TV Review: Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall


S2, E3: ‘The Reichenbach Fall’

So, Sherlock is basically Jesus, yeah?

Grade: B+


Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in. In the final ninety minutes of its otherwise smug, lazy sophomore season, Sherlock turns the lens – and tables – on its titular character, to frequently stunning effect. But by Jiminy, it’ll make you pay for those moments of pleasure. And one of the biggest costs? Sherlock’s death may not be permanent on the show, but believe me, he’s coming back as one of the douchiest Mary Sues known to man. Doucheus Christ.

What do I mean when I say a Mary Sue? Well, the term’s widely and loosely applied, so here’s my take: when I think the writers are so protective of a character that they can’t let lasting harm, ridicule or consequences happen to them in-story, that character’s a Mary Sue. One obvious way of Mary Suing is for a character to be smarter, prettier and just awesomer than anyone else. But there are other ways…

To be fair, Sherlock has always sailed pretty close to the Mary Sue wind. A dashing, witty genius with a velvet voice and cheekbones like twin Matterhorns? If you could take out insurance against being a Mary Sue, Sherlock’s premia would always have been ruinously high. But at least Season One had visible limitations to Sherlock’s aura. In A Study in Pink, Sherlock’s inductive logic led him to misgender John’s sister. Later on, he may have gotten himself killed owing to hubris. John’s marksmanship means we may never know. In The Blind Banker, John’s common-sense methods often yielded reliable results over Sherlock’s whizz-bang gimmickry. In The Great Game, Sherlock’s ignorance about astronomy slowed him down. Sherlock was good, but he wasn’t infallible.

Then came Season Two and most of those carefully designed checks and balances flew out of the window. In A Scandal in Belgravia, Sherlock may have been temporarily thrown by Irene Adler’s oh-so-original damsel fatale trick, but he turned the tables on her, don’t you fret! By the end, we found not only that she fancied him too but she fancied him more, despite being a homosexualist, even! And in the end she needed him to rescue her! So there!

In The Hounds of Baskerville, another Mary Sue trope was uncorked: a lack of moral accountability. Even after Sherlock roofied and terrified his supposedly only friend, said only friend – not noticeably spineless, unlike Poor Molly Hooper – trotted off quite happily into the Devon sunset with him. You see, the Mary Sue may occasionally do things that in other people would be absolute deal-breakers, but for the Mary Sue? Nixon rules apply. If the Mary Sue does it, then it’s not really wrong. Sherlock can be scolded for nonsensical ‘crimes’ like not appearing to care enough about the fate of complete strangers. But God forbid anyone actually call him to book for his cruelty (not just rudeness, but actual cruelty) or his terrifying moments of genuine inhumanity. And yes, yes, yes, I know: ‘high-functioning sociopath’. But that moment in The Hounds of Baskerville was actually the first instance of that sort of behaviour in the show. He should have been raked over the coals for it. That he wasn’t? Means that John’s own moral compass had been momentarily shelved in order to burnish the star. And that, right there, is a great marker of Mary Suedom.

And here, in the final episode of Season Two of Sherlock, we have the apotheosis. Sherlock performs miracles. He is raised, and then he is clawed down. Sherlock is disbelieved. He is doubted. He is mocked and reviled. He is forsaken by most. He has a Garden of Gethsemane moment. He dies for your sins. For your sins, people. And three days later (I assume) he comes back from the dead. I mean, I don’t think it gets more Mary Sue – or more ballsy – than to say that your main character is Christ. But Moffat is a man of many talents.

All right, let’s peel back the veil, for are we not fearfully and wonderfully made?

‘The press will turn on you.’

Sherlock has been on something of a roll recently. He’s found a missing Turner masterpiece (the titular Reichenbach Falls), restored a tearful rich guy to his family, turned water into wine… you know the drill. The press is fawning over him, but John’s a little nervous that the beast will turn on its creation. As of course it will.

‘Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain.’

Moriarty has been released by Mycroft for….reasons. And promptly sets up a glitzy simultaneous heist of Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England and the Tower of London. Well, he breaks into them all, but steals nothing and waits patiently to be arrested. The trial’s all advertising for various baddies who may want to hire him, as he explains to Sherlock after he’s released. Oh yes, of course he’s released despite mounting no defence. He got into all three tremendously secure places, after all. What’s twelve jurors in comparison?

Time marches on, and we find that a worrying number of international assassins have moved within three doors of 221B Baker Street, and a tabloid reporter Sherlock dissed earlier is coming out with an expose of Sherlock, with red-hot revelations coming from a mysterious ‘Brook’. No time for that, though, because a diplomat’s children have been kidnapped and ‘the Reichenbach hero’ is on the case. Sherlock finds the children, but the moment they set eyes on him, they scream and scream and scream. And Donovan is left scowling at the footprint from which Sherlock drew out the whole narrative, and soon a little idea begins to emerge….what if Sherlock’s last name is Munchausen?

It’s an interesting idea, if the show had the courage to commit even a little bit to it. As it is, Donovan only comes across as a jealous shrew who can only think of Sherlock as a fraud because she cannot comprehend his greatness. But also? Paradoxically? I have sympathy with her because the show insists on making Sherlock appear like some sort of wizard, whereas the whole point of him is that he sees and observes. Why shouldn’t Donovan be suspicious of a conjuror? Although of course we are meant to bristle with indignation at her small-minded jealousy, jeopardising That Nice Lestrade’s career in her frenzy to bring Our Hero down.

The cops get interested, Sherlock is arrested, he goes on the run and he and John track down the reporter with the kiss-and-tell. And here comes the best moment of the episode, and perhaps the series: a man wearing Moriarty’s face walks in – and starts in terror when he sees Sherlock. A man who looks like Moriarty, but has none of his malicious self-possession, or that insufferably singsong voice. A browbeaten fellow who insists that he’s an actor on kids’ TV, who was hired to play Moriarty. John cries out ‘YOU’RE MORIARTY!’, but his conviction is fraying just a little around the edges. Sherlock stands stock-still, his eyes darting inside his head. And for a sliver of a second, I catch myself doubting. It is a genuinely dark, genuinely unsettling moment. For Sherlock, it must be existentially terrifying in a way that that poor pathetic hound in Baskerville never had a hope in hell of managing.

Only – again – the show snatches back its head just as the fairy tale is getting really scary. Sherlock and John snap to. Sherlock goes to ask Molly for help, and John goes to confront Mycroft for the wealth of private information in the reporter’s profile that could only have come from him. Mycroft confesses that he fed Moriarty information in return for Moriarty’s Magic Key That can Open Any Door (remarkable how much Sherlock’s plot devices lend themselves to fairy tales) and we leave him whispering a wan apology.

‘You always need everything to be clever.’

Not least because there never was any sodding magic key. I quite like the contempt with which Moriarty dismisses Sherlock’s naïve ‘But…but the key’, pointing to the simpler explanation of accomplices in each high-profile location. Ouch. And here’s an even simpler threat: Sherlock needs to kill himself or snipers are primed, ready to take out John, Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade.

Then there follows a sequence that puts film noir and Venus in Furs into a blender. It is one arch, grandstanding line after another, breathed in ecstatic, caressing tones. Here’s a sample: ‘You want me to shake hands with you in hell? I shall not disappoint you.’ And another: ‘Oh, but I’m prepared to do the things that ordinary people aren’t. I’m prepared to burn.’ And another: ‘Nah, you talk big, but you’re on the side of the angels.’

It is epic. It is ridiculous. It is gloriously, batshit insane. Have I mentioned that while it is happening Moriarty and Sherlock are standing with their faces inches apart? Did I need to mention it? I didn’t, did I? It took me ten minutes to watch this one-minute sequence because I had to stop at every line to gape, and type, and facepalm.

And at the end of that little pose-off, what have we learned? Well, Moriarty’s realised that there’s only one way he can out-drama-queen Sherlock: put a bullet through his own ickle Moriarty brain. This he proceeds to do, leaving Sherlock exactly where he was. Snipers are poised to fire, and he’s got to take the fall. Literally.

So out Sherlock steps onto the ledge, taking an emotional farewell of John. He tearfully cops to being a fraud. Over John’s furious reminders of his deductions with Harry’s phone, he says that he researched John to impress him (and I confess, that one hurt). He tells John to stay where he is and keep his eyes on him. And then he spreads out his arms and takes flight.

And on the third day….

Voice cracking, a heartbroken John is back in therapy. He stands vigil over Sherlock’s gravestone and pays tribute to ‘the best man [he] ever knew’. And the camera pans out to show us what we already knew…Sherlock Holmes in his coat, looking impassive. Commence speculation….

You know what? This episode should actually have been the entire series. It has the built-in three act structure of the Rise, Destabilisation and Fall of Sherlock Holmes. Act 1 begins with the growing profile of Holmes, and ends with the return of Moriarty. Act 2 begins with the trial and ends with Richard Brook in the flat. Act 3 could have extended the doubt and dread of Richard Brook and played with it some more before that fantastically camp rooftop face-off and Sherlock’s leavetaking. A promising but somewhat rushed final episode would then have been a rich, thoughtful, series-long exploration of the nature of heroes and villains. And I wouldn’t have had to suffer that stupid dominatrix and that even stupider dog.

Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods

  • Moriarty makes frequent references to The Final Problem, Conan Doyle’s doomed attempt to kill Holmes.
  • John is ushered into the Diogenes Club, which of course is Mycroft Holmes’s club.

Odds and sods

  • God, the shot of the lank-haired children gobbling down mercury-laced sweets is creepy.
  • Rather enjoyed Sherlock and John’s daring escape, clambering over fences and hiding from the cops all while handcuffed to each other.
  • I quite like the Richard Brook in German = Reichenbach thing. That plus the Bach partita that Sherlock’s playing when he and Moriarty have their little kaffeeklatsch.
  • Moffat’s misogyny is on full blast this episode. It is one thing for the show to maintain implicitly that Sherlock’s Magical Gifts Must Never Ever Be Questioned. But there is a particular ugliness reserved for women with the temerity to challenge Saint Snowflake Sherlock. Or indeed women who bend over and do whatever the fuck he wants. The only women we have anything to do with are chew toys (Ugh, Molly), aggressive shrews jealous of Sherlock’s gifts (Sgt. Donovan), or slutty scorned bottom-feeders (the reporter played by Katherine Parkinson). No woman in this episode is allowed to marshal or deliver a reasonable concern about Sherlock, or even a reasoned defence of his methods. Nope, they’re all either in doomed love with him, or they’re panting harpies who Will Never Get A Man Of His Genius.
  • Huh, Andrew Scott can actually act. He was terrific as Richard Brook – snivelling and terrified and utterly un-Moriarty. And he dialled back 75% of the tics I found so unbearable about Moriarty in The Great Game.

5 thoughts on “TV Review: Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

  1. Oh dear, you’ve definitely pinned the ponytail on the Mary Sue; I watched s4 ep2 yesterday and will only watch the final episode of the season so that I can say I watched it all and found it lacking. Sherlock continues to be, by your definition, a Mary Sue. That’s been bothering me since season 2. Somewhere along the way it jumped the shark – perhaps in the very episode you write about – and continues to jump the same shark over & over again. I’ve had it – if there is a season 5, I won’t be watching.

    Liked by 1 person

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