Sherlock is the rare show that knows how to goose its audience. A defining childhood memory turns out to be false, a dead character magically returns in the flesh, chillingly realistic scenarios are revealed to have been staged: On any other TV show, even another mystery program, such a ludicrous sequence of events would quickly fall apart. But what we’re willing to accept from Sherlock is a direct function of how the show presents itself to us. Its formula depends on a story that’s light, energetic, and fundamentally harmless — even as it invites us to plumb some truly horrifying psychology.
Where Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have erred this season is in their approach to that central problem. They entered too many emotional inputs into the equation, weighing us down with death and guilt and consequence, before pulling back for yet another big curtain reveal just as we’re trying to figure out if we’re still in the mood for this game. The fourth season finale, “The Final Problem,” is trying to accomplish the both-sides bit, building a glass wall only to walk through it while swearing it was never there in the first place.
So Sherlock and Mycroft have a sister, Eurus, a name that explicitly references the fatal “east wind” everyone keeps going on about. Eurus, it should surprise nobody, is also a genius, but hers is of the more “psychotic” than “crime-solving” variety; she was such a demon as a child, torturing her family and setting fire to their home, that Mycroft locked her away in a top-secret Alcatraz-like prison for the criminally insane — and he implanted false memories in Sherlock to keep him from recalling her existence. But the cat (or dog?) is finally out of the bag: Eurus, played by a truly terrifying Sian Brooke, has successfully toyed with both Sherlock and Watson under disguise, while plotting a truly devious scheme involving posthumous video messages from Moriarty.
Eurus has no Arthur Conan Doyle equivalent, though Sherrinford, the island facility where she’s being kept, was fittingly floated by Doyle as a possible name for Sherlock. Deep inside her maximum-security chamber, Eurus has all the makings of the perfect supervillain: She has no understanding of genuine human emotion, she only needs five minutes of conversation to bend anyone to her will, and she seems to be able to control every facet of her environment despite severe physical limitations. In other words, she’s the perfect match for Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft were they to encounter each other in the open, as Moriarty did once upon a time. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, once we’ve learned the truth of her existence, the three men ship off to Sherrinford for a little family reunion straight out of Saw, and it turns out Eurus’s big plan was the same one it was decades ago: to torture her favorite brother.
Those who abhor the artificial “moral dilemmas” of closed-door psychological horror films — the kind where an all-powerful puppet master forces basically decent people into making horrible choices — will not enjoy Eurus’s idea of a Holmes problem. Over an eternity of screen time, this twisted sister manipulates Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft with games designed to pit them against each other. She forces the governor of the prison to shoot himself before murdering his wife and blaming it on Watson (though, of course, she was the one who pulled the trigger); she forces Sherlock to solve a crime and condemn the guilty party before murdering all three suspects herself for fun; she makes Sherlock humiliate Molly by toying with her affections for him; and, finally, she attempts to push him to make the ultimate decision. Shall he murder his brother or his best friend?
While the horror genre traditionally sets up plots like these to bring out the worst in humanity, the climax of the Sherrinford sequence somehow reveals the best in each of these three men. Watson, believing himself to be the most expendable of the three, is at first willing to assume the “good soldier” role and sacrifice himself for the case, before Mycroft pulls an about-face and seeks to make some small amends for his past behavior. It’s ultimately Sherlock who gets to be the hero, of course, by opting to off himself rather than kill either of the only two people who matter in his life. Obviously that doesn’t happen — we’re not that far off the deep end yet — and Eurus puts a stop to the experiment before the only person she cares about can harm himself.
The episode seems to be aiming for the purest possible distillation of the series-long conflict between Sherlock’s brilliance and his humanity. By stripping away a proper setting and the context of an actual case that might have led organically to a similar scenario, Moffat and Gatiss can just come right out and ask, “Which one do you like more? Really?” But the question is a deeply unpleasant and not particularly relevant, not at the end of a season that took pains to make Watson the real emotional crux. All this torture stuff barely resembles Sherlock as we know it. The math is just all wrong.
Even wronger is the idea that Sherlock and Mycroft would allow themselves to be manipulated so easily by Eurus. She strings them along with the faintest illusions of breadcrumbs: a girl alone on a plane who needs their help but turns out to be fake; a nonexistent bomb in Molly’s house; menacing videotaped threats from a still-dead Moriarty. If Sherlock deduced some of Eurus’s behavior patterns earlier, he would have known all of her games were hollow.
But then, as we learn in the episode’s climax, Sherlock was at an emotional disadvantage from the get-go. The traumatic memory he’d assumed Eurus was responsible for (the death of his beloved dog Redbeard) turned out to be even more traumatic (she actually murdered his childhood best friend). In the end, the only thing that could combat such murderous scheming was good, old-fashioned brotherly love. So, mystery solved?
If Eurus’s resolution strikes you as too easy and too facile for someone with the Holmes genes, it’s probably better to dwell on the two bang-up sequences “The Final Problem” nails as we settle into the long wait for season five. First, the “patience grenade” delivered by drone to 221B Baker Street makes for a delightfully cheeky action sequence, as the frozen trio of Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft attempt to mount an escape plan and say their good-byes knowing that the instant one of them moves, they will only have three seconds to evacuate. The second is the glorious, brief return of Moriarty, helicoptering into Sherrinford as Eurus’s annual “Christmas present,” thanks to Mycroft’s idiotic arrangement with his sister wherein she gets whatever she wants in exchange for helping him solve some crimes. High-powering his way into the prison to the tune of “I Want to Break Free” like he owns the place, Andrew Scott opens up a giant barrel of resurrection love, dancing in his finely tailored suits and getting a real heart-to-heart with his new master.
What makes Moriarty’s appearance so great isn’t the mere fact of his return. It’s the way the show gooses us about him without cheating itself, by only revealing after his extended Queen-backed intro that we’re actually watching a flashback set five years earlier. It’s nice to be had sometimes. If Sherlock can get its act together for next time, instead of expending all this effort on cheap genre knockoffs, then I look forward to getting fooled again.
- A lucky break for Watson that Eurus’s gun from the conclusion of the last episode was only a tranquilizer. Apparently, she knew she needed him alive for maximum Sherlocking potential.
- Mrs. Hudson jams to Iron Maiden as she vacuums, naturally.
- Eurus seemed a lot more put-together in the last episode than when she’s pulling the strings in Sherrinford. Brooke is done up to look like the girl from The Ring and does everything but rub her hands with sadistic glee — even though she was much more effective when she completely disappeared into Eurus’s charades.
- That’s not to say the character isn’t memorable, though. Some of Eurus’s lines are truly chilling exemplars of a soul with no moral compass. When asked about the emotion of pain, she inquires, “Which one’s pain?” Recalling how she used to make Sherlock “laugh” all night, she reminds herself she couldn’t tell the difference between laughter and screaming.
- All the torture stuff (“Kill your friend and I promise I won’t kill his wife”) is so utterly uninteresting to me that it soured my view of the episode. These human-lab-rat story lines import their own sets of stakes from an alternate universe, and as such they have no bearing on characters as people, only as jigsaw pieces. I had hoped Sherlock could muster better than that. Oh, well.
- Somewhere, beyond-the-grave Moriarty is laughing over the sheer schmaltz of beyond-the-grave Mary’s final video message. Unlike the season-three cliffhanger, we aren’t given any grand mysteries to chew on, except for the question of whether Molly will give up on Sherlock for good.