By Chris B
“The game is on!” So declares Sherlock Holmes whenever he is on a case, ferreting out the deeds of the criminal classes, bit by bit.
But what if we look at the big picture, the entirety of Holmes’ cases as they’re presented to us? What if we are given a rough outline, a table of contents to guide us through the entire volume of his work? What might that reference anthology be called?
“The Great Game” was an apt title for the dramatic conclusion of the first series of the BBC’s stellar hit Sherlock. It involves the multi-phase showdown between Sherlock and his nemesis, James Moriarty. The pips on the images sent electronically to the consulting detective count down to their meeting as Sherlock and John slowly tick off each of the upheavals sent their way.
But what if this episode did more than offer a set-up to one of the best cliffhangers in television? The series of timed puzzles, accompanied by bombs strapped to unwitting victims who serve as the mastermind’s parrots, could very well have given us the vague framework for the entire series arc of the show.
Examine the many parallels which follow and decide for yourself what is foreshadowing and what is merely the universe’s lazy coincidence.
Broadly speaking, series one of Sherlock involves new beginnings and old scores. First is the fateful meeting of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, introduced in the lab of Bart’s hospital by a friend who works there; the new flatmates solve five murders, a series of seemingly random victims who, on the surface, committed suicide; John stops Sherlock from becoming the sixth victim (after luring the killer to them with the pink phone cleverly planted on him by his last victim), solidifying their partnership.
Then, Sherlock takes a job from a former school acquaintance of his, Sebastian, whose mocking demeanor clearly indicates the two men had been less than friends in their youth; a man in Sebastian’s employ had been a smuggler for a Chinese syndicate, deciding to keep an object very precious to the organization, motivating a series of deaths to recover it.
In both episodes, the man behind all of the mayhem was Moriarty, sponsoring the chaos for his own amusement.
Finally, Moriarty directly engages Sherlock in the cat and mouse of “The Great Game” to relieve his own boredom, culminating in him threatening a blow to Sherlock’s heart by destroying John, his only friend.
Similarly, the first crime in “The Great Game” to be solved is the death of Carl Powers, committed in 1989. This is presumably the first victim of a young James Moriarty and the first crime to catch the interest of a young Sherlock Holmes; effectively, it is how they met (though the two arch-rivals meet face-to-face in the lab of the hospital when introduced by Molly, who works there).
According to James, Carl had been mean to him: “Carl laughed at me, so I stopped him laughing.” Carl’s death, an apparent suicide, went unsolved by police; however, the victim, an otherwise healthy person, had been poisoned.
Moriarty kept a souvenir, Carl’s prize trainers, which he eventually brings to Sherlock’s very home, placing them in Mrs. Hudson’s basement flat, right in the heart of 221B.
The second series of Sherlock is all about fraud. It brings us a manipulative woman (Irene Adler) who works in conjunction with Moriarty to create chaos and decode a secret plan to subvert a terrorist bombing by faking the deaths of a planeload of passengers; while Sherlock seems to feel an emotional connection to her, and she to him, both are dubious about whether it is real.
Then, John and Sherlock travel to Dartmoor, where an agent of a government research facility fools a man (and the public at large) into believing that a giant hound roams the moors; both Sherlock and John are drawn in, confronting the extreme fear that the drug produced at the facility cultivates, before recognizing that it is all a hoax meant to cover criminal activity.
Finally, Sherlock faces off with Moriarty, allowing him to convince the public of a lie, that Sherlock is a fraud, one all are willing to believe, save John.
Moriarty blows his own head off, but Sherlock must fake his own death to pursue unseen Moriarty’s worldwide criminal network. John’s devastation is the only real thing we see.
The second crime in “The Great Game” is also a fraud, the apparent death of Ian Monkford, whose rented car is found drenched in his blood. Sherlock fakes tears and claims of a friendship with Ian to convince the shady, manipulative wife to give him information, knowing she wouldn’t volunteer to help, but she would gladly contradict.
Sherlock checks out the rental agency, Janus Cars, named for the two-faced Roman god. The proprietor lies about his recent travel to South America; this, combined with the realization that the blood found in the car had been frozen, leads Sherlock to conclude that Monkford had faked his death (with the help of Janus Cars) to settle his debts via his life insurance pay-out.
Sherlock’s third series sets up a love triangle of sorts when Mary Morstan enters the scene and becomes John’s wife. Sherlock and Mary work together to save John from a seemingly unprovoked attack; then, Sherlock helps the other two plan the perfect wedding.
Mycroft admonishes his brother for “getting involved, but he eagerly handles all the housekeeping—vetting participants, composing the ideal song, folding serviettes, and writing a Best Man speech for the ages. He vows to always be there for the Watsons, including the surprise addition of a child on the way, a promise which is put to the test with Charles Magnussen, a bully who preys on others to glorify himself. When Mary is revealed as a former assassin (a fact Sherlock and John were blind to), she shoots Sherlock, but this does not deter him from trying to help her get out from under Magnussen’s cruel thumb (and John, by extension.)
The two men travel to Appledore, which is supposed to be a goldmine of secret files, only to find out that is not true—all Magnussen’s information is held in his brain, his mind palace—so Sherlock shoots him in the head to free John and Mary from his tyranny, thereby exploding his own well-being in the process, relegating him to a suicide mission in Eastern Europe.
Similarly, the third crime involves a triangle: a dedicated and thorough houseboy, a woman who has a make-over television show, and her brother who is frequently the butt of her jokes and abuse on the airwaves.
The woman is killed by the houseboy who, angry about the “virtual bullying campaign” that the brother endures, has fallen out with her, and she subsequently had been considering cutting her brother out of her will, thereby ending the cushy way of life to which the two men had become accustomed. He injects her head with excess Botox, poisoning her.
As an unexpected follow-up, the victim who had been strapped with Moriarty’s bomb is a blind woman, and Moriarty himself had gotten personally involved in her bondage: “just once he put himself in the firing line.”
As a result, when the crime is out in the open and all should be fine, the woman begins to describe Moriarty’s voice, so he activates her bomb, which explodes a whole block of flats, killing twelve. The threat is neutralized, but at a very high cost.
The beginning of 2016 brought viewers the unexpected treat of “The Abominable Bride.” This episode returned the detective and the doctor to their roots in Victorian England, as they seek to solve a murder committed by a bride who was supposed to be dead, reportedly shooting herself in full view of a crowd of people.
It is revealed, however, to be an exercise of Sherlock’s mind palace, as he tries to work out how Moriarty could be back in action when he had shot himself in the head on the roof of Bart’s hospital. During this mental journey, John chastises Sherlock for his harmful, careless drug use: “You will hold yourself to a higher standard…because people need you to,” especially since John has “convinced the reading public that an unprincipled drug addict is some kind of gentleman hero.”
Further, John grills him on his desperate avoidance of emotion, which the detective labels “the grit in a sensitive instrument, the crack in the lens.” In Sherlock’s experience, feelings only cloud one from the business at hand—in this case, an entire network of female operatives exacting revenge on the society which had oppressed them.
In the end, when Sherlock faces his arch-nemesis by the Reichenbach Falls, John arrives to back up his friend, kicking Moriarty off the ledge himself.
After the bomb explodes in “The Great Game,” John is incensed that Sherlock seems not to care about people dying. “Will caring about them help save them?…Then I”ll continue not to make that mistake.”
Sherlock disappoints John, who can’t quite grasp his detachment. Sherlock cautions him, “Don’t make people into heroes, John; heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.”
When a picture finally comes through on the pink phone, Sherlock busies himself looking for possible victims to try to get ahead of the game.
At first, John is put off, and Sherlock remarks, “You’re angry with me, so you won’t help,” but John eventually relents and helps his friend forge ahead.
The fourth series has yet to air, but the fourth murder of “The Great Game” might be able to offer some suggestions for what we might see. That crime involved the murder of an unassuming art gallery sentinel who happened to recognize a detail in a feature painting that would reveal it not as a lost masterwork, but as a thirty-million-pound fraud.
His hobby was astronomy, and after verifying his supposition with a local planetarium worker, he is killed by an assassin for hire (The Golem) in an effort to keep the secret safe. Sherlock’s homeless network gives him the location of the The Golem’s hiding place, but he eludes Sherlock and John.
Then, when the assassin visits the planetarium to clean up loose ends, he is confronted by them a second time; still, the killer is able to beat back their dual assault, finish his task, and elude capture.
Later, everyone gathers at the museum in front of the painting; suddenly, the pink phone rings—it is a child’s voice giving a ten-second countdown. Sherlock quickly pieces together why the picture is a fake—it shows the VanBuren supernova in its sky of stars, something which did not appear until 1858, so it could not be in an image supposedly from the 1640s.
The gallery curator had used the help of Moriarty’s network to get the picture produced and recognized by the right people, “a spark which he blew into a flame.”
Gatiss and Moffat have maintained their notoriously tight-lipped approach to the coming season. Prior to December, fans had received little more than three words (Thatcher, Smith, and Sherrinford), two titles (“The Six Thatchers” and “The Lying Detective”), and one ominous trailer.
While there may be clues to be found, as always, in Conan Doyle’s original works, if “The Great Game” holds true, we might venture to predict that we’ll be witnessing a believable fake-out, a unwitting patsy possessing some vital tidbit that otherwise seems irrelevant, and a dangerous gun for hire that John very deliberately threatens to kill to save Sherlock but who defeats them both and vanishes (made all the more intriguing by the appearance in the trailer of Mary, a trained assassin, disguised and armed).
There could be a very frantic but fleeting threat to a child (Baby Watson perhaps, if she does indeed prove to be real). There could be the impossible but timely interference of a vast network of individuals capable of turning a small idea into a global phenomenon (perhaps an iteration of Moriarty’s network, carrying on the chaos of the fallen leader) and a disenchanted woman left holding the bag after the group’s activities go south.
There is no guarantee that there will even be a fifth series; all parties involved with the show are careful to stress that. But Moffat has commented that he couldn’t image that they would not continue on eventually; if so, what might lay beyond the horizon for Sherlock?
The last murder in “The Great Game” is woven throughout the episode. It is first brought to Sherlock by Mycroft with the death of Andrew West, an MOD worker found dead on the tracks at Battersea station; the memory stick he had possessed, with the secret plans for a missile defense program, is missing.
Sherlock passes off the case to John, an apparent refusal rooted in sibling rivalry. Indeed, the solution to the crime also revolves around family. The man was killed by Joe Harrison, the brother of the victim’s fiancé, an accident after West discovered that his potential in-law stole the memory stick from him as a scheme to get himself out of drastic debt. Joe betrays family to protect himself; now, both he and his sibling are lost.
Sherlock arranges to take the memory stick to Moriarty in the episode’s final scene, going back to the pool where all the crimes had started over a decade before. The detective assumes that all of the other crimes were merely to distract him from this top-secret information that the criminal had to have been seeking.
Here, Sherlock is stopped in his tracks by the final choice for a bomb-strapped parrot: John Watson. Moriarty finally appears, only to reveal that we had already seen him in the form of Jim from IT, Molly’s office romance that she had introduced briefly in the hospital lab. Moriarty, as it happens, has no interest in the missile plans; he’s been merely entertaining himself all along by “making [Sherlock] dance.”
John throws himself on Moriarty and tells Sherlock to run, to save himself, but when the unseen snipers turn their sights on Sherlock instead, John backs down. Moriarty merely toys with them and leaves, allowing Sherlock to rip the bomb off his friend and stutter an overwhelmed thanks for what he’d try to do to protect him. When Moriarty swings back in capriciously to deliver the bad news that both men must die, Sherlock (with John’s nod of support) aims his pistol at the bomb laying at the criminal’s feet, prepared to do what is necessary to save the world.
Might the fifth series involve a family betrayal for the Holmes brothers, as it did for the Harrisons? The complicated relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft has only been touched on but is integral to making up the characters as we know them. Perhaps the problem would involve the elusive third brother, “the other one” that has been alluded to in “His Last Vow.” It would be made all the more gut-wrenching if it pulled John into harm’s way, especially since he really is family to Sherlock, the human being he loves, respects, and relies upon most in all the world. Perhaps the show will come full circle, back to where it all began, to work through the most daunting of all their adventures.
The only certainty for the years ahead: we will all be watching, breathlessly.