John’s number, she’d recognize it as his and wouldn’t need him to identify himself. And if you rewatch their text conversations, they really only read as flirty because they’re bracketed by the two scenes of John running into the Bus Woman. I’m leaving my previous speculations about the Bus Woman up because they were my initial reactions, but I’m now convinced that this is who John was really texting with. He wasn’t cheating on Mary, he was reaching out to his sister. Pretty sneaky, Moffat and Gatiss.)
I didn’t catch the name of the other Detective Inspector that Lestrade was chatting with outside of Holmes’ rooms. Then I see on the BBC website that her name is DI Hopkins, meaning that she’s a gender-swapped version of Stanley Hopkins, a policeman in the original Doyle stories. That’s certainly intriguing. Of all the Inspectors at Scotland Yard, Hopkins was always the most sympathetic of Holmes’ methods, to the point where he would actually refer cases to Holmes, and Holmes came to look on him as a bit of a
She and Lestrade seemed to have chemistry, and Holmes predicted that Lestrade’s date would not end well (Don’t forget that Holmes accurately deduced that Lestrade’s wife was cheating on him in Series 2). I’m thinking that a more-successful romance is in our favorite DI’s future.
Oh, and I almost forgot — The events of this episode shatter Sherlock so much that he actually goes into therapy with John’s old therapist! Let your mind chew over that concept a bit — Sherlock Holmes in therapy. I almost want to watch an entire episode set in one of his sessions. I’m hoping that we see a bit of this next week, and that it leads to a more empathetic Holmes.
The Canon (and Non-Canon) References – Here’s what I spotted during my two viewings of “The Six Thatchers”:
-The codename “Porlock” is used at the beginning of the novel The Valley of Fear for a spy that Holmes has inside the Moriarty organization. Holmes receives a letter from him at the beginning of the book, where Porlock is certain that Moriarty suspects his duplicity. We never find out if this suspicion was true or if Porlock was just being paranoid. Porlock’s real name is never revealed.
-“Sumarra,” the location in the parable the Holmes relates in the episode, is quite similar to “Sumatra.” “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” is one of the most tantalizing references to an unseen case in the Holmesian Canon, and comes from “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” (Intriguingly, Watson’s texting buddy also refers to herself as a vampire during their text exchange).
-During the montage of cases that Holmes quickly solves, there’s a reference to a person’s missing thumb, presumably a client’s. This is from the case of “The Engineer’s Thumb.” From the blog text that’s flashed onto the screen, the name “Hatherley” figures into both cases.
-“It’s never twins” is a call back to “The Abominable Bride” special from last year, and may also be a shout out to the Holmes-inspired House‘s “It’s never lupus” running gag.
-Wilson, the notorious canary trainer, is mentioned in “Black Peter” (and provided a title to a fun book by Nicholas Meyer where Sherlock Holmes meets the Phantom of the Opera).
-John and Sherlock are seen laughing about how to arrest a jellyfish. This refers to “The Lion’s Mane,” one of the lesser-regarded Holmes stories. Perhaps coincidentally, a jellyfish can be seen behind Sherlock during the climax at the aquarium.
-“The Six Thatchers” and the plot of busts being cracked open to find a valuable item inside them comes from Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons,” obviously. Lestrade being friendly with Holmes and Watson and coming around to Baker Street for help with perplexing cases also comes from this story.
-Toby the bloodhound is from The Sign of Four, the second Holmes novel.
-The acronym “A.G.R.A” is another callback to The Sign of Four, where the word “Agra” referred to the treasure everyone was after. This book is also where Mary Morstan was first introduced.
-Mary’s alias of “Gabrielle Ashdown” (pictured briefly on a fake passport) comes from Moffat and Gatiss’ favorite Holmes film, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
-Sherlock’s quote “I can never resist a touch of the dramatic” comes from the climax of “The Naval Treaty.”
-The takeout menu seen on Mycroft’s refrigerator is from a restaurant called “Reigate Square,” a play on the Doyle title “The Reigate Squires.”
-“Sherringford” was Holmes scholar William S. Baring-Gould’s conjectural name for a third Holmes brother, the one who took care of the family estate while Sherlock and Mycroft pursued their careers in London (There is no reference to a third Holmes brother in the Doyle Canon). It remains to be seen who this person might be in the world of Sherlock, but a third Holmes brother is the most popular theory.
-“Work is the best antidote to sorrow” is a Holmes quote from “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the story where Sherlock Holmes returned from the dead and where the death of Mrs. Watson was first alluded to.
-And finally, the name “Norbury” (one of Holmes’ few documented failures) is from “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.”
…Ahh, I missed this, didn’t you? Spotting this stuff and forming theories about what’s to come is such fun! Bring on Toby Jones as Culverton Smith!
See you here next week for “The Lying Detective,” same Sherlock-Time, same Sherlock-Channel.