Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall review

Season two of the BBC’s reboot of the Arthur Conan Doyle classics concludes with Sherlock coming full circle as he again faces off against his nemesis, James Moriarty. Our hero finds himself ensnared at the centre of a web of lies of Moriarty’s making, as he battles to save both his own reputation and the lives of his closest friends.

Spoilers below …

The story

Intelligent – fine. Just give ‘smart-arse’ a wide berth.

We start at the end of the story, as John Watson admits to his therapist that Sherlock is dead, before rewinding to the beginning of a chain of events which begins three months previously. Sherlock’s fame is increasing as he helps solve a number of high-profile cases, such as the recovery of a Turner painting, Falls of the Reichenbach. He even gets presented with a deerstalker.

Meanwhile Moriarty ventures into the Tower of London, where he simultaneously springs open the Crown Jewels, the Bank of England and Pentonville Prison at the press of a button on his smartphone. (You can almost hear the Apple ad voiceover, can’t you? “I’ve got an app for that.”) He is arrested wearing the Crown Jewels without even attempting an escape. Sherlock is called as an expert witness at the subsequent ‘Trial of the Century’, where he has a run-in with a tabloid journalist, Kitty Riley. In court he cannot resist showing off and ends up being thrown into a cell for contempt of court.

Sherlock confronts Kitty Riley (Katherine Parkinson) at Moriarty's trial (image courtesy of

Moriarty, incredibly, is acquitted. An unsurprised Sherlock awaits his inevitable arrival at 221b Baker Street, where Moriarty admits he coerced the jury and taunts Sherlock with the kind of line that Holmes himself habitually uses on Watson:

What’s the final problem? I did tell you, but did you listen?

He boasts about a digital keycode which allows him to unlock any computer system in the world – “I could blow up NATO in alphabetical order” – and adds that “every fairy-tale needs a good, old-fashioned villain” before departing, telling Sherlock that he owes him a fall.

Two months later John is summoned by Mycroft, who warns him about Kitty Riley’s exposé of Sherlock and that four assassins are watching 221b. Returning to Baker Street, he finds a sealed envelope containing breadcrumbs before being swept up with Sherlock and Lestrade in a search for an ambassador’s kidnapped son and daughter which appears to be a reenactment of Hansel and Gretel. With help from his homeless network, Sherlock locates the children, who have been poisoned with mercury. Unexpectedly, though, the girl recoils in horror when she sees Sherlock, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of Lestrade’s team.

Sherlock takes a cab alone to give him space to think, only to receive a TV message from Moriarty relating the story of Sir Boast-A-Lot, who supposedly made people believe in him by weaving a web of lies to impress them. Stunned, Sherlock jumps out of the cab, only to realise the driver is Moriarty himself. He is almost run over, but a man pulls him to safety and is then shot dead. It is one of Mycroft’s four assassins.

Lestrade’s attempts to wave off his team’s growing suspicions are overriden by his disbelieving Chief Superintendent, leading to both Sherlock and John being arrested. The pair flee, realising Moriarty has undermined his credibility by presenting “a lie that’s preferable to the truth”. He and John go to confront Kitty Riley, only to come face to face with Moriarty himself posing as an actor named Richard Brook who he claims was hired by Sherlock to play the ‘role’ of  Moriarty.

Realising the noose is now closing inexorably around his neck, Sherlock goes to Barts Hospital to admit to Molly Hooper that he thinks he is going to die. John confronts Mycroft after realising he must be the source of Richard Brook’s inside information. Mycroft admits he was played by Moriarty while he was in their custody. John joins Sherlock at Barts, only to be called away by the news that Mrs Hudson has been attacked. Sherlock lets him go, knowing it is a fake, and goes to meet Moriarty on the rooftop at Barts.

The pair confront each other one final time. Sherlock acknowledges that ‘Rich Brook’ in German is ‘Reichenbach’, while Moriarty reveals to him that the keycode was merely a fake. In fact, Moriarty’s triple stunt was accomplished simply by having willing accomplices on the inside – a simple case of fixing the deck, as with the trial jury. The solution to his ‘final problem’ is that Sherlock must be seen to commit suicide – thereby completing the tale of his fall from grace – or else John, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson will be assassinated.

Sherlock: You’re insane.

Moriarty: You’re just getting that now?!?

Sherlock realises that Moriarty must have some kind of recall code, and after a tense verbal stand-off Moriarty trumps Sherlock by doing the unexpected: he pulls out a gun and shoots himself through the head. (Insane, indeed.) Defeated, Sherlock realises he must jump, and after a brief phone exchange with John in which he tries to soften the blow by confirming that he is fake, he leaps off the roof in front of him, crashing to the pavement below.

And so we return to the start, with John speaking with his therapist. He and Mrs Hudson go to visit Sherlock’s grave, where he asks for just one more miracle – “Don’t be dead” – before the camera pulls back to reveal that, watching on in the distance, is Sherlock himself, very much alive.

Recreating ‘The Final Problem’

Holmes and Moriarty fight over the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem (illustration by Sidney Paget)

The original short story The Final Problem was written as an attempt to kill off the character of Holmes, whose fame Conan Doyle felt was restricting his other literary activities. There is no case to solve here in what amounts to a tense chase culminating in a climactic tussle between Holmes and Moriarty resulting in them both tumbling into the falls. However, pressure from fans drove Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House, in which Holmes explains to Watson how he defeated Moriarty and then faked his own death.

As such, writer Stephen Thompson has relatively little back-story to play with here, leaving him free to create a more ‘original’ episode, similar to his contribution in season one, The Blind Banker. That effort was by far the weakest of the first set of three episodes, but this one stands up to scrutiny much better.

There are a few nods to the original story within the episode. Holmes is nearly run down on the road in both tales (in the book this occurs right at the beginning). Watson is duped in similar circumstances: in the book, he is called away to attend to a sick Englishwoman at their hotel, whereas here it is a false attack on Mrs Hudson. And before Sherlock jumps, he leaves a note for John, although here it takes the form of a phone call. (“That’s what people do, isn’t it?”)

And the Reichenbach Falls themselves are dealt with in the episode’s opening seconds, allowing the climax to take place in a contemporary London setting – although here Sherlock and Moriarty’s tussle is a verbal and psychological battle rather than a physical one. The opening also echoes the beginning of the equivalent episode of the 1980s ITV series, which begins with the theft of the Mona Lisa and its recovery by Holmes.

Of course, the ending of both stories is the same. Moriarty is dead, and Holmes presumed so. Only this TV episode makes it immediately explicit that Sherlock is alive – although the mystery of exactly how he managed to fake his own death remains unsolved. This is pure speculation on my part, but we do already know that Sherlock was able to fake Irene Adler’s death convincingly enough to fool Mycroft, and I suspect his touching exchanges with Molly were part of a yet-to-be-revealed plan on his part to cover his tracks. We shall see when Sherlock returns for its third season – a fact which was confirmed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss on Twitter immediately after the episode finished.

Things I liked

Overall this was another very strong episode which put an interesting spin on the original, weaving in a simple morality tale of loyalty, jealousy and the dangers of a strident tabloid press. A few of my favourite things:

  • Firstly, you simply must check out the most recent post on John Watson’s blog, which includes a straight-faced video of BBC Breakfast’s coverage of Sherlock’s demise, culminating in the utterly realistic non-sequiter link: “The lovely boys from JLS are joining us after the weather to tell us about their new single.”
  • The ending on Barts rooftop. Viewers familiar with the Holmes canon know that Moriarty must somehow perish but I absolutely did not see his suicide coming, coming as it did at the end of a tense sequence which is focussed on Moriarty’s attempts to manipulate Sherlock into killing himself. Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott are magnificent here. It’s shocking and visceral and beautifully handled.
  • I had been previously unconvinced about Scott’s hyperactive portrayal of Moriarty. But in this episode – and in particular in the final scene where he openly admits his insanity – it all makes sense. Moriarty really is as bonkers as he is brilliant.
  • The final confrontation between Sherlock and Moriarty is a mental/psychological tussle, rather than the physical battle described in the original. That felt more fitting given the way the two have been portrayed as intellectual equals.
  • John’s faith in Sherlock is tested repeatedly during the episode but not once does he waver, underlining the strength of the bond between these two characters. Martin Freeman’s portrayal of John’s quiet grief is as moving as it is understated. (And despite a wobble, it is clear that Lestrade still believes in Sherlock too.)
  • The running joke about Sherlock’s growing fame as an internet sensation becomes central to this story, as he is built up and then just as rapidly torn down again by the media in a fashion which is uncomfortably close to reality.
  • As usual, there is plenty of razor-sharp dialogue, quick-fire deductions – Sherlock’s instant dissection of the jury is a treat – and just enough humour to leaven what is a particularly dark episode.
  • Lestrade’s eye-rolling reference to CSI: Baker Street. Come on, you know you’ve thought it too.
  • Moriarty’s knowing comment about how silly it was to think that just a couple of lines of code could open up any computer system – a knowing nod to all those films/TV episodes which would have you believe that it is possible to break out of a high-security facility with just a credit card and a hairpin.
  • Again we hear mention of Sherlock’s homeless network of information gatherers (also mentioned in Thompson’s The Blind Banker), an echo of the original’s Baker Street Irregulars.

Finally, there is the elegant and simplistic genius of Moriarty’s ‘final problem’. Almost everything about his plan involves some element of fakery. He allows himself to be captured so he can work Mycroft for information on Sherlock. His trial is a sham. Even the means by which he engineers his three simultaneous crimes is proven to be quite mundane, rather than some whizzy technological MacGuffin. He even creates the fake identity of Richard Brook, an actor supposedly set up to play the role of Moriarty. In amongst all this, the only constant truth is Sherlock’s deductive brilliance – and yet Moriarty turns that against him and sets Holmes up as the fake with a few well-placed suggestions. It’s subtle plotting which underlines the yin and yang relationship between the pair that is finally acknowledged with a simple statement – “You’re me” – and a handshake. It is a magnificent piece of writing.

Things I didn’t like

  • There’s a touch of discontinuity with The Hounds of Baskerville, as Sherlock admits too readily here that he considers both Lestrade and Mrs Hudson as friends, having previously told John: “I don’t have ‘friends’. I’ve got just one.” It jarred a bit too much for me to ignore.
  • A key part of Moriarty’s plan was to get Mycroft to spill the beans about Sherlock’s past. Really? Mycroft is supposed to be just about the most secretive man in Britain. Even accepting that Moriarty is a master manipulator, was he really so stupid as to not realise he was being played? It felt wrong.
  • Was it really necessary to so blatantly show Sherlock standing there in the cemetery at the end? That felt a bit dumbed-down to me.

Again, the quibbles are relatively minor and this was a great end to a strong second season long on style and sharp wit. We know Sherlock will return, but we are still left with a nice little mystery to puzzle over while we wait for season three – exactly how did Sherlock survive the fall? Is Moriarty really dead? (The answer to which is surely: yes.) Will we see Irene Adler again? (A hacked entry on John Watson’s blog hints this is a possibility.) And which Holmes stories are next on the target list for Messrs Moffat and Gatiss? The Empty House? The Sign of the Four, maybe? We will have to wait and see, hopefully in early 2013.

Rating – 9/10

Links: The Hounds of Baskerville reviewA Scandal in Belgravia reviewSeason 1 reviewOfficial BBC Sherlock home pageSherlock Holmes’ website – The Science of Deduction (BBC)Dr John Watson’s personal blog (BBC)The Sherlock Holmes Museum