TV Review: ‘Problem’ is Aptly Named


{All images courtesy BBC One.}

Note: this article was also published on Tea & Fiction.

Sherlock, series 4, episode 3, “The Final Problem”. Written by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat (based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle), directed by Benjamin Caron. Produced by BBC (in partnership with PBS Masterpiece). Copyright 2017. (Seen January 15, 2017.)

So, in my last review of series 4 of Sherlock, I wrote that the television show was one of the rare pieces of media where I process my own thoughts through reading other reactions. This rings true so much more in this, what is framed as the last episode of the show. Not only the reviews from Indiewire, Vox, the Nerdist (which I apparently remembered the title from), The Guardian, The AV Club, The Mary Sue, and Just Add Color, but the plethora of responses from other fans as we all digested this last piece in the world of Sherlock. It made me reevaluate my place as a fan, and think about the show as a whole. Needless to say, this has major spoilers.

The Recap

The plot ends up being some sort of weird cross between Saw and The Ring. We open with a little girl on a plane, waking up and being the only conscious one. The plane is crashing – and a cell phone rings. She answers, and it’s Moriarty (Andrew Scott) – apparently back from the dead, despite the point of “The Abominable Bride”, welcoming us to the title drop Final Problem.

Switch to Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), watching old films and being sentimental, despite his continued mocking of Sherlock for the same. The movie is interrupted by some home movies that prove without a doubt that Sherlock is Steven Moffat’s self-insert Mary Sue, and Mycroft goes to investigate. As he runs into a clown and a little creepy kid, I am 100% convinced we are in some weird mind!palace scene.

In a scene that shows that when the two writers called this episode ‘wish fulfillment’ they were talking about themselves and not the fans, Mycroft pulls out his umbrella, which has a sword and then a gun. This Kingsman-esque awesomeness turn ends up not working, and lo and behold it’s not a mind palace sequence, but Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) scaring Mycroft into admitting the existence of their sister Eurus (Sian Brooke). John (Martin Freeman), who apparently wasn’t actually shot with a real gun at the end of the last episode – invalidating that cliffhanger – is there as well, and getting along swimmingly with Sherlock in this plan.

Mycroft likes watching movies, apparently.

Mycroft goes to 221B Baker Street and is forced to become a client. He tells Sherlock about this week’s baddie, Eurus. She’s apparently even smarter than Mycroft, so smart that apparently she doesn’t have an understanding of emotions, further continuing the stereotype of mental illness, intelligence, and how it applies to women. She, according to Mycroft, killed Redbeard, the family dog, via drowning. (Never mind that the whole Redbeard thing from series 3 goes completely against Sherlock’s ignorance as to why the owners of the dog in “The Hounds of Baskerville” couldn’t put the dog down.)

But that wasn’t enough: she goes on to burn the family estate down, which gets her put away in a secure facility (Sherrinford) that seems to be a cross between Arkham Asylum and Professor X’s mansion from X-Men. For no real good reason, Uncle Rudy (who was apparently Mycroft before Mycroft) decides to tell the Holmes parents that she died, and Mycroft when he became of age decides to continue this deception. Sherlock had ‘rewritten’ his brain to completely wipe all existence of Eurus from his brain (never mind that it’s doubtful that the Holmes parents would have stopped talking about their dead child), and that Mycroft used the word “Redbeard” as a trigger to refresh said memory wipe. (Which doesn’t quite explain why Mycroft said it so gleefully in “The Sign of Three”.)

She was doing fine, code breaking for the government, until she came across news of Sherlock during series 1. She requests to have five minutes unsupervised with Moriarty. We get a flashback to Moriarty’s arrival for this visit, making his previous melodramatic entrances seem tame in comparison. During this visit, she gives Moriarty the clue of Redbeard to get to Sherlock and somehow this visit is what caused the events of “The Reichenbach Fall”.

During this tale, the flat is invaded by a drone with a motion sensitive grenade that for some unknown reason (drama?) Mycroft refrains from saying that it activates when it lands until after it, you know, lands. It’s Eurus, basically saying, “You want me? Come and get me,” and she promptly blows up 221B in an explosion that is laughably bad.

“It’s your turn to save the day.” “No, it’s your turn!”

We switch to a boat, around the island that Sherrinford is located on. No explanation is given as to why Eurus, who was freely moving about London being John’s therapist and pretending to be a client to Sherlock for last week’s mystery, went back into these secure facilities that she wasn’t supposed to be able to escape in the first place. The boat is boarded by Sherlock Holmes. “The detective?” No – in a callback to a line in “A Scandal in Belgravia”, he’s a pirate as he imitates every Hollywood pirate trope in a glorious fashion.

The ship arrives, and our heroes leave a message to be taken to Eurus. We cut to the facility, where John and the supposed grizzled captain of the vessel are being interrogated by the prison Governor (Art Malik). He assumes that the captain is Sherlock – but in a twist that seems to have been put in to specifically remind us of Gatis’ past with League of Gentlemen, it ends up being Mycroft, with Sherlock actually the guard.

They talk to Governor, who proceeds to warn the trio (as well as the audience) that Eurus somehow has magic mind control powers, and is able to control people that she’s been with for as little as five minutes. Despite John having gone to her for God-knows how many therapy sessions (not to mention her sexting him for however long that lasted), there’s no concern that he’s under her power, and yet the Governor apparently is. (Which – by the way – they never do explain why Eurus was sexting John or pretending to be his therapist, other than ‘wacky mind games’.)

John figures this out while Sherlock is busy trying to understand why Eurus is doing what she’s doing, and despite being Sherlock Holmes, fails to realize that glass reflects and that there actually is no glass on her cell.

Sherlock on his way to see his sister.

Sherlock, Mycroft, and John are then put into a cell, along with the Governor. They are then given a series of ‘puzzles’ to challenge them – not mentally, but morally. Their reward? Time with the little girl on the plane in order to help her situation. First, Sherlock has to choose whether Mycroft or John shoots the Governor, otherwise the Governor’s wife gets killed. (Surprise: she ends up killing her after all when both John and Mycroft refuse to do it and the Governor kills himself instead.)

Then, a bastardized twist of the Three Garridebs. Eurus explains the situation: one of the three brothers had killed someone with a rifle, but who? She would only ‘punish’ who Sherlock thought was the guilty party. Sherlock does his deduction thing, and comes to a conclusion. Surprise: while he was right, she kills the other two instead. No shot at John, no ‘worth the wound’ from him about Sherlock’s loyalty toward him.

They shuffle into the next room, which has a coffin. Sherlock has to figure out who it belongs to, and since the lid says “I love you”, he and John comes to the conclusion that it’s Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey). Eurus shows Molly’s apartment on CCTV, stating that her flat is rigged with explosives and is set to go off if Sherlock can’t get Molly to say those three words.

And then in a scene of appalling cruelty, despite the last few times showing that Molly was actually getting over her infatuation with Sherlock and learning to move on, the show portrays her as still desperately in love with him to the point where she won’t say it unless he says it first. Surprise again: Eurus says the flat was never actually rigged for explosives, and this was just her way of showing Sherlock how those pesky emotions really are going to be his downfall.

I’m EVIL and insane!

After a moment where Sherlock rages at the apparently fake coffin and John basically tells him to buck up, that’s the way things are now, the three then move into yet another room where Sherlock is forced to decide to kill either Mycroft or John. Much whinging happens while Mycroft insults John along the same lines we had been seeing throughout series 4, but this is just Mycroft’s way of tricking Sherlock into wanting to shoot him. When Sherlock decides to turn the gun in on himself, they are knocked out.

We then see Sherlock isolated in a room, given time to talk to the little girl again. He manages to connect to John, who’s in a well chained to the wall, the water slowly rising. There are bones that – despite being a doctor – he can’t identify just yet, while Sherlock finds a dog bowl. This somehow gets him to deduce that they aren’t in Sherrinford anymore, but at the post-fired Holmes’ estate. Eurus acknowledges that she’s helping Moriarty get his revenge post death, and that Sherlock has to solve the case of Redbeard or John will suffer the same fate.

We find out that – despite the dog bowl, despite Sherlock’s memory palace in “The Sign of Three” showing him with ‘Redbeard’ telling him, “They’re going to put me down, too” – that Redbeard was actually Victor Trevor, Sherlock’s first friend (who in ACD canon knew him in university). Jealous that Sherlock had a friend and she did not, Eurus had killed Victor by drowning him in the well. (Which – why the dog bowl then? Why didn’t Moriarty use this in “The Great Game” or Magnussen bring it up in “His Last Vow”? And where were Victor’s parents in all of this?)

But murder is once again okay – this whole plot was actually just a cry for help: Eurus is actually the little girl on the plane. After a quick deduction that the song she’s been singing is actually a cipher, Sherlock finds her, and with a hug, she’s suddenly better and willing to forgive Sherlock for the grievous fault of having a friend.

I want to break free indeed.

We flip to John in the well, who despite being shown chained to the wall, is thrown a rope and he’s able to climb out (yes, there most likely was a missing scene of them unlocking him, but on top of all the OTHER leaps of faith we had to make, this just seems laughable by now). Mycroft was apparently fine and just locked up where Eurus was, and Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) – way out of his jurisdiction, but he’s probably given the call any time something to do with Sherlock comes over the radar – gives us the callback to “A Study in Pink” that Sherlock’s no longer a great man, but a good one.

We then flash to the Holmes parents being told that Eurus is alive, wherein they chastise Mycroft and apparently think Sherlock ‘was always the grown up one’, and Sherlock and Eurus bond over playing the violin together. John gets yet another posthumous DVD from Mary, labeled “Miss You” (How many of these did she make? Hopefully there’s one for her daughter as well eventually? And was she THAT prescient to know that she would need these?). With her voice over (rather than, you know, the voice of the person who wrote the dang stories, John), we get a final series of images showing John and Sherlock rebuilding 221B Baker Street (including the supposedly impossible to find now wallpaper, which – as the Baker Street Babes’ review noted – was why I thought they blew up the flat in the first place), playing with Rosie (oh, yeah – John has a kid: I almost forgot that in this episode, considering how little she played a part in this series) – but apparently not raising her together, as Moffat stated in an interview that John never does return to 221B.

Mary’s voice over talks about knowing, “who you really are. A junkie who solves crimes to get high, and the doctor who never came home from the war. [But] who you really are, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the legend, the stories, the adventure.” (Quote courtesy Ariane Devere’s transcripts.) All while we see clips from the pilot interspersed with the two solving crimes, Molly – apparently emotionally unscathed from the earlier torture – happily entering, and Sherlock texting “You know where to find me” in an echo of his text to Lestrade in “A Study in Pink”. And then we see our two leads (I hesitate to call them heroes by this point) running out of Rathbone Place, off on their next adventure.

The Review

Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, I did not care for this episode at all. The characterization of John and Sherlock gets sacrificed for an inane overly melodramatic homage to Saw. One of the reasons many people like mysteries is the ability to play along and try and figure it out before our lead. However, this wasn’t possible here: we are instead told – time and time again – what is happening and how things are figured out. Additionally, after such a huge build up, the resolution seemed extremely rushed. She just needed a hug? Really? But then again, a hug between Sherlock and John was more than enough to repair their damaged relationship, apparently.

The characterization of all of the main players is all over the place. Don’t get me wrong: the acting (on all parts, but especially with Sian Brooks) was stellar. I now feel about Cumberbatch and Freeman the same way I do about Peter Capaldi as the Doctor: I really wish they had better material to work from.

This Eurus is nothing like the one we had seen in the prior two episodes. John just seemed to be a walking prop, there for the writers to use whenever they needed a second voice. Moriarty was even more melodramatic than usual, and that’s saying something.

Who the hell is John Watson? I don’t know by now.

Meanwhile, you’re telling me that the man nicknamed Iceman, the one who stood there and just watched coldly while his brother is tortured in “The Empty Hearse”, the one we’re shown is such a badass at the beginning of this very episode that he has a sword cane that becomes a gun, not only can’t shoot a man in cold blood but then actually throws up at the sight of a dead body? Meanwhile, John – who shot a man on sight because he thought Sherlock might be in trouble in “A Study in Pink”, who admitted to have ‘killed people’ on his ‘bad days’ in “A Scandal in Belgravia” – apparently can’t take one for the team either.

Sherlock, despite showing a bucketload of emotional maturity throughout series 3, has regressed to where he has to ‘learn’ to be human. The moral of the story is apparently to ‘normalize’ Sherlock, make him a ‘real boy’, rather than have him become a bit more self aware but still be the Asperger’s-esque ‘freak’ we fell in love with. As many a Tumblr fan has pointed out, he was shown having empathy towards others as early as the first episode. And as another fan pointed out, instead of seeing John get drawn into Sherlock’s world, we see Sherlock literally beaten down until he learns to be ‘normal’.

Add on the ‘evil woman’ / ‘evil insane person’ trope for Eurus, and this show is looking bad for decent representation of mental illness on more than one level. And it really doesn’t help that almost all of the bad guys in Sherlock are also coded as being on the LGBT spectrum.

In defending the paper-thin mysteries we’ve been getting since series 3, I saw interview after interview where Moffat and Gatiss state that Sherlock was not about the stories but rather the characters. And yet the ending voice over tells us exactly the opposite.

Benedict Cumberbatch fronts the latest boy band.

And trust me, as a shipper, I will say what a friend of mine said: they could’ve ended with John and Sherlock having sex on the coffee table and I would’ve still had issues with this thing. I truly didn’t believe they intended on having John and Sherlock end up together. Yet, for Moffat and Gatiss to be so blind to continue the queerbaiting jokes and references after “A Study in Pink”, state in interviews that “it’s all about subtext”, to have Irene say she’s gay in “A Scandal in Belgravia” and refer to her falling for Sherlock as a mirror to John, and then be upset that fans took all the various references to John and Sherlock being a couple as a sign that this truly may become a ‘groundbreaking’ series (as they stated in several interviews) shows a surprisingly lack of understanding as to how fans work. Which – as a couple of fanboys themselves – shows that maybe it’s just the female fans they seem to not be able to understand.

If they wanted to build a heterosexual romance into Sherlock, they did a poor job of it. We never see a heterosexual romance actually develop as an overall story. There are very few – if any – scenes of a romantic nature between John and Mary, for example. We never see what brought them to date, we never see John tell Mary he loves her, we don’t see the actual wedding, and he’s shown as wanting to get out of the relationship within a month after they are married in “His Last Vow”.

Meanwhile, the snippets we get of Sherlock with Molly show that if that was the goal, she is not important at all to the relationship. And I am really disappointed that they didn’t have Molly continue on the path of learning to move on that we saw her on in Series 3. Take it from me: I know what unrequited love is like. And it is not healthy to still be that wrapped up in someone for so long. I honestly thought that Eurus had left the phone line open specifically so Molly could hear Sherlock say, “I won”, twisting the knife in further. But for them to just drop it, to not show her reaction as well, just was abjectly cruel to me. It finally dawned on me why this scene bothered me so much: it reminded me too much of those times when I would be asked out on a date, only to be told it was a joke.

And to have her come in so briefly at the end: the first time I saw that scene, I honestly didn’t recognize her at first. I thought it was supposed to be ‘adult’ Rosie. (As for Moffat’s response to wanting to see that reaction, I think my friend Allyson wrote a much better response in Bustle than I could.)

Poor Molly Hooper. You could’ve been something truly special.

Why even give Mary and John a kid? It was hardly a plot point in series 4. My only thought is that Moffat must think everyone wants to have kids, and similarly to the ‘romance will complete you’ line that John says in “The Lying Detective” (which is never even acknowledged in this episode), he thinks that kids make someone’s life have meaning. (Gee: can you tell I’m childfree by choice?)

However, if you didn’t view this series through a heteronormative lense – had John Watson been a Joan ala Elementary – media would’ve been all over the ‘Will they or won’t they?’ question the moment John asked Sherlock if he has a boyfriend. But we’re ‘reading too much into it’ that Mrs. Hudson, a woman who knew them intimately for two years, who knew Sherlock was emotional, assumes at the beginning of “The Empty Hearse” that they were together romantically. Don’t sit there and get all mad about how two men can’t be close without slash fans assuming they’re more but then expect me to see a man and a woman be friends and have us expect to leap to assume they’re romantic just because they share a screen together.

And so many plot holes – not just things that go against what had been set up in prior episodes, but within the episode itself. While one or two would be fine, the amount of leaps and bounds you have to make to keep a suspension of disbelief makes me want to become an acrobat. You do it enough times, I stop caring about the story, because I am constantly reminded I am watching ‘just a show’. The more I think about the episode, the more frustrated I get at how this just screams bad writing.

At least the glass reflects here?

We yet again see no consequences for what happens – not even within the episode. Eurus did terrible things in her pursuit of Sherlock – things that when Moriarty did them, they were irredeemable – but because she’s ‘family’, she’s saved at the end. Meanwhile, Sherlock’s supposed drug problem and John’s supposed drinking problem are both apparently cured, as no mention is made of either.

Those who like it are saying, “It’s a television show: it doesn’t have to make sense”. But here’s the thing: fiction has rules. And when you create a work of fiction, you set the rules for your own universe, and if you break the rules, it is considered bad writing. This episode continuously broke the rules of their own universe, and did not explain how those rules were able to be broken. When you do plot twists for the sake of them, it stops being about the show and starts being more about how clever you think you are as a writer.

One of the things that initially hooked me on this show was making the canon plot hole of Watson’s wandering wound be explained away as a psychosomatic limp. To me, this was our writers saying, ‘Yes, we know that ACD’s original tales were riddled with plot holes, and this will be different.’ It showed that this series would be grounded in reality. Alas, apparently not.

The Fandom

This episode has been about as divisive as the entire series 3 and 4 in the Sherlock fandom. Some have enjoyed the over the topness, while others have piled on hate. Which – if you liked the episode, I am glad that you did. Those that liked it are arguing that the plot holes and overly melodramatic aspects aren’t exactly new to this show, and they are right. Many who liked this episode have readily acknowledged that they started lowering their expectations after “The Empty Hearse”.

Admittedly, I think that part of the reason those (like me) are hating it so much is because that end monologue frames it as a clear indication of this being The End. So many of us had excused the bad writing and characterization of series 3 as either the writers playing a long game or that they were trying something new and different. With that end monologue that clearly indicates that this is intended to be thought of as the last episode, it told me that no, the show really had gone off the rails in series 3 after all. It was, as yet another fan stated, the heavy weight that this may very well be the last episode, and we got this episode. It made me re-evaluate every single episode prior, wondering if what I ‘excused’ away was really just a sign of bad writing after all.

It doesn’t help that the popularity of Cumberbatch and Freeman exploded between series 2 and 3. Now, I’m not saying that I wish they weren’t popular, but that definitely changed how the series was done and how it was perceived by the fans. After all, the third unmentioned character of the first two series was London itself. Once the popularity was such to where filming in London was problematic at best, the show had to adapt, but lost a little bit of what made it unique as well.

As one fan on Tumblr pointed out, many fans were drawn to this series because it was a modern interpretation. The use of the mobile phone, updating to a homeless network, a John Watson who suffered from PTSD but managed to work with it: this all showed that these characters (unlike the stories they were based on) were based in real life and in the way modern day television is presented. Sherlock and John were the focus of those first two series, and it was about their friendship, about ‘the two of them against the rest of the world’.

It’s not a game. But apparently it actually is?

But the relationship between Sherlock and John stopped mattering in “His Last Vow”, and – despite “The Abominable Bride” showing that they were partners after all – just got worse in series 4. The entire series just feels, as one fan put it, like misery porn and made me not like either Sherlock or John as a result.

In discussing this with a more casual fan, I was asked how much of my ire came from me being such a fan, whether my expectations were higher in order for this to fail so badly for me. Over the two weeks of the first two episodes, I had been thinking about all the signs that this show was nearing the end. And I had, in my fandom way, been wondering where the passion and time I had for Sherlock would focus on once it was in the past. I mean, I would still love the show, but what current thing would get that focus?

After all, I consume a lot of media, and I like most of what I consume. But the tricky thing of me being a writer is that I’m not sure if I count myself as a ‘fan’ of many of them. At least, not in the same way I counted myself a fan of Sherlock. And I know I shouldn’t try to find a replacement: Sherlock was like love, blindsiding me as I was watching it. But after that discussion about how much of my dislike was because I was a deep fan, I don’t know if I can easily see myself getting this emotionally involved in something else.

In discussing this with my significant other, I said – somewhat jokingly – that if they started seeing me get this involved in another media, I wanted them to turn to me and say, “Redbeard”. As a fan, I had expected so much better for the last episode. The sad moral of this series of Sherlock is, alas, that caring is not an advantage.

“The Final Problem” is still available to view on the PBS Masterpiece website if you’re in the United States, and on the BBC One website if you’re in the United Kingdom.

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