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Sherlock S4E1 The Six Thatchers – Spoiler review * 01 January 2017

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Betrayal.

That's the common theme that links everything that happens in Sherlock S4E1 The Six Thatchers.

Mary is accused of betraying her former colleagues, and one survivor of a botched mission wants revenge.

John, shockingly, is implied to betray the vows of his marriage to Mary.

And Sherlock betrays His Last Vow, his irresistible arrogance to analyse the actual perpetrator of the crime eventually goading the seemingly frail woman to commit murder, leading to the death of Mary and a true fracturing of his friendship to John Watson.

This ending is of course the gigantic talking point. At the premiere of The Six Thatchers in December, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss remarked that the eventual death of Mary was expected from many quarters, so they thought best to wrong foot the viewer by getting it out of the way in the first episode. It's a bravura decision, giving the episode the dramatic flavour of a series finale and truly making the show feel dangerous in a way it hasn't before.

Despite this sombre tone at the close though, the episode is front loaded with wonderful comedy, and then morphs into a stunning action thriller. It's a flavour Sherlock has never fully sampled to this degree, the combination of that stunning extended swimming pool fight scene and the international jaunt that culminates in Morocco making the series go nearly full Bond/Bourne. This marks a swerve away from the slight indulgences of the third series too - everything that happens onscreen here is in service to the plot, in comparison to the knockabout fun of the stag crawl in The Sign of Three say. The Six Thatchers is never caught up in supremely clever twists and turns either, everything is carefully measured and explained to a satisfying degree. But this still isn't a standalone Sherlock story like the first couple of series - that format arguably departed with The Reichenbach Fall. Familiarity with the previous instalments is now essential to follow what is going on and feel the full weight of the tragedy that inevitably unfolds.

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Sherlock's inability to resist a 'good' deduction is simply another element that links the three characters though, and that becomes abundantly clear during this episode. Mary cannot do anything but drug Sherlock and flee when danger flares, just as John apparently cannot resist an attractive woman (Mark Gatiss drew attention at the premiere to Watson's canon reputation as a ladies' man, despite the offense it may draw from some of us today). They ultimately cannot resist the darker side of their own natures, even though they are all played to be on the side of the angels.  

Benedict Cumberbatch continues his evolution of Sherlock Holmes. Drugged glimpses of Redbeard and a pirate hat may humanise him further, but the revelation he is the one in therapy with Ella Thompson (a briefly returning Tanya Moodie) at the close reinforces the fact that this is not the same man we met in A Study in Pink. His character has softened, and his old habits are seen here as lethal negatives. The case given to him by Mary in the final minutes is clearly one that he doesn't yet know how to solve, as it's built around of a core of truly understanding human emotion. There is a route to growth laid out before him. 

Martin Freeman continues to be the revelation though, as John Watson directly challenges our sympathies as an audience. It is made clear that he is human, to the degree that his is unable to resist temptation. Whether or not he has actually broken his marriage vow to Mary is left unspoken - the fact that he wants to admit something to her before the tragic trip to the London Aquarium suggests a heavy 'probably'. It's something that will divide audiences for certain. What can't be disputed though is John's reaction during Mary's death scene, a shockingly primal animalistic keening that goes beyond any reaction he has had during the life of this series. It's another indelible moment for the character that makes him the human soul of the show, even while it may feel at the deeper expense of his basic training as an Army Doctor.

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So to Amanda Abbington as Mary. It's fair to say the mere presence of the character has divided fans, but there's nothing to decry about her selfless sacrifice to save Sherlock in the face of his own arrogance. The fact that she finally apologises for shooting him in His Last Vow is a beautiful touch, and her final moments are deeply moving. Before all that though, the badass international spy shenanigans and warm interactions signal what a twist she brought to the series as a whole. For us, she will be deeply missed.

Among the support, there's the continuing delightful smarminess of Mycroft; the bickering of the brothers in the first scene and the heightened presence of MI6 (or whoever they all ACTUALLY are) in the plot making his presence a continued pleasure. The addition of extra police officers to the sidelines of the plot doesn't detract from Lestrade either - it's a lovely touch to return at last to the idea that other members of the Met consult Sherlock and not just him, and Rupert Graves continues to get great material to play his certain brand of befuddled off of. Louise Brealey is under represented in this one as Molly, but still gets to set the tone for the damage that has been brought upon the friendship between Sherlock and John by the close. And Una Stubbs is Mrs Hudson. That's all we ask. (With that delightful aside that she is off in Corfu at one point being a lovely bonus!) Plus, the introduction of Toby the Bloodhound to boot, including a moment written by Moffat and Gatiss on the street on the day of filming, reflecting the dog's apparent dislike of walking.

As we mentioned in our earlier spoiler-free review, Rachel Talalay's direction is an infusion of new blood into the show. Never before has Sherlock been this action packed, and it's a surprising turn of events. That knockdown fight in the swimming pool between Holmes and AJ is straight out of Craig-era Bond or any of the Bourne movies, while the raging gun battles in the hostage crisis flashback are slick and energy fuelled. The fact that this is all in an episode that opens with comedy bouncy birth scenes and a tweet-filled christening is the icing on the cake, and a true demonstration of why the show thrives on having experienced directors at the helm.

We also couldn't before draw any kudos to the brilliance of Arwel Jones' production design, particularly the appearence of a new skull picture on the familar walls of 221B, and the recreation of interiors for buildings in the Morocco sequence. They are particular are truly spectacular stuff that believably takes us out of London, while the use of location in the series is continually brilliant. For some fans, it is highly likely the London Aquarium could become a new place of pilgrimage based on its spectacular use in this episode, and the beautiful light and literal circling sharks lends the entire episode an eerie quality that we can't help but feel is heading for the realms of metaphor.

And where will the series take us next, if this is only the opening episode? We dread to think...

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