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