Season Finale: Sherlock – “The Great Game”

“The Great Game”

August 8th, 2010

Almost two weeks after it aired, I know that I’m late to the party in regards to the Sherlock finale, so I’m going to cut right to the chase: while not quite as strong as “A Study in Pink,” largely because of a focus on plot as opposed to character, “The Great Game” nonetheless sends the series off in a compelling fashion which bodes well for the series’ return sometime late next year.

This won’t be a formal review so much as a basic response. The opening acts of “The Great Game” are a really compelling way of digging into the mystery of Moriarty, sending Sherlock on a wild goose chase which successfully amps up the suspense leading up to the episode’s conclusion. However, I do think that the impact of the individual cases, and the individual threats against the various citizens, sort of got lost in the sheer volume. I can’t help but imagine how much more effective those stories might have been if they had been 40-minute episodes interspersed into a 13-episode season, with the “Great Game” getting drawn out across the entire season. While “The Blind Banker” seemed like it had too little story for 90 minutes, “The Great Game” had too much story for the timeframe, and I think spreading it out would have heightened its impact considerably even if I found the first two acts incredibly engaging (I just can’t be pleased, can I?).

I think it’s just that, when thinking back on the finale, I can’t really remember too many of the individual scenarios: there was a simplicity to “A Study in Pink” which was grounded in character (John Watson, in particular) that was really absent here, and I thought the chaos of the episode kept the Holmes/Watson dynamic from being explored in any capacity. This seemed like a finale which needed to close off a season driven by character to have the impact Gatiss was going for, which led to a bit of an anti-climax (or, more accurately, a really great climax which just doesn’t have a full narrative to bring to conclusion). There’s a lot of pleasure to be found in the game elements of the episode, but I didn’t feel like there was enough focus on the people playing the game, as Sherlock became somewhat one-dimensional and his brazen disregard for human life felt simultaneously expected (based on what we’ve seen from the character) and sudden (in that we haven’t seen enough situations where he has regarded human life to realize how big a deal this may be.

The arrival of Moriarity at the episode’s conclusion has been a bit divisive: there is no question that Andrew Scott played the role a bit broad (and perhaps that’s an understatement for you), but I think the scene demonstrates that this episode really can’t be properly viewed as a conclusion. Mind you, it’s impossible not to think of this as a finale when it ends on a cliffhanger and brings the first series to a close, but Moriarty’s entrance serves to re-frame more than tie off the series’ narratives. Since I’m watching Angel, I’d say he’s sort of like Sherlock’s very own Wolfram & Hart, facilitating criminal activity in the same way that Wolfram & Hart facilitated evil. While it does place “A Study in Pink” in a new light, and position Moriarty as a substantial threat within this world, it seems like a tease of what’s to come rather than a conclusion to the series thus far.

Taken on its own merit, Moriarity’s chracterization is experimental, and I like that: they’re clearly trying somethine new, and the sort of fey psychopath vibe was certainly memorable. However, what works so well is that Moriarity is a logical foil for Holmes, a private consultant for criminals to Sherlock’s private consultant to the authorities. They are arch-enemies not because of some personal feud, but rather because their positions place them into direct conflict with one another, which grounds their feud in a practical conflict. There are elements of history there, with Moriarty using Sherlock’s past as part of the larger game, but there is real potential in the way the two characters have been pitted against one another. Whatever misgivings you have about Scott’s performance, the way the character has been defined is really quite clever, and I think that the broadness of the performance was fitting for a first introduction.

That’s the challenge of a series like Sherlock: it is more a first introduction than a complete story, trapped between the notion that this could be our only glimpse of this story and the notion that they want this to be the start of something more. I love the series’ casting, and there are moments in the series which I am truly enamoured with (see: the awesome fight sequence in the astronomy lecture room), but I don’t think there’s enough of a series here for me to really love. There’s nothing that makes me concerned about the series’ future, but I feel like there wasn’t enough for me to call myself a fan, or to enter the series into the same conversation as series which present narrative as opposed to narrative potential.

But gosh there’s a lot of potential there: I have no concerns about where the show goes from here, only intense curiosity mixed with confidence in Moffat and Gatiss’ vision and impatience for the show to return already. I just hope that, when it returns, it can engage in long-form narrative, and that the 90-minute episodes are either scaled back from their longer running time or better planned in order to fill the space wisely. There is the potential for real greatness here, but for now I’ll settle for a pleasant summer surprise which bodes well for what’s to come.

Cultural Observations

  • I always missed out on the references to Conan Doyle’s stories, but that was some classic mystery story misdirection with Moriarty being introduced earlier in the episode without our knowledge.
  • I’m curious to see what category the series ends up in for the Emmys (since it’s airing on PBS in October): would this classify as a miniseries, or a series of TV Movies, or something else entirely?


Filed under Sherlock

5 responses to “Season Finale: Sherlock – “The Great Game”

  1. belinda

    I didn’t mind the performance as much, I thought he did a pretty good job portraying Moriarty in a new way. And I like the sense that while their positions at odds, Moriarty is sort of like what a completely unhinged Sherlock would be like.

    I just hope we’d get more than 3 episodes for next season!

  2. Tim

    It just felt to me as if the introduction of Moriarty was a bit rushed – we have barely had time to acknowledge his threat before we see him facing off against Sherlock. But that shouldn’t detract from the style with which Moffat and Gatiss have updated Sherlock for a 21st-century world – an excellent job.

    If you’re interested, here’s my review of the season – I’d welcome your thoughts:

  3. I really liked this episode upon watching it, but my reaction may have been exaggerated due to relief that it wasn’t as bad as ‘The Blind Banker’. Looking back, it was still very good, although possibly not good as ‘Pink’.

    As for Moriarty, I thought it was quite well done, to be honest. Maybe a little bit more build-up would have made the intro that much better… but the performance managed to walk the fine line between overbroad and the not-unhinged-enough.

    Moffat has since confirmed a second series (still of 90 minute-episodes… maybe they’ll work out their pacing issues), but of an unknown amount of episodes due to writing/filming of Doctor Who.

    Emmys’ll probably be under miniseries, like Cranford and whatever Dickens adaptation Andrew Davies is adapting at any one time. Do you think the actors may be in for any awards buzz or not?

  4. Jason

    I watched the finale earlier today, and I thought it was the best of the 3, yes even better than the first.

    I had no issues with the lack of time spent with each person playing the game, since they were just pawns, and really had no bearing on the game itself.

    In terms of Moriarty, I thought the actor playing him was rightly over the top to contrast with Sherlock.

  5. Scott Ellington

    At about 55 minutes into this episode Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are standing on the banks of the Thames over the body of the gallery security guard. Watson invites Holmes to “run down” the evidence that has led him to the desultory conclusion that the newly-recovered Vermeer is a fake. Which Holmes does (brilliantly) at his customarily blistering pace that leads an awed Watson to exclaim, “Amazing!”
    Holmes: Meretricious.
    Lestrade: And a Happy New Year.
    It’s a Marx Brothers moment in which “meretricious” and Merry Christmas pass for one another as the scene ends on a throwaway note of impenetrable levity.
    In The Blind Banker, Holmes is uncharacteristically wheedlingly charming twice; on the intercom with Van Coon’s new neighbor, and with Molly at the morgue. The Holmes identity we came to love in the first episode becomes far more conventional in the second, which leaves his old school “chum”, Sebastian, unscathed (except for the £25,000 he’s had to cough up) despite the fervent desire (in the audience) to watch Holmes dismantle the pompous, heartless tool.
    In The Great Game, Holmes isn’t the knock-off who took his place in The Blind Banker. He’s a monster again in the finale, and (Godwilling) so he shall remain…corpses piling up hither and yon.

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