The Cliffhanger from Hell discussion goes here. And also, SPOILERS.
Sherlock’s second season wraps up with “The Final Problem”, rewritten as “The Reichenbach Fall” by Steve Thompson (who also wrote “The Blind Banker”) and as directed by Toby Haynes (veteran of Doctor Who and Wallander). It’s a clever title—fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize the name as the location where Sherlock Holmes met his fate with his arch-nemesis James Moriarty, but if you hadn’t read the stories it wouldn’t give anything away. For me, as a reader of the ACD books, I knew immediately what this episode would bring, and yet I was still totally floored by the final half-hour of the episode.
This is easily the best episode of the six in the series so far. As good as this series is in general, this episode is nothing short of astonishing in specific. Everything is working at maximum capacity, with a special nod to the beautiful original scoring provided by David Arnold and Michael Price, and Doug Sinclair and his sound team for putting together one of the best give-and-take sequences between music, silence and sound at Sherlock’s climactic moment. Like, I want to hug everyone who worked on this episode for creating something so perfect (they get hugs along with everyone involved with Buffy’s “The Body” and “Hush”, the only other television episodes that come close to this level of ambition and execution).
I define ambitious TV as anything that has no way out but one (if any at all—“The Body” had no out as Buffy’s mother was always going to be dead). The reason The Sopranos finale or anything on The Wire or Justified, or even Game of Thrones, can’t match what Sherlock (and Buffy before it) does is because there is always a multiple-choice solution to any problem presented. It’s either this or that, or even another thing (and this isn’t to knock those other shows—they’re all really excellent TV). But Sherlock has left us with the cliffhanger from hell, a problem already solved that we must unwind to understand, and there is only one, very specific solution. We’re left trying to outguess Sherlock Holmes himself and that is just not going to happen. It’s brilliant.
What bad can be said about this episode? Nothing. I’ve got no complaints. I can’t think of one thing that could be bettered. And when it comes to the acting, it’s a fucking masterclass from every participant. I cannot overstate what a monster talent Benedict Cumberbatch is—he’s a legit screen tyrant—and this episode is the climax of Sherlock’s undoing. But for all that, Martin Freeman is so good that I would hand him all the awards for supporting actor for this episode. He’s the emotional core of the show and Watson’s scenes with Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) are some of the most satisfying in the series yet. And even still, between those two, Andrew Scott manages to make an enormous impression as Moriarty. I didn’t like his take on Moriarty at first; I thought him too nutty and weird to be a credible criminal mastermind. But the turn he takes in “Reichenbach” is startling, revealing the true sinister nature underneath the campy attitude. When Sherlock calls Moriarty a spider and Moriarty just sneers at him—that pretty much captures Moriarty’s essence.
I’ve dubbed season two the “tearing down of Sherlock” and after the mistakes of “A Scandal in Belgravia” and the self-doubt of “The Hound of Baskerville”, “Reichenbach” shows us the world around Sherlock coming down as others begin to doubt him. The episode starts with an emotionally devastating moment with Dr. Watson, as he struggles to say the words out loud—Sherlock Holmes is dead. We then skip back in time to see how, over three months, Moriarty unravels Sherlock’s life. It’s Moriarty’s “final problem” and his best-laid plan, and is especially topical in the UK as it involves the participation of the tabloid press and less-than-stellar sources. The Macguffin of the episode is an all-access computer code that allows Moriarty to break into anything he wants, and the way that thread is resolved is especially satisfying for anyone who has ever been annoyed at how easy film technology makes hacking look. Moriarty uses the code to simultaneously break into the Tower of London, the Bank of England and Pentonville Prison, but that isn’t the most important case. No, that goes to the kidnapping of a pair of children belonging to the ambassador to the US. It’s that case, solved off a single footprint Sherlock uncovers, that gives Sergeant Donovan the opportunity to finally one-up Sherlock.
Everyone is hung up on the cliffhanger and trying to solve it, but I refuse to get sucked into that, simply because I know I won’t figure it out. Instead, I’m stuck on trying to figure out what Sherlock knew when. As Sherlock’s world begins collapsing, Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey) identifies his sense of impending doom, so it would seem that Sherlock was preparing for the worst days before his confrontation with Moriarty on the St. Bart’s roof. But when he does finally square off with Moriarty, when they each make their final play, I can’t tell if Sherlock is faking his confusion or not. Does he really think the computer key is real, or is he playing Moriarty the whole time? I’m inclined to think he really did think the computer key was the solution, and that he didn’t really accept the inevitably of having to jump until Moriarty killed himself (and yes, I do think he’s really dead). It’s at that moment that Sherlock seems to come really undone, as if he’s run through all his options and possibilities only to arrive at the least-desired outcome.
And what an outcome it is. The phone call with Watson, Watson’s words at Sherlock’s grave, and that last image of Sherlock looking over the cemetery—it’s an emotional triple-strike. The episode is pitch-perfect throughout, with tension building steadily as more and more of Moriarty’s plan is unveiled and Sherlock pieces together the web closing in around him. As good as the whole episode is, the final half-hour is stunning. Every second of seasons one and two has built toward these thirty minutes and the payoff is enormous. Moriarty’s manic behavior on the roof, the range of subtle facial reactions and visible thinking Sherlock goes through, and (my favorite) Watson’s confrontation with Mycroft—it’s just gorgeous television. This is go big or go home TV, and that the technical and craft elements match the writing and acting so beautifully only makes it better. Not one thing was left undone in this episode.
Sherlock season two ends with an emotional sucker punch on top of an episode that was a series of shocks and surprises. We’ve been posed a problem—the real final problem—of trying to figure out how Sherlock survived the fall. At least we have a long time to work it out. Because season three won’t air until the latter half of 2013.