Sher­lock: a fourth series with big shocks.



I “n sav­ing my life she con­ferred a value on it,” says Sher­lock Holmes, pay­ing elo­quent trib­ute to a wo­man who took a fa­tal bul­let for him. “It is a cur­rency I do not know how to spend.”

An ego­ma­niac like Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch’s Holmes might not ac­knowl­edge it (or even re­alise it), but that cur­rency-based chal­lenge ex­tends beyond Sher­lock him­self. It stretches to the series, which sets out in sea­son 4 to jus­tify two things: a cen­tral char­ac­ter’s death and fans’ long-haul in­vest­ment in the show.

Crit­ics were splin­tered over its suc­cess, but give co-writ­ers Steven Mof­fat and Mark Gatiss this: they damn well try to chal­lenge their show. Even the choppy Gatiss-writ­ten opener, “The Six Thatch­ers”, im­proves on 2016’s self-sat­is­fied spe­cial “The Abom­inable Bride” in the the­matic den­sity and jolt­ing twist.

True, the wheeze of killing a fe­male char­ac­ter in or­der to chal­lenge a show’s core bro­mance ap­proaches cliché – but Gatiss and Mof­fat in­vest more weight in her demise than Arthur Co­nan Doyle ever did in the sto­ries. The death is com­ple­mented by con­tained emo­tion from Martin Free­man as John Wat­son. As for claims of Bond-like aes­thet­ics brawl­ing into Baker Street, at least Sacha Dhawan makes a vig­or­ous scrap­per. Rachel Talalay ( Doc­tor Who) di­rects with noir-ish style too; tasked with forg­ing co­her­ence from the open­ing episode’s knotty script­ing, she de­liv­ers flu­ently.

For episode 2 of this series, Mof­fat takes a turn to rise to the game. Grab­bing a seat at the top table of the show’s best episodes, “The Ly­ing De­tec­tive” com­pen­sates for any sub­tlety short­falls with a brazen show of al­most ar­ro­gant dar­ing. You can see it in Mrs Hud­son’s gra­tu­itous screen en­trance, or in Sher­lock’s flash-bas­tard new screen-wipe tech­nique. But Mof­fat’s au­dac­ity peaks with se­rial (ce­real!) killer and phi­lan­thropist Cul­ver­ton Smith.

Played to vile per­fec­tion by Toby Jones, Smith is not just a sly echo of Jimmy Sav­ile: he couldn’t scream Sav­ile any louder if he sported a string vest. What could have seemed dis­taste­ful works be­cause Mof­fat’s script puts in the work on the the­matic front. As well as stretch­ing the Holmes and Wat­son bond, he in­te­grates res­o­nant sub­texts beau­ti­fully:

“The self-in­dul­gent psy­cho‑panto makes for heady en­ter­tain­ment”

“elec­tive ig­no­rance”, evil hid­den in plain sight.

That theme of hid­ing in plain sight locks briskly into the grandiose fi­nale, where Sher­lock’s long-lost, slyly teased sib­ling sets hor­ror movie-ish – Saw meets Han­ni­bal – traps for him. Even be­fore we’re asked to be­lieve our he­roes would sur­vive leap­ing from an ex­plod­ing build­ing, “The Fi­nal Prob­lem” busts the re­straints of re­al­ism. Maybe Gatiss’ My­croft speaks for all watch­ing when, af­ter Holmes and Wat­son turn his home into a ghost-house, he asks: “Why would you do this? This pan­tomime?”

Yet the episode’s self­ind­ul­gent psy­cho-panto makes for heady en­ter­tain­ment, se­cured by strong the­matic roots and Sian Brooke’s tasty guest turn. The com­par­isons to Bond aside, “rigour” and a well-sus­tained “at­mos­phere of ur­gency” dis­tin­guish the episode’s taut push-pull be­tween “com­pli­cated lit­tle emo­tions” and Holmes work­ing “at peak ef­fi­ciency”. And though the so­lu­tion is rushed, it steers the show back to a series re­set with emo­tive ef­fi­ciency.

A per­fect end­ing for an im­per­fect but am­bi­tious three­ep­isode run, that cli­max could also dou­ble as the show’s per­fect full stop. Yet surely Gatiss and Mof­fat aren’t spent yet: af­ter in­vest­ing so much in Sher­lock, could they re­sist an­other chal­lenge?

Sher­lock Holmes (Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch) is more tested in the lat­est series.

Mary Wat­son (Amanda Ab­bing­ton) re­tains a strong pres­ence in series 4.

You cer­tainly can’t ac­cuse the series of stand­ing still.

Toby Jones is ut­terly mes­meris­ing as the chill­ing Cul­ver­ton Smith.

Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) be­comes key in the series fi­nale.

We dis­cover much more about­my­croft (Mark Gatiss).

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