New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.
I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.
I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.
And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.
That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.
If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.
That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.
However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.