Sherlock Sunday 4: The Reichenbach Fall by Stephen Thompson (Conflict)

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There are several reasons Moriarty’s one of the best antagonist’s of all time. He’s up against one of the great protagonists of all time, he’s a doppelgänger for that protagonist, and–in this version–he’s so insane that he’s more powerful than the protagonist. (There are lines that Sherlock won’t cross that Moriarty can’t even see.) Because of that symbiotic relationship that Moriarty has with Holmes, this plot of transference of guilt is brilliant; Moriarty could and does argue that everything he has done could just as easily be the work of Holmes, and it’s so logical that the entire country buys it. So in a sense, the conflict in this story is over Sherlock’s identity, who’s going to control it, who’s going to profit from it, who’s going to die over it. It isn’t just that Moriarty wants to bring Sherlock down, de-fang him, it’s that he wants to become one with him, so that Sherlock isn’t just fighting for his physical life, he’s fighting for his reputation, his legacy, with a foe who will die to take it from him. Much as Aristophanes theorized that people in love were once the same person, and their search to be re-unified fuels their passion, so Moriarty’s recognition of Sherlock as his opposite number fuels his passionate pursuit and ultimate consumption of him. On a thematic level, it really is brilliant conflict, creating not only great scenes as the plot escalates, but roiling the subtext beneath.

But while the episode does a great job of making me furious at Moriarty and sympathetic with Holmes, forever playing catch-up with a faster foe, and while the conflict is clear and strong and drives the story, the story is also smug in the way it plays its secrets and above all in the way it keeps Watson and the viewer in the dark for what appears to be no reason. (And having seen “The Empty Hearse,” I repeat, “for no reason.”) The best Sherlock episodes leave me enthralled and delighted, the worst leave me disappointed and frustrated. This was one of the latter, even though it was a brilliant concept, brilliantly acted. In the end, I think the concept overwhelmed the human element, shot the central relationship in the knee, and privileged more secrets from the viewer over viewer satisfaction.

But I could be wrong. What do you think?

40 thoughts on “Sherlock Sunday 4: The Reichenbach Fall by Stephen Thompson (Conflict)

  1. Molly says to Sherlock, “You look sad when you think he can’t see you.” She’s referring to John. Sherlock, who is realizing that Moriarty is willing to give his life to make Sherlock “a fabricator,” becomes one when he conceals the truth about his death from John and Mrs. Hudson.

    Moriarty/Richard Brook has harnessed Sherlock, picked up the reins, and driven the detective through the events of this episode, and Sherlock is not certain he has regained control even when he has faked his own death. On top of that building, with Moriarty dead, Sherlock had choices—to jump or not to jump. To tell John the truth or to lie. And, one assumes, to die or not to die. He chose jump, lie, live. Sherlock knows he’s been driven, and although the driver is now dead, what arrangements might Moriarty have put into place that would cause harm to Sherlock’s friends? “Friends protect people,” John says to him. I think Sherlock acts on this right through to the end. Sherlock wants to be certain that the threat is truly past.

    At one point John comments on his belief in Sherlock’s authenticity: “No one could fake being such an annoying dick all the time.” Annoying dick, like intellectual powerhouse, is part of Sherlock’s identity. He’s also true to this to the very end.

    Ritual death is an element of romance narratives, the moment when the wished-for union of the parties to the romance—in this case Sherlock and John—seems impossible. Death or its simulacrum very often marks this moment. Here it is—Sherlock’s death, real from John’s point of view, a simulacrum from the viewer’s. This is dramatic irony—we know something that John does not—and the episode ends with this bit of irony intact. It’s a sentimental ending–we see John’s sadness at the gravesite and remember it from the opening scene with his shrink, and I wonder if the reception of this sentimentality will depend on the individual viewer.

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    1. Wait’ll you get to “The Empty Hearse.”
      TV Tropes has a term, “jossed,” that describes what happens to fans who extrapolate plot from what’s on the page or screen (and god knows, we all do it) only to have the writers go in a completely different direction. A lot of people got jossed by this episode, and then Gatiss made fun of them in “The Empty Hearse.”
      I never know how to feel about that. On the one hand, it’s completely kosher. The writer gets to do whatever he or she wants. On the other hand, if it’s the writer deliberately screwing with the viewer, it becomes a Gotcha. I hate Gotchas. OTOH, Sherlock really is an annoying dick.

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      1. I remember you had a post here about how pulling one over on the reader is only satisfying to the reader if you give the reader enough clues that they kind of know something is wrong the whole time, and then feel satisfied when they realize they’re right. With most of the misinformation in Hearse, they left enough clues that I could personally enjoy it. Not all of it, but most of it.

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        1. I think you need to leave enough clues that when you go back and watch it again, it’s clear what was happening, you just missed it. It’s okay if you miss everything the first time as long as its there the second time.

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  2. I agree with you, alas. It maybe made sense not to tell John right away, while waiting to see the outcome. Maybe. On the other hand, by whisking away Moriarity’s body, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of calling off his henchmen? Sigh. I’d call this episode about 70% of what it could have been.

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  3. I watched this yesterday and haven’t seen “The Empty Hearse” yet.

    I think Gatiss, Moffat and co. were more constrained by the original story than they expected . Doyle didn’t want to write Sherlock any more, but they do. There’s a pretty damn excellent conflict protag/antag bit right there. ‘Scuse me for being meta.

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    1. You’ve been jossed; they embraced the suicide-not-suicide wholeheartedly. And I’m bitter about “The Empty Hearse,” so ignore me.

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      1. Me too. I watched it and then said “What the hell?!” I don’t want to say too much, but seriously: “WHAT THE HELL, MAN?!”

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        1. I agree. We streamed The Empty Hearse this week and were really bugged by it. While I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I know the Reichenbach Falls story and all, the gap jarred me. As did the various things others have said.

          I think the Reichenbach episode on a self-contained level has a lot going for it: it has this powerless, headlong over the cataract feel to it. Combined with The Empty Hearse, however, it falls short.

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      2. Right there with you. And I HATE being made fun of so I’m bitter and put off. Not a great combination if you want me to watch the rest of your show with an open mind, writers.

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      3. Me, three. I can’t comment wholly on this episode because I watched this one and the Empty Hearse back-to-back a couple of days ago, and there is no good reason for John not to know. (I will extrapolate on that next Sunday when we’re talking about Empty Hearse.)

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  4. Considering there is a two year gap, between this and The Empty Hearse, I think the cliffhanger ending did a wonderful job of keeping fans desperate for the next episode and gave them lots to talk and speculate about and keeping their interest warm as it were. Plus you actually felt sorry for Sherlock. In Scandal in Belgravia, you saw what he would do if one of his inner circle was hurt and it is the best thing we know about him. Here after wrecking his public image, Moriarty threatened all his friends, Sherlock simply threatened him back and you knew without the people who cared for him and gave him his humanity, he could be Moriarty!

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    1. That’s the one redeeming aspect of all of this: Moriarty died, but he left the time bomb ticking on all of Sherlock’s loved ones; if Sherlock shows up alive, Moriarty’s network starts bumping off John, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, etc. They did a really good job of setting it up so that Sherlock had to stay dead for two years.
      After that . . .

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      1. This is why I was OK with everyone thinking he was dead at the end of this, and OK with what turned out to be a two year in universe time gap. Pisses me off that all that great emotional build-up got wasted on “Hearse.”

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  5. I watched “The Empty Hearse,” and adding that to Reichenbach Fall, I’m really annoyed at how the Sherlock/Watson relationship is playing out. It’s what you said: “…the story is also smug in the way it plays its secrets and above all in the way it keeps Watson and the viewer in the dark for what appears to be no reason. (And having seen “The Empty Hearse,” I repeat, “for no reason.”)”–this point exactly is kneecapping this season for me because Sherlock’s keeping John in the dark is wrong, wrong, wrong and contrary to what we know about these people. I suppose I’ll watch to the end, but the fizz is gone.

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    1. I keep hoping they’ll redeem the series with the next episode, but they’re undoing all the good character arc they made in “Scandal in Belgravia.” I love Cumberbatch, but even he can’t save Sadist-Sherlock.

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      1. Very sorry to say I was even more disappointed (even bored at times) by episode 2. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the third one yet. Looking forward to discussing them here as therapy.

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  6. Maybe it’s been too far from Falls, but I thought the point of Hearse was to force a self-awareness from Holmes and make him pay for his ass-like behavior. Why two years? Was it a mistake on the production’s part to keep it “today” for the viewer, since the filming was going to be stalled for The Hobbit? I don’t know. I think they want to keep the feel that the show is happening today. Perhaps that was a mistake. But I agree with Pam Regis overall. I bought into the fact that he was going to die to protect Watson. I likes Watson beating the snot out of Holmes. I didn’t feel cheated.

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  7. My reaction to this episode was similar to my reaction to the Irene Adler episode: the writers were so determined to show how clever the antagonist (Irene or Mortiarty) is, how this is someone capable of outwitting Sherlock… that they write themselves into a labyrinthe where a number of things don’t make sense, because they’ve neglected logic in favor of trying to confound the audience and Sherlock.

    I enjoyed the characters, the atmosphere, the byplay, the performances, many of the moments… but I once again thought quite a bit of the plot was full of holes or made no sense.

    That said… several people have commented here about the annoyance of Sherlock lying to John and keeping him in the dark, etc. It -is- annoying… but it’s also perfectly in keeping with the Holmes “canon.” In the original stories, Holmes lied to Watson a number of times, unconscionably kept him in the dark or kept secrets from him a number of times…. It was idiotic and annoying and a gotcha! But it is certainly THERE in the Holmes canon.

    In Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” we learn that Holmes has been pursuing Moriarty for months without every having mentioned him or any of these activities to Watson, supposedly his best friend and close professional associate. In “The Empty House,” he learn that Holmes didnt die at the Reichenbach Falls, that he’s been alive all this time, that Mycroft knew–but Holmes let Watson assume for several years that he was dead. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Holmes goes undercover on Dartmoor, but he lies to Watson, claiming that he’s staying in London and needs Watson to send him daily letters reporting everything that happens at Baskerville Hall. Watson posts the letters to London… which Holmes then has secretly redelivered to himself in Devon, not far from Baskerville Hall. Watson only learns about 2/3 of the way through the story that Holmes has been on the scene–and deliberately lied to him about it, for specious reasons–the whole time.

    I agree that’s it a really irritating story device. But the TV writers aren’t departing from Doyle’s work in that regard; Doyle’s Holmes was just as sinning!

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    1. Have you seen The Empty Hearse? Because I was pretty much in agreement with everything you’ve said, even keeping Watson in the dark, until I saw “The Empty Hearse.” I know we’re not talking about that this week, but it retcons so much of this episode that I’m having a hard time setting it aside to just look at this.

      I agree this one is a mess. I remember it being gut-wrenching at the time, and it doing a really good job of making me outraged for Sherlock, always a good thing in protagonist vs. antagonist. He was vulnerable again and fighting for his friends, sacrificing for them, and while I was confused for most of the actual plot, the emotion it evoked was strong because it was all so unfair . . .

      Then I saw “The Empty Hearse.”

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      1. See, that’s the thing. So much of Hearse was pointless, and then it seemed like Sherlock regressed emotionally, and I could buy him being gone six months or so, but 2 years is just stupid.

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      2. Yes, I saw it. I enjoyed it, but I thought the explanation of what happened in “The Reichenbach Fall” was absurd (even taking into account that it’s a show that’s fantasy-like), and Sherlock’s explanation of why he didn’t tell John he was alive was every bit as weak as Holmes’ explanation to Watson in “The Empty House.”

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        1. Oh, sorry, I’ve been immersed in comic book history lately. It means “Retroactive continuity.” It’s when the writers of a story go back and revise something that was established as truth in the earlier stories. So the story that’s presented as truth in “Reichenbach” is retconned by the story told in “The Empty Hearse.”
          Think of “Scandal”: It’s clearly foreshadowed that Mycroft is planning something, so when Sherlock figures out what’s going on, the story doesn’t change, it just becomes more clear. But there’s no foreshadowing in Reichenbach, it presents its story as convoluted but complete. Then months later,it’s followed up by a story that says, “No, that’s not what happened, we changed that.”

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          1. Okay, that “retcon” phrase is handy. I must remember that.

            And I feel about it the way I feel about foreshadowing followed by a reveal, or a pot reversal, etc. It’s great if, once the “trith” is revealed, I think, “Ah-hah! Of COURSE!” And if I think, “No, that doesn’t make much sense, you’ve still got loose ends, you’ve got incosnsitencies, and it still doesn’t explain x, y, z,” then there’s a problem. And since I’m not a person who typically has trouble following an intricate plot, I tend to think it’s sloppy writing, or writing full of holes, or writers stuck in their own labyrinthe, rather than thinking it must be that I just don’t get it.

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  8. I still like this episode, for all the Moriarty-Holmes stuff, and for Molly Hooper. I think this is progression in Sherlock’s character arc (by itself, without the crap in “Hearse”), and when I watched it again a couple weeks ago, that conversation with John, and then the scene at the grave, still choked me up. As far as not telling John he’s alive at the end of this, I understood why at the time. It made sense here, so I’m not holding it against this episode; I’m simply going to try and repress “The Empty Hearse” so I can still watch this one now and then.

    I’m getting ahead of myself here, but someone mentioned not liking “Sign of Three.” It does have some pacing problems, but I enjoyed it so much I don’t care. It felt, to me, like it restored Sherlock’s character arc and his relationship with John after all the damage “The Empty Hearse” did, and I’m willing to cut it a lot of slack for that.

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      1. I actually enjoyed her scenes with Sherlock in “The Empty Hearse.” One of my favorite things about season three has been their new dynamic.

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  9. I’ve never been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories; it took you doing this analysis plus both my adult children telling me I must watch it to get me to do watch this series. I have been impressed and entertained, so it’s been well worth my time. However, I don’t have more annoyance about the Empty Hearse that so many seem to be expressing. Or I’ve always been annoyed by the lack of clues handed to the reader (and to Watson), so that the mystery remains unsolved until the very end. I do see that this series has upped the ante on the Holmes stories, though, giving the very creative producers and writers a chance to mend the stories so that they are what they could have been. Although it seems there is such a reverence for the originals it may not have felt safe. Given the way Watson is written in this show, it is clear that Holmes could easily have let him in on the secret at some point sooner than two years. I wonder if there are other fixes that ARGH people have in mind? How to make it clear how brilliant Holmes is without descending to holding back on what he knows?

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    1. I’d have been okay with him not telling Watson if he hadn’t told a thousand other people. I understand that Mycroft had to know, but all the rest?

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      1. Yes, and then having to watch John realize, onscreen, he’s been one of the only ones left in the dark. Ouch.

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      2. In that acse, not telling John would still be a betrayal, but it would make sense. Well, if explained sensibly, that is. In “The Empty House,’ Holmes explains to Watson that Mycroft had to know because, after disappearing, Holmes needed money–which he got via Mycroft. This made sense. Holmes had not expected or intended to die on the day he walked out to the Falls, probably with only a few days’ worth of spending money in his pockets and no luggage. It would have made sense to confide in someone as self-controlled as Mycroft in order to have access to funds.

        But, yes, Sherlock telling a gazillion people (including Molly–not exactly a taciturn and withholding person!) without telling John? Made no sense at all.

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  10. It looks like one’s opinions will require revision upon viewing “The Empty Hearse.” I’ll let you know what transpires.

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  11. Moffet/Gattis have been saying in interviews that all the clues on how Sherlock survived the fall were all there for us to see. We only had to know where to look.

    In reality, I think they have enjoyed the whole”I’ve got a secret you don’t know” aspect a little to much……

    And while Sherlock assuming nothing would change without him while he was gone would feed into his immense ego, I also think his asshattery towards John shows that without John’s constant, ongoing influence, he backslides to his usual self-involvement. He needs John to save him from himself, to save him from becoming Moriarty. And while in the pursuit of dismantling Moriarty’s organization, he became obsessed with the problem/puzzle to the point of forgetting the cost to John. And John would be the signal, the main outlier to anyone watching (as Sherlock does in regard to the terrorist threat) to see what could be going on with Sherlock. He would only tell John when he was ready to reveal himself.

    Totally in character for Sherlock.

    But, yes, the writer’s were in love with their ideas to the detriment of their characters’ development. And they probably also didn’t know what to do with a more self-aware Sherlock. TV so often seems to resist growth/change……
    (Have I just wrote all this to state what we all already knew? Probably)

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    1. I still don’t know how he did it. They threw so many solutions at us that I wasn’t sure which was which. My favorite was him swinging through the window and kissing Molly, but I think it had something to do with the big blue fall thing. Or something.

      The thing is, I could explain all of “Scandal in Belgravia” or “Study in Pink” after I saw them the first time. I could go back and find new details, but I wasn’t confused. I still don’t understand half of what happened in “The Empty Hearse” or “The Sign of the Three.” They sacrificed cleverness for clarity and just ended up with a mess. Not that I’m bitter.

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      1. I read somewhere that Gatiss/Moffat are on record as saying the “Lazarus is a go” theory was the correct one. Not that they let us in on their clever little secret IN the episode.

        I prefer the window smash/hair ruffle/Molly kiss theory. I could write poems to that hair ruffle and I don’t even think BC is attractive. :::fans self:::

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        1. That window smash/kiss was very Arrow. I got momentarily confused and thought maybe Sherlock had been on the island. I may have to put that on a loop for any time I need a jump start on dash and dering do. Mostly I just loved it because it was Molly.

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