How did Sherlock Holmes do it?

22:36, May 27 2012

The second season of Sherlock - the mini-series written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman - finished up on Friday with an episode titled The Reichenbach Fall (really an adaptation of classic Holmes tale The Final Problem) and a surprise ending that consumed most of my thinking over the weekend.

(Warning: Spoilers from the second season of Sherlock follow.)

In case your memory is hazy, Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott, who did a remarkable job with the part) spends most of the episode destroying Sherlock's reputation and framing him for a series of high-profile crimes. Desperate to clear his name, Sherlock rocks up to the St Bartholomew's Hospital morgue and asks Molly Hooper for help. After arranging for Watson to be distracted at 221b Baker St, he arranges to meet arch-nemesis Moriarty on the roof of the hospital.

After a mostly verbal confrontation in which it becomes clear that Moriarty is the only person who could clear Sherlock's name, Moriarty pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the head, leaving Sherlock in shock. Sherlock steps to the edge of the roof and calls Watson, who has just arrived at the scene - he tells Watson that the call will act as a suicide note, and jumps. Watson manages to check his pulse and we see a shot of Sherlock's face, before paramedics rush him away.

A few moments later we see Sherlock watching over Watson at the cemetery where he was supposedly buried.

So how did he do it? How did he survive the death drop off the side of St Barts?

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It's clear that Sherlock survived the fall; he was pretty alive-looking at the cemetery. The question is how he survived the fall. Did he use some kind of invisible rope? Was there a body-double switch (or a dummy switch) at some point? Were his bones coated with an adamantium alloy back in the 1960s?

Speculation on how Sherlock managed to survive the fall - and remember, Watson checked his pulse and we saw his motionless, blood-covered face - is rife on the internet, with a huge number of theories* appearing. Writters Moffat and Gatiss fuelled the fire when they explained that there is a clue in the episode itself that reveals how he did it: "I've been online and looked at all the theories and there's one clue that everyone's missed," says Moffat. "It's something that Sherlock did that was very out of character, but which nobody has picked up on."

Okay ... but what did Sherlock do that was "very out of character"? A dedicated fan named insectatorious has put forward the idea that the questionable behaviour took place early in the episode when Sherlock told a reporter that she "repelled" him. Since forming a personal opinion is out of character for Sherlock, and since repel is a homophone** for rappel, a method of using a rope to safely climb down a rock face or building, Mr Tatorious believes that the clever detective used some kind of bungy cord to control his fall to the ground.

Of course, that is just one theory. Others have guessed that Molly helped Sherlock by providing a body double which was switched into place after Sherlock somehow landed in a passing garbage truck, or that Sherlock used the "homeless network" he mentioned back in Season 1 (and which is a big part of the original stories), or that Watson was knocked over on purpose, which gave Sherlock time to make himself appear dead, or that the hallucinatory drug from previous episode The Hounds of Baskerville was used on Watson, which made him think he'd seen Sherlock fall.

Personally, I wonder if he somehow figured out how to land on the ground without killing himself. Sherlock knew that he had to die - or at least fake his death - in order to clear his name, and asking Molly for help ("I need you") is fairly out of character. Perhaps Molly used her knowledge of death to help Sherlock figure out the optimal falling height (Sherlock chose the roof of St Barts) and the best landing position (we see Sherlock waving his arms and legs around mid-fall) to ensure survival. The cemetery scene at the end takes place a few months after the fall, giving plenty of time for recovery.

I'll admit, it's a long shot. But cats can survive falls from that height because they have a bigger body surface area compared to their weight and by keeping their limbs loose. In the original tale, The Final Problem, Sherlock survives a big fall over the Reichenbach Falls by using a form of martial arts. Perhaps he figured out a way of safely falling to the ground, then had help appearing dead and being swept away before Watson could figure out the truth.

I'm probably wrong - but I can't see how else he could have done it. Whatever the truth might be, it was a fantastic ending to a brilliant second season which was only let down by the fact it was only three episodes long. I can't wait until it returns, sometime in 2013.

In the meantime, what do you think: how did Sherlock survive his fall from the roof of St Barts?

(*) Okay, not that adamantium theory; that's Wolverine, not Sherlock.

(**) A word that sounds the same, but has a different meaning; a heterograph is a word that sounds the same, has a different meaning and is spelt differently, too. Don't say you've never learnt anything here at OTB.

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