Monday, February 20, 2012

The final problem (of Sherlock's second series)

Continuing my trend of bang-up-to-date posts on the BBC’s Sherlock, I’ve finally taken the time to get my ass in gear and type up a word or two (or more) on my opinion of the second series’ finale, “The Fall of Reichenbach”.  It’s four weeks ago since the thing aired on British television, but hey, better late than never – and I’m sure you’ve all been clamoring to hear this, right? …right? Don’t give me those dejected looks! Hey, anybody want to hire me to write timely reviews of prime time television shows for their magazine or website? I don’t have a problem with deadlines, no siree! I can be punctual with this stuff, I swear!

In my defense, I’m a busy man (those academic papers don’t write themselves, or so I hear) and I needed some time to mull this one over – because like it or not, you can’t deny this is an episode that left an impact. A word of warning, there’s going to be heavy spoilers around the bend, as it’s kind of impossible to discuss this episode without ‘em – so if you haven’t seen it yet and aren’t just reading this to enjoy my immaculate ability at writing criticism (haha, as if), I strongly urge you to go and give it a watch. Go on, I have a Game Boy and my trusty Tetris cartridge, I’ll be alright.

What, back already? Shit, I haven’t even scored enough points to see the rocket ship blast off! Well, I guess there’s more important things than Russian puzzle games from the 80’s – like silly British detective drama, for instance, so away we go!

While in television land it’s only been a week since we last saw our heroes (and yes, only a month on this blog, shut up), it’s obvious more time has passed in the Sherlockverse, for Mr Holmes and Mr Watson have been doing a good amount of legwork. After recovering a famous painting of the German Reichenbach Falls (the case referred to in the episode title, but I’ll get to that in a bit), Sherlock’s fame in Britain has steadily been rising. This is making it harder and harder for the dynamic duo to operate successfully, as reporters swarm the pavement outside their Baker Street apartment, ready to catalogue their every move. And that isn’t the only thing breaking the great detective’s balls this time around: for James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis, is on the move again. After a series and a half of predominantly lurking in the shadows, Jim Moriarty finally takes center stage to solve the problem of his rivalry with Sherlock once and for all: their ‘final problem’, as he calls it, referencing the similarly named Arthur Conan Doyle story depicting the last struggle between the criminal mastermind and the illustrious detective. 


There's a smilie face in there though, so his intentions can't be that bad. 
In “The Reichenbach Fall”, Moriarty has gotten his hands on a string of computer code that’ll let him hack into any computer system in the world – say, kind of like the Konami code, only instead of getting thirty extra guys on Contra so you can finally beat the game and move on with your life, you get to do things like steal classified information, fire off nuclear missiles and break into any security system simply at the click of a button. Using his new toy, Jim sets out to rob the Bank of England, unlock each cell at Pentonville Prison and stage a one-man heist of the British Crown Jewels all at the same time (you know how it is: buy yourself a barbecue and you need to throw a few parties to convince yourself it wasn’t a waste of cash; be a self-styled master criminal in the UK and you gotta make a grab at the Crown Jewels sooner or later). He gets caught and jailed right away, and is subsequently put on trial: but Jimmy-boy was merely showing off, and he effortlessly bribes the jury and walks out with a not-guilty verdict without presenting a single shred of evidence or witness. Turns this was meant as a prelude to his real plan to crush his rival once and for all. Jimmy’s scheme is to turn the very press that has been singing Sherlock’s praises against him. Through spreading misinformation about the great detective, Moriarty has everyone believe that Sherlock has been staging crimes and pretending to solve them, and that he simply invented the Moriarty character to give himself a supposed rival and further bolster his reputation – in short, Moriarty sets out to "expose" Sherlock to the public as a fraud.

The rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty is, as I assume you’ve figured out by now, at the forefront of the plot, and it’s what makes this one imminently watchable to me. Much of it has to do with Andrew Scott’s superb portrayal of the dastardly Jim Moriarty, without doubt the highlight of the episode. Initially, when Scott’s Moriarty showed up during the last few minutes of the previous series’ “The Great Game”, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna like him in the role. I was all fired up that the great James Moriarty was finally going to reveal himself, and then after all the build-up suddenly there was this scrawny-looking, tiny little guy, over half a head shorter than his nemesis, standing there slinging insults at the great detective’s face and walking around like he owned the place. He seemed not a year older than twenty, and his goofy, camp gay-ish mannerisms made it hard for me to take him all that seriously. A weird choice for the modern-day rendition of Doyle’s criminal mastermind. Of course, by now, my opinion on him’s pretty much done a one-eighty, though maybe he just needed an episode to himself to really get a chance to shine and have all the little nuances of his performance sink in. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in “The Reichenbach Fall” is, in a word, simply terrifying – and that despite his slight frame, youthful appearance and goofy mannerisms, or, I’d venture, maybe even because of it. His faux-comical modus aperandi belies a volatile, malicious and downright nasty inner nature. Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty is magnificently disconcerting. After the unusualness of the performance wears off he quickly stops being silly and starts becoming, well, frankly kind of scary. His high, goofy voice is at the same time laced with venomous anger, and his creepy stares and sudden bursts of rage all underline how much of a complete and utter psychopath he really is. He's kind of like a ticking time bomb, with no one ever sure what exactly he's going to say or do next - he's got a lot of screen presence, and unless Cumberbatch is in the frame with him it's generally hard to look anywhere else.

And man, just look at all that bling. Hail to king Jim, baby!
While I wouldn’t say Moriarty and Sherlock are as similar as the dialogue sometimes makes them out to be (Sherlock has shown himself to be capable of empathy on more than one occasion, while Jim pretty much demonstrates total disregard for human life, for one thing), one can’t deny these two guys are in some ways shockingly alike: both have genius-level intellects paired with a general disregard for social conventions, two big kids who like to consider the world their own private playground. But while Sherlock is, as Moriarty sneeringly accuses him, “on the side of the angels”, Jim feels no such moral obligations holding him back, wreaking havoc wherever he sees fit for the sheer fun of it. While I jokingly referred to Holmes and Watson as the ‘dynamic duo’ earlier, I think we can actually draw some pretty profound Batman parallels here, for Holmes and Moriarty’s rivalry smacks of some serious Batman versus Joker overtones in this one. Two exceptional individuals with self-styled careers in respectively crime-fighting and criminal activity, operating according to their own moral compass and engaged in a battle of wits from opposite ends of the law, one with an overbearingly serious attitude and the other with a rather warped sense of humor? Gee, I wonder where I’ve heard that one before (hell, Batman is usually described as being more of a costumed detective in his operating methods than anything else). But unlike ol’ Bats and uncle Joker, who’re usually portrayed as being doomed to play their cat ‘n mouse (or bat and, uh, psychotic man in clown makeup, I guess) game for all eternity, the rivalry between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty did, surprisingly, end up getting resolved at the end of this episode… and in a way that I think I can confidently say no one really saw coming.
If you’re scanning this thing to get an idea of the episode without ruining too much of it, this is the point where you should probably stop reading, ‘cause I’m pretty much going to spoil the entire thing from here on. After Moriarty’s plan to disgrace Sherlock and make him seem a fraud pretty much succeeds, the two meet on the rooftop of a London hospital. Here, Jim reveals that he has several assassins following Sherlock’s closest friends around the city, and unless Sherlock wants them all to bite the bullet, he’s going to have to admit his defeat at Moriarty’s hands… by jumping off the roof to his death. The two banter for a bit, with Sherlock convincing Moriarty that he hasn’t lost yet, and that he can convince Moriarty to call off the hitmen. Shockingly, Jim agrees – and at this point I can only assume writer Steven Thompson had just about downed his sixth or seventh whiskey of that particular writing session, for Moriarty proceeds to pull out a gun and shoot himself in the face. This leaves Sherlock with no other alternative than to make the jump, which will signal the hitmen to abandon their posts. Sherlock calls up Watson on his cell phone and bids him farewell – a spectacular bit of acting by Benedict Cumberbatch, who really shows the asocial, so unused to emotion Sherlock struggling to tell his only real friend goodbye – and jumps. He plummets to the pavement, cracks open his skull, and lies there. Dead.


Well, no. No, of course he isn’t. Don’t be silly.

To be fair, at first I wasn’t sure either. It seemed clear-cut enough. He dropped down at least four stories, with no apparent way to escape or switch the body, and that head-wound seemed nasty and real enough. Sure was a lotta blood. There’s this bit at the end where John is walking away from the grave and the camera swivels to show Sherlock standing at the foot of the tombstone, but I figured that was just symbolic or something. Of course, I was just being silly and got swept up in the moment. I figured this might be the show’s ending (y’know, British brevity being what it is and all), but when I read later that evening that Sherlock got renewed for a third series all doubt about the situation evaporated from my mind within a day or two. He tricked his way out of it somehow, of course he did. There’re some pretty brilliant fan theories about the incident floating around the net, for sure. John, who is at the scene of Sherlock’s jump, rushes across the street towards the body but gets hit by a cyclist and arrives dazed to find his friend dead – perhaps Sherlock somehow switched the body or pulled some other kind of trick in the meantime, and Watson didn’t notice due to the blow? A garbage truck is seen to go by at the same time, perhaps that has something to do with it? Maybe corpse-wizard Molly Hooper, a girl with a crush on Sherlock who works at the city morgue, had something to do with it? Earlier in the episode Sherlock’s shown to be absent-mindedly bouncing a rubber ball back and forth against a wall: apparently if you jam one of those things under your arm tightly enough it’ll stop the blood flowing towards your arm, making you seemingly without a pulse, dead.

 'tis But a scratch! ...what, that joke is worn out? Screw you, writing original material is hard!

At this point I could digress into an analysis of the ins and outs of the situation and try to come up with my own theory - but frankly, I’m not particularly interested in that for the purposes of this blog. I like to play the guessing game as much as the next twenty-something white guy who spends a lot of time on the internet, but I’m content waiting for the Grand Moff and company to unveil how shit actually went down when the show goes back on for its third season somewhere next year (as much of a fucking wait as that’s gonna be – c’mon, Moffat ol’ boy, you’re killing us!). What I’m here for is to give you my personal opinion and a critical analysis on the episode: I’m interested in the quality of the script, in the way the entire thing is built up on a narratological level, in whether I was properly able to suspend my disbelief and all that jazz. Basically, my ‘final problem’ is figuring out whether this episode worked for me or not and why.

So, did it work?

Well, yes and no – or rather, a fairly resounding yes, though with a few notable caveats.

While watching the episode for the first time and when considering it in its direct aftermath, I was quite positive about it. It certainly is a thrilling little piece of television if nothing else. It keeps a brisk pace through the entire ninety-odd minutes of run-time, and I’m actually kind of impressed with how much they managed to jam in there without making the thing seem bloated. If nothing else, this was an episode that certainly wasn’t at a loss for ideas. The whole “expose Sherlock as a fraud” part of the plot, while perhaps a bit trite (it reminded me in part of films like Face/Off and The Fugitive, with the whole unjustly accused man running from the law thing) was in my opinion very well executed. It raises issues of media misguidance and corruption and public perception, and underscores some of the validity of Sherlock’s paranoia about publicity and about interaction with other people in general: “alone is what I have, alone protects me”, he snidely says to John at a certain point, and in some points, indeed, it’s not hard to see why he’d prefer to fake his own death so he can go back to operating under the radar. Moriarty’s plan is of course all the more genius because it allows people to believe something they want to believe, namely that the brilliant, pompous Sherlock Holmes really isn’t possessing of such super-human intelligence after all. Moriarty is using Sherlock’s tendency to lord his superior intellect over his fellow human beings as part of his plan to bring down the great detective, and in this it’s actually a pretty clever and fitting plot idea for a Holmes story.

There are several great moments scattered throughout that I’m not going to forget any time soon. Both the rooftop showdown between Jim and Sherlock and an earlier scene in which Moriarty visits the great detective at his Baker Street apartment to gloat about his not-guilty verdict are fantastic. Cumberbatch and Scott have a great deal of acting chemistry together, with the tension as the two engage in their various verbal duels often being thick enough to cut with a broadsword. I once read a review of Quentin Tarrantino’s Inglorious Bastards that said that while making a thrilling action sequence that really manages to grip an audience and keep them glued to the screen is impressive in its own right, crafting a scene that evokes a similar level of excitement, tension and engagement by just having a few people sitting around talking to each other is infinitely more admirable. I’d like to think that at several points, this episode of Sherlock does exactly that. There’s also a hilariously bombastic montage near the start of the episode, with scenes of Moriarty’s break-in attempt at the tower of London interspersed with scenes of police rushing to the scene, all overlaid with the overture from Gioachino Rossini's Lagazza ladra which comes to its crescendo as Jim takes a few ballet steps and theatrically breaks the glass of the cabinet containing the Crown Jewels. Another montage, of the events leading up to Moriarty’s trial, is set to Nina Simone’s rendition of American jazz standard Sinnerman, which’d be a great theme song for everyone’s favorite master criminal. So yeah, plenty of fun to be had in this episode, for sure.

The deerstalker hat makes its triumphant return to the papers.

Thing is, however, that after seeing the thing on its air date I couldn’t help but wonder how well it’d really hold up under scrutiny, and how much sense some of it actually made – and after rewatching it and thinking it through a bit more, I did start noticing a few problems here and there.

One of the major ones has to do with Moriarty’s computer code that hacks into any computer system in the world. It’s initially presented as being the manner by which he managed to break into three highly secured institutions at the same time, and also the reason that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft held ol’ Jim prisoner for what was apparently several months on end before the start of the episode, as he wished to obtain the code to ensure it couldn’t be used to do any wrong. However, during the rooftop confrontation, Jim reveals to Sherlock that it was all a sham, and that the code doesn’t actually exist – moreover, that it couldn’t even exist in the first place. “You don’t think a couple of lines of computer code are gonna crash the world around, do you?”, he snaps, ridiculing Sherlock’s tendency to wish for everything to be clever. A cute little illustration of one of the great detective’s intellectual blind spots, but honestly, I have all sorts of problems with this. If the code was so obviously nonexistent, why did not just Sherlock, but everyone else buy into the idea? Surely Mycroft, with the combined intelligence of the entire British government backing him, wouldn’t spend many fruitless months interrogating Moriarty to obtain a code that, apparently, obviously doesn’t exist? And where did the idea that he had it come from anyway? After walking out of the trial of the century scot-free, Moriarty visits Sherlock and makes him guess how he managed to break into the Tower, Pentonville Prison and the Bank of England all at once, and Sherlock comes to the magical computer code conclusion all by himself. How did Sherlock arrive at the idea? How did Moriarty know he was going to draw that conclusion? I’m sorry, but as one of the main elements that drives the plot, this just seems a little wonky to me.

Also, while I’ve been praising the final rooftop confrontation between Moriarty and Sherlock, parts of it and of the conclusion did feel kind of artificial. Apart from the fact that I have to wonder why Inspector Lestrade gets to make Sherlock’s BFF shortlist as one of the three friends Moriarty’s hitmen are pointing a sniper riffle at (last episode he didn’t even know the man’s first name),  I really have to ask what the fuck was up with Moriarty blowing his own head off after Sherlock somehow convinced him that he hadn’t been beaten yet. What the shit exactly did he convince him of? Sherlock seems to be implying that he can get Moriarty to stop the assassins, but what’s he gonna do, torture him? Jim survived months of being big brother Mycroft’s personal whipping-boy, so I kind of fail to see what Sherlock could do to him that’d suddenly break him within those four or five minutes before the triggers’re pulled. He was obviously not afraid to die, with him blowing his own brains out ‘n all: if he had to go, why not force Sherlock to drop him off the rooftop himself, making the man into a murderer as well as a fraud while he’s at it? I get that it’s supposed to show us that Moriarty was going to stop at nothing in his quest to get the better of Mr Holmes, but it just feels like a very illogical decision to make. Moreover, it seems a waste of a great character. I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes: maybe Andrew Scott wanted out and they had to figure out a way to write him out of the show, but it just felt very forced to me. Also, while Sherlock’s “death” leaves lots of wiggle room for the writers to ninja him out of the ordeal, Moriarty’s death is presented to us in no such ambiguous terms: unless the man is somehow possessing of a bullet-proof brain, I doubt we’ll be seeing the consulting criminal make any more cameo appearances any time soon, and I find that a real shame.  

Speaking of Sherlock’s death, while a lot of the fan theories floating around the internet about how he managed to cheat his way out of it are quite brilliant, I really am keeping my fingers crossed that the official version of events’ll make as much sense as some of those do. It’s not that I don’t have any faith in the Grand Moff and company (Moffat hasn’t particularly let me down yet, though I’ll give that the way he wrapped up the last series of Who did feel a bit sloppy to me), but this is really a high-wire act they’re engaging in if you ask me. If it ends up being resolved satisfactorily it’ll be a pretty grand achievement, but if the solution to the problem is lacking then that’ll be a severe downer. And to give one more small nitpick concerning the final scene: did we really need a full-on shot of Sherlock standing beside his own grave, eliminating any doubt that he had faked his own death? In my opinion it would’ve been more fun if they hadn’t included that bit, maybe only shown a hand resting on the tombstone or a pair of shoes walking up from behind the tree, and, I don’t know, kept the fact that the show was picked up for a third series under wraps for a while. Woulda made it more ambigious and all that, y'know.

It was in the opening credits all along though, so maybe he just watched the DVD beforehand.
Lastly, while I argued earlier that despite its wealth of ideas the episode did not end up feeling bloated, certain bits of the plot did end up feeling a bit overly fast-paced. Some of this stuff I’d have actually liked to see more of, such as Sherlock’s run from the law and his attempts to figure out how the hell’s he’s going to beat Moriarty. Somewhere around the one-hour mark of the episode Holmes and Watson run into Moriarty in the house of a reporter, where Jim claims to be an actor hired by Sherlock to play the villain’s role, and he shows them his website and television programs he’s appeared in and everything. The scene almost borders on the surreal and existential, where not only does John starts to somewhat question Sherlock’s authenticity, but even Sherlock himself seems to go through a split second of wondering if he’s going out of his mind. It reminded me of the episode “The Schizoid Man” of The Prisoner (a show which everyone should watch right now – in fact, stop reading this and go watch The Prisoner, then come back) and might’ve been milked for a bit more, but alas, no time, gotta keep moving! The bit where it’s revealed that Mycroft actually had Moriarty in prison for rather a while also made me wonder how the shit they managed to capture the guy in the first place, and why exactly they let what Mycroft calls “the most dangerous criminal mind the world has ever known” back on the street. But again, no time to explore that. This isn’t severe criticism per se: in fact, saying I’d have liked to see more of certain things can be taken as praise in a certain way, but that was how I experienced it, 's all.

You know, to come back to the Batman comparison I made earlier, this episode kind of felt like The Dark Knight in more ways than one. Apart from the parallels that can be drawn between the Jim contra Sherlock and the Bats contra Joker rivalry, watching the episode itself is kind of like watching that movie. It’s one hell of a ride that sweeps you up and generally moves along at breakneck pace, leaving you thrilled and excited most of the way through – but if you start to consider it more intimately afterwards a few problems do start to show themselves. That’s not to say it’s bad, however. I love The Dark Knight and, conversely, I thought this was a fun episode. While parts of it don’t entirely make sense in hindsight and we’ll have to wait and see how much the gamble really paid off, it sure was a gutsy series finale.

Really, my main concern here is if they’ll be able to top the impact of this episode. Part of me thinks that after going as balls out as this there’s no way to go but down, especially if the next series ends up restoring the status quo that “The Fall of Reichenbach” so decidedly shattered. The more I consider it, the more I think that I would really be able to love this episode like no other if only it’d been the last episode of Sherlock, as I thought it might be before reading there was going to be a series three. It would be such a magnificently bittersweet ending. Now that would’ve been taken some guts. But the show must go on, so we’ll just have to wait and see where the BBC’s Sherlock is going to take us next year.

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