Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sherlock - The Final Problem


Contains spoilers.

I'll confess, I don't really know where to begin with this one.

"The Final Problem" has a lot to unpack. It essentially represents the very best and the very worst of Sherlock, all bundled into one messy episode. There was some terrific stuff in this season finale. There were scenes that landed on some deeply emotional character work, there were moments that had my heart racing, and there were sequences with more energy than a racehorse on a sugar rush. But, for every great moment there was a lesser one. A scene that lost its focus, a moment that dragged on for far too long, a sequence that wrote itself into a corner and ignored a lot of stuff just to escape it. This has been a massively uneven season - we began with the show's weakest episode to date but then watched it launch back with its best episode in years - so I suppose it's only fitting that the show wraps up its fourth run with an episode just as uneven as its history.

"The Final Problem" has a Euros problem. In fact, the show sort of hinted at Euros herself being the titular final problem, but this is the rare occasion where the show didn't seem to be targeting something meta. Euros was only revealed to us in the final minutes of the preceding episode, and then "The Final Problem" wraps its entire story around her. Well, it does and it doesn't. The episode is thematically focused on Sherlock, but the story itself hinges on us seeing Euros as a threat and that simply cannot work. We don't know her. In fact, her mere existence was questionable going into the episode. "The Final Problem" starts off okay, quickly bringing Mycroft to Sherlock and John and giving them room to talk without any drama. Once the bomb detonates, though, and 221b Baker Street is engulfed in flames? Well, things get a bit trickier from then on.

"The Final Problem" relies on misdirection. In fact, it pretty much lives and breathes it. The girl on the plane, the appearance of Redbeard in Mycroft's memories, the glass wall in Euros' cell. The episode needs to intentionally manipulate us into thinking one thing so that it's able to pull the rug out from underneath us later on. And that's fine. But when it does this at the expense of believability? Issues start to arise. It starts to feel like a piece of written and structured television, and it pulls you out of the loop. Are we seeing this episode from Sherlock's perspective or from Euros' perspective? I would argue Sherlock's, but the fact that the episode uses the girl on the plane (who was never really there) as its cold opening suggests otherwise. If we are to look at this episode from Euros' perspective, things crumble even more and memories start to make no sense. The episode is thus forced to leap from character to character depending on what's going on, and the whole thing never clicks together. It feels orchestrated, and it shouldn't.

But what makes this so frustrating is that there are a solid handful of superb moments throughout "The Final Problem". The episode follows a similar structure to season one standout "The Great Game" (except here we have a face to the villainy and it's nowhere near as effective as the facelessness of Moriarty back in season one), and that structure is inherently effective. Watching Sherlock and John solve cases is great fun, and this episode packs in a good few of them and, as you'd expect, they all work nicely. The sequence of Sherlock being forced to make Molly say the words "I love you" to him are heartbreaking and genuinely tense, showcasing what this show can do when both its head and its heart are working as one. The reveal that Redbeard wasn't a dog but was in fact Sherlock's brother was predictable in some cases, but the handling of the reveal itself was brilliant. It's a classic example of an episode that has so much to do that the great elements get swamped by the weaker ones, and if this is to be Sherlock's final episode (it's the first season finale to not end with a cliffhanger, after all) then I can't help but feel a bit underwhelmed.

This isn't an actively bad episode of television, it has too many great moments for that, but it's one that doesn't come together in any of the right ways. The performances are as reliably strong as ever, but they can't save the episode from jumping manically from scene to scene without really connecting the dots. By allowing Euros to essentially puppeteer the episode, "The Final Problem" loses a lot of its weight because we simple aren't invested in her. For a person to do the things that Euros does here they have to be seriously unstable, and the episode doesn't give us any real indication of that until its conclusion. Euros is consistently painted as "the smart one" and "the dangerous one", but never does Moffat and Gatiss' script show any insight as to who she is. Perhaps it would've been jarring to have a bigger insight into a person Sherlock didn't even know existed, but the lack of this depth to her in the episode's core is what throws the whole thing off balance. Each individual scene has its own strengths and weaknesses, but "The Final Problem" as a whole suffers because it's incredibly hard to feel emotionally invested in. The stuff that works is all kinds of brilliant, but every time "The Final Problem" brings its focus back to the main story things are just too uneven for this to really stick the landing.

Notes-

  • Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have been terrific all season. Even when the episodes are struggling, their performances are superb. I don't know where the future lies for Sherlock, but if this is the end then I'll mostly be sad not to see them play these characters any more.
  • I really need to emphasise how "The Great Game" handled this type of narrative better. The season one finale is thrilling and unpredictable, but mostly we don't know the face behind the games. Well, we think we don't. The final reveal of who Moriarty is remains one of the show's best twists. "The Final Problem" has a face that keeps appearing over and over again, meaning it's impossible for the episode to feel adequately focused on Sherlock. It damages things even more that that face belongs to someone we hardly even know.
  • I'd put this above the last season finale, but it's a country mile away from the episodes that wrapped up the show's first two seasons. "The Reichenbach Fall" remains the show's pinnacle for the foreseeable future.
  • Bye bye Sherlock? I really don't know. I hope not. It's not been a great season, but even when Sherlock misfires like this it's still enjoyable television.

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