Back then, Sherlock could do no wrong. The cases were cleverly presented then deftly deconstructed by the Baker Street detective. It was a smart, quintessentially British show with tight storytelling (both small and large arcs). Together with Watson, Sherlock carved his way through problems and into the hearts of audiences and critics alike.
The show peaked with the ‘Reichenbach Fall’ episode, which concluded with Sherlock faking his own death. The world seemed to light up with Sherlock-mania. How did he do it? What will happen next? Theories were as wild as they were numerous. The build up to ‘The Empty Hearse’ was palpable.
That is when the cracks started to appear. ‘The Empty Hearse’ made two huge missteps. First, it failed to address the question that everyone wanted an answer to. It’s general attitude to the whole faked death mystery was a shrug, a grin and a jovial “It don’t matter LOL!” Plot holes are one thing, but you can’t simply wave away the central question that’s been driving the Sherlock franchise for the past two years. That, and this is a detective show for crying out loud! The whole point of Sherlock is to solve riddles and problems. Shows like, say, Doctor Who (which shares a lot of DNA with Sherlock, thanks to sharing a showrunner in Steven Moffat) get a bit more elbow room with plotting because it’s a sci-fi show that has always played fast and loose with the rulebook. But Sherlock had, up until this point, been a watertight show that had been very careful about tying up loose ends.
Second, Sherlock as a show seemed to become self-aware. Rather than playing out the story in-universe, it seemed to buy into it’s own hype and - critically - mock people for it. Oh, you wanted to know how Sherlock faked his death, did you? Had your own theory about how he survived? Well, not only will we not give you a straight answer, we’ll insult you for even being interested. The ‘Conspiracy Nerd’ at the end of the episode is an obvious stand in for the audience. Sherlock all but looks straight down the camera lens as he rolls his eyes at him, saying ‘Everyone’s a critic’. I’m surprised Moffat and Gatiss didn’t walk in and start shaking their heads at the viewer at that point.
This was a watershed point for the Sherlock series, that saw it go into a gradual but clear decline. In Seasons 1 and 2 the show always backed up it’s cleverness with reason. Sherlock would make huge leaps of logic but then explain itself. When he picked out John as a soldier, he proceeded to explain how we deduced that fact. It made sense. This was the first time we’d seen the show written into a corner. Inevitable for a show of such complexities that it would checkmate itself one day, perhaps, but it could’ve handled the sidestep with more grace, more brains than it did. Not sidestepping it while flipping the audience a middle finger.
It started off a chain reaction of events in the Sherlock series that seemed to exponentially increase right through to Season 4 Episode 3, ‘The Final Problem’: events with no weight. With alarming frequency, Sherlock makes those huge jumps to a conclusion with minimal to little explanation. In ‘The Lying Detective’ (the strongest episode in Season 4), the number of times we hear Sherlock’s fore-planning, how he’d laid out the logistics of most of the episode’s events weeks before they happened, is startling. And there’s none of those clever ‘Mind Palace’ explanations anymore, you’re just expected to go with it. How did Sherlock know that John would leave his cane by his hospital bed so he would have the recording device to catch Culverton Smith? Oh, he just knew. How could Sherlock be sure that John would watch the DVD of Mary at the perfect time so he’d rush to the hospital and catch Culverton red-handed? Oh he just knew. You can guarantee that if Watson had been introduced in this season Sherlock would call him out as a soldier and leave it at that, he’d just know.
Solving crimes is Sherlock’s MO. What we are seeing is like a magician using CGI. Sherlock isn’t supposed to be all knowing. His brainpower is remarkable but it is a human brain, not a superpower.
Again, if this were any other show, it might have gotten away with it. But this is a detective show. We’re seeing the impossible and inexplicable happen, then it’s pushed aside. Doctor Who can technobabble its way out of problems and wave his screwdriver, ruffle a few feathers for taking the easy way out, but the integrity of the show remains. When Sherlock tries to do the same thing, it cracks the core of the show itself. That core being solving crimes.
In ‘The Final Problem’ the believability is stretched to breaking point as we’re asked to believe that Eurus and Moriarity can hatch a masterplan in 5 minutes (and do all that recording as well). That Sherlock makes paintings cry blood just for flushing info out of Mycroft. That Redbeard, the family dog, wasn’t a dog at all but a family friend. None of these make sense. In the first two seasons, Sherlock would be presented with seemingly nonsensical crimes that he’d then dismantle until the ‘how’ was clear. Until it was ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Not any more. You’re just expected to go along with it. You’re expected to believe that Eurus can be defeated with a hug. That the whole ‘plane in the sky’ shtick was all in her head. That a friend can drown in a huge well on one’s private property yet mysteriously cannot be found. Where’s the paper trail leading up to these nonsensical revelations that make them believable? Where’s the explanation? It often feels as though the writers came up with stylish ideas, decided they’d work out how it would make sense later, then forgot to work it out anyway.
This makes the stories feel weightless. There are no consequences. The patience grenade is clearly an excuse to have Sherlock and John make a cringeworthy jump through a window as Baker Street explodes behind them, but where’s the injury? Not even a limp? Oh, and as for Sherlock’s flat, well that’s quickly repaired and back to normal. The strongest scene in this episode, where Sherlock has to force an ‘I love you’ from Molly Hooper before the timer hits zero and she dies, is ultimately meaningless as we see Molly arriving at the flat in the ending montage, all smiles, that devastating phone call apparently forgotten. It makes for a disjointed, unsatisfying viewing experience that feels artificial. There seems to be an entire DVD boxset of posthumous recordings of Mary, and she turns up so often in John’s mind that you begin to wonder if her death had any consequences, either.
Speaking of Mary, it can be easy to lay a lot of blame at her feet, but as I think we’ve established, the downfall of Sherlock has run in tandem with her story, not because of her. But she is part of another problem Sherlock created for itself, something which seems to be a common problem with projects that Moffat handles: overbearing family melodrama. The purity, the simplicity of Sherlock and Watson solving crimes is quickly pushed into the background of the plot as we are subjected to an increasing entangled web of Sherlock/John/Mary/Mycroft/Eurus affairs. When was the last time we saw Sherlock solve a crime that wasn’t directly related to family problems? Certainly not in Season 4. Moffat and Gatiss ran the whole Mary story like it mattered, like we should be interested, but all the audience is seeing is someone getting in the way of the two stars doing what we love them doing.
This happens in Doctor Who as well. As intriguing as the whole River Song arc was, it sucked the air out of a lot of Doctor Who. They ran around the universe playing out their own problems at the expense of the clearly more interesting settings. Check out the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ episode: within the first 10 minutes they've gone back to wartime Germany and crashed into Hitler’s office, accidentally saving his life. What a great premise, eh? Do they follow through? Heck no! They put Hitler in a cupboard (literally) and get on with chasing River Song through Berlin. For all its worth they may as well have set the whole thing in a giant empty box. The show positively delights in acting like it's own melodrama is vastly more interesting than the settings it crashes when, really, the opposite is true.
Sherlock is spirally down the same hole. That mystery at the beginning of ‘The Six Thatchers’ with the dead body in the car is the best part of the episode because it lets Sherlock operate at its purest. But alas, it's not long before it becomes tied into Mary’s past.
So Mary is the River Song of Sherlock. Not just because of how aggravating her presence is, but because she just won't stay away. Moriarty too. Not even death has consequences, it seems: you just live on through DVDs, mental projections and flashbacks. I felt absolutely no sense of peril for Sherlock, John or Mycroft throughout the Eurus Maze of Doom, no matter how many times they waved guns at each other, because even if one of them died, the impact would inevitably softened by their semi-returns from the dead that would surely litter future episodes.
No consequences, no peril, family melodrama, a disregard for plot holes, style over substance...Sherlock is far from the only TV show to commit these crimes. Many are worse offenders. But the sting comes from seeing just how far Sherlock has fallen: from a deftly written and tightly constructed drama to a flashy, self-satisfied wannabe James-Bond (don't get me started on THAT explosion!).
The ending of Season 4, while far too sugary sweet and perfect considering what had come before, did at least reset the series and give a carte blanche to proceed with no baggage. It's just a shame it took a reset for that to happen.