Not sure these will always be on Sundays – they might migrate to Tuesdays, which this week will be Build High for Happiness 5. Anyway, Sherlock‘s back as the Year of Moffat continues, albeit, you know, with Gatiss. Speaking of whom, and in a rare concession to spoilerphobes, let’s start by saying has written what’s almost certainly the best script of his career here, a position admittedly previously held by The Empty Hearse and The Hounds of Baskerville. It’s not labyrinthine; Gatiss has never done that, and that, as opposed to his usual problem of stultifying unoriginality, has generally been his weakness on Sherlock. But it moves in unexpected ways. The substitution of Mary for the expected Moriarty plot is in many regards just the same trolling as “eh, we’re not going to tell you how he actually survived,” but the last twenty minutes felt extraordinarily inventive, moving in genuinely unexpected directions. The revelation of John’s near-affair is unlike anything Gatiss has ever done, small and human and actually like a writer who exists in a post-Russell T Davies world. The end, particularly with the injunction to save John, is unmistakably also the season-plotting influence of Moffat, but the small, moment to moment decisions of how it’s structured are chosen with a care and weight that’s as much of a leap forward for Gatiss’s writing as Scandal in Belgravia was for Moffat’s. On the back of this, I’m actually curious what he’ll do for what you’ve got to figure could well be his last ever Doctor Who script this year.
More broadly, it’s an interesting place to put the season. Past seasons have had fairly self-contained first episodes that end in some vague tease of future weight – twice Moriarty, once Magnussen. But it’s never felt as though there was too much to clear up in the next three hours. This time, with the fractured Sherlock/John relationship, the strange musings about death, Sherrinford, Moriarty, and a trailer that’s focused on a character with no obvious relationship to any of this, it feels like a show that’s going for something it’s never done before, trying to push itself into a new shape. It’s a good feeling at the start of 2017; what it seems like we want from the return of Sherlock. More of this thrilling, exciting sense of possibility please.
And, of course, less of this “we fridged Mary” crap. This is, simply put, a fucking awful decision. Maybe – maybe – there’s some way to justify it that we’ll see over the next two weeks. I certainly wouldn’t put it past Steven Moffat to turn a decision this awful around. But the fact remains that Mary Watson was one of the best things Sherlock had going for it. The Abominable Bride rightly celebrated the female characters that the show’s modernized approach let it have. Now they’ve taken the best one out in a cheap and arbitrary way that offers nothing save for an opportunity for Martin Freeman to get to show off his dramatic range. It sucks, and they’d damn well better have something really fucking good up their sleeves for it.
Because if nothing else, why would you waste Rachel Talalay’s typically brilliant direction on this? I mean, yes, as a result of her skill is the scene is at least as interesting and compelling as such a scene can be, full of bold decisions. Which it needs – violent tragedy coming off of the (well-built) grotesque humor of a little old spymaster lady is an unusual structure for all that the violent tragedy itself is a flat cliche. (As is the evil secretary, of course, but she doesn’t have to be any more clever than she is.) So Talalay’s self-consciously adaptable vision is a good fit, uniquely capable of ratcheting from the hyper-stylized camp of the slow-motion bullet to Martin Freeman’s genuinely effective howl of grief in only a few minutes of Amanda Abbington showing that she’s easily as skilled as the male leads. (Even if her going into labor scene was better. And Martin Freeman would have done terribly at that.) And of course she’s great throughout, embracing the “text-on-screen” gimmick with gusto, but also doing some fantastically ominous stuff with the shattering Thatcher busts as skull imagery in the course of this memento mori heavy episode.
It’s tempting to say she elevates Gatiss – and certainly she flatters any writer she works with. But much of this is his own rising to the material. As ugly a cliche as fridging Mary is, it’s also entirely outside what we think of as his comfort area, and he handled it well. One suspects, especially given his fondness for period gothic pieces, that he saw what Talalay did with Heaven Sent’s ostentatious expressionism and wrote this for her, smartly recognizing that this would play to both of their strengths. And it did – it’s an exciting start, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. I really am. But fucking hell, that was some bullshit.
- It is of course entirely possible that Mary isn’t dead. This is very literally that sort of show, and they even hinted at this fact with the (actually kind of upsetting in light of recent context) airplane scene. That would be a mixed bag in its own right – returning to the well too many times – but still better than the alternative.
- Sherrinford was of course teased over the summer and in His Last Vow, so isn’t a huge surprise as a tease, but is an obscure enough character that one almost holds out a faint hope that they’ll rip off All-Consuming Fire. (Not in the Doctor Who crossover sense, obviously.)
- The death of the guy’s son in the car-seat costume is one of the most macabre things in the show’s history. But it’s doing a lot of subtle setup work in the episode, preparing us for the exact blend of pathos and excess that Mary’s death trades on. Perhaps another way to frame my respect for parts of what this episode does is that I like the extent to which it’s about death throughout, in weird ways that don’t announce themselves.
- I’ve seen more than one shouty Internet person decrying this as “tired” and “Moffat repeating himself,” a criticism that’s bizarre to me in the way in which it’s simultaneously plugged in enough to recognize Moffat as a creative entity with favored tropes and yet oblivious to the fact that this is a plot point he’s generally avoided. Although I suppose it is now Danny, Clara, and Mary in three consecutive seasons of work. Clearly explorations of grief are on his mind. Still, he subverted two of those, and oh yes, didn’t actually write this.
- Presumably Moriarty will be resolved in The Final Problem. It remains very difficult to see how a satisfying outcome emerges from that, but then, that’s clearly the problem with Sherlock, and one the show generally overcomes. My dubiousness doesn’t dim my excitement, I guess is where I come down on the show right now, at about half-til-midnight on New Year’s. Certainly I’m not going to judge before the first Moffat script.
- My favorite remains the Richard Hurndall Thatcher.
- The Six Thatchers