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?