Sherlock Season 2
Be warned! This article has huge spoilers for the entire first two series of Sherlock
I had some fairly strong opinions on the first series of Sherlock: basically that the first episode was the greatest thing on TV in ages, and the other two failed hugely in living up to it. And so I tackled the second series with both excitement and trepidation.
A Scandal in Belgravia
The first episode was written by Steven Moffat himself, the same man who wrote the first episode of the first series that I so admired. So expectations were high and it almost delivered. The core plot was great, and the dual factors of a) having never read the original novels and b) having plenty of white, middle-class, male privilege, meant that I wasn't bothered by Irene Adler being turned into a sexy dominatrix who worked for Moriarty. Much like A Study in Pink, the entire episode was a battle of wits between Holmes and his adversary. The only downside was that it got a little muddled towards the end, with slightly too many elements being introduced that served only to confuse the plot. It needed either an extra half an hour or one less twist.
The Hounds of Baskerville
And so to the second episode, written by Mark Gatiss who had previously written the third episode of the first series. At the time, I criticised that episode for having too much going on. This one doesn't seem to have enough. Part of the flaw was that we didn't know the rules. Later Sherlock Holmes stories introduce more supernatural elements, and the circus from the first series certainly dipped it's toe in the waters of fantasy, so when we're told there's a demon hound on the loose we can't be entirely sure where they're going with it. So once the notion of genetic modification is bought up, it seems possible that we're going in that direction; it's not something that would be possible in the real world, but in this Sherlock-ised version it might just fit. Or it might not, the show might want to stick entirely in the realms of the possible. Which it does, just about, although the notion of the fear gas is a little far-fetched.
Note that either approach would work, but when neither the audience or the characters know which one you're taking, the whole thing gets very confused. Holmes and Watson are either smart enough to know that there's clearly no actual monster, and not doubt that, or they know that the physics of their world works slightly differently to ours and it might be possible. What we get is the first one, with hints that the second one might be true. And it just doesn't work. When it turns out to just be some sort of fear-gas, all of the doubting just seems silly in retrospect.
More than that, the "is the monster real or isn't it" question is the crux of the whole plot, and most of the story, if you can even call it that, is just going back and forth on that question, including what seemed like 28 different "out on the moors at night" scenes.
Or maybe I'm just upset as I was really hoping that after they introduced the H.O.U.N.D. group that Solid Snake would show up.
The Reichenbach Fall
So far, so average then. And this episode was written by Steve Thompson, who gave us the second episode of the first season, and probably the show's low-point to-date (though at least now he can make a case for Gatiss' Baskerville story being worse). And it's wonderful.
The only thing I didn't like was the set-up: a bit of computer code that can unlock anything? Oh please. That this itself became a plot element delighted me. Once again, it's a battle of wits between Holmes and his opponent, but for the first time said opponent might actually have the upper hand. The notion that Holmes had created Moriarty had been hinted at way back at the start of the first series, and it was great to see it pay off here, even if I did wish it were actually true.
Moriarty as a character has been significantly more interesting this season too. The brief look we got of him at the end of the first season didn't impress me, to say the least, but after we get more than a glimpse he turns out to be much more three-dimensional than he first seemed.
And then there's that ending. It's compulsory for anyone writing about Sherlock to explain their take on his faked death in order to assert their intellectual superiority over the reader. So we'll get to that. But in the rush to talk about how he did it, I find so many people have missed the sheer brilliance of ending the series this way. This is the tale of Sherlock Holmes. A man who uses deductive reasoning and observation to solve seemingly impossible cases. And at the end of the series we, the viewer, are given our own case to solve. This isn't one of those endings that is ambiguous or open to interpretation. We know he appeared to die, and we know he's not actually dead. So we deduce that he faked his own death, and the clues to this are dotted throughout the series, there for us to see if we pay enough attention. It's a technique that TV cliff-hangers have used before but it resonates so much more when it's used in this show because it's what the show is all about. It's form imitating plot, and there's just a beautiful symmetry there that I'd be tempted to call 'genius' if it wasn't for the fact that, in retrospect, it seems so obvious.
I'm sure I didn't catch all of the clues, but key for me was realising how the whole set-up clearly led on from Irene Adler explaining to Holmes exactly how she faked her own death in the first episode (the most important factor: influence over the coroner's office, which Holmes had with Molly - whom Holmes is then certain to establish that Moriarty isn't aware when ticking off the list of all his 'friends'). Once you get that, you realise that this isn't a self-contained story, and that the clues might be in other episodes, which answers the toughest question: how Watson (and by extension, the viewer) saw Sherlock's broken, dead body. The previous episode revolved around a chemical that was specifically explained as causing fear, and making you see what you expect to see. That episode also established that, in scenes where the main point-of-view character was under the influence of said chemical, we would be seeing what they thought they were seeing.
I'm still slightly confused at how none of the other witnesses knew it wasn't Holmes, or why the girl screamed when she saw him, as I find the notion of Moriarty having a really good Sherlock mask in his pocket a bit far-fetched. I'm confused enough I'm tempted to re-watch those three episodes to look for more clues, and I never re-watch TV shows. So in many ways that's the greatest accolade I can give it.
To find out more about Sherlock and watch episodes from this series, go to the show’s program page.