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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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?

 

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: 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.

Monday Musings: A Pack of Liars

Watching Sherlock, there are always odd parallels to discover. For example Sherlock not contacting John during his long absence is mirrored by John avoiding Mrs. Hudson and Baker Street, too. But what really stood out to me were all the lies told during “His Last Vow” – and how they crippled the characters.

The most obvious liar is naturally Mary. She lies to John about her past. She lies to Janine to get access. She might lie to Sherlock when she tries to convince him that she would kill him if he doesn’t keep her secret. But above all she lies to herself that keeping all those secrets is for John’s benefit.

Next on the list is Sherlock, who lies to everyone to keep his plans concerning Janine secret, and naturally lies to Janine, too. He then proceeds to lie on Mary’s behalf to the police. But the biggest lie is the one he tells himself – that he took drugs for a case. He is Sherlock Holmes. He would certainly be able to fake a drug habit, if he really wanted to. He could also staged multiple other scandals. But he picked drugs, marking it (presumably) the first time he didn’t take drugs in place of a case, but on a case.

John seems to be the most honest of all of them, but that’s mostly because Sherlock sees immediately through all his lies, starting with the claim that a random addict sprained Bill Wiggens wrist and ending with John’s supposedly desire for a quiet live. Like Mary and Sherlock, John lies to himself, too.

Ironically it is Sherlock who finally stages an intervention to blow all of those lies open. Not surprisingly, he is the only one who still manages to hold onto his secrets.

But the list doesn’t end there. Mycroft claims that Magnussen is not of importance because he never bothers anyone truly powerful. But in fact Magnussen is just attacking Lady Smallwood (who apparently is a high level official), planning a move on Mycroft himself and claims that Mycroft tried to nail him for something for years. It seems like Mycroft warning Sherlock away from the case is mostly based on a desire to protect Sherlock, not Magnussen.

And then there is Janine, the only liar who has success. At least she makes a lot of money with her story. Interestingly though she claims that there was no need for Sherlock to lie. Who knows, perhaps she would have helped him on her own if he had just asked….considering that Magnussen apparently had something on her and loved flickering her face, she certainly had enough reasons to hate him, too.

The one who doesn’t lie is Magnussen. He is the master of misdirection and misrepresenting facts, but he doesn’t directly lie. There is always a little bit of truth in everything he prints. In fact he is living from other people’s need to conceal. In a way though it is the last truth – that he doesn’t have a vault – which costs him his life. But then, Sherlock is lying when he calls himself a psychopath, too.

In the end though…if Mary hadn’t been too afraid that John would leave her and had asked Sherlock for help. If John had told her that he planed to take on Magnussen with Sherlock instead of pretending to be happy with a mundane life. If Sherlock had tried to convince Mycroft that Magnussen is a way bigger threat than Mycroft (presumably) perceived. Than Magnussen would have had a much harder time to seize control.

Monday Musings: The Making of a Hero

Something which strikes me as remarkable about “Sherlock” is how the show plays with the concept of a hero. We tend to expect anyone who fights crime to be one. But is Sherlock one? He himself certainly doesn’t think so. For him heroes don’t exist, and if they were, he wouldn’t be one of them. That’s the sentiment he utters during the finale of season one, which he affirms during the climax of season two “I might be on the side of the angels, but don’t believe for one second that I am one of them.”) and season three (“I am not a hero. I am a high functioning sociopath. Merry Christmas!”) just as he is about to fulfil a prediction Sally uttered during A Study in Pink.

“One day we’ll be standing around a body and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who put it there.”

Back then, nobody ever expected this to come true. In fact at the end of the episode the joke was on her, because the police was standing around a body and John was the one who put it there (not that she ever realized as far as we know). But now it did come true – kind of. Sally was naturally sure that Sherlock would become a crazy murderer, but when he finally did kill someone, his motivation was to protect someone else.

So why does Sherlock keep insisting that he is no hero? Are we supposed to disagree with him? Or are we invited to think about who the true hero in this show is? Is John a hero, being soldier and doctor in one person? Is Lestrade one for being an honest and underpaid detective? Molly for being there for Sherlock and pulling long shifts in the morgue? Or is there really no hero at all? And what exactly is a hero?

Hercules was considered a hero because he choose to be one. Because he rather wanted to be remembered for his deeds than having a happy life. He was a hero for the fame – a motivation we would nowadays consider beneath a true her. King Arthur was a hero because he fought for a just society, putting the needs of all above his personal needs. Superman is one because he is more than human, because he protects the ones in need, setting an example we all strive to follow (at least he did until the last movie, but that’s another topic). In the last years, though, we moved away from this impossible ideal. A hero no longer has to be uber-human. Our current heroes do struggle with what is right and wrong, and they are allowed to fail as long as they keep finding the way back to the right path. Being a hero is no longer just about succeeding, it is about the willingness to try. And in that, it doesn’t make a difference what the weapons of choice are – especially in the real world the right words speaking at the right time and the right place are often more effective than a messy fight.

This in mind Sherlock’s flawed personality is no argument against him being hero. And in fact, in His Last Vow he is framed like an hero from a Greek tragedy following the theories of Aristotle. According to him in an ideal tragedy the hero is set up to fail. Through no fault of his own he faces a situation in which he has the choice between ignoring the suffering of the ones around him or taking the fall in order to protect them. This is exactly what happens to Sherlock. He can either allow Magnussen to win, leaving everyone, including John, Mary and Mycroft to his mercy, or he can take the shot, looking to the world like a murderer. And like a true hero, he takes the fall.

Was Sherlock a hero during the first two seasons, when he was playing his game with Moriarty? I don’t think so. The first “fall” he took was a fake after all. And perhaps that’s the point. In the first episode Mycroft assesses that John Watson might be the making of his brother. Perhaps “Sherlock” is not a show about the deeds of a hero, but the making of one, about a selfish man on the brink to self-destruction becomes someone who does deserve our admiration.