Monday, November 8, 2010

Sherlock: The Great Game

What do you get when a high-functioning sociopath meets a psychopath? Quite simply the most brilliant, gripping ninety minutes of television I’ve seen all year. Maybe ever. I’m still trying to decide. Masterpiece Mystery ended its 2010 season on an unbelievably high note with The Great Game, the final episode of Sherlock’s first season. You know, everything I’ve said about the first two episodes of Sherlock, about how much I absolutely fell head over heels for the show within the first five minutes of episode one, EVERYTHING pales in comparison with how brilliant The Great Game plays out. I absolutely adored every single second. Here’s the story summary from the PBS website:
Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Last Enemy) is bored. And he's not just staring at the wall, he's shooting at it. London is quiet and peaceful, and for Holmes, that is nothing short of maddening. An explosion rocks Holmes and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, The Office UK) out of their doldrums and into a series of deadly puzzles conceived by a brilliant bomber. It starts with a pair of shoes left in the center of an empty room — shoes connected to a case that caught Holmes's interest twenty years ago as a boy. Soon a blood-soaked car, a television star and a recovered classic painting figure into an ever-widening cat-and-mouse game. As fast as Holmes can deduce answers, more cryptic clues arrive from his intelligent and violent adversary. After many surreal twists and turns, the outcome of the game may be uncertain, but for once, Sherlock has found a worthy opponent. Sherlock is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and is co-created by Doctor Who producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. (One episode; 90 minutes, TV-PG)
Massive spoiler-y discussion from this point on…
In keeping with this show’s tradition, The Great Game drew inspiration for its plot from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories. This time the scriptwriter (and the show’s Mycroft) Mark Gatiss incorporated elements of “The Bruce-Partington Plans” and “The Five Orange Pips.” Sherlock has never been about making a straight translation of Doyle’s Victorian-era detective into the modern age, and I love that – rather, they incorporate enough canonical elements and “Easter eggs” for fans of Doyle’s work that makes the show both a tribute and a fantastical reinvention of Holmes. And always, always dancing in the background, just out of view until now is Sherlock’s nemesis, the master criminal Moriarty.

But before I delve into a discussion of the more serious, gripping elements of The Great Game, I want to talk for a moment about the developing Sherlock/Watson dynamic and the show’s wonderful, intelligent, ever-present humor. When this episode opens, Sherlock is bored – and as anyone who’s a fan of the great detective knows, that is the one state of being that he absolutely cannot tolerate. So of course he shoots a smiley face in the living room wall – makes perfect sense, right? *grin* Watson has also begun to chronicle life with Sherlock on his blog – now that he has such an interesting roommate his life positively overflows with blog-worthy happenings. The little discussion Sherlock and Watson have about Watson’s humble efforts to chronicle Sherlock’s cases (the first being “A Study in Pink”) was HILARIOUS. Cumberbatch skates a fine line between letting us think that Sherlock is just the teensiest bit flattered by Watson’s blog (though he’d DIE before admitting it) and annoyed that Watson’s revealing his elementary school knowledge shortcomings to the world (especially to those “lesser minds” at the police department – Lestrade’s reaction is particularly memorable). As Watson and Sherlock spar back-and-forth, Sherlock actually starts sulking. Watching Cumberbatch actually pout, and curl up on the sofa in a fetal position (as if that was going to get to Watson) was priceless. Sherlock and Watson really are like an old married couple, aren’t they? Freeman and Cumberbatch’s on-screen buddy chemistry is priceless. With their casting the filmmakers really caught lightning in a bottle – they are the ideal duo.

Soon Sherlock has two seemingly unrelated cases thrown his way – Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) returns in all his snarky glory to recruit Sherlock to go to bat for queen & country and retrieve the Bruce-Partington missile plans. Sherlock’s not really interested in that case, especially when “something new” appears – a bomber blows up the building across from 221B, leaving a message addressed to Sherlock. It’s a phone, retrofitted to resemble the pink phone that was so critical in the Pink case, that this anonymous bomber uses to contact Sherlock with his sick, twisted “challenges.” Sherlock’s given a cryptic clue, and if he doesn’t solve the case in the prescribed amount of time, the clock will run out for an innocent victim who’s wired to explode. At first Sherlock relishes the challenges. This unknown adversary is the “something new” he’s been craving, an opponent worthy of figuratively crossing blades with the world’s only consulting detective.

And this is where things really get interesting for me. Sherlock is such a prickly character, almost inhuman with his focus on facts, that he can be incredibly off-putting (personally, his anti-social tendencies are just one of things I love about him, but that’s just me). Until Watson appears in his life, he’s really without a human sound-board or moral compass – Watson sees the humanity that Sherlock is too – cerebral, if you will, to deign to recognize. At first Sherlock’s unseen opponent follows a pattern and appears to be playing by a set of rules – so when Sherlock handily solves the first two cases, he gets a little cocky. When the third case, involving an elderly blind woman used as bait, doesn’t follow the script, lives are lost, and though he doesn’t come out and admit it, I felt like Cumberbatch lets this little glimmer, a crack of humanity show through Sherlock’s demeanor. He may be intolerably full of himself, but he isn’t so callous that he doesn’t care when innocents die.

I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated or relished the reveal and first confrontation between a villain and hero as much as I have looked forward to Sherlock and Moriarty meeting face-to-face. Actor Andrew Scott plays Moriarty, the world’s foremost consulting criminal. Scott is not an entirely unfamiliar face – he appeared in an episode of Band of Brothers as well as Foyle’s War, and fans of the Beatles will get to see him play Paul McCartney in Lennon Naked when that airs on Masterpiece Contemporary. Scott is without a doubt in my mind the scariest Moriarty I've ever seen on film. The man isn’t just a criminal mastermind, he’s an outright terrorist. And seriously, all that aside is there anything creepier than a bad guy with a ridiculous sing-song voice?! *shivers* Now, unfortunately I can’t remember where I read this – I think it was an interview with Mark Gatiss – but I seem to recall Gatiss addressing the show’s depiction of Moriarty. They wanted Sherlock’s nemesis to be truly evil, to really give Sherlock the chance to be heroic. I love that.

One might wonder if that implies plans to “humanize” Sherlock, to really change the essence of the character into perhaps a more "traditional" hero. After viewing The Great Game I would say no – that most definitely isn’t necessary and I don't think that will happen. The Sherlock that Cumberbatch brings so brilliantly to life can still be an accurate and faithful reflection of Doyle’s creation while perhaps also being a hero in the more epic sense of the term, in that his adversary is incalculably evil and is capable of extracting great personal loss from Sherlock’s life. As Mycroft comments at the end of A Study in Pink, Watson could be the making of Sherlock. I think we see the beginnings of that in The Great Game. Sherlock’s friendship with Watson has widened the scope of his understanding, tapped into his humanity, reminds him of the personal toll to the cases his mind takes such intellectual delight in (though I’m sure he’d rather DIE of boredom than admit any of this, LOL!). Moriarty is Sherlock’s equal in each and every way, an adversary worthy of the detective’s great powers, but because he’s so good at being evil, it will require Sherlock to up his game.

Freeman and Cumberbatch are fabulous in the confrontation scene at the pool. For a show that’s only been around for three episodes, their unspoken communication during the final scenes is superb. I have to say Sherlock and Watson are truly equal partners in this incarnation of their story – any weakness or lack in one is more than compensated for by a strength or insight found in the other, and vice-versa. I adore their friendship. When Watson first appears at the pool, and Sherlock sees the bomb strapped to his friend, there’s a beat, a flash where you realize that he never saw the confrontation taking this route (possibly he wonders for a split second if Watson is Moriarty?), possibly exacting this cost. But of course, Sherlock being Sherlock, he carries on, his equilibrium barely rattled. And when Watson heroically grabs Moriarty in an ultimately fruitless effort to save Sherlock, I cheered. They may fight and bicker and not understand each other’s point of view most of the time, but when it comes down to what really matters, they’re willing to sacrifice for each other.

Some random notes:

• Loved it when Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) comforts Sherlock by assuring him that a “nice murder” will come along to shake him out of the doldrums – and then a few minutes later is taking him to task for shooting up her wall.

• LOVED that Sarah (Zoe Telford) is playing a bit hard to get with Watson. Making him sleep on the sofa was a nice touch. The two of them are really an adorable couple.

• Rupert Graves is simply brilliant as Lestrade. He’s weary and run ragged, but he recognizes Sherlock’s genius and value and is willing to make allowances for him (and to put up with a great deal of ribbing for doing so). The fact that he devours Watson’s blog posts – priceless! He needs to appear in every episode of series 2!

• So Sherlock’s legendary “Baker Street Irregulars” are a network of homeless informants? Interesting modern-day twist. Enjoyed seeing Jeany Spark appear very briefly as this “face” of this group in The Great Game.

• Regarding the “Golem” hitman who committed the fourth murder – the “Golem” angle rang a very faint bell in my mind, so I googled Golem and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle this morning. Apparently Doyle wrote a short story featuring the Golem legend, which you can read here. You can also read a bit about the Golem/Doyle connection here. Yet again another sign of how well Gatiss and Moffatt know and respect their source material.

• I totally called Jim, the hapless coroner’s boyfriend from IT, as being a Moriarty henchman, or the man himself. There was no WAY that scene was stuck in the script as just a throwaway example of Sherlock’s powers of observation and his tendency towards rudeness.

• The music for this series is spectacular! Composers David Arnold and Michael Price have simply outdone themselves! I desperately want a full soundtrack album, but since I can’t seem to find that one is available, this will have to do. You can download the theme here through Amazon.

• I thought it was absolutely hilarious when, after the case involving the reality TV star, Holmes gets hooked on reality TV. Freeman's delivery of the line "I knew it was a mistake to get you hooked on crap telly" was pitch-perfect and priceless!

The cliffhanger moment of this season was evil, diabolical, and mean, while simultaneously brilliant and ingenious. That, my friends, is a difficult feat to pull off. Normally I do NOT tolerate cliffhangers well, but this one is done so well, so brilliantly, that honestly there is a part of me that doesn’t mind waiting A WHOLE FREAKING YEAR for series two. Though Sherlock only gave us three episodes, they were unforgettable and brilliant and amazing and fulfilling, cliffhangers aside. Truly for me this was the television event of the year, and I’ll be savoring and pouring over these productions many times in the months to come, seeking any small, delightful detail or character insight that I may have missed.

• Check out Vic’s thoughts on The Great Game at Jane Austen’s World.
• Read my review of A Study in Pink.
• Read my review of The Blind Banker.

Now, on to some news about SEASON TWO!!! When I started contemplating season two after recovering somewhat from The Great Game, my first wish was that Irene Adler make an appearance. We just can't have a Sherlock as brilliant as Benedict Cumberbatch portrays him without bringing Irene into the picture. My mother and I also discussed what we thought might be the Reichenbach Falls moment in this series. In messing around on Google looking for photos for this post, I came across this link. Are you ready for three clues dropped by showrunner Steven Moffat for series two?


Okay, if you insist:

1. Adler (YES!!!!)
2. Hound
3. Reichenbach

Yes, yes, YES!!!! Be still my heart...the wait till season two is gonna be even tougher... ;-)


Anonymous said...

Ruth, this episode was mindblowingly fantastic, and you captured it just right! Linked to your great review.Can't wait until next season!


Unknown said...

@janeaustensworld - Thanks Vic! I am still in awe of this marvelousness of this ep...gosh it was good. Based on the 3 clues Moffatt dropped in that interview, season 2 is gonna be amazing!

Heidenkind said...

Very insightful analysis, Ruth! Are you on twitter? The author of the Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia (or something like that) was tweeting various connections between the TV series and the books/other adaptions. Very interesting! As someone who isn't knowledgeable about the original literary Holmes, I would have had no idea how layered the show is with the historiography of Sherlock Holmes, but the series' creators really know their stuff.

That being said, I think because I'm not a Holmesiac (Holmesian?), I didn't enjoy the series as much as you did. Don't get me wrong, it's fun escapism, and I ADORE Cumberbatch as Holmes--not to mention Moriarty, who's hilarious--but I feel like it's more of a steampunk interpretation of Holmes than a contemporary one. The show is definitely all fantasy--he fires at an apartment wall in the middle of a city and doesn't get arrested? Doesn't kill or injure anyone? O.o If Cumberbatch suddenly appeared in Victorian clothing, I don't think it would be incongruous at all, and the police procedure definitely is Victorian-esque.

Anyway. It's interesting. I wish we had more than three episodes to watch. :)

vvb32 reads said...

LOVE this post and the new series as well. LOVE your tidbits and links.

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - Why thank you verra much. :) Nope, I'm not on Twitter...but getting all of that information would have been very cool. I know there's just tons of tie-ins that I missed.

I will concede that the show does require a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief. ;) I am a pretty die hard Sherlock fangirl so I have no trouble dismissing little details like that, LOL!!!

And amen to the more than 3 episodes wish... *sigh* Well at least we have lots of new Masterpiece Classic programs to look forward to (not that I'm wishing away the rest fo the year or anything). :)

@vvb32 - Thanks so much for stopping by & for the feedback! :) Glad you enjoyed the post & info!

Anonymous said...

Hi - new to posts, thanks for this! I loved all 3 episodes but had a thought on ending of 3 - it almost seemed a Reichenbach Falls moment (although Watson shouldn't have been there) - Sherlock is willing to detonate bomb with gun at cost of his own life to stop Moriarty - anyone else think that?

Anonymous said...

oops - saw the hint that Reichenbach could be in Season two so there goes my idea? maybe? - Tim

Unknown said...

@Pastor Yeadon - Thanks for commenting, great to meet another fan of the show! Until I read the interview I linked to above, with the teasers about season 2, I also wondered if maybe the end of "The Great Game" was a Reichenbach Falls moment for the show. I could easily imagine season 2 opening with Watson somehow having survived the blast, but thinking Sherlock was dead. If an even MORE spectacular Reichenbach moment is in the pipeline - well I can't wait! :)

Joni said...

Oooh, Andrew Scott is just so goshdarn cuddly and adorable I have a hard time taking him seriously as an Evil Bad Guy. Plus every time he was onscreen I was yelling "Shut your freakin guinea trap, Gonorrhea!" and it sort of ruined the effect.

Unknown said...

@Joni - LOL, you are on to something there - with his looks it's a bit hard to buy him as the series' "big bad" - but when that sing-songy voice came out he creeped the heck out of me. I CAN'T WAIT FOR SERIES 2!