DVD Review– Sherlock: Season 4
(Warning: Some oblique spoilers follow!)
Sherlock has always been about experimenting, taking a gamble on what will work as a dramatic adaptation, and being remarkably successful for the most part with the chances it takes. Giving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories a 21st-century update was always a risky proposition, where the odds of commercial and artistic failure were astronomically high. Thanks to inspired and imaginative writing, a stellar cast, and a thorough knowledge of the source material, Sherlock has hit the mark most of the time and rarely missed.
The first season tested the waters, establishing the proper balance within the mystery: how much to change and how much to keep, character banter, humor, action, whimsy, and in-jokes only die-hard fans of the classic original stories and earlier adaptations (myself included) would catch. Having established the characters and the fictional universe, season 2 sure-footedly built upon the new creation and led to a corresponding explosion in the fan base. By the third series, the cast and crew were all-too-obviously having fun, and the between-seasons movie decided to return the series to its 19th-century roots, providing a fairly believable explanation for the time jump.
While the third season may have exhibited a bit too much levity at times, to the point where it seemed like the actors were occasionally forcing themselves to keep from grinning, the fourth season goes darker than ever before, both with the emotions and reactions of the cast members, the fate of one character, and Holmes’s own family ties and backstory. Most of the supporting cast are given their greatest opportunities yet to shine, with their most intense emotional moments. The final act of The Six Thatchers faces a deep loss that casts a pall over the next two episodes, while visually, tonally, and thematically The Final Problem is the darkest episode yet.
Due to the idiosyncrasies of the Emmy submission procedures, instead of submitting each three-episode season for awards consideration as a miniseries, only one episode per season (except for The Abominable Bride, which was a standalone between the full seasons 3 and 4) could be put forward for the Outstanding TV Movie Emmy. In the past, there was always one obvious candidate for the honor. A Study in Pink, A Scandal in Belgravia, and His Last Vow were simply and unquestionably the best of the bunch, and contained some of the brightest character moments and writing (no disrespect meant to the other episodes). Season 4 has the odd distinction of being the first season where any of the three telemovies could have been the choice. The Six Thatchers, The Lying Detective, and The Final Problem all have many valid reasons for receiving the nod, and it would be interesting to hear more about the behind-the-scenes discussions between the selection.
Just like with Doctor Who, showrunner Steven Moffat seems to be most interested in exploring the psyche of his titular character. Benedict Cumberbatch continues to provide a stellar performance, particularly as he wrestles with that powerful force that is far too overlooked in modern drama—guilt. In previous seasons, Sherlock has described himself as a high-functioning sociopath, but astute viewers and even the show’s creators have dismissed this self-diagnosis as a blithe oversimplification of the great detective’s need to separate himself from the obnoxious and inconvenient hindrances of standard human emotions. While it’s never explicitly stated, this season fully rejects that evaluation of Holmes, establishing that while he has little regard for standard mores of conduct, he definitely has a conscience. Indeed, the central villains of The Lying Detective and The Final Problem seem to be implicitly saying, “You’re not a high-functioning sociopath. I’m a high-functioning sociopath.”
Previous reviews of the fourth season have, to my mind, been unfairly harsh. The commonly voiced refrain by many critics and fans in the wake of The Six Thatchers—that Holmes was involved in too much action and not enough deduction—only demonstrated their own lack of knowledge of the original canon: different stories demonstrate Holmes’s different skills. Sometimes the great detective simply thinks, frequently he goes undercover, and on occasion he’s called upon to fight. Some tweets that found the villain’s actions in The Lying Detective unbelievable were clearly unaware of the horrific real-life crimes and extraordinary privileges afforded to Jimmy Saville. And the criticisms that The Final Problem was drawing upon The Silence of the Lambs and Saw were… dead on target, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the inspirations were so overt and were used to not only refine the character of Holmes, but those of Watson, Mycroft, and even Molly.
The one dramatic misstep I would quibble with is the angry emotional fallout from Watson in the wake of the ending of The Six Thatchers. Readers of the original stories knew it was almost certainly coming, but an estrangement between Holmes and Watson based on Watson’s anger has been done before in The Empty Hearse, and it was tedious because though viewers could understand why Watson might be a little miffed, what fans really wanted to see was the pair teamed up and working together, and anything that keeps them apart, no matter how dramatically warranted, makes the show significantly fun than it ought to be.
No one seems to know for sure whether The Final Problem is aptly named or not. There are rumors that the series is over due to heavy demand for the lead actors, and indeed, this is the first series not to end with a cliffhanger. The Final Problem could work as an ending, but the mark of a great show is that is leaves the fans wanting more, and it’s very possible that at some point in the future, the game will be on again for Sherlock. I certainly hope so.
BBC Home Entertainment