Ranking Every Episode of Sherlock | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Ranking Every Episode of Sherlock

TV critic Sam Houseman gives his verdict on Sherlock, ranking every episode from the past four series

The finale of Sherlock series four on January 15th possibly also brought about the conclusion of the entire show. As such, now felt like as good a time as any to look back across all four series and attempt to rank each episode from worst to best. Thanks goes to Holly Veness, Tej Chadeesingh, James Crook, Will Wright, Matt O’Kelly, Chidi Mbakwe, Luke Bosher, Freddie Radakin and Caoimhe Peregrine for assisting in re-watching all thirteen episodes and providing their own two cents, allowing a more balanced ranking to be deduced. Nonetheless, the following list remains entirely subjective. Feel free to comment on how you might rank the episode's differently! Now then, the game, Mrs Hudson, is on. Spoilers ahead.

13 – The Six Thatchers

The long hiatus between each series only builds up more hype but thus allows the episode to fall all that much further if it is deemed lacklustre. The opener of Sherlock series four, The Six Thatchers, may have succumbed to said trap. Sidestepping series three’s ‘Miss Me?’ cliffhanger, the episode instead revives arguably one of the weaker plot points from the previous series by centring itself on Mary’s former life as an assassin, whereby it may ultimately be seen that said backstory was developed as a cheap and easy way to kill her off when the time came.

Additionally, John’s text flirtation with a stranger on the bus came out of left field. While we later learn that ‘E’ sets up the Eurus storyline, Sherlock probably could have found an alternate way of introducing her which didn’t see the writers take a leap out of Mary’s book and essentially assassinate John’s character.

Sidestepping series three’s ‘Miss Me?’ cliffhanger, the episode instead revives arguably one of the weaker plot points from the previous series

12 – The Empty Hearse

Like the previous entry, the wait from the end of the previous series didn’t help this opener, especially with how The Reichenbach Fall concluded. While some may prefer how the episode doesn’t definitively confirm how Sherlock cheated death, others may have found themselves waiting two years for explicit answers that didn’t come. The episode also introduces Mary Morstan, John’s wife-to-be, who adds a nice dynamic to the former twosome. Sebastian Moran however, another important character from the books, is used merely for namesake in a plot which had little in terms of mystery, a term that should be synonymous with every episode of a show titled Sherlock.

Instead, The Empty Hearse focuses primarily on Sherlock and John’s relationship. After series two’s cliffhanger, this episode had to deal with the emotional fallout between the duo upon Sherlock’s return. Yet, he manipulates John into forgiving him by essentially pranking him that they were both going to die. Rather than aggravating him further, like how emotions really work, John laughs it off and suddenly they’ve completely reconciled, ending on a more positive note which feels entirely unearned.

11 – The Abominable Bride

It was always going to be slightly jarring seeing characters we’d spent over twelve hours with in the 21st century suddenly be transported to the Victorian period. However, being framed in modern-day Sherlock’s mind palace ingenuously connects it to the serialised plot, even though some may argue this is essentially a reskinned version of the laziest narrative device – ‘it was all a dream!’

Essentially, the mystery of a woman seemingly back from the dead to kill her husband represents Sherlock’s attempts at determining the plausibility of Moriarty’s return. Yet, it is the Victorian plot itself that hinders this Christmas special. The Abominable Bride progresses swiftly in attempt to include multiple storylines into one episode, but the pace instead doesn’t give the audience time to pause and savour the novelty of Victorian Sherlock.

10 – The Blind Banker

The Blind Banker could harshly be summed up in one word: forgettable. This episode pits the crime-solving roommates against a Chinese syndicate. The Blind Banker leaves a lot to be desired after such a strong series opener, and unfortunately has to act as the predecessor to the series finale which audiences eagerly awaited to tie up lingering plot threads (i.e. Moriarty).

Nevertheless, this allows attention to be drawn almost solely towards our two heroes and how they’re at their best when together. Character moments such as John vs. The self-checkout and his attempts at finding love only further compels the audience’s interest in his and Sherlock’s stories.

9 – His Last Vow

This episode succeeds when its attention is placed on Sherlock’s mind palace, a concept neatly woven into the characterisation of Murdoch-esque villain Charles Magnussen too. A sequence of particular note follows after Sherlock has been shot and how in order to survive, he needs to deal with what is going to kill him such as blood loss and shock, all via his mind palace. However, said scenes only occur as a result of Mary shooting Sherlock, after being revealed as an assassin – a reveal which split opinion.

Moreover, the episode concludes with Sherlock seeing no alternative but to shoot Magnussen; understandable in terms of the plot, yet still incoherent with the character of Sherlock Holmes. At the beginning, Sherlock stood out from the crowd by differentiating itself from similar shows which solved problems with violence and bullets whereby resorting to it throughout His Last Vow does the show a disservice.

8 – The Final Problem

An episode which saw the plot of Batman: Arkham Asylum meet Saw, The Final Problem introduces Sherlock’s torturous sister Eurus, portrayed harrowingly by Sian Brooke. Despite having its flaws, disappointment with the episode may subconsciously be based around the realisation that this could potentially be the last time audiences will see this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. The brief return of Moriarty is welcome and well-explained, even if it may seem slightly farfetched that these events were all planned out five years prior in a five-minute conversation with Eurus.

Although its resolution is rather limp, the episode ties off some of the show’s underlying themes quite brilliantly. The symbolism of water imagery (the swimming pool being the location of his first encounter with Moriarty in The Great Game and the connection between The Reichenbach Falls and Sherlock’s death) alongside the underlying significance of Redbeard, revealed to not be a dog but rather Sherlock’s childhood best friend, Victor Trevor, whom Eurus drowned. These elements and others cumulatively explain why Sherlock is so emotionally cut off from the rest of society when we meet him in series one, after facing tragedy in his childhood, whilst illuminating Cumberbatch’s excellent characterisation of Sherlock from the beginning to now.

7 – The Hounds of Baskerville

Often challenging to adapt to screen, the most famous of Conan Doyle’s original stories is faithfully adapted in this episode in comparison to ones which are hybrids of different cases. The CGI of the titular hounds may be divisive, not improving on repeat viewings, but is unique as it forces the characters to face real, raw fear, which no episode prior has done. The episode and it’s mystery is also set in the countryside rather than London, bringing a breath of fresh air to the series (no pun intended).

The Hound of Baskerville though fundamentally epitomises the concept of this modern-day Sherlock Holmes; the Gothic elements of the original novel are well adapted into a science-based narrative, discussing themes such as genetic engineering, while still retaining the suspense of the source material.

6 – The Sign of Three

Although parts of the episode may be seen as fan service, a trait perhaps common to series three, The Sign of Three stands as the best of said series through how it further develops the relationship of the protagonists by addressing the potential obstacle of John’s marriage. Essentially framed around an elongated best man’s speech intertwined with flashbacks, the episode incorporates Mary not as an obstacle but as a refreshing ingredient to the mix, while also still giving time to the original duo.

It is these character moments shared between Sherlock, John and now Mary that stand as the episode’s highlights. Despite it’s various mysteries and plot twists, Sherlock has always been a character driven show. The speech itself in conjunction with John’s stag do provide heartfelt moments as well as laughs, utilising the show’s unique visual style effectively to show the audience how Sherlock’s mind works when drunk rather than being used as a gimmick.

5 – The Lying Detective

It was always going to be tough to follow Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, yet The Lying Detective’s villain Culverton Smith, played by the always brilliant Toby Jones, is a worthy challenger. With apparent similarities to Jimmy Saville, his character becomes all the more menacing. Una Stubbs’ Mrs Hudson is also a highlight and provides laughs aplenty. Being the last entry from series four on this ranking, it feels right to praise how throughout its lifespan, Sherlock has never faulted in casting actors who excel in their roles on the show.

Also of note in the episode is the cinematography and editing. The sequence of reverse shots of drugged Sherlock initially standing in a road being yelled at by a stranger to the revelation that he is actually in Baker Street talking to his friend results in a brilliant transition between the two locations. The scene’s originality serves as a reminder of what made the show great in its early days, whilst harkening back to the source material by utilising Sherlock’s drug addiction for both plot and innovative camera work.

4 – A Scandal in Belgravia

The opener of series two that proved Sherlock wasn't a one-trick pony. In A Scandal in Belgravia, we meet Irene Adler, aka ‘The Woman’, a dominatrix who holds crippling information on many and provides a worthy match for the main duo. The fact she is able to visually unsettle Sherlock throughout is a credit to Lara Pulver’s compelling portrayal of the character who makes him more human to the audience as we watch his challenging ordeal with love.

A Scandal in Belgravia isn't just about ‘The Woman’ though; it is one of the show’s best written ensemble episodes. Every character is given their moment, from Lestrade to Mycroft, Molly to Mrs Hudson. Resolving the first series’ cliffhanger on a level unreached by other episodes attempting to do something similar, and with humour too, signified how this series would go on to reach even greater heights (quite literally too).

3 – A Study in Pink

As pilots go, A Study in Pink is filled with everything that would go on to make Sherlock a success with audiences and critics alike. From the unique visual style and use of flashing text onscreen that has since become common across TV, to sowing the seeds of Moriarty and establishing the likeable jerk Sherlock Holmes and war affected John Watson who together form an illustrious partnership.

A relatively unknown at the time, Cumberbatch brings an energy to Sherlock that goes a long way in helping him make the character his own. Proving any doubters wrong, the first episode transported Conan Doyle’s characters into the 21st century and by it’s end, only left audiences wanting more of the same.

2 – The Great Game

The trendsetter for episodes that would attempt to incorporate multiple-mysteries into their narrative, The Great Game sees Sherlock being sent on multiple cases to solve in order to save bomb-strapped hostages, all orchestrated by Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. The stakes were raised significantly in this episode and as such, respectively raised the performances of all involved. Furthermore, it’s always a welcome addition when supporting characters like Lestrade or Molly are given more screen time too.

Each case is unique as a means for Moriarty to see just how far Sherlock’s intelligence stretches, creating a wholly original villain in Moriarty while also allowing Cumberbatch to fully inhabit and hone the role. Although Sherlock’s intellect is what takes centre stage, The Great Game also highlights that despite him believing otherwise, Sherlock does in fact care about others, evidencing a well-written character arc from the alienated hero introduced in the series opener.

1 – The Reichenbach Fall

The episode that sent the world into a craze with the ‘death’ of Sherlock Holmes, The Reichenbach Fall sees Moriarty set out to destroy Sherlock’s reputation. Carrying across elements of what made series one’s finale successful but now with the pre-existing knowledge of Moriarty’s character, this episode was very much his. Andrew Scott’s intoxicating portrayal as a villain you love to hate set a very high bar for antagonists that would follow. Even after shooting himself in the head, fans pleaded for his return, demonstrating just how good Scott’s performance was, with the show’s writers then having to devise ingenuous ways of incorporating him into future episodes.

Although we know from the beginning that the episode will see Sherlock die, it still manages to build tension brilliantly

Ultimately, series three and four may be the lower series on this list because series two reached the highest peak possible for the show. Although we know from the beginning that the episode will see Sherlock die, it still manages to build tension brilliantly, starting with Moriarty’s ‘attempt’ at stealing the crown jewels and slowly escalating to the point where everyone except John Watson believes Sherlock is the criminal mastermind. It's commentary on the media is still relevant today, and the episode’s climax ironically ensured Sherlock remained in the limelight while on it’s two year hiatus. The Reichenbach Fall was Sherlock at its most gripping, most devastating and arguably TV drama

Second year Drama and English student, interested in TV, film and popular culture. (@samm_houseman)


9th March 2017 at 1:09 pm

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