If this is the end of Sherlock, the last we’ll see of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson—and all protestations aside, this felt every inch a series finale—it makes for a lousy farewell.
Sherlock has never been a perfect show. There have been consistent elements, to be sure. It was from the beginning, and remains, a terrific showcase for a talented ensemble headed by two world-class performers, each in a role uniquely suited to his abilities. It’s a great place to turn for hallucinatory visuals and pithy dialogue, for twists and turns and unapologetic theatrics. For a better or worse, it’s a mystery series that always at least attempted to put character development first and answers second (something that’s held true from “A Study in Pink”). Sometimes it was just fun, and that was fun. Sometimes it was more, and that was great. Sometimes it was a mess, and that is what it is. “The Final Problem” is all of those things, but above all else, it’s a mess.
The strengths and weaknesses of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s series have always been echoed in its titular character. It flies high and is brought low by its own cleverness; it treats selflessness and compassion as the most sacred of values while mistreating the compassionate, selfless people who inhabit its world. Many of Sherlock’s finest moments have come when the show either took its characters very seriously or itself much less so. Nearly all its worst moments have come when the series seemed to car more about its own brilliance than these people and the story they inhabit. Now we’ve got a new exhibit A, an episode that’s so close to incoherent that it’s easy to overlook the wonderful moments threaded throughout the bullshit.
It’s a shame, because there’s something to the overall arc that “The Final Problem” gives to Sherlock as a whole (or, at best, as the first long chapter in some longer story). If this is the story of a man who has spent his whole life believing himself incapable or simply above everyday human emotions, then his end as a part of two families feels fitting. The revelation that this person who believes himself to be a sociopath was driven to his state of loneliness and cruelty by a severe childhood trauma might be a bit much, but it makes sense. It makes the story of Watson and Holmes one in which a friendship saves two men from horrors visited on them in their lives. Unfortunately, it’s all so mired in twists and turns and torture that neither the friendship nor the mysteries that brought these men together get to play much of a role. We’re too busy being ricocheted from the scary clown to the drone grenade to the boat capture to the costumes and the violin and the dangling brothers and the plane, the plane.
Things are never simple with this series. There’s brilliance and blunders and things that are both. As this might be the last time we do this dance, let’s make room for each.
How do Sherlock, Mycroft, and John infiltrate Sherrinford? By stealing some boats and wearing some costumes, apparently. How exactly does Eurus end up presumed dead and in the world’s most high-security prison? Something about Uncle Rudy and Mycroft, who was maybe a child but also maybe not a child at the time. Why does Sherlock hire a clown to scare Mycroft into confessing the truth about their sister? No idea.
Sherlock wouldn’t be Sherlock without bizarre left turns and inexplicable acts. It never mattered which pill was poisoned in “A Study in Pink,” and while the show’s gleeful insistence that all would be explained made “The Empty Hearse” just a little bit intolerable, the means by which Sherlock escaped his fall didn’t matter much, either. There’s no shortage of logic and reason at play, but this show has always left questions unanswered. It doesn’t matter how Sherlock landed on the roof of that boat, or how he and John made Mycroft’s paintings cry blood. What matters is why, and what we’re meant to take from it—and that’s a total damn mystery (and not the good kind).
The closest one can come to summarizing this episode in one sentence would probably go something like this: “Sherlock gets tortured by his sister until he realizes all she really wanted was love, and they all live happily ever after.” It’s a strange and reductive ending, but Eurus’s story fails to satisfy for reasons beyond the trite. Look at the final two scenes between the pair, and try to draw a line from those moments to the reappearance of Moriarty at the end of “His Last Vow.” We’re shown that this plan has been in motion for at least five years, since prior to the arrival of Eurus’s Christmas treat (also, as it turns out, a treat for viewers like you). A lifelong fixation on a long-lost brother? Fine. A plot years in the making designed to punish him? Fine. The end-game, though? It simply doesn’t scan.
Eurus (Sian Brooke, captivating and largely wasted) can manipulate anyone into doing anything, we’re told. Yet to get her brother to be nice to her, she has to create an elaborate deathtrap and murder at least six people along the way (the three brothers, the governor and his wife, and the woman who was supposed to be John’s new therapist). She’s capable of identifying the dates and times of future terrorist attacks after spending an hour of Twitter but can’t bend her troubled brother to her will without getting someone else to record a load of crazy videos on her behalf and playing them on a loop (the return of Andrew Scott is extremely welcome, but perhaps Moriarty’s contribution to this scheme could have been more than a glorified cameo). And when all the shouting’s done, all she really wanted was for someone to figure out that she was the girl on the plane, because the plane was a metaphor and she never got to be a pirate. The best way to get to be a pirate seems to be to attempt to murder another friend of her brother’s, this time the one she already shot—with a tranquilizer, for no apparent reason.
This lack of sense is echoed elsewhere, and while some of it can be ascribed to the many blindspots of the Holmes brothers, one can only suspend so much disbelief with characters we’ve grown to know so well. It’s as though Moffat and Gatiss, who co-wrote the episode, simply forgot to make sure that the characters were in character, and that their stories made sense. Confusion is to be expected, even welcomed, and ambiguity can be even richer than certainty at times. This isn’t ambiguous. It’s a muddled, showboating mess. The fact that there’s not much mystery to this mystery is really the least of its problems.
One of the most affecting, well-acted scenes in “The Final Problem” arrives near the middle of Eurus’s elaborate “experiment.” In a series of tests seemingly designed to determine how effectively Sherlock has choked off his emotional life, Eurus forces him to make choices that will result in devastation and death. This one, though, requires no bullets or death sentences—Eurus forces Sherlock to get Molly Hooper to say the words “I love you,” and if he doesn’t succeed, she’ll die.
It’s an emotionally rich and nuanced scene, and features some of Louise Brealey’s best work as Molly. It’s arguably Cumberbatch’s best scene in the episode as well—he balances fear and anger with shame, sorrow, and remorse. Her refusal to pick up the phone stings. Her acknowledgment of his cruelty hits still harder. Her insistence that he say those words first, and his first forced attempt gives way to a devastatingly simple one that’s ripe with the aforementioned ambiguity these writers do so well, when they so choose. It’s a gripping scene with an ending that cuts deep: of course there was no bomb. Sherlock just wrecked that poor woman, and himself, for nothing.
And that’s it. No consequences. It hurts, but doesn’t linger. So what if it relegates a character, once again, to the position of lovelorn girl friday? We’ve got to get on to the next epic set piece.
The biggest issue with Sherlock’s typically brief fourth season is exactly that: nothing seems to stick. By episode’s end, Molly’s skipping in the door with a smile on her face; whether she’s arriving in response to a message Sherlock sent to a person unnamed, we’ll never know. There’s no price to pay for years of mistreatment capped off with a doozy of a phone call like that.
Much the same can be said of John Watson, who seems to have left any grief and guilt he had concerning the death of his wife in the same place Sherlock left his drug abuse. Beyond the appearance of Eurus, a brief mention of John’s marriage, and a final, incredibly trite DVD from Mary, nothing in “The Final Problem” connects to the serious and damaging events of the previous two episodes. John’s emotional affair with the disguised Eurus, his potentially orphaned daughter, the tremendous strain on his friendship with Sherlock, Sherlock’s failing health and struggles with addiction—all are set side. So, yes, watching Molly Hooper’s heart break stings like nothing else. Watching John Watson volunteer to die means a great deal. But there’s no proof that these things stick, and why would they? Nothing else does.
Oh, and Mycroft gets told off by his parents. That’s a consequence.
In spite of it all, this is still Sherlock, a frustrating but often brilliant adaptation of stories about a frustrating but often brilliant man and the people who populate his world. If this is to be their swan song, let no one say that Moffat and Gatiss phoned it in. For its many, many flaws and its total misfire of an ending, “The Final Problem” offers a few scenes, images, and pieces of writing that rival the best the series has ever achieved.
Unexpectedly, the episode’s MVP may be Gatiss himself. While it’s unfortunate that Mycroft seemed to get dumber just in time for the finale, Gatiss gives what’s without question his best performance of the series. He, Freeman and Cumberbatch make a great deal of their restrained, grenade-side conversation, his wily smile as he’s revealed to be the grizzled sea captain is a beauty to behold, and his ice-cold recitation of Eurus’s childhood question, “Which one’s pain?,” is a brilliant moment of both writing and acting. Top of the list, however, is the moment in which Mycroft attempts to bait Sherlock into killing him, so that he won’t be quite so tortured by the choice. Freeman and Cumberbatch are, expectedly, terrific in this scene as well, Freeman especially so, but it’s Mycroft’s turn to shine, and Gatiss really makes the most of it.
He’s not alone in this, however. As mentioned above, Sian Brooke is once again riveting, though she’s given much less to do with much more screen time. Brealey, Una Stubbs (Mrs. Hudson), and poor Amanda Abbington all do terrific work with what they’re given, brief though it may be. And the bizarre, blissful return of Andrew Scott gives us the episode’s most Internet-friendly moment, thanks to a grandiose and appropriately off-kilter entrance soundtracked by Queen. The fact that it’s all a flashback doesn’t make his almost-return-from-the-dead any less satisfying (though the abundance of video clips afterward do).
Still, the best moment of the episode belongs to the trio of men who’ve sat closest to its center all along, and it’s the closest the episode comes to really capturing what its final moments so desperately oversell:
SHERLOCK: John stays.
MYCROFT: It’s family!
SHERLOCK: That’s why he stays.
It’s a moment of pitch-perfect acting and writing, capturing so much of this long, complicated relationship in three quick lines and one brief, slightly sad smile from Martin Freeman. This is the kind of reward one hopes for at the end of a long, lovely run.
Last, while the episode contains more visual clunkers than the average Sherlock outing—that Mycroft scare sequence is only unsettling for the briefest of moments, and the explosion of 221B has to be the single worst visual effect the show has ever filmed—it’s still a treat for the eyes, particularly the moment in which the walls of Sherlock’s prison fall away to reveal Musgrave. It’s worth the ridiculous notion that Sherlock would fail to notice the lack of glass between he and his sister for the breathtaking moment in which their hands meet, and the show’s familiar perspective-altering pans and falls remain surprising and unnerving.
Even sub-par Sherlock still has moments of pure, unadulterated brilliance. Even the shoddiest storytelling gives world-class artists a chance to shine. And even at its, and his, lowest, Sherlock remains as captivating as ever. It‘s easy to wish for a better goodbye, for a final episode that doesn’t undermine so much of what came before. It would be nice for a finale that comes closer to the lovely character studies and perfect little mysteries that made Sherlock so special in the first place. But like the great reasoner himself, Sherlock is what it is, flaws and all. The chance to curse and marvel at it, in equal measure, is one we will surely miss.
- Can we retire posthumous DVD monologues for awhile? Please? It’s a narrative convention that’s been totally played out.
- Eurus’s death trap felt a lot like “Heaven Sent” to me, only the Doctor only had himself for company.
- Watching both John and Mrs. Hudson push Mycroft around was pure bliss.
- Seriously, what was with that opening sequence? Why the overkill? Why the clown?
- Mrs. Hudson loves metal. Of course she does.
- Speaking of: It’s really disappointing that only Mrs. Hudson is the only female character to make it out of Sherlock without being completely defined by her relationship to the “Boys of Baker Street.” It’s even more disappointing that such a promising villain was somehow not enough for Gatiss and Moffat. Andrew Scott is great, but his tick-tock routine could never have been scarier than Sian Brooke’s flat voice and dead-eyed scare. Why exactly did they think she needed backup?
- Was Sherlock texting Molly? Irene Adler? Someone else entirely?
- The reveal that Redbeard was a person and not a dog was affecting, no doubt, but the subsequent confusion on figuring out whether the best friend in question was a friend or sibling did diminish it slightly.
- Actually seeing the girl on the plane while seeing a different girl as young Eurus feels like a cheat. If we didn’t see the first girl until Sherlock started to hear her, that would be one thing, but that wasn’t the case. It also feels like a real missed opportunity to have Brooke play that role as well—we couldn’t see her as the girl, of course, but if we only heard that phone call, she could have called on more of the vocal mastery she displayed last week.
- I know I said the lack of mystery was the least of this episode’s problems, but it would have been nice to solve one more case with John and Sherlock. Sure, the tombstone thing happened, but there wasn’t much chance for the audience to feel a part of that discovery.
- For all my griping, I’ll dearly miss this show. I’ll particularly miss seeing Martin Freeman as Watson. It’s one of the best performances on TV.
- Thanks for reading! If it comes back, we’ll see you back here. 2024, maybe?