California Literary Review

Sherlock Recap: ‘The Reichenbach Fall’

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May 21st, 2012 at 8:53 am

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Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

Holmes and Moriarty come face to face.
Photograph: BBC/Hartswood Films/Colin Hutton

Doing the Reichenbach Falls as part of the Sherlock series? I love it. The idea is so self-indulgent, such a shameless bit of emotional cheating, that I can’t decide whether to stand up and salute or get behind it and shove. The original story being called The Final Problem makes it even easier to crowbar Georges Gusdorf in: “No trick of presentation, even when assisted by genius, can prevent the narrator from always knowing the outcome of the story he tells – he commences…with the problem already solved.” For The Reichenbach Fall, of course, not only does the narrator know how this ultimately turns out (which Doyle didn’t when he wrote The Final Problem) but the story knows it and the audience knows it. The situation offers enormous possibilities for either sleight-of-hand or massively sentimental wallowing, as we all watch John’s emotional breakdown knowing that it will all be fine. (Maybe Sherlock’s final graveyard appearance is an admission that there’s no point trying to play this one for suspense, it’s a tearjerker and isn’t pretending otherwise.)

We start with a self-consciously stylish piece of choreography as Jim Moriaty breaks simultaneously into the Bank of England, Pentonville Prison and the case in which the Crown Jewels are kept, using a smartphone. Well, the latter involves a diamond, some chewing gum and a fire extinguisher, which is pretty good fun in low-tech heisty way. Now, this is the premise of the episode. What it asks us to accept in order for the story to get going. So it seems unreasonable to carp. But am I the only one who feels that if you can use a mobile phone to break into three of the most secure places in Britain in the first five minutes, then we should probably all pack up and go home?

Of course it turns out that this was just a stunt by Cheeky Jim, that he wanted to get clapped in jail so the next stage of his evil scheme could begin. (Thus making this sequence a show-off version of the bank robbery at the beginning of Prison Break, minus the tattoos and the plot-essential topless structural engineering.) But I did get a vague feeling that this opening was slightly sawing through the branch it sat on: if we are intended to engage with the mechanics of crime fiction which this show deploys, it might help if that whole edifice wasn’t rendered a bit obsolete by a few keystrokes from a magic handy at the beginning. I was, however, looking at all this from the wrong angle, according to a friend. Gatiss and Moffat, she explained, are science-fiction writers who can’t really script technology. Hence the whiff of the sonic screwdriver about the MacGuffin at the centre of this episode: a computer code which can bypass all security systems. It just can. No, don’t try to work it out. Stop thinking about it right now. Onto the next paragraph, quickly please.

Before escaping his trial via a little heavy-handed witness intimidation, Moraity has convinced the criminal underworld that Sherlock has the code and framed Sherlock for the kidnapping of the British ambassador’s children. Still no longer content, he proceeds to manufacture a false identity for himself as a journalist who helped Sherlock fake all his cases. Thus the detective finds himself on the run from a series of international assassins (who turn out to be protecting him under Mycroft’s orders, and thus probably find all this running a bit unnecessary), the police who believe he has spent the last few years on a combined crime spree/ spoiler binge, and the press who are shocked, shocked I tell you, at the news than a journalist would assist anyone in making things up which were not in fact the case. It all comes together on the top of a building, and Sherlock is offered a choice: everyone he loves dies, or they live on believing he was a murderous fraud.

With this episode we’ve clearly reached “high concept” territory. The plot has shrugged off any expectations that it will make sense, or could be followed analytically. Which is rather a good thing, since it frees up the audience to listen to what the episode is actually saying. Listening to Sherlock is an odd and enjoyable experience, since the show doesn’t so much have a subtext, or indeed a text, as surtitles. Every now and then someone will scream The Point Of It All at you – which I suppose is necessary when you’ve cast the inscrutable, or simply illegible, Cumberbatch in the main role. It’s like watching a silent movie where everyone dashes around excitably and then a card flashes up informing you that “She Surrendered All For Love” or “The House of Stuart has fallen”. Either that, or it’s like playing a game of incompetent and increasingly irritable charades, where someone cracks after fifteen minutes of baffling mime and yells the answer: “Paradise Lost, for sod’s sake! Are you all utterly moronic? Paradise Lost!”

The first few times it happens you cringe, as someone points out helpfully that OTHER PEOPLE SEEM TO HAVE EMOTIONS, BUT SHERLOCK DOESN’T, or JOHN AND SHERLOCK ARE SORT OF LIKE A COUPLE, HAVE YOU NOTICED? But once you get used to it, it’s quite fun, and it frees up the writers to produce some really splendid one-liners. They hit you in the face like a custard pie, but it is terrifically enjoyable: “I always hear ‘Hit me’ when you talk, but usually that’s not what you’re saying’” – “Do you think you could survive for just a few minutes without showing off?” – “I don’t have friends. I just have one.” You have to sit through stuff like “Alone is what I have. Alone protects me.”, “Nope. Friends protect you”, but you get Martin Freeman producing a line like “Would you…just for me? Stop this. Just stop it.” and making it work.

Listening to the show also lets you hear what it’s anxious about. To cite my better-informed friend again, Sherlock has been worrying away at the idea of gaslighting recently. The Hounds of Baskerville played with the idea of not being able to trust your own senses – and even briefly toyed with the fear that someone you love is deliberately doing this to you. The Reichenbach Fall took a similar idea in a different direction: how far can you trust what you think you know about people? And, from Sherlock’s point of view, how hard can you cling to what you know is true, to your sense of who you are, when everyone is saying you’re someone else? By the time the final face-off happens, with its superhero aesthetic of chins and lapels jutting upwards off tall buildings, the emotional ground has already been covered. Moriaty’s crime lies in what he had to do to get Sherlock alone with him against the skyline – this business with snipers and failsafe codes is a bit of a distraction.

  • http://dustbowlpoetry.wordpress.com Shelley

    Sherlock is the best thing on television since Life On Mars.

    Thank you, England.

  • Griff

    “a series of international assassins (who turn out to be protecting him under Mycroft’s orders, and thus probably find all this running a bit unnecessary”

    The assassins are not Mycroft’s invention, surely? They are on Moriarty’s payroll. Or did I miss the plot? (Did you?)

    Perhaps the owner of this blog should stop watching Sherlock since she obviously can’t follow the plot. It just seems to anger her and watching television ought to be fun. Leave this show to those of us who understand it.

    “Elementary” might prove more to your liking? Be less hard to follow and not everything you seem to hate:
    Cumberbatch, words, clues, Moffat, Sherlock Holmes, a proper doctor who doesn’t run screaming from a dead body, a plot, women with whips, clever wordgames…fun?

  • Ranica

    Ha – Jem Bloomfield is a “he,” Griff, and even though now you will answer “yes, of course” to the following statement, I seriously doubt you would have spoken so patronizingly had you known that.

  • Dream

    While I think your analysis is sound (I’ve often thought that Moffat’s writing attempts to substitute excitement for story), you do seem to have missed some details. Moriarty pretends to have been an actor, not a journalist and the international assassins are known by Mycroft, but not associated with him, they are there due to Moriarty’s machinations.

  • Jem Bloomfield

    Whoops! Thanks for picking me up on those plot points – I stand corrected.

  • Griff

    @ Ranica
    And you automatically assume I would be more respectful towards a man, do you? Who is being patronizing now? I pride myself in talking down to women and men alike. Gender has far too big a role in society today and is rather boring.

    But a male feminist? That is a rare species these days. Too bad he can’t follow a plot…

  • Dream

    @ Griff
    So being an equal opportunity patronizer is somehow supposed to reflect well on you? Yes, Jem missed a few plot points, but the core of the analysis still stands. The show isn’t always as clever as it hopes to come off as, it tends to use speed and excitement to keep the viewer from fully thinking about what is going on to create the ‘obvious all along’ feeling at the end while trying to maintain the ‘Sherlock really is cleverer than everybody else’ conceit.

  • Sheenagh

    @Griff
    You might also like to look up a few strawman arguments against feminists, particularly the idiotic and patently false idea that we go about looking for things to be angered by.

    @Jem
    Did you know the ‘dancing’ during Moriarty’s heist was Andrew Scott’s idea? They played the music at him and he decided would be fun. I mean, er, an interesting interpretation of the character.

  • Jaz

    “I pride myself in talking down to women and men alike.”

    Griff, why would you pride yourself on being an arsehole?

  • Jem Bloomfield

    @Sheenagh Really? Great stuff. Nowt like a bit of character-essential prancing to get a show off to a flying start. I gather from elsewhere that the music he’s dancing to is the overture to The Thieving Magpie (hence the magpie wax seals elsewhere in the episode.) Given that legend has it Rossini was locked in the opera house until he’d completed that work, would it be over-reading to wonder whether this is a sly reference to Moriaty’s impending incarceration? It would, you say?

  • Alex

    The opening dance/heist sequence and what shortly followed were homages to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and 1999’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.

  • Jem Bloomfield

    Incidentally, for a different, well-informed (and always side-splittingly funny) take on this series, go read Sophie’s work over at Hey, Don’t Judge Me. She is the Sherlock critic supreme:
    http://heydontjudgeme.com/author/sophie/

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