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.

Monday Musings: Restructuring The Empty Hearse

Unlike some fans, I loved season three. What I didn’t love though, was “The Empty Hearse”. In fact, it is now my least favourite Sherlock episode. My problems with this episode are very different from the usual points of critic.

The on-going commentary on fandom? I loved that! The three solutions? I think it was genius approach to what would have been a let-down in any case. The scene with the bomb? I totally dig the off-switch!

No, what I dislike about this episode mostly comes down to structure. Watching it I often get the feeling that Gatiss had a lot of ideas, but problems to connect them to a working narrative frame.

For example the prologue. It consists of three elements: The fake first theory, followed by John and Mary standing at Sherlock’s grave, followed by Sherlock in Serbia. And I admit, as much as I like the moment of John standing at the grave, it feels squeezed in (and don’t get me started on the cut from the coffee cups to his eyes), especially since we already see Sherlock’s grave stone at the very beginning. To me, it would have made much more sense if the grave scene had been the first of the episode…it would have been the perfect start since the last episode ended with John leaving there. They could have ended the scene with the close up to the grave stone and then shown the fake first theory. I actually think that it would have heightened the impact, because the scene at the grave is so calm, and the speed of this one would have been a great contrast. The audience would have no less believed that they now get the solution. Plus, the dialogue of Lestrade and Anderson ends with “And may God rest his soul” – is there anything more fitting to show Sherlock everything but restful in the next scene?

The next “scene of contention” is for me the various scenes of people encountering Sherlock again, leading up to the totally fannish second theory. I have two problems with those: One, John laying awake in the bed doesn’t really fit in. Two, where the hell are the reporters in the following scenes? A celebrity coming back to life, but Sherlock can go wherever he wants with no problem?

There are two prerogatives “fighting” with each other. Gatiss obviously wanted the “big press scene” at the end of the episode. Understandable, it’s a perfect closure. At the same time though, Sherlock coming back must be public, not just for the “Oh my god” scene, but mostly in order to explain clients turning up at his doorstep.

My solution would have been to give Sherlock coming back and his first reconciliation with more time…not more screen-time, just more time. For example, add a line in the scene between Sherlock and Mycroft that the press is now loosing interest and clients are now showing up again. Give it the appearance of at least a week long time-jump instead of just one or two days. End this scene with a shot of John laying awake in bed, thinking, followed by him shaving. This would also give John some time to come to terms with his feelings. After that back to the montage of Sherlock and Molly dealing with clients while John has a “normal” day – imho the high point of the episode, after the first fake theory.

Speaking of fake theories, the next and last big stumbling stone is for the placement of the third theory. Gatiss said that it felt right to place it in the middle of the bomb situation. From an audience pov it is more than a little bit confusing, because it first seems to be a leap forward, and then a random scene in the future. Or something which never happened. It certainly doesn’t work as pov from someone since it cuts away from John’s face and John isn’t present during the scene in question.

To me the perfect placing for this scene would have been when John asks Sherlock how he has done it and Sherlock looks thoughtful. Cutting to the recording in this moment would foul the audience into believing that this is from the interview first. Going then back to Sherlock’s “you know my methods” line would leave it open if Sherlock remembers something what happened or if he indulges in a nice little fantasy.

Naturally it is easy to criticise after the fact. Still…I think that a little bit tweaking of the structure would have made the whole episode better. As it is, it is a little bit disjointed.

Monday Musings: Beyond the Surface

Recently I was discussing Vikings with someone. To be precise, I discussed the claim that Vikings is some sort of Game of Throne rip-off. It really isn’t. In fact, I claimed that it wouldn’t even occur to me to compare the two, because they have an entirely different way of storytelling.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I then pondered which show I would compare Vikings to – and I ended up with Sherlock.

First I thought that it was mostly because both shows have a very distinctive style and both shows are an example of a network exploring new venues (Sherlock is the first show which basically consists of three mini-movies per season, Vikings is History Channel’s first scripted show). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that both shows have a very similar approach to it’s characters.

In most TV shows, the characters are pretty much clear cut. We know their motivations, we know exactly what they are up to, we might even get lengthy explanations why they acted is a certain way. But there are a few which leave it to the audience to catch up. Sherlock is certainly one of them.

In Sherlock we can’t rely on what the characters say about themselves because (like in real life), their ability for self-reflection is limited. John isn’t aware that his real problem with adjusting to civilian life is the fact that he is missing the danger until Mycroft points it out to him, Sherlock uses words like “high-functioning sociopath” like a weapon to fight the accusation that he is a psychopath when in truth, he is neither, Mycroft keeps pretending that he is detached from everyone when in truth he would risk everything for his little brother. We can’t even trust the opinions the characters voice about each other, and I am not just talking about Sherlock overlooking all the clues which point to Mary’s past. Sherlock dismisses Molly until he finally notices that she might count after all, John thinks that Mycroft made a mistake which put Sherlock in danger when in truth they are both playing a long con on Moriarty, and who would have thought that Mrs. Hudson used to be an exotic dancer?

Often the audience is left guessing. How much of Sherlock’s behaviour in HoB was about apologizing to John and how much was about luring him into his experiment? At what point did who know what during TRF? How aware is Mycroft of Sherlock’s activities during HLV? But exactly this is half of the fun. Trying to figure the characters out without ever knowing how close to the truth one really is, is a large part of what makes them so much more real. After all, nobody gives us a handy little fact sheet of everyone we meet in real life either, right?


The ten biggest misconceptions about Sherlock Holmes

10. Sherlock Holmes said “Elementary, my dear Watson”

I put this pretty low on the list because it’s not that wrong. Holmes used the word “Elementary” a couple of times in the book, and he also used the words “my dear Watson”. He just never did it in combination, until the stories were adapted for stage. Popular became the words through the Basil Rathbone movies.

9. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were middle-aged men

Well, they naturally became middle-aged men during the stories, since their first meeting happened in 1881 and the last story is set in 1914, 33 years later. Holmes was supposedly 60 in 1914, making his birth year 1854, and him only 27 when he encountered Watson. And while Watson’s age is never established, he finished his studies in 1878, so he was most likely around Holmes age when they meet. How were they so successful at such a young age? Well, they actually weren’t. Watson had to deal with a lot of misfortune in the war, and Holmes only became a truly successful detective after Watson started to publish his stories. They started out as two young men of good standing trying to find a purpose in the world, and finally found their way.

8. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson spend practically their whole life together

Not really. They shared their living space from 1881 to 1888, until Watson married Mary Morstan to be precise. This changed again after Sherlock Holmes came back from death in 1894: Watson had become a widower during the hiatus and soon moved back to Baker Street. Holmes stayed there from 1894 to 1903, but was definitely retired from 1904 to 1911, living in the country and studying bees. He came officially out of retirement in 1914, though he was working on a case for three years already at this point. There is also the fact that Watson is apparently married again in 1902 and 1903 (there is some confusion about the number of marriages, but let’s go with two tops, and consider the rest continuity errors made by Doyle). Either way, the time they really spend to together consist of 7 years during Holmes first career, 9 years tops during his second career and an unknown timespan after they set out to do their duty in 1914. So they did spend a lot of time together, but there were also long periods in which they barely saw each other.

7. Sherlock Holmes last case is described in The Last Bow

No, this collection actually ends with him coming out of retirement, in order to use his abilities during the first world war.

6. Sherlock Holmes wore an Iverness Coat, a Deerstalker and smoked a pipe

Well, he did wore a hat in the “Boscombe Valley Mystery” and clothes fitting for the country, which are depicted in the illustration as Iverness coat and deerstalker. But that’s only that one case and only in the illustration. In London he wore suits fitting for a gentleman. He also smoked pipe, but the typical Sherlock Holmes pipe is a result of the stage adaptations. Willian Gilette was the first who used it to ensure that the audience could see his face properly.

5. Sherlock Holmes was an addict, using drugs to stimulate his brain

It is correct that he did take drugs, but only when he wasn’t on a case. Then he took drugs not to stimulate but to dull his senses – during the first stories. Fact is that Watson disapproved of the habit, worried about the possible consequences and eventually managed to convince Sherlock Holmes to find other ways to control his brain. There is no proof in canon that Sherlock Holmes was ever an addict in the sense that the drugs controlled him instead of the other way around, and no mention of him taking drugs after the hiatus.

4. Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler had a romance

Sherlock Holmes was certainly impressed by Irene Adler, and she was impressed by him. But there was never a romantic relationship between them. In fact during the story Sherlock witnesses her marriage to a young lawyer. There is no hint that she isn’t honestly in love with her husband, in fact, Holmes expresses his hope that she is. Irene Adler is certainly someone special for Sherlock Holmes, someone who shifted his view on women in general. But the true nature of his feelings is never revealed and everything points to Irene Adler loving someone else.

3. Sherlock Holmes was a gentleman

From our modern perspective, certainly, but for a Victorian, his behaviour could be quite shocking – even if you ignore him climbing over the furniture, pretending to be part of the working class and whatever else he deemed necessary to solve a case. He had a penchant for hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) insults, and when he was focussed on a case, everything else was not important for him.

2. Sherlock Holmes was always right and solved every case

Nope. Sherlock Holmes specified himself that he was beaten four times, three times by men and one time by a woman (presumably Irene Adler). Watson mentions multiple cases which Sherlock Holmes wasn’t able to solve. There are two cases in which Holmes does not manage to rescue the client who came for help to him (“The Dancing Men” and “The Five Orange Pips”), and another one in which he comes to the wrong conclusion (“The Yellow Face”).

1. Sherlock Holmes was a defender of the law

Not really. For him, it was all about the puzzle. He did feel a certain satisfaction, if he could end the career of a particularly vicious criminal. At the same time though, he was prone to complaining whenever the criminals were not “interesting” enough. He also was not above taking the law into his own hand. In more than one case, he hides the truth from the police, once to protect someone’s honour, once because he believes that the crime was done mostly in self-defence, once because he believes that turning the true thief in would just make him an ever worse criminal and once simply because he distastes the “victim”, Charles Augustus Milverton. In fact, this is the case during which is actions are the most questionable. Not only does he promise marriage to a servant girl to obtain information, breaks into the house of the suspect, he also stops Watson from interfering when Milverton gets shot.

Monday Musings: Quality over Quantity

Looking back at the shows I loved in the past, the ones which stand-out and even on my list of remarkable Sherlock Holmes Adaptations, there is a common trend: I usually end up loving shows with short seasons and tight storytelling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t watch the usual 20-30 episodes every year show…but I have noticed that they tend to be much less watchable. They are prone to unnecessary drawn-out story telling (especially when it comes to relationships), useless padding in form of contrived drama and filler episodes (which can be good but are nearly always one level under the show’s standard). You are forced to just take the bad with the good and move on.

But I am starting to wonder: I realize that the networks have to fill their time-slots, but are long seasons really that desirable? Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer the audience a wider selection of shows? Not that I would recommend this for every kind of show. If the episodes are just loosely connected stand-alones either way and the show is designed in a way that you can easily turn in whenever you want, it certainly doesn’t matter so much. But currently the trend is to do shows with character development and story-arcs. So why not do it properly? Why not following the model of Babylon 5 and plot out four to five seasons in advance (you can always adjust the story along the way if necessary)? The closest we have currently to this concept are a couple of show based on books and, ironically, CW’s Arrow, for which the writer claim to have a general idea about where the story will go for the first five seasons. Maybe one can add History Channel’s Vikings to the list, mostly because the writers follow historical events and mostly have to decide what to disregard, what to reinterpret and how fast their story should process.

And naturally Sherlock. Partly on the virtue of having the shortest seasons of all TV shows, but also because the writers claim to have figured out the plot for the upcoming two seasons. When this was published, everyone was excited about the confirmation of further seasons. I was elated too, but season 4 in itself was something I pretty much expected to happen, knowing that the writers have a good idea about the direction in which they want to take the story was what made my day. After all, with only three episodes in every season, you want to get the best possible out of every single one of them, right?

Monday Musings: Invisible influences

Yesterday I was at a very special event. An event which, I guess, is very difficult to explain for non-fans, but I’ll try.

Once upon a time, there was an American children’s book series called “The Three Investigators”. It was reasonably successful and consisted of 46 books, in which three young boys solved mysteries. But that wasn’t seen as “cool” enough any longer. So the publisher decided to age the protagonists for a follow up series called “The Crimebusters”. Now teens the three investigators got more dangerous (but also less complex) cases. It didn’t work, the series was ended, end of story.

Well, not really. You see, said series was very popular in Germany. Partly because the German versions had really cool covers, but also because parallel to the book series, you could buy the stories as radio plays on tape. Back then, a lot of children owned a tape player, and kept hearing those plays – and everyone had The Three Investigators. So when the series ended in the US, the German publisher decided to hire German writers and the series was continued. And continued. The readers and hearer became older, a lot of them gave up on tapes and children’s books, but not on The Three Investigators. Partly because the series never really changed that much. German writers (sometimes fans themselves) added elements from the original series in the stories, repairing the damage the crime buster series did. The voice actors of the boys stayed the same. It’s like the series just grew up with the fans, but still has the element of nostalgia which is difficult to resist.


Now, 34 years after the first radio play was published, the number of books is going towards 200, and the voice actors went on tour for the third time. Meaning, they go in front of a giant audience of fans and perform. Who would have thought back then that this would one day happen? As always it was a big event.

But why do I tell you that? Well, while I was waiting in the rain for more than an hour in order to get a decent seat, and then on my seat for two hours for the show to start, I kept thinking that this series was, though I didn’t know it back then, my first contact with Sherlock Holmes. Those who know the “classic” three investigator series might know what I am talking about. Looking back on it now, it is obvious where the original creator of the series, Robert Arthur, got his inspiration. Let’s summon it up:

There are three boys. Jupiter is the “Thinker” of the group, which does remind me of a certain other guy with an odd name. Like Sherlock Holmes he likes to experiment, and is tinkering with all kinds of stuff he finds on the junkyard of his aunt and uncle. Unlike Holmes he isn’t physically fit though, that is the “job” so to speak of Peter, the second one in the group. The third is Bob, responsible for research and archive. Or you could say he is Watson, the guy who writes down all the cases. When in danger, they tend to leave question marks written in chalk as messages for the others, because nobody, especially no adult would think much of some scribbles on a wall – a concept straight from the dancing man. There are also two cases which are nods to “The Six Napoleons”, a testament riddle which reminds me a little bit of “The Musgrave Ritual”, another case in which the fact that a dog didn’t react is an important clue (complete with nod to the original Sherlock Holmes case), and various quotes from the Sherlock Holmes stories. In short, the series is basically Sherlock Holmes for children. In the English original series, every case was even named “The Secret of” to mirror “The Adventure of….”.

It was more or less the first children books series I read, and it ruined me for pretty much all the others. The cases were often very complex, making the books way more challenging than other series of this kind in which one is usually able to identify the villain immediately because, well, he acts and looks like one. So even though I wasn’t aware of it, this series was the very beginning of me being a Sherlock Holmes fan. And I admit – even though there are still really good books in the series, it’s the classics I still like the most.

Monday Musings: Fandomism

It’s sometimes frustrating to read what other people claim about Sherlock fans. No, I am not a “fanatic fangirl who doesn’t allow any criticism of her favourite show” or “just interested in the actors good looks”. Neither am I a misogynist, racist and whatever else one might get called based on the opinion that the show itself is misogynist and racist.

To clarify where I stand in the fandom: I like the show, but that doesn’t mean that it is perfect. I really dig the actors, but I don’t think that any of them look particularly attractive or are swoon-worthy. They have a lot of charisma, I think they are the best actors we currently get in TV (in the shows I watch), but they are not my type at all. I have read the original Sherlock Holmes stories (obviously, if I hadn’t, I couldn’t create reference lists), and I really couldn’t care less who uses which tag on twitter.

For the record though: If someone swoons over an actor or actress, it’s their right to do so. Thinks like that are simply a matter of taste. One doesn’t have to agree, but they might not agree concerning your own taste.

I admit, that I am guilty of fast judgement myself. I think that the fans of CW’s Beauty and the Beast are a loud and annoying lot. That’s because some fans over at spoiler TV are very set on promoting a show which, imho, had one of the worst pilots I have ever seen. It was cheesy and badly acted, and I just want to scream at those fans that they should finally shut up about their stupid show, because I won’t give it a second chance.  But I should remind myself that not all fans are like that, and those who are act most likely out of desperation, looking at the ratings of this show.

I also have sometimes a low opinion of the Supernatural Fandom, partly because some fans display a superior attitude regarding Grimm (hey, you don’t have to like it, but I enjoy it), partly because there is a large number of RPF’s in this fandom, which makes me wonder if the writers are watching for the show or for an opportunity to ogle the actors. It’s hard to argue with a show which has as many seasons like this one. It was never for me (yes, I gave it a try), but it seems to do something right.

As a general rule the smaller a fandom is, the better its reputation. Less trolls, less fanatics, and if some turn up, they are easy to control. With large fandoms, though, the minority is VERY loud. It’s just the nature of things. And we shouldn’t judge a whole fandom based on the few fans we encounter. A fandom is simply a group of individuals, who share the love for something. Their reasons for liking it and the way they display their affection depends  on the person. And just because one encounters annoying members in one fandom, it doesn’t mean that all fans are the same.