Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Problem Finale

I try not to be too much of a fangirl on this blog (or ever. To me fangirls are terrifying squealy creatures) but these past three weeks I've not really been able to help myself. All because of some lanky detective with a bad attitude and a silly hat...


I don't care what anybody else says, I thought that the final episode of Sherlock, series two, was a masterful piece of television.  As usual the main focus has been on the two main actors, but credit where credit's due; the story was solid, cunning, and well written (especially considering that it wasn't written by the show's co-creators, who have penned all the strongest episodes so far), the direction and shot composition was fantastic, the production was great, and it hadn't really hit me what the team had done until yesterday - all six episodes are an hour and a half long each.  They've made us six movies.  The film industry has always had more pomp and glitter surrounding it than British television, so to see a show that can hold that amount of interest for that amount of time when most movies can't even make a decent sequel is no mean feat.

It was a strange episode though, in some ways, and not one that's easy to take on face value.  I've heard a lot of little niggles from people (Is he really dead/not dead?  Why was the Sherlock/Jim monologue so long?  Who gave Sherlock's Supposedly-Homeless Network all those camera-phones?  I wasn't surprised by the jump from the roof.  Doesn't showing him alive ruin the cliffhanger?)  I've got some thoughts on all that, not that I think anybody cares so I've hidden it behind the Read More at the bottom.  I just think too much about these things and like the sound of my own voice :)

I figure Holmes finally got popped in the nose for being such a smart-alec
All in all it's not bad going for a man who once said "Heroes don't exist, and if they did I wouldn't be one of them." However I tend to agree with him.  Heroes are hard to find and often they aren't the ones in the limelight. If there's going to be any real heroism around here it mostly comes from the stalwart soldier in the cardigan who puts up with Sherlock for a year and a half, does everything he can to help him, and then stands quietly on the sidelines and lets his friend take all the glory.

Yeah, you heard me.  Sherlock may be fascinating to watch in action, but if I had to pick a dinner date I'd go for the good doctor every time.

Here we go:

The thing about the jump was that it was never going to be a surprise.  The original book The Final Problem features the waterfall that gave this episode it's name, The Reichenbach Fall, and is the book in which Holmes famously dies by jumping into the falls, taking Moriarty with him.  Conan Doyle really did kill him off, it was only the clamouring fans and an empty wallet that convinced him to write some more stories, so Sherlock famously returned from the dead and we learned how it was all just a clever ruse.  Obviously old-school Holmes fans will know this, but even for everybody else it only takes 10 seconds to google the episode name and discover it by accident.  (I liked the wordplay on the title, giving Jim the alias of Rich Brook.  The Reichenbach Fall = Rich Brook's Fall = the Fall of Moriarty. Sweet.) The jump itself, while played for emotional drama (my housemates and I were all behind cushions), was never going to be the world's best-kept secret, and so was never the sole point of the episode.  So what did it all achieve?  In my opinion, three things:

1.  Clever vs. Clever

The running around is lots of fun, and I love a good action sequence, but Sherlock Holmes' unique draw has always lain with the intellectual gymnastics of the title character.  Second to Mycroft only, he's the brightest, the cleverest, the best.  Which is why, in The Reichenbach Fall, much of the tension comes from the fact that Jim Moriarty appears to be winning.  He draws Sherlock into a ridiculous game based completely on a red herring, and Sherlock seems to fall for it hook line and sinker.  Jim gets himself arrested for triple burglary (as if the world's only consulting criminal would really commit the crimes in person!) but it is Sherlock that ends up held in contempt by the court.  He kidnaps children and holds them hostage but it's Sherlock that is accused.  Throughout the whole episode it looks like Sherlock is playing catch-up, something that never happens with him, and even in the rooftop scene Moriarty is in the drivers seat.  Sure Sherlock says he and Jim are the same but it isn't true; he won't do whatever it takes to beat Moriarty, not any more.  He's hamstrung now; he has friends to look after.  The exact same thing happened at the end of series one, where Sherlock planned a meeting with the then-unknown killer of Carl Powers, but Moriarty anticipated this and wired Watson up like a combustible Christmas tree to retake control of the situation.  Sherlock could have shot Jim then, but he would ha
ve killed John too.  This is what Moriarty does best, pushing people into circumstances where they are forced to admit he has beaten them. And he does it to Holmes just when it seems Sherlock has taken back the upper hand and spotted a loop hole in Jim's plan that could get them all off the hook.  He takes away his options to force him to jump, by blowing his own brains out.  In the battle to be cleverest, Moriarty wins.

The only difference this time is that Sherlock knows Jim a little bit too.  Maybe enough to anticipate his anticipation and build in his own failsafe (remember his late night conversation with Molly Hooper?).  My main question is how early on did Sherlock decide to 'die'?  If I knew that it would solve a lot.  Was it the night with Molly?  The taxi ride?  In Court?  The very first text from Jim?  His argument with John about the press?  Depending on how early he made up his mind, he could have been allowing Moriarty's schemes to drive them to that point all along, in which case he wins, and the more I backtrack the more my brain starts squinting.  Jim is bluffing Sherlock who is bluffing Jim who is bluffing Sherlock who-  Seriously, the multiple levels in this thing are enough to drive you to distraction.

2. Full circle

My friend the drama teacher hates narrative symmetry, but I like it when it's done right and is character-driven. Narrative symmetry is when two separate events in a story mirror each other enough for you to see just how much things have changed in the time between the two. Example; at the beginning of series one one we meet John Watson, a wounded army doctor struggling to adjust to ordinary life.  He has lost friends, seen horrible things, and is very lonely. Also we meet Sherlock, who is very clever but has no understanding or appreciation of other people. The two men end up sharing a flat and, after a lot of squabbling, do become good friends - in fact they are pretty much each others only friends. In a weird sort of way they are good for each other.  John's life is fuller, and Sherlock's gains humanity. Then comes The Reichenbach Fall, John sees his best friend die horribly, and is alone once again.  Meanwhile Sherlock, who has finally started to care about (a few) people, is forcibly separated from them, at least for the time being; once more a very clever man with no friends. In one way they're both right back where they started, but then we can see that they are no longer the same people they were the first time around. They've grown. I like that.

3.  Magic tricks

So Sherlock steps off the roof, right in front of a horrified John who runs over and finds his best friend dead right outside St Barts Hospital where they first met.  The body is carted away, the funeral takes place, and John walks away from the grave... watched from the bushes by an inscrutable Sherlock.  For goodness sake, Sherlock!  Show a little tact, can't you!

Anyway, this is something we see a lot in all forms of storytelling; TV, movies, everything, and I'm getting kind of tired of it.  The old gambit of "Ooh look, what a horrible accident, he's dead.  He's really, really dead.  He's totally d- Oh no he isn't!  Gotcha, you silly audience, there's barely a scratch on him.  LOLZ."  It's just a lazy way of manufacturing tension in a lot of cases, and for it to come off right you needs a good reason to do it, and a good twist to pull it off. 

Obviously we all suspected Sherlock wasn't really going to die, and in fact he had three very good reasons to stage the event; to get  ai) Moriarty,  aii) the press, and  aiii) the police to leave him alone, although the catch is that he needs to make Watson believe it is real.  If John's going to see him fall then Sherlock has to give him a reason for his presumed suicide to try and make it believeable and stop him doing something to try and help.  And as for the twist; he planned it all.  Of course he did, although the question remains as to just how far back in the episode he had this in mind, and just how many others were involved (Molly?  Mycroft? The Irregulars?).  But this doesn't wreck the cliffhanger, because the reappearance of Holmes was not what we were waiting for.

Sherlock always triumphs, that we know, but we don't watch the show purely to see him win.  We watch the show because we want to see how he wins.  Just like we don't watch just to see him rudely boast that a complete stranger has two cats, a foot fetish, and an ex-wife in Cuba within ten seconds of meeting them (Ok maybe we do.  It's funny), we want to find out how he knows this. 
Unlike the magician sawing the lady in half, we always get to marvel as we see him explain to us how the feat was achieved, via Watson usually, and this happens every time  There's never been a conclusion he's come to that we haven't seen the thought process for, until now.  Just before he jumps he tells John that his life was merely a big magic trick, and then pulls off an even bigger one.  We knew he would probably survive... but for once the writers haven't completed the deal.
Seeing Sherlock alive was only half the reveal, because the other half was learning how - and the writers haven't told us!  And they still aren't telling us - they purposefully haven't finished the episode!  As a cliffhanger and gambit it's working phenomenally well.  Just start googling, and you'll see speculation riddling the internet.  It's a smart place to leave a story and a series and that's why I'll eagerly tune in if Freeman and Cumberbatch ever have enough time off from suddenly being extremely famous to put series three together.

Actually, I do have an idea as to how he did it.  I've been trying to steer clear of too many forums, and I need to rewatch it to be sure, but I have a rough Theory.  However, like everyone else, I'll have to wait a year to see if I'm right.

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