Monday, July 22, 2013

Making it Stick: Buffy vs. Sherlock

This past weekend, Comic-Con was held in San Diego, and although he couldn't make it to the convention, Benedict Cumberbatch (known also as Smaug, Khan, and Sherlock Holmes), talked about the major event in the BBC series Sherlock that happened at the end of series 2.  Take a look:

Benedict Cumberbatch Here's how Sherlock survived fall Inside TV from gorgeous anon on Vimeo

But while I found this video amusing, especially since I enjoy interconnections between various pop culture elements, it did remind me of my major frustration with the ending of this second season of Sherlock.

They didn't commit to it.

[discussion of the details of series 2 of Sherlock after the break]

At the end of the second season of Sherlock, in the episode "The Reichenbach Fall," Sherlock Holmes jumps off a building, as Watson watches from the ground, apparently committing suicide to save his friends from snipers planted by his nemesis, Moriarty. Sherlock hits the ground, his head is bloody, and his body appears to be lifeless.

But the thing is, there is plenty of room for uncertainty about his death.  Watson gets hit by a bike and his vision is blurry; we never really see Sherlock's face as he's lying on the ground; and the camera shot shifts right as Sherlock appears to hit the ground.  In a show that emphasizes the importance of close observation and logical reasoning, there is plenty of room for thinking that Sherlock is still alive.

Which, of course, he is.  We see several shots of Watson mourning Sherlock's death, including discussing him with Mrs. Hudson, the landlady, and visiting his grave.  And in the final shot of the season, we see Sherlock, alive and well, watching Watson walk away from the cemetery.

As I was watching this episode, I couldn't help but think of another TV show in which the titular character gets killed off--Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.  At the end of season 5, a demon named Glory opens a portal to Hell, and Buffy sacrifices herself to close it and save her sister, Dawn.  Like Sherlock, Buffy dies saving others.  But unlike Sherlock, at the end of this episode, Buffy is still dead.  The final shot of the season is her tombstone, not her face.

Now, there are certain reasons each of these shows chose the routes they did.  Buffy shifted networks after season 5, and there was a while where it was possible the show might be cancelled.  The death of the main character would have been a satisfying (albeit very Whedon-esque) end to the series.

The show Sherlock, on the other hand, takes a lot of pleasure in referring to the original stories by Doyle--and so viewers familiar with the original stories would expect Sherlock to come back from the dead, given the events of "The Final Problem" and then "The Adventure of the Empty House."  Sherlock Holmes faking his own death and returning from the grave is an expected part of his story--and so the TV show would have had a difficult time convincing viewers that Sherlock is actually irrevocably dead.

But I can't help but wish that the show had at least tried leaving us looking at Sherlock's tombstone, rather than his face.  The break between seasons of a show is an incredibly powerful space, full of possibility for discussion, fan involvement, and serious consideration about the nature of characters.  Even two-part episodes of shows like Castle can provide this in-between space, where viewers are forced to reconsider their expectations and face the uncertainty that beloved characters might not be all that they seem.

In the case of Sherlock, resurrecting him before the break changed the nature of the discussion between seasons 2 and 3.  The fan conversation now has more to do with how Sherlock faked his death (examples here and here)--not whether he is actually dead and what that would mean for the show, or what it means about Sherlock's character that he jumped to his apparent death in front of his best friend, both conversations that have far more emotional weight.

It's a riskier, darker move--but I think the show would have been the better for it.

By Jen Miller


  1. I really like the points you've made, but you've made them so well, that I actually disagree with you. I'm contrary, I know.

    I think the ending of Season 5 Buffy worked because there was that doubt about the renewal, and because it was a show that had already established that death was not necessarily an absolute. Buffy had died and resurrected once already, for example. So even if she were seen on set, there were still plenty of possibilities.

    Whereas, as you said, Sherlock does have the canon to contend with - people who know the stories already know he survives. And this is not a show that involves supernatural elements - deaths might be faked, but dead is dead. That, plus the knowledge the show had been renewed and that Cumberbatch was still on the show, meaning there was no possibility of a Sherlock without Sherlock type season - I don't see how they could have legitimately raised the possibility that the fall was final.

    To vastly oversimplify, it's a show where the puzzle is the point, and so it's less interested in the meaning of the solution.

    1. It's interesting you say this, because as I was writing the piece myself, I almost talked myself out of it on several occasions for some of the reasons you mention.

      That said, I still do think that ending with a shot of the tombstone, as Buffy did, would have provided for more interesting inter-season conversations. Given the canon of Sherlock Holmes, as well as what you say about Cumberbatch's continued presence on the show, people would almost undoubtedly know that the death isn't real. The big "secret" would still be how Sherlock faked it, rather than that he's alive.

      But by moving the end of the episode up just 30 seconds, the focal point of discussion might shift. It seems that questions about friendship and grief and loyalty would become just as important as the question of how he did it. And while I agree that this is a show where the puzzle is the point, the episodes of season 2 also went out of their way to touch on some of these more substantial themes.

      I think I'm just really drawn to the way that shows use the interstitial spaces in between episodes--and the more I think about it, the more I think these spaces are really powerful. I was weeping for the last 5 minutes of "The Reichenbach Fall," but stopped when I saw Sherlock still alive. For me, it still seems like the show missed an opportunity--a risky one, sure, but one where the payoff could be huge.

    2. I don't watch the series, but if I did I'd certainly expect Holmes NOT to die after Reichenbach Fall. In fact, I'd feel betrayed if he died.

      Anyway, I believe there's one interesting feature here, which is the fact that the series is not (perhaps can not be) viewed alone, in itself. It's impossible to ignore the canon, of course, but also the fact that we know the series will have a second season with Cumberbatch in it. Or what writers/producers/directors have done in other series. Or their interviews. Their tweets. This is not even "just" transmedia storytelling, the knowlege of an expanded universe inhabited by the charachters. It's a backstage-lore. That which used to be called obscene, the thing behind the scene that ought not be seen, but now is part of the show.

      I guess Jen's review tries to do that - shut the eyes and ears to anything that's not on screen. In that sense, yes, maybe Holmes should not have been shown. But that's not the case. Not anymore, maybe not for any major media production anymore.