Wrong Day to Die: Reflection on BBC Sherlock

I’ve finally finished watching Sherlock up through the much-anticipated Series Three, and there’s something that I want to get off my chest.

During the recent hiatus (of which I only endured one year, not having started the show until then), theories were flying about how Sherlock survived his fall from the roof of St. Bart’s. I haven’t checked, but they probably still are, since, infuriatingly enough, we still don’t have a straight answer on how he did it.

But this is neither the time nor the place to discuss that. Because in addition to the wild speculation about how Sherlock survived, many Sherlockians also theorized that he wasn’t the only one to cheat death that day–that, in fact, Jim Moriarty had survived a direct gunshot through the head and was somehow still alive. I was never on board with this theory much. I saw it as wishful thinking.

After seeing “His Last Vow,” all I can say is…well, so much for me. Not that it was a complete shock; I get these things spoiled for me in advance by Tumblr. But even though I’m excited about the prospect of seeing Andrew Scott’s Moriarty back in action, I can’t help but wonder if he was better off dead.

Falling

I love Moriarty as a character. I do. But one of the things I love most about him (and take notes, because you really can’t go wrong with a character who has this quality) is his single-minded commitment to defeating Sherlock. The entire point of Moriarty’s suicide is that we see him as someone who’s willing to do anything, even at the cost of his own life, to defeat the one challenge that is presented to him in this boring, boring world. The idea that it was fake cheapens the act immensely.

Please understand that I’m not saying that suicide is ever the right thing to do under any circumstances. I never considered Moriarty a good role model and I’m not about to start. But to me, his death was what fit best with the character arc. I fully believed he was willing to die in order to complete his mission. In fact, I believed that if he had somehow survived and Sherlock had died, he would have taken his life anyway because there was just nothing left for him.

You can agree with me or not on that one. But I think all of this raises an important question: When is it okay to kill characters, and when is it okay to bring them back from the dead?

In writing, the strongest choices that you can make are the ones that put your characters in the greatest conflict with the highest stakes. And sometimes, this means that characters are willing to die to achieve their goals. Character death can make for some powerful, emotional moments under any circumstances, but when it happens as an act of sacrifice (Moriarty’s suicide was a kind of sacrifice, even if it was done for selfish reasons), it takes on a deeper significance because, as a decision made by the character, it becomes part of his or her character arc.

I win

That being said, having a character who dies as an act of sacrifice turn out to actually be alive does more than revive the character; it rewrites who they are, partially. Well, not so much if the character fully expected to die, but even that can take some of the significance away from the sacrifice by making it basically hypothetical.

Another thing to consider–and this is the cynic in me coming out–is that whether a character should stay dead in terms of storytelling and whether they should stay dead in terms of appealing to the viewership are two entirely different things. This is truer in TV than perhaps any other medium. TV storytelling is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re watching a film (or writing a feature-length screenplay, for that matter) and your favorite character dies near the end, you’re only going to have to do without them for another half hour or so. But if a character dies on a TV show, that show could go on for many more seasons and it would be fundamentally different because that character would no longer be there. And if that character is a popular character, the viewers might not be too happy.

If you ask me, a character’s popularity shouldn’t have any bearing on whether he or she gets to live. Let that sink in: the fact that a character is well-liked is not a good enough reason for them either to stay alive or to come back from the dead. But out here in the real world we have ratings to keep up and general tastes to satisfy, and those things have to be taken into account as well.

I’m not saying that Moriarty’s popularity was a deciding factor in his return. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t–I don’t know how far in advance Moffat works these things out, so there’s no way to tell for sure. Or maybe I’m missing the mark altogether. Maybe Moriarty’s return is a good thing. Maybe it simply means that he was smart enough to survive, just like Sherlock. It makes even more sense if Moriarty somehow knew that Sherlock was going to fake his death. Only time will tell, I’m sure.

All I’m saying is that sometimes characters just have to die. And maybe it’s just because I’m one of those emotionally detached weirdos who’s never cried for a TV show ever, but I’m able to accept some character deaths on a subjective level as well as an objective one. Moriarty was one of those cases. I didn’t need him to be alive. I just needed him to be a strong character.

“Did you miss me?”

Yes. But at the same time, no.

The image edits are mine. I got the screencaps from sc.aithine.org.