Big spoilers for Sherlock series 2 & 3.
Sherlock‘s sophomore year introduced us to the show’s version of the great detective’s classic archnemesis, Dr. (now just Jim) Moriarty. The character has always served as a brilliantly criminal, mirror-version foil to the brilliantly investigative detective. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s contemporary spin on the character, however, is a borrowed page from Christopher Nolan: a chaotic evil genius (a la Heath Ledger’s Joker) for whom no criminal undertaking is too complicated, no moral boundary or motivation necessary. As Alfred somberly intoned in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Or, as Basil of Baker Street said before him, “There’s no evil scheme he wouldn’t concoct. No depravity he wouldn’t commit.”
The problem with this kind of character, in terms of establishing dramatic stakes, is that nihilistic genius psychos like Moriarty and the Joker have no limits to their morals and insanity (or intellects or resources)– and therefore no limit to what they might do. And because they might (and can) do anything, nothing they end up doing is a surprise. With the chaotic evil genius archetype we’re supposed to marvel at the audacity and intricacy of their plan(s), but the reveals tend to strike me as whatever incidental BS the writer/creator was able to come up with.
At the end of this week’s Sherlock episode (the series 3 finale) the audience was left with a dangling fan-service-y teaser in which someone has pulled a nationwide, V for Vendetta-style broadcast with a digitally altered Moriarty chuckling “Miss me?” Sherlock is called back into action after his four-minute exile, and viewers are notified that maybe they should be excited for the eventual series 4. But it left me cold. After a villain has (apparently) blown his brains out as part of a season climax, what more shocking lengths could he go to? Resurrection? So he can… orchestrate another prolonged terror plot against England and Sherlock? Which he will prove his psychotic commitment to by killing himself again? Is there any absurd plan Moffat and Gatiss could possibly concoct at this point that would have real tension and mystery?
Is Moriarty alive or dead? It doesn’t matter. We’re guaranteed a convoluted and probably implausible scenario masterminded by him and intended by the writers to induce shock at his cruelty and reverence for his genius. And surely, Sherlock will be pressed to his limits, maybe even survive another Frodo-esque brush with death. But given the unexplained lengths he went to to survive Moriarty’s series 2 endgame, do even these necessary developments hold out the promise compelling investigative drama? Or should we just be content to revel in Cumberbatch and Freeman’s admittedly charming bro-mance, incidentally set within Moffat and Gatiss’s bait-and-switch house of mirrors? As film and TV critic Ted Pidgeon put it recently on Slant, “There’s an air of comfort between the actors that makes the show’s arguable indifference toward its foundation in procedural crime-solving a welcome change of direction.” So instead of a thematic deepening within genre constraints such as achieved by NBC’s brilliant Hannibal, we get chummy Brits palling around in a show that has all but forgotten its mystery-solving genre roots.
Having aired these grievances, it still must be noted that this past Sunday’s episode, “His Last Vow” was this series’ standout episode after the weird tonal shifts of and absurdities of “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three”. The villain, Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), was thrilling to watch–arrhythmic tics and bizarre power plays that kept the characters and this audience member on their toes. Sherlock can’t read his “shark-like” visage, and it bugs the hell out of him. Contra Moriarty, whose bug-eyed insanity is all on the surface, Magnussen has hidden depths (and, indeed, palaces) unanticipated by Sherlock or the viewer. He leaves us and the characters we’re there to sympathize with guessing. But the mysteries offered by his antagonism are swiftly ended when his head, like Moriarty’s, ends up Jackson Pollock’d all over the ground for the series finale. I suppose I shouldn’t be too upset–given Sherlock and Moriarty’s Reichenbach returns, even resurrection isn’t too absurd of a possibility for what might happen next in Sherlock.