Spoiler alert: There are a few TV reviews coming. It’s that time of year.
It has been seven years (!!!) since Sherlock, the BBC’s modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and his classic adventures, hit the small screen. Since then, both its leads and its creators have become megastars, and it’s gained such a massive fanbase on both sides of the Atlantic that Sherlock memes, fanfiction and crossovers have gained an infamy all their own. And if you’re still on the outside wondering what all the fuss is about, let me add to your confusion by saying this show has 13 episodes. Total. And I’m afraid it looks like there won’t be any more.
The finale of the fourth season of Sherlock aired on Sunday, and it definitely had an air of…well, finality to it. With the two main actors heading off to do bigger and more Marvel-y things, it seems unlikely they’ll be back for another season. Even if they are, we’ll have to wait at least two years for it. But if it is over, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the show as a whole. It’s getting a lot of internet hate right now, thanks to the divisive last season, which I don’t think is entirely deserved. I think Sherlock just started out on such an amazing, ambitious note, and we had to wait so long between episodes, that it was impossible for later seasons to live up to the standards set by the earlier ones. Especially with a professional disappointer like Steven Moffat on the writing team. (Yeah, I don’t easily forgive people who ruin Doctor Who. Grr.)
I’ve been calling it a TV show, but Sherlock is really more like a series of short movies. So instead of reviewing the whole thing at once, I’m going to give my definitive ranking of every episode, from worst to best:
13. The Abominable Bride (Season 3.5)
This Christmas special is, indeed, abominable. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a fun little “alternate universe” spin on the world of Sherlock, and an excuse to put all the characters back in their proper Victorian time period, but we quickly find out that it’s all happening in modern Sherlock’s head. Because he somehow managed to get ridiculously high in the five minutes between the cliffhanger ending of the last episode and the beginning of this one. So it’s still happening in the mainstream universe, but has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Awesome. Even within the mental fantasy, the once-intriguing mystery ends up turning into an incredibly disturbing commentary on feminism. I still can’t decide whether the writers were trying to say it’s okay for women to murder their husbands for not respecting them, or if they were just trying to paint feminists as dangerous murderers, but either way, I don’t like it.
12. The Sign of Three (Season 3, episode 2)
The problem with this episode is that it’s mainly about Watson’s wedding. TV weddings are almost always a huge bore, and even the attempted murder in this one couldn’t save it. It’s also got a lot of mushy sentiment between Sherlock and Watson, which is going a bit far even for a Sherlock who’s starting to discover his humanity. It also provides endless opportunities for gay jokes, which are one of this show’s biggest problems in general. And the mystery was very weak. But at least it’s funny, and it’s got Sherlock playing the violin, which is always a treat.
11. The Final Problem (Season 4, episode 3)
I will say this for the series finale: No matter how bad the writing on Sherlock gets, the acting always elevates it. This episode is a jumbled mess, full of plot holes, weird genre shifts, and overblown drama. But Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, and–well, everyone really–give such sincere performances throughout that they often trick me into caring about the ridiculous story. There’s a reason why Benny and Martin are getting so much work these days. But even from a writing standpoint, the last five minutes are not at all a bad way to end the show. If only the rest of the episode was as good.
10. The Empty Hearse (Season 3, episode 1)
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead (reluctantly–he had intended to kill him off for good), some contemporary critics said the stories never quite regained their old quality. The same thing happened with Sherlock. After the great detective miraculously survived his death at the end of Season 2, the show rapidly began to go downhill, starting with this episode. It’s still entertaining, what with the violent reunion between John and Sherlock and the introduction of Mary Watson, but it lacks the sense of urgency that previous episodes had (if you’ve just brought your main character back from the dead, no one’s going to believe he’s in real danger again), and its fourth-wall-breaking seems self-conscious in all the wrong ways.
9. The Six Thatchers (Season 4, episode 1)
The fun part of this episode is that it gives us some answers about Mary’s past while tying it into an actual mystery in the present. Also, John and Mary have a cute baby, and Sherlock is of course the godfather, so that’s fun as well. Unfortunately, it’s not a super engaging mystery, and it ends with the completely unnecessary death of a major female character, which, for many people, just added to the mounting pile of evidence that Moffat reeeaaallly has issues writing about women.
8. His Last Vow (Season 3, episode 3)
This was the best episode of Season 3, because it was the only one in which something exciting actually happened. The villain was a bit idiotic and repulsive, to be sure, but the trip through Sherlock’s mind palace (back before the show beat that idea to death) was fun, and so was his “undercover” identity as a junkie–in a black comedy sort of way. Oh, and the show’s biggest punching bag, Molly Hooper, gives Sherlock a richly deserved slap more than once, which is very cathartic. This is also the only episode that really develops John and Mary’s relationship, and it’s quite sweet about it, even if their struggles as a couple still carry some uncomfortable traces of sexism.
7. The Lying Detective (Season 4, episode 2)
I liked Season 4 better than Season 3 just because of this episode alone. Again, the villain is so over-the-top that it really shouldn’t have taken a genius like Sherlock Holmes to catch him. But apart from the mystery, it’s a genuinely moving story about two broken men learning to heal their friendship, and each other, after a tragedy. It also shows just how far Sherlock has come from being the amoral jerk he was in the first season, by having him show real kindness to a stranger and go to extreme lengths to help his best friend. Good feels all around.
6. A Scandal in Belgravia (Season 2, episode 1)
Did I mention that Steven Moffat has issues with writing about women? This is possibly the most blatant example. The Irene Adler in this episode is almost unrecognisable to fans of the original story. She doesn’t ultimately outwit Sherlock, she’s unable to save herself from the trouble she gets into, and she’s also a frequently-nude dominatrix (with a terrible stage name) instead of a classy opera singer. Doyle’s version was much more interesting and empowered, and he was writing in the 1800s! Still, this episode manages to be so clever, funny, and suspenseful that I’m willing to forgive its problematic semi-villain. It’s also the first episode where we see Sherlock doubting himself and showing a little more compassion for others.
5. The Blind Banker (Season 1, episode 2)
This is the weakest episode of Season 1, and it’s still fantastic. There’s lots of clever detective work, secret codes, dangerous escapades, and even a couple of ninjas, just to keep things interesting. The only reason it’s not more memorable is because the other two episodes of the season were so mind-blowing they make it look bad by comparison. And, admittedly, it does contain yet another unnecessary female death.
4. The Hounds of Baskerville (Season 2, episode 2)
Out of all the Sherlock episodes based on ACD stories, this one is the best at evoking the atmosphere of the original. We’re removed from the bustle of modern London and placed on a creepy, misty moor, where mysterious sightings of a monstrous hound have been reported, and it’s all delightful. Again, I have to mention the acting in this one. Everyone chews even more scenery than normal–perhaps because there’s just more beautiful scenery available. It is so much fun to watch Sherlock lose his cool after seeing the hound, and John’s reaction to a particularly cruel prank by Sherlock at the end must be seen to be believed.
3. The Great Game (Season 1, episode 3)
All I really need to say about this episode is that it introduces Moriarty. And he’s perfect. He’s the evil, hammy version of Sherlock, and he steals every scene he’s in–which is saying something for an actor going up against the likes of Cumberbatch and Freeman. Even before he gets introduced, though, this episode is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, giving us not one, but five mysteries, with a life hanging in the balance as Sherlock solves each one. And it manages to fit in tons of character development along the way.
2. A Study in Pink (Season 1, episode 1)
I decided about ten minutes into this episode that Sherlock was going to be my new favourite show. It’s witty, it’s suspenseful, all the characters are instantly and endlessly fascinating, and it’s got just the right amount of dry British humour. And honestly, I think the villain in this first episode is the only one who can give Moriarty a run for his money. It’s a fantastic introduction to what would become a fantastic show–for two seasons, at least.
1. The Reichenbach Fall (Season 2, episode 3)
But this is where the show reached its peak. This episode is the gold standard by which I judge all season finales–which doesn’t even seem fair, because it’s so far out of every other show’s league. This is where all the themes and character development the show spent six episodes building up finally come together and pay off. It pulls no punches in showing the consequences for Sherlock’s jerk-ish actions in previous episodes, but it also allows him to redeem himself in truly epic fashion. Moriarty’s at his most terrifying, Sherlock’s at his most clever, John’s at his most heroic, and Molly’s at her most…noticed. Seriously, this is the only episode that treats Molly with the respect she deserves. And I love Molly so much that I’d give it top-of-the-list credit for that alone. But it also deserves major credit for the ending. Even though everyone who was even slightly familiar with Sherlock Holmes knew how this episode was going to end, it still managed to surprise me a bit, and make me very emotional–largely thanks to Martin Freeman’s fantastic cemetery monologue. If I get too frustrated with the direction the show took after this episode, I can always go back and pretend this is where it ended.
All things considered, I think Sherlock‘s good points outweigh its flaws. Even though I wish the show could have ended on a higher note, at least we had plenty of great moments along the way. And I look forward to seeing these actors in more great roles in the future.