BBC’s Sherlock: How He Faked His Death (SPOILERS)

On the 15th January 2012 audiences of BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were left with an almighty cliffhanger and head-scratcher when their titular protagonist (remember: “heroes don’t exist”) threw himself from the roof of St. Bart’s hospital in London and ‘seemingly’ plummeted to his death after ‘seemingly’ being defeated by his nemesis James Moriarty. However, as a last-gasp shot from this same episode ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ showed Sherlock was actually alive and well, going into hiding after evidently having just faked his own death.

Left with an almighty case of ‘blue-balls’ audiences and fans then began formulating their own theories as to how Sherlock had survived what was blatantly a fatal fall. The theories people came up with were creative, albeit with some being too fantastical to be potentially genuine. I will mention this in my impending review of the first episode of the new third season which has literally just aired here in England (I’m writing this an hour after I watched it) but writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss pay several loving tributes to the involvement and passion of the show’s fans in this respect. Throughout this first episode, aptly titled ‘The Empty Hearse’, three explanations of how Sherlock survived his fall are put forward. The first two of these three come across as being… well… too “Hollywood” and are frankly implausible. The third explanation however, delivered to former-detective Anderson by Holmes himself, is overwhelmingly likely to be the genuine sequence of events.

There will be spoilers in the following paragraphs. If you are in the UK and are planning on watching this episode tomorrow or if you are an overseas viewer and will therefore get this episode at a later date I would stop reading right now.
And here it is…

A recap of the fall

Anyone can tell you that jumping from the roof of even a relatively tall building is almost certainly going to result in death but Sherlock survives his plummet to the pavement through an incredibly smart plan that could have baffled a collective committee of Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Commander Data, and (most certainly did baffle) James Moriarty himself.

James “Jim” Moriarty

The key in this entire scene is that Sherlock must jump and John Watson must witness him do so in order to save the lives of Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lestrade and John Watson. At this moment Moriarty has three assassins with sniper rifle scopes trained on all three of these people and if Sherlock does not commit suicide… they all die. During his confrontation with Sherlock on the rooftop prior to his jump Moriarty, in a fit of sheer insanity at being outwitted by Holmes, pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the head. This was not a trick on Moriarty’s part – he is actually dead and is in no way returning. With any remaining back-door solution to this situation through Moriarty now well-and-truly dead Sherlock is left with no other alternative than to commit suicide by jumping off the building.

Now scroll back up to the first of the two short clips above and pay close attention to 0:07 – 0:12 – to when Sherlock throws his phone away as he prepares to jump. Herein lies a clue that I think a huge number of viewers, myself included, completely missed. Sherlock presses a button on his phone before he throws it away – but what did he do with that one fateful touch? As it turns out he sent a text message to his brother Mycroft Holmes, “LAZARUS”, a message to which Mycroft instantly replies with “LAZARUS IS GO”. “LAZARUS”, apart from being a fantastic biblical reference for the current scenario,  is a go-word for Mycroft’s agents who were laying in wait to assassinate Moriarty’s henchmen. That’s right: the man audiences saw packing away a rifle after Sherlock jumped was not Moriarty’s man, it was Mycroft’s.

Mycroft Holmes

Mycroft Holmes

As it turns out Sherlock and Mycroft, despite their often-demonstrated brotherly friction and disdain for each other, had been working closely for some time – concocting a means of dismantling Moriarty’s criminal network. Moriarty’s obsession with Sherlock provided Holmes brothers with a fantastic window into his entire operation, a window too good to miss. During ‘Reichenbach Fall’ audiences were led to believe that Mycroft willingly gave Moriarty information on his brother in exchange for information on his activities. John Watson, ever acting as our avatar, confronts Mycroft over this and searingly condemns him. Mycroft, as it transpires, has an incredible poker face and is well-capable of misleading people (well, he is a politician after all!) as he completely fools Watson (and us all) into believing that he has betrayed his own brother. That means that the events of ‘Reichenbach’ were orchestrated by Sherlock and Mycroft as a means of drawing Moriarty into the open and opening a way into his organization. So really, it is only through Mycroft’s assistance and intervention that Sherlock survives the events of Reichenbach. Mycroft also plays a key role after-the-fact in dispelling Moriarty’s alias Richard Brooks; clearing Sherlock’s name and reputation posthumously by using his position and power to do so.

The Impact Area

The Impact Area

So that’s the issue with the assassins and the cover-up resolved but how did Sherlock survive jumping off a hospital roof? After all he still had to jump to maintain the illusion of suicide. Here we see Sherlock at the height of his genius. It is important to remember that Sherlock designated the place that he and Moriarty would have their showdown and he would therefore have time to plan ahead. Sherlock knew that when he next confronted Moriarty he would be potentially meeting his death so taking into account Moriarty’s words “you owe me a fall Sherlock, you owe me a fall” he designates St. Barts’ Hospital, playing into Moriarty’s implied method of demise and drawing him out. As he is preparing to jump Sherlock pleads with Watson to keep his distance and witness his fall from a specific location away from the hospital. By doing this Sherlock ensures that Watson witnesses him jumping off the rooftop but not seeing where he immediately lands, which is between the hospital and the hospitals’ ambulance office. Sherlock uses his last call to Watson to keep his attention squarely focused on himself and not on what is going on around him.  During the window that Watson arrives and Sherlock jumps Sherlock’s ‘homeless network’ and ‘associates’ arrive while Watson is fixated on Sherlock and deploy an inflatable pad below Sherlock to break his fall. This entire move is obscured by the hospital’s ambulance office and therefore Watson does not see it. A very nice “sleight-of-sight” trick.
“It’s a trick… It’s all a magic trick John…” 

Molly Hooper

Molly Hooper

That explains how Sherlock survived the impact of his fall but how did he get away, pack up the pad, and also leave a body double in his place to fool Watson and the coroners? As revealed above, everyone Watson encounters on the way to Sherlock’s body are people who are in on the setup and do all they can to stall him. The man on the bike who crashes into him, the man who holds him back, and the crowd around the body – all in on it. What about the body Watson sees though? If you think back to an earlier scene in Reichenbach the answer is there; another clue audiences potentially missed en-mass. After rescuing the US Ambassador’s children Sherlock tries to question them. However, as soon as he walks into the room the young girl screams in terror at the sight of Sherlock and he is quickly shepherded outside. Because of this Sherlock deduces that Moriarty must have hired a man who bears a striking resemblance to himself to achieve this effect. He also deduces that, considering Moriarty’s callous and ruthless nature, said impersonator would have most likely been killed after he outlived his use to his employer. Using his connection with Molly Hooper, a coroner at St. Barts’ Hospital, Sherlock found the body of the imposter and put it to use as his own posthumous body double – using Moriarty’s own trick against him. Immediately after Sherlock’s fall is broken by the air-bag and he gets away Molly drops the doppelganger body out of a window directly above his landing site. The body is animated with fake blood by Sherlock’s associates while Watson is disorientated and making his way to the body he believes is his friends’(as you can see from the second video clip).

Sherlock Holmes has now saved the lives of John Watson, Greg Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson –  fooled the entire world save for a handful of people by faking his own death – and goes to ground using the illusion of his suicide to easily traverse the world for two years tearing apart Moriarty’s now-leaderless organisation. Future episodes in this series might delve deeper into how he got around so easily and how he was aided but I would suspect that Mycroft Holmes and Irene Adler, the former to handle ‘official’ matters and the latter to cover ‘unofficial’ matters had a hand in his actions.

All-in-all… Genius isn’t it?

3 comments

  1. Great review – well explained.

  2. But in the beginning of season 3, it shows viewers how he did it- and not like that. But if you watch the fall, then the explanation, you’ll fins that Watson sees Sherlock fall and hit the ground- no gaps. But when it shows us how he does it, Sherlock bungee jumps back up.

  3. Raymond Labelle · · Reply

    I think you are very close. We agree on the fundamental principle: amortized fall, placement of a look-alike corpse, keeping Watson far from the corpse, ensuring that Watson does not take the pulse.

    The little differences. I suggest you look at the scene from the fall to the departure to the emergency in slower motion. Note that when Sherlock jumps, it is a camera plan. When you see the body fall on the sidewalk, it is another camera plan. That last plan is a big plan, so we do not see much what is around the body.

    So, yes, Sherlock did jump, but could the body which fell on the sidewalk be another – the change of camera plan permits to ask that question.

    If you look shortly after the fall, you will notice that Sherlock’s body is just beside a truck with a trailer which contains big bags. Sherlock could have jumped on these bags, and a look-alike body dressed in the same manner been launched from the same truck to the sidewalk with the blood. That would be the other camera plan: the look-alike corpse launched from the truck.

    Moreover, if you look further in the scene, in a plan taken from high above, you do recognise exactly the same truck in movement getting away from the scene. You just see a part of a truck in a small band on the upper side of the screen, you have to be attentive, but it is clear enough to be certain that it is the same truck (again, slow motion helps).

    As for the body: the corpse only has to be dressed like Sherlock, and have a height and corpulence close enough to those of Sherlock – it does not need to naturally have the same face. Make-up or convincing masks can do miracles nowadays and you can have the face arranged to look like Sherlock’s: no need to find someone who has naturally a face which looks the same. In a morgue, with the complicity of Molly, one could find a good candidate corpse (i.e., close enough height and corpulence). Also, it would have been too hard for Sherlock to simulate death efficiently for a long period – keeping eyes open without closing them, keeping respiration invisible, etc. – better to take a real corpse (or maybe a mannequin).

    In slow motion, you see that the bicycle rider who hits Watson started from behind and intentionally hit Watson, hard enough to immobilize Watson a certain time. Probably to ensure that Watson does not see the substitution and let some time for the team to swarm around Sherlock and prevent Watson from touching the corpse.

    You see in slow motion that the team around the supposed Sherlock’s body makes big efforts to ensure that Watson does not touch the corpse when Watson tries to take the pulse. Very important: otherwise, Watson would have noted that the body is too cold to have died that recently.

    Also, the paramedics, a doctor and a team arrive quite rapidly around the corpse. Yes, it is in a hospital, but still…

    The team must also handle the true pedestrians who could be passing by.

    We saw earlier in the episode that when everything seemed lost, Sherlock did ask Molly a favour. That favour could be the finding of a good candidate corpse to be arranged to look like Sherlock.

    As for the big team: for mounting such an operation (of course, the driver of the truck must be involved, and the team which come around Sherlock) could be explained by the intervention of Mycroft, who can mount operations and have agents execute them.

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