Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Sherlock - The Six Thatchers


It’s been three years since Sherlock Series 3 aired, three years that viewers have waited for the resolution of the cliffhanger ending of “His Last Vow”. There was the special, “The Abominable Bride” last year, but that was a little different and certainly didn’t resolve the cliffhanger, so the world continued to wait the full three years. Now, Series 4 has begun with “The Six Thatchers” (based loosely on the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”) and the cliffhanger... Well, I’ll leave discussion of that until the spoilered section.

Written by co-creator Mark Gatiss, “The Six Thatchers” marks a great return for Sherlock. Although I have some issues with it, which I’ll get into in a little bit, it’s a strong episode with some great character moments. Indeed, it’s very much a character-based episode with the mystery playing a rather secondary role. The focus here is on the relationships of the principal characters. There are moments of humour, seriousness, levity, and tragedy, all of which serve the overall purpose of character advancement. In particular, Sherlock himself sees some much-needed advancement as he finally starts to discover there are consequences for his actions.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I never got round to reviewing last year’s special, “The Abominable Bride”, but my very brief thoughts on that episode are as follows: I loved the first approximately two thirds of it, up to the point where it was revealed that it wasn’t actually set in an alternative Victorian Sherlock universe, but was in fact simply Sherlock using his mind palace to play out fictions to determine how Moriarty might have survived/not survived. Indeed, up until that point, I was prepared to consider it the best episode of Sherlock so far. After that point, it devolved into a convoluted mess of trying to do too much and making very little sense. Essentially, it suffered the same problems as “His Last Vow” (outlined in my review linked above), except all condensed into just 30 minutes instead of 90.

But the flaws of “His Last Vow” and “The Abominable Bride” are far less present in “The Six Thatchers”, which is a much simpler, more straight-forward story. It has its own convolutions and revelations, of course, but whereas “His Last Vow” is essentially about its numerous plot twists, the twists here serve to advance the story and its characters.

It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that, in order to achieve this, “The Six Thatchers” has to more or less discard the problems set up in “His Last Vow” in some opening moments of exposition. A convenient bit of security footage editing allows Sherlock to get away with the murder of Magnussen, once again meaning that Sherlock doesn’t suffer any consequences for his actions (although in this particular case, it works to the episode’s advantage, which I’ll get into momentarily), and the Moriarty cliffhanger—“Did you miss me?”—is skirted to the side as Sherlock decides the best way to handle that mystery is to just wait for something else to happen...and then nothing happens regarding it in this episode (apart from Sherlock mistaking a few things as being related to it). No doubt that’s the series arc, which will be resolved in the final episode.

Yet by dispatching with these things, Gatiss is then able to tell a much more rounded story, one that is focused on its characters rather than on clever and confounding plot twists. Some of the best moments of this episode are in the early montage showing the passing time as Sherlock takes on various cases, Mary’s pregnancy advances, and young Rosie is born. These moments not only re-establish these characters after a long break away from them (and introduce them to new audiences), but also show their changing relationships as time goes by. John and Mary have to adjust to looking after a baby as well as Sherlock and Sherlock has to adjust in his own way. I particularly like the scene of Sherlock looking after Rosie and expecting the baby to learn the consequences of throwing her rattle away—something that he’s rather bad at himself, and something that forms the main theme of the episode.

Consequence is at the heart of this episode—the idea that you can’t run away from your problems. From the multiple retellings of “Appointment in Samarra”, to Sherlock learning that he needs to take responsibility for the effects his actions have on others, to both Mary and Vivan Norbury trying to run away from their respective pasts, Gatiss makes no secret of the episode’s intended theme.

It is very refreshing to see consequence in an episode of Sherlock. In my various reviews of both Sherlock and Doctor Who, I have commented multiple times on Steven Moffat’s apparent aversion to consequence (and although Moffat did not write this episode, he is still an executive producer and has a lot of influence over what is eventually seen on screen). Even this episode starts with an apparent lack of consequence as Sherlock literally gets away with murder. However, Gatiss then twists that around. Sherlock getting away with murder helps to remind viewers just how invulnerable Sherlock believes he is. Yet as the episode proceeds, Sherlock finally starts to realise that what he does affects other people, particularly John and Mary. This, of course, reaches its pinnacle with the death of Mary, and John abandoning him.

Mary, on the other hand, has been running from the consequences of her past life—this episode literally has her take off and travel all across the world just to escape those consequences (and how Sherlock finds her despite her completely random destinations is so wonderfully simple). All she wants is peace and clarity, she says, but she starts to learn that she can’t have those as long as she refuses to take responsibility for her past. Vivian Norbury is in a similar situation. She, too, just wants peace and clarity, but refuses to take responsibility for her crimes.

All this, of course, builds towards Mary’s aforementioned death. As Mycroft says earlier in the episode, agents like her rarely get to retire; instead, they are retired by others. Mary’s death is not-very-subtly signposted throughout the episode, but in most ways works well. It’s tragic, and it makes sense from both plot and character perspectives. The moment is highly emotional as the episode has done an excellent job making you care about her, even if you’ve never seen any previous Sherlock episodes.

Yet as much as Mary’s death works for both the story and her character, it is also where my primary issues with “The Six Thatchers” lie. As much as it makes sense for Mary to throw herself in front of a bullet to save Sherlock, the fact is, her death is ultimately a plot device—and not one for her benefit, but rather one for the benefit of Sherlock and John. By benefit here, I am referring to story benefit rather than personal benefit of the characters, as it is obviously a tragic event for all involved.

Within moments of her death, the event becomes about its effects on Sherlock and John, and their relationship. She doesn’t get to die a hero. Instead, her death rips the two of them apart—and in a way that’s not entirely believable. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the effect her death has on others should be ignored—it’s part of the consequences of her actions, after all—but nevertheless she is catapulted into a role that is far, far too often given to women: dying to advance the men’s stories. Called “fridging”, this is rampant throughout media. It also doesn’t help that Sherlock doesn’t have a particularly good track record with its presentation of female characters.

There are quite a few things I like about the scenes post Mary’s death. Sherlock’s response, in particular, works wonderfully. This is the ultimate teaching moment for him. He couldn’t save a person he had vowed to protect. Sherlock’s growth from this moment can be seen in him actually going to see a therapist(!) and is epitomized when he tells Mrs Hudson that, if she ever feels that he is being too overconfident in himself, too cocky, or just plain rude, she should simply say, “Norbury,” to let him know to stop. This is the single best moment of character development for Sherlock there has ever been on this show, and I really hope it’s not forgotten. I will love it if there’s a moment in a future episode when Sherlock is being a jerk and Mrs Hudson calmly says, “Norbury.” And Sherlock just stops. That will be perfect.

John’s reaction, on the other, really doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t fit his character, and is the perfect example of someone doing something just because the plot says he needs to so that the next episode can focus on John and Sherlock becoming friends again (I haven’t seen the next episode yet, so I’m making assumptions that this is a focus in it). I can see grief-fuelled anger at Sherlock from John. I can even see him refusing to talk to Sherlock for a day or two while he gets his emotions in order. But kicking him out of his life because he fails to save Mary? When Mary deliberately sacrifices herself to save Sherlock and her dying words include how much she likes Sherlock and how sorry she is for shooting him that one time (in “His Last Vow”)? While Sherlock is frequently overconfident in himself, John is well aware of Sherlock’s limits. He knows that Sherlock is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. It makes little sense that he would blame Sherlock for Mary’s death. But the episode needs a reason for Mary to posthumously give Sherlock a case: to save John Watson.

That said, I also feel this isn’t the only time the episode handles John’s character poorly. While it does a great job with the other characters, there are several moments with John that don’t quite work. I don’t really buy him having an affair, for example. Perhaps if we actually got to know the woman he’s having an affair with, I might be more inclined to believe the relationship, but we never even learn her name. (I find it rather intriguing that she never asks him his name or any details about him when she gives him her number, and then his first text to her is just, “Hey.” How does she know it’s him texting her?) On top of that, John’s affair is the one set of actions in an episode about consequences that doesn’t actually seem to have any consequences. However, to be fair, it has set things up for there to be consequences later in the form of John’s guilt over the affair, though Mary’s death robs even that of some of its strength.

Assuming, that is, that Mary really is dead, and it doesn’t turn out later that she somehow faked the death. I really hope that doesn’t happen. I say that only because resurrections are excessively common in Steven Moffat’s programmes.

To end this review on a more positive note (because I really do like this episode), I want to point out some absolutely wonderful lines.
  • Sherlock explaining why he doesn’t read John’s texts: “I delete any text that begins, ‘Hi.’”
  • Sherlock, after Mycroft rattles off some obscure information about a small town named Agra: “What are you, Wikipedia?” Mycroft’s response: “Yes.”
  • Sherlock’s response to the theft of the Black Pearl of the Borgias (which, in the original Arthur Conan Doyle story, really is in the bust of Napoleon just like Sherlock expects it to be in the bust of Margaret Thatcher in this episode): “It’s a pearl! Get another one!”
Overall, “The Six Thatchers” is a great start to a new series of Sherlock. While it has some issues surrounding the death of Mary, it is a great character piece that serves to develop the stories of its principal characters. Some people may feel that there’s not enough of a mystery in this episode, but that’s kind of missing the point. The mystery is merely background in this story. Instead, we get an entertaining and tragic tale of people and their relationships with each other.

Post-Script: One final thought. I enjoyed the scene with the dog a great deal, but I must confess I have no idea what its point was, if it even had one.

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