Imagine a world where the first ever episode of Sherlock was like The Final Problem. A mind-controlling supervillian kidnaps Sherlock Holmes and puts him through a series of dastardly puzzles on her island lair, in an episode where action hero Sherlock and trusty sidekick John Watson jump out of a building as a fireball explodes behind them. Would the show have been as critically revered if this had been the first episode?
That description is exactly what you would expect from a clueless, modern update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and it was the defiance of this expectation that made Sherlock so refreshing, so incredible in its early episodes. Unfortunately, with each subsequent episode, the show got closer and closer to a parody Sherlock Holmes, littered with incredulous twists, illogical plot developments and cringey, wacky hijinks.
The Final Problem could well be the last episode of Sherlock, as a result of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s Hollywood careers. With the massive downturn in quality over the last two seasons, that may well be for the best.
Episode three of season four saw Sherlock, Mycroft and John Watson take a trip to a secret super-prison to visit the Holmes brothers’ imprisoned, genius sister. There they were trapped, as said sister, Euros, tasked them with solving multiple problems.
The beginning of the episode illustrated Sherlock‘s huge problem with twists. The previous episode had ended with Euros shooting a gun at John. Oh, no! Cliffhanger! What will become of John? This episode resolved that cliffhanger with a throwaway line of dialogue from John about being shot with a tranquilizer.
When a show treats a twist, a cliffhanger, as casually and flippantly as that then it loses all stakes. There is no peril. No surprise. Nothing is genuine. Why get invested in any character, in any dramatic scene, any emotional development, when it will all be reversed ten minutes later for the sake of a twist? Little girl trapped all alone on a pilotless plane? Well don’t worry, this is Sherlock so it’s probably not real. Bomb planted in Molly’s house? Don’t worry, this show is obsessed with twists so it’s probably not real. A scary scene to start an episode? Oh, but wait, this is Sherlock, so here comes an insane twist.
Yes, this episode began with Sherlock and John playing a huge prank on Mycroft. Which included rigging his paintings up to cry blood from their eyes. Picture it: Sherlock the day before with a pin and some red paint-filled balloons, installing them behind three different paintings.
Its fucking absurd. What if Mycroft had killed that clown Sherlock hired to scare him? Just stabbed him with a kitchen knife. It’s such a crazy length for the writers to go to for such a dumb twist. Sherlock is like Scooby Doo at this point; or a child offering you his hand and then pulling it away shouting ‘Sike! Sorry – but not really! Opposite Day!’
Back at 221B Baker Street, Mycroft explained to Sherlock that he had a forgotten sister, locked up in an insane asylum for killing his dog as a child. I say dog, it turned out to be a child. It was a twist. So twisty.
Enter a drone-mounted bomb, and Sherlock and John jumping out of a window like James Bond. But not Daniel Craig James Bond, because those films are trying to be a bit smart. It’s more Pierce Bronson Bond, Roger Moore even.
Next, Sherlock, Mycroft and John snuck on board a fishing vessel, put on disguises, wrote a massive message in some sand for some reason, and broke into the super-prison. An alternative plan, of course, would be for Mycroft to call in the SAS and storm the prison with gun-ships, but the James Bond plan allowed some twists, and everyone loves twists.
Hold on though – why do they believe Euros is in the prison? Why do they accept that she is still locked up? John saw her with his own eyes. So did Sherlock. John got shot by her. They know she escaped from prison. They know she can do that. Why do they walk in there like morons?
Because the writers are willing to make characters – even supposedly super intelligent ones – stupid when they need to. So Mycroft puts the most intelligent woman of her age, the most dangerous women he knows, alone in a room with the world’s most intelligent master criminal because… she asked? And Sherlock fails to realise what Mycroft did until he spells it out for him.
Euros took over the asylum, and forced Sherlock and co to solve some puzzles. Some people died and Sherlock chose to kill himself rather than Mycroft or John, despite having just witnessed another guy do the same thing to save his wife only for Euros to kill the wife anyway. I’ll give the writers’ the benefit of the doubt here though, and assume Sherlock was making a strategic choice, betting Euros would knock them all out rather than let Sherlock kill himself.
While unconscious, Euros presumably used her mind controlling super power to get people to transport her victims to the Holmes ancestral home. There, Sherlock realised there was no hijacked plane, and his dead dog was actually a dead friend, killed down a well. Poor kid – presumably nobody cared for him, seeing as any search team failed to look down a nearby well to see if he was there. Should we look down this well, see if the missing child is down there? Nah, fuck it.
And that was that. Final case solved. All wrapped up in an incredibly messy bow with lots of loose ends.
Not that there wasn’t good things about the episode. It was very tense at times, even while lacking real stakes, and captivating. Its strength was in the character development – Sherlock discovering the reason for being closed off emotionally (the death of his friend as a child), and his growing concern for his friends and the people in his life. And the central concept, the mad woman taking over the insane asylum, is interesting and fun in a schlocky, B-movie way. There was merit here, buried under all the nonsense.
It’s a shame what became of Sherlock. It started as a smart, modern retelling of a story about an intelligent detective solving cases, and somehow morphed into a blockbuster about a superhero allying with a secret spy (Mary) to battle supervillians with little interest in crime but an obsession with dastardly schemes.
The original sin was probably the big twist ending to series two. How did Sherlock fake his own death? The writers never had a satisfying answer to it. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat became desperate to one up themselves, to force twists into every line of dialogue, even if those twists made no sense or undermined character moments and plot points that had come before. They wanted the show to be so much smarter than the audience, and lost sight of the fact that it was smart enough as it was, being innovative in approach (its use of text messages on screen in the early episodes was great), and writing two great characters who played-off each other with wit, frustration and a subtle mutual respect. The writers got lost in their own hype, in Twitter and Tumblr and Comic-Con, and fell in love with Sherlock‘s fandom.
Sherlock started as a smart update of the original stories, but it may just have ended as a gun and explosion-filled Hollywood parody.
- Did Euros wait her entire adult life before escaping prison? Why? She was clearly capable of escaping whenever she wanted.
- Compare the muted presence of Moriarty this season to the big ‘I’m back’ reveal at the end of series three. The petering out of that shock reveal was typical of the disappointing twists in these later episodes.
- Sherlock’s prison cell, with the easily knocked down fake walls, was pretty cool. As was the trick with the glass in Euros’ cell.
- The Final Problem reminded me of the Saw film series, with its big bad guy back from the dead via video messages, and its deadly, trap filled maze. Saw IV, specifically. Reflect on that for a second – Sherlock is now comparable to the fourth film in a torture-porn horror series.