I’m starting to see my topic everywhere. So, it shouldn’t have surprised me that when I took a break from my chapter on cliffhangers to watch the last episode of the BBC’s Sherlock season 1, I found myself face to face with… a cliffhanger. Sherlock is an updating of the Holmes universe, produced by Doctor Who alums Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. I think I am among the very last people to have watched it, but if not, be warned that SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.
In the The Great Game (the third of three episodes), Sherlock is taunted and run around town by Moriarty who has taken to wiring innocents with plastic explosives and threatening to blow them up with a sniper’s bullet should the detective be unable to solve various mysteries before an arbitrary deadline. Moriarty has apparently learned a bit from Dirty Harry’s Scorpio. Why he relies on a sniper’s bullet to set off the explosive, as opposed to the more pedestrian cell phone, is a mystery — though the little pinpoint of red light does build a visual motif, and the episode, refreshingly, avoids any red LED readouts ticking down to the deadline.
But the cliffhanger takes place the night after the last mystery is solved, and Sherlock arranges a meeting with Moriarty at an indoor swimming pool. The episode stages two standoffs, back to back; the second constituting the cliffhanger. In the first, Moriarty has rigged Watson with a vest bomb, and has his unseen sniper trained on him. If Holmes shoots Moriarty, Watson, and perhaps everyone, will die. This is quite a good situation, and it is a dry run for the cliffhanger. Watson, in an attempt to turn the tables, grabs Moriarty and uses him as a human shield. His move fails, though, when the sniper re-focuses his aim on Sherlock. The trap seems pretty well inescapable, and it is only resolved when Moriarty, having said his share, leaves the pool area. Sherlock rips the vest off of Watson and kicks it down the pool deck; both breathe a sigh of relief.
Then it all begins again. Moriarty reappears, claiming to have changed his mind on a whim, and a cluster of laser-sites begin dancing around on both Sherlock and Watson. In response, Sherlock draws his pistol and aims it squarely at the explosive vest lying on the floor between the enemies. The episode ends, and we wait until next August (in the UK, later in the US) to see the resolution.
I’ve been trying to understand the power of the cliffhanger – a narrative structure that assured viewers would return to see the next installment of a serial in the 1940s, and that spurs them to stick around through (or fast forward past) commercials in any given episode of any given police procedural. At its most basic, the cliffhanger works by interrupting a suspenseful situation, holding the resolution in abeyance. In his essay “The Paradox of Suspense” Noel Carroll offers the cleanest and most concise explanation of fictional suspense that I have read. Suspense occurs when a character the viewer aligns with is caught in a situation with two clearly defined opposed outcomes, a desirable “moral” outcome, and an undesirable “evil” one. For Carroll, the “evil” outcome must be equally or more likely than the “moral” solution. Situations that progressively tip the balance of probability toward the evil outcome are excellent vehicles for suspense. Every moment that the time bomb ticks down, or the bus hurtles toward the unfinished bridge, or the laser beam approaches James Bond’s crotch, means that “time is running out on the good and therefore evil is becoming more likely” (in Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, 1996; 83). Our hero’s fingers begin to ache, the sand slips out from beneath them, pebble by pebble, as she clings to the edge of the cliff.
Standoffs are particularly good situations because they can be so nicely visualized. As I’ve discussed in my Cinema Journal article “Suspenseful Situations,” the standoff has a venerable history, stretching back at least to the 19th Century melodramatic stage where the villain could hold the hero at knifepoint as the curtain closes before an act break. Melodrama thrives on making the stakes and emotions of scene visual and instantly graspable – a stage picture. Sherlock’s standoff gives suspense a clear geometry. Our hero is in the foreground, our villain at the rear, and between them lays the bomb. The “evil” option seems to have clearly won out.
[ingredients of the cliffhanger: Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch); Gun; Bomb; Moriarty (Jared Harris)]
In fact the very diagrammatic simplicity of the standoff reminds me of cognitive psychologist Richard Gerrig’s description of suspense as a “problem space” (Experiencing Narrative Worlds,1993; 82). For Gerrig, suspense is a participatory structure that cues viewers to seek some piece of withheld knowledge. The “problem space” analogy compares problem solving to searching a space for information that will allow one to achieve a goal (82). The contours of the trap, and the heroes aim, are clear, but the means of liberation, the escape hatch, remains hidden: “to make the reader really feel suspense, the author must sufficiently constrain the space of possible solutions so that the situation appears beyond hope” (83). The ingredients of Sherlock’s problem space are, heroes, villain, bomb, sniper(s), and swimming pool. The first standoff serves, in part, to lay out the parameters of the trap and to narrow the options. As Gerrig notes, a successful suspense situation “mimics the process of problem solving… by specifying and then eliminating potential means for escape” (78). We know that Watson’s “human shield” maneuver is off the table, and now doubt that Watson can serve any real purpose. We also know that Moriarty can simply change his mind – he isn’t just a villain he is a mad genius. Mad geniuses make excellent bad guys because they fuse malevolence with creativity and unpredictability. As simple as a standoff is, he remains a wild card.
And so, over the intervening months, the fan is left to search the problem space. I suspect the swimming pool will come into play, partly because its role hasn’t been directly acknowledged in the proceedings. Aside from the nice lighting opportunities it provides, why set this climax poolside in the first place? Atmosphere can step forward to save the day. The cavernous tunnel that climaxes episode 2 works in this way. It stops a villain from firing his gun because of the likelihood of an uncontrolled ricochet. The pool is the elephant in the room – though, search the space as I may, I can’t quite figure out how it might help resolve the situation. There might also be something to Moriarty’s use of snipers, since it seems a gratuitous method for setting off explosives. Are there any snipers at all?
As cliffhangers go, this is a fair one. It differs from its serial predecessors in two ways. First, a serial would end with a bang. We would see the room, the pool, the building explode in a fiery maelstrom before cutting to black. Serials tend to push situations to the point of cataclysm in order to leave a lasting impression. The drawback was that screenwriters had to resort to “cheating” for the cliffhanger’s resolution. So that explosion didn’t really happen, or everyone found a trap door (jumped into a pool?) just before the explosion, etc. The other difference is that Sherlock’s cliffhanger is just a little muddy. For all its clear simplicity, it lacks a ticking deadline. If Sherlock has managed to call Moriarty’s hand by aiming his gun at the bomb, then we are in a deadlock pure and simple. They could all stand that way forever, at least until August. More than that, though, viewers aren’t privy to the entirety of the situation’s dynamics. Why, I ask, does Sherlock aim at the bomb instead at Moriarty’s head? And why does he seem to think this is a cunning maneuver? Our hero already seems to know the way out. It is in keeping with the show, which leaves the viewer (and Watson) just behind the hero’s problem solving process, but it interferes with the suspense. There is something about the situation that we don’t yet understand; some part of the problem space has been withheld, and we know it. This grain of uncertainty eats away at the set of opposed outcomes that the standoff usually makes us entertain.
One of Gerrig’s most valuable ideas is that suspense situations often rely on “functional fixedness” to throw the viewer off the trail of the solution. Our access to the scene’s secret is effectively blocked because we perceive each ingredient as locked into a single role – the bomb is there to explode, the guns are there to fire, Moriarty is simply evil and genius and mad, the swimming pool is there to create atmosphere. Sherlock’s move tips his hand just a little, he has thought outside of this fixedness and found another use for the bomb. I’m not sure why I find this cliffhanger less than completely satisfying, but perhaps it has something to do with the attention it draws to our own fixedness. It is better when we really don’t recognize the solution that will seem blindingly obvious after its reveal.
The bigger questions raised by cliffhangers point to the paradox of suspense, as Carroll terms it. Why are we fascinated or uncertain at all when we very well know that Sherlock will survive this ordeal. Beyond that, why do we find this kind of suspense pleasurable, since, from Gerrig’s perspective all this cognitive processing takes a good deal of work. Both theorists have their own answers. For my part, I’m beginning to think it has to do with the pleasures of problem solving. Sherlock has given me a puzzle to dwell on for the next several months, a situation to replay and tease out. And just as it was for serial fans of the 1940s, the solution may leave me unsatisfied – but the cliffhanger will have fulfilled its function (I’ve tuned back in). The real challenge for Gattiss and Moffat isn’t to get everyone off of that pool deck alive, but to set up another problem quickly enough to keep us watching.