In the climactic showdown of tonight’s season finale, “The Reichenbach Fall,” the diabolical James Moriarty sneers at his arch rival, Sherlock Holmes, “You always want everything to be clever. That’s your weakness.” He’s gloating because he’s tricked Sherlock into believing that he possessed a code capable of breaking into any security system in the world—a possibility so remote that not even the writers of Sherlock would entertain it. And yet Sherlock swallows it whole (or at least pretends to). For all his belief in deductive logic, Sherlock also has a tendency to get so caught up in the particulars of a mystery that he misses the much larger truth. In this way, Moriarty’s criticism is spot-on: Sherlock is so obsessed with cracking Moriarty’s code that he misses the blinding, flashing obvious. But the line can also be viewed as a barb directed not just at Sherlock, the fictional character, but at Sherlock, the series—and maybe even its fans, too. “The Reichenbach Fall,” an episode that makes numerous allusions to the tale of “Hansel And Gretel,” is in some ways a cautionary tale about the danger of following the breadcrumbs too closely. If you’re not careful, you might just end up in the wrong place.
The episode caps off a season in which Sherlock has, with varying degrees of success, taken on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest hits: “A Scandal In Bohemia,” The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and, now, “The Final Problem,” the story in which the author killed off his most famous and beloved creation. In one of the clever transpositions this series does so well, the iconic Reichenbach Falls—the place where the original Sherlock faked his own death—appear in the episode, but only in painting form. After Sherlock recovers Turner’s celebrated painting of the falls, he becomes a media sensation. At a press conference, he reluctantly poses in a deerstalker cap—an accessory which, Watson points out, will now be known as a “Sherlock Holmes hat.” So far, so meta.
The episode’s singular title, “The Reichenbach Fall,” is a neat summary of Sherlock’s character trajectory tonight. His seemingly fatal plunge—which I’ll get to in due course—is preceded by a metaphorical one. Just as Sherlock, “the hero of Reichenbach,” becomes a household name, so too does his nemesis. In a sublimely ridiculous sequence, a silent, gum-chewing Moriarty simultaneously breaks into the Tower of London, the vault at the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison, using little more than a fire hydrant and his iPhone (Stealing the Crown Jewels: There’s an app for that!). As the cops come storming in to the Tower, prepared for a fight, Moriarty sits there, nonchalant, wearing a crown and royal robes. It’s beyond cheeky; it’s borderline kitsch.
So Moriarty is taken into custody, and it doesn’t take a genius like Sherlock to realize that this is exactly what he wanted. In what is inevitably touted as “the trial of the century,” Sherlock testifies against Moriarty, despite having only met him for five minutes. (The testimony is yet another sly nod to the source material, in which Moriarty only comes face-to-face with Sherlock once). “Two minutes would have made me an expert,” he insists. The jury deliberates for six minutes—they were held up by a queue for the loo, apparently—and returns with a startling verdict: Not guilty. Having successfully intimated the jury, Moriarty is a free man.
The surprise verdict is the first of many blows to befall Sherlock over tonight’s episode. As act one ends, Moriarty pays a visit to 221B Baker Street to tell Sherlock all about his magical line of computer code. “I own secrecy,” he says, adding, “Honey, you should see me in a crown.” In Andrew Scott’s hands, Moriarty is a distinctly 21st-century villain, sort of a twitchy, (more) flamboyant version of Julian Assange.
The fuel driving “The Reichenbach Fall” is the rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty. While their cat-and-mouse-game has, technically speaking, been underway ever since the beginning of season one, it wasn’t until this season that it really took center stage. One of the favorite themes of detective fiction is the blurring of the line between villain and pursuer—the notion that, to understand the mind of a criminal, one has to have a few screws loose. I’m not well-versed enough in the genre to know if this idea pre-dates Sherlock Holmes, but he’s certainly the most shining example of what, by now, has become a screenwriting cliché: the mad detective.
Sherlock is a Flawed Hero®, a character who seems tailor-made for a series on premium cable, even if he’s actually on PBS. So when Moriarty frames Sherlock for his own crime—the abduction and poisoning, via mercury-tainted chocolate, of the children of the American ambassador—it’s rather too easy for his detractors to believe he’s actually a psychopath. Sergeant Donovan doesn’t want to believe that Sherlock is capable of solving a crime using nothing but a set of footprints and a few traces of glycerin, so she chooses to believe the version of Sherlock that Moriarty has crafted. She follows the breadcrumbs, if you will, but ultimately succeed in confirming her own suspicions: This Sherlock guy’s a loon. As Sherlock tells Watson a short while later, “Everybody wants to believe it, a lie that's preferable to the truth.”
For the audience, there isn’t a terrible amount of suspense. After all, we know Sherlock is crazy, but not that crazy—or, as Watson aptly puts it, “Nobody could fake being such an annoying dick all the time.” Indeed. Instead of suspense, though, we experience something that’s more genuinely terrifying: the sense of being powerless to disprove someone else’s elaborately constructed lie.
From here, “The Reichenbach Fall” descends even further into the postmodern rabbit hole. Pursued by most of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a few of the world’s deadliest assassins, Sherlock drags Watson to the home of Kitty Reilly, the lady reporter he rejected earlier in the episode who’s now published a sensational expose alleging that the “hero of Reichenbach” is an enormous fraud. There, he discovers that her main informant is “Richard Brook,” a impecunious Irish actor who makes his living playing a character named “The Storyteller” on a children’s television show. He claims he was paid by Sherlock to pose as Moriarty. We only see Scott as “Richard Brook” for a few minutes, but he brilliant embodies the meek, disheveled actor his character's pretending to be; it’s no wonder Kitty fell for his story. Of course it also helps that, having been rejected rather brutally by Sherlock, she was all too ready to believe Brook/Moriarty’s tale of woe.
Yet there’s something about the twist I don’t totally buy. While it feels contrary to the spirit of Sherlock to nitpick excessively—part of the fun of this show is how it willfully flouts the very idea of plausibility—but even still this particular twist feels a little flimsy. If Brook is well-known enough that he was on TV, surely someone would have recognized him while he was on trial for the crime of the century? And just how far back does Moriarty’s plot against Sherlock go, anyway? Far enough that he was going to auditions years ago just to eventually use his IMDB credits to bring down Sherlock Holmes? If so, you have to honor the guy’s commitment.
After a brief and rather inscrutable meeting with poor old Molly, Sherlock at last arrives on the rooftop for his showdown with Moriarty. Having successfully distracted Watson with the (fake) news of Mrs. Hudson’s shooting—a plot point drawn very directly from “The Final Problem,” for those of you keeping track—Sherlock can face down his rival without distraction. The scene is a terrific showcase for both actors, though, by this point, neither Scott nor Benedict Cumberbatch really needs to prove himself in this department. Sherlock may have cracked the code, but what he didn’t anticipate is that Moriarty knew that he would, and that the code itself was nothing but a giant McGuffin meant to distract him from the real plot that’s been building all along. What’s more, Moriarty isn’t a brilliant hacker. He’s just a guy who was able to find a few willing, easily corruptible participants to partake in his plot. (It’s another revelation that plays into this episode’s overall theme, which seems to be the danger of looking at the facts and seeing only what wants one to see.) Unless Sherlock agrees to commit suicide and go to his grave a fraud, Moriarty’s crack team of assassins will kill Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade.
It’s a devilishly clever twist. Not only does it create a seemingly inescapable conundrum for our hero, but it also works as a great way to prove how much he’s evolved as a human. Sherlock is willing to give his own life—or pretend to, anyway—to save his friends from certain death. Makes you all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Just as he’s about to jump to his death, a sly grin spreads across Sherlock’s face; he thinks he’s got an out. He makes one last-ditch attempt to get Moriarty to call off the dogs, but Moriarty, in a final, devastating twist, pulls the trigger on himself. Now Sherlock’s only recourse is to jump—to take the very fall that Moriarty predicted during their tea summit. And so he does, leaving a kind of oral suicide note via his cell phone—a fitting touch for this technology-obsessed show—and then leaping to the ground as Watson looks on helplessly.
In a coda that’s both touching and funny, Watson and Mrs. Hudson pay a visit to Sherlock’s grave. When Watson, somewhat abashedly, confesses to harboring anger toward his dear, departed friend, Mrs. Hudson assures him his feelings are normal—then unleashes a tidal wave of suppressed anger about Sherlock’s various infractions. Watson interrupts, “I’m not actually that angry, OK?” Then, standing over Sherlock’s glossy black gravestone, he makes a moving entreaty. “Don’t. Be. Dead.” The camera pans away to reveal that, a few yards away, Sherlock is about as “not dead” as they come. In fact, there’s little to suggest that he’s experienced any kind of physical trauma at all—no scrapes, scars, bruises, or bandages. Just that pasty complexion and mop of greasy black curls.
So, we’re left with one enormous, juicy question: How’d he do it? In Conan Doyle’s story, there was an enormous loophole, since Watson never actually witnessed Sherlock take his fateful plunge. As everyone with access to Wikipedia knows, it was only later that Conan Doyle gave in to fans and revived Holmes, concocting a story about how Holmes bested Moriarty using his martial-arts skills, then climbed up the cliff to make it look like he had also fallen.
In “The Reichenbach Fall,” however, there appears to be much less ambiguity. We even see Sherlock’s limp, bloody, seemingly lifeless body carried off on a stretcher. So how did the master detective dupe everyone, including a crowd of onlookers? Even setting aside the issue of plausibility—something most Sherlock viewers did a long time ago anyway—there are not too many possibilities that suggest themselves. The closest thing I have to a theory is that whatever Sherlock did, it involved Molly. After all, their final encounter seemed very important yet was never fully explained.
Whatever the case may be, it’s a testament to Sherlock’s writers that they are able to provoke such breathless speculation over a story that’s been re-imagined so many times—to take something old and familiar and make it just as electrifying as the original. And therein lies the particular genius of Sherlock, a show which is able to rearrange, and in some cases completely alter, the details of its source material, while keeping its spirit firmly intact.