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.

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