The Final Problem: Making Sherlock Holmes a good man
After The Lying Detective, I didn’t know what to expect for the last episode of series 4. John and Sherlock had reconciled on screen after hurting themselves and each other so deeply over the course of years. Mary had made her mark and worked herself out of the series. In two episodes, the main problems left by Series 3 had basically been resolved. What was left for big finale?
With that trepidation in mind, I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Final Problem. It wasn’t easy to watch, but I found it powerful and convincing in ways that many others apparently did not. It tied up a lot of standing issues: the Moriarty business, from his initial interest in Sherlock to the last Miss Mes, the Why of Sherlock from series 1 onward, the Why of Mycroft and the broken Holmes Brothers’ relationship. It gave an emotional grounding to the fundamental contradiction of this Sherlock Holmes: a strongly empathic person trying to override sensitivity and compassion with extraordinary analytic ability that is (strangely) a source of great insecurity. As a closing chapter on the story of Sherlock’s progress from being a Great Man to a good one, I found it incredibly satisfying. The bizarre premise of a series of rooms on an island fortress was romantic and dramatic, but not out of style for a show that has featured delayed-action stabbings (TSOT), an un-convict-able super-villain (TRF), and a serial killer engaging in a battle of wits with every victim (ASIP).
Maybe I read too many fantasy stories about quests as a child, but I wasn’t bothered by the improbability of the plot, nor by the use of all non-protagonist characters to further this hero’s journey. This episode wasn’t about John, or Mycroft, or Molly, or even Eurus. However, their respective relationships with Sherlock have made him grow in different ways, and the sequence of crises forced on him by Eurus serve to prove how much he has changed, both to her and to himself. That the depiction of these tests put the audience (well, at least me) through the emotional wringer heightened (my) satisfaction and confidence in Sherlock’s transformation. In the moment, I didn’t care if the action did not make much sense; the why has always been more important than the how in BBC Sherlock.
Over the course of four series, Sherlock has gone from being a self-destructive solitary man-child to shouldering the responsibility of healing his own broken family, and that change in perspectives and priorities is huge. He is willing to learn from Eurus (rather than feel threatened by her abilities), to work for the sake of his parents and siblings (rather than push them away like a whiny teenager), and to care openly about his chosen family. Finally, Sherlock has the stability to treat strangers’ needs with respect and sympathy, as mature Holmes does the stories of ACD.
Besides capping the great progress of Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem also moved me with the story of Eurus. There are plenty of stories about weirdly precocious children, but this was the first I’ve really appreciated about a younger sister, and it really hit home. Around the comic violence, Eurus is treated with sympathy, her struggle recognised and respected. This is helping me think very useful thoughts about my own familial relationships and that kind of impact is a hallmark of good art.
There was plenty more to enjoy in this episode (just as there was plenty to criticise) but a last point that mattered a lot to me was a big deviation from the usually crime-solving content of detective stories (or stories about detectives). Through the Holmes family’s history and present, we finally have a look at the consequences of violent crime and the criminal justice process on the families of the incarcerated. The temptation to forget, the importance of remembering, the intra- and inter-individual conflicts about engaging with loved ones who are or are deemed dangerous. The specifics were fanciful and not without their problems, but it’s an important change from having so many antagonists dismissed as unconditionally evil.
The Holmes and Watson of ACD repeatedly weight the cost of arresting the guilty with consideration for their families, but on BBC Sherlock, the wrong doers tend to wind up dead or arrested without questions of fall out. We haven’t seen a real moral quandary on screen, and I hope that kind of story will pop up in some future independent story about our Baker Street Boys.
Mary haters: Mary obviously killed herself to save Sherlock’s life only because she knew that this would ensure he would 100% have a more excruciating death in the future. She also chose to die and leave her daughter an orphan because she wanted to use these last seconds of her life to instill guilt to John’s perfectly clear conscience.
In making a gif set for this episode I’ve just spotted that placed innocently next to the deadly rat poison during the supper scene is what I’m assuming is a freshly baked homemade pie. Just another little detail in portraying this ‘apple pie’ family as anything but.
What’s interesting through is how they place this here especially considering the connotations pie usually has in SPN of family, of home and especially Dean’s relationship with Mary - homemade pie being a big part of the image Dean constructed of Mary and held on to for years. To have this only two episodes after Mary confesses she never made the pie herself, and in an episode in which Dean calls his relationship to Mary into question (the ‘can I call you mom?’ text for instance) is no coincidence. It’s part of the shattering of an idillic dream held onto for so long - switching from the ‘American Dream’ to the nightmare instead. The poison and the pie act as two symbols of family and corruption respectively, juxtaposed against each other.
Gail as a mother is totally toxic, she has figuratively and literally corrupted and poisoned the family unit. Calling this particular brand of poison ‘RAT HELL’ is another nod towards the idea that Gail is the figurative Devil, the one sent from Hell to do the Devil’s work - not Magda.
Not that I’m saying Mary is anything like Gail, because she isn’t. But for those of you interested if you really squint you could make a link between Mary and her potential for being possessed by Lucifer but that’s not a theory I personally am subscribing to at the moment.