Sherlock may have just quietly aired its series finale
(This article contains some very minor spoilers from the fourth season finale, “The Final Problem. There’s nothing that should give away anything significant, but make sure you’ve watched the second episode of the season, “The Lying Detective,” before reading this article.)
After two years of waiting, the BBC’s Sherlock finally debuted its fourth season on New Year’s Day, with the third and final episode airing on Sunday, January 15. And while there weren’t any official announcements or even hints that the fourth season finale was the Sherlock series finale, it probably was.
Sherlock is in many ways a victim of its own success. Its stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, were both on the cusp of superstardom when Sherlock debuted in 2010. The show gave both actors a huge boost in visibility and popularity, and now both are extremely in demand – so much so that it took two years to align their schedules enough to film the three-episode fourth season.
The 45-year old Freeman has two movies confirmed to be coming out in 2017 (and possibly more), at least two movies filming this year, and he is committed to the second season of the original TV series StartUp. The 40-year old Cumberbatch is even more locked down, with seven movies due out or filming in the next two years, including two appearances as Doctor Strange in Marvel movies. It recently leaked that Cumberbatch is so busy at the moment that Marvel was forced to use his body double in several scenes in Avengers: Infinity War, with the plan of reshooting his close-ups and voiceover work when he is available. Both will also have plenty of promotional commitments as well, and the bigger the movie, the longer the press tour.
There’s also a monetary side to things. The BBC doesn’t reveal how much its top stars earn, but many of the highest paid BBC personalities earn around £500,000 (just over $600,000) per season. Freeman and Cumberbatch may have earned more than that (and some stars receive additional compensation beyond the salary), but probably not much.
By comparison, Cumberbatch is rumored to have earned around $2.6 million for Doctor Strange (Marvel doesn’t reveal its actual contract numbers), and probably much more than that through sponsorships, merchandise, and any back-end deals. Following the success of that film, he will probably command a much higher figure in the future.
Each season of Sherlock takes around 3-5 months, and that doesn’t count the promotional work. It’s just much more profitable at their level to work on films, but there are other reasons Sherlock might not return. Cumberbatch has signed on for a fifth season (it’s unclear if Freeman has), but that doesn’t mean he is obligated to it. Like almost any actor in any show, he can quit without legal issue.
There are also reports that Freeman and Cumberbatch don’t get along particularly well, but those should be taken with a giant grain of salt given that they come from the Daily Mail. The British tabloid claims that the pair are professional and respectful, but they never socialize outside of work.
That may actually be true, but it doesn’t mean they don’t get along. In the past, both actors have said that they need to have a personal chemistry for the good of the characters. Not hitting a bar together after shooting doesn’t necessarily mean anything, plus the two recently worked together on The Hobbit trilogy. Even if they aren’t best friends, they seem to get along well enough. Still, if they don’t love coming in to work together, they will probably be less inclined to take a pay cut, pass on higher profile opportunities, and spend up to five months working on it.
While showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are slightly optimistic about the show’ return, they also seem to be viewing it realistically. Both have been asked repeatedly if this is the last season, and neither can give a definitive answer.
“We’re not planning it to be, but it might be [the end],” Moffat said. “It’s possible, we could end it there. We couldn’t have ended it on any previous series because they always ended on walloping, great cliffhangers.”
If this is the last season of Sherlock, it went out well. Without going into spoilers for the finale, the final episode answered several longstanding questions and saw several callbacks to previous stories and ideas. All of the major characters seen over the years have at least a cameo, and there is a resolution that could easily serve as a fitting close. Plus, the entire season was as much about the characters growing and coming to terms with who (and what) they are.
Watson, Holmes, and even Mycroft was significant character growth this season, which is a fitting way to sign off. It even delved into the Holmes’ childhoods and gave a possible explanation for why Sherlock is the way he is (it at least colors his past). If the show does continue, it will be difficult to match the emotional impact for fans – and the characters – seen in “The Final Problem.”
Even the episode name seems to hint at finality. “The Final Problem” was meant to be the last adventure of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective. Doyle had grown tired of the character and wanted to kill him off so fans would stop asking about him. The story concluded with Holmes and Moriarty falling off the Reichenbach Falls (a story that was echoed at the end of the second season in the episode “The Reichenback Fall), but the character proved too popular to kill off completely.
Doyle brought Holmes back a decade later, but the story was originally meant to be a finale – even if there were enough loose ends that would allow the detective to return.
It’s possible that the show will return and both Gatiss and Moffat stated that they have a general plan for another season, but the BBC may be less inclined to push after the ratings for “The Final Problem.” The episode was the lowest in the show’s run in the UK, with 5.9 million tuning in. Compared to the premiere’s 8 million viewers, that’s a significant drop.
There are two factors that mitigate those numbers though – they don’t include the online viewership, and the episode was leaked online (from Russia, of course) days before it aired. Still, that probably had some effect, but probably not enough to lift the numbers up by several million.
That doesn’t mean the BBC wouldn’t happily welcome everyone back for a fifth season – it’s still a hugely profitable show with an international audience – but it might be more willing to let it go out on a high note in terms of story.
Another strong possibility is that the show may return as one-off specials. On New Year’s Day 2016, Sherlock aired a one-off episode, and it may do so again in the future. The BBC loves its Christmas and new Year’s specials, and Sherlock could fit that format perfectly.
At the moment, however, it seems like a good possibility we’ve seen the last of a seminal show. And if so, it went out on a high note.
“It’s certainly the first time we’ve ever ended a season thinking, ‘If we never come back, this is fine,’” Moffat told EW. “As endings go, all it does is say, ‘And they carried on solving crimes on Baker Street forever.’ If we want to come back and solve more crimes we can do it, that’s no problem. We’re not allowed to end Sherlock Holmes. As Mary says, they’ll always be in that flat solving crimes, played by different actors. So the only ending you could ever have is, ‘And the legend continues, forever and ever…’”