Ahead of Sherlock’s return tonight, I thought it’d be appropriate to take a look at his other return – his return from the grave – and why I felt it didn’t quite work.
In 2012, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss presented The Reichenbach Fall, a loose adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes story The Final Problem. It presented a fairly unambiguous depiction of Sherlock’s suicide, indicating he was quite dead – this, of course, wasn’t the case. But given how definitive his apparent demise was, the reveal that it had been staged prompted mass speculation – as well as a huge weight of expectation being placed upon the eventual explanation presented in The Empty Hearse.
It was an explanation that Moffat and Gatiss largely dodged, in the end; the opening episode of the third season presented a series of different potential explanations, but never quite committed to one wholeheartedly. And so we’re unlikely to ever receive a definitive explanation as to how Sherlock faked his death; much like the good detective, we’re left only to our deductions.
This, of course, annoyed a lot of people, who felt cheated by the narrative – you might assume that’s the argument I’m about to make. Quite the opposite, in fact; I’m actually rather fond of the ambiguities of The Empty Hearse, and if anything probably would have taken it further. To me, the issue with Sherlock’s return isn’t a matter of how, but rather, of why.
Ambiguities notwithstanding, the presented explanations as to how Sherlock faked his death all had one thing in common: the intention to fool John. It’s all about his perspective – where he’s standing, what he can see, and so on and so forth. It’s understandable in some ways, because in that scene John is the audience surrogate; indeed, there’s a tradition dating back to the start of Watson acting in that role. Convincing John of Sherlock’s death is, in effect, necessary to demonstrate it to the audience. But, here’s the thing: in an instance of dramatic irony, it’s revealed to the audience that Sherlock is alive. Most would have been expecting it, of course, but the confirmation shifts our perspective away from John’s – suddenly, we become a confidante. We’re in on it. John isn’t.
Accordingly, then, John is the only one who offers any critique of Sherlock – the only one angry at him for what he’s done. The audience is hardly inclined to side against him anyway, given he’s the hero of the piece; the same is true of the programme in general. Sherlock warps the narrative, and he’s given a free pass for his actions. It’s taken further, in fact, as Sherlock contrives a near death scenario to prompt an apology from John – as well as a panic attack. Caught between the desire to tell an action adventure story, and the obligation to follow through on the character drama, Moffat and Gatiss are unable to strike the right note; as Martin Freeman gives a career best performance of raw vulnerability, Benedict Cumberbatch is gearing up to play the swashbuckling detective without a care in the world. The two tones don’t mesh so well, and end up doing a disservice to both characters, as well as undercutting the effectiveness of Sherlock’s return.
The Reichenbach Fall indicates a need to fool Moriarty’s assassins; The Empty Hearse presents instead an attempt to fool John, with no explanation as to why. The ending of The Reichenbach Fall becomes less about Sherlock outwitting Moriarty against the clock, and more about Sherlock pulling a cruel and elaborate prank on his best and only friend.
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