Why The Reichenbach Fall Is the Seminal Sherlock Holmes Story (Spoilers!)
With the premiere of The Reichenbach Fall in 2012, BBC's Sherlock delivered one of the best season finales of the past decade and possibly of all time. But it wasn't just a great season finale; it was a fantastic Sherlock Holmes story overall. In my opinion, this hour and a half segment of television perfectly encapsulates the character, the fanbase and the entire Sherlock Holmes legacy. And it did that by deconstructing the entire mythos as it's been built up for the past two centuries.
Let's start with the quickest possible synopsis of the episode: After criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty robs three highly secured locations simultaneously seemingly without lifting a finger he's put on trial. He miraculously gets off scot-free despite presenting no evidence for himself and visits Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street. There he reveals that he threatened or bribed the jury to get him off and that he intends to burn Sherlock through one final problem. A few months later, a boy and girl are abducted and Sherlock is able to find out where they are by analyzing the elements found in the kidnapper's shoe print. After the children are found, one of them is terrified at the sight of Sherlock. This, combined with years of being made to look like fools by and verbal abuse from Sherlock, makes the police begin to suspect that Sherlock was behind this kidnapping and possibly several other previous cases he helped them solve. Sherlock is told by Moriarty that this was his plan all along and goes on the run with John Watson, eventually finding a reporter who's written an expose article claiming that Moriarty was just an actor who Sherlock hired to be his pretend nemesis. John eventually finds out that Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, had sold Sherlock's entire life story to Moriarty in exchange for a code that can supposedly open any locked door on the planet. This way, Moriarty's lie about Sherlock being a fraud seems all the more believable now that it's mixed in with truth. Meeting on top of a hospital for a final confrontation, Moriarty reveals to Sherlock that there never was any magic code that could open anything. It was only a ploy to make Sherlock believe there was one. Moriarty has beaten Sherlock Holmes by exploiting his greatest weakness: his narcissism. Sherlock wants the cases he solves to be clever so he can show off how clever he is for solving them. Thus, Moriarty gave him a problem he couldn't solve: a problem with a simple answer. Moriarty, through complicated reasons not relevant to this analysis, forces Sherlock to make one last call to John, confessing that all the lies were true and that he is a fraud, and jump to his death, only to be revealed alive at the end of the episode.
There's a hell of a lot to unpack there and probably some things I missed that I plan to address anyway, so let's start with the basics.
The major appeal of the Sherlock Holmes character throughout history is that he's a one man deduction machine. He can solve any problem he wants which justifies the fact that he's a dick to everybody he meets. He fulfills our desire to be independent and feeds off the ill conceived notion that we're the smartest person in the room. What this episode does is completely flip that premise on its head. Sherlock's desire to be the most clever person in the room comes back to haunt him when it turns out there wasn't a big elaborate solution. His snark and casual cruelty towards anybody he comes into contact with becomes his undoing because they would rather believe the lie than the truth.
It's also a problem that he can't solve on his own. Like I said, Sherlock's popularity is all around him being a solo act and the audience living vicariously through him. This case, however, finds Sherlock at the most need for people on his side who he keeps pushing away. He goes to Molly for help even though he's been mean to her since the start of the series. He goes back the expose reporter who he humiliated and insulted at the beginning of the episode, even when she volunteered to help him in the press. This goes to show that nobody, even Sherlock Holmes, is an island. Nobody can do it on their own and everybody needs friends. Hell, it was John who ended up tracing Moriarty's information back to Mycroft, something Sherlock was unable to do.
I believe these are all important points for the fanbase to face because they're all points that fans of the show don't want to admit. From what I can gather, fans of Sherlock (including myself) are generally intelligent people who like feeling that they're smart. They also tend to be bad at socializing, either through some mental disorder that makes it hard for them (like me) or just through plain difficulty in getting along with people. Sherlock, in a way, gives them exactly the kind of fantasy that was tailor-made for them. "Hey," it says, "don't feel down when you can't make friends or are accidentally an asshole to people. You're clever and smart and therefore that makes you a cut above the rest." That's something that not just Sherlock fans, but fans of the character in general, would like to believe. They want to believe that their antisocial behavior is acceptable since they're smart and that the people they're dicks to might even deserve it because they're stupid. The Reichenback Fall takes that power fantasy, built up through two centuries of books, movies and TV and strips it all away to say, "No, it absolutely doesn't."
It also deconstructs the detective genre in general, but to a smaller degree. Detective fans like clever solutions to the puzzles presented to them, some little detail that brings the entire case together, tying up all loose ends. However, in real life, that's hardly the case. Criminals aren't very clever people and often times the answer to "How did the criminal get this door open?" is as mundane as "He bribed the guard."
All in all, this has been cathartic for me and a fun exercise in deconstruction. I've been on a Sherlock bender lately, reminding myself of the days when the show was actually clever and not trying hard to be clever. I think deconstructions of the genre are the points where you can't go back to what you were just doing. After you're done dissecting a frog, you can't put it back in the pond and expect it to swim away. But you know what? This is a post for another day.
The Dude Abides