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Sherlock’s New World Order

When everything is falling apart, detective mystery can only function as escapism.

(Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In April of 2015, a life-size chocolate sculpture of Benedict Cumberbatch graced the halls of London’s Westfield Stratford City shopping center. The artwork took 250 hours to complete and weighed 88 pounds. In the U.K. we have a saying about futile projects: We say they are “about as useful as a chocolate teapot.” As Sherlock’s fourth season begins, this edible Cumberbatch invites us to consider how much use detective fiction can be in a world gone berserk.

To be compelling, a detective story has to have things “hang in the balance.” The detective’s life should be in danger at some point. The health of society (justice, political stability) should also be in danger. That old phrase about balance derives from the image of a pair of perfectly even scales, which can be tipped either way by the slightest breath. The murder must be solved and the unbreakable enigma broken, otherwise the harmony of the universe will be disturbed. The detective’s job is to preserve the equilibrium.

The first episode of Sherlock’s latest season, “The Six Thatchers,” mixes a charming opening (“Sherlock, you can’t go on spinning plates like this.”—“That’s it! The plates were spinning!”) with an international thriller in the middle and a tearjerking end. Nobody has liked it much, because—enormous spoiler alert—the show’s only central female character is killed off so that the spotlight could narrow back down to Sherlock and Watson.

Sherlock is at its best placing itself at oblique angles to Conan Doyle canon, and there are some delicious easter eggs in this first episode. The title refers pretty explicitly to Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, in which Holmes hunts for a missing pearl inside some statues. This time, the busts are not of Napoleon, but of Margaret Thatcher, which is a nice and neat insult. Also, there’s no pearl. Or is there?

The villain of this episode is a deceptively kind old lady named Vivien Norbury, whom Sherlock fatefully misjudges. Devoted Holmes fans will remember The Adventure of the Yellow Face, in which the detective misses the significance of a town called Norbury. “If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you,” he says to Watson. Holmes has cause to say almost exactly the same thing in this episode, with a tragic twist.

The thriller section of this episode is where things truly go wrong. Sherlock chases Watson’s wife Mary across the world, culminating in a big glamorous shootout. This is James Bond territory, and it fits the small screen as ill as it does the times. Our world feels tilted way off its axis since Donald Trump took a hammer to it, but Sherlock plays with the idea of assassins’ guilds and the British government intervening in conflicts abroad. If the scales must be perfectly still for things to hang in the balance, then this is not the right kind of television for January 2017.

If Sherlock has anything to offer, though, it must lie in escapism. The second episode has been met with much better reviews, because it drags the viewer into forgetting the real in favor of a miraculous fiction. “The Lying Detective” riffs on Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, in which Holmes pretends to be on death’s door in order to extract a confession. (In the television version, you can tell that Sherlock is unwell because he has a beard.) The villain in this episode bears the exact same name as the murderer of that story: Culverton Smith.

Cumberbatch finally utters Holmes’s famous line that “the game is afoot” in this episode. As if that weren’t enough, in a drug-fueled rampage he recites almost the entire Henry V speech from which Conan Doyle lifted that line. In perfect nerdy style, the credits in “The Lying Detective” highlight particular letters in red to spell out “Once more into the breach”—the line that begins the speech.

The magic twist of this episode is the revelation—again, spoiler alert—that the mysterious “other brother” hinted at in previous episodes is in fact a sister. Eurus (the “terrifying force” Sherlock described in metaphorical terms in Season 3 has been disguising herself as other characters. Having finally revealed herself, what does she have in store? Something horrible, it seems, as she leaves Moriarty’s own signature line (“Miss me?”) wherever she goes. It’s a promising new plotline in a series that opened with a deafening thud.

Television is mostly supposed to help the viewer forget their worries. It may be unfair to question the politics of a show that usually fulfills this function admirably. But there is something about Sherlock that sits uneasily now that we’ve agreed that history has begun again.

Edgar Allan Poe birthed detective fiction in the 1840s, as America was settling into its first flush of ill-gotten national greatness, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes began his life in the 1880s as electric lights, gas heat, and radio began their first creep across a Britain on its way to global domination. Murder mystery detectives usually live on the outskirts of society, or they pass unnoticed (Miss Marple, Father Brown) under the noses of authority. But that very outsider status depends on a stability at the middle of society. That stability is now wobbling. For as long as Sherlock can winkingly engage with its own tradition without becoming an absurd relic of a time of lost safety, it will succeed in helping its viewers escape their lives. But if it continues to overreach, to act out its plots on the global stage, the show will fall apart.

In his first outing, A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes explains that a man’s brain can be thought of as an attic: There’s only space for so much, and we must discard what knowledge does not help us achieve what we wish to achieve. Just so, Sherlock must discard certain projects in order to fulfill others. “It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls.”