Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Toby Haynes
Broadcast on BBC One - 15 January 2012
'The Reichenbach Fall' borrows several things from 'The Final Problem', a short story known not only for its showdown between Holmes and Moriarty, but also for its author's attempt to kill off his most famous of characters. This episode elaborates on the expected confrontation between consulting detective and consulting criminal, but it also incorporates the story-about-the-story by making authorship – and the power of storytelling – one of its major themes. The clash between Doyle-as-author and Holmes-as-character has been played with before, particularly in Gilbert Adair's (2009) novel inversion And Then There Was No One, set at a Sherlock Holmes Festival near the Reichenbach Falls, and in which a detective character kills off their author. Less insistently postmodern, Steve Thompson nevertheless weaves the concept of a tension between storyteller and story firmly into his hero-villain face-off. Like Adair he also opts for a radical inversion: Sherlock is seemingly re-narrated and repositioned as the black-hat, the baddie of the piece. Holmes' “fall” is literal and metaphorical at the same time – a fall in status from hero to very nearly zero.
Making this episode an epic struggle over who gets to be the hero and who the arch-nemesis, who the author and who the character, who ordinary and who extraordinary, is a wonderfully post-Unbreakable idea that is generally well executed by Steve Thompson. At times, this is almost Sherlock-meets-Shyamalan by way of Philip K. Dick-style reality-bending. There are occasional plot holes amongst the meta-plotting, mind you: Moriarty's identity as “the Storyteller” from kids' TV – “it's on DVD”, he offers as a clincher of reality – would presumably have been easy enough for a journalist to verify, but thorough fact-checking evidently isn't something done by faux fan Kitty Riley (Katherine Parkinson). And Moriarty's decision that the only way to foil Sherlock is through self-sacrifice doesn't ring true, even if it tidies away story strands and makes Holmes' fate all the more inevitable.
There's something else that doesn't ring true. If a TV production is going to rely on many newspaper headlines flashed up momentarily and stylishly on screen, then it strikes me as mildly important that these headlines should be spelled correctly – so how can a prestigious series get to air with “Scotland Yard embarrased by overlooked clues” in one headline, and “Scotland Yard calls upon 'nation's favourite detective' in Moriarty trail” rather than trial in another? Journalists don't check facts anymore, and nobody checks their spellings – I''m not sure this is what's meant by a “Sherlock for the twenty-first century”. In a story that's otherwise so immersive, even split-second typos can intrude on the illusionism.
And though what eventually unfolds is a grim fairytale, it's made more believable by the return of police characters from 'A Study in Pink', a masterful stroke which lends weight to the feeling that the series itself is being book-ended and brought full circle towards genuine closure. Thompson also craftily exploits both the audience's and Sherlock's belief in Moriarty as a criminal mastermind: we're convinced by the missing computer code, and by Moriarty's opening apps for law-breaking, precisely because this type of story requires its villains to possess exaggerated, impossible, near-magical powers. We, all of us, even Mycroft and the British Establishment, fall for Moriarty's publicity and celebrity. No wonder he loves newspaper fairytales.
Director Toby Haynes is known for his use of tone-setting music on-set, and this episode makes repeated use of pre-existent (rather than specially scored) music on its soundtrack, making me wonder whether these pieces were included as temp music tracks and simply left in place as the best possible option. The homage to A Clockwork Orange as Moriarty smashes his way in to the Crown Jewels is one highlight, and Haynes' direction holds its own in comparison with Paul McGuigan's work on the previous two episodes. The ultimate meeting between Sherlock and Moriarty is also sharply directed and well played out, teasingly reusing "Stayin' Alive", and Haynes' decision to directly show Sherlock's fall rather than leaving it off-screen is another outstanding choice. Unlike 'The Final Problem' where Watson has to imagine Holmes' demise in his mind's eye, here neither John nor the audience are spared the sight of Sherlock's billowing-coated plummeting toward the London pavement. It makes this sequence almost painfully visceral, and punches home the fact that there can be no way out for Sherlock, no clever last-minute escape. Like all the best magic tricks, here it plainly is; we've seen it happen with our very own eyes. "Keep your eyes fixed on me", Sherlock tells his witness.
Just as I thought the CGI hound last week was a misjudgement, I wasn't wholly persuaded by the very last shot and its final resolution of the “final problem”. Leaving viewers speculating “how did he do that?” seems, to me, far less powerful than leaving the question “did he do it?” hanging in the air. At the very last gasp, then, 'The Reichenbach Fall' pulls its punches, not wanting to provoke audiences too powerfully. I'd argue that this episode would have been a braver, bolder piece of TV drama – and an even stronger piece of storytelling – if it had ended with John Watson speaking to Holmes' gravestone rather than on that panning shot.
What we are left with is a story that has to be re-told and re-inflected by its audience in order to fully make sense, with new bits of explanation being needed to iron out How It Was Done. “It's a trick, just a magic trick”, Sherlock says to John of his deductive powers, whilst also confessing under duress to be a “fake”. The trick, and the fakery, are both perfectly true – but Thompson's script is pure Moffatesque misdirection here, because they don't refer to what we might assume. "SUICIDE OF FAKE GENIUS" announces The Sun, except this made-up headline contains all the right words, all spelled correctly, just not in the right order. And perhaps this is Steve Thompson's cleverest trick of all – that in an epic, twisting story about storytelling, concerning who has the power and the agency to construct heroes and villains, it isn't the storyteller or the author who wins. This time it's the character who's triumphant, though can it ever really be anything else where Sherlock Holmes is concerned? The result is that fan audiences are ultimately given the power, for now, to invent their own final resolutions to this particular problem (even if Sherlock's taxonomy of fandom is more than a little retrograde). Moriarty, or Richard Brook, can't tell Sherlock's story... but the somewhat open ending leaves audiences and fans to do just that. Television has all the best tricks.
Far from indicating a fall from grace, series two has been a wonderful, palpable high for the Sherlock production team. Both in front of and behind the camera, this is TV drama hailing from “the best and the wisest”, to appropriate a few of Doyle's final words from 'The Final Problem'. Hopefully Sherlock's resurrection won't be too far off, and we'll be back with "CSI: Baker Street" before long.