In the third and final episode of the first series of Sherlock, John is relegated a seemingly unrelated case in a trainyard by a busy Sherlock, who is occupied with a set of potential bombings that appear to be orchestrated by the faceless Moriarty. When the two investigations collide, WE WERE NEVER PREPARED. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Sherlock.
I think it’s too premature to say, as I’d like to see the second season progress in a wank-free manor (or, better yet, have an episode that makes up for “The Blind Banker”!), but “The Great Game” may–may–have washed the bad taste of the previous episode out of my mouth. THIS is Sherlock Holmes. THIS is why I enjoyed those original stories so much. THIS is so terribly exciting that the final ten minutes were so intense that I actually punched myself in the face on accident. No, seriously, I–well, hold on. We’ll get there.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is probably more abrasive than I anticipated initially, as I never thought when I read the originals that Sherlock was that much of an asshole. But now, going back and reading summaries of some of those original stories…yeah, he WAS kind of a total douche at times, wasn’t he? It’s a sign (one of SO MANY in this particular episode) that Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat spent time doing their research and being otherwise fantastic about their fannish enjoyment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. It’s not enough for them to merely reference titles or stories or plots or names. This episode (and the full first series in general) just gets where this all came from. And that’s really fascinating and exciting.
The thing they get right about Sherlock’s character, and what “The Great Game” opens with, is that his mind is constantly seeking out enrichment in whatever form he can find it. The show makes no qualms about having Sherlock just flat out say that he is bored or that people are boring him. And while this may just seem like an attempt at dry humor, I think that on a base level, I understand Sherlock. TO AN EXTENT. And I have to preface that with that qualifier. My own brain only goes so far, and I’m not the type of person to be as rude or forthcoming in the manner that Sherlock is.
I guess….I don’t want to put this in terms of intelligence, because, as I’ve learned over the past year or so, that entire concept is, in and of itself, pretty darn fucked up. What I understand deals more with what I’m interested in, and I think that’s it’s not problematic to say that I understand what it feels like to look at the world in a way that most of the people around you don’t seem to comprehend.
I’ve made jokes in my reviews and on my Tumblr about how I was busy calling people DIRTY RACISTS by the time I was nine, or that my childhood heroes at age ten were Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and how no one understood my ~special and unique interest in the finer things in life~. Which is total and complete bullshit, by the way. I was NOT that special for liking horror literature or for thinking that Black Flag were the greatest band to ever play music on the planet earth or for believing that my ancestors were from Egypt. (I won’t ever get over how ridiculously silly that is, for the record.) It was all about perspective, and I think that’s important to note. In my world out in Riverside, California, where small-town mentality ruled over my peers and their parents, those things I became interested in were so rare that they seemed to suggest that either something was wrong with me or I was existing on another astral plane from the rest of the world.
Total bullshit, again. Just because I loved doing complex mathematics in my head does not mean that my interests were any superior or inferior to those of the people I interacted with at school. Hell, I could have used a friend to tell me to just play some goddamn kickball and stop thinking about angles of rebound. ENJOY LIFE, MARK. WORK ON THAT.
And while there is an element to Sherlock’s character that is fantastical, and it’s precisely that part which I cannot relate to, I remember feeling bored by my friends talking about their new video games or the latest football match on the television or boys and girls and things I just didn’t have an interest in. My boredom, though, wasn’t a sign of superiority, though I probably foolishly believed it to be. My boredom spawned out of loneliness. I wanted someone to share these awesome things with.
What “The Great Game” gives us is the first time that Sherlock feels that he has someone not only on his level, but who understands his level, even if he can’t meet him there. John Watson moves so much closer to Sherlock here, and by the time the terrifying climax arrives, we’ve seen how, in just four and half hours, these two men have grown to respect and care for each other in what is, relatively, a very short time.
It starts off with a bit of awkward defensiveness on the part of Sherlock, who is angered that Watson has revealed on his blog that during their first case, he discovered that Sherlock has an unbelievably poor grasp of astronomy. When Sherlock explains that he only keeps information in his head that he deems potentially important to a case, I actually believe him. I don’t find it to be a facetious explanation at all. Which then makes me imagine what Sherlock’s brain would look like if it were an external hard drive, which then makes me wonder what would be in the “John Watson” folder, and then I imagine it would just be a bunch of fan fiction, and then….
I’m going to stop now.
Sarah is barely in this episode and I hope dearly that we have a much stronger female influence in series two, because this is very much a DUDELY DUDE BROFEST, which is ok because the epic bromine between the two leads is kind of beautiful, but in the interest of seeing ANY female character developed beyond what happened in “The Blind Banker,” I really hope this isn’t the norm. But, like the opening of the last episode, Watson is far away and completely oblivious to what’s happening with Sherlock. In this case, it’s not as simple as a well-managed sword fight. The building across from 221B Baker Street has been blown up, bringing the always-chipper Mycroft to the story as well. Seemingly uninterested in the explosion, Mycroft insists that his brother take on the case of Andrew West (I RECOGNIZE THAT NAME oh Gatiss, you are so clever), a man found on a railroad track with his head bashed in. Oh, and he stole a flash drive with some sort of ~secret plans~ regarding the “Bruce-Partington” missile project. (O HAI, ANOTHER REFERENCE)
Initially, I was kind of peeved that Sherlock was basically like, “LOL, I’M TOO GOOD FOR THIS, TAKE IT WATSON,” only because I love Watson dearly and I desperately wanted him to get the credit he deserved from Sherlock. Just like in my real life, I NEED MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS TO BE VALIDATED WITHIN THEIR RESPECTIVE FICTIONAL WORLDS. On top of that, the larger case that DI Lestrade calls Sherlock in on is SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING. Why am I such a sucker for the whodunnit style trope where a serial killer or criminal mastermind plots out an elaborate “game” for the investigative mastermind to figure out? Like, EVERY TIME I find them fascinating. But I think we all gravitate towards specific tropes that we enjoy. Why is that? Why do I want the earth to open up and eat people? (THANK YOU, MOCKINGJAY AND DOCTOR WHO) Why do I love meta-narratives so much? Why do I love the Damaged Hero trope? Can we like….TALK ABOUT THIS IN THE COMMENTS? I am seriously interested to see what other tropes or narrative devices you all are drawn to.
Anyway, “The Great Game” is THAT kind of story. In this case, Sherlock is given a replica of the pink phone from “A Study In Pink,” clearly meant as a reference to that specific murder, that plays five Greenwich pips and contains a single photo: the basement in 221C Baker Street. (Oh god, yet another reference: “The Five Orange Pips.” LOVE IT.)
What was initially pretty disturbing to me is that like the “game” discovered at the end of “A Study In Pink,” this entire case is basically created for Sherlock Holmes. And I know that is actually the point, but I didn’t know where this episode would head just fifteen minutes into it. But if you were going to set a trap for Sherlock, this would be the way to do it, wouldn’t it?
Even right from the beginning, it’s obvious that this whole affair is an attempt at a psychological attack on Sherlock. When they find the trainers in the basement of 221C Baker Street, the lab examination reveals a disturbing fact: the shoes belonged to a boy who drowned when Sherlock was younger, in a case where his youth prevented him from making a case to the police. Ok, dude, seriously….RED FLAG NUMBER ONE. Right? But the thing is, I’m glad that Gatiss explores this with Sherlock running full steam into the eye of the storm. His mind is obsessed with this form of intellectual foreplay, and it’s entirely sensical that he would be unable to see the forest for the trees in a situation like this.
But that lab scene is also an example of how Sherlock can be an asshole and it isn’t funny at all. We saw in the opening of the first episode that Sherlock is completely detached from the idea of sexual attraction. (Is it possible that Sherlock is asexual? I think that as long as Moffat and Gatiss didn’t fuck it up, that would be a really awesome story to introduce in series two. I don’t think there are many, if any, positive depictions of asexuals on mainstream television.) When Molly Hooper tries to hit on Sherlock again in the lab, he doesn’t respond, so she brings in her “boyfriend,” IT employee Jim. And while I didn’t find Sherlock’s observations homophobic in intent or anything, the way he disregards Jim so brutally is just….rude. It’s rude. THERE I SAID IT. And it’s not that kind of rude we’ve seen before where we laugh and secretly wish we were as heartless as he can be. This is just fucked up. But…well, it’s all part of the plan. I WILL GET THERE.
So the set-up of the game here is relatively simple: the mysterious criminal kidnaps someone, straps a bomb to their chest, and gives Sherlock clues to an unsolved case that he has increasingly less time to solve than the one before it. With this first one, Sherlock gets twelve hours to determine what happened to Carl Powers, the boy who drowned, or the bomb goes off. Again, like I said, the meticulous nature to which this is all designed is SO OBVIOUSLY A PLOT TO TRAP SHERLOCK. I know that Watson is acutely aware of this, too, and you can see subtle looks on his face throughout the first hour or so of this episode that point to his knowledge of the fact. In this case, he knows that whomever is behind this has essentially set Sherlock loose into his own personal candy store. Sherlock cannot resist a temptation like this. And that’s why I really love how Watson steps in in the way he does here to provide the necessary “NO” when Sherlock needs it most. Of course….Sherlock unfortunately isn’t one to listen as much as he is the one who does all of the talking.
Gatiss does a great job differentiating all five of the bombs, creating unique dynamics and varied cases for Sherlock to solve. Having five repeating parts to the game could have gotten boring real fast for almost anyone else helming the story, but I was impressed how gripping I found this all. The second case, involving a plan to make a man “disappear” so that his wife could collect insurance money and split it with a rental agency, wasn’t something that was specific to Sherlock’s past. Now that would have gotten annoying quickly, too. Plus, it enables him to make a deduction that is quite exciting: This all has to be the work of Moriarty. Who else has appeared to have behind so much of the trouble in his life?
This pattern changes yet again with the third puzzle, in which an elderly blind woman is strapped with a bomb and Sherlock and Watson have to determine why TV host Connie Prince actually died. Not only does this give us some brilliance regarding Sherlock watching television, which…ok, seriously, I would watch 90 minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes narrating the act of watching popular television for the first time. I am dead serious. This better be the plot of an entire episode in series two or this show is dead to me.
John Watson finally steps up to the plate with the third case when he goes to visit Connie Prince’s brother, Kenny, and thinks he’s pieced together how Connie actually died. And even though John proves to be completely and utterly wrong, there’s a moment where a smile creeps on to Sherlock’s face because Watson is thinking outside of the box. Maybe Sherlock is proud of John, or maybe he’s just happy to have someone on his side who is willing to entertain absurd notions as solutions. But, as I said in the beginning, it’s another sign that these two partners are growing closer.
(Side note: Why does botulism turn up a second time here? Is this answered? I can’t remember.)
I don’t think Sherlock is an entirely safe show, and the death of Soo Lin showed that even main supporting characters could be killed off, but, up until this point, there was never an overriding sense of urgency to the cases Sherlock and Watson handled. And that’s precisely when I, as the faithful viewer of this particular show, got a little too comfortable with what was happening on screen. It was so fucked that the “killer” would take advantage of the woman here in the third case, but Sherlock solved the crime! It was Raoul who murdered Connie Prince! (Would make out with Raoul, FYI. I am so predictable.) The woman is safe!
And then she starts talking. “It was so soft,” she says, describing the killer’s voice. And in a second, there’s an explosion and her voice is cut off. The killer set off the bomb, since she identified who the man was her set this all up. Twelve people die in the block of flats and Sherlock, always detached from the intricate and “unnecessary” details, remarks that he “lost that round.”
Thankfully, Watson properly calls him out on this:
Watson: There are lives at stake, Sherlock. Actual human lives. Jus–just so I know, do you care about that at all?
Sherlock: Will caring about them help save them?
Sherlock: Then I’ll continue to not make that mistake.
Watson: And you find that easy, do you?
Sherlock: Yes. Very. Is that news to you?
Watson: No. No.
Sherlock: I’ve disappointed you.
Watson: Good. That’s good deduction. Yeah.
Sherlock: Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist and if they did I wouldn’t be one of them.
UUUNNNNNNGGGGGGGG THE SUBTEXT, IT HURTS MY HEART. One of the best-written bits of dialogue in the entire episode, performed with a beautiful subtlety by both Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s an emotional pain in Sherlock’s voice when he states that he’s disappointed Watson. It’s small and it’s there. And we’ve NEVER seen it before, and that’s because no one has ever given Sherlock quite the respect and attention that Watson has. MY HEART IS SLOWLY CRACKING. Seriously, best bromance or BEST BROMANCE.
The fourth bombing game changes because the context is altered. In every case before this, some sort of murder or disappearance must be explained, and then the killer frees the victim with a bomb strapped to their body. Like I said before, by changing each round, Gatiss not only changes the stakes, but heightens the urgency. We now know that Gatiss is unafraid to allow a bomb to go off, so this fourth case is SHIT GETTING REALER AND REALER. When Sherlock figures out that the man by the Thames was killed by The Golem for discovering an expensive painting being sold at a local gallery was a fake, you can see the satisfaction on his face. That was quick! it seems to say. Except the bomber hasn’t called Sherlock and there’s no indication that he’s done the right thing. Which presents a new terror: If he solved the murder and that’s NOT it, what the fuck is he supposed to do? And despite knowing that the story would have to continue to the fifth bomb, I was still on the edge of my seat during the scene where Sherlock confronts the curator at the museum. Everything happens SO FAST as Sherlock puts everything together, properly figuring out the astronomy link that enables him to determine how the painting is a fake, and the fourth victim is spared a violent death.
AND THEN I AM UNPREPARED FOR THE CURATOR REVEALING THAT THE MAN BEHIND ALL OF THIS IS NAMED MORIARTY. a;sdlkf a;lksdfj ;a;lskdfja s;dfhja a;sdklfjkasdf;lka as;lkdfjasdf;aksdfja
I could probably spend another three thousand words at this point just talking about the final fifteen minutes of “The Great Game.” If there’s anything here to make me forget the racist atrocity of “The Blind Banker,” this episode’s endgame is one of the most amazing goddamn things I have ever seen. HYPERBOLE INTENDED. I love that the residual case that Sherlock clumsily gave to Watson proves to be the key to the entire affair, and that Watson also properly figures out what really happened to Andrew West before Sherlock arrives. From here on out, we see these two completely and utterly in sync, which excites me for what developments their relationship could take in series two.
At this point, having figured out Moriarty’s final game rather easily, he contacts him to give him the missile plans, assuming that this was all organized both as a way to tease Sherlock and to get the plans himself. It’s fitting that Sherlock makes their meeting place the precise spot where the first case occurred: the swimming pool where Carl Powers drowned. Besides being appropriate for Sherlock, there’s so much about this set that injects the final scene with a sense of dread and terror. In a metaphorical sense, there’s so much darkness that occurs at the pool, yet the entire place is drowning in light. The two men who aim to face off each other are also showing all their cards in a brightly lit room that seems to have no shadows. There’s no hiding here. It’s as open as the two will probably ever be with each other.
Which is why when Sherlock arrives, anxious to find out who Moriarty is, I found that I was gripping the bottom of my shirt and repeatedly pulling it down and then rolling the edge up. The tension in the pool room simply fucking HURTS. And when John Watson stepped into the room, I was so flabbergasted by my own shock that I let go of my shirt rapidly and jumped out of my seat on the couch, accidentally punching myself in the face.
My first thought was that Gatiss and company had done something TRULY fucked up: Watson was Moriarty. But that makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. Still, that’s the first thought that popped in my head. I quickly realized how foolish this was when I saw how bizarre Watson was acting. Why was he so nervous? Why was he so robotic?
And then John Watson pulls open his jacket to reveal the bomb strapped around his chest and I just started screaming FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK at the television screen. Like clockwork, just as I am completely unable to process what is going on, Moriarty steps into the room.
AND IT’S FUCKING JIM. IT’S JIM. OH MY GOD, MORIARTY WAS RIGHT THERE THE WHOLE FUCKING TIME. I can’t I JUST CAN’T. Even typing this right now, I have chills. It’s brilliance, utter brilliance, completely unexpected, and immensely satisfying. Moriarty is NOTHING like I could have anticipated, and that’s what makes his appearance here so unsettling.
Casting the USB stick in the pool (BECAUSE IT WAS THAT USELESS TO HIM!), Moriarty reveals how this was all just a ploy to show Sherlock exactly what he is capable of, of how he is able to completely control and trick Sherlock to such a ridiculous extent. That’s what he “wins” in that sense. That’s all he was going for. GAH IT’S SO MALICIOUSLY EVIL AND I LOVE IT.
But I think Moriarty’s threat to “burn the heart out of [Sherlock]” is the most disturbing to me, because death is not what he wants. He wants to destroy Sherlock’s will, his passion, and his mind, which are all intertwined. Still, Moriarty wants Sherlock to know that he also has the means to do this: When Sherlock grabs Moriarty threateningly, his body lights up with the laser points of Moriarty’s men placed around the pool. Moriarty has the logistics to destroy Sherlock, and that’s all he needs to know. And with that, Moriarty walks away.
It’s an incredibly raw moment for the two, but the seconds after Sherlock removes the bomb from Watson’s chest is the culmination of all the character growth throughout series one. You can see the terror in Sherlock’s face, knowing he could have lost Watson at any moment. I’m interested to see where it goes, but Watson himself actually looks….tired. Of course, he just went through a horrifying and harrowing experience, but there’s such a saddening look of relief that crosses his face, and I think it’s a hint to what might develop in series two.
EXCEPT NO, THE LASERS RETURN AND SO DOES MORIARTY AND HE WANTS TO KILL THEM ANYWAY AND SHERLOCK DRAWS HIS HANDGUN AT MORIARTY AND THIS ALL SEEMS QUITE OBVIOUS UNTIL HE POINTS IT AT THE EXPLOSIVE THAT USED TO BE ON WATSON AND ARE NOW IN FRONT OF MORIARTY AND THEN THIS GODDAMN FUCKING EPISODE JUST ENDS. WHAT THE HOLY FUCK.
Never prepared in a billion years.
- God, what a fucking episode. WHAT A STORY.
- “I’m glad no one saw that.” “Mmm?” “You ripping off my clothes in a darkened swimming pool. People might talk.” “They do little else.” LOVE IT.
- “Kill you? No, don’t be obvious. I mean, I’m going to kill you anyway, someday. I don’t want to rush it though. I’m saving it up for something special. No, no, no, no, no. If you don’t stop prying…I will burn you. I will burn…the heart out of you.” “I have been reliably informed that I don’t have one.” “But we both know that’s not quite true.” HE’S REFERRING TO WATSON, ISN’T HE.
- “Look at that, Mrs. Hudson…quiet, calm, peaceful. Isn’t it hateful?”
- Ugh, since Martin Freeman is in The Hobbit, it’s going to be like a century until series two, isn’t it? GAH.