SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of last night’s premiere episode of Sherlock Season 4.
BBC One/Masterpiece’s Sherlock made a long-awaited return to UK and U.S. television on Sunday night. In Britain, 8.1M viewers tuned in to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s high-functioning sociopath sleuth reteamed with Martin Freeman’s Dr. John Watson after last January’s one-off Victorian-age episode, “The Abominable Bride,” and the Season 3 finale, “His Last Vow,” three years ago. Also featuring in the Season 4 debut “The Six Thatchers” — which was Britain’s most-watched show on Sunday — is Watson’s wife Mary, who was introduced in Season 3 as played by Amanda Abbington. But by the end of “The Six Thatchers,” the new mother was felled by a bullet meant for Sherlock Holmes.
Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes tales know that Mary dies in the narrative, but killing her off from the first episode of this season has certainly been met with surprise. Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss recently explained their motivation at a London gathering for a sneak look at the episode. Moffat said, “We felt this was absolutely the right place to do it. Mary’s been dead for a hundred years so it’s hard to surprise people in those circumstances. The only thing we could do was do it earlier than people thought — as wrenchingly as in real life.”
The scene in which Mary is killed comes during an intricately filmed aquarium staging with sharks prowling behind the glass in the background. After Mary’s assassin past was revealed in “His Last Vow,” her backstory forms the main throughline of “The Six Thatchers” — it’s tied to the reason busts of the former Prime Minister are being destroyed at murder scenes throughout Britain — a case Sherlock is following with particular interest.
During a final showdown in last night’s episode, Mary steps in front of Sherlock to take a bullet that was intended for him. She then dies in Watson’s arms. Abbington and Freeman, who were a longtime couple in real life but split shortly before filming began, said it was an emotional day’s shooting.
“It’s always nice when you get something like that in the script and you have to say all these last things,” Abbington said in London two weeks ago. “It’s a dream for an actor because you can be completely self-indulgent and go to town with it.” Freeman joked, “It’s difficult because you’re always, or I am, on the verge of acting badly. Especially when it’s your wife on telly, and who we are in real-life, you have to do it justice, but it’s very easy to overdo. It’s a careful line. And, to act that Amanda’s just been shot, that’s pretty tough even when you know it’s coming in the schedule.”
Cumberbatch agreed it was emotional. “You know, we get the hit that the audience hopefully gets when we first read it, so that was always going to be a moment. Two became three and then this incredibly important part of what Sherlock is, is suddenly no more… It’s tipping someone off a cliff just when you’re most in need of them.”
Moffat noted of the relationship between Mary and Sherlock, “We had this thing of where Mary and Sherlock are very close but there was this moment of froideur when she shot him in ‘His Last Vow.’ So, it was nice to reverse that and have her save his life” in “The Six Thatchers.”
The death of Mary causes a rift between Sherlock and Watson. Throughout the episode, and certainly following Mary’s death, Sherlock becomes “slightly less of a dick,” as I noted the cast and creators earlier said in London. There’s also a B-story that has the very loyal Watson heading off on a somewhat unexpected tangent. “It’s always interesting to play shades of people,” said Freeman. “John is this reliable, steadfast character generally speaking. But he has weaknesses and can be at fault.”
As for Sherlock, Cumberbatch said his character had become “so loyal to” Mary, “someone he cares about” but “blindsided himself with his own humanity.”
Cumberbatch has some action scenes in “The Six Thatchers,” and now having played Doctor Strange in the Marvel blockbuster, was asked whether Sherlock is going to be more of an action hero. “That’s not necessarily the way to go,” he told the audience in London. “Through the whole of it he’s a hero because of an evolving kindness and a near supernatural intelligence, but actually natural intelligence and that’s very important to distinguish. He’s somebody who has honed his craft and there are sacrifices involved. Some of those may be made clearer in the future of this series. Who knows?”
It has been promised this will be the darkest Sherlock series ever. Whether it will be the last still remains a mystery. Gatiss said: “We would love to do more but we’re genuinely not lying this time. We don’t know. It’s up to all kinds of factors… It’s all here but we’re just not sure.”
As I previously wrote, Moffat cheekily added, “Who’s to say all the characters make it out alive at the end of the series? Anything could happen.”
Season 4 continues with “The Lying Detective” on January 8, followed by “The Final Problem” on January 15 on both BBC One and Masterpiece. The season finale will also be shown in cinemas in the UK, U.S. and elsewhere.