Sherlock 2.3: The most ambitious 30 minutes on television

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.


15 thoughts on “Sherlock 2.3: The most ambitious 30 minutes on television

  1. Emster

    I would pay exorbitant amounts of money to see Benedict Cumberbatch devour some Shakespeare. And I can’t wait to see him play villains in Star Trek and The Hobbit.

    My next biggest credit for this episode goes to Toby Haynes. I know his work well from Doctor Who, and this just solidifies his talent for me. He is amazingly good at helping viewers to understand characters who are way more intelligent than us by giving us just enough information to help their exceedingly complex choices make sense…all while avoiding making us feel bad about being less intelligent.

    This is BRILLIANT TV and I can’t wait for the BluRay. Original edits and commentaries are going to be great.

  2. Hols

    Its stupendous Tv and I’m sad that with such a busy schedule so few will have got to see it in the US. PBS should have aired it earlier in the year.

  3. Coco

    “We’re left trying to outguess Sherlock Holmes himself and that is just not going to happen.”

    This is so true. But I feel like the writers won’t be able to outguess Sherlock either. My one complaint about this show is that the build-up is so great that the pay-off just comes up short sometimes. I’m especially thinking about the blind banker episode.

    1. I don’t think that will be a problem with this one. I think they’ve had this moment planned since the very beginning. That’s what I mean about the ambition. This is such a specific scenario and there’s only way out, so they’re stuck with it if the fans hate it. They can’t go, Oh, it was all a dream, haha! But I don’t think we will hate it, because they’ve had this worked out for years.

      Also, I think it’s worth reiterating that the solution is probably really simple and we’re all just over-thinking it. Because we have nearly two years to dwell.


  4. Victoria

    This is hands down the best hour and a half of televsion ever. Watson’s speech to Sherlock at his grave at the very end kills me every time. Just so incredible.

  5. sarah

    I can’t deal with how long it’s going to take for the next season [or series] of Sherlock to happen. I’m terrified that Cumberbatch and Freeman’s schedules are going to be so packed that we’ll never get a third season. Stunningly good TV

  6. Michele

    What I’m wondering is….if what I think is true, and what happened took place the way I believe it did, will the self righteous JOhn Watson apologize to Mycroft?

    Of course he won’t. But if am right, it will be fun watching some of the fans rapidly backtracking “oh, I knew it all along.” Yeah sure you did.

    1. That’s precisely why I’m not guessing. I know I’ll be wrong. I’d rather just be surprised and get to enjoy the, “So THAT’S how they did it!” without being bummed I was wrong.

      1. Michele

        What stuns me most is that John never once thinks Moriarty could have gotten the information about Sherlock from his own blog. Huh. Interesting.

  7. Molly


    This may be more appropriate for your movie / industry tracking articles on laineygossip, but I wasn’t sure how to reach you there.

    Would you please comment on whether you think Benedict has any chance of being the next Bond after Daniel Craig?

    (Hereby follows a long-ish post, which I promise does tie back in to Sherlock, but please move / remove as desired. Thanks in advance).

    So, Daniel Craig is in Skyfall (Bond 23) and will be in the next one (Bond 24), released 2014. Supposedly, now that the studio finances are sorted out, Bond movies are aiming for a every-2-year new movie release schedule.

    Most James Bond incarnations stay on for about 7 years or so, and they are cast when they are in the latter part of their 30s or early 40s. (Granted, on that note, Daniel Craig will only be 46 by the time Bond 24 is released, and will have a few years left for more Bonds if he wants it …)

    There is a recent interview (June 1 2012) with Paul McGuigan in the Scotsman ( where it was mentioned that “So, too, he aims one day to stamp his mark on the James Bond franchise, having come close to directing Daniel Craig in his debut as 007. “I was down to the last two for Casino Royale,” he says. “Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson [the producers] had asked if I would be interested, and I’ve always been a major fan of Bond. But I think because they were bringing in a new Bond, they didn’t want another unknown factor in me. I still haven’t given up on that dream. I’ve given up on the dream of scoring the winning goal for Celtic in the European Cup final, but Bond is one thing I want to try and achieve.””

    Which is interesting, since watching Scandal in Belgravia, a wishful fangirl can imagaine that the episode is an audition “short” for a James Bond movie.

    I also submit a small snippet from May issue of Jaguar magazine ( – Benedict has been doing voiceovers for Jaguar ads, so I suppose that’s why they interveiwed him : “[Benedict] – “I’ve got something else coming up which could be really big that I can’t even talk about yet.”

    Yes, I know that is the vaguest of vague. But keep reading (if I haven’t lost you already).

    I really think that Benedict is campaigning to be the next Bond.

    This is Ian Fleming’s impression of James Bond. Commissioned by Fleming as an example for the Daily Express comic strip.

    This is Benedict at Baftas 2012:

    Now there was also those (rather uncharacteristic to be published / caught by a paparazzi – newspaper?) shots of him going about in swim shorts:

    … which makes more sense to my brain if he were doing some sort of Bond campaigning.

    See Daniel Craig:

    So, what do you think? Does Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul McGuigan have a shot at the Bond franchise (film 25+)? With Sherlock, they seem to have a pretty good profile / track record to make a compelling business case for it.

    Thanks for reading, and I would love to hear from you! (And yes, I would also love to see your article on the John/Sherlock being bros-for-life.)

    1. I think all British actors dream of being Bond.

      While I won’t deny Cumberbatch his dreams, I hope he isn’t campaigning for it because publicly campaigning for roles grosses me out. Just be good at your job (which he is), and the rest will sort itself out. I certainly think he could do it, but I don’t think Bond is his big announcement. I think he’s joining Marvel (hopefully NOT as Ant Man), and that will be his big to-do.

      I will get to those Sherlock articles eventually. They’ve required some re-watching and got derailed by some real-world work stuff but I hope to get them out in the next few weeks. I appreciate the three of you still hanging in there for those.

  8. Pingback: Sherlock 3.1: “The Empty Hearse” | Cinesnark

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