Monday, January 16, 2012

Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall" (Series 2, Episode 3)

"I think that I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain," he remarked. "If my record were closed to-night I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence."  (The Final Problem)

And so we close out the second series of Sherlock.  Sherlock's humanization has paid off in full, and he expresses it in the only way he truly knows how.  Clues and foreshadowing from all the way back to the pilot episode come crashing back to haunt our protagonist.  Already strained and troubled relationships grow even more complex.

Of course, I have a few questions, but the biggest one is this:  how on earth do you fake that?

As soon as the episode's title was released, it was clear where this was going.  Moriarty and Holmes would have a great fall and be presumed dead.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's neat way of tying up a series he had tired of writing long before.  Sherlock Holmes was too perfect, too popular, too well-loved--and ultimately, too boring to continue writing.  Why not kill him off, at that point?

Sherlock's writers took an interesting turn in that light.  He was too cold, too perfect, too popular--so they spent the series humanizing him.  First, he was outsmarted.  Next, he seemed to fall in love, or at least in what could vaguely be considered love.  In "Hounds" he experienced fear and worse than that, doubt.  And finally, make even the characters themselves turn on him--a spectre that has been hanging over the series since it began.  It's only when he's about to lose everything that Sherlock finally realizes he has no other choice: he would rather lose himself.

Unlike Doyle, who sent Holmes out in the most noble and honorable way he could--after all, what could be more noble than sacrificing yourself to take out a terrible villain who had terrorized people for years--Sherlock was deemed a fraud, his suicide a sign of his shame.  There is no doubt he made a terrible sacrifice; he lost not only his life but his life's work.  What's worse, no one could know why he'd done it.  He had to lie even to John in their final moments together and no one was left to tell the real story.

After all, there was no great villain left to take out.  I must admit, Moriarty's suicide shocked me, though it made a great deal of sense.  The man was a genius, but an unstable psychotic as well; he would do really anything to see his plan come to fruition.

And what a plan it was.  Without Sherlock's drug addiction serving as his kryptonite, his pride and yearning for cleverness was a nice surrogate.  I did find the idea of a code that could unlock any door outlandish, but certainly no more so than CIA-created fear gas.  I was in the same boat as Sherlock, and was just as fooled as he.  I kept waiting for him to gain the upper hand in the rooftop scene.  For him to outsmart Moriarty somehow, or have known something all along as he did with Irene Adler.  But no, there was no recoil, no recovery.  Even in his laughing moments, the victory was such a temporary one.  His intellect truly played against him for probably the first time in his life and did he ever pay for it.

Of course, maybe he did have the upper hand.  After all, he did appear not far from his own gravestone, leading up to a million "How did he do that?"s.  Perhaps our earlier emotional payoff with Molly was Sherlock finally using his friend in the mortuary to an even more distinct advantage.  Perhaps he'd planned the bicyclist's crash with John so the doctor could never get a clear enough view of his dead friend.  Perhaps Moriarty had found a way to disguise himself as Sherlock--remember the kidnapped girl's screams?  Perhaps Sherlock used that trick to his advantage somehow.

And perhaps it's none of these things at all.  I certainly never expected the tense standoff of "The Great Game" to end with Moriarty's awkward ringtone and his threats against Irene Adler.  Perhaps our payoff will come in a way we can never expect.  Let's all brace ourselves for 2014 when we find out.

Before I close, I want to take some time to praise the performances of Sherlock.  I read a few comments and reviews after the "Baskerville" episode complaining of the overacting on both Benedict Cumberbatch and Russel Tovey's parts, and I can see where both those criticisms come from.  For me, one needs to overplay a bit to really sell hysteria and paranoia, and the fact that both were balanced by Martin Freeman's underplay and restraint meant I had no problem with these performances at all.  In fact, I rather liked them, silly paranoia gas twist be damned.

This week, however, I don't see where any criticism could be lobbied at any of the actors.  They were uniformly excellent.  Even right in the opening scene, Martin Freeman captured the feelings of grief and loss and helplessness so perfectly that it would seem the episode could have nowhere to go but down.  Benedict Cumberbatch was (as always) in top form as he hid his sadness under a mask of urgency and intellect.  Their final scene together on the phone was really just brilliant, and heartbreaking.  And Andrew Scott, who some see as a weak link in the cast, truly showed his range when contrasting the psychotic Moriarty with the scared and intimidated Richard Brooks.  His performance as the latter was so convincing that I nearly believed him, if only for a split second.

I will have to rewatch the series as a whole again, now that all are available.  I'm sure I'll pick up themes and references I hadn't before, and I'll likely have a better sense of each episode's strengths and weaknesses.  Even before then, however, I must say I really hope we don't have to wait as long for Series 3 as we did for Series 2.  I don't know if I could take it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sherlock, "The Hounds of Baskerville" (Series 2, Episode 2)

"As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor."  The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Another week, another episode of Sherlock based on a classic, well-read story.  As with all Sherlock episodes, the story took its foundations from the original Doyle and not only modernized but expanded it.

Guest star Russell Tovey's Ears played Henry Knight, the client of the week.  At first he comes across as paranoid and borderline terrified, trying to keep everything together while slowly unraveling--sounds about right for a man terrified by a giant, genetically-enhanced monster.

Russell Tovey's Ears was very well-cast, playing the part of a man slowly losing his mind without ever overplaying the role.  He was fully believable in a role that couldn't have been easy.

My favorite scenes, however, were Sherlock's.  His drug addiction is getting more explicit; as I said with "Belgravia," it's always been touched but never fully explained.  Now, he's even making references to a solution that's "seven percent stronger."  I wonder if they'll ever call it cocaine by name or continue to dance around the edges; it's always been my impression that Doyle gave Holmes a narcotic addiction to help keep him balanced but also to give him a weakness, and a reason to need and rely on a doctor friend.  This series does a good job of showing just why Sherlock does need Watson--and it's more than just drugs--but that added subtext helps flesh everything out even more.  After Sherlock's desperate search for the unnamed substance, there is an implication that all he was looking for was cigarettes, but given his manic desperation I think we all have to know that it's more than just that.

However, maybe Sherlock is trying to avoid some controversy by not naming anything explicitly.  The show certainly wasn't shy about its pre-watershed nudity last week, but perhaps that added to a drug-addicted protagonist might be just a little too much.  I'm not sure; I don't know what all expectations exist in the United Kingdom's television rules.

I've digressed; Sherlock's withdrawl--both from casework and from chemicals--only took the opening of the episode.  One keyword and he's off his need for a cigarette and calmed down quite considerably.

Until, of course, his experiences on the moor.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are extraordinarily well-cast, and the scene near the fire after the Hound incident is a perfect demonstration of why.  Even at his most manic, Cumberbatch exudes a desperate control over his portrayal; every tic and mannerism is perfect, both alienating and drawing in the audience at the same time.  Freeman, ever the straight man, allows just the right amount of hurt and bitterness to show through without overwhelming us with self-pity or discontent.  The chemistry between these actors is truly what makes the show, even with potentially silly plot-twists like a Scarecrow-esque villain using chemical warfare to create fearful delusions.

This revelation, played straight and with the highest stakes, almost bordered on silly.  However, given the clear paranoia we've seen creep into (and totally overtake) Knight's life, it's utterly believable that he wouldn't be able to take it anymore and given the fact that not all Sherlock guest stars make it through everything alright, the threat was very real.  Tovey's performance was engaging and completely believable; despite a possibly silly premise, it was not at all silly to believe that Knight would be driven to such desperation.

There is more to say about this episode, but I'll wrap up where it did, with another unexpected ending.  This one, however, was far more effective--if more confusing.  It certainly sets up for a doozy next week, with Moriarty returning in a big way--and just in time for the Reichenbach Fall.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Having never read the le CarrĂ© source novel or seen the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, I didn't know the story or what to expect.  I suppose I'm shocked neither by the critical acclaim it's been getting nor the negative reactions I've seen, especially from those who seem to have a different set of expectations for the movie.  It's not a film for everyone, and that's alright.  I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "convoluted," but it is undeniably dense, which at times works to its detriment.

I liked the film, overall.  I found the performances uniformly stellar and the direction tight and, at times, alienating.  I do not mean this as a criticism; rather, I think the style just reinforced how secret and secluded the lives of spies have to be.  We only got small windows into the lives of these characters--and sometimes, no window at all--keeping the story focused on their work, by turns both dry and dangerous.  It's a good way to keep a story focused; unfortunately, it keeps the characters from being well-developed.  I spent much of the film reminding myself which character was which, which names went where, and why this was all significant. 

I also felt that one of the prime suspects was underdeveloped, to the point where we knew it couldn't have been him simply because the impact would've provided no punch.   I do not believe that everything needs to be spelled out for an audience; in fact, I prefer when it isn't.  However, I do think there needs to be enough provided that we can not only tell characters apart but consider each a reasonable suspect, when it comes to mystery stories like this.

I feel like I've got more to say about this, but it's after one in the morning and it's escaping me just now.  I may come back and add to this later.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sherlock, "A Scandal in Belgravia" (Series 2, Episode 1)

"To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman."  (A Scandal in Bohemia)

I haven't read every Sherlock Holmes story, and I've certainly not seen every iteration of the famous detective ever made.  I do think it's interesting, however, that so many filmed versions focus on recurring characters that don't have as much of a role in the original stories.  Moriarty isn't nearly the player most seem to think; if anything, he's actually a rather weak nemesis.  Irene Adler, to my memory, only actually appears in one story.

While "A Scandal in Bohemia" is surely a classic, and shows one of the few times that Sherlock Holmes is outsmarted by anyone, it doesn't do much with Irene beyond making her clever, and sentimental.  Updating her to a gay (?) dominatrix works with some of the original intent--Sherlock does take the foundational story of "Bohemia" as inspiration while expanding it significantly--but I'm not sure I ever read Irene as the arrogant woman portrayed this week.

I don't have a problem with this, though.  Overall, I think this was a very strong episode.  It didn't meet the same tension and shock that "The Great Game" provided, but it didn't always need to.  I enjoyed the Coventry twist and Mycroft's decisions to protect his brother.  I enjoyed seeing Sherlock thrown off his game, becoming even more inscrutable.  I loved Sherlock and John's dedication to Mrs. Hudson--even when, in Sherlock's case, he didn't demonstrate it the way "normal" people would.

I do find it fascinating that so many people are drawn to a man who seems, on the surface, to take no interest in individual people.  John, Mycroft, Lestrade, Molly (poor Molly), and Mrs Hudson all show the utmost dedication and loyalty to a man who, if they didn't know him any better, wouldn't ever seem to repay in kind.  Even Irene Adler, a self-proclaimed lesbian and dedicated con-woman, falls for him.

It isn't often that Sherlock seems human at all, but this episode builds on the end of "The Great Game" in a subtle but engaging way.  Moriarty's first exit from the pool at the end of that episode gave us a chance to view Sherlock Holmes as human, if only for a moment.  All the tension slowly leaks away as Sherlock gets the bomb off of Watson, then prattles on -- and who would ever expect Sherlock Holmes to prattle? -- about John's actions and how they were "good."  He was at a loss for words, a highly unusual state for a man who would "outlive God trying to have the last word."  Sherlock, for once, is not infallible.  Beyond that, he shows in his own way that he truly cares for John.

Moments like these are rare, and subtle, but absolutely worthwhile and well done.  Consider Sherlock's apology to Molly, the way he scolds Mycroft for telling off Mrs Hudson, the slump he seems to fall into over Irene's apparent death.  It is for moments like this that Sherlock's friends put up with his idiosyncrasies and rudeness.  It is for moments like this that the audience of the show can find a human moment beneath all the cleverness and wit.

If I had only one criticism of this episode, it would be the fact that some moments are over-explained.  Sherlock is frequently subtle; it would take a Doyle expert to pick up every small in-joke and canon reference.  Even the protagonist's drug addiction is only hinted at; a "danger night" after losing Irene was still only briefly touched.  However, there were a few moments that lost that subtle edge.  I'm thinking of Irene's explanation of the combination after we'd already seen Sherlock put in the numbers (32, 24, 34) and of course, the final scene.  I take the greatest issue with the latter.  Any show does its best by leaving the audience wanting more--and a little mystery certainly never hurt a mystery show.

ETA:  There are a few other thoughts I've had about this episode, but one I feel I need to mention right away is Mycroft's assistant Altheia (though I believe this is not her real name) and her apparent involvement with Irene.   Is this a personal connection--does Irene simply know what Althea likes?  Is she compromised altogether?  If she's working with Irene, does this mean she could be working with Moriarty as well?  What does Mycroft know of all this?