Sherlock in Retrospect: The Reichenbach Fall
By David Selby.
The Reichenbach Fall is almost undoubtedly the most popular story of the two series. Critically applauded, it left both fanatic and casual viewers pondering on the ways by which Sherlock somehow faked his death. It’s where Sherlock suddenly stood out above other television programs; through its ingenious idea of audience interaction.
There was something which irked me about The Final Problem. It was to be the last adventure of Sherlock Holmes – “I must save my mind for better things,” wrote Conan Doyle; “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” Yet that was the story’s downfall. It felt last-minute – Sherlock’s greatest adversary, positioned at the centre of a criminal web, was introduced spontaneously, and it was when one realised that Conan Doyle seemed to have, upon deciding Sherlock Holmes was a distraction, sat down and written the story without prior planning. It was the unexpectedness of Sherlock’s fall; the sudden convenience, that made the whole thing feel like a last-minute affair.
Of course, this also rubbed off well on the novella and was another reason why it was one of my favourites too. As with Watson himself, the reader was so stunned by Sherlock’s sudden death that the ‘shock’ pathos was more felt than it would have been with the usual excessive levels of foreshadowing. And with the weight of the stories that succeeded it, The Final Problem was quite instrumentally placed.
That was where the BBC adaptation stood out. It had the shock factor of Sherlock’s (apparent) suicide but also a superior structure, having been prefigured by a complex arc. Simply: it had been planned.
The focal point of the narrative was Sherlock’s public image. As a character, he cared little about social perception (unlike John; conscious of being reduced to gossip, frustrated by Sherlock’s apathy on the matter). And it was here that the greatest revelations came to light: what does Sherlock care about?
Moriarty knew how to work Sherlock. He knew what would destroy him. Exposure as a fake genius was perhaps Sherlock’s only bother in terms of his appearance – true to the fact that Sherlock is, to the end, pompous.
The success of the episode was fundamentally down its dénouement. The roof scene was questionably television’s finest climax, as all lose ends were tied up and the inventiveness (and morality) of both the good and the bad was exposed to the viewer. Everything is planned; everything has a reason, and the two masterminds stood conversing in an almost friendly manner above the rest of the city – saying something about their own idea of importance.
The (Grimm) ‘fairy-tale’ motive was disquietingly stressed by Moriarty’s storybook-complex. Yet still Sherlock himself won – for he had his own ending planned. But it wasn’t the victory which was important to the episode; it was the pressure placed on the protagonist and the decisions it led to him making. He built a solid, realistic bond with John Watson and seeing the pair torn apart by fate was a heart-rending cessation. Mrs Hudson too loved Sherlock; the mother-figure became visible towards the end of the episode. The funeral was skilfully scripted, and Mycroft’s minimal role – sitting in his office, reading the headlines – was poignantly subtle. Though perhaps the most memorable change in dynamic was between Sherlock and Molly: she always mattered.
The Reichenbach Fall is many things. It’s engrossing, suspenseful, shocking and completely beautiful. The big question now is: how did Sherlock do it? Well, the answer’s certainly ambiguous…
Catch up on the other articles in this series:
- Sherlock in Retrospect: A Study in Pink
- Sherlock in Retrospect: The Blind Banker
- Sherlock in Retrospect: The Great Game
- Sherlock in Retrospect: A Scandal in Belgravia
- Sherlock in Retrospect: The Hounds of Baskerville