To date there have been 13 episodes of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern day take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth. Over the course of four seasons the crime drama has become one of the jewels in the BBC’s crown, garnering a huge audience both at home and overseas.
Sherlock is equal parts crime thriller, murder mystery, and comedy drama, blending modern day trappings with classic Sherlockian problem solving. While its fun watching the stories unfold and having Sherlock explain the complex intricacies to us all, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective without the deep personal bond between its central characters. The show is as much about their relationship as it is the various cases they embark upon.
We’ve seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s John Watson bicker their way through an array of different mysteries thus far. Naturally though, some outings have proven far more enjoyable than others. Here we’ve attempted to rank every episode, starting with the weakest:
13. ‘The Six Thatchers’ (S4 E1)
There are some interesting moments in this first episode from season 4, with the initial case involving a missing young man proving pretty intriguing and Sherlock’s interaction with John’s new baby proving predictably amusing.
However once the episode descends into a drawn-out story about Mary’s dark past and its present day implications, it becomes considerably less enjoyable. The tensions that eventually arise between Sherlock and John feel a little forced and the latter’s text flirtation with a stranger just felt completely out of character. A fairly cliche ending didn’t help matters in an episode that felt like a noticeable divergence from the typical Sherlock structure.
12. ‘The Blind Banker’ (S1 E2)
The weak link in the show’s otherwise triumphant first season, The Blind Banker is a solid but unremarkable mystery revolving around a Chinese crime syndicate, smuggled antiquities and a remarkably fancy circus.
This was the first episode where Sherlock and John are an established unit who take on cases, but as cases go, it’s fairly forgettable and a little light on intrigue. We do however see the formation of the duo’s co-dependent dynamic and the classic “door locked from the inside” puzzle element is undoubtedly entertaining. The Blind Banker feels like a stepping-stone episode that now seems slightly rudimentary by comparison.
11. ‘The Abominable Bride’ (Special)
The show’s one-off special was something of a mixed bag. The setting in Victorian England was a nice a touch and transplanting our versions of the daring duo to their more traditional Sherlockian era was a definite thrill for fans. However the central Gothic ghost story isn’t the show’s strongest and the framing device of being inside Sherlock’s Mind Palace, though a bold concept, did feel a little stretched.
Cumberbatch and Freeman are clearly having a lot of fun however and it’s great to watch how they adjust their characters as befits the new time period. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery by typical Sherlock standards, but it’s undeniably bolstered by a well-utilised novelty factor.
10. ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (S2 E2)
An attempted riff on the classic Conan Doyle Baskerville tale, this episode was one of the more self-contained outings on the show. While there are moments of flair to be found, the showrunners struggle slightly to put their own stamp on things.
The plot sees Holmes and Watson venture out of their traditional London confines for the first time as they take on the desolate moorland of Dartmoor, a phantom beast sighting and a mysterious Ministry Of Defence testing site.
There are occasional moments of tension and horror but also a fair few lazy jump scares and a slightly anti-climactic ending. Russell Tovey gives a great turn as the terrified client however, and the two leads do sterling work as usual. The Hounds of Baskerville is an unimaginative but entirely watchable update on a beloved story.
9. ‘His Last Vow’ (S3 E3)
The eventful season 3 finale suffers slightly from trying to cram a bit too much plot in for its own good. The big reveal with regards Mary and her past will continue to divide opinion, and her subplot doesn’t quite work as well as the rest of the episode. The ending was also a little left-field as the show that prized intellect above all else, now has Sherlock resorting to cold-blooded murder.
Despite these reservations however, there’s still plenty to enjoy with Lars Mikkelsen’s Charles Augustus Magnussen proving to be a definite highlight. The arch-villain is a truly wicked, uncouth and immoral bully who can turn flicking someone’s face into the pinnacle of menace. The final credits’ big reveal marking a return of sorts from Sherlock’s eternal nemesis is another great touch and a neat cliffhanger to close the series on.
8. ‘The Final Problem’ (S4 E3)
The introduction of a third Holmes sibling is an interesting addition to the show’s narrative, even if it does feel a little rushed in places. We are loaded up with a lot of backstory for the mysterious Eurus in a very short amount of time but while the setup is a little off, the Saw-like series of riddles and puzzles she sets for her siblings are great fun.
There’s some great work from Gatiss as an increasingly tense Mycroft, and a welcome brief return of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. While Eurus’ existence does feel a little contrived, it’s great fun seeing what she has accomplished at her remote prison base and watching as she pushes Sherlock and Mycroft to their limits.
7. ‘The Empty Hearse’ (S3 E1)
After the incredible series 2 finale, there was a huge amount of anticipation attached to this series 3 curtain-raiser and for the most part, it duly delivered. The central mystery surrounding a terrorist plot isn’t anywhere near the show’s strongest, but the interactions between not only Sherlock and John but also between Sherlock and both Molly and Mycroft are all handled perfectly.
Gatiss and Moffat also have great fun ribbing the show’s own passionate fanbase as assorted hair-brained theories as to how Sherlock survived are woven into the story. It may not have had the neat resolution many people were after, but it brought our heroes back together effectively while also maintaining a well-measured sense of fun.
6. ‘The Lying Detective’ (S4 E2)
Toby Jones is a great addition to any show and here he does outstanding work as billionaire serial killer, Culverton Smith. Smith is an unnerving oddball who pushes Sherlock’s buttons instantly. His character may have appeared a touch ridiculous in lesser hands, but Jones manages to create a wonderfully disconcerting villain.
John Watson is still grieving after the events of the previous episode, and the focus on Sherlock’s attempts to earn his friends forgiveness sits neatly alongside the ongoing case. Elsewhere meanwhile, the big revelation relating to the mysterious Eurus Holmes provides an exceptionally delivered rug-pull in the final act.
Sherlock is shown at a low ebb of sorts in this episode and he’s not perhaps painted in the greatest of lights as he manipulates his friend in order to earn forgiveness. However, the lengths that he goes to does serve as a timely reminder of just how vital their relationship is to both parties.
5. ‘The Sign of Three’ (S3 E2)
A shamelessly fun episode here which revolves around John and Mary’s wedding and Sherlock’s much-anticipated best man speech. The central mystery involving the unsolved case of the “mayfly man” is neatly woven into the ceremonial events and it sits neatly alongside the subplot focusing on the impact that the wedding will have on Sherlock and John’s relationship.
We receive a touching peek at Sherlock’s inner humanity during his toast, while the sight of him and John getting methodically hammered on the stag do is especially funny. The episode’s framing device is also a bold move, with Sherlock’s speech being utilised to show us glimpses of several unsolved older cases as well as linking in the “mayfly man” mystery. It works a treat however and it is great fun to see Sherlock’s mind palace in full flow as he pieces together the clues.
4. ‘A Study in Pink’ (S1 E1)
Over the space of 90 minutes this perfect introductory episode brought our two heroes together, gave us a strong backstory for each one, and then let them unravel a fascinating opening case. It set up the show’s premise and established the various quirks and eccentricities we’d come to know and love, from mind-palaces and floating words to Sherlock’s ever-so-slightly condescending rapid-fire deductions.
Benedict Cumberbatch understandably attracts many of the plaudits thanks to his striking performance as the self-proclaimed high-functioning sociopath. However Freeman also deserves great credit for his affecting and relatable turn as the traumatised doctor with a thirst for adventure. The mystery of the week revolving around a killer hidden in plain sight was also a solid opener which set the bar high for those which followed. The game, as they say, was well and truly on.
3. ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’ (S2 E1)
Skillfully updating Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia and introducing “the woman” Irene Adler, this raunchy episode sees Sherlock pitting his wits against a dominatrix embroiled in a plot to blackmail a minor Royal. Lara Pulver’s magnetic turn as the seductive Adler is certainly a memorable one, a wonderfully flirtatious counterbalance to Sherlock’s notorious asexuality.
It’s a clever, twisting, suspense-filled episode that packs in plenty of comedy alongside the puzzle-solving drama. There’s plenty of fun to be had with Sherlock’s naturally repressed state too and his petulant trip to Buckingham palace is a real highlight. The episode also delivers a clever resolution to series 1’s big Moriarty related cliffhanger, leaving the door tellingly ajar for his eventual return.
2. ‘The Great Game’ (S1 E3)
In the first series’ faultless finale, Sherlock almost meets his match in the form of Andrew Scott’s unhinged genius, Moriarty. Scott’s delightfully theatrical psychopath is a phenomenal addition to the series and serves as a brilliant villainous foil to our central heroes. In this episode we get just a small glimpse of the madness that will follow.
Moriarty sets Sherlock and Watson an increasingly complex series of challenges and its gripping television to watch the duo slowly unravel his elaborate web. The episode is filled with high spots but it all builds to a thrilling climax in a deserted swimming pool that is among the show’s finest ever sequences. It’s an intense finale that balances the tricky task of resolving the episode’s individual mystery while also setting up the show’s much wider narrative.
1. ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ (S2 E3)
This was an unforgettable season finale which transposed elements of the famous Conan Doyle story The Final Problem and weaved them into a modern day setting. As in that original Sherlock tale, this outing saw Moriarty destroying Sherlock’s reputation before building to an unforgettable climactic showdown between the two adversaries.
Throughout the episode here’s a great sense of foreboding and menace looming over proceedings thanks to a typically charismatic turn from Andrew Scott. From the moment he orchestrates an elaborate heist of the Crown Jewels, right up to his final scenes atop of St Barts Hospital, Scott’s turn as Moriarty is a joy to watch. Manic and captivating in equal measure.
The incredible tension of the unforgettable “howdunnit” cliffhanger elevated the show to unprecedented levels of popularity. While watching Moriarty play his games is endlessly entertaining in itself, part of what makes the episode so special is the emotional heft it also delivers. As the final act plays out, you feel genuinely invested in Sherlock’s life-or-death decision.
Meanwhile, the final scenes of an emotional John Watson standing at his friends grave, pleading with him, “don’t be dead”, is undoubtedly among Freeman’s greatest ever work. The Reichenbach Fall was a game-changer for the show, and a classic piece of high-stakes TV drama.