As the episode started it was clear that Sherlock, like poor doomed Icarus, is flying way to close to the sun. A private detective who is no longer private he and John find themselves in the full glare of the media spotlight due to the high profile nature of Sherlock’s cases. John pleads for lower profile work well aware of just how quickly the worm can turn. But John’s hopes for a quieter life are foiled when Jim Moriarty returns breaking into the Tower of London (in a beautifully choreographed and realised scene with a cheeky nod to A Clockwork Orange), the Bank of England and Pentonville Prison in one day. But when Moriarty is inexplicably acquitted of all charges against him Sherlock finds his life unravelling as Moriarty, hell bent on Sherlock’s destruction, begins to weave his web of evil around him…
Steve Thompson is forever destined to be the member of the Sherlock writing team that is not Steven Moffat or Mark Gatiss. The co-creators’ love for Conan Doyle and these extraordinary characters shines through and their episodes are incredibly strong, sparkling with wit, ingenuity and verve. It would be fair to say that The Blind Banker was seen to be the poor cousin of Sherlock series 1 (Moffat and Gatiss have joked that Sherlock is the only series in history that had such an immediate impact with critics and audience members alike that it was considered to be officially going “downhill” by the second episode). However, with The Reichenbach Fall Steve Thompson silenced his critics by delivering a densely weaved, genuinely moving tale which was part heist movie/part Revengers Tragedy/part very grim fairytale.
I do confess to being dissatisfied with one aspect of the script (hey a girl’s allowed one little nitpick per episode) and that relates to the depiction of Mycroft Holmes. In A Scandal in Belgravia Mycroft is shown to be the sort of person who can juggle foreign intelligence agencies, plan multi-jurisdictional anti-terrorism plots, take tea with the Queen, negotiate with a silky dominatrix holding the country to a Queen’s ransom and deal with a very recalcitrant little brother without breaking a sweat. In Hounds we see that Mycroft has “Priority Ultra” clearance, his name literally opens doors. And yet in this episode a man who was introduced to us as someone who can control Britain’s surveillance network at a click of a button, someone who offered John money to spy on Sherlock, someone who it was strongly hinted had Sherlock under constant surveillance and admitted that he “worried about him constantly” provides the criminally insane genius that he is having systematically tortured for information with his brother’s actual back story and then LETS HIM GO.
Really? He tortures the man for 6 weeks and then knowing he is dangerously obsessed with his little brother turfs him back out on the streets with the ammunition he needs to help craft Sherlock’s downfall? The opener of the next series had better show that this was all some sort of master scheme of Sherlock’s or I will be glaring quite sternly at Mr Thompson. I like Mycroft to be depicted as a man who practically is the British government not a helpless pawn in Moriarty’s machinations.
But that nitpick aside what Thompson excels at is beautiful character moments and there are so many to choose from – Moriarty and Sherlock’s tense disquieting tea party, the beautiful sequences between Molly and Sherlock as he comes to see just how badly he underestimated her, the reveal of “Rich Brook”, the roof top stand off, the phone call, the graveyard scene…Frankly it’s an embarrassment of riches as with deceptively simple dialogue Thompson crafts gut wrenching scenes of raw emotional honesty which left viewers a sobbing mess by the time the credits rolled.
Of course he is rather helped by a cast which has never been better. Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty had, prior to Reichenbach, been somewhat divisive with some critics unsure what to make of his playful unhinged psychopath. But post Reichenbach surely all his critics have been silenced? Andrew Scott was simply astoundingly good as Moriarty.
Bought to the fore he retained the playfulness (posing in the Crown Jewels in a wickedly gleeful scene) but became infinitely more menacing. He was an unsettling presence in the courtroom despite not saying a single word and succeeds in deeply rattling an increasingly uncertain Sherlock in their scene together in 221B. Inviting himself in, stealing Sherlock’s usual chair he is a picture in stillness, radiating malevolence from every pore as he promises Sherlock a fall. His scenes as Rich Brook were quite something to behold, switching from this dark disquieting presence to making himself look small, timid and terrified as he stammers his innocence to a furious Watson. But in the midst of that scene there is this split second moment where he looks at Sherlock who is too enraged to find his voice and just for a microsecond even while surrounded by Kitty and John smirks at Sherlock. It’s a real “Gotcha” moment and it’s just absolutely brilliant.
And then there is that virtuoso rooftop confrontation scene with a world weary, bored Moriarty realising that his triumph over Sherlock is a hollow one as he was far too easy to beat and now he has to go back to playing with the ordinary people. Hugely disappointed at Sherlock not understanding the significance (or lack thereof) of the binary key (throughout this series Sherlock has been shown to be endearingly fallible at key moments) he rants against the world. The quiet and completely offhanded way that he tells Sherlock that he has no other choice but to commit suicide if he wants to save his friends “Off you pop…” is genuinely upsetting. And then that final moment of glorious revelation as Moriarty understands that while Sherlock may be on the side of the Angels (has Moriarty not read the Old Testament? Angels are terrifying!) when it comes to preserving the lives of those he loves Sherlock is prepared to be every bit like him. It’s a towering performance right down to his utterly shocking final act which left me reeling.
For a show that is often criticised for its portrayal of female characters I could not have been more delighted at it being Molly Hooper who was the heroine of the hour. Sweet, infatuated, timid little Molly who even when she dresses to impress looks like a little girl playing dress up. It’s Molly who sees that there is something very wrong with Sherlock. She sees him, she understands and she stands up to him, stands up to the barrage of feigned indifference and barbed dismissals she knew were heading her way to simply let him know that she knew something was very wrong and she was there for him if he needed her. With three little, surprisingly heartbreaking words delivered free of any sort of resentment “I don’t count” Molly shows she’s well aware that her feelings for Sherlock will never be reciprocated and yet she still offers him all that she has if he needs her. Not because she’s pathetic or trying to cling to him but because he’s her friend and she doesn’t like to see him looking sad.
It’s a wonderful scene with a wrong footed, genuinely surprised Sherlock and Molly showing us the steel that exists behind her timid exterior. It’s such a lovely scene that it was hugely impressive that it was immediately surpassed by the sequence in which a badly shaken Sherlock turns to Molly for help and gives her all the validation she’s ever wanted. “You do count. You’ve always counted and I’ve always trusted you.” Her simple repeated declaration of “what do you need?” as Sherlock tries to stumble his way through asking her for help broke my heart. Louise Brealey has always been brilliant with very limited screentime and in The Reichenbach Fall she gave such depth and nuance to Molly that it was a joy to watch her.
And then of course there’s Benedict Cumberbatch. When writing these reviews each week there did rapidly come a point when I realised that I was slightly running out of ways to say “he’s really rather good isn’t he?” without resorting to squealing fangirl hyperbole. This is after all a man who has been dubbed “staggeringly talented” by Hollywood insiders. But any bias aside Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock Holmes in The Reichenbach Fall was so stunningly brilliant that it will be an utter travesty if he doesn’t have a BAFTA sat on his mantlepiece come summertime.
Sherlock starts the episode bored, indifferent to the press attention and the trinkets pressed into his hands by grateful clients, baffled at John’s concern about the press and why his friend should care what nonsense they write about him and he ends it high on a rooftop crying, shaking, his reputation destroyed. It’s one hell of an emotional journey.
Sherlock has never been as human as he is in this episode and Cumberbatch shows just how uneasy Sherlock is with this surfeit of emotion. He’s unsettled when Moriarty pops round for tea unable to see the masterplan and infuriated by his ignorance. We see his disquiet growing throughout the episode, his distress when the kidnapped girl screams at his presence, his resignation as he can see the seed of doubt germinating in Sally’s mind and spreading far too quickly to Lestrade, his anger at Moriarty’s mocking bed time story in the back of the cab.
Cumberbatch brilliantly portrays Sherlock’s growing panic as his carefully cultivated world starts to come crashing down around him. He is exceptional in the scene where Sherlock meets “Rich Brook”. He doesn’t say a single word but you can see the total panic as Sherlock realises that while he thought he was still playing the game Moriarty already has him in check and is just waiting to deal the final crushing blow. The building rage on Sherlock’s face is quite terrifying to watch as he realises that with nothing more than a few photocopied scraps of paper, his brother’s stupidity and a couple of thousand words in a tabloid rag Moriarty is about to completely and totally destroy everything that Sherlock Holmes is. And along with the rage that leaves him unable to speak you can also see Sherlock’s horror at the realisation that he has been entirely complicit in his own downfall.
Sherlock is the architect of his own destruction.
If he hadn’t been so needlessly vicious, so dismissive to the police, so desperate to point out how truly inadequate they all are in comparison to him would they have been so quick to believe that he was a fraud? Sally has seen him perform miracles before. Why be so quick to read terrible things into the scream of a deeply traumatised little girl suffering the after effects of mercury poisoning? Because she’d just had enough and it’s easier to believe him a fraud than to consider that someone that exceptional really exists.
Sherlock didn’t need to show off in court. Didn’t need to strut his stuff like a vainglorious peacock insulting the prosecution counsel and judge alike and yet he can’t help himself.
And what of Kitty? Her appearance in the men’s bathroom at the Old Bailey reeks of desperation. Her “test” of Sherlock’s deductive skills is insultingly simple and her attempts at provocation, insinuating that Sherlock is sleeping with John, are remarkably childish. Sherlock could have turned down her request for an interview, dismissed her easily enough. Instead he chooses to outright humiliate her leaving her shaking.
And where does it leave him?
Flying too close to the sun with melting wings.
Moriarty, the storyteller uses Kitty (a woman who after all has the words “Make Believe” on her walls) to weave his very own grim fairytale with Sherlock at the centre- the brave, clever knight whose lack of hubris turned everyone against him who finds himself cast out and alone his world crashing down around his ears. Cumberbatch is so exceptional in that scene that you can imagine other actors sitting at home distressed that the best acting of the year has already graced our scenes and January isn’t done yet.
Cumberbatch’s tour de force performance culminates in the spellbinding rooftop sequence as we see a very human Sherlock facing his mortality and being truly afraid. His realisation that yes, his reputation does matter very much to him indeed and his genuine distress at the notion that he will have to die “in disgrace” with his friends thinking he was nothing more than a con artist was really upsetting to watch. When Sherlock stepped out onto the ledge, stripped of his usual composure and begged Moriarty to give him a moment of privacy I could barely watch (assuming of course that Sherlock wasn’t doing something terribly clever in that moment – it is after all rather out of character).
And then that final electrifying confrontation as Sherlock overflowing with righteous anger makes it clear that he will do whatever it takes “shake hands with him in hell” to see his friends safe. It’s a terrifying display of cold rage – no wonder Moriarty is convinced that Sherlock is just like him. But his triumph lasts but for a second as Moriarty rips it away from him leaving him reeling and grimly resigned.
The phonecall between Sherlock and John is agonising to watch as Sherlock has to lie to his friend, pretend to be something he isn’t to keep him safe. The scene could so easily have been melodramatic and silly and yet Cumberbatch pares it right back – we only get a single tear, a slight break in his voice and that heartrending moment when he reaches for his one and only friend and yet we can see Sherlock’s heart shattering before our eyes. And then he leaps as we watch with horror…
Staggeringly talented you say Hollywood insiders? Yeah I’ll go with that.
Look at that nearly 2500 words and I still haven’t spoken about Martin “Fuck you I have a BAFTA” Freeman. Shall we just save everyone a lot of time and effort and just hand him the second BAFTA now?
I think Martin is sometimes a little unfairly overlooked in the press when it comes to Sherlock. There’s a lot of faint praise, a suggestion that he plays the same role he always plays. This is of course a complete nonsense and denigrates the extraordinary talent he brings to the show.
Without Freeman’s quiet oh so human presence as John Watson to ground the show Sherlock would be a difficult watch. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is utterly captivating but the whole enterprise would have been disastrous without someone equally strong anchoring him. As John Watson Martin Freeman does lovely, nuanced unshowy work. If Benedict broke my heart as Sherlock in this episode Martin succeeded in shattering it into a million pieces.
The opening sequence was dismaying enough with a distressed Watson, manfully struggling to keep it together, back in his therapists office unable to quite bring himself to say that his friend Sherlock is dead.
Interestingly in the episode Watson is far quicker than Sherlock to appreciate the true danger that Moriarty poses and he is such a wonderful friend trying so hard to save Sherlock from himself and the danger surrounding him. His righteous anger at Mycroft’s mistake is wonderful to watch. But it is his unwavering loyalty and belief in his friend that is so compelling. Both Cumberbatch and Freeman give their all in Sherlock’s final conversation with his friend. His “You could” retort to Sherlock’s desperate attempts to make him believe that “Nobody could be that clever” is such a simple, beautifully delivered declaration of faith, trust, loyalty and yes, love that it makes me well up just thinking about it. Freeman’s reactions to seeing Sherlock’s dead body have a devastating effect on the audience. As you watch him stammer out his denials and collapse to the ground you feel like you’ve been repeatedly punched in the gut.
And then there’s that graveyard scene. Damn you Freeman I had been doing perfectly well until that graveyard scene. Freeman, with military bearing, delivers his goodbyes to Sherlock in a scene which is such a brutally raw, emotionally honest depiction of grief that it had me in floods.
“I was so alone and I owe you so much”.
Simple words, a whole world of meaning. And then he begs Sherlock not to be dead. If you were dry eyed at this point you should probably worry about having strange dreams about origami unicorns. The scene has such lovely touches – John making it clear that he still believes in Sherlock, that he always found him to be human and the practically military salute he gives Sherlock’s gravestone.
A beautiful, honest, gut-wrenching performance which deserves all the accolades and awards going.
And did I mention the gloriously haunting and beautiful music that conspired to rip my heart out? Step forward Michael Price and David Arnold. Stunning work from both.
And in the very long wait for series 3 we can theorize on just how the hell did Sherlock do it?
Sherlock chose the venue for his final meeting with Moriarty and he would have done so for a reason. He may have hoped to avoid the inevitable but he realised at Kitty’s that Moriarty intended his disgrace to end with his suicide so he had had time to plan.
Moriarty would have noticed a random body on the rooftop or indeed the mannequin from earlier in the episode. So I think it is Sherlock that jumps.
Sherlock was awfully insistent that John stand in a particular spot and despite his obvious emotional distress Sherlock is absolutely stock still during that final telephone call with John. He clearly had positioned the players (John and the assassin) in such a way that they could both see him on the roof, both see him fall but the sightlines are such that they wouldn’t be able to see him land. So Sherlock lands in the rubbish truck which is there in one shot and gone in the next (although that would still have had to have been very padded to have broken his fall from that height). He then leaps from the truck, covers himself in blood and lies on the floor eyes fixed open while John is distracted by the cyclist (probably one of Sherlock’s network).
If we then assume that everyone on that street who appears to be a concerned citizen is either Sherlock’s homeless network or Mycroft’s people if he did go to him for help then they prevent John getting close enough to see the lack of injuries and the fact that he has a pulse before quickly wheeling Sherlock out of sight (this also explains the total lack of anything resembling proper emergency care by those medics who tend to him). That theory still has some gaps. The sniper would presumably need at the least to hear the sound of a body hitting the pavement so perhaps Molly assists with that and the switch takes place when John is distracted by the cyclist? Then Molly signs off Sherlock’s death certificate and he’s free to go hunt down Moriarty’s network.
The episode also raises other questions:
I’m not quite sure why John needed to believe that Sherlock was a fake. So he would believe it along with everyone else and not question Sherlock’s death? Was Kitty listening in (it is the year of tabloid phone hacking after all)? The assassins had set up a surveillance network were they bugging John’s phone? Did Sherlock fear that they would shoot instantly if the truth were known? Was Sherlock concerned that the assassins might still think he had told John something of value and torture him for it but would leave him alone if they all believed Sherlock to be a fraud? So he would find it easier to move on if he believed that his friend had lied to him?
Does Mycroft know that Sherlock is alive? The final shot of him in The Diogenes Club is ambiguous. I was never too fond in this episode of the suggestion that it was somehow “too late” for the brothers to turn to each other for any sort of help. Mycroft accompanies a distressed Sherlock to view Adler’s body in Scandal and offers him whatever comfort he can after (one of my favourite scenes of the whole series), Sherlock has no qualms negotiating for access to Baskerville in Hounds, it seems unlikely that he wouldn’t have turned to Mycroft for help in faking his death or even if he did purely rely on Molly that he wouldn’t turn to him now.
And what of Moriarty? He does seem very sincerely dead at the end of the episode. But no mention is made in the episode or on John’s blog of the death of “Richard Brook”. It certainly wasn’t Moriarty’s body that fell from the roof so what happened to it? Unless of course it just got up and walked away…
And so we leave Sherlock – homeless, friendless, utterly disgraced. And the very long wait begins.
Until The Adventure of the Empty House….