Outside the Government: The Final Problem


It’s January 15th, 2017. Clean Bandit have been knocked off of number one by the dawn of the Sheeraning, as Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” debut at number one and two respectively, heralds of his forthcoming album that will, on its release in mid-March, lead to Sheeran occupying 14 of the top 15 slots in an absolutely unprecedented (and before the streaming era impossible ) turn of events. JP Cooper, Starley, and Jax Jones featuring Raye also chart.

In news, the Justice Department concludes its lengthy investigation of the Chicago Police Department and concludes that, yeah, they’re really bad. Trump gives his first post-election press conference and mostly attacks the press. Much of the London Underground is shut down due to a strike. Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, resigns, sparking the collapse of the power-sharing government. And the Playboy Mansion goes up for sale.

On television, meanwhile, Sherlock reaches its presumptive end with The Final Problem. The central and defining mechanic of Sherlock is as it has always been: a sense of unrelenting, propulsive motion. It’s just that with The Final Problem this motion is not aimed anywhere. The result is like a rocket pointed sideways—undoubtedly spectacular, but still just an exploded mess. Nothing follows from this. How could it? The manic enthusiasm and gusto with which The Final Problem runs in circles does not change the fact that it remains essentially stationary. The sheer quantity of nothing that happens here does not magically transmute into something. 

And so one is left with little to do but that laziest of cheap thrills in criticism: the brutal inventory of faults and failures in a crappy piece of media. Call it a craven attempt to someday get Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to call me while I’m playing video games, but The Final Problem is garbage and here’s why.

The first and biggest problem, from which most though by no means all of the others extend, is Eurus. Or, rather, it’s the degree to which all of the emotional weight that Eurus supposed to conjure is unearned, existing more as an assertion of importance than as anything substantive. Eurus is one of the most over the top premises the show has ever tried to sell—that Sherlock Holmes not only has a previously unmentioned sibling, but that he completely blocked her out of his memory. And yet the effort that’s put into that sales job is frightfully minimal. 

More to the point, however, the premise undermines what the story is trying to do. The script requires that the Sherlock/Eurus confrontations at the top of act two and the climax of act three carry emphatic emotional weight. But by loudly insisting on the total lack of existing emotional connection with Eurus that Sherlock can draw upon, Moffat and Gatiss keep her at arm’s length, creating a sense of distance at the precise moment when the story needs intimacy. It’s supposed to feel big and important, but the only thing the script can figure out to do to make it feel that way is to tell us how big and important it is. 

Aggravating this is the degree to which Eurus is, let’s be honest, not exactly a great character. she never really gets built with more motivation than a generically structured “she’s crazy.” There’s a slight motif of her inability to correctly identify facial affect that can occasionally give usefully creepy results, such as the “apparently you were screaming” or, last episode, her “I think I’ll put a hole in it” to Watson, but it’s forced and overdone—a gimmick in place of actual characterization. 

And then there’s her mind control powers. Clearly these are designed to skirt a line, remaining carefully on the right side of the supernatural. In this, in fact, they resemble Hannibal Lecter, who is of course a general case inspiration for this story. But while it may just about stay on the right side of the supernatural, the idea that Eurus can talk to someone and turn them into her willing slave is considerably more fantastical than Sherlock is usually geared. Nor does it quite fit in with the larger Holmes gifts. Eurus can also do the deduction thing, as the mention of her predicting terrorist attacks by glancing at Twitter establishes, but the jump from that to “can figure out exactly what to say to break someone’s will entirely” is big and not entirely clear. On top of this, it seems largely contradictory with her emotion-blind sociopathy. Put bluntly, if you can’t easily tell the difference between screaming and laughing, the level of empathy needed for mind control is probably beyond you.

More to the point, however, it’s a conceit that’s utterly wasted. To make an obvious point, if you create a villain who can talk to someone and persuade them to do whatever she wants, and then you lock all of Sherlock, John, and Mycroft in a dungeon with her, then failing to have any of them enthralled and turned against the others is a missed opportunity. But this is just the most egregious failure of a more systemic one. The truly notable thing is that nothing is done with this conceit after it’s filled its single role of providing a mechanism for Eurus to take over the whole prison. It’s a gobsmacking conceit that’s not used for anything. 

This also gets at the extremely janky dramatic structure of the episode as a whole. In what is, optimistically, a conscious decision to mirror the structure of The Great Game, The Final Problem is an episodic plot in which Sherlock and company move rapidly across many small problems. This certainly adds to its sense of propulsive momentum, but it also means that the episode feels cut up and lacking in any real build. And while a few of the encounters are engaging, most aren’t. The only straightforwardly strong one is Mycroft trying to manipulate Sherlock into shooting him instead of John. The Molly Hooper one is OK, but mostly feels like what it is: a forced effort to get her into the presumptive final episode. As for the rest, the less said the better. These are not surprising and compelling mysteries with enjoyable twists. They’re just sort of… there. 

Chief among them, of course, is the girl on the plane. Charitably, this does not make a goddamn bit of fucking sense. As a cold open, it depends on a Moriarty voiceover to shoehorn in the title drop. But given the eventual reveal that the little girl is Eurus, there’s no reason why Moriarty should be there. More to the point, what the heck were all the phone calls with the girl? Was Eurus just putting on a funny voice as an intermission? Why? What was the intended content of that supposed to be? Because right now it’s an unmotivated puzzle upon which the entire episode is supposed to hinge, and that’s not great.

But the smaller mysteries are mostly pretty crap as well. Sherlock not seeing that there’s not really glass in Eurus’s cell is just sort of bewildering—a tremendous amount of presumptive effort for a ruse that shouldn’t be nearly as hard to figure out as it is. The song riddle is a nonsensical nothing of a puzzle. And the less said about the three men hanging in front of the window mystery the better.

And then there’s the final monologue, given to Mary because apparently we’ve decided we need to have her in all three episodes after all, it extols the virtues of John and Sherlock in grandiose terms that don’t really fit Mary as a character, and that aren’t really an extension of anything we’ve seen this week or, indeed, any other one. It’s about as organic as “there are worlds out there where the sky’s burning” and not even as good a speech. 

And that, apparently, is Sherlock. I mean, maybe we’ll have another one someday, but this is clearly intended to be the end if it has to be. When we were wrapping up Class we talked about how a bad ending taints what came before, and it’s hard not to make the argument that something similar happens here. If this is what Sherlock has to say, one doesn’t really grasp why we needed it in the first place. But in the case of Sherlock, there’s still enough goodwill built over three previous seasons that were, if not consistently extraordinary, at least highly watchable with outbreaks of genius. All this amounts to is an unsatisfying conclusion to that—a show that went out with, if not quite a whimper, at least very much the wrong sort of bang. For a Doctor Who fan in January of 2017, this was worrisome, since he had another landing to try to pull off in not very long. With hindsight, it’s just kind of boring.

Wait. shit. I just realized. I basically don’t even play video games anymore. Oh well. 


MattM 1 year, 9 months ago

At the time this struck me very much as a counterpart to Hell Bent (which I disliked but I know you loved, was half surprised to see you disliked Final Problem in that context!) Both were very self indulgent, messy, incoherent finales that were divisive in fandom, with both going full-on into the interiority of the main character to find them wanting rather than actually tell a story.

Is there a reading of this, like Hell Bent, that can be seen as redemptive (and I always prefer a redemptive reading)? Or is this the evil twin?

I remember a lot of Sherlock fans were convinced there was going to be a secret fourth episode as they couldn't believe the season would end with that episode!

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mx_mond 1 year, 9 months ago

Admittedly it’s been a while since I watched it, but I don’t understand why people call Hell Bent messy, when the structure is all about the Doctor attempting to gain enough control on Gallifrey to save Clara, and then him and Clara discussing the ramifications of that. Sure, there are flashes and surprises along the way because Moffat knows he has to entertain as well, but it all serves that simple story.

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ScarvesandCelery 1 year, 9 months ago

I've said before, and will continue to say, that Hell Bent really is one of Moffat's most meticulously structured and carefully put together scripts. There's really nothing in there I'd call "messy"

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Chris C 1 year, 9 months ago

I think you can make a case for either the bit where the Time Lords are stood dithering in a doorway for several minutes, or the bit where Me enters the TARDIS and is then seemingly forgotten about, being less-than-tidy.

(Which are really both just cases of the Doctor and Clara having a great scene between themselves in which we ignore the other characters inconveniently sharing a room with them at the time.)

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Dan L 1 year, 9 months ago

Hell Bent does contain a lot of feints and red herrings to misdirect the viewer as to what the story is about, and I can see how some people might see that as messy. Of course, if we're defining "messy" that broadly, it ceases to be something inherently bad, and for all that Hell Bent's feints are not all individually necessary to the overall plot, they all make sense and are entertaining in their own right (something you couldn't say about, for example, Time of the Doctor - I love that story but blimey, THAT is messy).

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Leslie L 1 year, 9 months ago

Ahh, the Apple Tree Farm theory, which, in reality, a mini series adapted from a book, which was ho-hum

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KerryNuabe 1 year, 9 months ago


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PM 1 year, 9 months ago

Another thing to note about the story is that it hinges on the existence of not one but two forgotten children from Sherlock’s past, which is really pushing the episode’s revelation quotient. Worse than that, the Redbeard reveal actually diminishes its impact - surely an audience is going to be more upset by the loss of a childhood dog than a friend we’ve hitherto heard nothing about? It’s a weird choice for Moffat and Gatiss to make, and is a rare misstep in their (usually pretty on point) understanding of how an audience views and reacts to television.

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Przemek 1 year, 9 months ago

Exactly my thoughts. Redbeard as a dog has a MUCH bigger impact. It's as if Moffat and Gatiss are forcing as many plot twists as possible into the finale because twists is just what this show does. Even if they actively make the story worse, the writers just can't stop themselves.

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Bedlinog 1 year, 9 months ago

This episode is like playing 'Spot the Dr Who reference.' Maybe more than anything else Moffatt or Gatiss have written.
The plot is pretty much Pyramid of Mars Episode 4, complete with static omniscient villain.
The pre-recorded video messages remind us of Blink.
Eurus is presented to the audience by virtually quoting the Master from Utopia (Didn't you ever occur to you, not even once ...?)
The plane full of catatonic passengers from Bells of St. John.
The vulnerable girl stuck in a fake reality from Silence in the Library ...
And we even get to re-use the same ideas all over again by the time we get to The Lie of the Land.

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James 1 year, 9 months ago

Personally I kept getting reminded of the Sea Devils. Arch villain captured on an island prison where they have manipulated their way into control of the whole place...

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Przemek 1 year, 9 months ago

I don't mind Moffat reusing his ideas as long as they're good ideas presented in a relatively new way. Season 10 of DW gave me that. Season 4 of "Sherlock", not so much.

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George Lock 1 year, 9 months ago

Not to mention that the whole "Sherringford" thing (apart from being a Sherlock Holmes trivia in joke) looked to me at first like a hat tip Andy Lane's "All Consuming Fire." Obviously, they went in a different direction, but still.

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TheWrittenTevs 1 year, 9 months ago

This episode will always be an odd thing for me. My one date with "The One Who Got Away" was a trip to watch a cinema screening of this episode. A year before this, we had had an intense will-they-won't-they thing that got cut short when she got an offer from a university that sent her to the other side of the country. We kept in contact and, finding that an indie cinema I'd always wanted to visit was doing a Sherlock screening (Sherlock being one of her favourite shows), I asked her if she'd like to go. Seen as it was our big reunion, we made a big deal out of it: we extended it to a long weekend, booked restaurants, planned events, etc. One of us joked that this was like we were taking every date we had never had and were doing them all at once to make up for lost time. The joke stuck and so that's what the weekend became - us violently cramming a years’ worth of defected desires into three days, rushing from one stereotypical date to another so we could tick them off the list, both carnivalesquely playing the roles of boyfriend and girlfriend.

The issue with the carnivalesque is that it's temporary, which in turn makes it somewhat hollow. The final day, we were sat in the hotel watching "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (she doesn't have the best taste). I remember just wanting to hold her and knowing that it was pointless - that in a few hours she'd be disappearing for another year and that the entire weekend had been a fleeting abruption to the status quo. This was the one weekend we got to be a couple, and the weekend that convinced me that the distance was insurmountable. We were over.

In this context - as part of a whirlwind weekend, in the middle of several raised emotional states, being played in a cinema on a screen the size of a wall with industrial speakers turned up to full blast - "The Final Problem" does its job which is to be unrepentantly big and oppressive-feeling for an hour and a half. By the end of it, by hook or by crook, I felt like I'd been put through a series of trials and had come out the other end. I remember feeling exhausted. Even at the time though, I couldn't help but wonder if it was hollower than it had let on: if it had been all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But that was the weekend in a nutshell. In this way, “The Final Problem” had been perfect – the exact episode of Sherlock that a weekend like this could’ve revolved around. Maybe if we had watched “The Reichenbach Falls”, we would’ve gloriously got together only to fall apart a few years later. Maybe if we had watched “Kill the Moon”, we would’ve got together and gone through an empirical phase where everything we touched turned to gold. Or maybe if we had watched “The Husbands of River Song”, we would have more easily accepted the weekend as the beautiful coda it ultimately was. But the world isn’t neat, even when it’s providing you dates where the movies work at metaphors for your relationship. “The Final Problem” is a fucking mess, yet will always be the episode of Sherlock I have the largest connection with.

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Allyn 1 year, 9 months ago

Damn, this is amazing and sad and brilliant and rending at all once.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies... well, it's nice to see Matt Smith playing the eleventh Doctor again. A completely ineffectual one, true, but then, this isn't his story.

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TheWrittenTevs 1 year, 9 months ago

I will admit, I remember nothing about "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" other than that it's the one place where Matt Smith actually plays the caricature of his Doctor that people kept claiming he played during his later years in the role.

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Przemek 1 year, 9 months ago

This was very moving and very well written.

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Daru 1 year, 9 months ago

"Put bluntly, if you can’t easily tell the difference between screaming and laughing, the level of empathy needed for mind control is probably beyond you."

Yeah on one level this as you say El was a great conceit, but undercut as it was not really utilised. It was the feeling though that Eurus couldn't really, properly make a connection with those around her that nagged at me and made the episode fail for me and left me very unsatisfied. Surely, as Sherlock had been displayed previously as having empathy issues, it would have made more sense for her to perhaps be hyper-empathic, and control/destroy people through *making* a deep connection with them?

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Tom B 1 year, 9 months ago

I wouldn't be surprised at this point if, assuming we get another series of Sherlock, Moffat turn it into a Sherlock/ Doctor Who crossover and adapt Andy Lane's The All Consuming Fire, having Eurus take Sheffinford's part in the story.

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tom j jones 1 year, 9 months ago

It's Moffat and Gatiss doing a Terry Nation plot.

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Przemek 1 year, 9 months ago

Yup. The Final Problem now reminds me a lot of some of the episodes of the Chibnall era, especially The Ghost Monument and the fucking Battle of Whatever. A whole episode about characters travelling from point A to point B, solving irrelevant logistical problems, with no underlying theme or story whatsoever. Sherlock at least gets to have some plot twists...

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DaibhidC 1 year, 9 months ago

I think for me, the daftest bit was the whole Redbeard revelation. Yo, not-actually-a-dawg, I heard you like suppressed memories, so I suppressed the memory of suppressing a memory...

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Horse Wee Everywhere 1 year, 9 months ago

I was sort of wondering if you'd acknowledge hbomberguy in some way with the series 4 reviews.
As people have said, it's odd how Hell Bent gets a redemptive reading but Final Problem practically never does, isn't it? My theory would be that it's because the quandary which defines people's opinion of Hell Bent, i.e. whether they think it handles Gallifrey and the Time Lords well and if they like how Clara is handled (personally I hated both of those things and thus can't stand Hell Bent), is something Doctor Who can work in a sci-fi conceit to do unexpected things with in a way Sherlock can't get away with. Then again, the fact Doctor Who can always continue from where it leaves off in some form whilst Sherlock cannot probably also helps- Hell Bent didn't have to be a definitive ending (even for Clara's arc given how it ends).

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Przemek 1 year, 9 months ago

I mean, aside from the fact that Hell Bent doesn't need a redemptive reading because it's great, Hell Bent is centered around a fascinating and troubled relationship between two complicated people who love each other but bring out the worst in each other. The Final Problem is centered around an emotionally detached forgotten crazy sibling who plays Saw-like murder games.

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kevin merchant 1 year, 9 months ago

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Set Spade 1 year, 9 months ago

The problem with a redemptive reading of The Final Problem is that any such reading would have to acknowledge that this is the way every single Sherlock Holmes always ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper, or the wrong sort of bang, as El says, and there's nothing inherently compelling about admitting defeat, even if the defeat in question is as unique and idiosyncratic as this.

I mean, it was their most self-indulgent exercise in the Great Game, inventing their own origin story for Sherlock Holmes, and then making that origin story all about him having an all-powerful secret sister who's trying to understand empathy via music (hey, you can play a game just like you can play a violin! and Sherlock Holmes plays both!). And yet it all comes down to the same sentiment as Vincent Starrett's famous 221B poem.

"Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die..."

So traditionalism, even if the support structure for this traditionalism is the single most brazen origin story for Sherlock Holmes ever put on screen.

Really, the Redbeard twist encompasses the whole story. Why Redbeard, their own original invention that has absolutely no connection to the Canon at all, ends up being Victor Trevor instead of a perfectly nice dog? Because Victor Trevor is a character in another chronologically earliest Sherlock Holmes story, and if you're playing the Great Game, you have to wave these kinds of references in. Canonical reference always takes precedent over the invention. Even if that means most of the audience won't really care about a kid we've never met, and that it is just one twist too many.

And that's it, really. Hell Bent says no, there's a better way to do Doctor Who. The Final Problem says the old ways always prevail, the long way round. It was all just a game. It was a fine game while it lasted. But it could've been so much more. Not just two men of note who never lived and so can never die, even if we as a culture tend to like these two men more than others.

Funnily enough, Grant Morrison's run on Batman ends more or less the same way with more or less the same closing narration.

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Will Rigby 1 year, 9 months ago

A baffling and confusing episodes. This is not how Sherlock Holmes stories go this is a terrible fit for the character. Also the explosion effect when 221B blew up was terrible.

Why are we meant to emphasize with Euros when the episode establishes her as a murderer and rapist?

You know what weird? They don't try and tie Magnussen into this. It would be really easy for Euros to say "I used my magic powers to make him hate you" but he wasn't mentioned.

Well hopefully they never make anymore of this, but I am genuinely curious to see how they'd try and continue this.

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Roderick T. Long 1 year, 8 months ago

Does anyone else see a heavy influence of "The Girl in the Spider's Web" on this episode, with brilliant, antisocial protagonist Lisbeth/Sherlock being menaced by a long-lost similar-to-the-protagonist-but-evil sister Camilla/Eurus?

Btw, I thought the glass-being-missing scene worked; the creepiness outweighed the implausibility, for me.

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Go here 1 year, 3 months ago

Thanks for the post.

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