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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sherlock: "The Great Game"

Illustration for article titled Sherlock: "The Great Game"
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The trouble with Moriarty is that he’s one of the least super supervillains of all time. He makes a significant appearance in only two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, and in just one, “The Final Problem,” does the professor come face-to-face with Holmes. Then he dies, forever. The Joker he ain’t.

Remakes of the Holmes stories tend to either cut Moriarty out or give him more of a role than the original texts support. (Even the Granada series from the 1980s, typically quite faithful to Conan Doyle’s text, shoehorned some claptrap about Moriarty into “The Red-Headed League” to burnish the myth of Holmes’ nemesis.) In other words, the key to solving the Moriarty problem is to ignore it altogether. Yet few productions manage to ignore it—and tread new ground—as convincingly as Sherlock does in “The Great Game.”

“The Great Game” begins its extraordinarily dense 90 minutes in Belarus, where an accused murderer with bad grammar begs Sherlock for help. Sherlock is more interested in solving the diction than the case, though, so he returns to London, where he grows so bored that he paints a smiley face on the wall—and shoots it—to occupy himself. And then there’s an explosion. That’ll spice up the morning.

Watson’s not home for this bit of excitement, as he’s spent the night at Sarah’s place. The good news is that he got a second date. The bad news is that, maybe as punishment for dragging Sarah into a nightmare of proverb-reciting Chinese smugglers and elaborate death machines, he has to sleep on the couch. Sarah only gets a cameo in “The Great Game”—Watson runs out when he hears about the Baker Street explosion—but I hope she’ll be back next season. Sarah brings out a more at-ease, less befuddled side of Watson, and that’s important to the character.

Back at Baker Street, Watson finds Sherlock in fine shape—the explosion only broke a few windows—and chatting with brother Mycroft about a national-security crisis. A government worker has been found dead on the train tracks, and the ultra-top-secret missile defense plans he carried are now gone. They’re the “Bruce-Partington Plans,” in one of this episode’s many winking references to the Holmes canon. Sherlock professes a lack of interest in the case. When Detective Inspector Lestrade gives him a call, however, he perks right up.

At police HQ, Sherlock receives an envelope addressed to him, on Bohemian stationery. The package contains a replica of the pink-cased phone from “A Study In Pink.” On the phone, Sherlock finds a recording of five monotone beeps—“the bloody Greenwich pips,” remarks Lestrade—and a photograph of an empty house. By my count, that’s four Conan Doyle references in this scene alone—“A Scandal In Bohemia,” A Study In Scarlet, “The Five Orange Pips,” and “The Adventure Of The Empty House.” So, yeah, really packing them in there.


They’re off to the empty house, which Sherlock recognizes as 221C Baker Street, his building’s basement apartment. As he examines a pair of old high-tops that sit in the middle of the floor, Sherlock gets a call from a terrified woman. She’s reading messages to Sherlock off a pager, acting as the mouthpiece for the bomber who set off the first explosion on Baker Street. He says that he’s set to detonate another one (the one strapped around the poor woman’s torso) somewhere in London. But if Sherlock can solve the mystery of 221C Baker within 12 hours, the bomb won’t go off, and the mule will be freed. Thus starts the first round of the titular game.

Poor Molly, the morgue staffer with a crush on Sherlock, makes another appearance, this time with a new beau in tow, Jim From IT. It’s a thinly veiled attempt on Molly’s part to stoke a little jealousy, and it backfires once Jim leaves the room. Sherlock runs down the extensive evidence that Jim From IT prefers the company of men, including his high-end underwear and the fact that he surreptitiously left his phone number for Sherlock. Molly fights back a bit, which is good to see from her. She may be pathetic, but it’s nice that she’s not a doormat, given the paucity of appealing female roles on this show. (Sally Donovan, Lestrade’s petulant, mouthy sergeant, is the counterexample, an instance where the show’s writing for women is clumsy and unlikable.)


Sherlock determines that the high-tops in question belonged to Carl Powers, his grade-school classmate who died after having a seizure in a swimming competition. Watson listens with interest as Sherlock explains that, even as a pre-teen, he tried to get the police to investigate his suspicions of foul play, but he failed. Only now, with Carl’s shoes having surfaced after a long absence, can he prove that Carl was murdered (the method: botulism poisoning). It’s a cool bit of backstory for Sherlock, but the show is smart not to pursue it too far. We don’t need this episode to turn into The Adventures Of Master Sherlock Holmes.

After Sherlock posts the solution to the web—Tweets it, in essence—the bomb mule is allowed to disclose her location to the cops. Soon there’s another message, four pips, with an eight-hour time bomb, and the countdown continues. The only clue this time is a photo of an abandoned rental car. Lestrade tracks it down, and the copious blood inside seems to indicate that the driver, a local investment banker, was murdered here. Sherlock, of course, is unconvinced. When it looks like suicide, it’s murder. When it looks like murder, it isn’t. He tracks the rental car to an agency. with the hilariously suspicious name of Janus Cars. Honestly. Even Two-Face Cars would have been less obvious.


Sherlock deduces that the banker was actually involved in a faked-death/insurance-fraud scheme. He pumps his fists: “I’m on fire!” Both Lestrade and Watson start to worry that Sherlock is enjoying the game a little too much.

This concern doesn’t abate when the three-pip mystery appears, centering on the death of TV makeover maven Connie Prince. As a buzzing Sherlock pores over Prince’s body in the morgue, Lestrade gives voice to his worries. He asks if Sherlock has any idea what might be the point of this whole exercise. Sherlock replies, “Something new.” For a man with a near-fatal allergy to routine, that’s enough.


Watson is sent to the home of Prince’s brother, who had been the butt of constant jokes on her television show. The thrill of the great game is starting to infect John himself, who believes he’s cracked this one. He invites Sherlock over to help him conduct a flurry of subject-misdirecting, cat-paw-sniffing investigation. Finally, he reveals his entirely plausible theory that Connie Prince was poisoned by way of her new cat.

It’s all very cute, Watson playing Sherlock Jr. and all, but Sherlock has known the real solution for hours: The brother’s lover poisoned Powers by upping the concentration of her routine botox injections. Watson is upset that Sherlock chose to milk the clock while the latest mule—a blind elderly woman—lay in bed with a bomb strapped to her body, a rifle pointed at her heart, and the knowledge that life could end any second.


This horrifying threat of death isn’t the only reason that the bystander-as-mouthpiece is such an effective dramatic device throughout the episode. The episode accomplishes a disturbing juxtaposition by having the hostages read off playful lines from the bomber like “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” and “Clever you!” If the bomber were delivering the messages himself, you’d still have the element of citizens being placed in harm’s way for the sake of an epic game. But the conceit invented by Mark Gatiss, who wrote this episode, lends a gripping immediacy to that notion of innocent pawns.

This heightened emotion becomes especially vivid when the three-pip pawn starts to reveal some information about the bomber on the other end of the phone—his voice “was so soft,” she says. The old woman is immediately snuffed out in a detonation that kills 12 people in her apartment building.


The deaths make Watson even more disgusted with his flatmate, and the two men have it out in one of the most important scenes of the season. Watson is incredulous that Sherlock doesn’t care about the people whose lives are at stake. “Would caring about them help save them?” Sherlock demands. Watson admits that it wouldn’t. “Then I’ll continue to not make that mistake.” He adds, “Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.”

Our instinct is to have affection for the protagonist who saves lives and vanquishes evil. That’s one of the things that makes Sherlock Holmes such an enduring character: He resists our affection—yet not entirely. Our entreaties for sympathy with Holmes are rebuffed by his intellect, which is too towering to be sympathetic, but still there remains that trace of heart. It was there in Conan Doyle’s stories, and it’s present in Sherlock, probably more so. In the TV series, John Watson acts as our proxy, attempting to draw out the soulful scintilla of Sherlock’s being. Watson gets nothing but scorn for his efforts, but that only makes him try harder—like us, he’s ever more hopelessly intrigued. Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat understand this essential trait of their title character, and in exchanges like this “Don’t make people into heroes” bit, they play it up with great skill.


The two-pip challenge begins with a murdered museum guard who washes up on the shores of the Thames. Sherlock half-deduces, half-intuits that the puzzle pertains to the “Lost Vermeer” about to be unveiled at a local gallery. The painting must be a fake, he says, a multi-million-dollar scam. Sherlock sneaks into the gallery to look over the picture himself, dressed up as a security guard. When the gallerist asks how he got in, he explains, “Disguise is the art of hiding in plain sight.” That observation is more true than he knows.

In time, the trail leads them to a local planetarium, where a Lurch-esque assassin known as The Golem murders an astronomy professor. The professor, like the guard, apparently could prove that the Vermeer was a fake. A bombastic, stylized fight scene ensues as Sherlock and Watson confront the Golem. It’s an exciting diversion, but Sherlock and Watson leave the planetarium with no further clues.


Back at the gallery, in front of the Vermeer, he gets a phone call from the latest hostage, a child. Sherlock tries to bluff his way out, declaring that he knows the painting is a fake, and therefore the puzzle is solved—even if he can’t prove it. Sorry, that doesn’t count. As the bomber (by way of the bomb-laden kid) counts back from 10, Sherlock scans the painting for proof that it’s not a real Vermeer. With seconds to go, Sherlock launches into a frenzy of Blackberry Googling, and he arrives at the answer: The firmament in the painting’s night sky contains the “Van Buren Supernova,” which wouldn’t have been visible until the 19th century, some 200 years after Vermeer. Under questioning, the gallerist reveals the name of the shadowy figure who backed her scam: Moriarty.

The Van Buren Supernova epiphany is the payoff to a running joke throughout the episode, which is that Sherlock supposedly doesn’t even know Earth revolves around the sun. It’s an echo of Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, in which Watson offers a rough catalog of Holmes’ knowledge, characterizing the detective’s awareness of astronomy as “nothing.” In this episode, Sherlock excuses his own ignorance by characterizing his mind as a hard drive of limited capacity. He must be careful only to fill it with information that’s directly related to his work, he tells Watson. And Sherlock often turns to the Internet for an assist when he hits a dead end, so it’s clear that he views the online sphere as a vast auxiliary hard drive that complements his own.


His close call with the painting shows the inadequacy of Sherlock’s hard-drive model. It goes without saying that Sherlock’s brain does so much more than storage. His special ability is his penchant for drawing non-obvious connections between readily available bits of evidence and data. But he can only make those connections with the information that he accesses with his local “hard drive.” This is Watson’s point when he cajoles Sherlock to admit that a little bit of astronomy would have helped him solve the Vermeer case much more quickly. It’s the old Rumsfeldian conundrum: You don’t know what you don’t know. Sherlock’s mistake was to assume that he knew what he didn’t know, and it almost led him to defeat.

Another thread running through the episode was Mycroft’s national-security case, which Watson pursues in his spare time. After the Vermeer case is closed, Watson examines the scene at the rail yards where Mycroft’s subordinate was found. Sherlock steps out of the shadows and reveals that he’s been tailing Watson’s investigations from the start. And he’s oh so proud that John was able to piece together the conclusion that Sherlock himself reached quite a while ago: The defense official didn’t jump in front of a train; he was tossed on top of the train elsewhere, by his murderer, and he only rolled off when the train hit a sharp curve. In the Connie Powers case, the culprit was the brother’s boyfriend. This time, it’s the girlfriend’s brother. Siblings are bad news in this episode.


Five pips, five mysteries solved. Except the bomber hasn’t been in touch for a while, and he never said anything about the missile-plans mystery. Maybe that was a side concern as Sherlock claimed all along. The game’s countdown seems to be stalled at two pips. Sherlock goes into obnoxious-roommate mode and yells at the TV until Watson retreats to his girlfriend’s house. Only then does he pull out his laptop and tweet that he has the missile plans, so could this Moriarty fellow please meet him at the local swimming pool?

Standing by the water, Sherlock dangles his bait: The memory stick with the plans. A door opens amid the changing station, and out steps John Watson. “This is a turn-up, isn’t it, Sherlock? Bet you never saw this coming.” For once, Sherlock’s mind reels along with the audience. All he can muster is: “John?”


Was John Watson also Moriarty this whole time? Could Sherlock be that freaking insane? But wait, there’s something wrong. Watson’s speech is a little too stiff. And what’s with that big parka? Mrs. Hudson remarked earlier that Watson doesn’t wear much to protect himself against the cold, so it’s odd that he’d bundle up all of a sudden. He opens the jacket to reveal that no, he’s not Moriarty, and he’s not chilly. He’s just loaded with C4 under that parka, serving as Moriarty’s latest mule. Feeding lines through Watson’s earpiece, Moriarty plays with his puppet a bit more, until Sherlock screams, “Who are you?”

A door at the back opens. He’s Jim. Jim from IT. In an episode full of cameos, his was the most inconsequential, fluffy, and forgettable. The art of hiding in plain sight, indeed. “Did I really make such a fleeting impression?” he coos in his Irish lilt. “I suppose that was rather the point.”


Jim Moriarty is the world’s only consulting criminal, he explains, and thought he has enjoyed their dance, he’s tired of having the world’s only consulting detective muck about in his business.

Sherlock’s first episode, “A Study In Pink,” came to its climax with the villain making a single deliberate chess move. “The Great Game,” however, plays out more like speed chess. Sherlock trains his gun on Moriarty. He offers Moriarty the missile plans. Moriarty rejects them. John takes Moriarty hostage. Moriarty’s snipers train their sights on Sherlock. Moriarty escapes. Moriarty returns.


Those are the physical moves. Naturally, the even more interesting game is the mental one, as Moriarty prods at the psyche of the rival who obsesses him. Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty is a a thrilling departure from earlier incarnations of the man. Rather than a laconic back-room ogre, Scott’s Moriarty is a big-eyed, boyish flirt. He’s a contradictory sort. He wears a tailored Vivienne Westwood suit but fidgets and scowls like he’s uncomfortable in his own skin. Despite his calculating nature, he’s volatile, and Scott does a great job of allowing Moriarty’s rage to poke up through the character’s veneer of charm. Moriarty presents himself as the perfectly heartless superior to flawed Sherlock, who can only lamely counter that other people have called him heartless, too.

With laser sights lighting up Watson and Sherlock’s chests like a Christmas tree, Moriarty declares that he’s had enough of them. Sherlock plays his last move: Directing the barrel of his British Army Browning L9-A1 down toward the pile of explosives on the floor, he threatens to make this municipal swimming pool into his modern-day Reichenbach Falls. Except this time, both men really will die—and Watson, too, for good measure. Moriarty smirks at Sherlock’s nerve. Sherlock twitches. Roll credits. See you next season.


Stray Observations

  • Presentation matters. The BBC airing of this episode ended the climactic final seconds with a smash-cut to the credits and a triumphant reprise of the Sherlock theme song. I also caught the tail end of the PBS showing, which (at least on my affiliate) simply went dark for a couple of seconds and then ran an Antiques Roadshow ad. One of these moments was more exhilarating than the other.
  • Sherlock says that the envelope in the Bohemian stationery—the one that contained the pink phone—was “obviously” addressed by a woman. It turns out that it was sent by Moriarty. It’s an echo of “A Study In Pink,” when Sherlock wrongly determines that Watson’s phone was given to him by his brother. Actually, it came from Watson’s lesbian sister. Homosexuality confounds Sherlock.
  • When Sherlock and Watson are watching the obituary of Connie Prince on television, the entertainment reporter says that Prince was 48 when she died. Seconds later, at the morgue, Lestrade says that she was 54. At first I thought this was a mistake. Then it occurred to me that yes, of course a makeover-obsessed TV star would lie about her age. Thus the telling discrepancy between the TV report and Lestrade’s official record. I love that Sherlock bothers with details like this that don’t deliver any particular payoff, beyond the fact that they are delightful to uncover on repeat viewings. It is satisfying to watch a show when you can have faith that the producers are paying closer attention than you are.
  • The Van Buren Supernova is a fictional construct, as far as I can tell, but the use of astronomy in dating works of art is a real thing.
  • Even after watching the episode multiple times, I’m sure I missed some of the Conan Doyle references. (There were a bunch that I didn’t bother to note in the recap). I’d love to hear the ones you noticed.
  • If you want to keep exploring the Holmes world, Christopher Bahn wrote a great “Gateways To Geekery” feature about Sherlock Holmes earlier this year. Highly recommended.