This week’s episode is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have a brilliant performance by Jonny Lee Miller as he moves through the grief of losing a long time friend to drug addiction. On the other, we have the first introduction of magical realism in the series as Sherlock is visited by the spectre of his old friend. For a series that deals so much in the verifiably real, no matter how fantastic it seems, the introduction of a trope that is somewhat supernatural just feels…off.
The episode begins with Holmes trying to master the distinct dialect and cadence of the Derry accent of Northern Ireland. I actually rewatched this bit several times because my best friend from my South Korea days was from Derry and hearing the accent made me miss him something fierce. Holmes is preparing for a meeting with his friend Alistair, whom we met in season one when he posed as Sherlock’s father. Alistair, who is an actor, was kind enough to record some poems in the Derry accent for Holmes to master.
Watson is off to the station to return some files to Detective Bell (god I hope we find out they’re shagging on the side sometime soon). When she arrives at the station, Gregson asks her to check on a suspect in the holding cells who has collapsed. The guy’s name is Apollo and he’s a well known pickpocket. Watson and Gregson find the man on the floor of the cell, dead. Thinking he died of an overdose, Watson turns him over and then immediately tells Gregson to evacuate the station and quarantine the building. The man has died of anthrax exposure.
Holmes finds Watson, Bell, and Gregson hanging out at the the hospital. He’s agitated and snappish, telling Watson, after she objects to his lack of concern, that it’s obvious that the trio is fine as they are not in quarantine. Bell hears from the medical examiner, and we learn that Apollo swallowed a plastic bag of what he probably thought was cocaine as he was being chased by police. When the bag ruptured in his stomach, the anthrax killed him instantly.
As they are reviewing surveillance footage from Union Square, Watson asks about Holmes’ meeting with Alistair, since he’s decidedly more snippy than usual. Alistair never showed up because Alistair is dead, apparently from a massive heart attack. Holmes only learned of it when he called Alistair’s partner. He even missed the funeral, and no, he doesn’t want to talk about it.
They figure out Apollo’s mark, a man named Charlie Simon with a record who stole from a university lab; a lab that could contain ingredients for making anthrax. Charlie’s roommate, when interviewed, said he was nice enough for an ex-con, though his walks were a little weird. He’d leave at random times and come back smelling of antiseptic. Dude, big fucking warning sign! Holmes suggests building a grid within a ten minute walking radius, while Watson cuts through the extra work by finding a bill among Charlie’s mail for a storage unit. When a team goes in, they find Simon dead from a gunshot wound. Holmes notices evidence that Simon had made enough weapons-grade anthrax to wipe out half a million people.
There was a second set of prints found in the locker, belonging to a Eugene MacIntosh, a member of a fringe group called the Sovereign Army. They hate the government, but love the Second Amendment. Holmes begs off the investigation while Bell and Watson head to upstate New York to speak with Eugene’s brother Bart, who runs a dairy farm.
Holmes goes to pay his condolences to Alistair’s partner, Ian. The man apologizes for not contacting Holmes sooner and blames the grief. He gives Holmes a signed first edition of Waiting for Godot, which incidentally was the first play he saw Alistair in when they first met (and it’s also the source for the episode’s title). Holmes asks how Alistair was before he died, since it had been months since they’d seen each other. He was full of life, as always, starting a new play. The only blip was a dinner Alistair had with his son, Jeremy, that apparently didn’t go well. Holmes leaves thinking something is amiss.
Bart speaks with Watson and Bell, painting his brother as an anti-government radical he hasn’t seen in a month. He’s reluctant to get involved, but does give them an address in Cambria Heights. Holmes happens to be in the area when he leaves Ian’s apartment and goes to investigate. As he’s watching a couple of guys load up a truck, Alistair appears and this is where I get a little mad. It’s just so out of place, even if Holmes acknowledges that Alistair isn’t really there as Alistair comments on how unwell Holmes looks. Holmes deals in facts and observable evidence. This really goes against everything we know about the man.
When Holmes investigates the cases the men were loading into the truck, he finds packs of white powder and letters addressed to Congressmen. The two men find him and before Watson and Bell can get there, Holmes calls them. He’s covered in white powder and the supposed terrorists are unconscious around him (off-screen brawl, I’m guessing).
It’s looking like Holmes was exposed, but the next scene finds him in a hospital room bitching at a nurse and telling Watson it wasn’t anthrax. He knows because he tasted it; it’s just baby powder and talc. After Watson freaks out, she tells him he’s acting out because of Alistair’s death and she’s not wrong.
One of the guy’s loading the truck is named Joe, though his legal name is Kurt, but Kurt is his “slave name,” so don’t call him that (laughing forever at the slave name line coming from a white supremacist). He denies any knowledge of any anthrax, though Holmes points out that he panicked when he awoke covered in white powder. It all boils down to Joe bankrolling Eugene’s anthrax production, but now Eugene’s gone with the anthrax and Joe’s money. It’s suggested that he let the NYPD help him get back at Eugene for his theft.
Joe takes them up on the offer and arranges a meeting with Eugene. Gregson also learns that Simon had the bag because Eugene wanted to test the anthrax on some animals. Holmes is working off some angst at the boxing gym when the doorbell rings. It’s Jeremy, who wants to talk to Sherlock about the insinuation that he had anything to do with his dad’s death. When Watson comes downstairs the next morning, it’s time for the “Talk,” where Holmes works through his feelings while Watson listens and sympathizes. Now, this scene was brilliant. I genuinely felt for Sherlock and his loss, but we’ve been getting too many of these. I want the roles reversed, and I want Lucy Liu to get to exercise her considerable acting chops. Be that as it may, this scene is still affecting. It’s revealed that Alistair died not of a massive heart attack, but of a heroin overdose. He had 30 years of sobriety under his belt when he succumbed. His death brings all of Holmes’ fears of relapse in his own recovery. It’s an excellent snapshot of a man grieving a best friend. It’s also an excellent look at how far Sherlock has come; instead of burying his feelings, he tell Watson he will talk with her about it, but not now. He needs to get it straight in his own mind first.
Watson gets a call from Gregson; the meeting is off since Eugene showed up at his brother’s farm and was shot dead by Bart. He found Eugene dumping anthrax into his cattle’s feed and ranting about the government and planning to infect the cow’s milk and poison the general populace. He pulled a gun and Bart shot him. Bart also revealed that Eugene had hinted that the rest of the anthrax not found might be headed to Canada. While reviewing records, Holmes discovers Eugene had married several weeks ago and his widow insisted that he’s left his anti-establishment leanings behind.
Holmes is agitated and breaks a glass before heading to the kitchen. Watson follows and breaks a plate, emphasizing that breaking shit solves nothing. Holmes is contrite and apologizes for his behavior, which he describes as narcissistic and it’s left him in a “mood.” He assures Watson he is in no danger of using and if he was, he’d tell her. The moment is broken by a text from Watson’s mom, telling her daughter to throw out all her milk because a “lunatic” is poisoning the milk supply. As Watson is pouring out expired milk (thanks mama Watson for the reminder) Holmes makes the connection that the anthrax wasn’t about killing people, it was about killing cows.
You see, the only thing keeping Bart’s farm afloat was government subsidies and his cattle were thoroughly insured. If the herd were to be wiped out, he and Eugene (who owns half the farm) would get a substantial payout. Eugene didn’t make anthrax to kill people; he and his brother were going to kill the herd to collect the insurance except Bart wanted to keep it all. He killed his brother and made it look like he was about to commit an act of domestic terrorism. They had Simon make the anthrax since Eugene knew him from prison and he had Joe bankroll the effort and then was planning on turning him over to the police. Except Simon was caught with the anthrax and it was all going to hell, so Bart killed his brother and took the remaining anthrax to use at a later date. The remaining batch was found in Bart’s mother’s house.
The final scene finds Sherlock standing over Alistair’s grave with his ghost beside him, chiding him for being cliché. Alistair wouldn’t deign to appear in a scene like this if it were a play. Holmes tells Alistair that he was on his way to a meeting and wanted to pay his respects. Alistair apologizes for letting Sherlock down, but Sherlock assures him he knows it’s not about him. He’s here because he wanted Alistair to know that he loved him and will miss him terribly. In response, Alistair quotes from Waiting for Godot:
At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.
And then he’s gone.