Warning: spoilers. Dear lord if you haven’t seen The Six Thatchers then don’t read on because you will be spoiled so hard I’m not even joking.
Seeing Sherlock back in action again after so long has made me realise how much the show has changed since it began in 2010. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s black, moppy-haired iteration of Sherlock Holmes first appeared on television, Sherlock was more like the conventional adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, albeit with a generous stretch of artistic licence taken with Conan Doyle’s stories and a helping of character drama to spice things up, but to a great extent the show revolved around the cases, the mysteries, and Sherlock’s problem-solving. Watching Cumberbatch’s captivating Holmes solve mysteries was the heart of the show, and the formula worked excellently. It’s what drew the audiences in and made the show the cult phenomenon it is today. Hell, it’s what made Benedict Cumberbatch the A-list Hollywood actor he is today.
Now into its fourth series, nearly seven years running, The Six Thatchers is a testament to how far the show has moved away from the hard mystery/crime genre in the direction of character drama. Although mystery-solving is still the essence and the beating heart of Sherlock, it feels like the show is now moving into different artistic territory. Because The Six Thatchers was, basically, an episode about Mary Watson. As far we can tell, it was an episode written and produced for the sole purpose of moving along the character drama—in a pretty radical way, as the final shocking scenes demonstrated. There was still plenty of juicy mystery and problem-solving in this episode, but it was for the overriding purpose of the character drama. From what it looks like, this episode was for the sole purpose of moving all the characters to a new place in their relationships with each other.
I’m not necessarily criticising. As much as we fans complain that Sherlock takes forever to make and we only get three episodes every two years, we have to remember that they’re fairly long episodes—they’re practically movies, and the Sherlock team are practically making three movies every two years. But consider if Sherlock just stuck to the Series 1-and-2 style hard mystery-solving formula. I think it’d actually get old. It’d be like making twelve of the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes films in the course of seven years without altering the formula. The hardcore fans would love it, but a lot of the audience would get bored after a while. It’s basically the reason I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory. But in Sherlock‘s case, the character drama has almost dwarfed the mystery aspect of the show for much of the fandom. Some fans (you know who you are) seem to think Sherlock’s love life is the main point of the show. That’s a testament to the exceptional character writing on this show, not to mention the exceptional acting. But, for this fan, although I welcome playing up the character drama as a necessary and inevitable consequence of the narrative’s progression, I’d still like to see Sherlock keep a firm foothold in its roots. There should be at least one hard mystery episode per series, and I’m hoping that’s what we’ll be seeing tonight in The Lying Detective.
Otherwise, The Six Thatchers was a good episode, well made, although—and you can probably tell by my long discussion about character drama—I thought it was something of a waste to spend a whole episode dedicated to killing off Mary Watson. I think they almost tried to do too much with this episode: they were trying to bring Sherlock back in a big way as well as elaborate on Mary’s backstory, kill Mary off and setup the necessary new character dynamics as a consequence of that event, and establish the Moriarty arc, even if only in anticipation. It did a lot, and the result, I think, was a remarkably well pieced-together production for how much it was trying to do; but, for me, it still fell a bit flat. Mary’s shocking death and the character fallout in consequence notwithstanding, this episode was one of the poorer in the show so far, in my opinion.
For what it’s worth, I think what the writers were trying to accomplish narratively in this episode could have been carried out better if they played it as a regular mystery episode (another A Study in Pink or A Scandal in Belgravia type episode), but unexpectedly killed off Mary at the end—in the same way, with Mary saving Sherlock’s life. It would have come as a bigger shock (with the way it was done, I half saw it coming and wasn’t that shocked as a consequence), and it still would have worked equally as well to bring Sherlock’s hubris crashing down on him. The details about Mary’s backstory could always have been seeded in in a later episode.
But all that said, I think the character writing in this episode was very good—especially the writing of Sherlock. The way the ending was played, Sherlock’s overconfidence getting the better of him, only for his inflated hubris to be punctured in the most dramatic way possible—like a smashing of the Tower of Babel moment—was brilliant writing. It shows that it’s not just all fun and games on this show, that being Sherlock Holmes, Britain’s favourite hat-wearing detective, isn’t a lark, it’s fantastically dangerous and positively lethal to the people around him. It shows that there are consequences on this show, something John Watson seems to be coming to terms with, only too late. Seeing Sherlock visibly deflate in disbelief and humiliation over Mary’s corpse was almost as painful as watching John literally moaning with grief. If Gatiss and Moffat keep up the good work, it looks like the arrogant, superior Sherlock is gone. It’s getting interesting.