Sherlock: The Final Problem

So I guess I’ll start by saying that, yes, this was made to be an episode of television rather than a film. However, given that it was released in select cinemas for a one-off showing running simultaneously to the TV broadcast, I get to review it on this blog. This isn’t entirely a cheat either. Sherlock is designed to be cinematic, with exceedingly high production values, and far more conceptual and visual pizazz than most feature films. Occasional dodgy CGI aside, it looks pretty amazing.

There’s an awful lot written about the extent to which the show holds up once you dive beneath the surface gloss. I’m going to do something virtually blasphemous for a film review at this point and admit to being somewhat on the fence. On the one hand, I love the ambition, the creativity, the constant attempts to surprise and strive for ingenuity. On the other hand, this show is deeply exasperating.

Its joys and its flaws are similar to those of Doctor Who, and both the praise and the blame lies squarely at the feet of the man who runs both shows. Steven Moffat is an incredibly skilful writer with a gift for intricate, non-linear jigsaw plots alongside carefully calibrated dialogue that has more levels than the new GCSEs. His dialogue is so clever-clever that it leaves you in awe – except no-one speaks the way his characters do. Moffat seems to find characters more of a hindrance than anything, pesky necessities that constantly trip over the mechanics of the plot. If it’s hard to know what on earth is going on in a Moffat-scripted show, then at least you have the comforting sensation that the characters are no more cognisant of their own motivations than you are.

Moffat has far more ideas than he knows what to do with and simply no discipline over restricting those ideas to, y’know, separate episodes or shows. The Final Problem was the same as each of the episodes in the last two series: overstuffed and bloated with overlapping machinations to the point where you don’t actually know whether anything makes sense or not. And certainly no time for the characters to breathe or move around in any coherent way – they simply arrive wherever the script needs them to be next. (One particularly jarring cut sees Holmes and Watson jumping out of the first floor of an exploding building and somehow ending up on a boat in the middle of the sea. What, they didn’t even sprain an ankle?)

Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) is the absolute worst at setting up mysteries and plotlines that have no coherent pay-off, but Moffat isn’t far behind. The problem isn’t so much that he doesn’t know how to resolve his mysteries – he’s just not that interested in the pay-off. He’s much more interested in setting up the next dizzying convolutions, leaving his resolutions as weak, off-handed after-thoughts. We see this in Doctor Who repeatedly (the first part of the finales are always better than the second), and in each of the Sherlock season cliff-hangers. Case in point: Moffat loved setting up Sherlock’s jump at the end of Season 2, but he couldn’t care less about explaining how it was done. There are never really any consequences to the high drama of Moffat scripts. Characters undergo epoch-shifting, traumatic life changes and then just shrug and move on. If you’ll forgive me a football analogy, Moffat is simultaneously the master of the assist and of missing an open goal.

This is never more evident than at the end of The Final Problem. After 80 minutes of breathless, thrilling build-up, the climax is botched in a deluge of desperately rushed, logic-defying nonsense. The suspense builds and builds, then just kinda blows away in the wind. Ah, but what build-up. A blur of physical and emotional intensity, of plot twists and narrative reveals that leave you reeling and disoriented. An hour races by in no time at all in a marathon of exuberant story-telling and sheer lunatic bravado.

Sherlock is without a doubt one of the most bat-shit crazy pieces of television ever conceived. It’s barely a detective show – and thank goodness, we already have a million of those. (I simply can’t fathom people who complain that Holmes doesn’t solve enough crimes. Do we really need yet another procedural in that ilk?) Instead Sherlock is a grand, luscious pantomime – a soap opera with a blockbuster budget. It is ludicrous, obscene – even insane. And within its canon, The Final Problem stands as a high watermark for all these adjectives. Sherlock’s sister – as it transpires – is a psychopathic “once-in-a-generation” uber-genius who can mind-control anyone she talks to and has a penchant for running seriously macabre escape rooms. As a character, she makes absolutely no sense at all. (No-one does in this show.) As a plot device, she’s perfect.

The tone is utterly beguiling as it lurches with gusto between thrills, slapstick, tongue-in-cheek irony, brutal darkness and hammy horror. The only thing that’s really missing is the silence. You know, the space between set pieces where people just talk and the audience has a chance to catch up. That never happens. The result is serious whiplash, and I would suspect the alienation of quite a large chunk of those watching. Then again, for those that cling on, there are more than enough rewards to justify the loyalty.

With that all said, there’s really nowhere else for this show to go. It’s already far enough down the rabbit hole that it could really only resurface as a full-on supernatural piece of science-fiction. That, or dial itself way, way back into the procedural that so many people seem to want it to be. But it shouldn’t do either of those things. It shouldn’t do anything. The end of The Final Problem is the first time a series of Sherlock has ended on a full stop and not a comma. Now it needs to learn to do the one thing it hasn’t yet tried. It needs to be quiet.

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One thought on “Sherlock: The Final Problem

  1. Fof, I saw the last two episodes of the recent Sherlock. Ep2 was pleasingly contained, a plausible vessel for an albeit blunt political allegory, the villain and crime were far-fetched (perhaps deliciously so, in the surrealist Black Mirror macabre sense) and/but approximately worth the suspension of disbelief, allowing the more totally indulgent narrative nonsenses and deadend teasers and nonsequitor japes to sit in the background adding vigour to the tipsy but largely coherent ensemble.

    Ep3 was doubly infuriating for having previously tantilised us that the ship Sherlock was not Lost, and that the sprawl of high-budget tropes actually served the cause of an elegant cryptic crossword. Sleepless fury ensued. Sherlock is a galling insult to the intelligence of it cast and audience.

    The bloated swaggering episode was doubly cloying for its superlative bravado in the face its vacuity, the detective equivalent of tinny over-amplified canned laughter, rolling puns with no punchline, like a winking emperor, knowing himself naked, but now revelling in the joke being on others. The pandora’s box of grave nonsense for grave nonsense’s own sake sprung open by Nolan and now spread abroad by a host of lower budget long-form imitators.

    There is a rant I have pent up since the Leftovers, which gathered further bile behind the dam after MrRobot Series 2.0. It is an anger mixed with a grief mixed with a lingering fear for future of mankind. For being an open-ended, hypertexted, character-driven-ish, streamable serial Sherlock elbows in amongst longer sibling, but it is, nevertheless a mature specimen of the long-form drama.

    The long-form drama is worse than a mere soap opera for sophisticates, one doesn’t binge on Corrie with anything like the same self-congratulatory air. The sprawling vomit of narrative is an irresponsibility, a dizzying assault on language, an opiate of the worst kind, an introvenous sentimentality piping self-pitious escapist sensation into the darkened cells of the attention deficit generation whose twitter-augmented interaction with the narrative of all of life is rehearsed in the same wry interactivity via cliquing in-jokes which Moffat has made his millions by provoking. It is a deft exploit, it serves a felt need ~ Sherlock was always frothy, but was kept from mere froth where a coherent twist dignified the viewer with salient questions of memory, death and the real. Much as MrRobot achieved to an even richer end, political and psychological insight of a razor sharp piece urgent cultural criticism in Series 1.0, then utterly hollowed itself out along with the whole project, by franchising itself to the narrative equivalent of suburban sprawl, a grey, occasionally titillating morass of narrative semis and white picket plot twists.

    Would you like to come to lunch on Sunday? Perhaps a film in the afternoon?

    Liked by 1 person

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