Having previously reviewed the first of the three stories of this second series of Sherlock I think I said all I wanted to about the series as a whole, which allows me to aim to keep this follow-up to a single manageable blog post for the remaining two stories. Here goes …
One of the real strengths of this version of the Sherlock Holmes character is the way that it’s the creation and love-child of two very different writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who are both excellent and currently at the top of their respective games but who also possess completely contrasting narrative styles. Sometimes, such a combination could stunt one or other (or even both) of the talents involved, but just sometimes the diversities feed on each other and not only survive but thrive, and build far more quality and depth to the end result than even the sum of their parts could lead us to expect. Such is the case with Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock.
Following on from Moffat’s extraordinarily intelligent and detailed intellectual puzzle box opener A Scandal in Belgravia comes Gatiss’ take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous (and arguably best) original Holmes story, here titularly tweaked into The Hounds of Baskerville. While it was possible to watch and re-watch Moffat’s preceding episode and still not fully understand it weeks later, there was no such problem here: Hounds was a triumph of (Hammer House of Horror) style over substance. The mystery, such as it was, wasn’t very complex: I’d pretty much worked out the solution before the midway point, although the exact ‘Who?’ remained split between two suspects until much nearer the end. But that didn’t matter – its not like Conan Doyle’s story was ever particularly difficult to puzzle out, either. In any case Gatiss wasn’t trying to out-smart us, he was trying to out-creep us – and he did, through one of the most effective and evocative Hounds committed to screen. Differing hugely from the original novel, it nonetheless had enough grace notes to the source text to make even aficionados feel warm and loved by the homage.
The extreme terror scenario did push some of the actors close to the breaking point of credibility: even Benedict Cumberbatch teetered on the edge of believability in the scenes where Holmes takes fright (although it was his playing of the scene that was also the key to realising precisely what was going on.) Poor Russell Tovey’s guest role started at “suppressed hysteria” and then had no where to go except into total histrionic breakdown, a rather thankless part; not to mention the fact that Tovey’s most famous recent role in Being Human meant that in the back of your mind was the red herring that his character (the sublimely named Henry Knight) could himself transmogrify into the hound at any point. I’m sure that this little mind game was entirely intentional from Gatiss, who is such a devotee of the classic Hammer and Universal horror films as well as Jacques Tourneur’s films including Cat People. Interestingly, the most effective “acting blind scared” came from the series star who invariably gets less attention and praise than he merits – but more of Martin Freeman in a minute.
Then we came to the season finale, The Reichenbach Fall, based on Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” which was dominated by the presence of Moriarty, and by the author killing off his most famous literary creation. We knew what to expect from this 90 minutes going in, in other words.
I admit to having been anxious about this instalment going in, as it had been entrusted to the third (and, to put it rather cruelly, the most junior) member of the writing team behind Sherlock. Steve Thompson had contributed the middle story of season 1, The Blind Banker, and it had been by far the least of the first year’s stories – although interestingly, I found it more enjoyable second time around when I saw it on DVD again late in 2011. Perhaps its ‘average’ rating is more to do with the company it was keeping, rather like Watson inevitably looks rather dim in the company of the two Holmes boys. But another mark against Thompson was his contribution to the most recent series of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot” – by far the weakest episode of that 2011 series as far as I was concerned. So that was two strikes against Thompson: was The Reichenbach Fall to be the third? It would be appalling to foul up this story among all others, and the season finale to boot.
Well, I stand corrected. Not only did Thompson’s script do justice to the occasion, it was without question a match for the two stories that had preceded it. In fact in many ways it was the best of the three and perfectly pitched, fulfilment of how the combination of Gatiss and Moffat’s styles into one story by Thompson can produce new heights of genius: atmospheric, thrilling and tense like Hounds but packed full with Sherlock being as clever as only Holmes can be and all without losing the audience in the process. Sherlock got unrestricted license to show off in this episode thanks to the presence of Moriarty: no matter how clever Holmes was being, you always felt and knew that Moriarty was at least two steps in front and being even more insanely clever. Actor Andrew Scott must have had a blast with this part, which allowed him to veer from threatening and sinister to light-hearted and playful, from cunning and focused to cackling and even faux-terrified. It was a style of villain much in the vein of Heath Ledger’s Joker or John Simm’s Master, but at the same time completely individual and unique.
Scott’s towering, scene-grabbing portrayal of Moriarty has been controversial and divisive, but I loved every minute of it – it shone in a series stuffed full of great performances, from Cumberbatch himself as Holmes of course, to Lara Pulver’s memorably classy and sexy Irene Adler to Gatiss’s own cameos as a svelte brother Mycroft (particularly well used in the season finale.) In such stellar company it would be easy to forget about the down-to-earth, unshowy performance of Martin Freeman – a usual fate for actors essaying the role of Watson down the years. But he gave such an exceptional performance here, as indeed he has done throughout: thoroughly normal and yet also quietly extraordinary, and given the best line of the episode when he says “Don’t be dead” to a tombstone, before about-turning and walking away with a subtle but emphatic military gait that bestows years of invaluable, believable backstory to this usually most nondescript of men.
The sheer pace and energy of the cat-and-mouse game between Homes and Moriarty kept the episode careering along at the highest speed, although it didn’t stint on character work either. The lab scene between Molly Hooper and Sherlock was a show-stopper, as Molly suddenly floored Holmes with an emotional perception he hadn’t thought possible from her or indeed from anyone. For me, the episode only flagged when it came to the final scenes at St Barts, which felt just a little drawn out; intended to milk the moment for all the tension and drama it was worth, I found that rather than white knuckles I was instead thinking “Oh, just get on with it now, will you?” – but I suspect the pacing of these moments simultaneously hid an awful lot of the intricate mechanism by which Sherlock will be restored to life come season 3.
And yes, of course there will be a season 3. Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson’s Reichenbach Fall was no more likely or able to put a stop to Holmes than was Conan Doyle’s original Final Solution. After having teased the viewers in advance of the airing by saying “This might be the end of Sherlock,” Moffat popped up on Twitter the next day and gleefully revealed that the matter had never been in doubt: the series had been re-commissioned a year ago not just for this season two, but also for a further season three at the same time. It had been a done deal before anyone even asked the question.
A nation breathes a sigh of relief: Mr Holmes and the redoubtable Dr Watson (Cumberbatch and Freeman both on day release from The Hobbit duties in New Zealand, presumably) will return in 2013. And we’ll get to find out just how Holmes manages to resurrect himself from one of the more serious and emphatically documented cases of absolutely certain sudden death seen outside of religious texts; and exactly how well Watson is going to take the news.
Have the strong smelling salts standing by.