In a way, Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” was the prototypical cliffhanger. It involves the hero, Sherlock Holmes, teetering off the edge of a cliff to his apparent doom, and its publication was followed by a long hiatus. In another way, “The Final Problem” wasn’t a cliffhanger at all, since by all accounts, Doyle considered that story—the consulting detective’s fatal tumble down Reichenbach Falls—to be the conclusion of Holmes’ career. It’s only in retrospect that Holmes’ fall became climax rather than denouement.
“The Great Game” had none of that ambiguity. When it aired in 2010, it left us with the image of Sherlock, John Watson, and Moriarty standing over a pile of explosives at a municipal swimming pool, facing Sherlock’s threat to fire his sidearm and turn the pool into Reichenbach Falls Part II—except this time for keeps.
That wasn’t not going to happen, of course, and during the 18-month downtime, Sherlock appears to have grown bored with its own cliffhanger. Moriarty and Sherlock end the mutually assured destruction scenario with a mutual agreement to not destroy each other. Moriarty takes a phone call that offers him a prospect too interesting to pass up. “Sorry, wrong day to die,” he coos. With a snap of his fingers, he orders his crew of assassins—the least-steady-handed snipers in the world—to point their wobbly laser sights away from our heroes’ heads. Everyone stands down.
Moriarty has something to occupy himself, which is nice, but where does that leave Sherlock? Moriarty was his greatest foil. Watson’s blog has turned Sherlock into a minor celebrity, so there is a parade of clients through the door of 221B Baker Street. Sherlock finds most of them “boring,” and it’s hard to blame him. The man who says his aunt’s ashes aren’t his aunt’s ashes, the bloggers who say their beloved comic books are coming true, the girls who want to know if their grandfather’s body went to heaven. It’s all so tedious.
Detective Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard enlists Sherlock’s help with the case of a man who managed to avoid dying in a plane crash—despite checking into the flight—only to be found dead in the trunk of a car. Sherlock can’t figure this one out, and later, as Watson writes the case up on the blog, Sherlock peeks at the screen. “No, no, no, don’t mention the unsolved ones!” he protests. Watson says it’s important to include those, too, because “people want to know you’re human!” Watson most of all, I imagine.
The next case merits a six on Sherlock’s scale—apparently, enough to pique his interest but not enough to make him leave the house. So he videoconferences into the crime scene by way of Watson’s laptop, dressed in nothing more than a sheet. The case: A driver has car trouble in the countryside. He looks out at the nearby clearing and sees a hiker in the distance, by a stream, enjoying nature. The driver tries to start his car, and it backfires. He looks at the clearing again. The hiker is dead. Even over wireless video, this one is a slam dunk. “Go to the stream,” Sherlock says to the cop at the scene, for there he will find his answer.
Just then, a strange, official-seeming fellow storms into Sherlock’s apartment and shuts down the video link. Posh suit, no weapons, trousers speckled with fur from a bunch of small dogs—Sherlock knows exactly where this stranger works.
So Sherlock joins John Watson at Buckingham Palace, and they have a little giggle session. “Are we here to see the Queen?” asks Watson. Sherlock’s stuffy older brother Mycroft Holmes walks in. “Apparently, yes,” says Sherlock. Giggles.
Sherlock is still dressed in nothing but a sheet, which allows for some Benedict Cumberbatch beefcake, perhaps to complement this episode’s supply of female T&A. Once Mycroft and some other royal-palace muckety-muck calm Sherlock down, they explain that one Irene Adler—presumably the same Ms. Adler who phoned Moriarty at the beginning of the episode—is in possession of compromising photos that could embarrass the royal family. Adler’s a dominatrix, you see, and she has well-placed clients.
After borrowing a cigarette lighter from the royal attaché, Sherlock and Watson are off to essentially reenact “A Scandal In Bohemia,” the Doyle story from which this episode gets its title. In the original story, Adler wasn’t a dominatrix, but rather a socialite who has photographs of herself with a European monarch and who outwits Holmes, the rare case in which he’s beaten. I don’t think that recasting Adler as a purveyor of S&M thrills is sexist, as a couple of British critics have argued, in part because I think that the characterization follows naturally from the glimpses of Adler we get in “Bohemia.” In fact, the dominatrix angle strikes me as too obvious and ultimately dull, as Lara Pulver’s portrayal of Adler is not especially sensual nor intimidating.
In line with “Bohemia,” Sherlock masquerades as a man of the cloth seeking refuge from a street fight. Unlike “Bohemia,” Adler greets Sherlock and Watson in the nude. This is why the dominatrix thing is so uninteresting, because the best execution that Sherlock can come up with is, “After looking through her closet for a while, she decides to just up and show them her tits.” Watson is dumbfounded, and Sherlock finds that his clue-scanning powers are rendered impotent by this show of flesh. In essence, the show plays with itself for a couple minutes before it resumes the business of telling a story.
Watson sets off the smoke alarm, and, thinking there’s a fire, Adler instinctively glances at the spot where she’s hidden the photographs (just as the Irene Adler in “Bohemia” does). Before Sherlock can recover the payload, though, a bunch of American thugs with earpieces and silenced firearms storm in and act all American-y. “Open the safe, durr durr! I’m an unrefined asshole who loves to shoot things and swing my big dick around!” says the American, basically. Sherlock obliges, deducing that the numbers that open the safe are Adler’s measurements—and also calculating the circumference of her hips and breasts.
The safe is booby-trapped, allowing Sherlock et al. to gain the upper hand and subdue the Americans. Sherlock ends up with the phone, though it’s protected: “I AM _ _ _ _ LOCKED,” the display reads, with four blanks for a passcode. In the scramble to make sure there are no more interlopers from the colonies, Watson gets separated from Sherlock, and Adler stabs him with some kind of sleepy poison. That’s right, after Adler freaking tells Sherlock that she would rather die than allow him to keep the precious phone, he lets his guard down to such a ridiculous degree that Adler can simply stride up and STAB HIM. She tells Sherlock that she wants him to remember her as “the woman who beat you,” but it feels like she wins on a technicality. The character of Adler deserves something craftier than this from the Sherlock writers.
In the original story, Doyle’s Irene Adler beats Holmes by sniffing out Holmes’ ruse, playing it cool, and waiting for the right moment to turn the tables. This Adler beats Sherlock with a pointy object. So, yes, these first few Adler scenes are the low mark of the episode.
The first act concludes in Holmes’ drug-induced slumberland, where dream-Adler reveals the answer to the dead-hiker conundrum. When the driver’s car backfired, the hiker turned his head, and in that split-second lapse, he was struck in the back of the head by the boomerang he had thrown moments earlier. Laid low by a force that he himself had set into motion—by the end of the episode, the hiker won’t be alone in that fate.
Sherlock quickly recuperates, and Mycroft pays a visit to 221B. The older Holmes spends most of his time there condescending to his younger brother, taking the occasional break to answer his phone and mutter very serious-sounding Defense Ministry blurbs like, “Bond Air is go, that’s decided, check with the Coventry lot.” Sherlock wants to know what else was on Adler’s phone, because it seems unlikely that a couple racy photos of a duchess would have aroused trans-Atlantic concern. Yet Mycroft tells Sherlock to forget it and stay out of it. That’s so Mycroft of him!
Without any leads, though, Sherlock is powerless to obey. So the months pass, and Christmas arrives. Watson and Sherlock throw a Christmas party, in the barest sense of the term: Lestrade has nowhere better to be thanks to an estrangement from his wife, Mrs. Hudson from downstairs nurses her ailing hip, and Sherlock humiliates poor Molly, the woman from the coroner’s office who has a crush on him.
Molly’s prospects are doomed, but Irene Adler has better luck. Sherlock pays attention whenever he receives a text message from her—it arrives with a distinctive ringtone, a moan of ecstasy—and on this night she alerts him to a gift that has been placed above the fireplace. It’s Adler’s phone. Sherlock calls Mycroft. “You’re going to find Irene Adler tonight,” he tells his older brother. “You’re going to find her dead.”
The brothers meet down at the morgue, where they examine a corpse whose face is mangled but whose measurements match those of The Woman. Sherlock mourns in his own way, accepting a cigarette from Mycroft but otherwise expressionless. Nearby, a family weeps. “Look at them. They all care so much,” Sherlock says. “Caring is not an advantage,” says his brother. Merry Christmas, one and all.
Mycroft calls his grudging accomplice Watson and tells the good doctor to cancel his Christmas plans. “My friends are wrong about you. You’re a great boyfriend,” says Watson’s latest whats-her-name paramour. “Sherlock Holmes is a very lucky man!” So it’s confirmed; Watson is a bachelor again.
Sherlock notices that the hit counter on Watson’s blog has been stuck at “1895” for quite a while now. Perhaps it’s a clue, planted by Adler herself, Sherlock reasons. He tries it: “I AM 1 8 9 5 LOCKED.” No dice.
Outside the flat, a beautiful woman approaches Watson with a smile and a lilt in her voice. She might be a little more subtle than Watson’s been used to lately, on account of she’s wearing all of her clothes, but still, John can recognize an advance when he sees one. Except he’s not seeing one. A black sedan pulls up and Watson is invited to get in. Summon him with a pretty lady—classic Mycroft move, Watson fumes. “He could just call me, you know.”
The car takes Watson to the kind of romantic, abandoned, dramatically lit quasi-industrial setting you get when you hire good location scouts. It’s not Mycroft who has summoned Watson but Irene Adler. She’s alive! And she’d like her phone back. But Watson has no intention of helping her, and he insists that she tell Sherlock she’s alive. He has a short temper with Adler, and while he says he isn’t jealous, it’s not a convincing lie.
Watson seems especially perturbed, in a twisted way, that Sherlock never responds to Adler’s texts. After all, Sherlock would “outlive God trying to have the last word,” Watson says. Except with Adler, Sherlock doesn’t even try. “Does that make me special?” Adler asks. Watson says he doesn’t know. But that’s another lie. Of course it makes her special. Watson just doesn’t know how or why, exactly, it makes her special. A lack of response is an unusual way for somebody to show admiration. There’s nothing usual about Sherlock.
In any event, Adler relents and sends Sherlock a text message with word of her aliveness. A few seconds later, a tinny moan of ecstasy echoes through the empty hall. Sherlock was there for the whole thing.
Back at Baker Street, Sherlock confronts that same CIA thug and his goons. It’s nothing a little Holmesian jiujitsu can’t remedy, though, and soon everyone’s safe again, and Sherlock is comforting poor Mrs. Hudson—who, as it happens, had stowed the all-important cameraphone in her blouse when the Americanos first came knocking. Naturally, Sherlock won’t hear of it when Watson suggests that Mrs. Hudson take some time away from all the drama. “Mrs. Hudson leave Baker Street? England would fall!” says Sherlock with an avuncular tone, as he holds the now-smiling woman tight. We like to see that Sherlock’s human, and the creators of Sherlock know this.
We also like to see him X-raying a phone, because that’s kind of nuts, and nuts is fun, too. Molly from the hospital looks on with her usual doe-eyed admiration, wondering if the phone belongs to Sherlock’s “girlfriend.” It would be silly to X-ray your own girlfriend’s possessions, Sherlock says, but we all do silly things, and hey, maybe Irene Adler was silly enough to make Sherlock’s address the passcode on her phone. “I AM 2 2 1 B LOCKED.” No dice.
Adler definitely knows the address, though, because she turns up in Sherlock’s bed. She’d still like that phone back, because her shadowy criminal contacts—“killers”—are after her, and the documents on the phone are her only leverage. After a little smartphone switcheroo fails to trick Adler, Sherlock hands her the real phone. She shows him an email that she lifted off a Defense Ministry official who was making use of her services. Apparently the man with the loose lips said that the email was going to “save the world.”
It doesn’t look like much. “007 Confirmed allocation,” the subject line reads, and then there’s a string of numbers and letters. In no time, Sherlock determines that the numbers and letters are seat assignments on a jumbo jet, specifically flight 007, specifically flight 007 leaving for Baltimore at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening. Yet that’s not the whole picture, and Sherlock knows it. Flight 007. “Bond Air.” “The Coventry lot.” While he puzzles away, though, Adler texts the flight details to Moriarty. And he, in turn, sends a textual raspberry of triumph. “Jumbo Jet. Dear me Mr Holmes, dear me.” (Presumably his omission of the customary direct-address comma is a symptom of his inimitable criminal insouciance.)
The Mr. Holmes in question is not Sherlock but Mycroft, who buries his face in his hands. Stupid Moriarty, he always ruins EVERYTHING.
Back at Sherlock’s flat, Adler has the consulting detective alone. She asks him if he’s “ever had anyone” and then invites him to “dinner” one last time. He grasps her wrist gently—if this were the end of the world, she whispers, wouldn’t he have dinner with her? No chance to answer that question, because Sherlock once again has uninvited visitors, this time from the British government. They’ve got a ticket for Sherlock, on flight 007.
In the car, Sherlock has something close to the whole picture. During World War II, he explains, the British had intelligence that indicated the town of Coventry was going to be bombed, but they allowed it to happen rather than reveal the fact that they had broken the enemy’s code. (This is an actual story, but probably not a true one—reminiscent of the American urban legend that F.D.R. had advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack.) Sherlock says that Flight 007 is the target of a terrorist plot and the Coventry group in the Ministry Of Defense is going to let it happen rather than torpedo their intelligence sources amid the responsible terror groups.
When Sherlock boards the plane, he finds the seats filled with dead bodies. Well, Mycroft is there, and he’s technically alive. So this is the solution: Fly the plane unmanned, blow it up with nothing but dead bodies inside, and let the terrorists think they’ve won, while nobody has to die. “Neat, don’t you think?” asks Mycroft. And it is, aside from the fact that the point of terrorism is not so much the killing of a few innocent people but rather the political, economic, and social effects that result—effects that would still ripple out from this event whether the bodies on board were already dead or not. And aside from the fact that a conspiracy this massive and complex involving a 747 that took off from a public airport would be impossible to conceal. So, other than being completely deranged and unworkable, it is a tidy little trick, Mycroft.
And it would have been allowed to not work, if it weren’t for that meddling Sherlock. He’d been sniffing around this mad plot unawares for a while now, says Mycroft. The man with the urn full of counterfeit ashes. The girls who weren’t allowed to see their grandparents’ body. The dead man in the car trunk who was supposed to be on the earlier terror-bombed flight. They were all connected.
Until now, though, it had been the Coventry group’s little secret. By the way, Mycroft says to his brother, you didn’t happen to decode that email for Adler, did you? Because, you know, that’s exactly what she wanted you to do. Oops. And Mycroft goes out of his way to pin the blame on his brother, for exhibiting such “obvious” human weakness, trying to impress a girl. Let’s not forget, though, that it was Mycroft who put Sherlock on the case in the first place, unleashing a boomerang that came back to hit him in the ass.
Adler shows up. She still has her phone, and said phone is still full of valuable secrets, information on which the lives of British citizens might depend. After adjourning with the Holmes brothers to Mycroft’s office, she demands protection and a hefty ransom, one that will “blow a hole in the wealth of a nation.”
Except: “No,” Sherlock says. All along, Adler has been playing with a boomerang force of her own, and Sherlock now realizes that instant when, out of human instinct, she looked away. That moment they had in the apartment, when he felt her wrist—that wasn’t a moment of affection, at least not on his part, at least not entirely. He was taking her pulse, and it was quick. She had gotten sentimental, “a chemical defect found on the losing side.” She insists she was merely toying with him, “just playing the game.” But Sherlock types, “I AM S H E R LOCKED,” and the phone doesn’t lie. It might induce a few groans, given that this climactic plot point turns on a pun, but the writers come by the pun honestly.
Months later, Mycroft and Watson meet in a café, where Mycroft informs the doctor that Adler is dead. “It’s definitely her? She’s done this before,” Watson says. “It’s her. I was thorough this time,” Mycroft says. “It would take Sherlock Holmes to fool me.” Which, of course, he has. Sherlock was on hand for the supposed beheading of Adler, and he’s helped her to a life of anonymity. I don’t think that this knight-in-shining-armor epilogue helps the episode; the banishment of uncertainty detracts from the poignancy for me.
The only memento Sherlock wishes to keep is that pivotal phone of hers, the same way that Doyle’s Holmes accepted a photo of Adler as payment in “Bohemia.” And like the original Holmes, Sherlock thinks of Adler as The Woman. Maybe she’s not the woman who beat him, since in this modern telling, she didn’t, in the end. But she is the woman that intrigued him, and who he admired in his own way. Sherlock hesitates as he puts the phone in the drawer, lingering over it for a second. “The Woman,” he says, with emphasis on the definite article, and with some regret. Her weakness was that her pulse quickened despite herself, and for a moment, he allows himself to wish that he had that same weakness, too.
- If you’re wondering why “Vatican cameos!” was the code word for “danger” between Sherlock and John, the closest thing to an explanation is that it’s a phrase from The Hound Of The Baskervilles, although in the original context it’s just a throwaway line.
- The hits on Watson’s blog are stuck at 1895. Doyle’s story “The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans” is set in the year 1895, and it involves the theft of government documents. That seems to be the most salient reference here, but that’s not a very strong connection, and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” was referenced more explicitly in the first season finale, “The Great Game.” Maybe you have a better theory. (EDIT: Nebuly does have a better theory, in the comments.)
- John Watson composes his blog in Times New Roman and Helvetica. Acceptable. But I refuse to believe that Sherlock Holmes views the world in Verdana. Ridiculous.
- This review was written from the original BBC broadcast, so it might contain a few details that were excised from the PBS version. If so, just consider it a bonus.