Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Outside the Government: The Great Game

For the record, The Sarah Jane Adventures will start coverage next week with an Outside the Government, with The Nightmare Man running on Wednesday. There is still just over $1000 to go on the Last War in Albion Kickstarter before that run will be upped to thrice weekly - it would need to do that by a week from today in order to impact the first week's posting schedule. 

It’s August 8th, 2010. Ne-Yo is at number one with “Beautiful Monster,” with Wanted, Flo Rida, Eminem, and Swedish House Mafia also charting. In news, violent protests break out in Pakistan and India over entirely unrelated issues. Sarah Palin’s daughter calls off her engagement with Levi Johnston due to his failure to not have children with other women. Wyclef Jean, in a memorable Wikipedia turn of phrase worth quoting “confirms he is to announce plans” to run for the Presidency of Haiti. (He is deemed ineligible to run eventually.) The World Sauna Championships are permanently abandoned when Russian finalist Vladimir Ladyzhensky dies during the competition. Also, Elena Kagan is sworn onto the Supreme Court. 

While on television, just two weeks after it showed up, Sherlock takes its bow. In so many ways, The Great Game appears the perfect response to The Blind Banker - a corrective that shows that Sherlock has learned the lessons it needed to learn. This is, of course, nonsense - The Great Game was in fact the first episode of Sherlock shot, with the season being made essentially backwards, and even if it weren’t, it’s not as though the production of a television show would allow Gatiss to look at the script for episode two and go “right, I see what I need to do differently.”

All of which said, The Great Game is notable for finally and decisively putting to rest the idea that Sherlock is going to be a procedural that does a case every week. Instead it highlights the degree to which solving a mystery is an almost incidental process for Sherlock that holds no meaningful suspense. By the episode’s end the question of “can Sherlock solve the mystery” has been in effect entirely drained of any dramatic tension - so much so that Sherlock is, by the episode’s end, a solid mystery ahead of the plot. Under the hood, this episode is just a rapid-fire succession of perfectly ordinary episodes hung together by the countdown/bomber plot, which is to say, wrapped into a parody of a season of 24. 

Few if any people actually talk about the five cases of this episode, and it’s a pity, as they’re all actually pretty good. Taking down cases with an average of eighteen minutes to spend on them is not straightforward, and Gatiss manages to make each of the five cases feel distinct and interesting. The first makes an interesting play and subversion of the epic. On the one hand, it’s a case that requires that Moriarty have been inside Baker Street itself, and more importantly, it’s flagged as Sherlock’s first-ever case. But the fact that the case doubles as a secret origin of Sherlock Holmes is almost glossed over, which amounts to the episode nailing its colors to the mast up front. A story that any other show would have made a massive finale out of is relegated to a side issue to be dealt with quickly and decisively. 

The subsequent cases are, on one level, rather lighter affairs. The Janus Cars case seems almost aggressively disposable, but comes at a precisely tuned moment in the episode, in that it’s the case that establishes the pattern and rules of the episode. The shock of discarding what any other show would have made a two-part finale out of can’t be followed by something else of that size - instead the pattern of “we’re just going to chew through things that would normally be episodes” needs to be set. So what we have is a case that is certainly no less interesting than that of The Blind Banker, but that has the marked advantage compared to The Blind Banker of being pleasantly short.

It’s the third case, however, where things begin getting interesting. It is not that the case - the murder of a seemingly irritating television personality - is particularly sharp or clever. None of the individual mysteries in The Great Game are particularly great, nor should they be, lest they risk overshadowing the larger plot. But the episode’s structure begins to quietly unravel here, not just in the clever conceit of having Sherlock solve the mystery immediately and not bother to tell anyone, but in the way in which the mystery is structured. The frivolity of the mystery itself, with its cartoonish and ostentatious television personalities, contrasts with the sudden uptick in Moriarty’s sadism as he puts an elderly blind woman in the firing line - a point hammered home by the fact that the woman isn’t saved. And, of course, this case ends up having the series make its first engagement with the idea of fandom, a topic it will end up mining extensively in years to come, and that it hits with a satisfying sense of being written by people who understand how fandoms work. 

This nicely prefigures the more complete unraveling of the structure with the final two cases. The museum case first breaks the pattern by having the countdown be a ten second countdown appearing at the very end of the case, but it also, just by dint of coming after the first moment in the episode where Sherlock gets ahead of Moriarty to any extent, feels markedly different. Tellingly, it twice calls back to earlier in the episode - both to John watching television coverage of the painting and to the joke about Sherlock’s lack of even the most basic astronomical knowledge, thus marking the point where the episode begins to sum itself up and stop being a disparate series of mini-episodes. (On top of that, Paul McGuigan, the show’s secret weapon in its first two seasons, does a beautiful job directing the fight scene with the Golem, creating a heady mix of chaos, comedy, and action with a great set of visuals.)

Finally, of course, there is the adaptation of “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.” All of the cases have at least some claim, however marginal, of being adapted from Doyle’s stories, but this is the episode’s most thorough and complete adaptation. The story is a solid one, but not one of the iconic pieces of the Doyle canon, and its use here as the big axis on which the episode finally hinges is cheeky - as is grabbing part of the solution from a somewhat overly similar Doyle story. The threading of the case through the episode helps the finale, as the structure of the game seemingly vanishes, carry some satisfying weight, and leads directly into the poolside confrontation, largely the episode’s strongest point. Like the previous four cases, there’s a real care taken with the details. Which is also worth stressing - doing any of these cases over 45 minutes would be easy. Condensing them to an average of eighteen minutes in such a way that it feels like all the major beats are in place, on the other hand, is hard to do well. And yet each time the story does do it well, demonstrating that it can do "case of the week" stuff, but that it's small potatoes and that the show is bigger than that.

In other words, if it’s not obvious, this is Gatiss’s best script ever. Cruelly, of course, this immediately raises the question of rewrites, which are an issue worth tackling in the Moffat era in general. Broadly speaking, Moffat is visibly and demonstrably less fond of rewrites than Russell T Davies was, preferring to give notes to writers and allowing them to complete their own shooting scripts. On the other hand, it’s clear that over the course of three seasons of Doctor Who and Sherlock Moffat has on occasion had to step in and finish off a script himself. In terms of Sherlock specifically, I don’t imagine there’s a person alive who thinks The Reichenbach Fall is mostly Thompson’s work. Let’s also put to rest the idea that rewrites are in some way a criticism of a writer, as opposed to a reality of television production and the need to deliver a relatively unified voice for a series. 

Because there are more than a few bits of The Great Game that feel like Moffat’s writing. Most obviously the final scene, which absolutely screams Moffat, but throughout there are little touches that suggest an assist. Nevertheless, the elements that feel like Moffat are mostly incidental ones. The truth is that the basic structure of this script - a series of mini-episodes - is a good one for Gatiss. Whatever criticism Gatiss has come in for throughout this project, and it’s both been and will be significant, the truth is that this is a script he’s broadly capable of, and while some fine-tuning from his collaborator may well have turned up the volume a bit, it’s worth looking at what Gatiss can do when he’s on form. 

First of all, let’s note the clever structure underlying the episode, which is that it allows for one of the few ways in which the audience can reasonably be put ahead of Sherlock without moving the focus away from Sherlock and doing numerous scenes from the villains’ perspective, which doesn’t seem to be a trick Sherlock is hugely interested in employing. The audience knows that the villain behind everything here has to be Moriarty. Sherlock has some inkling, clearly, but is at the entertaining disadvantage of not knowing the Sherlock Holmes stories well enough to know that he has an arch-nemesis. And so Sherlock is faced to go through the entire episode chasing something the audience already knows about. 

The entire episode is thus building to the Moriarty reveal. Crucially, the show has the advantage that it actually has a good Moriarty reveal in mind, slyly nicking Russell T Davies’s revision of the Moriarty concept away from the ultra-posh mastermind and towards a character defined primarily by being starkly and terrifyingly mad. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, with essentially only a single scene, immediately becomes a triumph of a villain, more or less selling the entire character concept with his brilliant sudden flash of utter fury on the line “that’s what people do.” 

But even before this, Moriarty makes an impression through his absence. Because he’s self-evidently haunting the entire narrative, the astonishing cruelty of his scheme shines through. Things like calling the third victim “defective” and forcing the first one to call herself a “stupid bitch” are chilling, establishing Moriarty as a sadist first, his genius only coming into view later. The result is an interesting balance - the audience is confident about what’s going on from prior cultural knowledge as to how Sherlock Holmes works as a narrative, but this confidence is then unsettled by the degree to which Moriarty is a bit too much. On the one hand, there’s something almost fanciful about Moriarty’s scheme, evoking as it does the over-elaborate plots of supervillains. On the other, there’s a danger here, not least because Moriarty’s supervillain-esque nature is treated as a weird intrusion into the present day milieu. 

The end result highlight the inevitable Sherlock/Moriarty parallels, but in a limited way. Ultimately, what drives both Sherlock and Moriarty is the aggressively, grotesquely commonplace motivation of boredom. They don’t want to be bored. And for people like them, the alleviation of boredom is a vast and terrible thing. And yet equally important is the stressing of their differences. Moriarty is not just a genius who gets bored, he’s a sadistic lunatic. The implicit question underlying the episode is why Sherlock and Moriarty are different - why one got bored and started killing people, while the other got bored and started trying to solve crimes and right wrongs. The fact that Sherlock cares about people, most obviously John, is part of it, but there’s a more fundamental issue - one revealed through its own rejection. Sherlock may claim that there are no heroes and if there are, he wouldn’t be one, but of course, that’s a possibility that’s ruled out up front. He’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s the very definition of a hero.

And so, with one very well-choreographed cliffhanger, Sherlock ends its first season. The abbreviated schedule, with the episodes airing over just a two week stretch, makes it difficult in some ways to react. Every season of Sherlock has this effect - it vanishes just at the point in the season where one would normally feel like one is starting to process things and get a handle on the show. Were it not for a barnstorming opener and finale, it would even be difficult to get a sense of whether the show works.


But instead, with two top notch episodes under its belt, Sherlock ends its first season in a very different sort of position. For one thing, it’s an absolutely monster hit, especially for the summer. But more broadly, in addition to its popularity, it’s a show that has now demonstrated that it can do interesting things that no other show can do. It’s not just that the episodes of Sherlock thus far are good, it’s that the series positively throbs with future potential. Especially as it transitions into the inevitable battle between Sherlock and Moriarty, this ability to do new and unexpected things feels potent. That it comes immediately on the heels of one of its creators overseeing a season of Doctor Who that also changed up the formula and showed that the series can do new things is also significant. The consequence, for better or for worse, was that in just a couple of months Moffat went from being an acclaimed and respected writer to being a major figure in television. The result is a familiar dualism of popularity: on the one hand, it appeared Moffat could do no wrong. On the other, the knives were out and the world was waiting for him to make a single misstep. 

22 comments:

  1. One paragraph seems to be cut short - the ninth, including the kick starter one - ends "Like the previous four cases, there’s a real care and"

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    1. I wish I could add more - sadly Sherlock is still on my "to watch" list as life has been too eventful these last few years to the point where we haven't had a TV in the house for at least the last month and it's not been missed.

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  2. The entire episode is thus building to the Moriarty reveal. Crucially, the show has the advantage that it actually has a good Moriarty reveal in mind, slyly nicking Russell T Davies’s revision of the Moriarty concept away from the ultra-posh mastermind and towards a character defined primarily by being starkly and terrifyingly mad. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, with essentially only a single scene, immediately becomes a triumph of a villain, more or less selling the entire character concept with his brilliant sudden flash of utter fury on the line “that’s what people do.”

    Sorry, I'm probably in the minority, but I couldn't disagree more with this. I loved this episode right up until the end when "Jim" Moriarty shows up and acts like such a cackling loon that he makes the John Simms Master look like Francis Urquart. Instead of the Joker playing the Master, it's the Joker playing Moriarty. I blame Alan Moore.

    The original (book) Moriarty had a ruthless but pragmatic intellect. He goes to great pains to conceal his existence at all, and when Holmes deduces it, he goes directly to Holmes' house and basically says "Don't interfere in my plans or I'll kill you." And the next time Holmes interferes with his plans, he kills him (yes, Holmes gets better, but only due to the writer reluctantly giving in to fan demand). That's what a proper villain should do instead of gibber around like a fool who plainly cares more about getting into Holmes' pants than anything else. And we haven't even gotten to "Reichenbach Falls" yet, a story where the idea that "Moriarty is CRAAAAAZZZYY so anything can happen" drives the plot into a state of such incoherent nonsense that I honestly thought the whole episode might have been a hallucination Watson was having due to his exposure to the "Baskerville" gas.

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    1. I can't decide whether I agree with you or with Philip on this one. I remember I really liked Moriarty in this one -- perhaps, to be honest, as much for the "getting into Holmes' pants" angle as anything else -- and I kind of didn't in "Falls," but I'm not sure why there was a such a difference in my reactions. Maybe it's overexposure, in the latter case.

      Where I do agree with you is that I don't find a villain who is simply a bored sadist terribly interesting as a concept. Such people exist, and are chilling, but in fiction they seem convenient rather than meaningful. A lot of evil in the world is done for reasons, and even if those reasons do have a touch of at least lowercase craaaaazzzzyyy, they would seem to be the ones that lead to conversation rather than forming an end to it.

      That's why, though I agree that making Sherlock a "case of the week" show would be fairly unambitious at this point, I'm not sure making it "pure order vs. pure chaos" is all that much more so. Fortunately, the journey is well worth any destination so far.

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    2. I've got to agree with you; I loathe, loathe, LOATHE the Sherlock Moriarty. Incredibly, the steampunk Hollywood Robert Downey, Jr. Holmes films feature what I think is a much better Moriarty, even if the quality of the films themselves are arguable.

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    3. Add me to the list of people who can't stand this Moriarty. The indication he's back in season four was the final straw for me and this show.

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    4. Whereas I like "this" Moriarty, but only because I suspect that Moffat & Gatiss had already had the idea that Milverton would be the equivalent nemesis figure for Mycroft (in terms of character), even if they didn't know how exactly they were going to work it out. So Sherlock's Moriarty has to be the one obsessed by the psychotic performance rather than the cold, calculating, remote figure of the books because otherwise they end up with two rather similar figures - and (for my money at least) Milverton was far more sinister in his intent and operations than Moriarty ever was.

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    5. Add me to the sidelist that found the RDJ films Moriarty to be fantastic - Jared Harris turns in an awesome performance, keeping Moriarty as a credible university professor while being an absolutely nasty piece of work underneath. It's not a great Sherlock Holmes film (I'm a big fan of the first), but I think it's a great Moriarty film - I can see a case for arguing that the faults are due to Moriarty taking control of the narrative... a Holmes film set on such a global scale so often far from London seems wrong, but it's a fine playground for the Napolean of Crime.

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    6. Huh. Twenty years on, and I *still* can't read the phrase "Napoleon of Crime" without thinking of the Snarkout Boys.

      I have only seen through the second-season premiere, but so far I agree with Alan's assessment of Moriarty. In a thug-type villain, emotional instability and volatility makes the villain less predictable and more menacing. But Moriarty has been depicted up to this point as a meticulous planner, and his mood swings and mercurial changeability undermine that, making him less menacing. (And also more annoying.)

      I'm just generally sick of "mad" villains. They're cliché, and an ableist cliché at that. It's not as bad as putting your villain in yellowface and having them randomly swap their Rs and Ls, but it's in that broad category of depictions.

      Has anyone done a version of Sherlock Holmes where Moriarty is just a front for Irene Adler? Or did I dream that?

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    7. Has anyone done a version of Sherlock Holmes where Moriarty is just a front for Irene Adler? Or did I dream that?

      Elementary. Although it would be more accurate to say Irene Adler is just a front for Moriarty.

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    8. I had misgivings at first, but it worked. The one person who gets under Sherlock's skin enough to throw him off his game is also his only peer (as he sees it, at least). It helps that Natalie Dormer is hugely charismatic. The episodes she's in are also better-than-average for Lucy Liu's Watson, too. It raises everyone's game.

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    9. And a transgender actress plays the series' Ms. Hudson, which is really wonderful. :-)

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    10. And a transgender actress plays the series' Ms. Hudson, which is really wonderful. :-)

      Yes, although she's been rather underused. While we're here, a nod for Sean Pertwee's Lestrade who I think is great fun, and who I hope will do more semi-comical roles in future!

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    11. I actually think he's a more Doyle-accurate Lestrade than Rupert Graves' (please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me...).

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  3. Possibly worth noting: just before Sherlock meets "Jim" in the hospital, we see Sherlock through a window, as though someone's watching him. That's a subtle clue that Jim=Moriarty.

    Holmes gets better, but only due to the writer reluctantly giving in to fan demand

    I've never been convinced as to how reluctant ACD really was to bring back Holmes. If he really wanted to kill off Holmes, he would have had Watson find the body. It would have been very difficult to bring Holmes back after a trained physician (so not likely to be wrong about the body's being dead) who is also Holmes' best friend (so not likely to be wrong about the body's being Holmes's) has pronounced him dead. Instead Watson finds signs of a struggle and infers Holmes' death -- thus leaving the evidence that Holmes is dead to rest not on Watson's considerable skills as a physician but on his less impressive skills as a detective. ACD was clearly leaving a wide open door for Holmes' return.

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    1. If he really wanted to kill off Holmes, he would have had Watson find the body.

      Have you seen season 3 yet? :)

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    2. Briefly touching a body before being dragged away is not forensically adequate.

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    3. ...television has LIED to me! Again!

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  4. I do love the portrayal of the Moriarty here. If Sherlock is exploring Holmes's psyche and not his solving of cases, then I really enjoy watching the contrast between seeing Holmes who seems to be emotionally controlled and with his self boiling under the surface, and Moriarty who is boiling on the surface and seems to have inner layers of control. I like that opposition.

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  5. I enjoyed Moriarty in this. And in "The Reichenbach Fall". But I was glad to see him go. He's less a character with his own story and more a force of narrative, nemesis and cause of the hero's own personal growth. A Manic Pixie Dream Villain. With an emphasis on the "Manic" obviously.

    So all in all I was disappointed to see him reappear at the end of "His Last Vow" because 1. Have the writers really run out of interesting ideas for antagonists so quickly? 2. Are they able to make Moriarty an interesting character in his own right rather than just in terms of what he means for the hero?

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