I think the problem with season four of Sherlock is escalation.

There have been plenty of articles and posts written across the Internet about “Where Sherlock went wrong,” and I think most of those have merit and make good points. Yes, the focus on being rare and cinematic instead of having a consistent series of quieter character development hurt the series in the long run. Yes, the show’s portrayal of women somehow grows more spectacularly awful as the show goes on1. And yes, the show justifies its titular character’s obnoxious behavior and attitude, letting him be condescending to his supposed best friend, mostly because he’s the smartest man in the world (other than his brother Mycroft).

But I think the one problem that not a lot of people have talked about with season four of Sherlock is that it represents the problem when a show keeps trying to escalate. Let me explicate:

When you’re writing a series, whether it be a movie, television, book or comic series, there is always the inherent urge to make the next installment of the sequence bigger. That is, the next villain needs to be even Badder, the stakes have to be that much Higher, and the scope of the story needs to be Bigger. The problem with this is, of course, that it’s often difficult to do, especially after you’ve already done a massive and carefully-plotted story arc.

Supernatural had this issue after season five. Season five, after all, was the culmination of everything that went on before it, and was about the Apocalypse. The villain was Lucifer himself, and after he’s defeated, the writers have to ask themselves where do they go from there. The series tried going back to a smaller, monster-of-the-week formula, only to find out that fans didn’t like it, and promptly spent the next couple of years throwing random plots and villains at the viewer hoping that one of them would appease the unpleasable fans. Among these were ‘The Mother of Monsters’, Leviathans, several angelic civil wars, Lucifer being brought back, and God’s evil big sister.

The villains have to be Bigger and Badder, without stopping and realizing that maybe it’s starting to sound ridiculous, that by now they should probably just pack up the show and finish it already. I personally don’t think Supernatural is quite as egregious as some people have suggested, because as a show with millenia of mythologies and folklore to draw from and build on, which means you can pretty much come up with anything and point that it’s drawn from somewhere. Yes, it should have ended by now, but I they’ve got a lot of material to work with so they’ve got potential to make that work.

Something like Sherlock doesn’t have that luxury.

The villain of seasons one and two of Sherlock is, of course, Moriarty. Moriarty is a genius-level intellect, same as Sherlock Holmes, only he decided that the best use of his talents was to become a consulting criminal, helping to fund and arrange illegal enterprises of any kind. After his death, the villain of season three is Charles Augustus Magnussen (based off the Doyle character Milverton ), an international media mogul that can manipulate governments by virtue of his vast memory with which he has catalogued enough blackmail to be able to do whatever he wants without fear of repercussion. And then season four gives us…Eurus.

Who is Eurus? Why, she’s Sherlock’s older sister that has never been mentioned or referenced before she becomes important! In fact, Sherlock subconsciously blocked her from his childhood memories after she murdered one of his friends when he was little. Mycroft had her locked up in a secret government prison because she was so intelligent, and can’t be trusted. Eurus is so smart, guys, that she can predict terrorist attacks from spending an hour on Twitter. Not only that, but she’s got an intellect so high above the average human that she can “reprogram” people (read: brainwash them) just by talking to them. I don’t mean analyzing their psychological insecurities and using those in conversation, I mean just hearing her voice is enough to turn someone into her personal toy. She understands human psychology intimately even though she’s a complete sociopath and has trouble with empathy or even understanding the concept of having pain. She’s been in control of her secret prison for years right under Mycroft’s nose2 and even worked with Moriarty to create a death trap obstacle course for her brothers just so she can get some amusement.

Now, if you’re a person with a working brain you might be saying, “Hey, wait a second, that sounds like complete bullshit!” And yeah, you’re right, that’s true. They decided to create a new antagonist who was smarter, deadlier and more unexpected than anything that they did with their previous villains, and in the end they created some sort of comic book supervillain. Which isn’t bad for a superhero story, but for something like Sherlock that’s meant to be set in something closely resembling the real world, having a villain that is able to mind-control people is absurd.

The entire fourth season has this problem of trying to amp up the action. The fourth season’s opening episode, for instance, is much more of a spy thriller than a mystery, for instance, because Moffat and Gatiss thought that was what audiences wanted. Gatiss infamously published a poem claiming that those criticisms are complete bunk because Sherlock Holmes in the original stories was always handy with his fists and able to fight. But I don’t think Sherlock being able to fight was ever the problem, or even the criticism that people were getting at: it was the fact that the plot hinged more on the good guys having to fight and increasingly convoluted international thriller plots, rather than overcoming obstacles with mental prowess and solving mysteries. Sherlock has always dialed things up from the source material, but by season four the show was becoming unrecognizable as Sherlock Holmes stories and felt more like generic action movies.

The season finale doesn’t feel like a spy thriller though; if anything, it feels like Saw. Eurus puts our heroes in a series of torture chambers that she’ll only let them progress through if they follow the circumstances she allows. And of course she kills quite a few people over the course of the episode out of spite and sadism.

It’s not just that she’s a sociopath villain. Sherlock has had plenty of those. It’s that she’s a villain that’s apparently so smart she has mutant powers and no one has a chance of taking her down. The resolution to the story isn’t even killing her, it’s realizing that all she really wanted was the title character to spend time with her, so the last we see is her being content with Sherlock playing violin outside of her cell. That’s right, Eurus is so brilliant, the writers decided she can’t even be killed like almost every other villain the show’s had, because it would be a waste or something.

“How do we raise the stakes of the show?” Gatiss and Moffat asked themselves. Apparently the answer they settled on was “Secret sister with mind-control powers.”

It’s frustrating because the show, in its frantic pursuit of cinematic moments, absolutely shuns making these characters change and deal with the consequences of their actions. John and Sherlock’s relationship never really changes, nor does the show ever indicate to the audience that it’s not okay how abysmally Sherlock treats his flatmate. Molly’s unrequited infatuation with Sherlock goes absolutely nowhere other than to torment her. Whether or not Sherlock and Irene have any future together is only vaguely teased. Mycroft’s failure to keep a leash on Moriarty is never a liability for his job. Lestrade’s personal life is apparently boring enough that the writers don’t care about it. Mrs. Hudson apparently had a past life as the wife of a crime lord but that goes nowhere.

All of these are things that could be developed for drama and suspense and character development. But the show wasn’t actually invested in those, it was invested in becoming bigger than it ever had before whether or not it made any sense. And so instead of having its characters developed and working out their problems through interacting with each other, the show gave us Eurus Holmes.

“She’s so smart she can mind control you by talking!”

NO! NO! Screw you!

Just…go watch Elementary instead.

1 The holiday special, set in Victorian England, has suffragettes justifiably angry about being denied the right to vote become violent terrorists, going so far as to copy some of the trappings of the Ku Klux Klan, and then we are told that they are entirely right to do so. This is Angelopolis level of stupid right here.

2 A fact Mycroft can’t pick up, despite Moffat and Gatiss insisting he’s so intelligent, but Watson works out in within like five minutes of being on the prison island.

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  1. The Smith of Lie on 13 March 2018, 14:47 said:

    From what I heard this show has way more problems than just escalation, I don’t know I’ve never got into it.

    But even from what you wrote about the escalation I think this need for escalation came from the show structure itself. Doyle’s stories about Sherlock were pretty much stand alones, each case was its own, complete and closed story. Sherlock the series seems to be having an underlying arc with a greater villain in each season. This very structure, with large, season spanning arcs that have their own Big Bad probably forced writer’s hand in escalating to ridiculous degree.

    If the show kept to each case being a closed, stand-alone story they could keep the stakes under control.

    Overly Sarcastic Productions had a video on similar theme, how saving the world on its own became sort of cliche and paradoxically lowers the stakes because escalation to that level makes the plot pretty abstract. Sometimes smaller story can have narratively bigger stakes – survival of characters we are invested in is more personal and suspensful than the whole planet blowing up.

  2. dissertation assistance on 15 March 2018, 06:15 said:

    We figured it would resemble a group of people of four million and a dark honor at a Polish celebration or something to that effect. It happened so totally all of a sudden. We scarcely completed the show and it’s this gigantic hit. There appeared to be no interceding moment of escalation.

  3. Juracan on 16 March 2018, 17:21 said:

    But even from what you wrote about the escalation I think this need for escalation came from the show structure itself. Doyle’s stories about Sherlock were pretty much stand alones, each case was its own, complete and closed story. Sherlock the series seems to be having an underlying arc with a greater villain in each season. This very structure, with large, season spanning arcs that have their own Big Bad probably forced writer’s hand in escalating to ridiculous degree.

    If the show kept to each case being a closed, stand-alone story they could keep the stakes under control.

    I agree that it wouldn’t have this issue if each episode was its own, stand-alone story, but I also don’t think that works for modern audiences. When people watch television nowadays, they tend to prefer some sort of continuity and connected story arcs. It might make an entertaining series, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that audiences would receive as positively. They want to feel as if the story is going somewhere overall.

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