Sherlock series 4 episode 1 review: The Six Thatchers

Major spoilers ahead in our review of the eventful Sherlock series 4 opener, The Six Thatchers…

This review contains spoilers from the beginning. Our spoiler-free review is here.

Now that the “top secret beyond classified” D-Notice has expired on The Six Thatchers, we can drop the coyness: Mary Watson is no more. That’s the biggie the BBC didn’t want leaked and around which episode previews had to dance. Mary’s dead, John’s a widower and baby Rosamund is left a motherless child.

It was a glum end to an episode that started out as jolly as Christmas with Sherlock on ebullient, ginger nut-crunching form. The fast-paced frivolity of The Six Thatchers’ first half-hour was drowned out by grief before the finish. Amanda Abbington injected some characteristic Mary-ish levity into her death scene, but by the time she’d blinked her last, we were left with Martin Freeman lowing like a cow in labour and tears all round.

(This, after upright John’s role as Sherlock’s “loyal” outsourced human conscience had been tarnished by that extra-marital texting?) Perhaps Sherlock’s creators felt we’d all just been having too good a year.

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More likely they wanted to pull off a surprise, tug at the heartstrings and remove a superfluous piece from the board. As Sherlock cavalierly explained to John earlier in the episode, Mary made a better sidekick than her husband. She was cleverer, more experienced, and had the whole ex-international agent thing going on. Not known for his sentimentality, why would Sherlock pick John over her? Killing off Mary alleviated the need to contrive reasons why, in future, John shouldn’t be the one left holding the baby. 

With her gone, all that’s stopping the old duo from winding back the clock and getting back to crime-solving basics is the small matter of one of them refusing to speak to the other. (That and the baby, but television, immeasurably preferring little ones’ debuts in the world to their continued existence, tends to find ways around that.)

Mary’s labour was one of several light-hearted skits that made The Six Thatchers more comedy than anything else in its first third. For half an hour, Sherlock squabbled entertainingly with Mycroft and John and talked down to everyone else, Rosie included. There were tired-parents gags, case-solving gags, digs-at-Lestrade gags… It was brisk, funny, cleverly performed and recognisably Sherlock

What it lacked was the sense of building menace that made The Reichenbach Fall or His Last Vow such strong episodes. Instead of one cohesive feature-length story, it was a succession of three somewhat disjointed half hours: a comedy intro, a Bourne-style globe-trotting action thriller, and an emotional relationship drama. Laugh, get your pulse racing, cry, we were instructed. At no point did it feel were we invited to solve a central mystery alongside our heroes. The episode relied on our love for these characters being greater than our love of a real villain and a tightly wound problem to unravel. As entertaining as it all was, the lack of both was felt.

The mysteries that were there didn’t quite sing. The corpse in the car got off to a promisingly macabre start but fizzled out when we learned that the young victim arbitrarily expired from a seizure rather than being tied up with the main story. The ‘ammo’ code was the closest we came to being able to join in with the clues. Hiding the reason for Mary’s downfall in plain sight by introducing Vivian Norbury and her Mivvi in that sprightly, comedic opening was a good trick, but a familiar one.

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After all the “Miss me?” teasing, Vivian Norbury and Sacha Dhawan’s AJ didn’t quite cut it as baddies. With two episodes still to go, Moffat and Gatiss have time to convince us that they had a plan to follow up the series three Moriarty cliff-hanger, but the clock’s ticking. How many months have passed since Sherlock was on that plane? If the spider hasn’t made his posthumous move now, then when? Roll on, Toby Jones.

Looks-wise, the locations were excellent as ever. Mary’s jaunt had global scope, and there seems to be no shortage of slick, ultra-rich mansions in which to stage Sherlock’s fights. The screen though, has never been busier. Hashtags, video calls, elemental symbols, rolling dice, dotted lines rattling along world maps… The show’s existing visual flourishes have been upped and the editing style accelerated. What was already a stylish, inventively filmed series has been zhuzhed up.

Ultimately, the episode was less interested in setting up detective mysteries than in telling a Jason Bourne-like story about Mary. The peace she’d found with John was built on borrowed time. Whatever vows had been made, her past was bound to catch up with her and it did, but not before she’d had a final moment of heroism and repaid the debt she owed Sherlock for His Last Vow’s bullet. 

The inability of avoiding your fate was the episode’s thematic spine, illustrated by ancient Mesopotamian tale The Appointment In Samarra. Mary’s was the fate in question, but the story was recited by Sherlock, who disliked it so much as a child he rewrote the ending. It makes sense for predestination to irk such a rational mind as his, but the obsession suggested something more. Is the show hinting that Sherlock too has an inescapable date with death? Those lines about him not being able to outrun his future, having fun while he still can and finally having a noose to put his neck into may be something to discuss with his therapist…

That’s right, Sherlock Holmes is in therapy. He’s learned to seek help and, as revealed by that final scene with Mrs Hudson, learned that his arrogance can have catastrophic consequences. Aside from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind perhaps, this adaptation has done more to develop the psychology of the character than maybe any other. This Sherlock Holmes is no longer a brilliant machine for solving mysteries, he’s a person and he’s in pain. How that pain will come to bear on the next two episodes is intriguing.

The Six Thatchers was an entertaining, polished instalment, good but not great (judging only by this show’s own high standards). It was a transitional episode that fulfilled the function of taking Sherlock’s major players back down from three to two, re-establishing the show’s status-quo, give or take John’s incandescent rage at his former flatmate.

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What happens next is the decisive question. Hello Sherrinford?

Sherlock continues next Sunday the 8th of January on BBC One at 9pm with The Lying Detective.