It’s seven years since I watched the first episode of Sherlock, seven years during which new episodes have been so rare that this is actually still only the eleventh episode made. Whilst I’ve not been blind to its shortcomings, most notably the middle episodes of series 1 and 2 (i.e., the episodes not written by either Mark Gattiss or Stephen Moffat, I have loved this show so much that I cannot be objective about it.
Take, for instance, this newest of episodes, which follows directly on from the end of series 3, as if last year’s Doylean Sepecial had not existed – which, indeed, it did not, taking place entirely in our hero’s mind and lasting less than five minutes in real time.
‘The Six Thatchers’, a title and an element that, in the end, consisted entirely of MacGuffin that I cannot believe was as accidental as everyone has been claiming, covered a lot of ground. It was made up of elements that were not merely disparate but in some respects incompatible, it went all over the place, physically and emotionally, it didn’t even have anything approximating to an orthodox plot until about forty minutes in, and if it had simply maintained the essentially comic re-establishment of the status quo for the whole length, I’m sure nobody would have minded.
And when it did introduce it’s story, it chose to base it upon the weakest and least palatable/probable thing about the entire series to date. And went on to a heart-twisting ending that will demand a skill in writing that no middle episode to date has yet shown not to betray the sudden and violent execution of that restored status quo.
Honestly, that opening forty minutes was laugh-a-minute comedy. After setting up an official explanation for Charles Augustus Magnussen that releases Sherlock from responsibility as his murderer and allows him to return to practicing whilst he awaits the beginning of Jim Moriarty’s posthumous game. Which we keep awaiting, but which never materialises, not this week anyway.
It’s Sherlock being Sherlock to the hilt, in a rapid-fire series of crimes solved ridiculously easily, complete with knowingly ironic dialogue from everyone that balances on the edge of being too bloody clever by half without once toppling into the abyss.
Meanwhile, months pass, John and Mary Watson have and begin to bring up their baby daughter, Rosamund (godparents Molly, Mrs Hudson and a rather disdainful Sherlock), whilst in the background, someone keeps smashing busts of Margaret Thatcher whilst everyone keeps pretending to not understand why anyone would do such a thing (I told you, it’s not just a coincidence). Actually, the reason why someone unknown is doing this was very straightforward and predictable enough that I got there somewhere well ahead of the consulting detective. They were after something, hidden conveniently in the last of the six and it was the Black Pearl of the Borgias, the case Sherlock kept refusing because it was so boring but he solved it anyway.
Actually, it wasn’t. It was a memory stick, one we’d seen before, but we’d seen it being destroyed. It was identical to the one that Mary Watson had offered her innocent, uncomplaining but thoroughly deceived husband, that contained the full details of her previous life as some kind of super-agent: spy, assassin, thief, whatever. That John’s wife was revealed as having not just a past, but this kind of crazy psycho kind of past was the worst move Sherlock made, but even though it was only two episodes ago, or one if you discount the Special as the bubble it’s supposed to be, that was three years ago, and we’re all used to it by now.
This was where the story actually started, and the mood swung, though not completely. Mary goes on the run to deal with this alone. Her past as a super-mercenary has caught up with her: one of her old comrades believes she betrayed him and intends to kill her, she does everything to ensure she can’t be tracked, totally random moves globally, and gets to her Middle East destination to find Sherlock playing ‘Happy Families’ with a twelve year old boy whilst waiting for her.
He gives her some marvelous guff about prediction theory, before admitting that he stuck a tracker in the memory stick. Then John enters the room to say that was his idea.
It’s certainly put a strain on their marriage, all these lies (that he already knew about) and her running off without talking to him: they are supposed to be a couple, you know, couples do that. This is exactly why I thought giving Mary this sort of background was stupid, but give Gattiss his due, he writes this stuff plausibly enough to keep the tension going, since the vengeful Ajay has found his quarry, Mary, by the rather simpler expedient of tracking Sherlock. He insists she betrayed him and the others, Mary insists she didn’t, they both have guns literally in each others faces, Sherlock’s trying to talk them down because the ‘woman’ who Ajay was told betrayed them is not necessarily Mary, but then Ajay gets shot in the back by the Police.
So who is the traitor? It’s not Lyndsey Duncan’s Lady Smallwood, though Mycroftat first quizzes her. Sherlock identifies her as the secretary, the double-agent, Vivienne Norbury. He confronts her, alongside Mary Watson, underground at the London Aquarium. Despite Mary’s attempts to get him to tone it down, he uses his skills to anatomise her life and crucify it as contemptible. Thus, when Mycroft and Lestrade arrive to arrest Mrs Norbury, she recognises she’s trapped, but fires at Sherlock anyway, at point blank range.
And Mary jumps in front of him.
Martin Freeman has, for me, been one of the best actors thus far this century. He has to play John Watson in grief, to play a husband in grief at the death of a wife who has just given him a child. It’s so easy a scene to play, and so difficult as well, since it’s a scene with easy access to the innate emotion – anyone who has ever lost someone is in there – yet equally so different to play without lapsing into rote repeat of the millions screen deaths we’ve all seen. Freeman made me cry.
And he reminded Sherlock of his failure, his promise, his Vow to protect Mary, and John, and Rosie-in-embryo. For three are now two. Sherlock is seeing a therapist. John Watson is refusing to see Sherlock, or to have anything to do with him, ever again.
I refused to watch the trailer for episode two. Nothing, nothing. Everything will be excluded until next Sunday. A test of writerly ingenuity awaits. How to undo this without diminishing John Watson, without breaking him.
I have faith. I respect Mark Gattiss and Steven Moffat (just not when it comes to The Doctor any more). I think this show has been one of the best things in television that I have ever seen, and that if I ever compile a list of the Ten Best TV series ever, Sherlock will be among it. Next week is going to prove whether it deserves to be or not.