Sherlock Survival Theory (BBC’s Sherlock)


I am… rather a fan of Sherlock, the modern day adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s legendary sleuth created by the brilliant Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. While I have no intention of this blog being dedicated to the programme, or to any one thing in particular, I will admit that there will be quite a bit of content concerning it. I will start off, then, with this entry, an essay of sorts meant to debunk some of the more popular fan theories about the manner in which Sherlock Holmes survived his four story drop from the top of St Bartholomew’s Hospital at the climax of The Reichanbach Fall. My hope is that it will inspire people to think, rather than give into the whims of easy fantasy.

In case you may not have gathered it by now, there will be spoilers.

I spend a lot of time on Reddit’s Sherlock subreddit, which is where I’ve run across most of the Sherlock Survival Theories. They vary in their levels of plausibility, some being absolutely absurd, others almost feasible if there weren’t the fact that minor, and sometimes even major details are ignored for their own sake. Sadly, there is always some fatal flaw in the idea, the most common of which lies in the idea that the only person who needed to be convinced of Sherlock’s death was John Watson.

That of course is not the case, but before I get to that point let us back up and examine some of the other theory points that leave much to be desired.

Moffat and Gatiss are, as I said, brilliant… and perhaps just a bit sadistic. They gave their fans a lead, of sorts, by saying that there is a clue that everyone has missed. Sherlock did something out of character, and this something directly impacted his ability to not die. The mad genius of this is very simple: there’s a good number of things that Sherlock did in the episode that could be construed as being out of character. He made tea for Jim Moriarty, but he never makes tea. He phoned John from the roof, but he always texts. He cried. He went to Molly Hooper for help. He threw away his phone. The list goes on. Most of the things called out for being out of Sherlock’s character have very little to do with any method of surviving his fall, and can be explained away very easily anyway.

Shall we take them one by one?

He served Moriarty tea. This, of course, has no real way of being beneficial to any plot for surviving his suicide dive, but I want to discuss it anyway since it gets mentioned quite often as an out of character thing for Sherlock to do. Personally, I see it as a simple display of British etiquette. Sherlock knew Jim wouldn’t be convicted of the crimes for which he was standing trial, and he also knew that he’d be having a visit from his arch-nemesis as soon as he was released. So he opted to receive him in a cordial manner and serve him tea, to be polite. It isn’t like he could prevent the encounter; he never did have control of any situation where both he and Moriarty were present.

He phoned John from the roof instead of texting. This one is ridiculously easy to explain, and I’m not quite sure why anyone would make so much more of it than it is in the first place. Simply put, sending a suicide note via text message is an absurdly crass thing to do. It also served the secondary purpose of being able to keep John where he wanted him to be, because, for whatever reason, Sherlock needed John to watch him jump. A text message just wouldn’t cut it. However, this also falls into the category of not actually being useful in preventing death by concrete, so…

He cried. You’d cry, too, if you were being forced to commit suicide. I’ve pointed out several times in various threads on Reddit that Sherlock really didn’t want to jump. This is most noticeable after Moriarty kills himself, as Sherlock is at a loss for what to do. The most logical reason I can think of for his reaction is that there is a significant risk involved with his plan, but whatever the reason, he really didn’t want to jump. As I said, you’d cry, too, especially if you were having to also stand atop a building and flat out lie to the only true friend you had.

He went to Molly for help. Now we’ve come to one that has, in my humble opinion, some credibility. Out of all the things that he could have done that would have actually helped stage his suicide, this is the most reasonable one. Molly is a medical examiner at Bart’s, meaning she could pronounce Sherlock dead and even forge a death certificate for him. The only issue I have with this being a possible “something” is that people have deemed it out of character for Sherlock to have turned to her for help, but his relationship with Molly, and reasons why this is potentially within his character, are subjects for a different essay. Either way, as important as him going to her is, it still is only a step in him staging his suicide, and not actually surviving it.

He threw away his phone. Another simple one… He was about to jump off the roof of a four story building. Quite frankly, he didn’t need the bloody thing, and it probably would have been broken by the impact anyway. It isn’t like that specific phone was necessary to Sherlock. I’m not sure how many people noticed, but he started series one with a Blackberry. The iPhone didn’t show up until series two, which means he got to upgrade sometime between having Moriarty threaten his life in the pool and Irene Adler thinking she could seduce him. Or he changed phone carriers. Whichever.

Now, let’s get to an actual theory. The most common one I have seen is the Homeless Network Safety Net Theory, and it has a few different variations. The general basis of this theory is that most, if not all the people on the ground at the drop site are actually operatives of Sherlock’s Homeless Network. These operatives have been bribed employed by Sherlock to assist him in not dying. A popularly touted method of this is that they arranged for Sherlock to drop into a laundry cart, supplied by a laundry truck that was parked at the curb (which suspiciously drove away right after he fell). The operatives then helped Sherlock stage the scene, including painting him with blood, probably fake, and also held John back so as to prevent him from giving Sherlock a proper examination and finding out that he was really alive. Sometimes tacked onto this is the idea that the cyclist who ran into John did so on purpose, to delay and disorient him.

Again I will break it down…

Most, if not all of the people on the ground were Homeless Network operatives. Sherlock Holmes needed to die. In order for him to do so convincingly, the absolute least amount of people needed to know that his death was a fraud. Having a mass of people on the ground in a public place that would assist in his ploy is counterproductive. Also, while Sherlock trusts the Network to bring him information, there is no evidence nor reason to believe that he would trust them with his own secrets. He gives them money for information, so he knows how easily they can be bought. It’s along the same logic as to why Mycroft doesn’t trust his own Secret Service: They all spy on people for money.

He landed in a laundry cart or something similar. Basically, a laundry cart is too small a target. Had he attempted to drop into one from four floors up, he ran a serious risk of hitting it wrong and breaking his neck, which could have actually killed him. There’s also the chance that he would have missed in entirely and hit the concrete anyway. Anything that would have been feasible to cushion his fall would have been too big to hide. Another variation of this is that he jumped into the laundry truck itself, but considering the fact that he basically dropped from the ledge rather than leapt from it, physics deems that impossible.

The Homeless Network helped stage the blood. Okay, so I think now is as good a time as any to point out that we, the audience, saw Sherlock hit the ground. We even heard him do so, via a very satisfying bone-smacking-into-concrete sound effect that had to be added by the sound editors. I point this out because of the blood that we see on Sherlock. Whether the operatives would have had time or not, I don’t know, but I’m not convinced that they would have the knowledge or attention to detail to add the blood coming from his left ear. Sherlock hit his right temple on the concrete, but blood was pouring from his left ear. This was a result of the impact shock travelling through his brain, possibly bursting his left ear drum.

The Homeless Network was charged with keeping John from examining Sherlock. Aside from all that I have said, there is a much more reasonable explanation as to why no one was letting John near Sherlock: John was in shock. He’d just watched as his best friend jumped to his seeming death, not to mention getting slammed by a bloke on a bicycle. He was in no condition to do anything for Sherlock, alive or dead, and it was blatantly obvious.

The cyclist was part of the ploy. This falls apart under the same speculation as the entire Homeless Network theory. The list of people Sherlock could have and would have trusted to retain his secret is very short, and not a single one of those people was on that bicycle. It is more likely that the cyclist running into John was used more to reflect John’s state of mind at the moment rather than being part of some over-arching conspiracy.

Poor John…

Ah, and to the crux of it all. The main problem with almost all of the Sherlock Survival Theories I have seen, the one I have described included, is the assumption that the only person who had to be convinced of Sherlock’s death is Dr Watson. Sadly, that wasn’t the case at all. There was a sniper trained on John, an assassin doing construction work for Mrs Hudson, and another sitting right outside Lestrade’s office at Scotland Yard. The person, or more likely people who had to be convinced of Sherlock’s death were those in Moriarty’s employ. He was dead; he couldn’t call them off. The only thing that would is if Sherlock jumped to his death.

Some people might focus on the sniper following John, assuming that he was the eyes for Moriarty. The idea follows the logic (a term I’m using loosely here) that if the sniper sees John broken because Sherlock is supposedly dead, that would be evidence enough to have himself stand down and everyone would be safe. The issue with this is that it also assumes that Jim Moriarty is a bloody moron.

Moriarty became obsessed with discrediting and destroying Sherlock Holmes. He broke into three of the most secure places in England, allowed himself to be put on trial, and then created the false persona of Richard Brook all to accomplish this task. He was meticulous and attentive in all that he did concerning his rival, and the mere idea that he a) had only one person watching and b) would allow the reaction of John over actual visual evidence of a body persuade this person is an insult to his memory. Nor does it fit his character.

I don’t postulate my own theories about how Sherlock survived. I will wait as patiently as possible until The Empty Hearse airs… Autumn, I think. However, I am somewhat enthusiastic about inserting logic into already established theories, especially considering that most of them don’t make sense one you’ve examined them using reason. The examples I used here were chosen because they are among the most commonly discussed, also because they irk me the most, either through their transparent lack of logic or their absolute irrelevance. Perhaps I seem a bit arrogant for postulating this so vehemently?

Let’s just say that I’m channeling my inner Sherlock.


8 thoughts on “Sherlock Survival Theory (BBC’s Sherlock)

  1. I’m so excited to see someone else as excited about Sherlock as me! I am with you on the same boat when it comes to the theories! I try not to speculate too much because I want to be open minded when the season starts, not dissapointed!!

  2. The cyclist that ran into John hit him where he was shot, triggering the traumatic “war” re-experience. That scene doesn’t have a “Saving Private Ryan” feel for nothing.

  3. I always thought Sherlock carried on using his blackberry on and off in series 2, and wondered if the phone he used to call John could have been mortarys hence allowing him to copy in the other assassins, and declare himself a fraud, also explaining why he threw it back onton moraines body at the end of the conversation.

  4. The thing out of character that Sherlock did was phone John instead of texting him, as he said to John in the pilot that he prefers to text, could this be a subtle way of Sherlock telling him that his suicide is all a ruse?

    1. Sherlock prefers to text, yes, but it isn’t out of character for him to make a call. Two examples that pop to mind are when he phoned the MOD in “The Great Game,” and in “The Hounds of Baskerville” he rang Mycroft. In the article I touched on why him phoning instead of texting is not out of place for the situation, so I honestly don’t think that’s the elusive out of character thing that Mofftiss was referring to.

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