Outside the Government: The Reichenbach Fall

(44 comments)

It’s January 15th, 2012. Jessie J is at number one with “Domino,” with Flo Rida, Coldpay, David Guetta, , and Rizzle Kicks also charting. In news, the Scottish government announces that the independence referendum it’s been promised will go forward in 2014, and William Daley steps down as White House Chief of Staff. 

And on television, Sherlock finishes up its second season. To those paying attention to such things as writers, this looked ominous in one key regard, in that it seemed a mirror of the one outright dud in the first season of Sherlock - the one written by Steve Thompson and not directed by McGuigan. Thompson’s oeuvre at this point, at least in terms of things Doctor Who fans looked at, consisted of The Blind Banker and Curse of the Black Spot. To give him the big epic finale seemed an exercise in madness. And yet the result was the peak of Sherlock’s cultural capital - an iconic cliffhanger that casually owned popular culture for a while in its wake, and again in the lead-up to its resolution. It’s difficult to overemphasize how big this episode was. It may have been the lowest rated of its season, but it was by far the most impactful. In the immediate aftermath of transmission, the pop culture was absolutely obsessed with the cliffhanger. It may not be the most watched or the best episode of Sherlock. But the end of this one is the iconic and defining moment of the series. 

Cynics will suggest, not without reason, that this story was by Thompson in the same way that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit was by Matt Jones or The Celestial Toymaker was by Brian Hayles. And certainly there’s no way that Thompson wasn’t closely supervised here. It’s also the case that when watched without the giddy excitement of context the joins and frailties of the script are somewhat more visible. This is a desperately untidy affair in which the twin motors of a plot that moves faster than its holes and the sense of Aristotelean tragedy keep afloat a story that could easily have gone the way of Journey to the Center of the TARDIS

Which is, to some extent, the reason that putting Thompson on this story was always going to be OK, because the sheer scope of the story was going to overwhelm its quality. For all that this owned popular culture momentarily, ultimately, it’s only the last bit of the episode that anyone cares about. And fair enough - it is a wonderful cliffhanger, simply because it embraces its own inevitable resolution. The episode doesn’t even bother trying to leave any ambiguity or suspense over whether Sherlock survives. Even his death isn’t really trying to be sincere, with a carefully and meticulously scripted bit of John’s POV that’s clearly there to leave enough space in the margins to come up with a plausible means of Sherlock’s survival. The episode never deludes itself into thinking its mystery is going to be “whether” and not “how,” and leans into it beautifully.

This is in marked contrast, it should be noted, to the original. I said I haven’t read much Sherlock Holmes, but the one bit I have paid a lot of attention to is his death and resurrection, because I got about halfway through a scholarly article about the textual phenomenon of the recton, looking at Holmes’s resurrection in “The Adventure of the Empty House” as the first retcon. “The Final Problem” was not written to allow a way out. The eventual solution used is that Holmes found a path up from the falls that Watson hadn’t noticed, which is to say, the escape is explicitly outside the text of “The Final Problem” itself. There is no way, reading “The Final Problem” on its own, to even come close to guessing the solution.

The Reichenbach Fall, on the other hand, is all about guessing the solution. It’s the point of the exercise. Not just in terms of the actual death scene, but in terms of everything leading up to it. The episode is built around the assumption that the viewer knows Sherlock’s fate. Every scene and every plot twist exists to ratchet the tension up and give the audience new clues as to the circumstances of Sherlock’s inevitable demise. This, in turn, is ratcheted up aggressively by the episode’s willingness to go a bit bonkers with its premises. The “Moriarty breaks in to steal the Crown Jewels and then gets on the charge” is, whatever else it might be, a massive and ambitious plot twist that immediately takes the episode into uncharted territory. So we get a situation where the endpoint is a certainty, but the overall terrain is full of mystery. 

It’s as good a way to approach it as any, and yet in some ways what’s more important than how The Reichenbach Fall approaches its ending is how utterly, preposterously confident it is that it’s going to land it. That’s ultimately the content of the decision to reframe Sherlock’s death as a death of popularity - as the public turning on Sherlock and by extension Sherlock. In this regard, the show deserves more credit than it gets for, shall we say, a deliberate sort of commentary in the form of its newspaper headlines. When Sherlock is popular, the paper displayed is inevitably typeset to look exactly like The Guardian, whereas Kitty Reilly clearly works for a red-top of some sort, and the paper Mycroft is reading, with its “Suicide of Fake Genius” headline, is The Sun. This, of course, continues a beautiful and long-running enmity for Rupert Murdoch on Moffat’s part that goes back to Press Gang, and that will be paid off in spectacular fashion when he casually advocates for his murder at the end of Season Three. But ultimately, there’s an utter lack of concern with the possibility that the story might whiff it. To the point where its pickup for a third season was secured alongside the second and kept secret, so that it could be announced immediately upon transmission, as the final twist in the story’s determined show of pretending that there was real plot suspense.

This could have fallen flat on its face, and absolutely nobody could have predicted the sheer size of its cultural impact, that being the sort of thing that only exists as freak cultural weather. And yet it never for a moment considers the possibility that it might. (And why should it? If it fails, it fails. There’s no salvaging it from that, so why plan for it?) Instead it assumes it has popular acclaim - that the audience’s affect (a fancy lit theory term for “immediate emotional response”) is going to firmly be on Sherlock’s side as Moriarty’s trap closes in, and will be willing Sherlock back out of the grave. 

And this gets at, in a lot of ways, the importance of Sherlock and why I opted to cover it episode-by-episode. (And Season Three will be in the book version. Along, realistically, with Season Four, which will probably be out before I get to that book.) Because its massive success meant that there was a fundamental shift in Doctor Who’s relationship to its major creative figures. Davies was the showrunner of Doctor Who and its related shows. Moffat, on the other hand, is the showrunner of Doctor Who and Sherlock, two unrelated and independently produced shows. Davies was a tremendously hot writer who controlled one of the hottest properties on television. Moffat, on the other hand, is a golden boy who seemingly makes a hit out of everything he touches. 


And while it’s worth stressing that Doctor Who never really faltered in popularity under Moffat (average ratings are slightly lower than the Davies era, but don’t count iPlayer, which suggests that the Moffat era is actually more popular than Davies), this season of Sherlock does come between what can fairly be described as Moffat’s two problem seasons of Doctor Who. The fact that this was a monster hit served as a pretty effective bulwark against any suggestion that Moffat might have lost the plot, and repaid the BBC’s faith in loosening the scheduling so he could do both shows and not die. A huge amount of Moffat’s reputation and cultural status rests on the massive success of this season - to the extent that Sherlock, not Doctor Who, became Moffat’s bigger show. Put another way, for all the complaints about Season Six of Doctor Who (complaints that, again, weren’t really reflected in the ratings), Moffat has not only completely refused to back down in his approach to the show, he’s generally speaking unapologetically doubled down on his approach, in a way that seems at times to actively bait his critics. Within the context of Doctor Who alone, this seems strange. Within the context of Sherlock and its massive success, it seems inevitable. Why would a writer who can oversee two of the biggest shows on television at the same time, and who just had a moment where he all but owned popular culture change his approach in the slightest? 

Comments

Carey 2 years, 7 months ago

A slight correction concerning ratings: iPlayer ratings are counted in the +seven day final ratings, but only if iPlayer is viewed by connecting a device to an actual television. It is any iPlayer viewing via an unconnected computer, tablet or mobile device that is not counted. The rough calculation (taken from the BBC's only independent poll) is that the current iPlayer statistics (ignoring repeat viewings) miss out roughly 40% or so of the iPlayer viewership.

In regards to whether the Moffat era has higher or lower overall viewing figures (or reach) than the Davies era, it's likely to be the same. For all that doctor Who has a massive iPlayer audience, the BBC3 repeat audiences have dwindled since the days they were regularly in the BBC3 most watched programmes of the week, and it's quite likely that the audience for iPlayer comprises those that no longer watch Doctor Who via freeview, cable or satellite, and the missing BBC3 audience.

Anecdotal, I know, but since the birth of my son in 2011, I haven't been able to watch live at all, and I went from Sky+ for the second half of series 6 to iPlayer via laptop from 2012 onward. Meaning, were I on a Barb panel, my viewing would not be counted in their survey for series 7 and 8.

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evilsoup 2 years, 7 months ago

iconic cliffhanger that casually owned popular culture for a while in its wake, and again in the lead-up to its resolution.

It might just be because I don't generally have my finger on the pulse, but... I don't remember it being that big a deal? Certainly nobody I knew was obsessing over it, or even talking about it after a day or two. Not in the real world, anyway.

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curlyjimsam750 2 years, 7 months ago

Put another way, for all the complaints about Season Six of Doctor Who (complaints that, again, weren’t really reflected in the ratings), Moffat has not only completely refused to back down in his approach to the show, he’s generally speaking unapologetically doubled down on his approach, in a way that seems at times to actively bait his critics.

Really? Two of the biggest complaints about Series 6 were (a) the complexity of the plot arc; (b) the split season. Is it coincidence that the season is no longer split and the current plot arc (so far at least) seems to be deliberately written to be as easy to follow as anybody could reasonably hope for?

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TD 2 years, 7 months ago

It's totally anecdotal, but Sherlock is one of the most popular shows among my Taiwanese friends (beaten perhaps only by Sherlock). There's maybe one person who watches Doctor Who, but EVERYBODY watches Sherlock.

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John 2 years, 7 months ago

The split season wasn't a creative decision, though.

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Ombund 2 years, 7 months ago

Even though I've watched this episode 3 or 4 times now I'm still unable to watch it "without the giddy excitement of context", which is certainly a power in and of itself.

Thanks for writing these episode entries. Sherlock interacts with the Doctor Who mother-text in such a substantial way, so it was important to include them. I look forward to reading about series 3 in the book.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 7 months ago

I'm really looking forward to writing about them. Especially "His Last Vow," because I think it's the weirdest thing Moffat ever wrote - a public advocacy for the murder of Rupert Murdoch, which he doubled down on in interviews, saying that people like Magnussen should be killed. That's... a really messed up and beautiful episode.

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That Guy 2 years, 7 months ago

Moffat, on the other hand, is a golden boy who seemingly makes a hit out of everything he touches.

I notice you've carefully avoided Adventures of Tintin, and are presumably likely to keep avoiding it (given it came out in 2011, and the Sherlock episodes you've just covered came out in 2012)

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 7 months ago

Mainly because my impression is that the final product isn't much by Moffat. I don't doubt it would have been better had he been able to do the rewrite himself.

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SK 2 years, 6 months ago

Certainly nobody I knew was obsessing over it, or even talking about it after a day or two

Nobody in the real world was obsessing about it but a couple of hundred people on the internet were, and the nature of the internet echo chamber is such that to each of those couple of hundred people, it seemed like it was all anybody was talking about.

(A bit like the whole 'Is Moffat a sexist?' thing, which a couple of hundred people talk about non-stop but which most people in the real world have never heard of).

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 6 months ago

Certainly the media attention was basically indistinguishable from the climax of Doctor Who Series One and the "Bad Wolf" obsession. Wasn't just Internet Echo Chamber - it was that seemingly every site that covered popular culture ran a "how did he survive" piece.

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SK 2 years, 6 months ago

every site that covered popular culture

That is the internet echo chamber.

About .05% of the population ever read a website that covers popular culture.

But they all think that because everybody they know does it, it's a normal thing to do.

But it's not: they are the weird ones. Most people will never come into contact with any of this stuff unless it appears on ITN, and probably not even then.

(It's a bit like how people who follow politics think that Miliband's speech fiasco was a big story: in a survey, 3% of people were able to remember it as 'something that happened last week).

When the Sherlock thing did enter the public consciousness was in the run-up to the next series, and that is only because the BBC has got considerably more media-savvy about cross-promotion between the drama, news, light entertainment, and current-affairs departments, and so had the stars on Breakfast and Graham Norton, while mentioning the return on the Nine O'Clock News.

That's what gets things into the popular consciousness. News websites? Only a few thousands nerds ever read those.

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SK 2 years, 6 months ago

(Oh, and The One Show, of course, which mainly exists to be the BBC's big guns for whatever new programme it wants to promote.)

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 6 months ago

This definitional argument is neither new nor interesting.

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Scaedura 2 years, 6 months ago

Well, there's a certain joke in Tintin about not realising the room you've been locked up in, isn't locked at all.

That being said, even though Moffat was rewritten by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, I don't really recognize their styles in the film either and they have their own very unique styles as well. I feel the writing is very much overshadowed by the animation and Spielberg's own overwhelming presence. I don't think that even if Moffat had been the only writer on the project, the end result would have been very Moffat-y.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

“The Final Problem” was not written to allow a way out.

I disagree; I think it was written with a wide open door out. Because -- unlike in Moffat's version -- we're not shown the fall and we're not shown a body. Watson simply finds evidence of a struggle and infers a fall to death, thus leaving our confidence in Sherlock's demise to rest not on Watson's considerable skills as a physician but instead on his far less impressive skills as a detective. That's why I've always doubted that Conan Doyle sincerely intended to kill off Holmes for good. If he'd wanted that he could have ended with an autopsy. As it stands he made it incredibly easy to bring Holmes back. By showing us and Watson the fall and -- albeit briefly -- a body, Moffat actually makes bringing Holmes back much harder than it was for Doyle.

Incidentally, no comment on how both Sherlock and Doctor Who turn on the protagonist's faked death this season?

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

Sherlock is one of the most popular shows among my Taiwanese friends (beaten perhaps only by Sherlock).

I suspect the second occurrence of "Sherlock" was supposed to be something else?

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

By the way, Hound of the Baskervilles was my introduction to Holmes, not through the book but through the beautiful and quite faithful 1975-76 Marvel Comics adaptation, which I'm happy to see is online: part one; part two.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 6 months ago

I think the problem with Tintin is that there are too many major creative talents to get any spark going. It's like those terribly bland supergroups that sound great on paper and end up using everybody's third-best ideas.

Had you just had Moffat writing a Spielberg film I think you'd have had something really interesting. Particularly if Spielberg sent it back to Moffat for rewrites.

I think adding an additional two brilliant writers who are stuck mediating among their own ideas and those of Spielberg and Moffat is a situation nobody could make a winner out of.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

Oops, that comment was intended for the previous post.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 6 months ago

It's an interesting example of Moffat not really caring about certain types of criticism. Basically, only people who both dislike Moffat's work and are obsessive enough to actually pay attention to the concept of "Steven Moffat's career" are going to notice it. Otherwise, it looks no weirder than Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj coming out with songs about butts at the same time.

As is often the case with Moffat, and indeed with any good writer, he recognizes that attracting criticism is in no way the same as failing to attract acclaim, and understands that he's paid to accomplish the latter, not avoid the former.

He's tackling the original faked death on Sherlock and realizing how it works (and the answer is that the solution lies in the textual gaps of Watson's observation, as you point out, which is what Moffat ultimately uses in Sherlock, laying clear gaps in the visual and narrative grammar. Which were then so extensively discussed that they ended up sending up the mystery when they finally returned to it), and realizing that you can do a Timey Wimey version of the same trick so that the Doctor discovers, solves, causes, and then fixes his own murder. So he does, because it's a good idea, and knowing where he got it from won't actually affect anyone's enjoyment, it'll just give a further piece of evidence to critics on both sides.

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Jesse 2 years, 6 months ago

In news, the Scottish government announces that the independence referendum it’s been promised will go forward in 2014

I wonder how that will come out.

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peeeeeeet 2 years, 6 months ago

while mentioning the return on the Nine O'Clock News.

I drunkenly read that as "mentioning the return of Not The Nine O'Clock News and was, for a moment, INSANELY excited.

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Jesse 2 years, 6 months ago

Why aren't you covering them on the blog? Is there a chronological issue here that I'm missing, or is season 3 just something you've decided to hold in reserve?

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Theonlyspiral 2 years, 6 months ago

I have a feeling they'll make the right choice.

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benny whitehead 2 years, 6 months ago

Darts, the general synod's life of Christ, I like trucking! . Need I go on. Wrong blog, great telly. Off back to lurk now.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

I doubt it.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

Basically, only people who both dislike Moffat's work and are obsessive enough to actually pay attention to the concept of "Steven Moffat's career" are going to notice it.

Since I'm mostly a Moffat fan and I noticed it, I present myself as a counterexample to the generalisation.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 6 months ago

Sorry, I should have said "object to it" not "notice it."

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 6 months ago

Yeah - they aired after Time of the Doctor, which is where the blog will end. (Insert cheeky line to the effect of "and just wait til you see what I have planned for that essay.")

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Theonlyspiral 2 years, 6 months ago

Oh but they will. A nice solid vote with good turnout, the proper result and little bit of a riot led by orangemen. What more could we ask for?

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Champiness 2 years, 6 months ago

Pedantry: the Taylor Swift sing isn't really about butts, it just featured a twerking sequence in the video. Whereas Meaghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" makes for a contemporary, "Glee"-ready affirmative competitor to Nicki.
I partake of a lot more music than television, as you can see.

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5tephe 2 years, 6 months ago

Interestingly, BeserkerRL's comment wasn't an objection yet you responded to it as one. More just an observation about a synchronicity between the two shows being discussed here, and your decision not to mention it.

It seems to me Phil that you are becoming more defensive about Moffatt as we go on.

I find that interesting because I am becoming more of a Moffatt fan as this season goes on, and add I read more of this blog.

If however you are leading up to defending the decision to have Sherlock murder Murdoch at the end of season 3, then I for one will be disappointed not to be able to debate that with you here.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 6 months ago

Surprised I'm the first to mention the seemingly obvious parallel with that now-iconic shot of Sherlock, about to fall, to the Romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog -- I wonder why they'd choose to echo that painting, in particular?

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David Anderson 2 years, 6 months ago

I'm not really seeing the resemblance. They're both observed from the back and wearing coats. I suppose that in both cases we're thinking about the act of looking, but Sherlock we're not looking at the same thing that Sherlock is looking at.

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Jarl 2 years, 6 months ago

His Last Vow asks us to go back to this episode and ask if Moriarty could have survived. Frankly, I don't see it. Either the most potent character interaction he and Holmes had in their entire relationship was actually with a remarkable body double, which is a cop-out of such absurd scale that a season 6b fan wouldn't suggest it, or he faked his own suicide while 6 inches from Sherlock Holmes's face, which is just about implausible enough for me to decide it can't be the case.

Still, I love that moment, when he finally shows Sherlock that surprised face he promised back in The Great Game, puts his gun in his mouth, and then the music roars at us. Great scene.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

We don't know for sure that Moriarty is back. He might have planned some postmortem nastiness involving (but not limited to) pre-recorded messages.

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Alan 2 years, 6 months ago

My suspicion is that Moriarty set up some absurd revenge scheme before his encounter with Sherlock on the roof just in case he died somehow. It's the sort of nonsensical overcomplicated scheme this supremely annoying incarnation of the character would use. Like Ainley's Master, he'd get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 6 months ago

In completely unrelated news, here's David Cameron getting ready to introduce the Toclafane. He even says one of Jacobi's lines:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YBumQHPAeU

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 6 months ago

Some other people have already noted the resemblance, it seems: http://ih0.redbubble.net/image.15902973.4531/flat,550x550,075,f.u1.jpg

...and here: http://31.media.tumblr.com/14bebcad7381639af1e38907a2cc3cb9/tumblr_n70httCQ3e1tqvk46o1_1280.jpg

So, it seems there's something to it.

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Aylwin 2 years, 6 months ago

It's funny because it's wretchedly depressing. I mean true.

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Matt 2 years, 6 months ago

This had a big impact on me. I saw it on a tiny, crappy headrest screen during a bout of insomnia on a transcontinental flight in 2012. I saw Hounds of Baskerville as well but this was the one that persuaded me to check out the rest of Sherlock (which I had never heard of prior to then).

The first time you watch it, it barrels along. The tension ratchets up. The situations get more bonkers (the crown jewels! rigged trial! children & sweets! assassins!). The confrontations between Holmes & Moriarty get more intense and hammy (altho they do start off pretty hammy).

On repeat viewing, a few things become apparent. Firstly, the plot is more riddled with holes than the swiss cheese presumably available at Reichenbach itself. It makes almost no sense. Which I do not think is an accident. The Reichenbach Fall is not designed to be rewatched. This is event television. Seen once. Shock and awe. Then: who cares. Its job is done. The plot exists purely to provide spectacle and opportunities for the characters to bounce of each other like Dodgem cars.

The next issue is Moriarty. And this isn't down to Andrew Scott, who pretty much locks the controls onto "theatrically deranged" and works that in different registers. Rather it's that Moriarty is not really a developed character but instead a plot engine. Interesting things happen to other characters as a result of his actions but he himself doesn't change much in any way. That's also the role he plays in "The Great Game" but there he had very little screen time. Where as here, the character is given much more space to fill but those scenes are mostly carried by the performances.

Perhaps the most interesting character development is when Moriarty kills himself because being alive then dead is at least a change (a point that he himself acknowledges in the "staying alive" spiel). Which is why I'm not that buzzed about his return next time.

All that said, as spectacle, this episode works. The jumping off the roof scene gets its emotional charge because the hero seems trapped by both the consequences of his hubris and his love for his friends. Holmes might just end it all. Altho we know that Holmes cannot be dead - not because that would mean ending a very successful TV franchise but also because that would mean that Moriarty has won. And we already know that Moriarty is a dick. Entertaining but a dick nonetheless. And "dicks win if they are moar cleverer" is not the narrative logic of Sherlock.

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Jarl 2 years, 6 months ago

I agree, that's definitely how I see the situation turning out.

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encyclops 2 years, 6 months ago

Otherwise, it looks no weirder than Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj coming out with songs about butts at the same time.

You've written a lot of sentences on this blog. This one might very well be my favorite.

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