Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Reichenbach Fall

It's been a full five days since the final episode of the second series of Sherlock was broadcast. "Why have you left it so long to review?!" I hear you cry from in front of your computer screens. Well, firstly it's because I'm incredibly busy at the moment. Like, busy beyond belief. I've got a COLD SORE from all the stress I'm under! But the other reason is simply because it's taken me a few days to really mull the episode over in my head.

In case you missed The Reichenbach Fall (in which case, stop reading right now and go watch it), the scene that's got everyone talking occurs towards the end. After a confrontation with Andrew Scott's Moriarty on the roof of St Bartholomew's Hospital, a figure who is almost certainly Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes throws himself off the roof, landing on the cold, hard, unfeeling pavement below. Martin Freeman's John Watson staggers towards the bloodied corpse and sees that his eyes have not deceived him, and that Sherlock Holmes is dead.

Sherlock Holmes is dead.

Now, there's so much to say about that scene alone. The episode could have finished there and then, and audiences would have been talking about it for the rest of the month (if not the rest of the year). But no. The final scene of the episode sees John and Mrs Hudson visit Sherlock's grave, to cement - if it even needed cementing in the first place - the fact that this man is dead and buried and not going to come back. In fact, to an extent it tries to emphasise this too much, because it makes it so obvious that it's trying to make you think that Sherlock is dead that in doing so it becomes clear that there's one final twist to come. And that twist, as it happens, turns out to be the final shot of the series. As a heartbroken John walks away from the tombstone of a man whose reputation has been completely and utterly destroyed over the course of the episode (thanks to the delightfully evil Moriarty), the camera tracks back slowly to reveal a dark figure watching him from a distance. And when the camera pans around to reveal the identity of this mysterious watcher, it becomes apparent that it is - as it was always going to be - Sherlock Holmes himself.

A mysterious watcher looks on.

And, of course, it's Sherlock Holmes.

If anything was going to fire up the imagination, crash discussion forums and set Twitter alight in a frenzy of speculation and hashtags, it was going to be this. How. The. HELL did Sherlock manage to survive that fall? Of course, it's a testament to Sherlock's genius that he's able to fake his death in such a convincing manner, but seriously, as a viewer, knowing that I'll have to wait another year or so to find out (or possibly even a year and a half, if the gap between the first two series is at all indicative of how long we're going to have to wait this time around) is driving me insane. Knowing that all I can do is speculate along with other Sherlock aficionados - which, let's face it, is probably the rest of the country, with a particular mention going to the Radio 2 Breakfast team - whilst everything else on TV for the rest of the year fails to live up to January's standards... it's just so frustrating! But I'm not going to complain. I think the fact that a single episode of a television show can unite the country in an air of suspense and speculation, especially in a time of growing criticism and falling viewing figures, speaks volumes about how good British television can be when it's done right. And The Reichenbach Fall is very much the epitome of "British TV done right."

Of course, much of the brilliance of the episode is down to its writer, Steve Thompson, and whilst I don't think his script was quite as strong as Steven Moffat's script for the opening episode, which was perfect in the truest sense of the word, it was still brimming with wit, humour, intelligence, and an all round coolness that only Sherlock can pull off. However, that's not really what I want to focus on. No, instead I'd much rather focus on Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott.

Sherlock Holmes.
Jim Moriarty.

For the two series of Sherlock that have aired now, Benedict Cumberbatch has portrayed a cold and emotionally isolated interpretation of the character. The only overt displays of warmth his Sherlock ever really displayed were both fake and deliberately unconvincing to the audience. And yet... And yet there were always tiny, subtle moments that made you think that there might just be more to him than meets the eye; that beneath his hard exterior, a soft little heart beats away inside. They're things like how he tells John that "England would fall" if Mrs Hudson were to ever leave Baker Street. They're easy to not remember, but they're there. And what's so special about Sherlock's apparent suicide scene in The Reichenbach Fall is that, for the first time, the softer side of Sherlock comes to the surface. Just look at him as he speaks to John from the roof. Seriously, just look. And listen. His voice breaks. Tears fall from eyes which genuinely do seem to offer a glimpse into his soul. And to see such a massive development in Sherlock's character is not only refreshing but a relief, not to say incredibly moving. After all, as much as I've always been in awe of Cumberbatch's Sherlock, I can't say I've ever really liked him as a character, and that's precisely because he's largely been so emotionless. Don't get me wrong, I never disliked him, but I wouldn't have wanted him as my best mate, either. So thank God that's changed, then! But of course, there's a more sceptical way of looking at this whole thing. In hindsight, it's clear that, despite what he says, as Sherlock stands on the roof, and even as he falls, he has no intention of dying. Therefore, could you perhaps argue that all the things he says in that phone call are nothing more than convincing lies, which he utilises to make his death seem more convincing? Quite possibly. But I think that's missing the point. The thing is, although he may be misleading John with his words, the sentiments behind them are all real - of that I'm sure. Not even the great Sherlock Holmes could fool anyone into thinking he cared about his friends if, in reality, he didn't. Honestly, there are so many layers to Cumberbatch's performance in that scene alone that the only word that springs to mind at the moment is 'BAFTA'. If he doesn't win, I'll be writing the Academy a letter. 

The Sherlock beneath the Sherlock?

Something that I think is very interesting is the fact that the time at which all this warmth and goodness within Sherlock suddenly pours out is the time at which he's faced with the very opposite. For all that Holmes and Moriarty are similar entities, they couldn't be more different. Whilst some may think of Sherlock as cold-hearted, it's only in the face of a truly cold heart that the warmth in Sherlock's begins to shine through. And I love that. It may be cheesey to try to reduce such an epic rivalry into a basic struggle of good against evil, but that's what I think it is, at least on a fundamental level. And since it's only human nature to cling on to all that is good when faced with evil, it's hardly surprising that this episode seems to have intensified everyone's love of Sherlock.

On the subject of Moriarty, however, I feel compelled to talk about the performance of Adam Scott. In many ways it's an odd performance (people have likened Scott's performance to Graham Norton of all people!), but it's certainly an effective one. I mean, we'd seen previews of what Scott's Moriarty could really be like in The Great Game and A Scandal in Belgravia (and even, to an extent, in the final moment of the mediocre The Hounds of Baskeville); there had been little shows of his unpredictability and malice... but those were nothing compared to what he was like in The Reichenbach Fall. The fact that he veers so dangerously between jokey and completely and utterly psychotic in a heartbeat makes watching him both thrilling and terrifying. And I'm not joking about the whole 'terrifying' thing; seriously, there were moments on the rooftop where I was actually a little bit scared of Moriarty. It was partly due to the lighting, I suppose, which really made him look inhuman, but the bulk of the blame (or should I say credit?) for that can fall on Adam Scott. The thing is, though, the whole 'unpredictable arch-nemesis' thing has been done before; it's not new. Look at John Simm's Master in Doctor Who, for example. The main difference between the two is that John Simm's Master doesn't work, and Adam Scott's Moriarty does. He so does. The Simm Master always felt very forced and contrived to me, and I had a lot of trouble believing in him; but believe you me, I had no trouble accepting that Scott's Moriarty is a guy who listens to Staying Alive one minute, and then breaks into the Tower of London to wear the Crown Jewels the next (just to show that he can). And I certainly had no trouble believing that he would be willing to shoot himself more or less on a whim, as indeed he did. I don't think I've ever been frightened by acting before - of scenes in TV shows and films, yes, but never of acting. So I think that speaks buckets about how bloody fantastic Andrew Scott's portrayal of Moriarty is, then. In a way, I do sort of hope that Moriarty stays dead, even though we're only two series into a show that I could see running for a good few years yet, just for the sake of poor ol' Sherlock, and also for my own sake (I don't like being frightened!). But at the same time, he's so damn good that I can't help but hope that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss find at least some way to feature him again at some stage, even though he's dead. Come on, as if death could stop Moriarty!

A more psychotic villian never there was. Bravo, Mr Scott.
Downright scary...

And completely bloody insane. A genuine psychopath.

And so, having discussed the two actors and characters that I wanted to discuss when I started writing this review, I'm finding myself thinking, once again, about how the cliffhanger is going to be resolved in Series 3 (which, as it happens, was commissioned when Series 2 was commissioned, the cheeky buggers). The fact that Molly was excluded from Moriarty's 'list' of Sherlock's friends felt like a glaring omission to me. That, coupled with the fact that Sherlock approached her for help earlier in the episode, has made me certain that she's involved somehow. Also, the cyclist who rode into John 'accidentally'? Not an accident, but then again I don't think we're seriously supposed to believe that it was. Furthermore, the fact that there was an open-top rubbish truck directly next to where Sherlock fell, which conveniently drove away as soon as people began to approach the body on the floor? Not a coincidence, I don't think. But other than that I don't know. Of course, Steven Moffat has gone on record to say that there's something incredibly obvious that everybody has missed... but that doesn't really help matters, does it? I guess for now we'll have to not worry about the fact that we don't know how Sherlock survived; instead, we should just take solace in that he did survive. He'd have broken my heart if he didn't!

It's hard to know exactly what to say to round off this entry, partly because I'm probably running dangerously low on superlatives. So I think I'll settle for using no superlatives, and keeping it short:

"More, please!"


PS. If Sherlock and Frozen Planet don't sweep up at the BAFTAs this year, I'm going to have to seriously re-evaluate my ability to predict winners, cos those two shows are dead certs

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Scandal in Belgravia

I wasn’t a very good blogger last year. The amount of times I told myself I would make a conscious effort to blog more (I even went on record on here a few of those times) clearly had no effect on the amount of blogging I actually did. I finished watching Smallville (ie. Clark Kent finally became bloody SUPERMAN!) and picked up on House where I last left off - and I didn’t even so much as think about logging into Blogspot. The Christmas episode of Downton Abbey aired and I didn’t even go near the computer!! Shameful.

But last night, at 8:10pm, on your TV and mine, something remarkable happened. Having enjoyed the first series of the BBC’s updated version of the Sherlock Holmes myth, which first hit our screens in 2010 under the watchful eyes of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, I was naturally excited about the prospect of a new episode to watch, especially since it had been 18 months since audiences saw Sherlock finally come face to face with the positively psychopathic Jim Moriarty by a swimming pool, with only a worried-looking Watson, a bunch of snipers, a bomb and a gun for company. However, there was no way in hell I could have anticipated just how bloody fantastic this new episode, A Scandal in Belgravia (based on the original Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia), would be.

Now, let me make something clear right now. I am no fan of Moffat. I enjoyed his episode of Sherlock last year, but the buck stops there. I’m no fan of Coupling. I try not to think about Jekyll. And I will never forgive him for what he’s done to Doctor Who. But what he did when he wrote A Scandal in Belgravia… well, I can honestly only describe it to you as pure perfection. From the opening moments to the final, exhilarating few seconds, I was hooked. And the only – and I mean only – piece of television that I can think of that betters last night’s Sherlock is the finale of Season 2 of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s Two Cathedrals. Nothing on TV will ever better that episode, let me tell you that now – so for me to say that Moffat’s Sherlock episode came perilously close to doing so last night… that is saying a hell of a lot.

It’s difficult for me to highlight just what was so excellent about Scandal because if I were to do so you’d end up reading a transcript of the episode, and as entertaining as I’m sure reading it would be, that’s not what I’m here to do. But there were just so many moments that I’m struggling to know where to begin. Perhaps, then, I should start at the beginning, which saw the knife-cutting tension of the final moments of the last series broken (or, quite possibly, exacerbated) by the ringing of Moriarty’s phone, which just so happens to have the Bee Gees as its ringtone. Or maybe I should talk about the way Sherlock sits in Buckingham Palace stark naked, covered only by a flimsy sheet. But then I’d also want to talk about how chilling it was to hear Sherlock describe to the annoying American exactly what injuries he’d have, and detailing how he would get them, before he even got them.

Benedict Cumberbatch simply OWNS as Sherlock Holmes, whilst Lara Pulver dazzles as Irene Adler

However, as wonderful as those little elements are, the ultimate highlight must surely be what was essentially at the very core of the whole episode - the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Hadler. For his whole life, Sherlock has been the cleverest person (and then some) in whichever room he’s arrogantly stridden into. But with Irene Hadler, he might just have met his match. And as interesting as Moffat’s decision to make his interpretation of the character a seductive dominatrix, a woman who elects not to stride arrogantly into a room but calmly glide into it naked, was, what was truly compelling was the way in which the entire episode was essentially an intellectual way of depicting two predators circling each other and trying to size each other up (though Sherlock did appear to have the upper hand on that front). Sherlock and Irene are so incredibly similar that they could be either friends, enemies or lovers – and, quite deliberately, there are elements of all three of those possibilities dispersed throughout the episode, and that makes for truly exhilarating viewing.

A big congratulations also has to go out to the show’s composer, David G Arnold. Composers  - especially on TV shows – don’t get nearly enough recognition, and often when they do receive it its only because somebody wants to complain about their music being too loud/interfering/whatever. I hope that nobody will be saying that about the score of Scandal because it was absolutely superb. There were some (well, a lot) of moments in the episode that were outstanding of their own accord, but when coupled with that tremendous, tremendous score – which struck me as rather evocative of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Da Vinci Code – they just became something else entirely. I’m thinking specifically of the scene where Irene finally figures out what Sherlock knew all along about how the accomplished sportsmen died, but, more specifically, the scene in which Sherlock reveals to Irene how he could tell from both her pupils and her pulse that all the words she’d ever said to him were more than just words.

Which leads me on to one last thing I wanted to talk about it. I like it when TV shows are clever. I like it when they make you think. Shows like The West Wing and Doctor Who are like that. And so’s Sherlock. But I especially loved Scandal because it wasn’t just clever in that traditional sense; it was clever because it was constantly able to fool the audience. When Sherlock typed in the codes 1895 and 221B into the phone, it can be presumed that if the codes weren’t at least the codes that the audience was thinking of, they were certainly the codes that they were sure would  be the correct ones (although I suppose the fact that there were remaining attempts was a big of a giveaway), only to find that they were not. That, I suppose, just made the eventual reveal of what the code actually was all the more satisfying. And as for the code itself…  well, I’m fairly sure that I AM SHERLOCKED is going to be remembered for years to come in Sherlock mythology. The ultimate moment of deception, though (at least for me), came at the end. I honestly thought that, having ‘died’ once, Irene’s death at the hands of the terrorist cell would almost certainly be unavoidable. This was cemented as she resigned herself to her fate, was approached by a swordsmen, and the screen faded to black. But to hear that text alert, and for the picture to race back to the screen, and to see Irene look up and straight into the eyes of Sherlock Holmes… that was the biggest surprise of them all – and what a surprise it was. Absolutely breath-taking, there’s no other word for it.


To be entirely truthful with you, I’m a little concerned about the rest of 2012. I mean, yes, it looks to be a good year in terms of television: there’s another series of Downton Abbey for starters, what I presume is the final episode of Absolutely Fabulous, and hey, there’s even another two episodes of Sherlock! But seriously, when you consider that A Scandal in Belgravia was a masterpiece in every sense of the word, will anything on television in 2012 – the rest of the decade, in fact – actually top it?

I think not.