Symbolism in The Reichenbach Fall

I originally wrote this article before the third season aired and posted it at Livejournal. I thought it couldn’t hurt to repost it here. I also made some edits concerning details I stumbled over during the third season.

Moriarty’s obsession with Fairy Tales in The Reichenbach Fall seems to be a little bit random at first glance. But if you look closer, you might notice that the whole episodes is woven around this theme. It’s like a game in a game, as if he tries to give Sherlock an additional hint, but deliberately in a way that he might miss the clue. When I really looked for parallels, I found a really interesting construct. I’m not saying that this is really what the writers had in mind, it is entirely possible that I overanalyse this (it’s even quite likely, but this was too much fun to stop in time).

1. The Number Three

The three is an important number in fairy tales. Cinderella goes three times to the ball before she loses her shoe, Snow White is visited by the Evil Queen three times before she dies, three blood drops and so on. Three is also the number which keeps popping up in Moriarty’s scheme. He breaks into the three most secure places in the country. His message for Sherlock, I O U, consists of three letters. He leaves the message three times (on the apple, in front of the precinct and in a Graffiti close to Baker Street – which is, by the way, a nice call-back to The Blind Banker). Three times he leaves an envelope for Sherlock (one entailed the bread crumps, one the book with the fairy tales and one the gingerbread man). And he threatens to kill three people if Sherlock doesn’t commit suicide, which are shadowed by three assassins – the whole threat is uttered in a pattern of three “Three bullets; three gunmen; three victims”. He also invokes the Magpie motive three times, once by playing the song when he steals the crown jewels, once by using a magpie symbol on the wax seal, and the I O U graffiti has magpie wings. (Edit: Note that the magpie turns also up during “The Sign of Three” of all episodes as part of the tapestry behind Mary, John and Sherlock during the wedding – and for some reason there are two birds which look like magpies on the placeholders, too, and the wedding invitation shows a magpie flying off a tree.)

2. I O U

Interesting in connection with the letters are the places where they turn up. At 221B (where John lives), at Baker Street (where Mrs. Hudson lives) and at the precinct (where Lestrade works). But even more interesting are the letters in itself. Joalro pointed out at the Sherlock Fanforum, that they could have a hidden meaning. If you look at the position of those letters in the alphabet, you end up with the numbers 9, 15 and 21 (which can be all divide through three, but that is most likely a lucky coincidence). If you now look at the number system of the Grimm fairy tales, you notice that 9 stands for The Twelve Brothers, 15 for Hänsel and Gretel and 21 for Cinderella. That Hänsel and Gretel of all the tales out there is among those seems more than a coincidence considering that Moriarty (and the writers) went out of his way to include Hänsel and Gretel into the plan. Plus, the three fairy tales have something in common. In all of them, birds play an important role and all of them have something to do with burning (or in Cinderella’s case, ash). And they refer to the three stages of Moriarty’s plan.

2.1 The Twelve Brothers

Twelve brothers, twelve jury members is the most obvious connection. In the tale, the live of the twelve brothers hinges on the birth of the next child. If it is a girl, they will all be killed. This is somewhat similar to the situation the jury members are in, their future hinges on one decision. But the similarities don’t end there. In the fairy tale, the brothers are eventually turned into ravens. Now, if you consider the magpie symbol Moriarty connects with himself, and that the jury members turn into his unwilling accomplices when they don’t convict him, he in a way turned them into ravens, too. The fairy tale ends with the sister, who has to fulfil a tasks which involves no laughing and no talking, being accused by her jealous mother-in-law of witchcraft. Because she can’t speak up, she nearly gets burned on a stake. In a way, the fairy tale foreshadows what will happen later in the episode. (Edit: And burning on a stake is also what happens to John in “The Empty Hearse”).

2.2 Hänsel and Gretel

There are a lot of obvious parallels inserted in the episode. The kidnapped children are brother and sister (who got abandoned by their parents to a boarding school…honestly, what kind of parents just leave their children alone during the holidays?), the chocolate in the sweet factory is a hint to the witches gingerbread house (Sherlock even points the fact out) and Moriarty leaves breadcrumbs. A less obvious parallel is that in the tale, the birds are eating the breadcrumbs, thus destroying the trace which leads back home, while now the bird (magpie) leaves the breadcrumps.

2.3 Cinderella

Since we are talking about Grimm stories, I’ll go with the German version – Aschenputtel – which is a little bit different from the French one. In this one, the birds (pigeons in this case) are Aschenputtel’s helper. Now consider that Moriarty made sure that a bunch of assassins watched Sherlock, ready to rescue his life to protect the code. The main theme of the tale is the jealously of the stepsisters and stepmother, who literally force Aschenputtle into the ash, while the good father does nothing to help her. The anger of the police officers results in them very ready to pull him down, while Lestrade is unable to help him. Cinderella loses a shoe at the ball which leads to the prince finding her. Sherlock following the clues of a footprint leads to the police suspecting him in the third act of Moriarty’s little play.

3. The Bird Symbolic

This is something the writers did rather than Moriarty, so it gets its own category. The first thing the audience gets to see before Moriarty starts his plan are the ravens at the Tower of London (another call-back to The Twelve Brothers). When the plot unfolds, there is not only the Magpie which keeps popping up, Moriarty also says “falling is just like flying”. And when, at the very end, Sherlock lies dead and the camera shows his body from above one last time, two birds (most likely pigeons, the birds which are associated with Aschenputtle) fly away. That is most likely deliberately done, considering that the birds start flying away from a window. The story concludes how it started, with birds.

4. Allusions to other stories

4.1 King Arthur

This story is most likely only there because the writers liked the Boastalot-pun, but it is fitting nevertheless. The Knights of the Round Table were sworn to protect the country, which is exactly the job of the police. Though…does this mean that Mycroft is Merlin?

4.1 The Gingerbread Man

How does Sherlock know that Moriarty want him to run from the police? Easy, because of his final message. In the story about the Gingerbread Man (not by the Grimm Brothers, btw), he runs away from Santa Claus because he doesn’t want to be eaten. He runs, and runs, and is finally eaten piece by piece by a fox.

4.2 Snow White

This is something the writers added because Moriarty couldn’t know that there would be an apple at Baker Street. I nevertheless looked for connections to Snow White and noted something. If you look at the tale you realize that it basically contains all the “tests” Moriarty designed for Sherlock during the first season. Snow White flees into the forest while the hunter brings the Evil Queen “proof” of her death mirrors (no pun intended) Ian Monkford faking his death. The first murder attempt on Snow White is done with a laced bodice used to asphyxiate her, which is basically the murder method of the golem, minus the bodice, naturally. The second time the Evil Queen uses a poisoned comb, which is similar to kill Connie Prince by injecting poison into her head. The third time she uses an apple, of which one half is poisoned (which she gives Snow White) and the other one not (which she eats herself), a nod to the Jefferson Hopes killing method with the two pills. The tale ends with the Evil Queen dancing to death in fiery shoes, which was basically Carl Powers fate (and if you remember that part of the story, the quote “I like to watch you dance” becomes an even more sinister meaning).

And this concludes my little search. As I said, some of those might be coincidence, and there is certainly a lot of room to interpret fairy tales in a certain way. But who knows, perhaps the writers did hide an elaborate riddle in this episode, just for fun.

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The Final Solution?

Before I start, here a big warning: This article will contain spoilers for “The Empty Hearse”. If you haven’t seen it yet, read on your own peril (or the peril of your enjoyment of the episodes when it finally airs).

I don’t intend to do a review about the whole episode, but about the one aspect a whole fandom was theorizing two years about: How did Sherlock survive the Fall? Two years waiting and now…well, now we get two crack-pot solutions and one which might be the right one. Perhaps.

Actually, not perhaps. I am absolutely sure that the third one is the one the writers had in mind when they wrote TRF. Accusations have been levelled that it was simply based on what fans have come up with, but just because it was most likely the most popular theory with some additional details thrown in, it doesn’t mean that this wasn’t the one the writers had in mind all around. After all, as they rightly pointed out, there are only so many ways to survive a fall like that, and the clues on which the fan theory is based are already there in TRF. It’s not really surprising that after two years, the fans came very close to the truth.

Which left the writers in quite a conundrum. Because no matter what, after all this time the audience would most likely be disappointed. It’s like visiting a magic show, it is only fun as long as we don’t know the trick. As soon as we get a look behind the scenes, the magic just disappears. This in mind, the writers gave us the option to discard the third theory too, if we wanted to. It was overall very cleverly done (though I wouldn’t have mined to see the real solution in the first two minutes and then go on with the episode, spending more time on the reunion and the actual case, I can’t deny that the fake ones were fun to watch).

But let’s run down the hints in TRF and see how they figured into the third solution.

This clue goes back as far as ASiB. During the breakfast scene with Mycroft, the newspaper has an article about it. This was a hint the fandom could discard as soon as the DVD was out, since the commentary revealed that this was originally supposed to be a hint, but didn’t end up being one because of later rewrites. The Q&A after the premiere of The Empty Hearse elaborated further. I wasn’t present, but Den of Geeks has helpfully wrote up the important points of the exchange  here. To quote Gatiss: “We were going to do it as a two-stage trick. There was going to be a sort of  window cleaning platform which Sherlock would hit and then another body would  drop out, this is an old trick. It’s actually why there is a reference in a  newspaper to a refit of the historical hospital. And then we changed our minds  because Toby Haynes, who was the director of The Reichenbach Fall, said  the ambulance station is at exactly the right level, we don’t need an extra  thing, so that’s how that came about.”

During the hiatus I didn’t really want to speculate to what degree Mycroft was involved. Mostly because I was pretty sure that he was part of the plan (after all, it was the same was in canon, and he was suspiciously absent with his surveillance towards the end of the TRF), but enjoyed the fantasy that he really thought, just for a moment, that he might have caused Sherlock’s dead. But if you wanted to think about it, Mycroft’s involvement was pretty obvious from HoB onwards. For starters, why should he let Moriarty go? Would Mycroft really make such a big mistake of giving Moriarty information of any kind about Sherlock without considering the possible consequences?

Another question which was impossible to solve and only partly answered in TEH was to what degree Sherlock put up an act during the episode. It was pretty clear that he was at least one step ahead of Moriarty, but how ahead was he really?

So, let’s put the scenes we saw in TRF and TEH back to back and look how they related to each other, starting with the day Sherlock jumped. Mycroft is calling John to him in order to tell him about the assassins living at Baker Street. Why is he doing it this day? They are apparently living there a while already, and Mycroft decides to tell John exactly the same day Moriaty makes his final attack? Most likely Mycroft knew that Moriarty was on the move, and wanted to prepare John, just in case. What follows is the kidnapping case, which comes to heat when the girl “screams her head off”.

The idea that Moriarty used a double is not as far-fetched as it might sound. After all, he didn’t need a twin, he just needed a resemblance which would fool a distressed child. Same statue, same hair colour, same clothes, and some similarities in the shape of the face would be enough for that. And Sherlock knows that. It’s the most obvious explanation, after all.

Next Sherlock leaves John behind, claiming that he “wants to think” in the cab. Which might be the truth, or he anticipated the possibility of Moriarty ambushing him, and he didn’t want John close to him. (In fact, he seems trying to get rid of John multiple times during the episode and only relents after John joins him for his arrest). At this point, he has a general idea of Moriarty’s plan, and mostly plays along, but I don’t think that he really knows what the final move (his own suicide) will be until he flees with John later on and encounters Moriarty at Kitty Riley’s home. Luckily, he has a plan, just in case he has to fake his dead.

At this point he and John split up for a brief period. John goes to Mycroft. And Sherlock? Now that he knows that it will most likely be necessary, he talks to Molly and ensures her help. She searches for the body of Moriarty’s henchman (honestly, even if there hadn’t been a convenient look-alike, it can’t be that difficult to find a body which will look like Sherlock from afar). Prepared with the rubber ball, he then thinks. The scene in TEH suggests that he thinks about the 13 different plans he prepared with Mycroft should the need arise. But he for sure thinks about the last puzzle piece he is missing – the code. He most likely knows that it is fake, but he needs to know what Moriarty hid during his visit in order to play his role convincing during the last confrontation. When he realizes what the fake clue was, he sends Moriarty a message and waits.

The one luring John away is most likely send by Moriarty himself. For three reasons: One, Sherlock gives Moriarty a place to meet, but not a time. He couldn’t know when Moriarty would turn up, so sending John away would make no sense, because the likelihood that he would be back too early was too high. Two, it would explain how the sniper knew were to set up. There was no need for him to follow John, because Moriarty told him that he would be back as soon as he realized that the message was a fake. And three, in canon the message is from Moriarty, too.

I guess if Moriarty hadn’t lured John away, Sherlock would have done it himself somehow. But since he does, Sherlock only has to stay where he is, picking up the ball and going to the roof, pretending that he fell for Moriarty’s scheme hook, line and sinker.

I guess the 13 different plans did not all involve actually jumping off, but also variants in which he got to Moriarty otherwise. In any case, the first step is to get Moriarty away from the edge so that he is not able to notice the preparation down on the street. He even remarks in TRF that there is by now an audience down there and we get treated to a shot of the truck and a couple of people. Sherlock succeeds on luring him away by asking him for “a moment of privacy”. Once he is sure that Moriarty can’t see what is going on, he takes a last shot to take him down differently by threatening him. Moriarty kills himself.

In TEH admits that Sherlock didn’t predict that Moriarty would go that far, despite the death wish established in TGG.  But his move leaves him no choice. He steps on the edge and sends Mycroft a message, according to TEH. Everything which happens down on the street is now controlled by his people. Most likely even the cab driver works for Mycroft. It would certainly explain why he let John out at exactly the right place, or why in TRF Sherlock was able to deal John before he even left the cab. John is a little fast on his feet, but Sherlock lures him back to the position where he left the cab. The position from which he can’t see the street due to the ambulance depot in front of him. Sherlock does his magic trick speech. Meanwhile everything is set up (they couldn’t do it beforehand, because John might have seen it).

According to TEH, Sherlock jumps into the air cushion, and Molly throws the body of his double out of the window. The latter part explains why we did see a body landing on the ground in TRF. It certainly served well as a riddle for the audience. But it is really necessary to fool John? And what about the truck? What is it’s purpose? Perhaps it will later remove the air cushion and serves, until this point, as an additional “screen” so to speak to make it more difficult for John to see everything?

Sherlock certainly could just take the place of the body himself from the get go in the time John needs to get around the depot. But this would give him less time to work on his fake wound. Either way, while John is disoriented, Sherlock takes the place of the corpse, puts the rubber ball in his arm pit and stops his pulse. The writers were a little bit out of luck with this one. I am fairly convinced that the majority of the audience would have needed a little bit more time to figure this one out if the same trick hadn’t been shown around the same time in “The Mentalist”. Either way, the people surrounding Sherlock make sure that John looks for the pulse at the right arm and in general keep him away far enough that he won’t notice the “window dressing”.

Meanwhile the sniper lowers his gun. During TFF the audience was fooled into believing that he fell for Sherlock’s trick, too, but that would only work if the sniper had watched only John during the whole time, which is pretty unlikely. From his position, he should have seen what was going on. In TEH we get the explanation that he “reconsidered” because a second sniper behind him “convinced” him.

So far, so good. All this could work. Certainly it could go wrong, too, but I guess Sherlock did plan for a couple of eventualities. There are still two questions left, though, one minor and one big one. The minor one is: What happened to Moriarty’s body? Anderson was convinced that Moriarty is dead. The fan girl thought he was alive. I guess, Mycroft removed the body, though, in order to confuse Moriarty’s network.

The major one is: If the sniper was invited to reconsider – for whom was Sherlock doing his little show? Just for John? That would be very, very cruel. There had to be more people of Moriarty in the area, or at least someone who would check the security cameras later on (which would mean that the plan had to be created in a way that it looked convincing on the footage, too). Since Moriarty says “Unless my people see you jump.” and there had to be someone whose job was to inform the assassins if they should go through with the plan or not, there are clues that there was at least one other watcher. So did Mycroft keep an eye on him, too, made sure that he was in a position from which he couldn’t see what was truly going on?

Those two questions are the only ones I really would like an answer to. Otherwise I am actually very satisfied with version 3, and ready to accept it as the final solution.