Stick to baseball, 8/12/17.

I’m back from a week of vacation in Aruba, which was lovely, not least because I turned my phone off when we took off from BWI and didn’t turn it back on until we landed on US soil seven-plus days later. That means my last Insider posts were at the trade deadline, including breakdowns of the Yu Darvish trade, the Sonny Gray trade, and the Justin Wilson/Jeimer Candelario trade.

I’m back at Paste with a new boardgame review, this time of the two-player variant of Uwe Rosenberg’s massive Caverna, Caverna: Cave vs. Cave.

I appeared on the Ringer’s Achievement Oriented podcast, co-hosted by Ben Lindbergh, to discuss the current golden age of boardgames and how that might be affecting videogame funding. I also spoke with Jeff Krushell, who worked for the Blue Jays for some of the same years I did, about my book, Smart Baseball, and the role of analytics in the sport.

While I was away, the Washington Post ran a favorable review of Smart Baseball.

I’ll be at GenCon 50 in Indianapolis starting on Thursday, appearing on a few panels, signing copies of Smart Baseball on Friday at 2 pm (or if you see me walking around), and trying lots of new boardgames. I hope to see a bunch of you there.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 7/1/17.

Couple of Insider posts this week – one with reactions to the initial rosters for the Futures Game and one on top prospects for tomorrow’s international free agent signing period. I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon en route to Lakewood from Bristol.

My latest boardgame review for Paste is the two-player game Santorini, which has some light chess/Othello elements to it but is played on a smaller board (5×5) that keeps the games a bit shorter.

Thanks to everyone who’s already bought Smart Baseball; sales spiked this month between Father’s Day and the positive review in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve got book signings coming up:

* Miami, Books and Books, July 8th
* Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar, July 15th
* Berkeley, Books Inc., July 19th
* Chicago, Volumes, July 28th, 7:30 pm
* GenCon (Indianapolis), August 17th-20th

If you’re with an independent bookstore and would like to host a signing, please contact Danielle Bartlett at HarperCollins; we’re trying to accommodate everyone we can within my work schedule.

I also spoke with Sportsnet about the book, anxiety, and the 2017 Blue Jays.

And now, the links…

  • Russell Carleton looks at the utility of pickoff throws over at Baseball Prospectus.
  • This isn’t surprising if you follow Zack Greinke at all, but the pitcher told MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert how he used Statcast data to help turn his 2016 season around.
  • “The Time I Got Recruited to Collude with the Russians.” Long, and you may have seen it, but it seems like more evidence of wrongdoing from the Trump campaign last summer.
  • VICE details a planned (or, really, hypothetical) pay-for-play college basketball league that would focus on the Historically Black Colleges & Universities that have largely missed out on the financial windfall of modern college basketball.
  • The mother of an immune-compromised daughter who was hospitalized recently because she was exposed to chicken pox lashed out at vaccine deniers for putting her daughter’s life at risk. Your decision not to vaccinate your kids isn’t just about your own neglect, but potentially harms other vulnerable people in your community.
  • If you heard that a European Union court ruled against vaccine safety, well, not really.
  • A research paper in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at benefits of increased health insurance coverage under the ACA, including lower costs of reduction in mortality rates compared to other policies. (One of the authors is Dr. Atul Gawande, the author of Being Mortal and The Checklist Manifesto.)
  • Eater has a great profile of gelato maker Meredith Kurtzman, who recently retired after two decades in the NYC food scene, working at restaurants (notably at Mario Batali’s Otto) and earning plaudits from chefs and restaurateurs for her work. It’s a wonderful piece because it doesn’t shy away from the fact that Kurtzman isn’t a very engaging or even likable subject.
  • The NY Times is now charging for access to its cooking site, which … is fine, actually. I know there’s always a backlash when sites charge for content, but if you want good content, you’re going to have to start paying for it somewhere. I subscribe to their main site, the Washington Post, and Fine Cooking magazine, among others. However, charging for recipes is tricky because they can’t be copyrighted – you can copyright text, but not the specifics of a recipe – which makes this a little different than most subscriber walls.
  • The great BBC series Broadchurch just returned on Wednesday for its third and final season, and IndieWire ran a Q&A with star David Tennant that’s more insightful than the standard “actor talks about series he didn’t write but explains everything anyway” sort of piece.
  • The Koch Brothers plan to spend $400 million to help elect conservative Republican candidates in 2018. Repealing Obamacare and reducing taxes on the highest earners are two of their main policy priorities.
  • Daniel Vaughn’s latest list of the top 50 BBQ joints in Texas came out a few weeks ago for Texas Monthly, and if you’re visiting that state, it’s a great resource. (If you live there, well, I’m sorry.)
  • The new Presidential commission on so-called “voter fraud” – which does not actually exist on any significant scale – is really just an attack on voting rights. Even some GOP-led states are declining the requests for state voter information. Delaware hasn’t made any statement yet, but I have reached to the Secretary of State, asking them to refuse to comply.
  • Sen. Al Franken very calmly de-pantsed Energy Secretary Rick Perry on climate change, helped by Perry’s apparent lack of any knowledge on the subject whatsoever.
  • Whole Foods had long contributed to local farmers both in access to markets and in providing low-interest loans to help farmers ramp up operations to serve the chain. Now the farmers worry these programs will end after amazon’s purchase of the retailer.

Sherlock, season four.

New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.

I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.

I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.

And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.

That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.

If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.

That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.

However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.

Downton Abbey, season six.

I have a new draft blog post for Insiders on several LA-area high school prospects, and I appeared on Tor.com’s Rocket Talk podcast, talking about my interest in science fiction.

Two important things to know about my feelings on Downton Abbey’s sixth and final season:

* The season as a whole was a bit of a sapfest, a victory lap for the series that gave just about every character a happy ending of one sort or another; and

* I thought the final two episodes were two of their best, even with the surfeit of sentiment, and smiled through just about all of the last episode.

After the negative reactions to the deaths of two major characters in season three – both tied to the actors’ decisions to leave the series rather than sign new contracts – it was obvious we weren’t going to see any great tragedies in this sixth season, and if you were still uncertain about that, the quick resolution of a potential scandal for Lady Mary in the first episode should have made it plain. No one of consequence was going to get any lasting trouble, and creator Julian Fellowes – who, to borrow a phrase from the finale, had written himself into a corner – wasn’t going to incur the wratch of the masses by, say, screwing with Lady Edith’s happy ending.

That said, he didn’t have to go quite as far as he did in making everybody feel good about the conclusion of the series. Lady Edith didn’t just get a happy marriage; she got rich, and married into a title and a palatial estate. Fellowes at least upped the drama around this story in the last few episodes, but did you doubt for a second how it was going to end? It seemed as if he was determined to pair off every character he could, even if the couples were just implied in the last few scenes of the series, and it got a bit ridiculous; this isn’t Jane Austen’s England where you married whoever was close at hand.

Even the development of Thomas Barrow’s character over the last two seasons of the show, which was the most interesting facet of the show as it became increasingly focused on getting everyone married and settled, was a mixed blessing. The six seasons saw characters age and change directions, but few if any were truly different people by the end of season six from what they were in season one; Barrow did in dramatic ways, both discovering things about himself (including a tacit acceptance of who he is after self-loathing nearly killed him twice) and revealing unexpected aspects to his character. He’s still got the hint of spite in him, as when he tries to spoil Gwen’s return for her, but this time around there’s a sense of remorse, and the sadness that drives his behavior too. Jim Carter, who portrayed Carson, earned four Emmy nominations for his performance, but I’d argue Robert James-Collier, who played Barrow, had the more difficult task and was the more compelling character.

(By the way, I only just discovered that Carter played Déjà Vu in Top Secret, which was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I had a vague, unsettling feeling I’d seen him somewhere before.)

But the softening of Barrow meant that the downstairs portion of the show lost its main antagonist, and even Barrow’s former adversaries became increasingly invested in helping him over the course of the sixth season. Fellowes seems to have tried to replace Thomas’ (and, previously, O’Brien’s) bit of villainy with Denker’s shenanigans over at Lady Violet’s house, but that was pure slapstick in comparison. And, as the show’s only gay character, Barrow ended up without a romantic aspect to his character except as a plot point, as with his attempts to forge a platonic friendship with Andy or his pursuit of a quack therapy to “cure” his homosexuality.

The best aspect of the sixth season itself was the return of Lady Mary’s vicious side; she was always the show’s most central character, and her complexity and her desire to be an independent woman in an era that did not reward or even tolerate such thinking gave the show the sort of difficult protagonist it needed to avoid becoming total fluff. She had that love-to-hate quality that makes a great character, but season six gave us a little more insight into her personality, thanks to some help from Lady Violet, who was increasingly reduced to quip machine this last season (although Maggie Smith can still deliver a barb with the best of them). I had some hope Fellowes would leave her unmarried as the series ended, because she’d spent so much time insisting and acting as if she didn’t need a husband – and she didn’t, not in practical terms – so watching her turn into a big mush in the Christmas special was a bit of a disappointment, although we did get one last glimpse of her strength of character when she turned all business (instead of going to pieces as you might expect a badly written female character of the era to do) when Anna’s water broke.

Fellowes wrote himself into this spot because he made us like so many of the characters, even the flawed ones, over the previous six seasons, and because he created a house where everyone, upstairs and down, was part of an extended family of sorts. The relationship between Lord Grantham and the servants was probably highly unusual, if not outright unrealistic, for the time, and the camaraderie among the servants wasn’t balanced enough by the sort of petty squabbles and jealousies that arise in any group of people living and working in such close quarters. But you’d be a cold viewer to root for an unhappy ending for Daisy or Moseley or Lady Edith – those last two in particular were so downtrodden before season six that it was cathartic to see them finally fall into something good. That makes for a satisfying ending for the viewer, but the show never quite recaptured the dramatic spell Fellowes managed to cast in seasons one and two.

Other stray thoughts:

* It’s emblematic of the victory-lap nature of the season that three older male characters this season ran into what appeared to be serious health problems, but none of those turned out to matter much in the end. Lord Grantham and Lord Merton are fine, and Carson’s “palsy” was a mere plot contrivance that won’t prevent him from living happily ever after. (The man just faced the loss of his main purpose in life, but he was just sort of waved off screen.)

* Carson’s palsy may have been essential tremor, which I only bring up because Fellowes has the condition and is the honorary president of England’s National Tremor Foundation. The disorder is hereditary, and is eight times more common than Parkinson’s, so the few details we did get on Carson seem to fit.

* I knew Lord Merton wasn’t going to buy it, but I fully expected his pernicious anemia to be cured by the treatment that, at the time of the show’s setting (1925), had only recently been discovered by the American scientist George Whipple and was just about to become widespread. Fellowes would have been bending the timeline slightly, but having Lord Merton’s condition cured in the nick of time by a new discovery would have been both more realistic than the misdiagnosis resolution and a nice hat-tip to science.

* Amelia Grey, Lord Merton’s witchy daughter-in-law, had so much potential as a new troublemaking antagonist had the series continued, but instead she was left a one-note gold-digger in a subplot that was left uncooked the whole season.

* What exactly do all these boys see in Daisy? Aside from the fact that she looks about 14, as Mrs. Patmore said in the finale, she’s only nice to the ones who aren’t interested. Also, the subplot about Daisy standing up for Mr. Mason was a big waste of time; once it was resolved, in typically fairy-tale fashion, it was as if her outbursts to her employers had never occurred.

* Lady Rose returns, but left her newborn at home in America because … her nanny wouldn’t allow her to bring the child? I’m not surprised her milquetoast husband allowed this, but when did Rose allow people to start pushing her around?

* When all the servants were giggling and rushing upstairs, I assumed they were going to see Anna and the baby, not to say goodbye to Edith and Bertie.

* I was at least glad to see that Carson was still Carson, imperious as ever, still blissfully unaware of how the others view his shipshape-and-Bristol-fashion sensibility. That doesn’t make him the bad guy, but at least one character escaped the finale’s sugarcoating.

* Lady Violet had to have the last line of the series, and she did, ending it on a bit of a bittersweet note with her response’s to Isobel’s comment that we are moving forward toward the future rather than back into the past, saying, “as if we had a choice.” Perhaps Fellowes was giving us one small sign that he knew that the best moments were already behind us, and he was just putting a bow on what, despite its flaws, remains one of the most successful dramatic series in TV history.

Broadchurch, season two.

This week’s Klawchat had lots of overreactions to early-season stats. For Insiders, my latest draft blog post covers first-rounders Donny Everett and Mike Nikorak, with word on a pop-up arm in El Paso and some early top ten gossip.

The British series Broadchurch originally aired as a one-and-done season of eight episodes built around a murder mystery, with the real focus of the writing on the effects of the crime and the investigation on the residents of the small town of the show’s title, many of whom would end up suspects at one point in the season. The show was so well-received by British audiences and TV critics that ITV has now turned it into a recurring series, with season two just completing its first American run on BBC America this week and season three to begin filming this summer. (I reviewed season one while contrasting it to the inferior U.S. remake, Gracepoint.

The formula of the first season no longer applies, as the two detectives assigned to the case, outsider Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Broadchurch lifer Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), solved it in somewhat shocking fashion in the last episode. That presented several challenges to the writers: how to restart the narrative greed that an unsolved murder brought to the show, and how to continue to push the various characters into uncomfortable situations that could provoke the dialogue that is the show’s greatest strength?

An American series would just kill off another character and start over, of course – has anyone thought about the spike in the murder rate of Naval officers and midshipmen with every new NCIS spinoff? – but Broadchurch went a less traditional route: The murderer, who confessed in season one, pleads not guilty, leading to a trial that enmeshes the town in more scandal, while Alec gets a second chance to solve the old case that wrecked his marriage, career, and nearly his life. The resulting eight episodes of season two moved more quickly and were more involved, with a half-dozen new and significant secondary characters, but they never slacked on the incisive dialogue that powers the show. (Of course, at some point they will likely have to kill someone else off, just to give Alec and Ellie something else to do together.)

The trial itself is the framework for the season, but its outcome isn’t in much doubt, with many of the steps – notably the exclusion of the confession, without which season two would have been about an episode and a half long – easy to see coming. A reader mentioned on Twitter that the writers took many liberties with the British judicial process, none of which were evident to me as an American. But viewing Broadchurch as a crime drama misses its point: The writers develop complex, fascinating characters and put compelling words in their mouths to reveal truths about how we live in small communities where everyone knows everyone else and someone else probably knows that thing you think is secret. Finding out who was guilty was critical to season one, but we already know he’s guilty, and the trial’s outcome was both justified by what we saw of the court proceedings and because of the opportunities it presented for the plot.

Meanwhile, the Sandbrook case brings the man Alec believed committed both murders, Lee Ashworth, into Broadchurch, the result of what might be a long con of Alec’s designed to get Ashworth, acquitted when a critical piece of evidence was stolen from a detective’s car before trial, to confess. Ashworth, his wife Claire, their neighbor Ricky (father to one of the victims, uncle to the other), and his wife Kate had a convulted web of interrelationships, jealousies, and possibly infidelities that give the investigation itself layers of intrigue beyond ordinary investigation. Having just read the first Philo Vance novel, I was reminded of his axiom that physical evidence is useless and true detection should be the result of deduction, as the solution the Broadchurch writers have given us here barely relies on any evidence at all, and one of those bits – the floor – itself indicates nothing at all without Ellie’s reasoning.

The season also brings two new characters into the fold in the lead prosecuting attorney, Jocelyn Knight, and her former protegee, Sharon Bishop; the two have a testy, unfriendly relationship, and each is fighting her own private war. Those side stories were too isolated from either of the main plot threads and seemed to exist solely to give the characters some depth and/or to set up subplots for season three, but the character of Jocelyn, played superbly by Charlotte Rampling, OBE, is one of the most well-developed female characters past the age of 60 I can think of on TV. Her integration into the fabric of the show was smooth and sets her up to become more central next season, possibly working together with her quondam rival to free the latter’s son from what might be aun unjust conviction. (Bishop is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, shorn of her locks and the convincing New York City accent she wore on her days on Without a Trace.)

The season narrowed its focus on the holdover residents of the town primarily to the Latimers, the parents and daughter of the murdered boy, whose lives are ripped open anew by the killer’s plea and the resulting trial. Mark’s evisceration on the stand in particular puts new strains on a marriage that was never strong to our eyes yet appears ready to tear apart with a gentle breeze once his latest secrets come out for everyone to see. While the daughter, Chloe, remains mostly a prop – hey, someone had to hold the baby in court! – Mark and Beth benefit from the added screen time, with Beth showing greater strength in tragedy while Mark’s grief manifests itself in unexpected ways. Of the other denizens of Broadchurch, only Paul, himself a cipher much of the season, gets a big moment, as he becomes the moral center of the town in the final sequence of the season.

The writers have dropped enough seeds into Broadchurch’s soil to harvest plenty of new storylines in season three, even without introducing another crime to investigate, but there are a couple I’d most like to see them pursue. Alec and Ellie have zero sexual tension between then, yet Alec’s ex-wife was visibly jealous of the bond he’s formed with his new partner – and Ellie, meanwhile, shows herself how much Alec’s friendship, bizarre as it can be, has meant to her in her own time of emotional turmoil. Her own evolving relationship with her son Tom and perhaps Alec’s with his daughter Daisy, overtly mentioned as a priority for him in the closing scenes of season two, should also come more to the fore. I imagine we’ll see Susan Wright and Nigel again, and Becca Fisher seems to just be a paperweight, but screen time spent on them takes it away from these other characters or Ellie’s gambling-addict sister or Jocelyn in her reemergence from self-imposed isolation. There are probably too many stories here to tell, which is a testament to how rich and full a town that Broadchurch‘s writers have created.

Downton Abbey, season five.

In case you missed it, check out this week’s Klawchat transcript.

Season five of Downton Abbey was, to put it kindly, a bit bland. After the previous season, which found the series’ soapier qualities often ramped up to unwelcome levels, the most recent season saw very little of consequence happening at Downton until the final two episodes (including the Christmas special), so while we still had plenty of the dry wit that is typically sprinkled throughout the dialogue, there was little of compelling interest to bring me back from week to week.

The two most significant storylines, at least when viewed by the weight of the issues they covered, were the investigation of the murder of Mr. Green and Lady Edith’s ongoing attempts to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Marigold, who’s been taken in by a tenant family at Downton. The former storyline took the major dramatic twist from season four, a storyline that won Joanne Froggatt a Golden Globe Award in January, and stretched it out in what I thought was the worst way possible, wringing it for extra drama with no consideration of the human costs. In season four, at least, she showed the kind of post-traumatic reactions you might expect from a rape victim, especially in an era where victims were often seen as deserving blame, but here it’s as if nothing ever happened to her – her character seemed fully restored to her season three form except when Mr. Green’s name was directly broached in her presence. Using a rape storyline to give an actress whose primary role before that had been to stand around and be cute felt tawdry, but at least served a higher purpose of adding drama to the series while touching on a social issue that remains important; discarding most of it, saving only the part that allows for a nonsensical murder investigation storyline that had only one possible ending feels venal.

Lady Edith’s storyline followed a similar if less culturally important arc, where a real issue (single motherhood, the “shame” of bearing a child out of wedlock in that era) became fodder for a plot thread that largely disappeared once it became inconvenient. The child she bore on the Continent last season, then brought back to place with the Drewes, was clearly going to end up with her because the writers of the show seem to have largely eschewed unhappy endings for any character since the public outrage over the deaths of two characters (both because the actors portraying them declined to renew their contracts) in season three.

And that is the crux of the Downton problem, at least at the moment. Julian Fellowes has created such a broad cast of largely likable characters that no one wants to see them come to any (more) grief; I’d compare it to the wonderful, sentimental finale of Parks and Recreation last month, where we saw the futures for all of the main characters and even a few side ones, and everyone lived happily ever after (although Tajikistan is off). But Downton Abbey isn’t a sitcom, so avoiding anything too dreadful happening to any of the characters can lead to a season that’s entertaining in bits but overall rather bland. And the apparent trend toward rehabilitating Thomas’ character to imbue him with some humanity, where he’s starting to show real empathy for other servants, responding to Ms. Baxter’s selflessness by doing a few good turns for others, means we’re losing the lone true antagonist in the house. If Spratt is to be the one awful person on the show, I’d just as soon do without a bad guy.

The final two episodes did at least have their share of big moments, including the seriocomic leadup to Rose and Atticus’s wedding with a few touching examples of the lengths to which a loving parent will go to secure the happiness of his or her child, along with the preposterous arrest of one character, a plot twist that seemed more like a convenience to allow Moseley and Baxter to do one of the kindest turns anyone’s done on the show so far. That’s exactly where we’ve come through five seasons of this show, though: It’s just a really nice group of people, mostly doing nice things for each other, trying to cope with a society that’s changing quickly in a direction that is outmoding their entire way of life. Perhaps season six will see new characters replacing Branson or Lady Rose (as actress Lily James seems set for stardom now that she’s playing Cinderella), but I found myself wondering if Fellowes was setting the show up for a victory lap, one more season where they settle Lady Mary’s storyline and wrap up the series. After a season like this last one, it’s hard to imagine him going back in for the kind of drama that drove the first three seasons to such critical and popular acclaim.

What did you think? Did I miss the excitement this season?

Broadchurch vs. Gracepoint.

The 2013 ITV series Broadchurch was a single-story, eight-episode arc that began with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer on the beach of the small Dorsetine tourist town and followed the investigation led by new Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, whose son Tom was Danny’s best friend. The series focused on the personal impacts of Danny’s death and the subsequent revelations uncovered by the police, the media (local and national), and through the consequences of the various questions those entities ask of anyone who might have been connected to the crime. By splitting the show’s attention across two foci, the writers gave us something we seldom see: a show about a murder that depicted real grief, sorrow, anger, and denial. The script gave the characters the space to develop the depth to make them play like real people, able to show a broad range of traits and emotions that don’t appear in shows that try to tell a story in just 44 minutes.

Broadchurch earned broad critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the BAFTA for best drama in 2013 while Olivia Colman won best actress for her performance as D.S. Miller and David “Argus Filch” Bradley won for best supporting actor for his role as Jack Marshall. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix named it one of his top 20 shows of 2013 as well. The show was a huge commercial success in the U.K., and will return for a second season next month, even though its creators originally conceived the series as a one-and-done.

Of course, this called for an American-made version to air on a U.S. network, because God forbid anyone ask us to watch a show that isn’t set here. At times a shot-for-shot remake of the original, Gracepoint lengthened the series by 25%, spending more time with side characters and misdirections that blurred the sharp focus of Broadchurch on the people involved. The superlative cast of the American series continually delivered, with David Tennant reprising his role as D.I. Hardy (renamed Emmett Carver, because reasons), two-time Emmy winner Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as Ellie, two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) as Susan Wright, and three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as the renamed Jack Reinhold. I doubt any will receive major award nominations, given the mediocre reception critics gave the remake, but all four were above the threshold for consideration, especially Weaver. However, the story meandered away from the heart of what made Broadchurch great – the focus on the emotional lives of its characters – in what I think was a misguided attempt to heighten the mystery, which misunderstood the point of the original series entirely.

I’m still convinced the main reason FOX chose to remake Broadchurch rather than air the original is the accents. David Tennant’s Scottish accent isn’t as easy to understand as an upper-class English accent would be, and I think in general there’s a belief in Hollywood that Americans won’t watch a TV show where all of the dialogue comes at them in the King’s English. (You’d think by now the success of Downton Abbey would have left that myth as dead as a doornail.) The former part I can understand – I had a few instances where I had to rewind to catch something Tennant said – but I hold no truck with the latter. And FOX made the innkeeper character Becca into English expatriate (named Gemma) on Gracepoint, even though she wasn’t American on Broadchurch.

Such changes in characters made up the bulk of the gap between the American and British versions of the show, and in almost every instance, the alterations were for the worse. Gracepoint appeared to be trying far too hard to appeal to the audience, commensurate with the #SuspectEveryone marketing campaign, with multiple characters rewritten or recast to be more suspicious or just creepier:

* The vicar Paul Coates is just that, a clergyman who runs the town’s computer club for kids and plays the peacemaker in a town with few churchgoers; the American priest Paul has carried a torch for Danny’s mom for over a decade, and becomes increasingly forward with her rather than just providing comfort and counsel, while he engages in a sort of cold war with her husband, Mark.

* Both versions of Mark commit the same transgressions, but the American one is colder to his wife, openly hostile to Paul, and miserly with his employee Vince.

* Vince – called Nige in the British version, which won’t do because no one born in America has ever been named “Nige” – is an angry but sometimes well-meaning simpleton in Broadchurch; his American counterpart is constantly scowling, is more devious and greedy than Nige, and is shown butchering something (which turns out to be a deer he shot) in his shed.

* Susan Wright is irredeemable in both versions, but she’s far more sinister in the remake, appearing to threaten Tom and frequently seen spying on others’ in the background; the only time she reveals her true nature in the original is the threat to Maggie.

* Maggie, meanwhile, was turned into a bad punchline in Gracepoint. The original Maggie receives no backstory; we hear nothing of a personal life or her orientation. The American version is a lesbian who says she “realized (she) didn’t like penises,” and is given a raccoon-like hairstyle that ages her at least ten years. (I assumed her character was supposed to be in her late 40s or early 50s, given her looks and demeanor, but the actress portraying her is only 38.) There was no point to revealing Kathy’s orientation other than to provide a token gay character and play it for that one cheap laugh; her personal life never comes into play in the story, and she’s largely a minor character the rest of the way.

* Karen White, the big-city reporter in Broadchurch, shows actual signs of humanity when her articles on Jack are rewritten to vilify the shopkeeper, and again at the end of episode eight when she twice shows her remorse through tiny yet significant actions. Her American doppelganger, Renee Clemons, has no second dimension beyond her ambition, and appears to be there just to look hot and annoy the viewers with her lack of empathy. She doesn’t appear at all in the Gracepoint finale.

* Even Chloe’s character changed, although at least the Gracepoint actress looked like she could possibly be the biological child of the two actors playing her parents. The American version was more rebellious, and what was an innocent “happy room” her boyfriend created for her in Broadchurch became a more sexualized dance in the bar area by the docks.

There were character shifts in the American version that worked, but those appeared more organic, the result of different casting rather than changes in dialogue or actions. Anna Gunn’s Ellie is a stronger character from start to finish – less mousy, more vocal, less tolerant of Carver’s indignities as they happen, although in the end none of it amounts to much given the conclusion of the story. Jacki Weaver, who was amazing as the matriarch of an Australian crime family in Animal Kingdom, made Susan Wright more three-dimensional with her portrayal, making her seem almost addled at times even as she reveals herself to be vindictive. I found it easier to accept her as a victim than the English version, played more stoically by Pauline Quirke. (According to the Broadchurch wikia, Vince the dog was played Quirke’s dog Bailey.)

Tennant’s performances varied beyond the shift to an American accent – which never bothered me in the least, although I’ve seen several critics harp on it as a problem for them – as he was more curt and dismissive with Ellie in Gracepoint, lacking the signs of empathy he flickered in the last few episodes of Broadchurch. His heart ailment seemed to only factor into the core narrative as a way to force a time limit on the investigation, since he has just a few hours to finish the case before he’s forced to take a medical leave. However, the American remake’s insertion of his daughter as a brief subplot proved a complete waste of time, a way to stretch the original series by 88 minutes of content.

Red herrings – like the backpacker, who was a total dead end – ended up giving Gracepoint a sense of density and slower pacing than Broadchurch with no added payoff; if anything, the result was a net negative, taking a series that focused exceptionally well on the emotional impacts of the murder of a child and the ensuing investigation and turning it into a murder mystery. American police procedurals rarely give much if any screen time to grief; we get a quick police interview with the next of kin, some tears or perhaps some wailing, and then we don’t see the family member again unless s/he is the killer. Broadchurch threw that script out the window; the fabric of Danny’s family starts to strain at the seams, while the investigation ruins one man’s life and exposes secrets and lies in those of several others. The finale of Broadchurch was more British than any other aspect of the series: It was slow by design, so that the viewer couldn’t help but linger over the wounds opened or reopened by the revelation of the killer’s identity, followed by the beautifully shot memorial, for a much stronger buildup to Paul’s “I passed the word; maybe the word was good” response that closes the season.

Below this point, I’ll discuss the ending and the identity of the murder. If you haven’t watched either series, you may wish to stop now.

The writers made a slight change to the conclusion of Broadchurch when remaking it as Gracepoint, although the shift was as much about motive as it was identity, providing a much less satisfying explanation in the end while also straining credibility around Tom’s ability to keep his part of the secret from his mom for the entire length of the investigation. It points, again, to the American version’s compulsion to sharpen its edges, which felt to me like a way of talking down to an American audience that FOX felt wanted a bigger emotional impact. (The conclusion didn’t matter for viewership, though; the series was DOA after the first week’s ratings were weak, something I blame on FOX marketing the show strictly as a murder mystery rather than as a high-quality drama.)

Danny’s murder at the hands of Joe was half a surprise, because the writers shoved it in our faces in the penultimate episode’s confrontation between Ellie and Susan outside the police station, where Ellie asks Susan,
“How could you not know?” and thus sets herself up for an ironic outcome where she learns just how Susan might not have known what was happening in her own house. That heavy-handedness aside, however, the writers did a better job planting the seeds for Joe’s role in Danny’s death in both versions of the show, depicting him at various points as a devoted father and husband who finds himself gradually fading in importance from the lives of his wife and older son. It was a simple explanation, one that took place right under the noses of everyone in town, and Danny’s death is the result of the unmollified rage of a repressed pedophile. Gracepoint made Joe’s attraction to Danny more explicit, and turned Danny’s death into a tragic accident that involved Tom, who was trying to protect his friend, not hurt him. Such things can happen, of course, but the crime was no longer a murder, but the ensuing coverup by Joe. It felt like a change for change’s sake, made because the American series had to offer a different ending.

As odd as it might seem, I’d still recommend both series. If you only want to make the time investment in one, make it Broadchurch – it’s better written, has much more heart, and is 88 minutes shorter. You still get David Tennant, and several of the secondary characters, especially the vicar Paul, get more sympathetic/less prejudicial treatment. But Gracepoint has equal or better performances from several cast members, and because the central story is so similar it’s no less compelling, just a little out of focus when compared to the superior source material.

Downton Abbey, season 4.

My second post on the UVA-East Carolina series, about the four major position player prospects on Virginia, is up for Insiders now.

I haven’t written about Downton Abbey in two years, skipping any commentary on season three, probably just because of time but maybe because I found that season to be such a disappointment. Three of the original cast members chose not to return after the end of their three-season contracts, so series creator Julian Fellowes killed two of their characters off, one in the most incongruous and seemingly spiteful ways imaginable. Along with some other absurd subplots – not that this show has ever been a model of realism, but Fellowes at least kept it in the realm of the highbrow soap opera most of the time, rather than trying to be General Hospital with English accents – the third season was a huge letdown after two strong ones to start the series.

The fourth season, which finished airing in the U.S. just two days ago and wrapped up in the U.K. in December, was a significant and surpising comeback for the series, which is still soapy but found a better balance between the serious and the sentimental this time around. Few series bounce back from the kind of dropoff Downton Abbey had in season three, but the fourth season was wittier, saw real character development from several principles, and righted a few of the ships set adrift with those two deaths the previous go-round.

Rather than try to unravel the various interwoven plot strands, I thought I’d tackle a few of those central characters who had major roles this season – nearly all female, as it turns out, another unusual feature in a show with such broad appeal.

* Lady Mary begins the season in mourning, but the offscreen passage of time allows Fellowes to move her past that to the point where we can at least see Michelle Dockery smile on occasion and display her razor-sharp delivery of acerbic humor, which for my money has to be half of why she is constantly beset by suitors. (She’s attractive enough, but you’d think she was Heidi Klum by the way men abase themselves before her in the show.) The emergence of Lady Mary from the dour, unpleasant character she was before marrying Matthew into a more mature, strong-willed woman willing to take on a leadership role at Downton while also showing incredible mindfulness of her own emotional state as a recently widowed young woman – without shedding the occasional viciousness that was an essential part of her character – was the season’s greatest development. She is the show’s clear center at this part, a flawed heroine, still capable of owning a scene, whether it’s her involvement as confidant in Anna’s subplot or her presence as commentator on family scenes. Her quip in the Christmas special about “grandmama” and the poker game is the funniest line in the series’ history uttered by anyone other than Lady Violet. Of course, if Mary eventually chooses to marry Mr. Blake, Fellowes must cast Michael Kitchen as the father of the groom, or all of England might lynch him.

* Anna Bates’ subplot was the most serious in the show’s history, and for my money an unwelcome one – not that such things don’t or didn’t happen (they most certainly do), but that it was a darker story than anything else across its four seasons to date, and didn’t do anything we haven’t seen many times before in fictional rape narratives. The victim blames herself and is caught in a spiral of shame and guilt, incredibly frustrating to any viewer who just wants someone to make her understand that none of what happened was her fault; or the victim fights back, presses charges, testifies, and everyone pretends to live happily ever after. Fellowes chose the first route, as if he needed some kind of subplot to cause strife in the Bates’ happy marriage, and perhaps something more meaty for Joanne Froggatt to tackle, rather than standing around and looking cute most of the time. The only real value the storyline provided to the viewer was the connection to the purloined letter in the Christmas special – an episode where we got to see a good bit more of Bates’ nefarious side, another example of the character development in the season that made it, on the whole, so positive, but not something that seemed to extend to Anna after her story’s resolution.

* Lady Rose would like to go to London, please.

* Isobel was left adrift for too much of the season, a waste of the very talented Penelope Wilton, although her occasional moments with Tom Branson as two outsiders trying to figure out whether they still fit in at Downton after their respective losses were strengths – something we should see more of, as they have that natural kinship, and Isobel’s maternal affection for Branson is evident.

* The Alfred-Jimmy-Ivy-Daisy storyline played itself out too quickly for the season, and eventually became tiresome other than the sweet – maybe a little too sweet – conclusion where Daisy gets advice from her father-in-law, another character we could use a little more of. Daisy likes Alfred, who likes Ivy, who likes Jimmy, who likes himself. Something in that chain had to break or reverse or Mrs. Patmore was going to have to club someone with a cast-iron skillet. (Mrs. Patmore also got a little more breadth to her character, appearing more confident than in seasons one and two and more like the captain of her kitchen than a harassed and perhaps not-that-competent servant.)

* And then we have Lady Edith, whose subplot was clearly too good to be true for a character who gets punched in the stomach at least one per season despite deserving pretty much none of it. Her witchiness toward Mary has evaporated post-Sybil, and if she has a character flaw remaining it was absent this past season. The story had more than a touch of the absurd, while also dropping her whole bid for independence through writing, and I can only hope the two revelations in the Christmas special, extending this storyline into season five, provide more value than we got from it this season. Even the brief foray into the dangers facing a woman who sought to end a pregnancy in a time when abortion was illegal, and thus practiced in circumstances that posed great risks to the woman, was over before having any impact. With these seasons set in the inter-war period, a time of great social change, Fellowes has some room for social commentary, especially on the roles of women, and other than boosting Lady Mary to a more central role, I don’t think he did enough of that.

* Oddly enough, of all the male characters on the show, it was Moseley who had the most to do in season four, getting knocked down but getting up again, and by the end of the season playing a pivotal role in the culture downstairs. I think the idea that Moseley’s descent from a valet to a footman was almost too big a fall for him to bear can’t resonate with modern audiences – isn’t a lesser job at the Abbey better than pouring tar, or being unemployed? – but putting him in the lower quarters while he worked to find his own self-respect had interesting consequences, and may finally give Thomas a proper foil for his intrigues.

* Finally, Lady Violet was in rare form all season; I thought her dialogue was wittier and Fellowes was careful not to excessively liberalize her given what was going on with her granddaughters. She needs to be the guardian of the old ways, in a sense, while balancing that with her love and care for Mary and Edith. Dame Maggie Smith has shown she can handle anything – just watch her virtuoso, Oscar-winning turn as the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and Fellowes should continue to challenge her with the character. Besides, who else could deliver a rejoinder to Isobel’s “How you hate to be wrong” like Smith did with Lady Violet’s retort, “I wouldn’t know; I’m not familiar with the sensation?”

Sherlock, season three.

Sherlock, season three, executive summary: fun, amazing, disappointing, in exactly that order.

When your seasons are just three episodes long and each one of them is the length of a short feature film, it’s hard to build up longer story arcs or engage in large-scale character development. For the third season of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffatt’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a modern setting, we do get some surprising alterations in Sherlock’s character, but unfortunately some of it comes at the expense of what makes him who he is: The deductions.

(I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the series already; you may want to start with my reviews of season one and season two.)

We last saw our titular hero taking a dive off the edge of a building in a staged suicide attempt that was intended to foil the evil plans of evildoer Moriarty and save John Watson, a riff on the short story “The Final Problem,” where ACD killed off Holmes, only to bring him back a few years later in response to public outrage over the character’s death. We knew Holmes didn’t die here, but the first episode had to, as it were, un-kill him – and the writers had a bit of fun with it, posing increasingly preposterous solutions before showing what might be the actual one, only to have Holmes himself cast doubt on his own explanation of actual events. (Gatiss has pointed out that there are only so many ways to jump off a building and survive, so I think we can accept Sherlock’s last answer as the correct one.) “The Empty Hearse” thus brings Holmes back to life, to London, and to Dr. Watson, the last of which provides some of the series’ darkest comedy to date – as one might expect Watson to be a little peeved that his BFF faked his own death and disappeared for two years without a word. The series of reunions that bring Sherlock back, more or less, to his old circle of partner-antagonists takes up the bulk of the episode, but we do get an actual case, this time an act of domestic terrorism that Sherlock has to stop both by deduction and by action. The balance of intellectual crime-solving, the interplay between Sherlock and Watson, and the filling in of the blanks of the previous season’s cliffhanger differs greatly from the formula for the previous six episodes, but Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) carries the extra weight beautifully and the episode felt like an appetizer for the remaining two parts of the season.

The second episode, “The Sign of Three,” was a high point for the series, perhaps my favorite episode to date, in large part due to a tour de force performance from Cumberbatch, balancing Sherlock’s discomfort with social situations (here, as the best man in Watson’s wedding) against his intense fascination with the puzzle of any case – here, two mysteries that intersect at the wedding in a third incident that Sherlock has to try to prevent while giving the traditional speech. Cumberbatch owns the screen, pushing the boundaries of the character, mostly showing more humanity through his evident affection for Watson (hey, the short stories were one of literature’s original bromances), radiating huge quantities of energy through his voice, his body language, and his facial expressions as he first stalls for time and then solves the case without ceding the floor. It’s a peculiarity of the episode that Watson is relegated to a side character in an episode devoted to his own wedding, but as great as Martin Freeman is as the good doctor, we are here to see Mr. Holmes do his thing, and in “The Sign of Three” (an allusion to the short novel The Sign of Four) he does it superbly.

That peak made the third episode, “His Last Vow,” an even bigger letdown than normal. Sherlock has disappeared again, this time for a shorter period, and Watson finds him working undercover, in the middle of a case, with the target the media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen, a blackmailing version of Rubert Murdoch who holds a trove of damaging information on virtually everyone of importance in the Western world. The client is unclear, at least at first, although the case eventually takes on a more personal aspect for Sherlock, leading him to an emotional reaction that puts his ability to solve the case rationally in jeopardy.

Aside from the return of Janine (played by the Irish-Pakistani comedienne Yasmine Akram) from the preceding episode, “His Last Vow” fell short in every aspect that has made this series so great. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is limited, and strained when it occurs; the rapid-fire His Girl Friday dialogue that populates most of the first eight episodes is nearly absent here, and their chemistry with each other is short-circuited by Watson’s ire over Holmes’ initial disappearance and later by the personal nature of the case. We get very little of Holmes’ deduction, and what we do get is short of the mark. Lestrade doesn’t appear – in fact, he’s in far too little of this season overall. The villainous Magnussen is too odious, comically repugnant beyond the point of realism. I don’t wish to spoil the twist, but my understanding of that method of information storage is that it works for short-term storage but not the kind of long-term solution Magnussen would require.

So while “The Sign of Three” was revelatory, a leap forward for the series by developing its central characters while meeting or exceeding its previous standards for intelligence, the rest of the season was a disappointment. Had “The Empty Hearse” been the only deviation from the series’ main formula, the season could have been as good as or better than the first two, but the decision to craft a melodramatic finale that deemphasized Sherlock’s essential Holmesness did not succeed.

Sherlock, season two.

Season two of Sherlock, which just aired here in the U.S. for the first time, turned out to be even stronger than season one, in part because the characters are so well developed, and in part because the bromance between Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) seems so natural at this point, as if the two actors have been doing this for years. The only real negative of the season is that it will be so long before we see a third set of episodes, especially on this side of the Atlantic. (My writeup on season one went up in February.)

As in the first season, the middle episode was somewhat weaker than the two surrounding it, with the first episode the strongest of the troika. Irene Adler’s dominatrix character is fascinating – with her clothes on or off, it’s all good, really – and the tense flirtations between her and Holmes were absolutely electric, even though it’s clear he has (or will simply admit to) no interest in sex with her. The crime he’s solving is almost secondary, and she seemed a more convincing adversary than Moriarty because her methods of social engineering are so foreign to Holmes. An American police procedural would have played up her professional life, whereas this episode focuses instead on layers of intrigue and the aforementioned dialogue between the two main characters.

The second episode, derived from the one full-length Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, takes the setting and some core elements of the original story and adds a host of modern twists, including a play on our worst fears about our governments and their research into weapons of mass destruction. The solution hinged on Holmes guessing a password rather impossibly quickly, which I’d peg as a copout; it’s a neat trick, but not that likely on the first try, and any decent network security setup would lock an account after an attempt or two. (Wouldn’t the modern Holmes carry a cracking program on a USB drive? Or is that too easy?)

The final episode, “The Reichenbach Fall,” brings an unexpectedly early confrontation between Holmes and his nemesis, Jim Moriarty, played diabolically by whats-his-face, clearly having the time of his life. Based on the story “The Final Problem,” in which Holmes originally dies, only to have it later revealed that he merely faked his death after public outcry forced Conan Doyle to hit control-Z, “Reichenbach” turns the tables and puts Moriarty on the offensive, destroying Holmes’ life from the inside-out with a cleverly plotted, intricate trap, from which Holmes can extricate himself only through his own death – or so it appears. The whole detective-as-suspect plot device is quite hackneyed at this point, but I’ll give the writers points for the Richard Brook twist, and for crafting the scheme so tightly that Holmes does indeed appear to be trapped when we reach the final clash between the two antagonists. I’ll get to the end of this episode, the subject of much speculation online (which won’t be answered until next year as the show becomes victim of its own success), later on, to avoid spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t seen it.

This season felt faster and tighter than the first one, which I think is in large part because the three episodes in season one had to spend time introducing us to the main characters and developing their relationships with each other. Cumberbatch and Freeman have a very easy chemistry and superb timing, enhanced by British series’ willingness to keep the pace up rather than slow it down to accommodate an audience looking for large print and short chapters. It feels like smart television because it is smart television, rapid-fire, witty, and demanding. It should have you talking long after each episode is done. To wit…

Spoiler alert: I’m discussing the end of season two, episode three below. Just stop reading if you haven’t seen it.

Seriously, go away.

For those of you who have seen it, it seems like some suspected elements of Sherlock’s faked suicide are, if not obvious, quite likely to be true. We have Sherlock’s conversation with Molly, where he says he expects he’s going to die and needs her help, a plea that remains unresolved at the end of the episode but that we know would be fulfilled because Molly is inexplicably smitten with the great detective. We have the flatbed truck that starts up the moment Sherlock’s body is about to hit the pavement. And we have the cyclist who hits Dr. Watson at the moment he’s about to cross the street to see to his friend, leaving Watson on the ground and quite groggy when he stands up. I submit that the grogginess is the fourth clue.

Here’s my theory, although it is a bit tinfoilhatty: Sherlock landed in the truck and threw a cadaver, supplied by Molly and rigged to bleed from the head on impact, to the sidewalk, obscured from witnesses by the truck. The cyclist clocked Dr. Watson and somehow drugged him – perhaps a gas like that from the previous episode – so that he wouldn’t be able to properly examine or even identify Sherlock. (That gas would make him suggestible, meaning one member of the crowd could also have been a plant from Sherlock, there simply to tell Dr. Watson it was Sherlock’s body and that he was dead.) This would explain Sherlock’s confession to Dr. Watson, which was wildly out of character for him – it was an act, yet one that, oddly, didn’t set off any alarms in his only friend’s mind.

This leaves a few unanswered questions: Why was Molly, who was on Moriarty’s radar after they had a few lunch dates (seriously, Molly, are there no other fish in the English sea?), omitted from the final hit list, while Holmes’ landlady and Lestrade were included? Who notified the other two shooters (we can assume the hitman assigned to Dr. Watson witnessed the suicide) that Sherlock was presumed dead? Why did the kidnap victim scream upon seeing Sherlock’s face? And, really, why did Moriarty kill himself? I believe he is actually dead, as Moriarty dies in the original story, “The Final Problem,” that inspired this episode. I can’t imagine the writers deviating that far from the source material, and the Moriarty character, who only appeared in two of the original stories anyway, is pretty well played out from here. But why would he die of his own hand, leaving himself unable to witness Holmes’ final humiliation?

Feel free to discuss any of these spoilers or questions in the comments; I assume anyone who’s made it this far has already seen the full season.