The BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) is not a straightforward TV show. Things you thought you might have seen happen, may not have happened. That’s why I hesitate to share what I thought I saw happen in the season four premiere, “The Sixth Thatcher.” If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to wait to read on—for my sake, too, as I’d be glad to hear your take from watching without having heard my take first.
It all starts with a baptism. John and Mary Watson ask Sherlock Holmes to stand as godfather for their daughter. It’s a funny scene, in which the priest is hardly heard as Sherlock can’t stop texting, his words playing on the screen. We don’t see the actual baptism of the child, instead seeing Sherlock, in a moment of comparative solemnity, text on his phone behind his back.
And yet, what I saw through the rest of the show was a picture of Baptism drawn in a remarkably traditional Christian way. What we don’t see in the comedic scene we end up seeing through all the rest of the drama. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). The mystery of dying under the water to be made new actually fits "The Sixth Thatcher" to a T.
A lot happens in this episode, and to order our thoughts, we should first step back to look at the big picture. Both Watson and Sherlock are moving on parallel character arcs. Because of pride, they are blindly pushing forward on paths that betray those they love. In the climactic scene, their pride is crushed. They were both wrong, and they can’t deny it or take it back.
Throughout the episode, this has all been foreshadowed by the recurring image of a smashed bust. One of six busts of Margaret Thatcher contains a secret. Someone is tracking down the busts and smashing them to find the secret. That’s the plot, but the image is important as a picture. The TV show depicts the bust being destroyed in great detail, not once but several times throughout the episode.
The shattered bust foreshadows the shattering of the self-image both John Watson and Sherlock Holmes have of themselves. When we’re first introduced to the shattering of the bust, Mycroft Holmes remarks about meeting Margaret Thatcher and finding her proud. The proud will be crushed by episode’s end to find out what’s inside. That’s not just about the mystery; it’s about the characters.
Where do we see the crushing of the image of the proud? We see it underwater. Water is also a recurring image through the episode. The scene’s climax happens at an aquarium. To get to that scene, we watch Sherlock pass through the water. The climax echoes an earlier scene, also showcased in water.
An indoor pool, in scenery that evokes steamy claustrophobia, is the setting for the first visible smashing of a Thatcher bust. Sherlock is certain he knows what game is afoot. He is certain he knows what is inside the bust. He is wrong and wrong.
From the beginning of the episode, Sherlock assumes that his great foe, Moriarty, is plotting his course. Perhaps by the end of the season he will become right. After one episode, however, there is no evidence that Moriarty is pulling the strings. Sherlock appears to be wrong.
This is also a theme in play throughout “The Sixth Thatcher.” The episode recounts the ancient tale of the appointment in Samarra several times. That Mesopotomian tale proclaims the inevitability of death with a strong fatalistic overtone. We hear that Sherlock as a child tried to rewrite the story with the hero travelling to Sumatra and outwitting death. Sherlock insists he can keep Mary Watson safe, but he cannot. He is wrong and nearly dies for his wrongness.
In both underwater scenes, Sherlock is powerless to save himself. In both scenes, he misunderstands the person who has power over him. In both scenes, he could not escape death on his own, except that someone had mercy on him.
In the first underwater scene, Sherlock is warned that he doesn’t understand. He fights a villain that turns out not to be a villain. He smashes a bust and finds that what is inside is not what he proclaimed it would be. He escapes death only by water and by the non-villain choosing to leave Sherlock alive.
In the second underwater scene, Sherlock still doesn’t understand. He taunts the true villain until she chooses to do something he doesn’t expect, shooting at him. Sherlock only escapes death because Mary Watson trades places with him, taking the bullet that was meant for him.
In traditional Christian theology, Baptism is a holy washing, a removal of sin as Jesus takes the place of the sinner, giving His life in our place. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism, then, is not just a onetime event the Christian leaves in the past. Rather, it is a stamping of a pattern onto one’s life, a promise that as the Christian humbles himself in repentance, his saving God will lift him up through faith. That pattern holds to the ultimate humbling—actual death—and beyond, as the Father raises up those who bear His name.
So, underwater, Mary Watson gives her life for Sherlock, and he is changed. He admits he is wrong. He even goes to therapy. Baptism is the place for the destruction of the idol of self.
John Watson has a similar experience. The show reveals he had been cheating on Mary, texting and meeting with another woman. When Watson finds Mary dying in the aquarium, she tells him he was the best of husbands. Martin Freeman’s acting reveals Watson is not only hurt by her dying, but undone by her faith in him. As he grieves in this scene, his face is hidden. The mask is shattered.
An alternative view of Baptism appeared in the sixteenth century among the Anabaptists. For them, the washing in water with the Word was not about what God did, sealing His promises with the Holy Spirit. Rather, they taught, Baptism was about the vow the Baptized made to God to be faithful. That’s why, if the Baptized was thought not to have kept the vow, Anabaptists advocated rebaptism.
Throughout “The Sixth Thatcher,” the show’s protagonists are shown to be unable to keep their vows. Sherlock’s vow to keep Mary safe was not only wrong, but he led her into danger twice. The vows Mary made with the compatriots from her former life also failed to save them. John breaks his marriage vows to Mary through his relationship with another woman. When these human vows come undone, the hurting people turn against each other.
That is why it is important that Christians crush their idols in the waters of baptism. The only escape route from death is through the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, through the leading and guiding of the One who truly is ordering the stories of our lives.
At the beginning of “The Sixth Thatcher,” we laugh at a man full of himself ignoring the baptismal pattern that will explain everything that follows. By the end of the show, however, the empty vows made by the human beings are shattered. The enduring power comes from the sacrifice made in love.