Tune-In Tonight: Sherlock’s “Great Game” is Most Definitely On

We’re wrapping up our rebroadcast of Sherlock tonight at 8pm with “The Great Game,” which is the best and most exciting installment of the three episode lot, and other than the shock of its very last minutes is basically perfect television. Watch it tonight, even if you’ve never seen it – you really can jump right in, even if the extent of your Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knowledge is that you know Sherlock Holmes and John Watson exist. It’s absolutely worth it.

In the spirit of conducting appropriate Sherlockian levels of research I took it upon myself to watch the DVD commentary for this episode to try and come up with some impressive new insights into the way this particular story is put together, rather than just massive amounts of adoration. Alas, the only thing that appears to have stuck in my brain from it is that Benedict Cumberbatch loves clothes, and also the acting process, and does a mean impression of Alan Rickman. So, prepare for the adoration.

Click through for the best things about this particular episode, which are actually far more legion than could possibly have fit in this post, and then feel free to leave me reminders of the things I’ve left out in the comments.

In short, this episode is brilliant. I don’t know where Mark Gatiss pulled this script from, but he can write the entirety of next season and I’d be fine with that. His Doctor Who episodes have always been good, but “The Great Game” is really a level beyond even his best sci-fi work.

There are pacing problems no more. Last week, one of my issues with last week’s “The Blind Banker” is that it’s a single case that doesn’t feel like it should take an entire episode, and that’s why some of the extraneous trimmings like the B-plot with Soo Lin and her brother and our extended trip to the Chinese circus feel unnecessary. (Though, let’s be fair, the circus trip is actually worth it just for Sherlock horning in on John’s date.) No such problems this time, as Gatiss uses his mad writing skills to cram so many  different mysteries into a 90 minute period that feels like it goes by in ten. You will actually want to cry when this episode ends – not just because of the cliffhanger – but because you will be positive that there’s no way the entire time could have already gone by and that somehow there must be like twenty additional minutes hiding from you somewhere and all you have to do is FIND THEM. (Or maybe that’s just me and I should stop projecting.) It’s a wonderful writing job and all credit to Gatiss for making everything feel tense, thrilling and exciting throughout.

They’re willing to make a classic very dark. This is a truly creepy, unsettling story. Wiring up innocent Londoners to explosive vests and having them read flippant text messages (see: “Hello, sexy”) to Sherlock while they cry and panic and a timer runs over their faces is deeply disturbing, and certainly sets Moriarty up as more than just a nameless shadow in the criminal underworld. It’s not quite Wallander levels of dark, but it’s pretty close.  

Sherlock is allowed to be unlikeable sometimes. I particularly appreciate the fact that this adaptation is willing to let Sherlock be wrong – I think it’s important that while Sherlock may well always be the cleverest man in the room, he isn’t omniscient or infallible, as we see when his lack of knowledge about heliocentrism nearly derails a case. What this episode highlights to great effect as well, is that Sherlock is also really, really difficult to like, a lot of the time, and sometimes we end up feeling a wee bit uncomfortable that we’re rooting so hard for him to solve the mysteries just to prove he’s clever. Sure, we want Sherlock and John to save children and little old ladies with bombs strapped to them, because they’re innocent people and that’s what heroes do, but Sherlock’s frequently creepy demeanor about it – calling the unknown bomber “delightfully interesting” and his palpable joy (“I’m on fire!”) at succeeding at another puzzle he’s been given to solve is frustrating. How do you reconcile these two sides of Sherlock, who is brilliant and charismatic and awesome, but who is also willing to let an elderly woman sit with a bomb attached to her chest with a rifle pointed at her heart because he wants to be “one up” on his faceless enemy, even though he’d already solved the puzzle that would free her? Strangely, it’s exactly that dichotomy that helps make him compelling – we want to love Sherlock, and the character just resists it so thoroughly most of the time Lestrade’s comment in the very first episode is telling, that Sherlock is a great man, and might one day turn out to be a good one, and we’re all sort of hanging on, waiting for that to happen.

Thank goodness Sherlock has John. One of the most endearing parts about this episode is that John refuses to stop trying to make Sherlock into a better person. He’s the one who calls Sherlock on being needlessly cruel to Molly, he initiates their blowup conversation about Sherlock not caring that actual lives are at stake, and he is always there to insist that people are more than just a puzzle to be solved. It’s John that provides our window, as an audience, into Sherlock, and gives us an outlet for all the things we’d probably like to be shouting at him sometimes. And it is his presence that illustrates for us that Sherlock is not as detached as he seems – the first time you watch this, you, like Sherlock, will probably believe that John fakeout at the pool, even if it’s only for a second. Obviously, as a viewer you realize very quickly that that twist isn’t possible, but the fact that we get to see that split second moment where Sherock believes it to be true is incredibly affecting. And of course there’s the lovely emotional moment at the end when you realize that apparently not all of Moriarty’s pips are “just a hostage” to Sherlock. (Though to be fair, I do think he actually cared about the little boy. But that may just be because I don’t want to think he didn’t.)

Moriarty is worth the wait.  Something else learned from doing some Holmes research this week – did you know that James Moriarty actually only appears in two Conan Doyle stories? Yes, just two – The Final Problem and The Valley of Fear. He’s merely referenced in five other stories. And Watson never meets him at all. Yet, given the fact that most of us find the name “Moriarty” synonymous with Sherlock Holmes, the character obviously casts a long shadow. He has been elevated to such status in the general public’s understanding of these stories that he has to be an exceptional villain, and has to be believable as a genius that is equal and opposite to Sherlock. This version of the character doesn’t disappoint. This production does a marvelous job of mirroring Moriarty and Sherlock, even down to their “consulting criminal/detective” taglines, apparent love of bespoke tailoring, and understanding that disguise often means hiding in plain sight. And Andrew Scott is wonderful as Moriarty – chilling, self-possessed, mercurial, totally crazy, and incredibly entertaining.

The Cliffhanger of Doom.  Is the cliffhanger that ends this episode the smartest or most frustrating move in television history? It certainly demonstrates a great deal of confidence on the parts of our producers – not sure how you can state more clearly “We expect to be back for another season” than this ending, which leaves absolutely everything open ended. On the other hand, we’ve been waiting for over a year now to find out how Sherlock and John make it out of the pool: torture! (I am predicting a Deus Ex Mycroft, but we’ll see.) Despite the frustration of waiting, I love everything about this ending, because of what it says about Sherlock and the fact that he realizes that Moriarty is actually a Very Bad Man, and not, in fact, a “delightfully interesting” person. Sociopathic Sherlock is willing to sacrifice himself, his amazing brain (which you know he would highlight separately), and John, simply because the world is safer if Moriarty is not in it. 

Way back when, before they announced the stories they’d be dealing with in Series 2, I wondered if the pool here was meant to serve as our modernized version of Reichenbach – after all this episode references and name checks so many other Holmes stories (at least five, by my count). Now I suppose I have to assume that’s not actually true, but I like the idea of it anyway.

Seriously, is it May yet?  I’d actually like to keep writing about Sherlock during the hiatus if I can figure out a way to make it relevant. Anyone have anything particular that they’d like to see? Predictions for Series 2? Thoughts on Conan Doyle stories they should adapt? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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