“Friends? Well, he only has the one.”
Near the end of Alan Cumming’s otherwise charming introduction to the PBS airing of Sherlock, he lets that little sentence drop, complete with a wry smile. It’s a fitting moment—honest, affectionate, and a little disappointing. The series spent considerable time in the last two seasons telling us that Sherlock Holmes has friends beyond Watson (though he’s clearly the most important). Moriarty even uses this against Sherlock in the climactic rooftop scene in “The Reichenbach Fall”—John, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade all have guns trained on them—and the fact that he fails to include Molly in that group plays a key role in Sherlock’s survival. Add Mary and you’ve got five friends, but you wouldn’t know it here: the story of “The Six Thatchers” makes it clear that there’s really only one that matters to the show runners, for better or worse. Here, it’s a little of both.
There’s certainly plenty of better. “The Six Thatchers” is a solid season-opener, an entertaining and sometimes affecting entry that’s light on the mystery but doesn’t want for plot development. The mystery of the six Thatchers mostly serves as a set-up to dig into the realities and repercussions of Mary’s backstory, and whether or not that works for you likely depends on whether or not you’re bothered by the whole detective business taking a backseat. If you’re not, there’s plenty to like here: some fun hijinks with a dog and a baby, there’s a rattle involved, lots of dashed-off cases, and a hell of a fight scene with one of Mary’s former secret agent pals. The twist in the Thatcher case, modeled after “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” feels completely organic, a clever bait-and-switch that neatly sends the episode into its back half. Add in a great guest turn from Marcia Warren and there’s no shortage of things to admire.
Still, the meat here is in the changing nature of the show’s relationships, in Sherlock’s flaws, now truly fatal, and the costs of living a dangerous life. That’s particularly true when you treat everything like a game, and turn those around you into players, risks be damned. In some ways, it feels that the whole series has been building to Sherlock’s taunting monologue to an armed woman with nothing to lose, and it’s likely that all that remains will spin painfully, chaotically out from it, too.
It seems at first a bit comical as a theme, given the last-minute reversal in “His Last Vow,” but “The Six Thatchers” is about consequences. From “An Appointment in Samarra” to Mary’s final message, episode writer Mark Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft) makes it plain that the actions taken by the show’s central trio send ripples out into the world. The merchant in Baghdad, Rosamund/Mary, and Norbury can’t outrun those ripples. John can’t outrun the reality of his choices.
And then there’s Sherlock, who for the first time seems to be dealing with what his actions can cost others. At the episode’s beginning, he’s getting away with murder, quite literally. By the end, he’s dealing with the death of a friend and the loss of the most important relationship in his life, with a task that seems impossible to complete left to him by a woman he cannot possibly refuse. “Go to hell, Sherlock,” she says. It seems all but certain that, metaphorically at least, he will.
The best episodes of Sherlock share this thematic richness, and so ”The Six Thatchers” seems like it should join that group. It’s got a classic, somewhat faithfully adapted Holmes tale that ties into the larger story, in therms of both plot and theme; it gives a group of world-class actors the chance to dig their teeth into this juicy material; it blends off-kilter humor with moments that twist the knife, and contributes to the development of two character studies as good as nearly any others on television (though in this episode, Holmes gets the lion’s share). Yet it’s somewhat unsatisfying, an episode that feels like it should be excellent rather than one that‘s content to be good. And key to that dissonance is the aforementioned issue of Sherlock’s friends, particularly the one that dies.
Amanda Abbington is terrific, as always, giving a performance that’s thoughtful, funny, warm, and even chilling at times. It makes perfect sense that a character actually trained to do the things Sherlock and John run around doing would take a bullet. In doing so she clears a debt, protects a friend and her husband, and confronts what (based on the video) she clearly thought was likely inevitable: that her past would catch up with her in violent fashion. Mary’s death scene is deeply affecting and not a little unexpected, even with all that foreshadowing, and yet it doesn’t quite land.
Despite the fact that the character’s choice seems justified and underlines her friendship with Sherlock, Mary’s death feels like a pure, undiluted plot device. Arriving as it does, with John ready to rush in so she can die in his arms, it’s an event that screams set-up in its every particular. Mary may choose to die for reasons that matter, but Gatiss and Steven Moffat handle it in such a way that almost before the moment has passed, it’s stopped being about Mary and started being about that Watson-Holmes dynamic we love so. She died so they could react. Her death is about them, not about her.
That’s not to say that either the writing or the actors give Mary’s death short shrift—it drives Sherlock to therapy, for crying out loud, one of three instances in which someone else fills Watson’s traditional place in the chairs. (The others: Mrs. Hudson, as they discuss Mary’s death, and a red balloon that’s a funny sight gag at first and an unsettling visual in hindsight.) Benedict Cumberbatch may never have been better as Sherlock than he is as Mary dies; grief, shock, and dawning horror at his role in her death run across his face, making it the most expressive moment Sherlock has ever had. Martin Freeman’s keening is, if possible, even more upsetting on a second viewing, and as ever, he’s a master of saying a great deal with the simplest of gestures (watch the way he holds her head). Everyone in the scene does their best work, so naturally, it works.
So, yes, it’s all affecting stuff. Still, there’s no avoiding that it feels a bit convenient, even cheap. It’s always disappointing when a compelling character gets reduced to a plot device in this way, particularly when it’s a woman (because it happens so frequently). All Sherlock fans welcome a complex storyline for John and Sherlock, but in this case, what’s desired comes at a cost. In this case, the cost is a satisfying death for a character that deserves better.
All that aside, it’s hard not to be impressed and encouraged by “The Six Thatchers.” Director Rachel Talalay (also behind Doctor Who’s terrific “Death in Heaven”) nimbly adopts the show’s visual style, bringing back the shimmering light of what at first seems to be a pool (a la ”The Great Game”) but is revealed to be the aquarium; there’s also a terrific moment there a fragment of Thatcher’s broken face replaces Sherlock’s. That poolside fight with A.J. is a highpoint for action in the series, and as always, Sherlock excels at leaving tantalizing threads dangling. It’s a bit convoluted at points, and Mary’s death may be a bit of a disappointment, but for the most part this is solid Sherlock. It was well worth the long, long wait.
- Welcome back to Sherlock coverage—all three weeks of it (and maybe that’s all, forever?)
- Mary’s reaction to being a target: move far, far away from her loved ones. Sherlock’s: wait, then bring them along for the ride.
- Abbington is mostly really convincing as a superspy, but her obnoxious airplane lady, not so much. Also, that brown wig was bad.
- Saw a lot of chatter online about ruining John’s character with that emotional affair, but I don’t read it that way. We know this man is addicted to danger, and though they found a way to come back together, a betrayal on the scale of Mary’s deception would leave scars. It all seemed very human and sad to me.
- Holmesian stuff: This episode takes bits from (obviously) “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” as well as The Sign of the Four (Toby’s introduction, Agra, etc.)
- It’s strongly implied that Mary dies in the original stories, so this doesn’t come out of nowhere. The second half of this quote, from “The Adventure of the Empty House,” should sound familiar: “In some manner he had learned of my own sad bereavement, and his sympathy was shown in his manner rather than in his words. ’Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear Watson,’ said he.”
- It looks like the briefly referenced third Holmes brother is incoming. More here. It’s not canonical, so it might be something else, but given that Mycroft’s quick line about brotherly sentiment was included in the ‘previously on,’ it seems like a good bet.
- W. Somerset Maugham’s “An Appointment in Samarra.”
- “It’s never twins.”
- “I delete any text that begins ‘hi.’”
- Not to be a nitpicky nitpicker, but couldn’t Charlie (the son) have simply ducked down in his seat? Did he need a carseat costume? And, erm, wouldn’t they at least attempt to resuscitate Mary?
- Thoughts on E.?