Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sherlock Finale

The BBC Sherlock series has finished its fourth season, which might be its last. The series has definitely had its ups and downs, and often there wasn't much worthwhile to critique.

But that last episode was the best Sherlock episode there has been, by far.

To be fair, it wasn't really much like a typical Sherlock episode. Solving the mystery of "who committed this crime" was not the central plot, but then, that hasn't been the plot of an episode since S3E2, so Sherlock has already gone fairly meta. This didn't just go meta (like the terrible tumblr-bating of S3E1) but dealt with its themes in an intelligent way making use of imagery and character archetypes.

This is a bit like saying that Majora's Mask was the best Zelda game. Or praising the extremely controversial adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in the David Suchet series. They're so good that you have to admit they aren't in keeping with the rest of the franchise, but are better for departing from it.

Sadly few of you have seen it. Maybe look into that. But today this blog is mostly going to criticize the terrible school of review that mis-judges episodes like this so badly.

Witness, the Onion AV Club review. "A borderline incoherent episode still manages to shine, thanks to the occasional dazzling moment"

Sigh. Thanks for letting us know its incoherent, but what is it saying?
Last, while the episode contains more visual clunkers than the average Sherlock outing—that Mycroft scare sequence is only unsettling for the briefest of moments, and the explosion of 221B has to be the single worst visual effect the show has ever filmed—it’s still a treat for the eyes, particularly the moment in which the walls of Sherlock’s prison fall away to reveal Musgrave. It’s worth the ridiculous notion that Sherlock would fail to notice the lack of glass between he and his sister for the breathtaking moment in which their hands meet, and the show’s familiar perspective-altering pans and falls remain surprising and unnerving.

Right, the episode has an extended interrogation scene where Sherlock stands opposite his sociopathic sister. She's in jail, he's the most respected detective in the world, and nothing like her. All that separates them is an impenetrable barrier of bulletproof glass, but that glass is the most important line in the world.

Except the glass doesn't exist at all and there's nothing dividing them.

You don't need a degree in literature to analyze this metaphor. It's not a "ridiculous notion", it's the entire damn point of the episode. (Including that Sherlock fails to notice things when his emotions distract him.) "You and I aren't so different; in fact were the same," represented with an optical illusion - that climaxes with the breathtaking shot of her grabbing his hand.

The symbolism in this episode is not subtle in the slightest. Even Sherlock does some literary interpretation, noting that his sister imagines herself on an airplane, because she is "so far above everyone" and she's calling him because he's the only one who can hear her. She plays with a toy plane throughout.

Sherlock must solve a series of puzzles accompanied by only Mycroft and Watson. They are referred to as representing his intellect and his heart repeatedly, but also his family and his friend. Every line of dialogue he has with them in that dungeon builds on these dichotomies, making it an effective character study of himself. (When forced to choose who lives, his "brain" sneeringly commands Sherlock to shoot the "heart", hoping to make killing the brain easier on him. Once the charade is uncovered, the brain/Mycroft still insists on himself being shot, but "don't shoot me in the head, shoot me in the heart.")

This is a very well written episode.

And for god's sake don't take the things said and done purely literally. What the hell is AV Club doing complaining about over complicated plot devices in an episode of Sherlock. As they acknowledge, the core of the plot is pretty simple, so just watch the thematic elements interact beautifully.

Something Eurus says herself when she declares, there never was a bomb in Molly's apartment, just two people emotionally tearing into each other.


  1. I certainly acknowledge that TFP was metaphorical and in that regard interesting. However, I think it's a strange choice as a conclusion to the cohesive unit of series four.

    At the beginning of the series, once Sherlock is pardoned for shooting Charles, he's solving mysteries and getting along great with Watson. TST is about the events leading to the death of Mary, which turns Watson against Sherlock. Then Sherlock receives a video message from Mary telling him to put his life into danger, so Watson reconciles with him. Putting us... back to the status quo of Sherlock and Watson collaborating on cases. Why did all of those things have to happen before TFP, then?

    It's completely different from series three. HLV was impossible without the slow build of TEH and TSOT.

    I just also don't understand why "who you really are doesn't matter" if simultaneously the kinship between Eurus and Sherlock - she made him who he is - saves the day.

    I could go on and on about this, but overall this is a comment in your blog and not a post on my blog. Suffice it to say, I'd be very interested in your opinion on whether TST and TLD were also metaphorical, or if they had loose hanging plot threads, in which case would TFP be the worse for not picking up those loose threads.

    1. Every episode, and every story, of Sherlock can be read as metaphorical. In fact the common fan terminologies for reading a story diagetically vs exegetically derive from Sherlock:

      Just as a metaphor, TFP (acronym for The Final Problem, then title of this episode) is particularly effective. The imagery is clear and powerful. The dialogue and situations express the themes between the trio well. (Eurus didn't read as kin with Sherlock, but as more specifically his inner self. All his jokes about being a high functioning sociopath, brought to terrifying life. She represented what Sherlock could be much better than Moriarty had.)

      It's true that this made the episode fairly out of sync with the rest of the season, and the series overall. But that sometimes just means "a really good thing amidst a pile of bad things." There series overall started clever but unimpressive, and degenerated into less clever. I'd happily just recommend TFP to people who haven't seen any of the TV series and only knew the base character archetypes of Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft. (I think the only thing really lost then would be the scenes with Moriarty and Molly, but they're probably self-explanatory.)

    2. I'd agree with those scenes being possible to piece together. It's true that Molly was given so few character traits besides "crush on Sherlock" that dimension isn't really added by viewing her scenes beforehand. If anything, hearing the line "it's not like in the movies, a huge burst of blood and then you go flying backwards" would only add to the confusion of all the gunshot scenes in the fourth series, precisely like the movies. Likewise, Moriarty is a little fuzzy but his scenes are already nonlinear by definition; even the familiar viewer is likely to be in doubt during the minutes before that "five years ago" subtitle appears.

      To clarify, I meant kin in the sense of having a familial relationship; Eurus supposedly wanted all along to be hugged by her brother specifically, rather than find friendship with someone else. Or perhaps "I had no one" means that she tried and failed to find other friends, and returned to the conclusion that only a family member would forgive her. Now, taking it as a metaphor that Eurus is a metaphor for Sherlock's inner self and this is about facing your dark side eyes-open and so on, I find it all the stranger that the episode concludes with "who you really are, it doesn't matter; it’s all about the legend, the stories, the adventures." As you say, yourself, "Solving the mystery of who committed this crime was not the central plot." Wasn't the entire episode an exploration of character/identity and not plot/mystery? When the monologue dismisses character/identity in favor of plot/mystery? That's what I have trouble reconciling.

    3. Eurus's role isn't as kin to Sherlock. She specifically labels Mycroft as that role. And she shows no interest in her brother Mycroft caring for her, she's not just "looking for a brother, anyone." She's perfectly eager for Mycroft to be blown away, but shuts down the entire experiment if Sherlock is in danger.

      The whole experiment is a replication of what happened some thirty years ago. Sherlock had a brainy sister and a sweet friend representing emotions (certainly Redbeard doesn't really exist as a full character). He chose the emotion/friend, so his brain/family side killed him. This causes a crisis whereby the brain "won" but its worst impulses were repressed to some dungeon basement. Now it wishes to repeat the whole cycle (particularly with her disdainful study of how emotional context effects Sherlock.)

      Sherlock's brain was very lonely, and has continued to be throughout his life. Only recently has he begun to come out of that shell.

      For the last monologue at the end, you should always be skeptical of exposition in cinema. If the imagery conflicts with the exposition, conclude the exposition is lying (or naive or misled.) This is generally the case.

      So. The episode's dilemma was solved by Sherlock threatening himself, rather than choosing brain or emotions. How does that match up to someone saying "Who you really are, it doesn't matter?"