In the last bit of promotional material before Sunday’s “The Final Problem,” Sherlock promised fans a great deal. A complete explanation of who Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) is and why the titular detective didn’t remember her, his possible unraveling after learning about her from older brother Mycroft, a gratuitous explosion — all were included in the 30-second trailer that seemingly spelled the end of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson’s (Martin Freeman) tenure as celebrity consulting detectives.
No, seriously, it’s a ridiculously large explosion:
Despite criticism protesting about spy games more reminiscent of James Bond, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat face a “final problem” that the current season, the one that precedes it, and the Christmas special bridging the two has never solved. One that, thanks to rumors about Cumberbatch and Freeman’s latest outing as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s heroes being their last, may ultimately prove true. (After all, the two actors’ separate-but-related commitments to the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t make things easy for Sherlock‘s production schedule in the first place.) How can Sherlock possibly go on as-is? Because it probably shouldn’t.
Fans will undoubtedly want more Sherlock. Gatiss and Moffat have both said as much (despite stirring the Marvel flames), and Cumberbatch, Freeman, and the rest of the central players have generally expressed interest in returning to the show should the story and the timing prove worth it. However, “The Final Problem” was designed to settle several ongoing gimmicks and ever-widening plot holes the writers inadvertently created after Sherlock’s arch-nemesis, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) killed himself in season two’s “The Reichenbach Fall.” As a result, “The Final Problem” ties too many of the series’ plot issues up — thereby rebooting the entire show while simultaneously offering everyone involved the means with which to return, if desired.
Unlike the three season finales and one-off special before it, “The Final Problem” doesn’t end with a cliffhanger. Watson isn’t left to the mercy of Moriarty (season one’s “The Great Game”), Sherlock’s life isn’t presumed over (“Reichenbach Fall”), the returned detective is no longer accused of murder (season three’s “His Last Vow”), and an otherwise dead Moriarty hasn’t come back from the dead (“The Abominable Bride” Christmas special). Instead, “Final Problem” concludes with 221B Baker Street fully reconstructed following the explosion that utterly destroyed it, Sherlock and Watson back to consulting, and Eurus no longer terrorizing London. It’s almost as if the majority of Sherlock had never happened.
In terms of tying Sherlock, Watson, and Moriarty’s individual threads into a neat little bow, “Final Problem” accomplishes precisely what Gatiss and Moffat hoped for. What’s more, the writing team gave themselves the means with which to continue on with a fifth season should Cumberbatch and Freeman find space within their increasingly busy schedules to do so. But what about Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington), the deceased wife of John and the mother of their daughter Rosie? Despite an arc beginning with the third season opener “The Empty Hearse,” Sunday’s finale solidified the character’s primary purpose for season four — to add additional layers of development for the Sherlock and Watson characters at the expense of her own.
This is by no means a new criticism of Sherlock. As The Atlantic culture writer Sophie Gilbert opined, Doyle’s decision to remove Mary may have been a “primarily utilitarian” one, but Gatiss and Moffat’s adaptation bore too strong a connection to their show’s inability to create complex female characters. The latter may have chocked it up to the “reality” of the series being all about Holmes and Watson, but Gilbert doesn’t think that excuse “[stands] up” since “when it comes to other female characters, in fact, Sherlock has sometimes been even more regressive than its Victorian source material.” Sure enough, all of the major female players in the show have existed simply as foils or flirts for the detective and the doctor, and most the character development they seemingly encountered resulted largely in advancement for the men.
“But wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “By rebooting itself, Sherlock no longer has these issues!” Wrong, for Mrs. Hudson, the downtrodden Molly Hooper, the ever-absent Irene Adler, Sherlock’s imprisoned sister Eurus and all of their written baggage are still part of the show. Not to mention Rosie, the motherless daughter of Watson whose uncertain future — cutesy montage of being co-raised by John, Sherlock, and Mrs. Hudson — is dependent upon 221B Baker Street. Just because Sherlock turned Mary’s death into a season-long struggle for the guys doesn’t mean the reset has effectively scrubbed away the past seven years’ worth of problems — the evident feminist overtones of “The Abominable Bride” notwithstanding.
Hence the actual “final problem” of Sherlock. Not the title character’s sudden realization that his sister killed his childhood friend instead of an imagined family pet, but the program’s inability to modernize everything about the story of Holmes and Watson. Sunday’s season four finale — which could (and should) serve as a series finale — never solved this puzzle. Perhaps then now would be a good time to celebrate Sherlock for the popular program it became, and retire the hat before the characters (and the writers) can do any more damage.