We gave it an A-
Well, that was a lot, wasn’t it? The great achievement of Sherlock is that despite the long breaks between new episodes, the show always returns with a bang. And this season 4 premiere was no different.
Let’s begin by discussing the old fable so central to this episode, in which a rich merchant in Baghdad encounters Death, shocking them both. In a desperate attempt to escape his fate, the merchant flees to the faraway city of Samarra. Upon arrival, he once again finds himself face-to-face with Death. This time, the merchant accepts his fortune, but not before asking Death why the ghostly figure was so surprised when they ran into each other in Baghdad. I was surprised, Death explained, because I had an appointment with you tonight in Samarra.
Unlike Sherlock, I have always enjoyed that story. Misdirection, prophecy, anthropomorphic Death, accepting responsibility — those few sentences have it all and “The Six Thatchers” put them to brilliant use. There are multiple attempts to run away from Death and several fakeouts, sometimes about the identity of the person doing the running away.
For instance, the season 3 finale made it seem like Moriarty might have been the one trying to escape Death. “The Abominable Bride,” whatever its flaws, certainly confirmed Moriarty really is dead, so when this season 4 premiere opens, Sherlock is under the impression he’s the merchant in this case. Having survived his seemingly fatal Reichenbach Falls confrontation with Moriarty, Sherlock is now convinced Moriarty’s posthumous legacy is following him with a new trap, one he won’t be able to escape quite so easily.
Of course, he’s dealing with this stress in a typically Sherlockian way, by getting high at inconvenient moments and trolling his brother. The episode begins with Mycroft and his fellow British government bigwigs explaining how they’re getting Sherlock off on a murder charge for killing Charles Augustus Magnussen. They’ve doctored the footage in a bit, and in exchange, Sherlock has to figure out how Moriarty hacked the country with his “Miss me?” message and stop whatever he’s up to. After joking with the secretary in the back of the room, Sherlock explains he’s just going to wait until Moriarty’s plan reveals itself. He’s the target, after all, and he always knows when the game begins.
Sherlock was one of the first shows to figure out how to interestingly portray onscreen texting, and this episode really dials it up to 11. Sherlock does, too. He’s tweeting throughout the meeting, even posting during the baptism of John and Mary Watson’s new daughter, Rosamund Mary Watson. Text clips from John’s blogs are superimposed over Sherlock running through a gamut of quick cases, with highlights like “It’s the wrong thumb” and “It’s never twins.”
That’s when Lestrade arrives with an interesting new mystery. At a rich guy’s 5oth birthday party, he got a call from his son, Charlie, currently spending a year abroad in Tibet. The call cut out unexpectedly and then, a week later, a drunk driver crashed into the family’s driveway, exploding the car parked there. When forensics examined the car, they found Charlie’s dead body. When Sherlock shows up to interview the grieving parents, his attention is drawn to a Margaret Thatcher shrine on a table in the living room. Between all the framed photographs of Britain’s first female prime minister, Sherlock notices there’s something missing.
The parents reveal there used to be a Thatcher bust there, too, but it was destroyed in a recent break-in. In exchange, Sherlock reveals the tragic circumstances of Charlie’s death: He had hidden in the car as a birthday surprise for his dad, only to suffer an unexpected and fatal stroke. Disguised to look like the car seat, Charlie’s body went undiscovered until the fateful drunk driver appeared — in its way, another appointment in Samarra. Charlie went far away and found Death waiting for him.
While Lestrade is still trying to process how Sherlock figured this one out, the great detective has already moved on. His imagination has been enthralled by the Thatcher bust. He goes to see Mycroft, who tells him he met the late prime minister once and found her arrogant — which, as Sherlock wryly notes, is really saying a lot. Mycroft is currently preoccupied with another case, a missing pearl from the Borgia dynasty, but Sherlock doesn’t find it interesting at the moment. He also doesn’t like the “Appointment in Samarra” story, which Mycroft reminds him of. Mycroft also reveals that as a child, Sherlock once attempted to rewrite the story. In his version, the merchant escapes to Sumatra instead of Samarra and ends up being totally fine — at which point he becomes a pirate “for some reason.” For all his practiced indifference, Sherlock really is a romantic at heart.
After a slight delay, during which Lestrade gets a date and Sherlock trolls a client while Watson temporarily replaces himself with a smiley-face balloon, the police inspector finds a second case of a broken Thatcher bust. Sherlock has a short psychedelic vision of his own face breaking like the busts and declares the game is now afoot.
NEXT: Following Toby