After waiting 609 days since Sherlock’s swan dive off the roof of St. Bart’s Hospital, we finally know how he did it. But I’d bet my best deerstalker a sizable percentage of people think we still don’t know for sure.
You can forgive folks, especially us Yanks, for being a bit befuddled by parts of the occasionally confusing but consistently entertaining season three premiere of “Sherlock” on PBS.
I’ll try to point out some of the things you might have missed in the “Masterpiece Mystery!” episode and answer your questions — along with a big helping hand from “Sherlock” co-creator and showrunner Steven Moffat, who humored my queries during a recent phone interview.
It’s elementary, my dear reader, but I’ll say it anyway: Stop reading if you haven’t seen Sunday’s show.
Did Sherlock survive the fall the way he described it at the end of the episode, with an inflatable air mattress, a highly efficient homeless network and a doppelganger corpse chucked out the window by Molly Hooper?
“That was our explanation of it,” Moffat said. He and co-creator Mark Gatiss, who penned Sunday’s episode and plays Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, had laid out the logistics for Sherlock’s survival strategy in the season two finale, “The Reichenbach Fall.”
They changed “a couple of details” after that cliffhanger, but the basic solution remained the same, right down to the squash ball Sherlock was playing with in the finale — the same squash ball he would use to temporarily cut off his pulse in order to make Watson believe he was dead. (If you’re wondering if squeezing a squash ball under the armpit really does stop a pulse, it does, according to an enterprising British couple who tried it in this YouTube video.)
The squash ball Sherlock used to temporarily cut off his pulse. He was playing with the ball in the season two finale.
“The important thing was that Sherlock makes John stand in one particular spot,” Moffat said. “It’s very obvious in the camera angle that from where John is standing, he would not be able to see the body hit the pavement. Sherlock locks down the street and gets his homeless network to impersonate everybody so that Dr. Watson’s movements on the street are entirely controlled. We had one example of that working when the bicycle takes him down when he’s moving too fast. The idea is that whatever he’d done, somebody would have got in the way to make sure he didn’t see what he wasn’t supposed to see. The whole street is theater.”
Before that reveal, viewers were treated to a couple of fake scenarios, including the “Mission: Impossible”-like opener involving a bungee cord, a mask and a steamy round of tonsil hockey between Sherlock and Molly. This seemed to be a wink to fans’ outlandish Sherlock survival theories that surfaced in the wake of last season’s finale. Same goes for the second faux scenario that nearly resulted in Sherlock and Moriarty locking lips — a nod to the so-called slash fanfiction that’s been “shipping” the super sleuth and super villain as a couple. What was your thinking behind these fake-outs?
In one of the fake-outs, Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and Sherlock (Cumberbatch) go in for a kiss, much to the delight of the Sheriarty shippers.
“After ‘The Reichenbach Fall,’ there were so many theories in the newspapers. Everybody at every party I went to or Mark went to, people would come up to us with their theory. We thought, ‘We can do a bit of showbiz here.’ But I think we would have done exactly the same thing if none of that had happened. If you make people wait a long time for an answer — it’s basic Agatha Christie — you don’t just give it to them. You tease them.”
Sherlock continued to pretend to be dead while he went about the time-consuming task of dismantling Moriarty’s global criminal network. Did Sherlock really have to let Watson go on thinking he was dead? It’s a question Watson asks Sherlock in the show and in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the short story that saw the resurrection of Holmes after a 10-year absence. (And you thought 609 days was a long time to wait.)
“We used Doyle’s explanation: Only by Dr. Watson being profoundly upset would everybody completely believe that Sherlock Holmes was dead,” Moffat said. “[Sherlock] doesn’t trust Dr. Watson’s acting ability. He’s convinced that Watson would be incapable of not giving it away, getting angry with somebody saying that Sherlock Holmes is a fraud.”
Moffat and Gatiss had been itching to give Watson (Freeman) a mustache for a while. (Photo courtesy PBS)
They originally filmed a scene that had Sherlock go into greater explanation about his rationale for deceiving Watson, with Mary agreeing that her boyfriend’s grief would have to be genuine for it to be believable.
“I think it was cut for reasons of time,” Moffat said. “I rather regret that this is missing from the show.”
Sherlock has parents?!?
The whole idea behind the “Sherlock” series is to update Holmes and bring the Victorian Era detective into the 21st century. As a modern man in his 30s, Sherlock presumably would be in touch with his parents. That was Moffat and Gatiss’ reasoning behind introducing Ma and Pa Holmes, who happen to be the parents of “Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch in real life.
“Benedict’s parents are both actors and back in the day were really quite big stars,” Moffat said. “Wanda Ventham was the hottest woman alive in the 1960s and ’70s.
Wanda Ventham (a k a Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum), back in the day.
And her incredibly handsome husband, Tim Carlton. Given that we were going to meet Sherlock Holmes’ embarrassingly ordinary but very lovely parents, it would have been a shame not to get Wanda and Tim to turn up and demonstrate the only genetic combination that could have produced a creature as exotic and strange as Benedict Cumberbatch.”
Who the flip is Derren Brown, the guy who hypnotized John Watson in the first fake suicide scenario?
He’s a crazier British version of magician David Blaine. A well known illusionist and hypnotist across the pond, Brown shot to fame in 2003 after playing what turned out to be a fake round of Russian roulette on live television.
British illusionist and hypnotist Derren Brown.
Who the flip is Guy Fawkes, and why did Watson almost become kindling in the Guy Fawkes Night bonfire?
Fawkes was an English Catholic rebel instrumental in the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fueled by feelings of religious persecution, Fawkes was part of a small group that planned to assassinate King James I by igniting barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath the Houses of Parliament, similar to the storyline that makes up the episode’s central case (more on that later). Fawkes was arrested Nov. 5, a date Brits continue to celebrate with fireworks and bonfires where they burn effigies of Fawkes.
At the end of the premiere, we get a glimpse of the creepy creeper watching the video of Watson’s near-death experience. That’s our brief introduction to Charles Augustus Magnussen (a reference to Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”) Magnussen, played by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen (brother of NBC’s “Hannibal” Mads Mikkelsen), is this season’s mega-villain who we’ll meet again in the finale. He’s considered the Napoleon of blackmail, the one man Sherlock truly hates.
Meet villain Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen).
Derren Brown. Guy Fawkes. These British references are bound to fly over the heads of a lot of Americans…
“That’s absolutely fine,” Moffat said. “The reason I know that’s fine is when I watch American television, I fully expect to not understand everything. That makes it interesting. It took me years to work out what the hell Thanksgiving was. I still to this day love ‘The West Wing,’ but I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about. What Congress or the House of Representatives or any of that stuff is, it’s an absolute mystery to me. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it.”
What’s with Lord Moran, the man who tried to blow up Parliament?
We barely know anything about Lord Moran except that he’s a government minister who does North Korea’s bidding — and that he would appear to be the least charismatic villain in “Sherlock” history. (RIP James Moriarty, you will be missed.) In Conan Doyle’s works, sniper Colonel Sebastian Moran is one of Moriarty’s lieutenants.
Sumatra Road, where we learn at the 11th hour that there’s an abandoned Underground station without a ground-level entrance, is a nod to “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” an adventure mentioned but never detailed in Conan Doyle’s stories. In the show, Sherlock referred to Moran as the “big rat, rat No 1.”
The mysterious Lord Moran.
If I felt cheated by anything in this episode, it was the terrorist bombing plot’s weak denouement, which rested on the existence of a hidden Underground tunnel — a tunnel viewers were originally told didn’t exist.
“Sherlock” has always been more about the characters than the cases, but the “V for Vendetta”-like plan to blast Parliament into the stratosphere fell especially flat. That storyline turned out to be a rather bland side dish better left ignored while you devour the delicious main course: in this case, the poignant, painful, brilliantly humorous reunion of Sherlock and Watson.
What’s the story behind Dr. Watson’s patient, the old guy peddling dirty magazines and DVDs? The one who Watson mistakes for Sherlock in disguise?
In Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes pretends to be an elderly book collector when he reappears to Watson, who had written off his friend as dead.
The old “book” seller is one of the show’s myriad references to Conan Doyle’s original stories.
“It’s a nod to that scene,” Moffat said. “Also, there’s a very funny scene in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman’ with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce where a character turns up.
Nigel Bruce’s hilarious Dr. Watson thinks that it’s Sherlock Holmes in disguise and tries to pull his beard off. We’ve always loved that scene so we thought, ‘Let’s get Martin Freeman to do it.’”
What was the deal with the fake crime scene featuring a skeleton and a book titled “How I Did It” by Jack the Ripper?
Philip Anderson, the guilt-stricken ex-Scotland-Yard-detective who once led the charge to undermine Sherlock’s credibility, has had a change of heart. He’s a Sherlock believer and founder of the Empty Hearse conspiracy club, a collection of fans convinced that the detective faked his own death. Anderson planted the bogus crime scene as bait to lure Sherlock out of hiding.
“Because he believes so profoundly that Sherlock Holmes is still alive, he thought he’d set up a murder mystery that would pique his curiosity and get him to show himself,” Moffat said.
Sherlock recounts the prosaic details of how he faked his suicide to Anderson, who in turn goes a bit bonkers, laughing like a madman as he rips down his Sherlock-related newspaper clippings, notes, maps and photos. (A wall of crazy, by the way, that would make “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison proud). Are we to believe that Sherlock was pulling one over on him? Or perhaps the whole “confession” was a figment of Anderson’s imagination?
No, Moffat said, Sherlock really was at Anderson’s apartment, spelling out how he faked the fall. The detective simply got bored by Anderson, as he’s wont to do, and wandered off while the Empty Hearse president had his back turned.
Sherlock couldn’t have pulled it off without Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey). (Photo courtesy PBS)
Moffat and Gatiss were well aware that the answer to the “how did Sherlock do it?” question would be seen as unsatisfying by many fans — fans who’d waited nearly two years for the big reveal.
“There’s only one way that Sherlock can survive his fall and that’s by not hitting the pavement,” said Moffat, who also writes for “Doctor Who.” “He’s not going to get picked up by the TARDIS or something. There’s no magic that’s going to happen.”
Anderson (Jonathan Aris) told Sherlock he was a “bit…disappointed” after hearing how the sleuth faked his suicide. Were you?
They cleverly addressed the inevitable disappointment by making a crestfallen Anderson a proxy for the audience.
“We knew that the immediate reaction would be, ‘Oh, it’s a bit disappointing.’ So we put that into Anderson’s mouth.”
The scenario described by Sherlock “is a perfectly credible, absolutely workable way for him to survive,” Moffat added. “Then we had Sherlock just be a bit Sherlocky, be a little bit more mysterious about it. You can choose to believe it or not. If you’d rather carry on making your own theories, by all means, do.”
“Bakes own bread” and “Liar” are a few of the many words Sherlock deduced about Mary (Amanda Abbington).
• Watson’s girlfriend, Mary Morstan, is played by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner, Amanda Abbington (“Mr. Selfridge”). In case your Mind Palace isn’t as vast as Sherlock’s, here are the words he visualized when he gave Mary the deduction treatment: Cat lover. Size 12. (Translates to a size 10 in the United States.) Shortsighted. Guardian. Romantic. Only child. Nurse. Appendix scar. Secret tattoo. Linguist. Disillusioned. Lib Dem (Liberal Democrat). Clever. Bakes own bread. Liar. (Liar? There’s something about Mary…)• When Mary accused Watson of getting rid of his facial hair for Sherlock, the good doctor replied: “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes.” Mary quipped that someone should put that on a T-shirt. They did. It’s for sale here, among other places online.
“I Don’t Shave for Sherlock Holmes” T-shirts are for sale online, including this one from BBCShop.com.
Regarding that mustache, Moffat said he and Gatiss had been itching to put it on Watson for a while now. “Watson famously had a mustache in the original stories,” he said, “but no man of his years would really have a mustache these days. That would be unusual and Dr. Watson is quite a conventional man. We kept having different ideas about when we’d get the mustache on. At one point, we had him have an accidental cappuccino mustache.”
• The Empty Hearse club member goth girl who came up with the romantic Sheriarty solution to Sherlock’s fake suicide is played by Scottish actress Sharon Rooney, star of the British dramedy “My Mad Fat Diary.”
“She’s so funny,” Moffat said. “We didn’t think we’d get her for such a small thing. She fortunately is a fan of our show, so she was pleased to do it.”
Scottish actress Sharon Rooney’s character has a far-fetched explanation for Sherlock’s fake suicide, as did many fans in real life.
• PBS is the last broadcast network where I thought I’d see a character flip the bird and nearly drop the F-bomb. Well played, Watson.
What did you think of the season three premiere? Worth the wait?
— Lori Rackl, TV Critic