What Went Wrong with Sherlock?

By  · Published on February 14th, 2017

A ‘Sherlock’ fan explores her disappointment with the most recent season.

The fourth season of Sherlock has come and gone, and it’s left more than a few fans disappointed. Myself included.

I adored Sherlock to begin with – I thought the first season was amazing and the second even better. I was not thrilled with the third, but it grew on me. The fourth… let’s talk about the fourth. Not in an exhaustive way, but exploring a few of the major changes the show has made for the worse.

Spoilers will abound, so watch out.

Raising the Bar

Sherlock began small in every way – budget, stars, and scope. Then it exploded in popularity, and its actors became movie stars. The show grew, and with it the bar rose.

What do I mean by this? I think it can best be demonstrated by this change:

In season 1, Sherlock needs to get the attention of some German tourists.

He doesn’t speak German, so he uses the couple of words he knows: “bitte” (“please”) and “entschuldigung” (“excuse me”). One whole sentence is just “Minute!” – an attempt to tell them he won’t be long. Sherlock’s worldly enough to want to try, but try is all he can do. He’s giving it his best.

Now let’s jump to the beginning of season 3. Here he is speaking fluent Serbian, apparently well enough to infiltrate and bring down a massive crime ring from within.

And here he is in the very next scene, making fun of his brother for taking several whole hours to learn the language.

Suffice it to say, the character’s made a real leap. So has the mood of the show.

As Sherlock the show grew, so too did Sherlock the character. The showrunners wanted a protagonist who fit the mythos, so they raised his bar, continuity be damned.

By the fourth season, they needed more. Sherlock still needed to grow. And the best way to make him grow was to turn him into a kind of deduction god.

Sherlock’s deductions have always had a strong element of magic about them, but they used to fit a certain kind of worldly structure. Now, however, he’s predicting the precise actions of everyone around him, weeks in advance, down to the second.

Except when he doesn’t. Because the problem with having a character with god-like powers of prediction is that the plot can never advance. Someone who knows what’s going to happen can’t be blind-sided, can’t be surprised. Give him two siblings who are purportedly even more ahead of the game, and you’re in real trouble.

Because the story needs plot. These god-like characters need to be thrown for a loop, so we can have tension and fear and, well, things happening. The way the show gets around this is to have its omnipotent characters, about once per episode, completely overlook basic facts.

In the first episode of the fourth season, Mary dies because Sherlock doesn’t think the hardened criminal with nothing left to lose, whom they have confronted alone, will have a gun on her. Even when she pulls the gun, he doesn’t seem to think she’ll use it.

But Mary has to die, and it has to be Sherlock’s fault. He has to screw up for the sake of the story. Maybe he deleted guns from his memory.

This bizarre lapse in judgment is repeated to the extreme in the finale. Eurus locks Sherlock in a room with the two people he cares about most, and she tells him to pick one to kill. When Sherlock picks a third option – killing himself – she panics and shows the first lack of control we’ve seen out of her. Her entire plan falls apart because she didn’t consider a third outcome. This is the woman who orchestrated a huge, Saw-like death maze in five minutes.

I knew it was coming, and that’s just because I’ve seen The Hunger Games.

Self-Destructive Self-Awareness

Over the years the show has also become startlingly self-aware. It responded to the frantic fan theorizing about how Sherlock survived his season 2 fall (and got out of giving a real explanation for it) by turning poor Anderson into an in-universe frantic fan theorist himself.

But that’s nothing compared to the show’s awareness of John and Sherlock’s relationship.

The creators of Sherlock have been waging an odd little war with their fans for years. A contingent of the fanbase has been rooting, all along, for John and Sherlock to get together. It’s called the Johnlock Conspiracy. I won’t get too far into it here, mainly because I don’t have a big enough dog in the fight to do it justice.

What I will get into, however, is the way in which the show noticeably pulls back from it in the fourth season. Romantic undertones or not, one of Sherlock’s primary focuses has always been the relationship between its two central characters.

But in spite of that, John and Sherlock just don’t interact as much in the fourth season. The first episode scarcely leaves them alone together, due largely in part to Mary’s presence. Mary’s death doesn’t do much to change that, either, because it leaves John wanting nothing to do with Sherlock. He does wind up reconciling with him, but only at Mary’s beyond-the-grave urging.

And that’s a hard pill to swallow. Sherlock nearly gets himself killed to pull John out of his depression, and John doesn’t realize it. It’s Mary’s love for John that winds up saving the day, not John’s love for Sherlock. It’s meant, probably, to show John’s fallibility. But what it makes for is an unnerving lack in their relationship.

John’s admission of this then segues, of all things, into how “romantic entanglements” make you a better person. Gone are the days of John and Sherlock complementing and making each other better. Now it’s explicitly Mary who improves John, and Irene Adler who can improve Sherlock.

Because in this same scene, Irene comes up again out of the blue.

Irene is alive and texting Sherlock. This isn’t a revelation for us – we saw him save her at the end of A Scandal in Belgravia. We’re given exactly zero new information – only a reminder. So why bring her up now?

Because Sherlock needs a love interest. Over the years he’s been undergoing an undeniable transformation into a better, more “real” person. He’s developing emotions and attachments – it only makes sense for him to fall in love.

But it can’t be with John.

Bringing up Irene is, essentially, a way for the show to disavow John and Sherlock’s possible romantic relationship.

Is there anything wrong with this disavowal? If you read their arc through a romantic lens, then yes. But I’d rather not dig too deeply into that. What does feel wrong is the show’s hyper-awareness of the fact that this is a disavowal.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at this official trailer that was released just before the fourth season aired:

“What’s the very worst thing you can do to your very best friends?” Toby Jones asks. “Tell them your darkest secret.”

Quick cut to Sherlock saying “I love you.”

This is footage deliberately spliced from two different episodes – the scenes have nothing to do with one another. And yet that’s how the show was marketed: This season Sherlock will finally tell his best friend that he loves him. The showrunners knew what was hanging the the balance for their fans, and they deliberately hinted at it.

I’d wondered if anything was going to come of the Johnlock Conspiracy, but I knew the moment I saw this trailer that it wouldn’t. It was too self-aware, too forward.

It was playing with the fans, and it felt almost mean-spirited.

A Deadly Combination

So what do you get when you cross overblown deduction powers with a fear of your male protagonists getting too close? You get Eurus.

Eurus is the show’s final twist and its ultimate villain. She’s smarter than Sherlock and she’s been behind everything.

And we’ve never heard of her until now.

Moriarty could have come back, but that would have been predictable. At this point it was far more of a twist for him actually to be dead. And that’s too bad, because Moriarty was fun. Eurus isn’t much fun.

She can reprogram people by talking to them, and she’s been able to do it since she was five. In five minutes alone with Moriarty, she put together a puzzle torture maze capable of trapping the second and third smartest people in the world. She understands Bach.

Basically, she’s what even this show had the good sense not to make Sherlock into. She’s an ubermensch, not so much a person as a collection of superpowers. She’s the personification of the over-raised bar.

She’s the only kind of villain capable of besting the superhero Sherlock’s become, and her appearance is the only kind of twist the show can introduce now. She’s the response to stakes that have been raised again and again.

She’s also a ready-made receptacle for feeling.

At the end of the third season, Sherlock literally dragged himself back from the dead out of fear for John’s safety. Logically, there ought to be some continuation of that, especially as Sherlock comes to grips with his increasing humanity.

But we can’t have him getting too close to John.

Irene Adler is perfect for romantic love in Sherlock’s future. If this is the last season, we can extrapolate his possible relationship with her. But here and now, Sherlock needs someone to try out his newfound feelings on.

So he bonds with his new sister.

The final montage, narrated by Mary, is split very evenly between Sherlock rebuilding his life with John and coaxing Eurus out of her shell. The culminating word of closure is half Sherlock’s closest friend, and half someone we’ve only just met. It’s a strange imbalance of priorities in a show that’s been developing its characters for the better part of a decade.

But Eurus needs to be there, because her presence allows Sherlock to show his emotions, his humanity, and his love in an environment that can’t possibly be misconstrued.

And it’s too bad, because this truly does feel like the end. Maybe we’ll get a tenth anniversary special, and maybe a full season, but there’s an undeniable finality to The Final Problem. This may very well be our last contact with Sherlock, and it’s a real letdown that it’s focused so much on impressing us and so little on the relationship it’s been examining.

Sherlock reached beyond its means this season, and it lost its soul in the process. At least it was a great run while it lasted.

Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)