The long-awaited return of Sherlock bears the burden of being required to explain unresolved matters from previous episodes before it can get on with its own concerns. Rapidly dealt with is the little matter of Sherlock being a murderer; the government (that is to say, Mycroft) is so worried that Moriarty may not be dead, that footage is faked to absolve Sherlock of the killing of Charles Augustus Magnussen. So, not even a pardon needed. Result!
NB: Spoilers abound
Next are some minor domestic arrangements; Mary Watson is forced to give birth as quickly as possible on the way to hospital, so little time is wasted on the matter of christenings and godparenting.
All this time, Sherlock is furiously tweeting band texting, and juggling several cases, incidentally solving canonical puzzles such as The Lion’s Mane.
Brushed aside momentarily is the question of what happened to the third Holmes brother; he’s been referred to tangentially, but we have little information to go on at this point.
And when are we going to get to the meat of the Moriarty plot? Sherlock solves one case with ease – a man found dead in his car when he ought to be in Tibet – but an incidental detail intrigues him – a smashed statuette of Margaret Thatcher. (In the original, of course, the statues were of Napoleon, and one concealed the Black Pearl of the Borgias).
The plot continues in the pattern of the original, with a series of broken Thatcher statuettes found in different locations, and in one case the owner being murdered. Apparently the busts originate in Tbilisi (though why they’d be making Thatcher busts there, who knows?)
When the final bust is shattered, it contains, or course, not the missing Black Pearl; but instead a copy of the memory stick containing the secrets of Mary Watson. Ajay, the vengeful ex-agent searching for it, swears to kill her, after a vicious fight with Sherlock.
Now, we were pretty clear that Mary’s past was going to come back and bite her at some stage, as firstly, Moffat and Gatiss have promised us heart-rending developments (and there was nothing heart-rending about the last special); and secondly, in the original canon, Watson does indeed lose his first wife.
Flashback to six years ago in Georgia, where Mercenary Mary and three colleagues are involved in rescuing captured Embassy staff from terrorists. But it all goes wrong, the hostages die, and Mary is suspected of selling out her colleagues.
Modern-day Mary goes on the run, and in a time-filling montage we see her travelling randomly across the world in a bid to shake off pursuers; the comedy punchline is that Sherlock and John are waiting for her at the end of the line in Morocco.
In a tense shoot-out, Ajay reveals that it was not Mary who betrayed the team, but someone on the security committee; Lady Smallwood is suspended, but it turns out to have been the committee secretary, a mousey woman with a sideline in selling state secrets. In the denouement, Mary takes a fatal bullet meant for Sherlock.
In an aside, we learn that John has been conducting a low-key affair with a girl he met on a bus (notice the poster at the bus-stop featuring Toby Jones, next week’s villain).
If we’re not feeling as moved as we were meant to by the death of Mary, firstly it’s because it was inevitable, and secondly because her life was a tissue of lies anyway (though she was apparently sincere in her love for John). The real tragedy then is not Mary’s death (and we know perfectly well that John will find a second wife, one without so much baggage, maybe in Molly?) – no, the real tragedy is that a wedge has been driven between Sherlock and John.
That will clearly put both characters at risk, and the other element we know must now be introduced is the third Holmes brother, Sherrinford. A character posited by some critics and fleshed out by some non-canon writers, Sherrinford would have been the eldest of the three – but if, as Mycroft suggests, he is still alive, why haven’t we heard of him before?
And does Mary’s posthumous plea for Sherlock to save John refer to any real threat, or just that a split with Sherlock would cast him adrift?
Clearly, Sherlock is approaching a personal crisis to do with his past – can he avoid death, as the merchant tried to do in The Merchant of Samarra, the W. Somerset Maugham story quoted throughout this episode? Or is there an inevitability about Sherlock’s fate?
We’ll find out more next week when Toby Jones is introduced as Culverton Smith (in the canon, a poisoner in The Adventure of the Dying Detective).
In directorial style, I thought this episode was rather grittier and more realistic than previous efforts, dialling back a bit on the screen effects and superimpositions; maybe they just aren’t to the taste of director Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl, Dr Who, Ally McBeal). I approved, anyway; in this case less may have been more.
Benedict Cumberbatch has said that he has enjoyed returning to the character, as Sherlock has clearly shown some development, here having a great deal of fun at the expense of the security committee and of Mary, before everything goes pear-shaped. But I do hope that the writers aren’t aiming towards some form of character-changing revelation, as suggested by his scene with the psychologist, mirroring John’s in the first episode. Holmes should be 99 per cent calculating machine and only one per cent human, and altering that balance too far puts the formula at risk.
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