After a three-year hiatus, the BBC’s Sherlock finally returned on New Year’s Day to kick off its fourth season with the first of three new episodes, “The Six Thatchers.”
The show is coming off a divisive third season that drew plenty of audience backlash for what many viewers felt was too much fan service at the expense of good character development, and for plotting that seemed all over the map. The general fear was that the show had moved away from the more compelling stories of its first two seasons and gone off the rails in favor of highly implausible plot twists that did nothing much for the overall narrative. It was a worry that 2016’s Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride,” did nothing to allay.
Unfortunately, the season four premiere has revealed that Sherlock’s most promising and divisive element in the wake of the season three finale — the evolving three-way relationship between Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), John Watson (Martin Freeman), and John’s mysterious wife, Mary (Amanda Abbington) — is little more than a giant distraction, a red herring for ... whatever the show has up its sleeve next.
But will the major change in plot direction the show sprung on us in this episode be worth it?
Major spoilers follow.
“The Six Thatchers” starts off feeling like one of Sherlock’s manic drug trips before settling into a story about the past
Sunday's episode dropped a major character death — that of John's wife, Mary — into the middle of an already messy series of plot complications. Frustratingly, the only real reason for Mary's demise predictably seems to be to examine its impact on Sherlock and John.
Written by series co-creator Mark Gatiss and directed by Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl), the episode title “The Six Thatchers” pays homage, like the titles of all of Sherlock’s previous episodes, to an original story from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian Sherlock Holmes canon (in this case, “The Six Napoleons”). The “Thatchers” in the title cheekily refer to a series of destroyed busts of Margaret Thatcher; in the original story, the busts are the center of a giant mystery, but in the updated version, they’re side jokes in an episode full of misdirections and side excursions into mini cases, montages, and flashbacks that serve no purpose other than to illuminate the frustrating genius of one Sherlock Holmes.
We’ve seen this before. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft) are quite fond of gleefully showcasing Sherlock’s brilliance alongside his rudeness and interminable unconcern for social mores. In “The Six Thatchers,” Sherlock is more Sherlockian than ever; his drug addiction seems more serious, and his determination in solving cases has translated into a constant obsession with his cellphone. His rudeness extends to texting obliviously through the christening ceremony for John and Mary’s newborn daughter, Rosie, but they ask him to be her godfather anyway, because every human being in Sherlock’s life ultimately decides that his general horribleness is worth tolerating because it’s his noble commitment to detective work that makes him act that way, or something.
Case in point: In “The Six Thatchers,” all the people around him patiently endure as he ravenously takes on case after quickly solved case, hoping to figure out the maddening-to-many season three turn that brought back the very-dead Moriarty (Andrew Scott) as a spectral presence in Sherlock’s life. None of these cases lead him to Moriarty, however; instead, they plunk him down into the rabbit hole introduced in the tumultuous season three finale: the truth about Mary’s murky past as a mercenary assassin.
The trouble with Mary
Amanda Abbington’s arrival as Mary Morstan at the start of Sherlock season three seemed to accompany a shift in the show’s overall direction away from crime solving and toward a rhetorical plot cycle in which John attempts to swap his dysfunctional relationship with Sherlock for something healthier, only to fail because in the world of Sherlock, all roads and all people ultimately lead back to the title character himself. The people around him, even John, ultimately seem to exist only as extras in his world, showing up when needed to lecture, scold, or spurn him into a renewed sense of purpose or a showing of human decency. (This trait is so well developed that all the characters who appeared in 2016’s one-off, 1890s-set holiday special turned out to be Sherlock’s mental representation of them as pieces of his conscience.)
Mary, who was initially the only character whose storyline seemed totally independent of Sherlock’s, fully upset this pattern for a moment. Ultimately, however, the show gave her very little autonomy; in the final episode of season three, her entire mysterious and unrevealed history — which fans have spent the past three years debating — was framed as an insight into John’s character rather than Mary herself. We learned that she was a secretive former assassin, and that she lied her way into John’s life after stealing a new identity; but this entire story was framed as a story about John, not Mary — a story of how John was drawn to her because he was a reckless thrill seeker.
The larger questions season three raised about Mary — whom or what she had been working for, what her new role would be now that her old career was known, and how the birth of a wee baby Watson would affect her and John’s relationship with Sherlock — were shelved until this season. Alas, Moffat does not have the world’s most excellent track record for giving women arcs with agency and satisfying plot resolutions, and it seems Mary is no exception to this pattern.
Who is Mary Morstan? Turns out it doesn’t really matter.
Although “The Six Thatchers” gave Mary plenty of chances to be badass, the episode revealed her entire assassin arc to be not a foray into independence from Sherlock and his radius of dysfunction, but an enabling of it.
“The Six Thatchers” casts Mary as the victim of a routine revenge plot carried out by a former co-agent of hers from her days as a hired assassin. Through total coincidence, Sherlock is the one who figures out that someone is attempting to kill her, which prompts him to embark on a misguided attempt to protect her that ultimately results in her death. After identifying the shadowy government figure behind a plot to kill Mary and her fellow agents, Sherlock unnecessarily goads the suspect into taking a shot at him.
This moment is the inevitable result of three seasons’ worth of Sherlock’s hubris and refusal to heed warnings or take seriously the judgment of anyone besides himself; and when Mary just as inevitably jumps in front of him, sacrificing her own life for his, it should feel like a wake-up call and a moment of reckoning. Sherlock registers a glimmer of self-awareness that her death is his fault, but by this point, the show seems to be so far immersed in the cult of worship around its antihero that the scene is hardly more than an afterthought. By episode’s end, Mary herself — via posthumous “If you’re reading this, I’m dead” message sent to Sherlock via a video file — is giving Sherlock permission to insert himself right back into the center of John’s life, thus making her death all about his relationship with his best friend.
John, meanwhile, had cheated on Mary emotionally before her death; his grief sees him processing his obvious guilt as anger toward Sherlock for failing to protect her. Given all the terrible things Sherlock has done to John directly over the course of their friendship that John has inexplicably managed to forgive — including lying to John, drugging John, sending John into a PTSD-triggering war zone, and making John watch as Sherlock faked his death before pretending to be dead for two years — the fact that Sherlock’s failure to save Mary is the final straw that threatens to cause a permanent rift in John and Sherlock’s friendship does even more injustice to Mary’s narrative. Her story was never her own story; it was always about fueling the heart of the series, the relationship between Sherlock and John.
At this point, does anyone even really care if Sherlock and John are in love?
Much has been written about the way Sherlock queerbaits — that is, the way in which it arguably exploits queer identity by making John and Sherlock’s relationship into the ongoing subject of homoerotic speculation and subtext, even as the show’s creators insist, again and again, that they’re not writing the two men as queer.
Almost every episode of Sherlock up until now has contained some sort of side speculation by one character or another that John and Sherlock are gay and/or in love. “The Six Thatchers” was notably devoid of this kind of interaction, and was in fact extremely straightforward about John and Sherlock’s friendship without any of the usual frustrating homoerotic overtones.
Except, of course, Mary is now dead, and she has charged Sherlock to “save” John after her death. This sets the stage for an even deeper level of intimacy forged by mutual grief over her loss. Before “The Six Thatchers,” we had queerbaiting in the form of a lot of gay jokes. Now the gay jokes may be gone, but the show has traded them for something that feels even more insulting: the death of its most independent female character purely to further some manpain that in the end probably won’t bring John and Sherlock together as more than friends.
It’s kind of a mess. And it really only justifies the impending narrative for the rest of season four — in which John will push Sherlock away as Sherlock awkwardly tries to help him recover — if you ultimately think their relationship is worth salvaging. Frankly, I’m not sure it is.
Sherlock, for all of his occasional attempts to be a decent friend, is a perpetually selfish individual who seems to need John more as a reflection of a certain version of himself than because he values who John is. John, in turn, appears to still be the PTSD-ridden soldier who can only snap out of his stupor when he’s chasing the adrenalin high of crime solving that Sherlock offers him.
If this is friendship, it’s darkly co-dependent; if it’s true love, it’s a tragedy. Sherlock has never been forced to reckon with any of the utterly unconscionable things he’s done to John over the years (look back at that list — it’s a horrific list!). And if the show is going to sacrifice entire characters on the altar of “Johnlock,” a.k.a. the shipping name for their eternal love, it should probably make Johnlock something worth caring about. I'm just not sure that it has.
Also, though this may be an afterthought for a series that has built itself around its own cleverness, it’s just not very much fun anymore.
There are now two episodes left in season four, which Moffat and Gatiss have called “climactic” and have hinted may be the show’s last. But I’m not holding my breath for a narrative that boasts any finality, particularly since Sherlock still has a lot of loose threads to tie up. After all, we not only still don’t know what Moriarty’s end game was, we haven’t even met this season’s villain, Culverton Smith (Toby Jones). There may even be a third Holmes brother in the mix.
Still, at least Abbington and Mary got a fierce send-off. Whether it will be worth the loss in the long run depends on how willing Gatiss and Moffat are to really have Sherlock undergo the moral reckoning that would justify her death, or whether they intend to keep spinning out the same empty, self-satisfied love story of two crime-solving bros who would probably each be better off alone — or at least without the other.
Sherlock airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on PBS.