May 20 2012 10:00pm

Shaking Hands in Hell: Sherlock’s “The Reichenbach Fall”

The second series of BBC’s super-popular Sherlock concluded its three-part offering today, and the results were shockingly unexpected and ridiculously exciting. This feat is impressive in it of itself, but seeing as the basic plot and concept are taken from the famous (or infamous) Conan Doyle-penned story “The Final Problem,” doubly so. It’s all been leading to this, so what happens when the 21st century versions of Sherlock and Jim Moriarty try to sort out their final problem? The answer is chock full of spoilers and twists, in what was one of the most fun and engaging Sherlocks yet.

Spoilers throughout. Really.

The episode opens much like the first episode of Series 1, “A Study in Pink,” with John Watson talking to his therapist. She wants to know why it’s been so long since John has come in for an appointment. Incredulous, John says, “You do read the papers, you know why I’m here.” And then he reveals what someone who reads the papers should know; Sherlock Holmes is dead.

After the title sequence, we’re told it’s three months earlier and Sherlock Holmes is a bigger media sensation than ever. After recovering a stolen painting called “The Falls of Reichenbach,” the papers have taken to calling Sherlock “the hero of Reichenbach.”  This results in an amusing sequence in which Sherlock is given gift after gift from various thankful parties, only to have each one be unsuitable to his tastes. This culminates perfectly with Lestrade and the rest of the Scotland Yard force giving him a deerstalker cap as thanks for helping with another case. Much to his chagrin, and at the urging of John, Sherlock dons the cap for the cameras.

Later, back at Baker Street, John muses that the cap is no longer a “deerstalker” but rather a “Sherlock Holmes hat.” This serves nicely as a reference to the zeitgeist in real life about the famous Victorian detective, but also as an in-universe warning that the media surrounding Sherlock might be getting too big. Sherlock wonders aloud why John is concerned about this, and John worries the that “the press will turn, they always do…” Meanwhile, Jim Moriarty is free and walking the streets of London, specifically, the Tower of London. After donning headphones, Moriarty makes a few swipes on his smart phone. Simultaneously, with just the flick of a finger on an “app,” Moriarty is able to open the largest vault in the Bank of England, all the cell doors in the country’s largest prison, and walk in and steal the crown jewels. Before smashing the glass which houses them, Moriarty writes (in a fashion keeping with the Riddler) “Get Sherlock.” Shockingly, Moriarty is immediately caught and arrested.

At Moriarty’s s trail, Sherlock is brought in as an expert witness to help convict the master criminal. Moriarty is bizarrely offering no defense, despite having pleaded not-guilty. Sherlock mouths off and makes numerous observations  about the jury and the court officials, which eventually gets him found in contempt of court. Prior to this, Sherlock has an altercation in the bathroom with a gossip reporter posing as a fan. He tells her off with the words “You repel me.”

Next, though the judge encourages a verdict of guilty, the jury inexplicably votes for Moriarty’s acquittal and he walks free. Though it makes little sense, it seems Sherlock was almost expecting this outcome. Moriarty soon comes round to Baker Street where he taunts Sherlock with his power. Manipulating the jury was easy for Moriarty: he had threatened all the families of each juror privately, forcing them into a verdict. The trial was nothing more than an elaborate advertisement for Moriarty, a way to show various criminal parties how powerful he really is. He tells Sherlock that they are living in a “fairy tale” and every fairy tale needs its villain.

Soon Sherlock and John are called in by Lestrade to assist with a kidnapping case. Previously, a package had been delivered to Baker Street filled with breadcrumbs, indicating Hansel and Gretel. At the scene of the kidnapping, Sherlock manages to obtain samples of boot prints, which he believes will help them locate the place where the kidnappers have taken the children. By putting various chemical elements together in the lab (with the assistance of Molly), he determines the kidnapped brother and sister are being held at an abandoned candy factory: an obvious reference to Morirarty’s bizarre fairy tale fetish.

The children are indeed there, and eating candy laced with mercury. However, when Sherlock goes to question the young girl, she screams at the sight of him. This precipitates a sequence of events where the other police officers working with Lestrade, specifically Anderson and Donovan, start to suggest that Sherlock himself may have been involved with the kidnapping. As Sherlock starts to suspect this plot to discredit him, he takes a cab, and inside is subjected to a deranged video from Moriarty outlining how he intends to make Sherlock look like a fraud and how everyone will turn on him.

Soon, Lestrade arrives at Baker Street and arrests Sherlock. Watson initially is not under arrest, but after punching Lestrade’s superior, the pair are handcuffed together. At this point, instead of going quietly, Sherlock and John make a break for it, complete with gun-wielding antics. They head for the flat of the gossip reporter Sherlock met before the trial, who has recently run an “exclusive” about Sherlock’s past for a local rag. Upon breaking into her apartment they discover she is harboring Moriarty, who claims to be a man by the name of Richard Brook. The journalist explains to John that Moriarty is a fictional creation, one of Holmes’s design. Richard Brook was the actor hired by Holmes to pretend to be his arch-nemesis. The evidence Moriarty has created to perpetrate this deception is deep, including Richard Brook’s job for a children’s program, one in which he tells fairy tales.

After leaving in disgrace and confusion, Sherlock oddly goes to see Molly and asks her for a favor that is never disclosed before his final confrontation with Moriarty. (In a previous scene, Molly was the only one who noticed that Sherlock was visibly worried, but acting strong around John.)

Throughout the episode Moriarty has lead Sherlock (and Mycroft and the government) to believe that he has a secret computer code, which allows him to open any door. However, upon meeting on the rooftop of St. Bart’s Hospital, Moriarty reveals there was never any secret code; he simply had a network of lackeys that he paid off. Moriarty’s trap and effort to destroy Sherlock is almost complete: the media has discredited the great detective as being a fraud, someone who hired actors and engineered the crimes he “solved.”

Now Moriarty is demanding Sherlock Holmes to commit suicide in disgrace. If he doesn’t, Moriarty has snipers ready to kill Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson and John. Sherlock realizes that he is safe from this fate as long as Moriarty is alive to call it off, but then, in a gruesome act, Moriarty shoots himself in the head. Sherlock calls Watson and tells him “the truth.” He claims he was a fraud, and that he is giving Watson his “note.” Sherlock then jumps and presumably falls to his death. Notably, just after Sherlock’s body hits the pavement, John is knocked over by a bicycle messenger, disorienting him at the scene of the tragedy.

Time passes and we see John and Mrs. Hudson at Sherlock’s grave, where John gives perhaps the most heartfelt speech of the entire series and asks for one more miracle; the miracle that Sherlock is not dead. As Watson walks away from the graveyard in tears, the camera pans over to a figure standing in the shadows. Sherlock Holmes is alive!


Ryan’s Reaction

Wow. This episode was not what I expected from a Holmes/Moriarty confrontation, and I couldn’t have been happier at my surprise. Whenever writers tackle and adaptation of “The Final Problem,” I believe they’re almost always poised to make it at least a bit more coherent than the original Conan Doyle story. The recent Guy Ritchie movie certainly accomplished this, by giving us perhaps the best justification for the Victorian Holmes to plunge into the abyss of the roaring Reichenbach falls. Here, in the contempary version of these adventures, the motivations of Moriarty aren’t as clear cut and aimed towards world domination. Instead, Moriarty wants to see Holmes completely broken and destroyed, even at the cost of his own life. This Moriarty is sadistic and cruel on levels unparrelled with other versions of the famous villain. The concept of driving Holmes to accept a lie of being a fraud, and also drive him to willing suicide are exceedling dark, and handled perfectly. The dialogue in almost every scene is spot-on, with special attention to the first scene in which Molly confronts Holmes about what’s really going on. It’s moving, and unexpected and acted wonderfully.

And then, the final scene with Sherlock and Moriarity in which Holmes says “You want me to shake hands with you in hell, I shall not disappoint you,” ought to rank up there with some of the best delivered dialogue of all time. The writing and the acting are top-notch in this one and I have to say, I didn’t see this plot concept coming at all.

The idea that Moriarty is out to discredit Holmes is totally brilliant, and the idea of Holmes “inventing” Moriarty exists in all sorts of pastiches, though most-famously in Nicholas Meyer’s novel The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Perhaps the other reason this notion works so well is because it addresses the meta-fictional conceit that Doyle invented Moriarty for the occasion of doing away with Holmes. Moriarty literally serves no function other than that, and is not character in the true sense of the word, at least not on the page in the original text. Now that Moriarty IS a fully-realized character, the writing of “The Fall of Reichenbach” acknowledges this quirk of the story, and layers on the meta-fiction with fairy tale stuff. Having Moriarty’s false identity even be a kindly-storyteller of children’s tales makes it even better and creepier.

I knew after I saw Sherlock’s bloodied body that he was not truly dead, but the final reveal of him standing alive was so satisfying. We know he must have had Molly do some medical mumbo-jumbo to him prior to his jump from the top of the building. Why else would he go to her? She was the only one of his “friends” who Moriarty did not mention. The idea that Sherlock alienates many people around him was played with in this episode as it served to fuel the media frenzy that he was actually a fraud. But on the personal level, it was nice to see that even those who he might mistreat, still care about him and will go great lengths to save him.

This was stunning end to a great second wave of what is probably the best version of Sherlock Holmes we’ve seen since the Jeremy Brett days.


Emily’s Reaction:

Okay, I have a thing for equal opposites, those stunning hero-villain duos. It’s like watching a perfect chemical reaction in lab class. So I’ve sort of been in love with this Holmes-Moriarty pairing from the get-go, and understandably concerned about their final outing. It had to do them justice, the both of them. Moriarty couldn’t be that phantom cardboard cutout that Doyle unfortunately created for “The Final Problem.” Holmes couldn’t go out with nothing more than an unseen brawl on a slippery outcropping. Give me the battle, the real battle, and make it frightening. I wanted to be dreading every second.

I was not disappointed.

To begin with, what they extracted from the material was honestly more impressive than any of the previous episodes. The whole idea of disgracing Sherlock, of making it about a descent in the eyes of the world, is basically taken from a simple piece of narration at the start of Doyle’s story: Watson explains that the reason he feels the need to put the tale to paper is because Moriarty’s brother wrote his own piece, lying about what truly happened, and Watson needs to set this to rights. It’s an honorable reason to be sure, but Watson wasn’t publishing this piece on the internet, where everyone can instantly tear it apart. So rather than write a rebuttal within the show, John Watson’s blog (if you don’t follow it during the series, I highly recommend it) merely contains a final insistence that Sherlock was his friend and wasn’t a fraud. And then he closes his blog for comments. Because this Watson doesn’t quite have the way with words that his canon counterpart did, and he simply can’t handle the backlash that this whole debacle has created.

What we get instead is his fretting throughout the episode, the fear in his eyes when he tells Sherlock that he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s a fake. Because this matters to John, but he’s not really a writer who can use words to spin Sherlock into the hero he sees. He’s just a guy with a cool blog who doesn’t have the power to defend his best friend. The fact that they pulled an entire emotional arc from one piece of setup at the start of “The Final Problem” is just gorgeous.

There’s also a way in which they flipped the story on its head completely: throughout “The Final Problem,” Holmes continually tells Watson that so long as Moriarty is brought to justice, he can count his career completed. This is ostensibly because he is aware that he might die, and could be trying to hint at Watson that he’s fine with his life ending here. (It’s also Doyle trying to tell the reader this, as he did intend it to be the final Holmes story when he initially wrote it.) But this Sherlock is too young, too manic, too intent on the next best thing to be done now. He hasn’t been a career consulting detective successfully for long enough to be satisfied.

Instead, we have Jim. Jim who, it could be argued, set this whole thing up to answer a simple question: are you my equal? Really and truly? He tests Sherlock at every turn to find out, and by the end he’s disappointed. He thinks that Sherlock doesn’t get it, can’t get one over on him, that’s he’s just as boring as everyone else. After all, he fell for the “couple lines of computer code that can control the world” trick. (I have to admit, I rolled my eyes when they first mentioned that as Moriarty’s big secret. It was, as they like to say, “boring.” When it turned out that Sherlock was wrong to buy it, I was completely delighted.) But finally Sherlock reveals himself to be everything that Jim hoped he was. They are the same. He found his match, the only one in the whole world; you can imagine how long he had been searching for that. And it turns out that Jim Moriarty is the one who is fine with his life ending, so long as he has that knowledge.

Provided that the world can’t have Sherlock either, now that he’s done.

But, just like their little game always illustrates, what he really should have asked again before turning a loaded gun on himself was, “What did I miss?” It was simple, of course. He had snipers trained on John, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade. He had all of Sherlock’s friends. Except the one who didn’t count.

Molly Hooper. She is undoubtedly my favorite addition that this show has made to the Holmesian universe. Earlier in the episode we were given a moment, that perfect moment where Sherlock was forced to admit that Molly was his friend too, for all that he couldn’t stand her awkwardness and bad attempts at flirting. And now that she was honest with him, he was finally able to be honest in return. But Jim didn’t know that. Moriarty missed one of Sherlock’s friends because he, like Sherlock previously, had overlooked her importance entirely. And we all know that’s where he made his mistake because only one person was available to help Sherlock stage a fake suicide.

The only question left now is, how the hell did he manage it? Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out. That’s just not fair. (And because it is TV, and only other question is, is Jim really dead? I will always be worried that he’ll suddenly reappear a few seasons later. Television can never resist resurrection.)

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for

Emily Asher-Perrin is the Editorial Assistant for She had a disturbing nightmare after she watched this episode, where Jim Moriarty merged with some Guillermo del Toro-like villain. It was just as horrific as it sounds.

J.J.S. Boyce
1. J.J.S. Boyce
One of those television rarities: a truly perfect episode (with the caveat that perfection is in the eye of the beholder). I have nothing to add, but thank you both for your excellent and insightful commentary.
J.J.S. Boyce
2. Nate_
I hated this episode. Did the writers really think no one would see through the actor thing?

It's simply not plausible that a TV actor could be on trial as a master villian without someone identifying him as an actor.
J.J.S. Boyce
3. a1ay
“You want me to shake hands with you in hell, I shall not disappoint you,”

It's a reference to the final scene of Richard III. Richard is encouraging his troops as they prepare for battle against Richmond, and says "March on, join bravely, let us to't pell-mell; If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell."

But the author may have been thinking of the Ian McKellen film of the play, in which the line is delivered by Richard just before he is shot and falls to his death...
J.J.S. Boyce
4. JimBurnell
I thought it was brilliant.

It did, however, feel like a few important details were glossed over or tough to stomach.

Why did the American girl scream at the sight of Holmes, cementing doubt in the mind of Scotland Yard? Never answered.

As the post mentioned above, if "Richard Brook" were such a well-known child actor, why did no one step forward to report that when he stole the Crown Jewels? And the basis of the Brook deception was supposedly Moriarty's ability to break into any system, an ability that was later proved to be fictional.

Last, is Scotland Yard really so pathetically incompetent that they can't trace Sherlock Holmes when he continues to use a GPS-enabled iPhone?

I don't mean to take anything away from the episode. I loved it, and the reviews above are spot on. It just had a few frazzled loose ends, and since Holmes is all about the details, they bother me. A little.
Joe Vondracek
5. joev
My favorite line was the one that seemed to give Moriarty pause:
Oh, I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.
Of course, the problem with an episode like this one is: how do they top it? In some respects, I prefer episodes that are straight mysteries, like The Hound of the Baskervilles, without the hyper-drama of an arch-nemesis and fiendish criminal mastermind attempting to thwart Sherlock for some contrived reason.
Melanie S
6. starryharlequin
@2 and @4--the fandom going over and over and over this (so, take it with a grain of salt *g*) has come to the conclusion that the Richard Brook storyline didn't need to hold up long-term: it just needed to get everybody doubting Sherlock long enough to set up his suicide and admission of guilt (even if some of the specifics of that guilt don't hold up after the fact).
Constance Sublette
7. Zorra
It all is too reminiscent of how superhero comix do it; they are always dying and resurrected, like vampires. Even like Buffy. The great meta circle of life.

And Even More! Preposterous! codes.
J.J.S. Boyce
8. Eugene R.
I enjoyed the episode and am willing to allow Sherlock any type of misdirection tricks necessary for the fake suicide leap (cued by his continued directions to keep John from approaching the building too closely, frex).

I think that my biggest problem with the episode is that I do not understand the Moriarty motivation in solving "The Final Problem" (i.e., boredom) by his own suicide, given that he is clearly having the time of his life with his opening sequence of cracking a high-security prison, opening the vault of the Bank of England, and fondling the Crown Jewels. A man crushed by vistas of ennui, I do not see. As for being surrounded (and smothered) by "ordinary" people, are there not enough Mycrofts and Irene Adlers left to challenge him, even if he runs out of Sherlocks?
Joe Vondracek
9. joev
Upon further reflection, given the level of misdirection that we've seen (Irene wasn't really executed, there wasn't really any secret computer code, Holmes didn't really leap to his death), I suspect that they will pull a Red John with Moriarty. By that, I mean that we will probably find out that the person that we thought was Moriarty is not actually Moriarty; he was just a puppet of the real Moriarty. That way, Series 3 can keep the whole arch-nemesis thing going.
J.J.S. Boyce
10. wingracer
Could it be a "The Prestige" situation?

Warning, MAJOR spoiler for "The Prestige."

Could Moriarty actually be two people? Is there a twin floating around?
J.J.S. Boyce
11. mr. awesome
SPOILERS: I'm 85% certain this is how he did it. Don't look if you don't want to know yet.

1. Put the rubber ball in his armpit to stop his pulse and
2. put a different body on the gurney (which Molly provided), and
3. used his homeless patrol for crowd control against John
4. To survive the fall, he jumped into a bin of laundry, or some such thing. There was a big blue truck in the area.
5. Also, Moriarty's not dead.

1 and 2 can be verified by painstakingly viewing frame by frame the episode. 3 is obvious given the clear and intentional obstruction of John by the people there, and Sherlock's clear need to keep him from discovering the ruse. 4 is the only thing that makes sense given time constraints and the fact hat we literally saw him jump. 5 is necessary for the narrative.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
12. tnh
How do they top this? With emotional consequences, is my guess. If Sherlock comes back, he'll have to deal with the fact that he's royally pissed off all but one of the people closest to him by leaving them to mourn his death.
J.J.S. Boyce
13. Nate_
@6 The actor fraud wouldn't last 3 minutes. All it would take would be one Google search on the actor's name for the story to fall apart. The journalist might not care, but do you really think her bosses would run the story without fact checking it first?
J.J.S. Boyce
14. Anne S. Zanoni
I'd say the other point of this great line... is that a medieval suicide went straight to hell. Moriarty is prepared for this and thinks he's won, that Sherlock's conceding; Sherlock saying it is acknowledging what happens to suicides.

I don't know how they top this, Teresa, but oh! It will be such fun to find out. :)

Eugene @ 8: I had real problems with that too. I can understand pain or chronic disease (depression for one) as why someone might suicide. I can't wrap my head around boredom. I knew people whose depression actually caused them physical pain (mine never has). Perhaps Moriarty perceived boredom as his pain?

Mycroft wasn't a challenge and Irene consulted
Moriarty professionally. They'd failed as distractions.

Moriarty screwed up, though. One would think after all that, he'd want to =watch= Sherlock jump...

Constance Sublette
15. Zorra
I'm guessing that Holmes was wearing a Holmes mask during the rooftop face-off with Moriarty. There was a fiddling with his back hair, which we saw from the back .... The mask was then put on Moriarty .... but we did see the arms and legs windmilling as the body fell from the roof, so, who knows? And what about that hung model at the top the episode? Why are people talking about a garbage truck coz I didn’t see one – which could be me missing things again. Then the so-called passersby when Sherlock flew – internets say they are Sherlock’s homeless, blocking Watson from witnessing Sherlock's body substitution, keeping him from taking a pulse (all those incidents of coupled hands in this episode: Watson’s and Sherlock’s; the bodyguard-killer who is executed when shaking Sherlock’s hand, while he and Watson are handcuffed together; Sherlock and Moriarty shaking hands while Moriarty offs himself). And, where is Moriarty’s body, and, where is Mycroft in all this? Neither of them are at the cemetery.

To Be Continued --
Dave Bell
16. DaveBell
The big problem for the next episode is how on earth Sherlock can come back, after his reputation has been shredded.

Though, looking at events in the real United Kingdom, and what some parts of the Press have been revealed as capable of, I can quite believe that a well-known newspaper was comprehensively suckered by Moriarty, and when the "truth" is exposed, the proprietor has to give evidence to various inquiries.
Constance Sublette
17. Zorra
@16 -- as much of "Fall" is themed about the media as fairy tale, and shredding the very creatures itself creates -- there should be ample scope for some seriously snap, crackle and pop writing and plotting for the resurrection episode next year. This was handled brilliantly in the "Fall."

Connected to:

Question: Why does Sherlock laugh at the edge of flying?

Answer: He's never going to wear that stupid hat again!

Love, C.
J.J.S. Boyce
18. Constance
Whatever the solution I will be watching.
J.J.S. Boyce
19. Meeks
I confess - I was taken in. I should have seen the teeny weeny little clues all along but I didn't. I sat there like a lovesick school girl thinking that this was it. This was the end of the series and that they were taking it out with a whopping great bang rather than a whimper. And then that shot of Sherlock alive and apparently well.

Hmmm.... to quote Peter Sellers playing Bluebottle - "I feel a proper fool'.....
Jack Flynn
20. JackofMidworld
Finally had a chance to catch up (thank you, Netflix!) and all I can add to this conversation is A) loved the whole season and B) I'm a firm believer that a hero is only as good as his villain, and Jim definitely did Holmes justice.

Oh, and thank you, Emily, for that link to the blog. I'll be bookmarking that for next season.
J.J.S. Boyce
21. Mark.Stark
Sherlock did what they do when they make a movie: He used a hidden harness with a camouflaged wire attached to a special winch that is programmed to slow down the fall just enough to make the fall believable. Right before he hits the ground (while hidden by the dump truck) the winch breaks the fall and he can release the cable. The rest is easy.

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