Two comments that will, at first, appear to be tangential to the subject at hand.
1) When I was in high school, one show I followed with some faithfulness was Beauty and the Beast. Towards the end of its run, though, even adolescent I began to notice that the series had developed this weirdly self-devouring attitude to its emotional drama, in which all personal relationships slowly morphed into warped and contorted angst. It seemed to me that something creative had gone awry somewhere.
2) When Jeremy Brett was shooting the Granada Sherlock Holmes series, he was initially famous (notorious?) for demanding that everything in the scripts have some explicit relationship to what was on Doyle's page.
These thoughts are, alas, not tangential at all, as "The Six Thatchers," the opener for Sherlock's fourth series, makes abundantly clear. For some time now, Sherlock has primarily rested its laurels on its representation of the Holmes/Watson/lately Mary Watson/sort-of Moriarty relationship, as opposed to more minor matters, such as coherent plots. If developing Holmes' friendship with Watson necessarily results from the shift to a visual medium and away from Watson-the-narrator-function, it is still the case that in Doyle's stories, the characterization emerges from the action, and not the action from the characterization. That is: we learn a great deal about Watson from how he narrates, rather than from any extensive backstory or, in some cases, continuing story (he...has a brother, you say? How many wives, again?); similarly, we learn about Holmes by watching Watson watching him work (or grumble about not working), but we never learn more than tiny snippets about his life pre-Watson. Thus, the Granada series' slightly revisionist Watson emerges plausibly from a close reading of the originals, whose Watson is a strong storyteller with excellent eye for detail. Sherlock, by contrast, has by now evolved (or devolved) entirely into the permutations of how these characters relate to each other--usually dysfunctionally. Worse still, it has been drinking deeply at the well of Our Heroes Must be Personally Menaced by Grand Conspiracies, which has been the downfall of many a series related to detective work of some sort. (There must be a mathematical formula which allows us to calculate when a series will decide that it needs a Brilliant Villain who has nothing better to do than Endlessly Persecute Our Hero and Torment His Loved Ones.) Matters are only worsened by this version of Holmes, a self-described "high-functioning sociopath" who is so brutally unpleasant that nobody with any alternatives would want to spend time in his near, or even far, proximity. It is not clear why this Watson likes him, let alone supposedly loves him or feels any loyalty to him. Indeed, the series' moment of greatest psychological verisimilitude occurs immediately after Holmes reveals to Watson that he didn't die after all: Watson proceeds to beat him up. Repeatedly. Across London. If anything, the most plausible finale to this series would be the end of Act I in Charles Marowitz' Sherlock's Last Case, in which Watson, driven insane by Holmes' behavior, (believes he) murders him.
Ah. The episode, you say? Like most Sherlock installments, "The Six Thatchers" mashes up various Holmes stories--notably "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," "The Adventure of the Empty House," and "The Adventure of the Yellow Face"--with, also as per the usual, a super-added plot having to do with the creepier side of the British intelligence services. Oh, and "The Appointment in Samarra." In theory, "Appointment in Samarra" is what drives the plot's organization, although it's noteworthy that Sherlock omits a key point of Maugham's retelling that is integral to what plays out on screen: the merchant recognizes Death, but, more importantly, misinterprets Death's behavior, and it's that that sends him fleeing from Baghdad to Samarra. All events play out to a predetermined ending, even when Death herself is initially under the impression that something has wrecked the pattern. In "The Six Thatchers," Sherlock misinterprets the point of shattering the Thatcher busts, which eventually propels the narrative forward to the deaths of both the perpetrator and Mary Watson herself. (At a meta level, the viewer who remembers "Six Napoleons" will also misinterpret the plot, as the pearl turns out to be a red herring.) But Mary's death, of course, was itself supposedly predetermined by Doyle's stories, so that at no point has she ever been able to "escape" the fate of her original. This despite the episode reworking other aspects of Doyle's stories so that they don't play out as planned, most notably "The Adventure of the Yellow Face," whose plot hinges on a child born from an interracial marriage in the nineteenth-century South. Here, instead of Doyle's praise for love and honor vanquishing bigotry, as well as for a mother's determination to protect her child, we have an actual instead of imaginary affair; the reveal that, really, Watson is worse, rather than better, than Mary thinks him; and a rather cavalier attitude to the Watsons' baby. ("Norbury," as it turns out, remains key.) Some plot reversals, it would appear, are more viable than others.
Unfortunately, the plot and pacing are themselves rather a mess, which left me contemplating the sort of matters that viewers ought not to be contemplating. How concealing a flash drive inside of a dry, hollow bust would work is unexplained; in "Six Napoleons," the pearl was concealed before the plaster had dried, which was why the busts needed to be smashed instead of gently shaken. The child care arrangements in the Watson home seem somewhat strange, as apparently both Mary and John can take off with no notice to go globe-trotting; one would imagine that even Mrs. Hudson might begin to balk at some point. Neither Mycroft nor the British government can afford to turn the lights on (granted, this is a standard feature in British mysteries; only the shot of dust motes in a random beam of light was missing). We will not go into Watson's...interesting...vocalizations at Mary's death (already a target of some derision on Twitter), which spoiled the effect. What effect there was, as my tears remained unjerked. Let us hope that there is nowhere to go but up.