Sherlock S4 recap: A cavalcade of WTF?

Robert Viglasky, Hartswood Films/BBC

Sherlock Season 4 | “The Final Problem” | Aired Jan. 15, 2017

So…what was that?!

Look, let me say upfront for the diehard fans that there were parts of “The Final Problem” that actually started tugging at my heartstrings and had me visibly scared and tense. The treatment of Eurus’ tests was over-the-top (more on that), but the emotional effects, as shown through Sherlock, John and Mycroft’s conversations, were what sold the scenes. I do have to give it up to Benedict Cumberbatch for handling his share of volatile emotions in this episode. This was the episode where we finally saw Sherlock break down all of his walls to once again become that emotional little boy he was at his ancestral home many years ago.

But let’s get real, here—this episode was a head-to-toe mess. I read a Daily Mail review by Christopher Stevens, and he’s not wrong. This episode featured Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss at their most indulgent, most self-congratulatory, and possibly most offensive. Let’s go through each thing I’ve got to say with bullet points.

The treatment of women: We already know Moffat has a record of strange treatment of his female characters. But I have to say that the treatment of women throughout this season in particular was largely rudimentary at absolute best, and paternally coddling at worst. I’m not sure if that last description gets truly at the heart of what I’m trying to put into words, but the jist of it is that the women characters in this season were mostly written to provide (as Eurus kept saying) emotional context to the men (and the default Stars-with-a-capital-S) of this series.

Every woman exists because of how they serve the emotional arc of a man. Mary was underwritten so as not to completely get in the way of John and Sherlock’s friendship/romance/bromance, but then she was also hilariously written as a spy. We never get to know her well enough to know why she ever fell in that line of work, which makes the whole “She’s a spy!” exercise pointless. Yes, there should be well-rounded, tough women on screen, but they can’t just be doing stuff for the sake of doing it; they have to be actual characters with 3D emotions. The case with Mary was that she was never made to be a well-rounded character. We never get to know her, her motivations, her likes or dislikes–all we know is that she loves John, impossibly and immediately loves Sherlock (even Sherlock came back from the dead during their date) and is besotted with the idea of matchmaking her husband to his best friend (like, what even was that last DVD message?). Does any of that make sense for a married woman’s emotional motivation or characterization? Not to me, it doesn’t. Then, to top it off, Mary’s death occurs to give John an emotional character moment and to bring John and Sherlock back together as a team (or more, seeing how Mary kept trying to get them together).

Mrs. Hudson is also loosely defined as a “tough” woman character, even though we never get to know her really. Like Mary, she’s largely an archetype, something that will play well on Tumblr and other social networks where the hardcore fans will eat up her mannerisms and almost non-sequiturs as witty British humor. IT’S NOT WITTY BRITISH HUMOR! It’s ill-defined characterization! As much as Mrs. Hudson might say she’s not their bloody houskeeper, she’s still their bloody housekeeper. More accurately, she’s their bloody mom. Her whole character is designed to take care of Sherlock without question. That’s such a limiting position to be in for her character.

Molly is much in the same vein, but to a more tragic degree. Molly is the person Sherlock has an emotionally abusive relationship with. For much of the earlier seasons, it seemed like he only took delight in making her upset. Now, we’re supposed to believe that Sherlock and Molly are all right? Especially after this particular episode, when Sherlock had to get Molly to say something she didn’t want to say because she didn’t want to get hurt? There’s no fallout from that?

Molly was in literal tears during this episode, and are we supposed to believe that even though she showed backbone during that scene and finally had enough of Sherlock’s games (at the wrong time, of course—Eurus was threatening to kill her) that Molly is still an eternal well of support and love for Sherlock at the very end of the episode? SIGH. All of the emotional depth she showed in that scene, which did define Molly as an individual character with feeling, got erased when we see her at the end, smiling, seemingly having forgotten all of the trauma Sherlock put her through (in order to save her, I know, but still…) It also puts Molly in the position of acting as a Female Companion to Prove Sherlock Is Not Straight, something I’ll get into later.

Even Eurus, who was the smartest woman in this series (even more so than Irene, who is also designed just to serve as an emotional counterpoint to Sherlock) ends up serving the men in this story. For much of the episode, we see Eurus as someone who can’t understand emotion and therefore creates horrifying games and experiments to study human interaction. For much of the episode, she’s completely in control. But when we actually need to get the mystery solved, she becomes a completely different character.

Sherlock finds out that all Eurus wants is her brother to pay attention to her, and her mind seems to regress back to the state of a child. But whereas we should be focusing more on Eurus’ mental distress, we’re focused more on how this news affects Sherlock. Eurus might be the killer here, but she’s also the one who’s been in mental distress for decades, locked in her own head, whereas Sherlock at least had the mercy of grief distorting his memories. While we hear Eurus talk about her distress, we always see Sherlock live his–we see his memories as he pieces them back together. We see through his eyes all the time. We only see Eurus, whether in adult or flashback kid form, as an observer looking in.

The women could have been written stronger, and I think this lack of character strength really brings down the entirety of the season. If you’re going to have women on your show, make them actually autonomous beings with their own end goals. Don’t make them solely serve the character arcs of the men.

BBC

The treatment of mental illness: I’m saying upfront that I’m not clinician when it comes to mental illness, so forgive me if I get some things wrong, but I’m also someone who researches, so I’m linking to everything I’m using for this particular segment.

To me, it seems like there was a conflation of ideas when it came to autism and clinical psychopathy. First, let’s get into autism and autism spectrum disorder, which doesn’t have just one defined way of appearing in a person. As WebMD states:

Autism is a complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. Because of the range of symptoms, this condition is now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Symptoms of autism include, according to WebMD:

  • Social interactions and relationships. Symptoms may include:

    • Significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills, such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expressions, and body posture.
    • Failure to establish friendships with children the same age.
    • Lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people.
    • Lack of empathy. People with autism may have difficulty understanding another person’s feelings, such as pain or sorrow.
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication. Symptoms may include:

    • Delay in, or lack of, learning to talk. As many as 40% of people with autism never speak.1
    • Problems taking steps to start a conversation. Also, people with autism have difficulties continuing a conversation after it has begun.
    • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language. People with autism often repeat over and over a phrase they have heard previously (echolalia).
    • Difficulty understanding their listener’s perspective. For example, a person with autism may not understand that someone is using humor. They may interpret the communication word for word and fail to catch the implied meaning.
  • Limited interests in activities or play. Symptoms may include:

    • An unusual focus on pieces. Younger children with autism often focus on parts of toys, such as the wheels on a car, rather than playing with the entire toy.

    • Preoccupation with certain topics. For example, older children and adults may be fascinated by video games, trading cards, or license plates.

    • A need for sameness and routines. For example, a child with autism may always need to eat bread before salad and insist on driving the same route every day to school.

    • Stereotyped behaviors. These may include body rocking and hand flapping.

Conversely, clinical psychopathy is defined, according to William Hirstein, Ph.D of Psychology Today, involves these symptoms:

Being uncaring and showing a lack of empathy, exhibiting shallow or lack of emotion, such as guilt, embarrassment, fear, and shame, insincere speech (aka lying), the inability to take blame for their actions, overconfidence and a narrowing of attention. Kara Mayer Robinson for WebMD goes further and says that psychopaths, not sociopaths, don’t have a conscience.

A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” [L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. of the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center] says.

To me, it seems like the writing tried to make Eurus fall in between a flat reading of autism (what with Eurus saying several times that she has trouble reading emotions and body language) and psychopathy. In other words, the writing took the “greatest hits,” if you will, of both conditions and used that to create a villainous character that they tried to humanize by the end, despite the fact that her claim to villain fame was being a cold-blooded killer.

But did it have to be this way? It’s really a cliche at this point to make the psychopath or a sociopath a killer, when not everyone diagnosed as such becomes a criminal. Most of the time, they’re only out to meet their own needs or wants. To quote Robinson:

In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the villains who kill or torture innocent people. In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.

“At worst, they’re cold, calculating killers,” [Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex] says. Others, he says, are skilled at climbing their way up the corporate ladder, even if they have to hurt someone to get there.

The stereotype of the clinical psychopath as a killer is pervasive in our culture. Now, I’m not saying we have to excuse behavior, but it would be cool of a show decided to not make their killer have some kind of mental issue or, as you’ll see below, be linked to queerness.

BBC

The treatment of high- and low-key LGBT themes in this episode and throughout the entire four seasons: I could go into deep detail about every moment in the series that queerbaits the audience, but this season both provides Johnlock shippers with a Johnlock ending while still providing the men with women-as-beards (yet again utilizing women as props for the men’s character development). This season, we have Molly that becomes the last beard for Sherlock (of course, there’s still Irene, who’s mentioned in this episode in relation to love) and the last beard for this series.

There’s no way Sherlock actually loves Molly outside of friendship, and there’s no way Sherlock and Irene would ever make sense as a couple, just like Mary and John’s relationship made no sense. First, it doesn’t help that the women are written within cookie-cutter parameters. But what also doesn’t help is how Mark Gatiss himself has said that he indulges in teasing the audience about the will-they/won’t-they aspect of Sherlock and John’s relationship. Or better yet, he indulges in teasing about whether John realizes he is along a sexual spectrum and how okay he is with that. As I wrote recently, Irene’s conversation with John in Season 2 basically acted as a canonical way of telling John that he does, in fact, have feelings for Sherlock. The fact that this conversation is never brought up again is a character development moment that went undefined.

But outside of John and Sherlock’s relationship, we have Moriarty, who has been confirmed as being, if not gay, bisexual or pansexual. Also, Sherlock insinuates that Eurus may have raped a female guard. First, the fact that rape is casually discussed in this season is appalling by itself. But also disturbing is how LGBT characters are linked to criminality and violence, once again associating queerness with villainy. That’s a trope that has long been beaten to death, so it’s sad that it’s happening in a show of supposedly high caliber as Sherlock.

Lastly, the seeming dismissal of the fans by the creators is little irritating. You can’t bait the audience and then get mad when they don’t get what they were expecting. There is a reason Sherlock Holmes books and this show are at the center of queer media critique, and there should be a level of respect for that type of decades-long scholarship.

Robert Viglasky, Hartswood Films/BBC

 

The actual episode itself: Overall, I think the characters were largely all over the place. Perhaps the most consistent character was Mycroft, but that’s also because he’s broad. But Sherlock was uncharacteristically emotional, even considering the fact that his proverbial walls were coming down, and John was back to the old John before Mary, which seemed to show just how throwaway Mary ended up being as a character.

The editing tried to make up for the fact that there were gaping plotholes in the plot. How do they survive the jump from 221B after the explosion? How did they end up on that boat? How did Eurus get the glass removed and suspend the signs? How could Sherlock not realize there wasn’t glass when there were never reflections? How did things like that get past the writers? And why were the transitions, which were clearly made to distract you from the bad plot, so bad? Particularly bad was that transition after John gets pistolwhipped after Eurus tried to first kill Sherlock. The screen spins around as if it was an Adam West Batman sequence. I was floored. Equally floored was the freeze-frame ending featuring John and Sherlock running towards the next case. I have seen bad stuff before, but that was horrendous. Worse, it was lazy, for all of the effort put into it.

Robert Viglasky, Hartswood Films/BBC

Final thoughts (since this might be the series finale): The acting is the only thing that carried this finale through. But the treatment of the characters, particularly Sherlock, is really sad. If you think back to the first-ever episode, you can tell how well-defined the characters are. They are also characters defined by the real world; there would have never been an Eurus who can control people (how?) and seemingly electronics (again, how??). Instead, what we had was Sherlock who was tied to his mobile phone, Mycroft and his assistant, disaffected government officials who also live on their phones. Lestrade and his police crew who can’t live with Sherlock and can’t live without him. All of these characters, even Sherlock, seem like someone you could possibly run into (perhaps you might only run into someone like Sherlock or Mycroft at a MENSA meeting or something, but that’s also me devolving into stereotype). What I’m saying is they were relatable, regardless of how extraordinary they were. They were human and they were developed characters.

What we’ve gotten now is a show that is so satisfied with itself that it’s gotten lazy. For me the coup the grace was the level of nepotism involved in the later seasons’ cast. Cumberbatch’s parents as Sherlock’s parents, Amanda Abbington—Martin Freeman’s partner—as Mary, and Gatiss, one of the co-writers as one of the main secondary characters? That’s a lot. The writing also seems to take itself too seriously, thinking it’s so funny, so insightful, so witty. The gag is that the script isn’t saying anything new, even though it thinks it is. It’s just an exercise in ego. As Stevens said in his review, the show has become twee, to an antagonizing degree.

Overall, this last episode was largely crap, with only golden moments clumped together towards the middle. It’s a sad way to end the series.

Update: Information on autism now from WebMD to reflect concerns over the ethics of AutismSpeaks

  • KS Morgan

    Perfectly said, nothing to add here! Thank you for such a detailed, insightful review!

  • Bob T

    Ridiculous. The episode was terrific, I loved it!

  • MacKenzie Patton-Donnelly

    This is the best review of TFP I’ve read, utterly well done!
    Quick question though: can you provide a reference for when Gatiss admitted he enjoyed toying with the will they/won’t they aspect of John&Sherlock?

    Thanks!

  • MacKenzie Patton-Donnelly

    Best review of TFP I’ve read yet, utterly well done.
    One question though: when did Mark say he enjoyed toying with the will they/wont they aspect of John&Sherlock?

  • Romina Jones

    Couldn’t disagree more, really enjoyed the episode but to each their own. I really appreciated that the creators took big risks with the narrative. I will say as one fan this show is about Sherlock and Watson and I personally don’t want anymore screen time for characters such as Molly or Mary because the show is not about them, and in this case they are there to serve the story of the main characters of the show. This is not an ensemble show. Whether it is Mycroft, Mrs Hudson, Moriarty or Euros damn right they are there to serve the narrative of Sherlock and Watson. If people want the Molly and Mary show then make a spin-off, which I won’t be watching, but don’t cut into Sherlock and Watson time to give me more Molly, I’m not here for her very few are.

    • Joe

      I agree to the part about it being about Watson and Holmes completly. However I get why now, after their relationship hasnt been advanced on properly (queerreading etc) I get these points of criticism a lot more. I enjoyed it partially too, but the plotholes and queerreading (or in the worst case, queerbaiting) can not go unseen.

  • Skyluv101

    I really liked this article, and I agree with all of the points made, however just a bit of advice from an autistic person: Autism Speaks is a very bad organization (bordering on hate group) so you maybe might want to get your sources from elsewhere?

    I don’t have enough time to explain the details of it properly at the moment, so here’s a link to one piece on it that I’ve found, however there are numerous others just like it written by fellow autistic people if you look it up:
    https://autismwomensnetwork.org/is-autism-speaks-a-hate-group/

    • Thanks for letting me know about AutismSpeaks; this was a point of ignorance for me, so thanks for illuminating me. I’ve since changed the article to showcase information on autism from a different source.

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