Sherlock pursues the mysterious Moriarty hack, but soon learns the real danger was waiting around the corner.
S4 E1
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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

Sherlock goes to find “Toby.” He tells Mary and Watson he once helped a talented young hacker escape consequences after breaking through the Pentagon’s firewall. The Watsons wonder how a hacker is supposed to help them, and Sherlock responds the hacker isn’t as important at all. His name is Craig. It’s Craig’s dog, named Toby, that Sherlock really wants. Together, the three detectives and their baby follow Toby around London as he sniffs after a lead. Sherlock is convinced this is somehow Moriarty’s trap, because “it’s too bizarre” to be anything else. They still haven’t found the culprit, though, and what follows is a montage of more Thatcher busts being shattered by a hand in a black glove.

For all of Toby’s helpful sniffing, Sherlock actually does employ Craig’s hacking help. Together, they realize the Thatcher busts were all part of a limited set — sold as part of a new upsurge in Cold War memorabilia — and there are only two left. When Lestrade calls to inform Sherlock there’s been another bust breaking (with a murder this time), the detective decides to hide out at the home of the remaining bust.

Sure enough, he’s there when the burglar finally arrives. They get into a fight that spills over into the outdoor pool. Eventually, Sherlock unmasks and overpowers his opponent. He orders the burglar to reveal Moriarty’s plan and grabs the bust, convinced it contains the missing Borgia pearl. But it turns out things are a lot more complicated than that. This guy has never heard of Moriarty before, and the bust actually contains a flash drive emblazoned with the initials A.G.R.A. — nearly identical to the one Mary offered Watson with all the details of her sordid assassin past. But she destroyed it, didn’t she? The guy declares Mary betrayed him: “She betrayed us all.” It’s another Samarra-like fake out. This whole thing isn’t about Moriarty at all. It’s about Mary. The burglar escapes, but not before declaring that Mary is a dead woman walking.

Sherlock, naturally, contacts Mary and sets up a private meeting, not unlike the one they had in the season 3 finale. Mary explains her initials were not A.G.R.A., as she had told John, but rather an acronym referring to a team of four masterful secret agents. Mary was one, and the others were Gabriel, Alex, and A.J. Each one of them had an identical flash drive containing each other’s secrets to ensure none of them ever betrayed each other.

Things went horribly wrong six years ago, when the team was sent to liberate hostages taken by terrorists in a Georgia coup. The plan got changed at the last minute (the code word was “ammo”) and most of them ended up dead. Mary, at first, thought she was the only survivor and is delighted to hear A.J. survived — until Sherlock tells her he’s convinced she betrayed him and is now out to kill her. Sherlock declares he will keep his promise to the Watsons and keep her safe, but she drugs him and flees. While unconscious, Sherlock has a vision of himself playing on the beach as a small child, pretending to be a pirate. When he wakes up, he goes to find Mycroft, who reveals he once employed A.G.R.A. and says people like Mary don’t typically reach retirement age. They get retired. “Not on my watch,” Sherlock declares.

In a letter to John, Mary says she’s going to move the target away from him and Baby Rosie. She sets out on a random journey, unpredictably moving from one disguise to another in an attempt to confuse both Sherlock and A.J. But she finds Sherlock waiting for her when she arrives at her final destination, like Death in Samarra.

John follows close behind, angry Mary once again shut him out instead of talking things through. Unfortunately, A.J. is right on his tail. While he and Mary hold each other at gunpoint, A.J. reveals he was held prisoner by the terrorists for six years, which clearly drove him a little batty. He says he dreamed about killing Mary since the terrorists taunted him with their betrayal. But when Sherlock pushes him on his story, A.J. says they never actually used Mary’s name — they just referred to “the English woman.” Before A.J. can say anything else, a cop bursts in and kills him. A.J. escaped what had seemed an inevitable death at the hands of the Georgian terrorists, but he couldn’t elude it forever.

John is still mad at Mary for keeping secrets (including her real name, “Rosamund,” the R in A.G.R.A and their baby’s namesake), but he’s got secrets of his own. Earlier in the episode we watch him make eyes with a cute woman on the bus. Turns out, that encounter blossomed into a whole affair and John ended up texting her even while Mary would take care of the baby.

Sherlock thinks he’s figured out the mystery: “Ammo” didn’t refer to “ammunition,” it was the Latin root for “Love,” a.k.a. Lady Smallwood’s old code name. He informs Mycroft, who has Smallwood arrested and her credentials revoked. When Mycroft interrogates her, however, she declares she didn’t do anything wrong. Confused, Sherlock takes a walk on a bridge and thinks everything over. A couple quotes keep recurring in his head: A.J. saying “You understand nothing” and Mary remarking “You’d be amazed what a receptionist picks up. They know everything.” Now Sherlock really has figured it out, and he rushes off as he tells the Watsons where to meet up — interrupting them, coincidentally, just as John was about to tell Mary the truth about his cheating. Ah, well, that can wait for another time, right?

NEXT: The final appointment in Samarra

They end up in an aquarium, where Sherlock and Mary encounter the real evil mastermind: Vivian Norbury, Lady Smallwood’s receptionist he had been chatting with at the beginning of the episode. Norbury reveals she had long secretly manipulated her boss, Lady Smallwood, and used A.G.R.A. as her own personal assassination squad and bought herself a cottage in Cornwall with the profits. When people started getting wise to her act, she tipped off the Georgian terrorists and had A.G.R.A. killed off — or so she thought.

Surprise, surprise: Norbury becomes the latest person in this episode to quote the “Appointment in Samarra” story, much to Sherlock’s annoyance. She knew she couldn’t outrun the consequences of her actions forever. Sherlock kicks into his classic act, reading Norbury’s life story from her clothes: The wedding ring moved to her index figure indicates she’s a widow; the cat hair says she spends most of her time alone with her pets; and the markings on her shoes mean she still spends most of her time in a cramped London flat, despite that fancy Cornwall cottage. As usual, he expects this lecture to intimidate Norbury into submission. Instead, it pushes her over the edge, and she decides to surprise Sherlock by firing her gun at him.

Time slows, and as the bullet crawls toward him Sherlock believes he has finally reached his appointment in Samarra — only for Mary to jump in the way and take the bullet for him. Sherlock looks on in stunned silence as Mary tells John he made her “so happy,” and that living as “Mary Watson” was the only one of her lives that meant anything. But as much as Mary loved this peaceful respite from her life of violence, she couldn’t outrun death forever. It was her who had the appointment in Samarra after all.

Mary also tells Sherlock she always liked him and apologizes for shooting him that one time: “I think we’re even now, okay?” She dies, and even in a show known for crazy twists and unexpected developments, this must rank as one of Sherlock’s all-time “holy sh-t” moments. John utters inhuman cries of despair (because really, how much can one poor guy take?) and screams at Sherlock about breaking his promise.

The next scene echoes the show’s very first, in which a therapist implores her client to open up more — but this time the client is not John Watson, but Sherlock himself. Sherlock in therapy? That’s how you know things are really serious. Back at Baker Street with Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock says working is the only thing he knows of to combat sorrow. Therefore, he’s excited when he gets a package from Mrs. Hudson containing a disc labeled “Miss me?” Sherlock is obviously pumped at the possibility Moriarty does a have a master plan after all, and eagerly inserts the disc into his computer — at which point a video message from Mary plays. “I knew that would get your attention,” she says, and reveals she made this in case of her death. She tells Sherlock she has a case for him: “Maybe the hardest of your career.”

Sherlock goes to check on John, but he’s greeted by Molly, who tells him John doesn’t want anything to do with him. She gives Sherlock a letter from his old friend but tells him not to read it yet. Should a situation like this arise, John apparently told her to tell Sherlock that he would rather have anyone else but Sherlock helping him. At this point, we cut back to Mary’s message in time to learn the case she’s assigned Sherlock: “Save John Watson.” Looks like it really will be the hardest case of Sherlock’s life.

Even aside from that game-changing ending, “The Six Thatchers” was an amazing episode. It put “Appointment in Samarra” to brilliant use, echoing that story’s misdirection in its own twisty, turn-y structure. Weirdly, there wasn’t a ton of Martin Freeman (the affair plotline felt a little tacked-on just to give him something to do), which took away some of the power from the climactic schism, but at 90 minutes, almost every Sherlock episode will drag a bit at some points. Norbury may not have quite lived up to Moriarty or Magnussen on the villain scale, but since the entire point of the episode is that the real danger lurks where you least expect it, she was effective. And her whole status as a seemingly meek secretary resentful of being condescended to is what set off the big plot twist.

In most regards, “The Six Thatchers” was thrilling, dense, literary, and shocking, reminding us of the show’s great strengths just as “The Abominable Bride” seemed to suggest the formula was wearing thin. Bring on the rest of the season.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the celebrated U.K. series

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