Emotional Context. Sherlock: “The Final Problem”

We’ve come to the end of the fourth season of Sherlock, and perhaps the last episode of the show. (For the moment there are no plans to make more Sherlock, as its stars have plenty of other projects on their plates.) So let’s see where “The Final Problem” leaves Sherlock Holmes and John Watson… and also fans of the show, who have been along for the ride since 2010.


Summary

Sherlock and John perform a very scary prank on Mycroft to coerce him into admitting that they have a sister. (Eurus thankfully only shot John with a tranquilizer.) He explains that Eurus is the baby of the family—one year younger than Sherlock—a genius of a purest and highest order, and that Sherlock has blocked her from his memory; Mycroft used the little poem about the east wind as a trigger on his brother now and again to see if he was remembering her. He also tells them that part of the reason Sherlock blocked her out is because she seemed to have killed his childhood dog Redbeard, and then set the family home (called Musgrave, after “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”) on fire. After that she was taken away to a place called Sherrinford, where England keeps all of its most dangerous criminals… and that he has told their parents that she is long dead. Mycroft insists that there is no possible way that she could have escaped the place to see both John and Sherlock in the interim, but as they are certain, they infiltrate Sherrinford together.

Mycroft explains that Eurus is capable of “reprogramming” people by spending just a short time with them, and they soon find out that the governor of Sherrinford is also under her power. Sherlock, John, and Mycroft are trapped in a sort of puzzle maze that Eurus wants Sherlock to solve. Their motivation is a little girl alone on an airplane where all the occupants are unconscious—if they solve Eurus’s puzzles, she’ll let them help the girl land the plane. She starts by having Sherlock hand a gun to John or Mycroft to kill the governor or she’ll kill his wife. Both Mycroft and John can’t manage it, so the governor kills himself and his wife is still murdered by Eurus. The next room contains clues from a cold case that Sherlock has to solve with three possible suspects. Eurus says she will drown the man who did it, but once Sherlock condemns the guilty one, she drops the other two instead. When he calls her on it, she drowns the guilty one as well, citing no difference.

The next room contains a coffin with the words “I love you” written on the lid. Eurus tells Sherlock to call Molly Hooper and get her to say those words to him without explaining that her life is as stake or she’ll die in three minutes. Sherlock manages to get Molly to say the words after saying them first himself. He has a breakdown and pummels the coffin meant for her to pieces. In the next room, Eurus tells Sherlock to kill either John or Mycroft. Mycroft starts being horrible about John, telling Sherlock to get rid of him and insulting him; Sherlock knows Mycroft is behaving this way to make it easier to kill him rather than John. Sherlock refuses to go through with the plan and threatens to kill himself in ten seconds. The trio are shot with tranquilizers.

Sherlock wakes in a fake room that built on the grounds of the old family home. He can hear John, who is trapped at the bottom of a well with bones. The well begins to flood. Sherlock can also hear the girl on the plane, and Eurus as well, who is trying to help jog his memory. She tells him that Redbeard was never a dog, and Sherlock finally remembers that Redbeard was the pirate that his childhood friend Victor Trevor pretended to be when they played together. Eurus murdered his best friend, never having one of her own. Finally Sherlock decodes Eurus’s old east wind song using the misdated headstones on the family property and realizes that the girl in the plane is Eurus herself, a metaphor she constructed as a means of asking Sherlock for help. He finds her in her old room and assures her that he is there for her and she’s not alone, then asks her to help him find John. They get John out of the well in time.

Mycroft has to explain to their parents what truly happened to Eurus, and they’re furious with him for keeping her from them for so long. Eurus is sent back to Sherrinford, but Sherlock comes to visit and they play the violin together, sometimes with the whole family in tow. (She was the one who taught Sherlock to play when they were children.) John and Sherlock find another DVD recording from Mary where she tells them that she knows they will be alright because this life they have eked out together is who they’re meant to be. There’s a montage of case-solving at 221B with little Rosie and old friends nearby as the episode comes to a close.

Commentary

This is potentially the end of Sherlock as a series (and certainly is the end for the foreseeable future), and while this episode has some beautiful emotional arcs just like the rest of this season… it’s sort of a great big honking mess.

So there’s a secret sister, of course, and she’s evil because of course she is, and she is given a highly unlikely circumstance to meet Jim Moriarty under because his presence had to be explained away somehow. (When the hell did they record all those footage snippets? While he was standing there during their five minutes? Did she give him a list that he recorded outside of Sherrinford and then left under a floorboard somewhere for her to retrieve? Yeah, this makes sense.) Their sister is branded as a genius/psychopath of the highest order who was taken away by a character we’ve never seen and only heard of once before (guess Uncle Rudy is somehow way more important than we were led to believe?) kept locked away for the protection of everyone else. No one is permitted to speak with her, so no one has ever attempted to help her, but Mycroft frequently asks for her input on matters of state.

But at the same time, their sister has managed to lay her hands on a network that can broadcast Jim Moriarty’s face to the entirety of England, a drone with a motion sensor grenade attached to it, countless wigs and props and color eye contacts, a coffin to fit Molly Hooper, and a weapon attached to a specific but entirely separate murder case. Suspension of disbelief can be helpful when enjoying a fictional plot, but I would have to suspend my disbelief across the Grand flipping Canyon in order to make this narrative work, no matter how many people Eurus can “reprogram” to do her bidding. By the way, the reprogramming thing doesn’t seem remotely plausible either and it really needs to be in order for the entire premise of the episode to work.

Sherlock seaons 4, The Final Problem

The performances are gorgeous, and perhaps that makes it hurt even more. Cumberbatch, Freeman, and Gatiss are all in top form here, and the immediacy of these relationships have never felt more present, more emotionally charged. All three of them learn from one another as a result of this event, and it’s heartbreaking every step of the way, from John’s insistence that they be soldiers to Mycroft’s nasty denouncement of John as a means to goad Sherlock into killing him with a clear conscience. But the framing device just a disaster in every direction. Frankly, I would have taken a plot where some version of Sebastian Moran (Moriarty’s second in command in the stories) dropped Sherlock, Mycroft, and John in some creepy puzzle house of horror left by Jim Moriarty in the event of his death over… whatever the hell this was supposed to be. The atmosphere is brilliant and the rest of it is all over the place.

Most importantly, the motivations here are sloppy because no matter how gracefully Benedict Cumberbatch cries nothing can fix the fact that Eurus (somewhat predictably) is not treated as a human being but rather a plot device. The story leapfrogs from one motivation to another where her character is concerned, never attempting to convince the audience on any front as to what she really needs. At first it seems that this is a revenge plot to punish Mycroft and Sherlock for keeping her hidden away all these years. Then it seems to be just another chance to hurt Sherlock by depriving him of friendship, the same way that she did when they were children. Then it somehow morphs into a story about how Eurus was always trying to communicate her loneliness to Sherlock since childhood, and he failed to understand. But it’s hard to believe any of these explanations because they’re never put across with any care or credulity. They’re just steps in this week’s game for Sherlock to parse out.

The other problem with Eurus is that her mental state is rendered irresponsibly across the board. By painting her extreme intelligence as this frightening problem, the episode lands a vague assertion that once a person hits a certain level of genius they are automatically a sociopath, incapable of seeing the value in life and morality (not a particularly interesting or accurate assumption to go on). When you’ve spent an entire television show proving that just because Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes are smart doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings or value people, drawing their sister in a way that deliberately conflates her remarkable intelligence with an ability to place value on life is neither smart nor believable.

In fact, it seems fair to say that Eurus Holmes is what we get for the years that Sherlock has spent making this precise mistake. Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and Benedict Cumberbatch have spent all this time assuring audiences that while Sherlock claims to be a “high-functioning sociopath” that is merely a lie he tells himself to keep distance from the world. Other fans have related to the character for appearing to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, though Sherlock was never consciously written to embody that (despite John’s quip to Lestrade about him having Asperger’s). But even if there was never a name for a specific condition, the show has played with the veneer of “genius begets mental-illness-as-superpower” for years now, only to stretch that veneer to the absolute limit where Eurus is concerned; she begins as a towering villain who can control a person by blinking and speaking a few select words, but her genius is really meant to be a prison that has kept her completely isolated. Without a clear understanding of how mental illness truly affects people, none of this is well-conceived or even remotely respectful. It’s just there to make Eurus Holmes whatever the show needs her to be.

As an emotional overarching journey for Sherlock, it’s a strange one, too. The point the audience is clearly meant to take away is “oh that’s why Sherlock distanced himself from people. He lost his best friend as a child and repressed the memory and most of his emotions in the process.” And while the addition of Victor Trevor to this narrative is clever (for those not in the know, Victor Trevor was canonically Holmes’s university pal and BFF before meeting John Watson, introduced in “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”), the idea that this has been the long game the show was playing at all along—that Sherlock withdrew from the world because of this specific childhood trauma—is a step too far, answering a question that didn’t need such an explicit address. What’s more, the answer isn’t satisfying; the idea that Sherlock instead had difficulty connecting due to being a few steps mentally removed from your average person was far more intricate and fascinating.

The only character that this arc manages to make better sense of is Mycroft to my mind: it works well to say that this version of Mycroft Holmes takes a more active role (rather than sitting on his butt in the Diogenes Club for all eternity) in the world around him because his little brother was traumatized by an event in his early childhood, and he decided to step up in order to shelter and protect Sherlock. But that still doesn’t answer any questions in regard to what Eurus’s goal was in all this. She played a remarkably complicated game of making friends with Moriarty, pretending to be Culverton Smith’s daughter and John’s therapist, all for the sake of getting Sherlock to Sherrinford in order to get him to solve puzzles and finally figure out the answer to her song riddle—why? Was he her favorite sibling, and she wanted his attention? Was she jealous of Sherlock having a best friend when she had none, and decided to rob him of another one? What was the ultimate goal of any of this? Because by the end of the episode it’s entirely unclear if Eurus has actually achieved anything she set out to do… or if that was even the point.

Also, apparently we’re still not going to talk about the fact that John flirted with her via text for… a while. Just really not going to address that at all, huh? Okay.

Sherlock seaons 4, The Final Problem
At least it was fun to see Jim Moriarty again, even in flashback. I’ve missed that guy. The videos got real silly after a while, unfortunately, so it wasn’t quite the party it could have been. His partnership with Eurus is pointless to the entire narrative, honestly. Not in a good red herring way, just in a well-that’s-one-way-to-excuse-a-seeming-resurrection kind of way.

And while most of those tactics in the puzzle maze of death where fun and clever when separated out from the central storyline, I’m pretty furious over how poor Molly was abused yet again. Why was she already upset before Sherlock called? Because if there’s something else going on in her life that’s sad, we deserve to know it. But if the point is that she’s just constantly depressed over Sherlock, then I’m going to head over and blow up 221B myself because Molly is a complete human being with wants and dreams and activities that do not always involve her pining after Sherlock Holmes and she deserves better than this. It’s been four entire seasons, come on. She’s allowed to move on no matter how much you need her to wring emotions out of your plot.

(By the way, does anyone believe that so many of their possessions and furniture remained intact after the explosion in Baker Street? I feel like most of their stuff probably melted, is all.)

And then we get that ridiculous button video from Mary at the end! WHEN DO THESE PEOPLE GET ALL THIS TIME TO RECORD VIDEO MESSAGES? IS THERE A SPECIAL PLACE YOU GO TO MAKE LIFE-AFTER-DEATH VINES AND YOUTUBE CLIPS? The video voiceover is supposed to be heartwarming, but it’s just not subtle enough. It’s like “hey, the showrunners wanted to write their own special outro to the story, but they had to use this dead woman as a mouthpiece, and it’s really awkward to hear these cute little cliches come out of her mouth.”

I’ll take it because all I really wanted to see was Sherlock and John solving cases while co-parenting Rosie, but… there had to be a better way to get that little monologue in.

Yet still with all that said, if all these people wanted to come back with another episode of Sherlock in five, or fifteen, or thirty years, I’d happily plop down in front of the television. It’s time to put this version of Holmes to bed for now, but I’ll miss it all the same.

Emily Asher-Perrin did think it was cute that they were running out of Rathbone Place at the end. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr. Read more of her work here and elsewhere.

52 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!