Ten Great TV Performances You’ve Never Seen

This is a tribute to ten truly great performances that most of the public have never seen or even heard of, written with the intention of spreading awesomeness.

10.Jonathan Rhys-Meyers – Gormenghast

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The first (and the greatest) performance in an otherwise mediocre career, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is menacingly and toweringly evil as kitchen boy turned master manipulator and serial murderer Steerpike, whose loneliness, anger and sexual frustration send him on a ruthless quest to rule the society that sees him as a bottom feeder. He alternates between black depression, pulsing scheming and screeching laughter. A psychological mess in a world of madmen, he takes an ecstatic, furious joy in the evil he commits that is both awful and delightful to watch.

9.Claire Foy – Little Dorrit

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Claire Foy’s Amy Dorrit is an entirely convincing portrayal of a small person who loves to see other people happy, even at the cost of her own happiness. Having been a resident of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison since her birth, Amy harbours nothing but the greatest affection for a father, sister and brother who take shameless advantage of her and often ridicule her for not spending what little money she has on aspiring to their former, upper-class lifestyle. Outbursts of anger are infrequent, and she walks the streets of her cramped, miserable world with perfect contentment and fulfillment, loved by all who know her. Foy’s performance is masterfully realistic and believable, her face and voice the very image and sound of kindness, her enormous blue eyes intensely expressive and carrying the look and responsibility of a person twice her age.

8.Hattie Moran – Sense and Sensibility

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A performance of enormous emotional maturity, Hattie Moran’s Eleanor Dashwood is forced to wear the pants and pretend not to do it when her father’s death seems to deprive her mother and one of her sisters of even the tiniest knowledge of the value of money, a knowledge which is all the more necessary after they are turned out of the house by an entail and plunged into a newfound poverty. Battling with both her family’s new situation and with her discovery that the man she loves has been engaged to someone else for the past five years, Eleanor wears a good-natured mask of contentment and optimism to spare the people closest to her from experiencing any pain on her account. While Emma Thompson’s earlier performance of the role only makes you annoyed at her stuffiness, Moran presents all this stubborn nobility and silence as something genuinely admirable and inspiring, her gorgeous deep voice somehow evoking both the timelessness of the character, and how quickly she has had to grow up.

7.Maxine Peake – Silk

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Maxine Peake fits so snugly and so comfortably into the shoes of barrister Martha Costello that it is sometimes hard to believe she isn’t Martha 24/7. She’s a turning point in legal drama: a barrister who’s interesting without being an alcoholic and who is also a veritable tsunami wave in court while still maintaining an idealistic view of justice. Using her heart where most of her profession are content to only use their heads, she’s an unfailingly kind champion of the underdog (in all his miscellaneous forms) who believes in second (and third) chances, while still keeping us in no doubt that she’s not the remotest bit like a walkover. So intelligent that it shouldn’t be allowed, Peake carries all this complexity with a poise and meticulousness as characteristic as her blood red lipstick and embodies the spirited air of freshness that permeates the entire series.

6. Stuart Wilson – Anna Karenina (1977)

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Stuart Wilson has everything a great Count Vronsky should have: charisma, good looks (regrettably, this is one role where looks are indispensable) and an enviable ability to convey to us Vronsky’s psychological complexity and development. At the beginning, he’s every inch the unredeeming and badly-behaved rake. His transformation, through his love for Anna, into someone capable of selflessness to the point of trying to take his own life, is one of the most difficult things to convince a modern audience of being possible, and Wilson carries it off with exemplary style that is deeply poignant and rather beautiful.

5. Sinead Cusack – North and South

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With one of the most expressive faces in the business, Sinead Cusack’s Mrs. Thornton is one of many great performances in the BBC’s immortal adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. The wife of a cotton mill owner who commits suicide following bankruptcy, the deep, hard iron in her ancient-seeming northern soul allows her to raise two children in abject poverty and eventually, to see their family name restored through her son John, who is able to regain their former prosperity and to repay her for years of hardship. Though we don’t see any of this in the series, the evidence of it runs through every line in Cusack’s face. Her powerful screen presence and sublime acting combined with those of co-star Richard Armitage make for one of the most charismatic mother-son teams in TV history. She’s a fiercely proud, protective mother and a brilliant businesswoman who is rather frightening and seemingly emotionless, but whose moments of affection are all the more rewarding for being rare.

4.Emilia Fox – Silent Witness

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Often mentioned, but not praised half as much as it should be, Emilia Fox’s performance as forensic anthropologist Doctor Nikki Alexander is an existentialist room of mirrors. Possibly the loneliest character in modern TV, she leads a deafeningly silent life outside the lab, even declaring to/goading a half-mad university shooter that nobody would miss her if he decided to kill her. It’s through her work at the lab that we see more of the many sides of her: the ringing laughter, the dazzling wit and the intolerance of any kind of bullshit. She’s spectacularly complex and tragic, and hasn’t stopped developing for all seven seasons that we’ve known her. Consequently, she’s a tremendous acting challenge, and Emilia Fox’s ability to capture all the myriad dimensions of Nikki and make her so beautiful is a moving thrill that’s no doubt a major contributor to the series’ continued success.

3.Benedict Cumberbatch – Hawking

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Diagnosed with motor-neuron disease at the age of 20, doctoral student Stephen is forced to deal with the gradual, heart-rending collapse of his body and the enthralling potential for discovery in an infinitely large universe that he deeply loves…and that he might be forced to leave before he’s 25. A young (and unknown) Benedict Cumberbatch gives a titanic performance as one of the foremost geniuses of our time with all that greatness still ahead of him, his performance resonating with pathos; his character defined by an intrinsic sweetness that sometimes doesn’t notice the shadow of death, only the joy of life and the bitter horror of having to live it this way.

2. Kenneth Branagh – Wallander

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Kenneth Branagh’s Kurt Wallander is like a whisper with a symphony in its depths. Living a somewhat toxic, unhealthy existence in Ystad, southern Sweden, he has a mountain of awful personal issues that should have landed him on the psychologist’s couch ages ago, including an ex-wife he’s still in love with, a hippie daughter with abandonment issues and a painter father dying of Alzheimer’s. He’s a detective genius, has chronic insomnia, doesn’t eat or wash for days when he’s working a case and lives his entire existence in an exhausted, semi-alcoholic haze. Branagh is mesmerizing, drawing on every mode of expression available to him without actually having to speak, his natural (and colossal, I might add) charisma leading us spellbound around the hues of his grey and blue inner world. It’s a masterpiece arthouse role for a very arthouse series.

1.Damian Lewis – The Forsyte Saga

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Lewis plays Soames Forsyte, a despicably possessive and stiff-collared Victorian who makes the catastrophic mistake of thinking that his artistic and free-spirited wife is just another piece of property that he can command at will. When she proves to be a human being, he subjects her to the most painful psychological, and eventually, physical, torture in his attempts to punish her for not loving him, the consequences resonating further into the future than either of them could have imagined, and destroying lives left, right and center. All this plays out against an enormous backdrop of family feuds and intrigues; Soames’ story being but one half of a sprawling whole. Soames is a repulsive, sneering and utterly unlikeable individual who should inspire more hate than love, but Lewis blends the light and dark with such raw humanity that he inspires just as much pity as revulsion. His performance is a masterpiece that should be mentioned more often, but seems to be utterly unknown to many of his most ardent fans.

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Paradise Lost: Silent Witness S15E5+6 – Review

Harry, Nikki and Leo aghast at the state of Arnold Mears' brain.Photo credit: Imageshack.

Harry, Nikki and Leo aghast at the state of Arnold Mears’ brain.
Photo credit: Imageshack.

This week’s Silent Witness is a merciful return to brilliance after last week’s yawn-fest and fits neatly into the great crime tradition of serial killers inspired by literature with great originality, replacing the usual culprit (Dante’s Inferno) with a new, but infinitely appropriate one – Paradise Lost.

In this episode, an annoyed Nikki’s chance encounter with the guy fixing the air-conditioning at the lab leads her to Annie Farmer (an excellent Rakie Ayola), a single mother under the ominous spell of convicted serial killer Arnold Mears (James Cosmo). He’s a Paradise Lost-obsessed master manipulator who gets his kicks controlling her from his prison cell by sending her hunting for human bones (‘souvenirs’) as a kind of grotesque ‘test’; a prelude to him telling her where he’s buried the bodies of his victims that are still unaccounted for. Annie does this from a deep sense of duty to help end the agony of the girls’ families, and, we learn later, because she believes (erroneously or not – we’re never told) that Mears is behind the disappearance of her sixteen year old daughter. Ayola’s magnificent face tells us far more than her simple, but moving dialogue as she alternates between half-hysterical pleading and dead-pan acceptance. Running parallel to this plotline, in the form of the disgrace of one of Nikki’s mentors, whose obsession with challenging the very fabric of neonatal pathology itself eventually drives her to madness and suicide, is the eternal question of what makes a pathologist and what makes a butcher, and that of the desperation of chasing an idea.

James Cosmo is electrifying as Mears. Having only seen him in bit parts as unimpressive one-dimensional characters on Merlin and Game of Thrones, this part is a great relief. He truly embraces the complexity and the nauseating, hair-raising personality of Mears; the pure, demonic evil smoldering from his eyes making you recall Nikki’s lines to Harry a lifetime ago: ‘there was something so evil about it all, it felt contagious.’ His voice-overs reading Paradise Lost, which continue throughout the episode, seem to infect its atmosphere like poisonous smog; the control he exercises on those he manipulates so subtle that at first, you hardly notice it’s there. Don’t miss his magnificent duel of wits with Nikki towards the end of the double bill: both Cosmo and Emilia Fox give their great, volcanic all in the scene and you can literally hear the deafening racket of these two titanic intelligences colliding; one a monster who thinks he’s a scientist, the other a human being who knows she is.

This double bill does a very good job of supporting the narrative in a serial killer story in which you already know whodunit, and abounds with that precise, moving, tasteful use of understatement that it lacked last week, most especially in Leo’s autopsy on a six month old baby, in which you see almost nothing but the tiny plastic sheet covering the infant – a haunting, harrowing image. My only complaint is precisely that of the previous two weeks: this program isn’t as ‘loaded’ as it used to be. There’s too much plot and not enough character; usually what makes this program stand out is its ability to make both work side by side so intensely that by the end of the double bill you’re exhausted and begging for mercy. So: great acting, great script. But next week, I’d like something more personal for Nikki, Harry and Leo.

WTF: why I barely survived the first 5 minutes of Elementary

While I cannot make bricks without clay, I also don’t care to be too timid in drawing my inferences. So, after watching approximately 5 minutes of CBS’ new modern day Sherlock Holmes adaptation, this self-confessed Sherlock and Holmes addict turned off the TV (throwing something at it would have knocked it off its ledge, you see) and sat fuming in her chair, mumbling ‘I told you so’ to no one in particular. Shall I make a list?

As much chemistry as half as brick.

As much chemistry as half as brick.

1. Holmes. Charisma: null; has no screen presence whatsoever. Speaks indistinctly; can’t hear deductions at all; this doesn’t match the smug smile on his face. Poor voice quality is annoying until you realise you don’t actually want to listen to what he’s saying. Tattoos, unshaven face and dirty clothes turn him into someone who just isn’t Holmes, the latter’s obsessive ‘catlike’ personal cleanliness being a big part of his character in spite of the mess he usually leaves 221B in. His willingness to occasionally have sex for the sake of his brain while finding sex disgusting is another key point that seems to shriek ‘Who is this person???’, the real Holmes being a raging asexual who never looks at a man except to see an irritation and never looks at a woman except to see a blemish (well, there was that one time..). Totally lacks magnetic sociopathic qualities and general whiff of danger about his person. Result: Less interesting than the wallpaper.

2. Watson. Lines seem to be entirely reduced to unconvincingly droning ‘How could you possibly know that?’ Intense male camaraderie entirely lost; no sexual tension to make up for it, they don’t look like a team; they don’t ‘fit’ together, no gorgeous, profound feeling that they’re going to be together for the rest of their lives. Chemistry between them: zip.

3. Dialogue. Painful. Writing is poor, disjointed, mediocre, predictable, cringeworthy (‘I’ve decided to resume my work as a consultant here, in New York.’ Seriously?), doesn’t take you anywhere and doesn’t feel at all like art. Verdict: Fire the writer and hire a high school kid.

What? That’s all?

One: I did only watch five minutes.

Two: Holmes. Watson. The conversation between them. If you mess those up, you’re fucked anyway, so is there really a point in continuing?

Death Has No Dominion: Silent Witness S15E1+2* – Review

The dominant theme pervading each aspect of last season’s premier was depression: this time, it’s death, as Nikki, Harry and Leo navigate a grey mist of suicide, serial murder and loss in this complex opener of Silent Witness season 15.

Sublime: Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander

Sublime: Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander

The many tiny, silken and vitally important threads of the episode’s spider web plot are established in a beautifully contrasted opening sequence of seemingly unrelated events filmed in the series’ characteristic disjointed, arthouse style. In voice over, Nikki reads Dylan Thomas’ poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion with iron composure at her father’s memorial service, her voice resonating through the beautiful, near empty cathedral; through the brutal murder of a pathologist at a crime scene the police were meant to have secured; through the subsequent, deafeningly silent suicide of her grieving sister; through a policeman gazing fixedly at an enormous image of a demonic-looking woman; and even through the pulsing death metal of violent young men packing up knives and stun guns. The sequence introduces early on the many different forms and effects of death that will build up in the episode like a house of cards, as well as the theme of the importance of the cooperation between police and pathology. In this episode, the character who comes to embody both these themes is Leo, as the pathologist’s sister who committed suicide was a close friend of his who is erroneously believed to have misled the police, sending him into a grief-driven mistrust of the police that reaches paranoid proportions, creating plenty of awkward moments as Nikki and Harry try to calm him down.

Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward), DI Connie James (Shelley Conn) and Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) doing/attending three consecutive autopsies.

Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward), DI Connie James (Shelley Conn) and Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) doing/attending three consecutive autopsies.

These two themes continue to work side by side as the plot of the episode is introduced, and the team’s investigation of a triple murder involving the suffocation of a child and the rape and immolation of a young woman puts them smack bang into the middle of a twelve year old police enquiry charged with tracking and capturing a serial killer known as The Wraith (awesomest serial killer name EVER), who gets her kicks from goading lower criminals into committing horrific crimes and watching them do it. The dynamic between master and accomplice comes to personify the different dynamics that police and pathology have with death. The dark, existential obsession of the police working on the Wraith Inquiry, exemplified by a frankly horrifying identikit of the killer that hangs permanently in their offices, shows a willingness to glamorize death, to make it ghastlier, more compelling, more interesting than it is. The Wraith is often referred to in devil-like or demonic imagery, turning her into a sort of ‘poster’ representative of death. Pathology’s view on death is given to us straight by Harry: try as we might to make death fascinatingly horrible, it often turns out to be disappointing: the most boring theory tends to be the right one, so that death rarely lives up to the big deal we make of it. This ‘disappointment’ is the Wraith’s accomplice, the triple murderer, a spoilt and frankly idiotic mother’s boy who has created a sort of army base from his room and likes to believe he’s damaged, disturbed and gangster. As complex as all this is, it can’t hope to tell us everything about how people who work around death each day of their lives actually see it; when work ends, when home begins. In this episode, Leo lost a friend – he’s also lost his wife and child; Nikki’s lost both her parents, her father’s death ending almost two decades of abandonment; last season, Harry lost a lover and her unborn child. They all wade neck-high in death, and though death is now the center of everything in both their personal and professional lives, they mourn, and keep buggering on. This, I believe, is the ultimate triumph of the pathologist’s standpoint on death: death has no dominion.

William Gaminara as Leo Dalton

William Gaminara as Leo Dalton

The complex plot made this episode extremely plot-centric, and while the plot itself is flawless, acting, character interaction and the series’ usually perfect equilibrium suffers because of it. The only person we really spend some quality time with is Leo, and this is my major complaint. Making Leo the protagonist in a season premier is a really bad idea: as a character, he is not half as interesting as Nikki or Harry, and in my experience, episodes focusing on either of them tend to be exponentially better overall than those focusing on Leo. There is also the fact that cannot be helped of Emilia Fox and Tom Ward both possessing an effortless charisma that simply makes both of them much more compelling to watch than poor William Gaminara. It was also going to be extremely difficult to live up to the artistry of last season’s incredible premier episode, and in committing the above errors, this goal has not been accomplished. Nevertheless, it’s a mesmerizing episode with a number of shocking twists right at the end that sport playfully with the viewer’s composure and promise us that the rest of this season is going to be absolutely enthralling.

*BBC Entertainment obligingly screens Silent Witness in a double bill, said double bill being what I mean when I say ‘the episode.’

A Novice Holmesian’s Ultimate Wishlist for Sherlock Season 3

sherlockLet’s say from the outset that I think that this season’s keywords, ‘Rat,’ ‘Wedding’ and ‘Bow’ refer to the giant rat of Sumatra, The Sign of Four and pretty much any of the stories in His Last Bow (please let it be The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot please let it be The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot please let it be The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot). However, since I don’t for a second presume to have an inkling of what’s going on inside the heads of Moffat the Magnificent and Gatiss the Great, this post isn’t really going to talk about that: I’ll just talk about an idealistic, rather whimsical bunch of stuff based on the canons of Sherlock and of Holmes that I would seriously love to see happen in Season 3, but probably never will. And since both Sherlock and Jim love to play, I suppose it’s okay if I do too.

When Sherlock turns out to be alive, John either faints (this would be beautiful and moving) or punches Sherlock in the face (this would be extremely funny).

sh_203-60a sThis one’s being flying around my head for ages, more than the question of how Sherlock actually survived in the first place. In the stories, Watson faints from shock because Holmes appears in disguise as a garrulous old bookseller – this subsequently causes Holmes some concern, because he had no idea Watson would be ‘so affected.’ Because of the high emotion and tragedy of the last few minutes of The Reichenbach Fall, I honestly can’t see Sherlock adopting this strategy – it trivializes that intense openness of their last few moments together that had most fans crying miserably into their pillows for hours afterwards. On the other hand, that same intensity seems sufficient for said fainting to take place without a disguise being necessary, and would make for gorgeous continuity of that same emotion, before they inevitably snap out of it and resume their former state of spending most of their time quarrelling like an old married couple. The punching Sherlock in the face option would work just as well for snapping out of Reichenbach emotion, the usual state of the friendship being resumed as soon as they meet. While this would simultaneously be funny and put things back to some semblance of normality, it carries the same risk of triviality as a disguise would. I also have a strong suspicion that John will not be as quick to forgive as he is in the stories, which would no doubt create a very nice tension in the first episode. No problems there.

John’s limp comes back when he believes Sherlock to be dead

Let’s remember two things: John’s rather nightmarish life before he meets Sherlock and his heartbreaking words over his friend’s grave – ‘I was…so alone. I owe you so much.’ Losing Sherlock is no doubt going to put him right back where he started, and making his limp come back would be a more powerful symbol of the loss he feels than anything you could accomplish with dialogue or acting (not that Martin Freeman wouldn’t be more than equal to the task).

The entire world understands that Moriarty was fucking real

sherlock6sherlock2_moriarty-spot Sherlock coming back from the dead isn’t going to create much of a change if everyone still believes him to be a pathological liar. SO, Sherlock and John need to make sure that everyone recognizes the terrifying, insane, narcissistic, devastatingly sexy little shit for what he was and blow up Richard Brook in alphabetical order. This running parallel to whatever crime has been committed, together with Sherlock and John re-establishing their friendship would make for a first episode so chockablock full of awesome that it would make most of us collapse in a heap afterwards from our brains being unable to handle it.

Get a couple of people fired for sticking by Sherlock

Here I’m thinking Molly and Lestrade, though something tells me it’s most likely to be Molly. As ridiculous as she can be, her belief in Sherlock really is quite profound, and I think she’s the kind of person who would never give up on him, even if it got her fired. She could be the Connie Sachs of the Sherlock universe. I’m not entirely convinced that Lestrade wouldn’t turn his back on Sherlock because he trusts Andersen and Donavan’s judgment, but after this whole disaster he’s likely to get suspended, demoted or fired anyway.

John meets Mary

101_0156Let’s assume for argument’s sake that I’m right about episode two being The Sign of Four and that John does actually end up falling in love and getting married. As we’ve seen from previous episodes, Sherlock’s attitude to John’s girlfriends ranges from tolerance tinged with coolness and boredom (Sarah) to blatant nastiness (‘Sarah was the doctor and then there was the one with the spots and the one with the nose and who was after the boring teacher?’ ‘Nobody.’ ‘Jeanette!’). Thinking about his reaction to John getting married frankly terrifies me. In the story The Blanched Soldier, Holmes’ description of Watson’s marriage could either be described as rather sweet or rather autistic, depending on how you look at it: ‘the good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.’ So, if this happens in an episode, it could happen in a number of ways. One: John meets Mary while he believes Sherlock is dead, Sherlock comes back, hilarity ensues. Two: the producers use the Downey Jnr. movies as a template and have a horribly rocky start between Sherlock and Mary that eventually develops to a kind of respect. Three: make Mary so unbelievably incredible that Sherlock takes to her right away (unlikely). The good thing about all three of these is that while Mary is an absolute wimp in the books, this is a golden opportunity to introduce a permanent strong female character, something the show has rather lacked, as much as we love poor Molly.

Violet Hunter shows up

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation of The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation of The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Yes. I’m fully aware that after the disaster with Irene, Sherlock is staying as far away from girls as is humanly possible, plus it’s high time that poor John got some action. So who’s Violet Hunter?

She’s the client in the story The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, and is usually ignored because of the entirely unjustified hysteria surrounding A Scandal in Bohemia (Holmes and Irene don’t even MEET, for God’s sake, so what’s all this lovey-dovey crap for? Anyway…). She first approaches Holmes for advice as to whether she should accept a post as a governess with a creepy employer and Holmes is instantly impressed by her. It eventually turns out that she’s determined to accept but would appreciate it if Holmes would help her out if her employer turned out to be creepy in a disagreeable way. Holmes spends much of the next two weeks worrying himself sick about her and muttering to himself that he’d never allow any sister of his to accept such a situation. Inevitably, Violet’s employer turns out to be creepy in a disagreeable way and though when Holmes and Watson join her, she admits to being terrified, she tells her story in detail and with flawless composure, and they find that she’s acted like a total badass in attempting to get down to the bottom of her employer’s strange behavior; Holmes subsequently informing her that she’s fucking awesome (‘I should not ask it of you if I did not think you a quite exceptional woman’). She then fearlessly assists Holmes and Watson in apprehending her employer. Holmes then typically forgets all about her awesomeness the minute she isn’t his client any more (sigh).

Holmes and Violet is one of my many pet ships, and it’s sufficient to type her name into Google to find people who think so too: ‘where’s the love for Violet Hunter, Sherlock Holmes fans?’, ‘Violet Hunter: Another Young Woman of Holmes’ Interest’ and ‘Violet Hunter: the best character that nobody cares about’ are among my favourite headings. She was beautifully portrayed by a young Natasha Richardson in the Grenada TV adaptation, boasting positively volcanic chemistry with Jeremy Brett’s iconic Holmes. It would be absolutely awesome to see her in Season 3, but after Irene, I don’t think we will.

Work more on Sherlock’s relationship with Mycroft

We’ve been dancing around the edges of this one for the last two seasons, but after giving a ton of personal information about Sherlock to Moriarty just to make him talk is directly responsible for the death of his own brother, I think it’s time for Mycroft to let us know what all this incomprehensible sibling rivalry is about.

Sherlock and John end up in the sack
Oh come on! JUST once!