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TV Review: Sherlock "The Six Thatchers"

The show is back and the game is on.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

With the exception of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (currently winding down a six-year dry spell), no series on television resurfaces as infrequently as the BBC’s Sherlock. Due to the bustling Hollywood careers of leads Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the stars need to perfectly align for another season of the detective drama to come to fruition, resulting in a three-year gulf between seasons (broken up only by last year’s trifling one-off "The Abominable Bride"). For a series whose seasons only run a scant three episodes (albeit each 90 minutes long), this leads to an irregularity comparable less to other television series than to Halley’s Comet. Sherlock is the star that burns twice as bright and an eighth as long. Get it while you can because it won’t be around for long, and its return is far off on the horizon, if it arrives at all.

“The Six Thatchers,” the fourth season premiere (and only the eleventh episode generated since 2010), is aware of the show’s uniquely limited time on the stage and wastes no time dawdling around. Quickly we deal with the baggage left over from where we left off, with Sherlock (Cumberbatch) quickly exonerated for the murder of Charles Augustus Magnusson in the eyes of the British government thanks to the manipulations of his coldly influential brother Mycroft (series creator Mark Gatiss). Immediately Sherlock is back at work, solving cases via text with the speed that most of us would expend typing “OK” to confirm dinner plans. However, his true focus is on the still-mysterious posthumous plans of his archenemy Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Sherlock’s partner, John Watson (Freeman), has fallen into a state of domesticity as his wife, former assassin Mary (Amanda Abbington), has just given birth to their daughter, Rosamund. He’s content, yet bristles a bit at the strictures of family life.

With Moriarty’s scheme not yet presenting itself, Sherlock finds a viable distraction with a brain-teaser of a case involving a body found incinerated in a car crash that had apparently already been dead for a week prior. While this matter piques Sherlock’s interest, he actually solves it quite quickly and without much fanfare, but finds a greater distraction in the client’s recently stolen bust of Margaret Thatcher, a wholly unrelated crime. For reasons that are unclear even to Sherlock himself, he sees a bigger picture encompassing this bust, one possibly Moriarty-flavored. He discovers that only six of these busts were produced and that thefts of each are systematically transpiring. He manages to get the drop on the culprit while one such theft is in progress and discovers that Moriarty isn’t the nucleus of this case, but that Mary is. The thief is a member of her former team of assassins and he wants her dead, blaming his capture and torture after their final, botched assignment on her.

It’s with the Mary revelation that “The Six Thatchers” careens away from being a standard Sherlock romp and becomes something darker and more impactful. Mary decides that she is a danger to John and Rosamund, so she decides to vanish into the wind to protect them, randomly deciding upon destinations so as to circumvent even Sherlock’s keen detection, though she isn’t successful, finding Sherlock already present upon her arrival in Morocco. Sherlock promises both Mary and John that he can keep them safe, and though he quickly sniffs out the true architect behind Mary’s troubles, he finds himself unable to intervene when Mary throws herself in front of a bullet intended for him. John is forced to say a crushing goodbye to his wife and makes it known to Sherlock that he holds him accountable for her death.

Mary’s death isn’t terribly shocking, since there is a literary precedent for her being removed from the picture. More to the point, there has been the sense, ever since she was introduced at the start of Season 3 (which, in Sherlock’s singular timetable, was only four episodes ago), that Mary was an outlier, a hiccup in the status quo. The beating heart of the show (especially among some hardcore online factions) has always been the partnership of Sherlock and John, and Mary has always felt like something of an intrusion on that. This isn’t to take away from Abbington’s performance and her terrific chemistry with Cumberbatch (and indeed, Mary’s relationship with Sherlock was always far more engaging than hers with John), but Sherlock works best as something of a two-hander. As devastating as her death is (and Freeman really sells the grief), there comes with it the sense that it wasn’t just inevitable, but narratively necessary.

Of course, it’s not possible for things to snap right back into place as they once were. For one thing, there remains the issue of how the series plans on incorporating the Rosamund character into the proceedings. Can John still function as an assistant crime solver when he is the only surviving parent to an infant? It certainly won’t look good in a number of ways if he constantly dumps the kid off on Molly (Louise Brealey) or Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) each week (or, you know, for the remaining two weeks). There is also the key issue of just how long the series intends to keep Sherlock and John estranged. Again, most shows have 8-24 episodes per season to allow things to transpire. Sherlock does not have this luxury. Everything has to move at an accelerated pace on this show, which means if the two are going to patch things up, it sort of needs to happen immediately.

As bifurcated as “The Six Thatchers” is, lurching sharply from fun-Sherlock to grim-Sherlock, the episode is mostly a delight. Cumberbatch will never be anything less than a churlish joy when highlighting Sherlock’s inhuman deductive abilities or his inhuman people skills (the biggest kick of the episode is Sherlock’s tossed-off rant against becoming Rosamund’s godfather by dismissing God as “a ludicrous fiction”). The episode also gets points from the shading it adds to John and Mary’s marriage, when John allows his wandering eye to result in a secret affair. Because this is Sherlock, one is trained to wait for John’s fellow bus passenger-turned-paramour to rear her head as an assassin or Moriarty acolyte, but she’s just a cute woman on a bus with no ulterior motives. Showing us this development without it having greater narrative significance provides a compelling bit of character-based nuance. As the great detective himself might note, it’s the unexpected bits of intrigue that keep things interesting.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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