We open with a horribly frightening scenario, uncomfortably reminiscent of real-life events in the not too distant past that I’d rather not think about: a little girl wakes to find she’s the only person awake on a plane full of unconscious crew and passengers. A mobile phone suddenly starts ringing, breaking the silence around her, and she answers, panicked, only to find the voice on the line is….
Well, that would be telling. It turns out, however, that the little girl on the plane isn’t even the scariest situation this episode has to offer, as we move through a terrifying incident at Mycroft’s house, and on to a tense stand-off at Baker Street before finally ending up in what is a long waking nightmare at Sherrinford itself, courtesy of one Ms Eurus Holmes; a magnetically chilling portrayal by Sian Brooke of a woman who has an intellect “beyond Newton” and a capacity for endlessly imaginative and expansive cruelty beyond all of us.
All this makes The Final Problem the darkest, most complicated Sherlock yet, weaving a deeply disturbing family history that has previously remained oblique and undiscovered to both us and Sherlock himself, into the show’s already established mythology and relationships, and giving us a villain who’s not only much cleverer than our heroes and all our previous villains, but seems, for most of the episode, utterly and solely devoted to the pursuit of the most appalling psychological torture and revenge.
This is not Sherlock as cheerful whodunnit or even meta buddy comedy then, but Sherlock as psychological horror film; for most of the ninety-minute running time, the only sounds coming from my sofa were gasps and whimpers – in fairness, they did find time for a little of the trademark Sherlock humour but, for the most part, this was black and uncompromising; the scene with the governor, the scene with Molly, the sudden realisation of who Redbeard really was – my God.
If the horror was a little too much at times, though, the chemistry between and consistently outstanding performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss helped keep the heart in there too, adding, as Eurus might say, “emotional context” to an episode which, without it, would just have been thoroughly unpleasant. As it was, The Final Problem may have been somewhat traumatic to watch, but it was also gripping, mesmerising viewing and a fine, fitting way to end the series, if end the series it does.
The fate of the show isn’t clear yet; although they all seem keen to return, Cumberbatch, Freeman and showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are all much more famous and in demand than they were when they started their “Holmes and Watson as young men in a modern setting” project, and it’s not as if it’s easy to make 3 feature-length movies with writers and a cast like that on a BBC Drama budget. It’s also subject to the law of diminishing returns – I still think that this version of Sherlock is, for the most part, brilliant, but it’s fair to say that the number of people who agree with me has decreased significantly over the past few years. There’s no denying any new series of Sherlock is an event, though; if we got a fifth one, I’d be far from the only one pleased and watching. Ups and downs and focus on Mary and Moriarty aside, I do still love this incarnation of the Baker Street Boys. For now, then, I’m not saying goodbye to them, just farewell. It’s been a blast.