Sherlock: 403 “The Final Problem” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Sherlock has been running for seven years now, accruing 13 episodes that have seen the consulting detective and his partner battle Jim Moriarty, Charles Magnussen and Culverton Smith, that have seen John Watson meet a best friend, lose him, get engaged, get the best friend back, get married, have a child and then lose his wife, and that have seen the two Holmes siblings’ relationship constantly change. Especially when the number of siblings turned out to be three. The question is: is this tone of finality, retrospectively looking back and eulogising a show that’s had its day, justified?
Is The Final Problem the last episode of Sherlock?
Quite easily, The Final Problem could be the last episode of Sherlock. It has all the hallmarks of a series-ender – an ‘ultimate’ antagonist for the heroes to face off against laser focus on the characters that form the core of the show and an attempt to define precisely how what they mean to each other, and how they have changed over the course of their adventures. For the first time in four season finales, there’s no cliffhanger, and the conclusion, complete with freeze frame, is as textbook a ‘the adventure continues’ ending could possibly be. Regardless of your opinions on how effective it is, this is one of the very few endings Sherlock could have. On the other hand, though, can we ever count this show out? The creators have gone on the record calling the 13 episodes thus far an ‘origin story’ designed to shape Sherlock and Watson into the classic Conan Doyle mould of the wise detective and stoic widower. Just as easily as Sherlock could say its goodbyes here, it could also return in three or four years’ time with three loosely connected detective stories that dive deep into a canon that’s still got plenty of stories for Moffat and Gatiss to adapt, or just the odd special episode whenever the actors are available.
With that in mind, assessing The Final Problem is difficult, because the episode’s function is unclear. It’s even murkier when you dive into the episode itself, which is also deeply polarised in its quality, sometimes even from scene to scene. There are a few scenes, mostly taking place in the bunkers of Sherrinford as Eurus sets her psychological challenges, that are absolute all-timers – a tour de force of incisive writing, riveting performances and taut direction. Take the scene where Sherlock is set the task of choosing either his brother or his best friend to take a bullet. It’s about five minutes long, but it’s as compelling and as insightful an assessment of all three characters’ worldviews, capability under pressure, levels of selflessness and the ways in which all three of these complex creations perceive each other. By taking the clinical birds’ eye view of Eurus, who views emotions as things to play with for entertainment and research, Moffat and Gatiss accomplish in one scene what entire episodes struggle to do. Or look at the scene with Molly, which presents a headily complex emotional situation that’s informed directly by Sherlock and Molly’s turbulent shared history, and explores every aspect of it before taking it to the emotionally shattering extreme of their hollow but deeply significant confessions, all the while maintaining the livewire tension of a ticking clock. Alternatively, there’s the vintage bait and switch of Moriarty’s arrival, which perfectly reintroduces the villain, sketches out his role in his posthumous revenge and how it came about and does this while making it utterly convincing that he would somehow be alive – a scene that’s not as rife with meaning as the aforementioned other two, but makes up for its weightiness with a sly sense of fun and self-awareness that comes across perfectly. No episode with any one of these three scenes, could ever be considered bad.
But as mesmerising as The Final Problem can be, it can often lapse into frustrating incoherence of the kind that even a show that’s accrued plenty of messy storylines has rarely seen. Plot inconsistencies are really just a price to pay for the joys that Sherlock offers, but The Final Problem offers some plot points that just don’t make any sense. The first act is a series of these, and while it can run off suspension of disbelief for a while, the show seems to have detached entirely from any kind of credible reality when it cuts from Baker Street exploding with Sherlock and John only just escaping, to the middle of a sea in which a perfectly executed plan unfolds to get the three men onto Sherrinford. That’s so many logical leaps in a row, and so many bits of reality (even a bit of injury make-up on one of the three men would have alleviated this) are passed by that the episode pushes the viewer away with its egregious inconsistency right when it should be hooking them in. And on the other end of the episode, The Final Problem falls victim to the reverse of this undercooked storytelling – it becomes so over-plotted by the end that its attempt to provide a minimalist resolution based on simple emotion that’s pulled off very quickly doesn’t work at all.
Huge mysteries like the grave cipher, Redbeard and the crashing plane are all wrapped into a neat conclusion that Eurus is simply looking for compassion and friendship from someone. That conclusion isn’t bad in of itself, and it’s a great way to end Sherlock’s journey from alienated, scarred ‘high functioning sociopath’ to the compassionate, worldly hero he ends here. But it’s hard to believe that given the absurd complexity of Eurus’ plan, and the cold, utterly aloof nature of her character throughout the episode, that it would all boil down to something so simple – why, in that case, involve Moriarty at all? – and the extremely abrupt execution, where Eurus capitulates almost instantly and calls off her plan, just exacerbates the script’s flaws. Sherlock has often tried, with great success, to have its cake and eat it with big mysteries that have simple and powerful resolutions that focus on character, but here, the outsize emotions and the amount of time plugged into setting up Eurus’ plan lead to a conclusion that feels like the result of two different intentions that could never entirely be reconciled. Therein lies the (ahem) problem – The Final Problem is capable of the very best and worst of Sherlock, of moments that are breathtakingly clever juxtaposed with ones that appear to have been written on a half hour lunch break.
It’d be disingenuous to paint The Final Problem as an episode that solely consists of exaggerated highs and lows stacked up against each other. There are a lot of simple pleasures to be found here, as well as some common niggles. As ever with Sherlock, the acting is superlative across the board – Cumberbatch and Freeman are at the top of their game throughout, even if no moment requires them to summon the same amount of raw emotion as The Lying Detective. The two most memorable performances here belong to Mark Gatiss and Sian Brooke as two-thirds of the Holmes siblings. Given easily the most substantial material he’s ever had on the show, Gatiss does a terrific job of delving into the vulnerable, even heroic underbelly of the always poised British agent whose weaknesses become all too apparent within Gatiss’ carefully calibrated performance that balances them with a familiar arrogance that becomes more brittle throughout. While it seems a bit prosaic for Sian Brooke only to play one persona after last week’s chameleon act, she makes up for the lack of breadth with an impressive depth of emotion as Eurus. True, she’s constantly chilling as the dead-eyed gamesmaster in Sherrinford, delivering a performance that seems to come from a thousand miles away in its dissonance from any of the major changes that she brings about. It’s the moments it where Brooke’s act cracks, however, and the scared and jealous little child is seen beneath, where she truly delivers something unique and unexpected as Eurus, bringing depth to the text that the rushed and perfunctory scripting in the final act can’t always manage. It’s a tough task for an actor to come into an established cast and find a concrete place, but Brooke aces that challenge with flying colours, crafting compelling and layered performance with impressive efficiency.
On the flipside, a common problem of Sherlock resurfaces yet again – The Final Problem is just a little overstuffed, taking on more than it can realistically handle. A casualty of this is the revelation at the end of the episode that Redbeard is not Sherlock’s dog, but his best friend, repressed from his memory due to the ensuing trauma from his loss. It’s a good twist, and the shock that Sherlock feels is expertly communicated by Cumberbatch – it’s arguably a better way of encapsulating Eurus’ villainy than the plane metaphor. But it suffers from being thrown into the final act of the episode right before the big wrap up, which means it has to be revealed, explored and processed in an extremely short space of time, and then dispensed with to get on with the necessary conclusions of the episode. The problem here is that it’s too big a twist to act as a minor footnote in the episode’s wider context, and the lack of references to it feels like a curious oversight given how much it explains about Sherlock’s psyche. The twist still works, but not as well as it could have done if it were given more time, and if it were followed up on in a more wholehearted way, and it’s an example of the lack of focus that permeates The Final Problem, and its inability to incorporate all the ideas that it’s bursting with into a larger whole.
The Final Problem is a patchwork of an episode, made up of three very different and unusual acts that are difficult to link together. Undoubtedly, it’s capable of being a masterpiece, ticking all the boxes in the handful of scenes where absolutely everything comes together. It’s also capable of being a disaster of slapdash writing that focuses just on arbitrary end points that have to be reached by any means possible, even if the means don’t make sense. And then sometime it’s just a little in between that, in conventional territory for a middle-of-the-road Sherlock episode. As a conclusion, it’s oddly satisfying – its final mission statement that Baker Street will keep being a home for the scared and vulnerable is an inspiring one to end on, and it brings its characters to satisfying conclusions that encapsulate how far they’ve transformed over 13 episodes. In this reviewer’s opinion, it would make a satisfying conclusion to the series that incisively takes stock of what the show was, how it’s changed and what it could be if it were to continue. As a standalone adventure, it’s built on shaky foundations, however, with a lot of its central conceits feeling distinctly underwritten. If those all feel like opposing statements, then that’s The Final Problem for you: it doesn’t apologise for its messy, rambling and looping nature. It can’t be praised unreservedly, because it’s a long way from perfect. But, somehow, it just about works. It’s not good, nor bad: it is what it is. And that feels like the right way to say goodbye to Sherlock.
*As much as an episode like this can be given a concrete value!