Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
It is, of course, impossible to produce anything perfect. No really. Someone, somewhere, will always be perverse and assert dislike, or have the kind of mind that can see ways in which the “thing” could have been made better. Being wise after the event is the easy way to find fault. But when you’re the creator, you can only rely on your own sense of what works and what does not, what can be shown and what cannot. It’s a tightrope and, given the pressures of modern life, it’s very difficult to make a success. Although in some situations, it’s possible to leave an audience in a state of rapture. Some performances in live theatre and the food that emerges from some professional kitchens on to your table come to mind. Here everyone is in the moment with the freshness of the experience leading to a willing suspension of the normal cynicism and disbelief. For a brief moment, we all become believers in perfection and then, such is the embarrassment at the prospect of having to find fault, we all choose to remember it for all time as the greatest. In part, we’re allowed to do this because no-one else can go back to re-experience that moment when [insert name of celebrity actor or chef] outdid him/herself and produced the perfect [insert name of favourite role or dish]. In the case of the television programmes, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the second live-action Quatermass which I watched in 1955 was an outstanding set of episodes and only rarely have they been topped. Far better, in my opinion, than the first and later Quatermass series although The Stone Tape runs it a close second. Curiously for a live-action series of that era, Quatermass II was recorded and still exists in the BBC archives. One day, perhaps, the powers-that-be will permit it to be shown again. But it wouldn’t be the same. We’ve moved on culturally. The acting styles would seem dated and mannered. The story would seem less original because it’s been copied so often.
Today, of course, we have everything recorded and made available for anyone to buy or watch whenever they want. This makes the experience more emotionally disposable. Since we can watch and rewatch if we think we missed anything, there’s far less attention paid. When you think this may be your only chance to see something, you focus your concentration. You don’t want anything to get by you. All of which brings me to Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall (2012) which, in these ephemeral days, is as close to a perfect episode as we’re likely to see. So kudos to the team: director Toby Haynes, writers Steve Thompson and Mark Gatiss, and the cast. It was a memorable ninety minutes.
So why is it so good? The answer lies in the inversion of expectation. The five previous episodes have maintained Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the proactive hero, stalking around the landscape being insufferable and being right about most things. Watson (Martin Freeman) has trailed in his wake, doing his best to steer the Holmes ship in the right social direction, but finding it difficult to plot a course into a safe port when a storm looms on the horizon. The arrogance of the man in believing there’s no need to court public approval is squarely in the mould created by Arthur Conan Doyle. In a way, we’re seduced into believing the man is invincible. And now a special word of praise for Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty. We’ve seen him in passing as the nemesis-in-waiting, but he now steps up to the plate to throw a curve ball at our hero. To match the brilliant mind of Sherlock, Moriarty has to come from an oblique angle. It would be pointless to try routine tactics and too boring just to have Sherlock shot. It’s the old Batman syndrome best captured in the Adam West days. The villains line up with ever more eccentric ways of trying to kill our hero (and Robin), each doomed to fail as being overcomplicated. Here Moriarty really does come up with a devious plan to discredit the hero. It would require too many spoilers to explain and, in any event, you should enjoy without preconceptions. Simply wait for the wonderful moment on the roof when Moriarty considers the future prospect of only having ordinary people to contend with. I will only offer the following few thoughts.
The strength of the episode lies in the apparent passivity of Sherlock. He has to endure to discover the nature of the game being played. The fact he does care for others is also a welcome relief. The acceptance of guilt admitted by Mycroft is revealing. The frustration of Watson, Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) and Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is touching. And the probable role of Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey) is worth speculating on. Overall, Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall is a remarkably sustained piece of intelligently-focused malevolence on a small screen. It will live in my memory for a long time.
For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)