Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Let's Talk Sherlock: Season 4

So, I know it's been awhile since Season 4 aired. Things have changed a lot in this country since January, and I've been busy trying to fight against it, but I finally wanted to take the chance to comment on the potentially final season of this wonderful show. (As always, spoilers.)

Sherlock is the reason I became a screenwriter - or, as Sherlock would say, "It's where I began." I had never seen a show like this - frankly, television hadn't. Yes, we'd seen classic literature adapted for the modern day, but never in this way, and not half as well. Did the initial idea seem a bit gimmicky? Yes; Benedict Cumberbatch reportedly almost didn't take the role because he didn't want the premise to be thought of as a gimmick. Did it exceed all expectations and change how television is done? Oh, yes.

Other crime dramas have begun showing text messages on screen and using similar visuals to accommodate characters' growing use of technology - producers used to be afraid of doing that. Sherlock changed that, showing it could be done and done well. In 2008, Breaking Bad became the new gold standard for television, showing that a show could be cinematic and artfully done and still draw a massive audience. Sherlock enjoyed the same rise, becoming a smash hit and drawing a huge international audience, paving the way for shows like Hannibal and Game of Thrones to stretch the limits of what television can be and how it can be filmed.

I will say this: Seasons 1 and 2 of Sherlock are some of the best television I've ever seen. Yes, you had your middling episodes that were just okay - "The Blind Banker" and "The Hounds of Baskerville" - but book-ending them were masterpieces of writing and cinematography and editing and acting and composing. Who will ever forget the first time they saw "A Study in Pink"? How can someone not be in awe of the utter beauty and grace of "A Scandal in Belgravia"? How can there be any denying the raw emotional punch of "The Reichenbach Fall"? It was these episodes that made us love Sherlock and made it a part of our lives and a part of pop culture at large. There was razor-sharp wit and heart-ripping emotion and the beauty of a pitch-perfect tribute to a source material you could tell was very near and dear to the hearts of its creators. On top of it all, it became its own original entity - for many, Benedict Cumberbatch will forever be Sherlock Holmes, just like Jeremy Brett was for so many who watched the Granada television series. There was an intent of purpose to Sherlock that you only see in the best of shows - the sure hand of a show runner who knows where they want their creation to go and is masterful at taking their audience along for the ride. That was Season 1 and 2 - a hell of a ride.

Then came Season 3. After the fall from St. Bart's roof that broke all our hearts, Sherlock "resurrected," coming back from the dead - but he came back different, and so did the show.

In my opinion, since then, the show never regained the resplendence it once had.

I didn't hate Season 3; it's still an enjoyable series to watch. But the show lost its momentum, that intent of purpose that set it above the rest. It didn't seem to know what it wanted to be anymore - was it a James Bond action film? A buddy comedy? A dark psychological thriller? It lost its identity, and thus that classic feeling that episodes like Study and Reichenbach had. And I'll tell you why: because it became a tribute to itself rather than the Conan Doyle source material it was so deft at adapting.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are both huge Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans - that's why they created the show in the first place. Every piece of Sherlock is meant to enhance what Conan Doyle originally wrote, and it did it well, from the Baker Street Irregulars becoming the homeless network, to Dr. Watson's journal becoming John's blog, to Holmes's notes and correspondence becoming Sherlock's texting and online research - every adaptation just worked so well. The cracks only appeared when the show began to idolize itself and its own fanbase.

"The Empty Hearse" is an episode dedicated to the fans, which was a nice touch, but it was also when the show began to rely too heavily on its own success to create its own narrative. It also parallels with the point when Sherlock's detective work became less about actually solving mysteries and more about how those mysteries revealed Sherlock's psyche and his own past. Exploring a main character's psyche isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if it's the only thing the show focuses on, it's too weak of a narrative to drive the momentum of an entire show.

In essence, I think the problem lies in that Moffat and Gatiss fell in love with their own show, and thus became blind to any ideas that were potentially bad for it. 

And that's how you get Season 4, The Season That Was Almost Great.

The Six Thatchers

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this episode! Rachael Talalay is one of my favorite directors, and (though some may disagree with me) I loved the unique touch she brought to this episode, with the visuals of the rolling die and the smashed plaster busts, etc. I loved that we finally got a proper, brain-twisting mystery in The Case of the Ghost Driver, the way they explored Mary's past and its conflict, and I thought it was really interesting to see the unraveling of John and Mary's relationship, since that wasn't a route I was expecting the writing to go. This was the Sign of Three, the Blind Banker, the Hounds of Baskerville of Season 4 - the episode that's not an instant classic, but it's well made and enjoyable.

It's up to the other two episodes to determine if we are back to the caliber of Seasons 1 and 2. So:

The Lying Detective

Yes. YES. This episode is by far the best of Season 4, and quite possibly the best episode we've had since Season 2. Moffat does it again with a terrific and terrifying riff on Conan Doyle's "The Dying Detective."

This episode has that classic feel that Scandal and Study have: the reality-bending visuals, the sharp humor, the mind-bending twists and turns, and a slam-bang finish with a twist no one was expecting. Toby Jones, or, to us Whovians, the Dream Lord from "Amy's Choice," does a fantastic job as the villain Culverton Smith, who still doesn't pass the mark for creepiness set by Magnussen, but gets pretty darn close. The most arresting moment comes when Smith is suffocating Sherlock, telling him to "maintain eye contact" so he can watch the life leave his eyes. I don't know about you, but that got a genuine chill down my spine.

This is also Mrs. Hudson's best episode, with Una Stubbs getting to have a ton of fun driving a sports car (I know, I know, stunt driver, but still) with a kidnapped Sherlock in the back and laying into Mycroft, John, and Sherlock all in one episode. We see Sherlock and John's relationship unravel, and get to see a touching relationship grow between Sherlock and his new friend Faith. The visuals for Sherlock's drug high are also surreal (echoing his near-conscious state in "A Scandal in Belgravia") and well done.

Then, we get the mother of all twists: Faith Smith was not actually Faith Smith. And John's one-time fling, a woman we only know as "E," is not actually "E." And John's new therapist is not actually a therapist at all. They are, in fact, the same woman - Eurus Holmes, Sherlock's mad sister (is this an argument for Moffat's female characters all being interchangeable? Okay, I digress). Biggest shocker of them all: she, not Moriarty, is the one behind the cryptic message that left us all hanging at the end of Season 3 - "Miss me?"

The Final Problem

It's unfortunate that the title seems to have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as "The Final Problem" is a bit, well, problematic.

I could go on and on about all the issues this episode has. Suffice it to say, all the issues that had been building since Season 3 finally came to a head; in this episode, I watched the show collapse under the weight of its own self-importance.

Not to say it didn't have its good moments. I really enjoyed the connection Sherlock and Eurus had playing their violins - in fact, I was really excited for Sherlock to have a great female villain (I count Irene Adler as more of an antihero). But her ultimate characterization didn't live up to the hype.

If I nit-pick, we'll be here all day, so let's just start with what could be fixed:

At the heart of it all is Eurus's characterization - and what a mess it is. Here is this hyper-intelligent human being, and Moffat and Gatiss don't seem to know what to do with her. We go slightly sci-fi when it's revealed she's apparently smart enough to control people's minds. How? It's never explained.

Eurus is meant to be a mysterious figure, but she also needs to be defined. Part of the problem is Mycroft and John being there with Sherlock. It would have been a lot more effective to have scenes with just Eurus and Sherlock; that way, we could have gotten a feel for their relationship without other people there to distract. If we really felt the need for them to be there, Eurus could have had them kidnapped to show up at some point later in the torture maze.

Oh, yes, I forgot - there's a torture maze.

A lot of things in Eurus's prison/maze don't make sense. Though it was a cool visual, how did Sherlock not see that there was no glass in Eurus's holding cell? And then let's not even get started on the actual maze, where things just get more and more surreal, with three men popping out of nowhere to be hanged, a coffin with "I love you" written on it, etc. This shark isn't jumping, at this point it's grown wings and is flying.

Then we get to the twist at the end, where Sherlock accuses Eurus of killing his dog when they were young. But apparently it wasn't a dog; it was Sherlock's friend, who Eurus was jealous of for having Sherlock's attention. So in the end, all Eurus ever wanted was for her brother to love her.

...I suppose it could have worked, if Eurus's character was written better. But as it stands, it just comes off as, well, clunky. And ultimately unearned.

It's really a shame about the treatment of Eurus; if she'd been fleshed out as a character, if Moffat and Gatiss had focused more on the details and emotion of her story and less on the surrealism of the visuals, I think we could have had something. 

(Side rant, you can skip this if you want: 

It's really a shame about the treatment of most of the female characters, actually. I get that the original stories had mainly male characters, but come on. Mary's ghost is still there, but, well, she's a ghost; and Molly, arguably one of the most beloved characters of the show, had barely any screen time. I get that the show isn't called Molly, but it almost felt like they were afraid of putting her on screen. What gives?

I will admit I do "ship" Sherlock and Molly, but I'm fine with just seeing their friendship grow, and with all the build-up they gave to her character in Season 3, I was really excited to see what they had planned for her in Season 4.

Two minutes in "Six Thatchers." Four minutes in "Lying Detective." 

Well, no worries, I was all set for there to be a huge reveal - that Sherlock and Molly had some kind of plan to get Culverton Smith and that they talked it over in the ambulance when Molly was supposed to be examining Sherlock, or maybe Molly could possibly be part of the plan to get them out of Eurus's prison - but there was nothing. At least Louise Brealey absolutely killed it in her one scene in Final Problem - and that was it, that was all she got. What a waste of a brilliant actress. What a waste of a brilliant character. I love Mrs. Hudson to death, but can't there be more than one woman on the show at a time? /endrant)

"The Final Problem" ends with, seemingly, the end of the show - all the characters come back to a repaired 221B, and we get a farewell voice-over from Mary that actually got me a little choked up. This show has been with me through high school, through college, through graduation and beyond - it helped shape the kind of person I am and the career field I want to go into. If this is truly the end, I'll be sad to see it go - but it was probably an okay point to end on, too.

If we do end up having a Season 5, I hope Moffat and Gatiss learn from their mistakes. But whatever happens - at least we'll always have Seasons 1 and 2!

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