Sherlock Review: The Final Problem

This review was originally written for the Baker Street Babes, and it can be found on their website here


Here, though the world explode, these two survive

—Vincent Starrett, 221B

I used pieces of Vincent Starrett’s beloved poem in my review of “The Abominable Bride,” and it’s fitting that my mind is again drawn to it as I try to formulate thoughts about “The Final Problem.” This episode, more than the others this season, is the spiritual and practical sequel to TAB, giving Sherlock a chance to put into practice in the real world what he learned about himself in the Victorian construct of his mind palace.

This entire season has been about the fracturing of Holmes’s world. First, his relationships disintegrated, as the death of Mary Watson drove a wedge between him and John, and then his home itself literally exploded around him. Finally, his reality itself exploded as he realized he had a once-beloved sibling he could no longer remember. The beautiful thing about “The Final Problem” is that it’s not so much about the problem; it’s about the solution. No matter what explodes, these two survive. Ultimately, the deep loyalty and affection Holmes and Watson have for each other transcends the bitterness of their conflict, together they are able to rebuild from the ashes of their home, and Watson’s support helps Holmes to navigate the desperate puzzle of his sister’s existence.

In one of my favorite sequences in all of Sherlock’s history as a series, we see Sherlock returning time and time again to see the woman the world doesn’t want, the sister Mycroft tried to hide away, whom he now says is unreachable. But Sherlock reaches her, communicating through music what neither sibling can communicate in words. The man who once thought he would forever be alienated from the world now does for Eurus what John Watson once did for him. He becomes a bridge to the world, to love, to connection, the way his blogger has been a bridge for him.

John Watson once rescued Sherlock Holmes in his mind palace at the Reichenbach Falls. Now it’s Sherlock who visits his sister’s mind palace, the airplane where a lonely little girl is looking for a pilot to help her know how to land. He rescues her, and in the end he keeps rescuing her, bit by bit, day by day, because he can, because he has the confidence to reach for someone as unreachable as he used to feel. The man who was once rescued can now attempt to rescue someone else without fear of losing himself.

And not only is he ready to spend himself on his sister. As the showrunners have said, the four series and one special we’ve had have served as the origin story for the Holmes and Watson of the stories, putting them in place to be the crimesolving duo of legend. The Holmes and Watson who rebuild Baker Street also rebuild their lives and partnership, culminating in a triumphant ending that sees them back where they started—except better, stronger, and wiser. The Sherlock we leave at the end of the series is ready to be of use, not just to one person, but to humanity.

That’s a look at the thematic concepts addressed in “The Final Problem.” Now let’s explore the specifics of the storytelling. Structurally and stylistically, the episode was more of a horror film than any other installment of the show. It shared certain similarities with much-beloved episode “The Great Game,” but the tone was astronomically more ominous, with the majority of the episode being taken up by the torturous mindgames Eurues inflicted on her brothers and Watson inside the Sherrinford facility.

The great value of this structure is that it brought an elegant simplicity to the stages of the story, something we’ve missed in the previous two episodes. We love to watch Holmes and Watson partnering to solve puzzles, and in this instance, Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft added a great deal, both in terms of emotional stakes and intellectual weight.

The various puzzles were complex and gripping. Ultimately, some come out better after scrutiny than others (the dangling Garrideb brothers were a bit comical for the gravity of the situation), but the overall effect was mesmerizing. Louise Brealey (sadly) wasn’t called upon for much this season, but she gave her all to one of the saddest scenes of the episode, Molly being manipulated by Sherlock one more time, because he thought he was saving her life. Mark Gatiss gave a Bafta-worthy performance as a Mycroft who’s coming to terms with his own culpability for his sister’s (and Moriarty’s) crimes and is willing to pay with his life. John Watson was also back on fine form, with a magnificent moment in which he realized that his own inherent decency wouldn’t let him shoot an innocent man, a reaffirmation that he has it in him to be the good man he aspires to find.

Eurus herself was played brilliantly by Sian Brooke, who came across as a creepily Hannibal Lecter-like inhuman creature at times, but at other times simply a lost little girl. Somehow, she managed to humanize a woman said to be cleverer than either Mycroft or Sherlock, capable of seemingy-impossible manipulation, but ultimately craving simple human connection and to somehow be understood as something more than a machine or a monster.

Redbeard being a human, particularly Victor Trevor (canonical friend of Sherlock Holmes) was a twist I did not see coming, but it was a marvelous payoff for a through-line that has confused and entranced Sherlockians for years. The trauma around Sherlock’s memory of Redbeard seemed too cataclysmic to refer to a dog, and that turned out to be absolutely true. Thankfully, history did not repeat itself. Sherlock Holmes solved the case, and his best friend lived.

Canon nods abounded, particularly in the mechanism of the overarching case from Sherlock’s childhood, which used the creepy nursery rhyme/song Eurus had devised as a child. Both “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott” center around puzzles, and the episode married the cases in a pretty seamless partnership. The Holmes family home referenced the former, and Victor Trevor is a major part of the latter. Eurus’s puzzles also had Canon references entwined all through them. We noticed nods to “The Retired Colourman,” “Lady Frances Carfax,” the aforementioned “Three Garridebs,” and there were undoubtedly others. The disguises Sherlock and Mycroft donned refer back to “Black Peter” and “The Sign of Four,” in which Sherlock Holmes posed as a captain and seafaring man. Also, the Stradivarius reference points to Holmes’s Strad in the stories, purchased by him at a pawnshop for a fraction of its worth. Not canonical but historical, the reference to Oscar Wilde is a nod to the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got the idea of writing the Holmes stories while he was having a meal with Wilde.

We had a great deal of love for this episode, but it wasn’t perfect. Let’s look at some of the less-successful aspects.

First off, it would be pointless and annoying to belabor every single plot leap. We weren’t particularly bothered by them when watching, but details like Eurus’s nearly-supernatural ability to manipulate everyone around her, John somehow escaping a well on a rope while his feet are chained to the bottom, and the extraordinary efficiency of Moriarty and Eurus to be able to formulate their plan during five unsupervised minutes, don’t bear looking at too closely. Most of the apparent plotholes worked as horror tropes. Eurus evokes Hannibal Lecter, particularly in Silence of the Lambs, at several moments, and it was such great fun to see Andrew Scott show up that we could almost ignore the fact that it didn’t make a huge amount of sense. So, too, it was a lot to swallow to accept that Mycroft made a string of bad decisions so vast he was using his mentally unbalanced sister to do government research and rewarding her with things like tete-a-tetes with criminal masterminds. Nevertheless, as a sudden fall for a character who, at times, has seemed nearly omniscient, it worked quite well.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Mofftiss without a bit of the Extra thrown in. We still have a Plot Baby who doesn’t really have a place in this story. We now have, in Eurus, a whole new unbalanced genius with incredible power (as well as another evil brilliant female, something the writers seem to love doing). She’s fun to watch, but she’s definitely from a very heightened world that bears only a glancing resemblance to the real one. Additionally, the strong character development of Molly and the joy of watching Lestrade at work were largely sacrificed for runtime and plot needs, which, as we’ve said before, can make a story feel smaller when it gets bigger because it can’t find enough space for the people who matter.

Finally, we were a bit disappointed not to get a more direct adaptation of the most emotional part of Doyle’s “The Three Garridebs,” which is when Watson is shot, and a distraught Holmes shows for a brief moment how deeply he cares about his friend. This episode substituted Holmes’s shouted declaration to Mycroft that Watson is like family to him, which was magnificent, but we’d still have enjoyed seeing a horrified Holmes fussing over his injured comrade.

The less said about the 221b explosion the better, we think. The symbolism of having Holmes and Watson rebuild it while they rebuild their friendship (and Sherlock rebuilds his sister) is powerful, in the end. The way they got there? We’ll just let the lacking CGI and over-dramatization that resulted in (apparently) no one even being injured be water under the bridge of an episode that, over all, we hugely enjoyed.

As a final criticism, this episode did little to redeem the issues with its two preceding episodes. That’s less a criticism of this story than it is a shake of the head that “The Six Thatchers,” in particular, just is what it is, warts and all. There was no hail Mary in the end that made the whole thing worthwhile.

Here dwell together still two men of note

—Vincent Starrett, 221B
I’m back to Starrett, because the brilliant coda at the end of “The Final Problem,” voiced by the actually-dead Mary Watson (we were right about that), echoed him, speaking about two men with the potential to become, together, a haven for the desperate and downtrodden. We’re left with the image of Holmes and Watson back in Baker Street, taking cases and solving crimes.
And that’s exactly where we want them. During the Q&A after the episode screening the other night, Moffat told the crowd that we all know how the story continues. Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes keep solving mysteries together. We know, he said, because it’s written in the stories, and we can read them whenever we like.
At this point in time, no one knows if Sherlock will continue or if The Final Problem was its swan song. Either way, we’re grateful for where the episode left us. If we never see these iterations of Holmes and Watson on screen again, we can always imagine them in 221b, happy and secure in their partnership. If we do see them in future seasons or specials, they’re perfectly positioned to return to the kind of self-contained, clever mystery solving that made Holmes a household name in the Victorian Era and underpins all great adaptations since.
The man who plays the violin with his broken sister, and the doctor raising his little girl alone, are not perfect men, and I think Doyle would be glad about that. After all, he didn’t write about perfect men. Instead, he gave us the greater gift of uncommon friends..

2 thoughts on “Sherlock Review: The Final Problem

  1. Okay, you persuade me that the episode/finale was better than I thought it was. The conceit of torture puzzles was losing me as I watched. Too much suspension of my disbelief to keep enjoying it as much as the more straight-forward mystery plots. But if they wanted to go out with a bang, I’ll give them that 🙂

  2. I love this detailed synopsis. The fact you also give an honest criticism makes it more real. For those out there who didn’t ‘get it’ will find their explanation here. Of course, like everything else, it had its faults, but did we care…No! I simply loved the cleverness of it, adding lots of dishy references to other Holmes stories, and the homage to the brilliant Basil Rathbone at the end, was class.
    I felt a bit disappointed, in that after the scene with Molly, i felt it hadn’t been resolved properly. After all, we knew she loved Sherlock, and THAT scene was big, not only for us mere mortals, but for the two characters. I must confess, I was shouting at the TV, “C’mon Molly, just tell him!”.
    Over though, it was brilliantly clever. Here’s hoping, Moffat, Gattis and Cleaver, oh and of course our work wonderfully, talented actors, that they eventually bring us a fifth series.
    We live and wait with abaited breath. X

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