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‘Sherlock’ Goes Rogue

In its fourth season, the beloved BBC show is starting to mess with its formula — and its audience. That’s a good thing.

(BBC)
(BBC)

This piece contains spoilers for the first episode of Sherlock, Season 4.

Like so many busts of a certain prime minister, Sherlock began its fourth season by shattering its template.

Perhaps because Sherlock’s “seasons” are more truthfully made-for-TV movie trilogies, and perhaps because its stars’ offscreen ascendancy has kept said seasons sporadic and highly anticipated, it’s taken this long for Sherlock to settle into a routine — cerebral yet accessible, grating yet never alienating, comfortably middlebrow. (Not a knock! Well-executed entertainment has always been harder than it looks.) Now, it’s finally time for Sherlock to break from it.

Virtually the entire first half of “The Six Thatchers” calls attention to our own abiding knowledge of How Sherlock Works. Last season’s cliff-hanger, in which one antagonist provoked Sherlock into killing him and another seemingly returned from the great beyond, is waved off in mere moments: the magic of Photoshop can make a murder charge vanish into thin air and our hero is quite sure Moriarty’s still dead, so all that’s left to do is … exactly what he’s always done. Status quo restored! The typical push-pull between the self-described sociopath and his associates feels almost obligatory: Watson wrangles the atheist Sherlock into attending his daughter’s christening with “Yeah, but there’ll be cake”; Lestrade cuts short the typical negotiations over Sherlock’s semiformal Scotland Yard consultancy with a fed-up “Look, just solve the bloody thing, will you?” Not once, but twice, Sherlock gives a long-winded rant explaining his deductive methods, only to slice through it with Occam’s razor: No, he didn’t magically figure out how to track down a super spy; he just stuck a tracer in her flash drive.

We’ve had more than six years, multiple drawn-out hiatuses, and a regrettable Christmas special to figure out how this show operates, and cocreators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat seem to know it. And now, it’s time to mess with us.

“The Six Thatchers” does that on a couple of levels, starting with genre. Given that Sherlock solves a murder and tracks down the burglar of the titular statues by the 50-minute mark, this isn’t much of a mystery. Instead, it’s a spy thriller, one that stars not the eponymous antihero but Mary Watson, gun for hire turned mild-mannered English wife. (And good thing, too: Even Sherlock’s superpowered-subreddit shtick can be exhausting for a full 90 minutes.) The master-of-disguise montage as Mary flees her onetime comrade, convinced she betrayed him, is damned delightful; there’s a showy fight scene in a swimming pool that hinges on motion-sensor jets; the whole caper culminates with a mild-mannered secretary confessing treason in an aquarium, a confrontation straight out of Le Carré. There isn’t much here in the way of clues or the reverse-engineering of intricate plot twists. For one episode, Sherlock went all in on action.

That pivot pales in comparison to the final twist. Sherlock is, of course, no stranger to death: The protagonist faked his own, killed one major nemesis, and provoked the suicide of another. It is, however, a stranger to permanent death, particularly of its heroes. Sherlock himself has survived both a multistory fall and a gunshot. Moriarty may or may not still be around, whether posthumously or in the flesh. (I wager we’ll find out the extent of Sherlock’s overconfidence around Episode 3.) Compared to these, Mary’s demise is both swift and suspiciously convenient, complete with dramatically gasped last words. I’m always skeptical of a female character’s death when it’s used to spur the growth of a male lead, as Sherlock’s conversations with both Mrs. Hudson and his therapist suggest Mary’s might. But while it remains to be seen how Mary’s absence will shape the series, it marks a definitive shift in a show that is, in all likelihood, entering its final stretch.

Because Mary’s name was neither Sherlock Holmes nor John Watson, she was always the most expendable of Sherlock’s core cast — if there was ever going to be a major demise on the show, Mary was first on the list. Which isn’t to say her absence won’t be felt: For one thing, it’s blown apart Sherlock’s central partnership. It’s a sharp turn into darkness on a show that may be a reboot, but has largely avoided the “gritty” modifier that’s seemingly welded onto the term these days. Sherlock may be contemporary, yet it’s not exactly dark.

With its stars either boosted by (The Hobbit) or currently wrapped up in (Marvel) massive franchises, Sherlock’s production schedule is only going to get tighter, and it’s not inconceivable Moffat, Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Martin Freeman will simply call it a day after Season 4 wraps in just 15 days. That leaves just a couple of weeks for Sherlock to play with and adjust to the new set of ground rules “The Six Thatchers” lays out. The show’s broken its mold; it’s time to see what it does with that newfound freedom.