For the record, The Sarah Jane Adventures will start coverage next week with an Outside the Government, with The Nightmare Man running on Wednesday. There is still just over $1000 to go on the Last War in Albion Kickstarter before that run will be upped to thrice weekly – it would need to do that by a week from today in order to impact the first week’s posting schedule.
It’s August 8th, 2010. Ne-Yo is at number one with “Beautiful Monster,” with Wanted, Flo Rida, Eminem, and Swedish House Mafia also charting. In news, violent protests break out in Pakistan and India over entirely unrelated issues. Sarah Palin’s daughter calls off her engagement with Levi Johnston due to his failure to not have children with other women. Wyclef Jean, in a memorable Wikipedia turn of phrase worth quoting “confirms he is to announce plans” to run for the Presidency of Haiti. (He is deemed ineligible to run eventually.) The World Sauna Championships are permanently abandoned when Russian finalist Vladimir Ladyzhensky dies during the competition. Also, Elena Kagan is sworn onto the Supreme Court.
While on television, just two weeks after it showed up, Sherlock takes its bow. In so many ways, The Great Game appears the perfect response to The Blind Banker – a corrective that shows that Sherlock has learned the lessons it needed to learn. This is, of course, nonsense – The Great Game was in fact the first episode of Sherlock shot, with the season being made essentially backwards, and even if it weren’t, it’s not as though the production of a television show would allow Gatiss to look at the script for episode two and go “right, I see what I need to do differently.”
All of which said, The Great Game is notable for finally and decisively putting to rest the idea that Sherlock is going to be a procedural that does a case every week. Instead it highlights the degree to which solving a mystery is an almost incidental process for Sherlock that holds no meaningful suspense. By the episode’s end the question of “can Sherlock solve the mystery” has been in effect entirely drained of any dramatic tension – so much so that Sherlock is, by the episode’s end, a solid mystery ahead of the plot. Under the hood, this episode is just a rapid-fire succession of perfectly ordinary episodes hung together by the countdown/bomber plot, which is to say, wrapped into a parody of a season of 24.
Few if any people actually talk about the five cases of this episode, and it’s a pity, as they’re all actually pretty good. Taking down cases with an average of eighteen minutes to spend on them is not straightforward, and Gatiss manages to make each of the five cases feel distinct and interesting. The first makes an interesting play and subversion of the epic. On the one hand, it’s a case that requires that Moriarty have been inside Baker Street itself, and more importantly, it’s flagged as Sherlock’s first-ever case. But the fact that the case doubles as a secret origin of Sherlock Holmes is almost glossed over, which amounts to the episode nailing its colors to the mast up front. A story that any other show would have made a massive finale out of is relegated to a side issue to be dealt with quickly and decisively.
The subsequent cases are, on one level, rather lighter affairs. The Janus Cars case seems almost aggressively disposable, but comes at a precisely tuned moment in the episode, in that it’s the case that establishes the pattern and rules of the episode. The shock of discarding what any other show would have made a two-part finale out of can’t be followed by something else of that size – instead the pattern of “we’re just going to chew through things that would normally be episodes” needs to be set. So what we have is a case that is certainly no less interesting than that of The Blind Banker, but that has the marked advantage compared to The Blind Banker of being pleasantly short.
It’s the third case, however, where things begin getting interesting. It is not that the case – the murder of a seemingly irritating television personality – is particularly sharp or clever. None of the individual mysteries in The Great Game are particularly great, nor should they be, lest they risk overshadowing the larger plot. But the episode’s structure begins to quietly unravel here, not just in the clever conceit of having Sherlock solve the mystery immediately and not bother to tell anyone, but in the way in which the mystery is structured. The frivolity of the mystery itself, with its cartoonish and ostentatious television personalities, contrasts with the sudden uptick in Moriarty’s sadism as he puts an elderly blind woman in the firing line – a point hammered home by the fact that the woman isn’t saved. And, of course, this case ends up having the series make its first engagement with the idea of fandom, a topic it will end up mining extensively in years to come, and that it hits with a satisfying sense of being written by people who understand how fandoms work.
This nicely prefigures the more complete unraveling of the structure with the final two cases. The museum case first breaks the pattern by having the countdown be a ten second countdown appearing at the very end of the case, but it also, just by dint of coming after the first moment in the episode where Sherlock gets ahead of Moriarty to any extent, feels markedly different. Tellingly, it twice calls back to earlier in the episode – both to John watching television coverage of the painting and to the joke about Sherlock’s lack of even the most basic astronomical knowledge, thus marking the point where the episode begins to sum itself up and stop being a disparate series of mini-episodes. (On top of that, Paul McGuigan, the show’s secret weapon in its first two seasons, does a beautiful job directing the fight scene with the Golem, creating a heady mix of chaos, comedy, and action with a great set of visuals.)
Finally, of course, there is the adaptation of “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.” All of the cases have at least some claim, however marginal, of being adapted from Doyle’s stories, but this is the episode’s most thorough and complete adaptation. The story is a solid one, but not one of the iconic pieces of the Doyle canon, and its use here as the big axis on which the episode finally hinges is cheeky – as is grabbing part of the solution from a somewhat overly similar Doyle story. The threading of the case through the episode helps the finale, as the structure of the game seemingly vanishes, carry some satisfying weight, and leads directly into the poolside confrontation, largely the episode’s strongest point. Like the previous four cases, there’s a real care taken with the details. Which is also worth stressing – doing any of these cases over 45 minutes would be easy. Condensing them to an average of eighteen minutes in such a way that it feels like all the major beats are in place, on the other hand, is hard to do well. And yet each time the story does do it well, demonstrating that it can do “case of the week” stuff, but that it’s small potatoes and that the show is bigger than that.
In other words, if it’s not obvious, this is Gatiss’s best script ever. Cruelly, of course, this immediately raises the question of rewrites, which are an issue worth tackling in the Moffat era in general. Broadly speaking, Moffat is visibly and demonstrably less fond of rewrites than Russell T Davies was, preferring to give notes to writers and allowing them to complete their own shooting scripts. On the other hand, it’s clear that over the course of three seasons of Doctor Who and Sherlock Moffat has on occasion had to step in and finish off a script himself. In terms of Sherlock specifically, I don’t imagine there’s a person alive who thinks The Reichenbach Fall is mostly Thompson’s work. Let’s also put to rest the idea that rewrites are in some way a criticism of a writer, as opposed to a reality of television production and the need to deliver a relatively unified voice for a series.
Because there are more than a few bits of The Great Game that feel like Moffat’s writing. Most obviously the final scene, which absolutely screams Moffat, but throughout there are little touches that suggest an assist. Nevertheless, the elements that feel like Moffat are mostly incidental ones. The truth is that the basic structure of this script – a series of mini-episodes – is a good one for Gatiss. Whatever criticism Gatiss has come in for throughout this project, and it’s both been and will be significant, the truth is that this is a script he’s broadly capable of, and while some fine-tuning from his collaborator may well have turned up the volume a bit, it’s worth looking at what Gatiss can do when he’s on form.
First of all, let’s note the clever structure underlying the episode, which is that it allows for one of the few ways in which the audience can reasonably be put ahead of Sherlock without moving the focus away from Sherlock and doing numerous scenes from the villains’ perspective, which doesn’t seem to be a trick Sherlock is hugely interested in employing. The audience knows that the villain behind everything here has to be Moriarty. Sherlock has some inkling, clearly, but is at the entertaining disadvantage of not knowing the Sherlock Holmes stories well enough to know that he has an arch-nemesis. And so Sherlock is faced to go through the entire episode chasing something the audience already knows about.
The entire episode is thus building to the Moriarty reveal. Crucially, the show has the advantage that it actually has a good Moriarty reveal in mind, slyly nicking Russell T Davies’s revision of the Moriarty concept away from the ultra-posh mastermind and towards a character defined primarily by being starkly and terrifyingly mad. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, with essentially only a single scene, immediately becomes a triumph of a villain, more or less selling the entire character concept with his brilliant sudden flash of utter fury on the line “that’s what people do.”
But even before this, Moriarty makes an impression through his absence. Because he’s self-evidently haunting the entire narrative, the astonishing cruelty of his scheme shines through. Things like calling the third victim “defective” and forcing the first one to call herself a “stupid bitch” are chilling, establishing Moriarty as a sadist first, his genius only coming into view later. The result is an interesting balance – the audience is confident about what’s going on from prior cultural knowledge as to how Sherlock Holmes works as a narrative, but this confidence is then unsettled by the degree to which Moriarty is a bit too much. On the one hand, there’s something almost fanciful about Moriarty’s scheme, evoking as it does the over-elaborate plots of supervillains. On the other, there’s a danger here, not least because Moriarty’s supervillain-esque nature is treated as a weird intrusion into the present day milieu.
The end result highlight the inevitable Sherlock/Moriarty parallels, but in a limited way. Ultimately, what drives both Sherlock and Moriarty is the aggressively, grotesquely commonplace motivation of boredom. They don’t want to be bored. And for people like them, the alleviation of boredom is a vast and terrible thing. And yet equally important is the stressing of their differences. Moriarty is not just a genius who gets bored, he’s a sadistic lunatic. The implicit question underlying the episode is why Sherlock and Moriarty are different – why one got bored and started killing people, while the other got bored and started trying to solve crimes and right wrongs. The fact that Sherlock cares about people, most obviously John, is part of it, but there’s a more fundamental issue – one revealed through its own rejection. Sherlock may claim that there are no heroes and if there are, he wouldn’t be one, but of course, that’s a possibility that’s ruled out up front. He’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s the very definition of a hero.
And so, with one very well-choreographed cliffhanger, Sherlock ends its first season. The abbreviated schedule, with the episodes airing over just a two week stretch, makes it difficult in some ways to react. Every season of Sherlock has this effect – it vanishes just at the point in the season where one would normally feel like one is starting to process things and get a handle on the show. Were it not for a barnstorming opener and finale, it would even be difficult to get a sense of whether the show works.
But instead, with two top notch episodes under its belt, Sherlock ends its first season in a very different sort of position. For one thing, it’s an absolutely monster hit, especially for the summer. But more broadly, in addition to its popularity, it’s a show that has now demonstrated that it can do interesting things that no other show can do. It’s not just that the episodes of Sherlock thus far are good, it’s that the series positively throbs with future potential. Especially as it transitions into the inevitable battle between Sherlock and Moriarty, this ability to do new and unexpected things feels potent. That it comes immediately on the heels of one of its creators overseeing a season of Doctor Who that also changed up the formula and showed that the series can do new things is also significant. The consequence, for better or for worse, was that in just a couple of months Moffat went from being an acclaimed and respected writer to being a major figure in television. The result is a familiar dualism of popularity: on the one hand, it appeared Moffat could do no wrong. On the other, the knives were out and the world was waiting for him to make a single misstep.