This review is based off the season premiere and will contain spoilers.
Consequence was the name of the game this episode. A fitting overall theme it was too, as the show will be dealing with the aftermath of this instalment’s shocking ending for seemingly the rest of the season. In the reams of pre-publicity surrounding the long-awaited fourth outing of Sherlock, the cast and crew routinely spoke about this being the darkest, most dramatic run of the show yet, and this episode proves they weren’t kidding.
Things start off light enough when we get a quick tidying-up of the leftovers from season 3. Due to Moriarty’s apparent return, Sherlock is let off his murder charge and endeavors to solve the case of his nemesis’ reappearance by simply doing his usual thing – cracking mysteries and being rude to people. Meanwhile, Mary finally has her baby – named Rosamund Mary. Cue lots of fun moments as the Watsons have to juggle raising a newborn and going off on adventures with Sherlock. If this was an episode of the more comedic third season, this probably would have been the plot of the whole thing. Not so here, though.
A mysterious death leads Sherlock into investigating a string of breakages of statuettes depicting late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The answer shockingly revolves around Mary’s past – a past that she’s finally paying for. With her life, in fact, as happens in the episode’s heartbreaking denouement. Yes, Mary Watson is no more and her death presumably sets the tone for a much edgier season where all the bets are off.
As episodes where a main character dies often are, this will definitely go down as a controversial outing for the show and one that, while frequently exciting, has its flaws. While it made narrative sense, considering her imminent demise, there was perhaps too much of an emphasis on Mary this week. The character’s introduction back in season 3 worried fans who thought she’d take the spotlight away from Sherlock and John. Though that was avoided last season, that’s exactly what happens here, as her past life as an assassin forms the bulk of the plot.
To be clear, any misgivings we have about spending so much time with Mary is not down to Amanda Abbington’s performance. She nails both the hardnosed ex-secret agent and the quip-happy wife side of Mary and manages to bring them together into one believable, likeable character. The problem is that, while other shows can get away with largely devoting an episode to just one person, Sherlock offers up so few that each one has to cover the whole board.
Another element that will prove controversial is the characterization of Watson here. Again, Martin Freeman is never less than excellent in the show (his finest moment in this episode comes in John’s guttural cry as he holds his dead wife in his arms). However, the scenes which see him continually emotionally cheat on his wife with a stranger come across as strangely out of character for the famously loyal doctor. Likewise, his immediate dismissal of Sherlock after his wife’s death seems blinkered and unfair. Such artificial conflict isn’t Sherlock‘s usual style and we certainly hope that there’s a bigger, cleverer plan at work here.
Any grievances that might be had from the episode are forgotten, however, when we get to spend time with Sherlock himself. As much as we might love the Watsons, the side characters and the clever mysteries, let’s face it, we’re really here for Benedict Cumberbatch’s generation-defining portrayal of the Great Detective.
The season 4 premiere must have been a real treat for the actor, as he gets to wrestle with some broad comedy, action-hero stunts, and grief. Sherlock’s journey is also significantly furthered in this episode, as he climbs up another few rungs on the ladder towards full-on heroism and humanity. The character seems to have developed an overhanging sense of his own mortality, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.
Helping move things along at a nice pace is Mark Gatiss’ script, which is quite strong. Though not his best for the series, he clearly relishes taking the show into a more serious direction, as well as providing lots of customary laughs in the episode’s first half. Sure, at times it is more indulgent and self-aggrandising than Sherlock originally was, but that comes with the sense of doom that’s being set up this year.
Rachel Talalay’s direction deserves a mention as well. A firm geek favorite thanks to her recent work on the likes of Doctor Who and The Flash, she brings a more action-orientated energy to the show. Make no mistake, this is surely Sherlock‘s most explosive episode yet. There are tense Mexican standoffs, hostage situations, torture scenes, etc. In particular, one action scene – where Sherlock gets stuck in a brutal fight with an intruder – comes across as something torn straight from a Jason Bourne or James Bond movie.
Whatever the pros and cons of the rest of the episode, it’s the tragic climax in the London Aquarium – with the action evocatively framed with sharks looking out from their tanks – for which the season 4 premiere will be remembered. All the elements of the series come together to make it a real show-stopper, as it’s a well-scripted scene from Gatiss, expertly directed by Talalay, and beautifully played by the core trio of Cumberbatch, Freeman and Abbington. Outside of the mise-en-scene, the break-up of the Watsons’ marriage gains extra poignancy, due to the much-publicized real-life split between Freeman and Abbington.
Consequence was the name of the game this episode, but now the game is over, as the tagline of this season states, and things are about to get even more serious. It might not be perfect, then, but “The Six Thatchers” is a shocking opener for Sherlock whose flaws are probably just teething problems as the show adjusts to its new mentality. Roll on episodes two and three.
Sherlock's fourth season kicks off with a bang in a thrilling, if imperfect, episode that sets up the show's newfound darker tone.