Sherlock, 2nd season • 19 January 2012 • The SnowBlog
Sherlock, 2nd season
Did you watch the second season of the BBC's Sherlock? You might just about be able to catch all three movie-length episodes on iPlayer if you're quick. I'm all conflicted about it. The first ep was absolutely wonderful. The second episode disappointed me. The third episode left me fuming.
Comprehensive spoilers ahead. I'm a big fan of TV that rewards the attentive viewer. It's a discussion for another day, but I believe we're moving towards an era where entertainment is increasingly geared towards smaller audiences who love something rather than huge audiences who are ambivalent. And I loved the Scandal in Belgravia debut episode of this year's Sherlock season.
Steven Moffat on a good day creates fiendishly complex plots which actually make sense with hindsight and he packs them with humour. On a really good day he also gets the drama right. I found I had a piece of dust in my eye at the very end of A Scandal in Belgravia, when Irene Adler faces the chop. I watched the episode again a few days later and found the same piece of dust once again troubling me. Given what a macho brute I am, and how fiercely out of touch with my emotions I am, it's pretty impressive for what is ostensibly a funny intellectual puzzle to move me, even as a 'repeat'.
I've said it before, but Mark Gatiss seems like a lovely fellow. He's charming, funny and intelligent, and he seems like a pretty decent actor too. But I have yet to enjoy his writing. With s02e01, Moffat gave us riddles to solve against the clock while our heroes had a gun to their heads. in s02e02, Gatiss gave us what amounted to dream sequences. And once I'd worked out that people were hallucinating, the tension evaporated and my interest along with it. Ep 1 had thrills; ep 2 had scares: scares of the sudden-loud-noise or monster-jumping-out kind. We've all seen a hundred million of those and they're not traditionally what we demand of a detective show.
And with Sherlock of all shows you can't use the excuse "it's only TV; you're not supposed to think about it too much."
But it's s02ep3, The Reichenbach Fall, that was in danger of undoing all the good work that Scandal in Belgravia had done in making me a giant fan of the series. Detective shows are about solving puzzles. Half the fun is trying to beat the detective to the answer. Scandal in Belgravia delivered in abundance. On the other hand, the Reichenbach Fall was full of puzzles that were later dismissed, puzzles where the answer was the first thing anyone would think of, puzzles where the answer didn't make sense and puzzles which were simply not answered, or even addressed, presumably to be picked up in 12 months' time when we can hardly remember what the question was.
In s02e01, we had puzzles like 'how was the hiker killed', 'what's the combination to the safe?', 'what's the password to the phone?' and 'why wasn't the dead man on the flight?' We were given hints and partial clues - enough to solve the riddles - or at least to have the solutions make you slap your palm to your forehead - all the while being dazzled by the dialogue and swept up in the drama. What was Irene Adler's game and were she and Sherlock really engaged in some sort of romantic dance or was it all a smokescreen? Every one of these intellectual or emotional questions was paid off in a satisfying, intelligent and frequently exhilarating way.
In s02e03 we had the questions of 'what does i.o.u. mean?', 'what is the final problem moriarty refers to?', 'what are the professional killers up to?', 'where are the kidnapped children being held?', 'how did moriarty pull off those break ins?', 'how did moriarty get acquitted?', 'how did moriarty create a fake persona as a TV presenter?' and 'where was the secret key hidden?'. The answers to the first two were simply not addressed. The answer to the question of the killers... just didn't make sense. They were told to 'get Sherlock' which they apparently interpreted to mean saving his life and bumping each other off (but only when one of them touched Sherlock) until... they could work out through lots of quiet contemplation where he'd stashed the key, presumably? And they were working for themselves hunting for the non-existent key until Moriarty wanted them to become a threat at which point they were to be considered utterly dedicated to killing Sherlock's friends unless called off by Moriarty. Couldn't Sherlock have offered them the (non-existent) key to bribe them to let his pals live? Apparently not. Or were the hired killers ready to bump off Sherlock's friends a different group from the hired killers protecting him? Who knows. Killers, killers everywhere and not a drop of sense.
The answer to where the children were imprisoned involved some nineteenth century chemistry performed upon the residue dissolved in the footprints from Moriarty's shoe. The business with the linseed oil seemed to be a failed attempt by the kidnapped boy to lead the police to his abductors, but it had the (presumably unintended) effect of allowing Sherlock to identify all the traces on Moriarty's shoe. And the implication was that Moriarty knew Sherlock would pursue this approach and was even hinting that he had left a breadcrumb trail. But wasn't the linseed oil the boy's idea not Moriarty's? All very confusing. And all very unconvincing. Not to mention technically hokey. Steve Thompson (= the writer) has clearly never seen CSI or read a book on forensics: I could almost believe a mass-spectrometer could identify invisible microscopic residue, but I just can't buy the bubbling test tubes and litmus paper approach.
And more importantly when considering that this is a detective show, these weren't answers you could work out given the clues and which, with hindsight, seemed impressively logical; they were ad-hoc nonsense.
The answers to the questions about the robberies, the acquittal and presumably also the fake persona (though this also was never addressed) was even more of a let-down. Moriarty simply threatened or bribed a few key people. Just the sort of thing the police, even without any help from Sherlock, would normally suspect, and which they would presumably uncover fairly quickly. As intriguing mysteries go, this is akin to discovering that a burglar got into a house by breaking a window. Or was it a sneaky double-bluff: you thought this was an interesting puzzle but really it was boring. If so, I'm not impressed.
And as for the secret key, it never existed. So Moriarty had the entire underworld bidding for his services knowing that he couldn't deliver. Or could only deliver to the extent that ordinary bribery and threats could achieve. Presumably this was a cunning plan on Moriarty's part to anger every powerful criminal in the world and to make himself look like a fraud. How accidentally ironic, given that Moriarty was so intent on making Sherlock appear to be a fraud. And the court case would have sealed his fate by letting all these potential criminal employers know what he looked like. Or would the world's crime lords suddenly decide that Moriarty was really a kid's TV presenter because The Sun said so? Who gets the world's rogue states bidding for their time and then announces that really they work for CBeebies? It's probably a good job Moriarty shot himself because his days were presumably numbered.
Which leads me to the final plot point I absolutely do not buy. It makes no sense that Moriarty was desperate to destroy Sherlock but wouldn't bother to stick around to see it happen. It wasn't enough to discredit Sherlock; Moriarty needed him to admit defeat and take his own life. If that final submission was so important, why blow your brains out on a whim and miss it? Moreover the reasoning for Moriarty taking his own life appeared to be that Sherlock would be able to make him call off the assassins otherwise. Moriarty had withstood weeks of torture by professional intelligence types lead by Mycroft (who in the books was considered even more intelligent than Sherlock). But apparently on the basis of some really solid eye contact, Moriarty conceded that Sherlock could swiftly break him, and so quickly committed suicide.
The possibility that Moriarty too was faking his own death doesn't make that whole plot point easier to digest. It just makes a mockery of the whole showdown by having both participants fake their own suicides in quick succession.
The one thing which might have partially salvaged The Reichenbach Fall for me would have been appending the words "To Be Continued" to the closing scene. At least then I would have felt all the ridiculous loose ends and nonsensical plot points were being acknowledged. I would still consider that a movie-length episode is enough time to wrap up a story. I would also consider it a tactical miscalculation to build dramatic tension for two hours and then offer to resolve the whole thing in a year's time. But they didn't even do that. They simply ended the episode.
I suppose I should concede that the question of how Sherlock faked his own death might prove to be a satisfying riddle suitably in keeping with the spirit of the show. On the other hand, we've got 12 months or so to work out the answer and I suspect that the internet has already assembled all the important pieces of the puzzle. By the time Christmas 2012 rolls around we're not going to be wowed by a pile of bin bags, a corpse borrowed from Molly's mortuary and a whiff of the HOUND drug from ep 2 for Watson. Plus I'm already suspicious that the reason Watson couldn't be in on the deception will prove to be 'because otherwise the killers wouldn't have been convinced' - which, if that's the explanation given, I'm not going to buy. A bit of blubbing at the funeral and most professional killers would be satisfied I reckon.
And finally, I don't see what the finale episode achieves for the series as a whole except to set up a lot of annoying obstacles to good storytelling next year. Sherlock presumably can't easily go back to being a detective because he is now famous for being a) a fraud and b) dead. He can't go back to working with the police given the appalling press the police will have received for inviting in a charlatan who rigged dozens of their cases. Or will an episode of next season be spent erasing all those obstacles rather than letting us have intriguing crimes to solve?
If you'd asked me about Sherlock after s02e01 I'd have said the show is one of the best things I've seen on TV. Having seen eps 2 and especially 3, I'm not sure what to make of it all. Clearly they're capable of amazing things. I'll have my fingers crossed that they manage something amazing again - at least once - next season.