If season one of the surprise hit Sherlock was about reintroducing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation to modern audiences, then its second season was all about humanizing him. Showrunners Steven Moffat (Doctor Who) and Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen) presented Holmes as an indefatigable mental dynamo in the first season, a blend of pulp elements for the CSI-set. Lead Benedict Cumberbatch became a star and co-star Martin Freeman became slightly more famous as Sherlock served as an antidote to the gassy bombast of the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law blockbusters.
Still, the first series (with the late-in-the-game introduction of nemesis Moriarty) felt more like an homage to Holmes with a lot of Holmes-ian signifiers (the setting, the extend cast, etc.). Plus, there were a few missed opportunities in the first season, notably the first episode introduction of Freeman's Watson—an Iraq war vet with a limp and possible trauma who finds that his handicap might be completely in his head owing to a lack of danger in his life. This is forgotten about by the second episode and entirely all the way through the second season. Oh, and the less said about the terrible "yellow peril" second episode, the better which its fortune cookie patois villains and po-faced circus of crime.
Now here comes season two and the game is upped substantially. Starting in the middle of the tense standoff the closed out the first season (snipers, a bomb vest, and something of a Mexican standoff were some of the problems our heroes were facing down in those last minutes), and by the time "A Scandal in Belgravia" ends, Holmes may have met his match—perhaps not in intellect but in will in Lara Pulver's take on the Irene Adler character. This is the episode where we learn that Holmes has a heart and that it can be hurt. "Scandal" is the deservedly award-winning episode from this season, because over the span of its 90 minutes, we see Holmes as the ultimate observer and interrogator possibly undone by his all-too-human nature. And it's just beautiful, fantastically constructed, and hey, we even get to see the character in grief and observe how his dysfunctional relationship with Watson is poisoning that man's life to a very real extent.
If the first episode is about Holmes in love, the second shows us Holmes in fear as we get the Moffat/Gatiss take on "The Hounds of Baskerville," the titular location now a military biological research facility in the pastoral countryside. When a young man is convinced that his father was killed by a massive hound (Being Human UK's Russell Tovey, unable to escape big dogs), Holmes is fascinated enough by the shaggy dog story to take the case, only to find himself confronted with the worst thing possible for the detective: the inexplicable and fantastic. The weakness of the episode mostly comes from a lack of especially compelling villain or clear motivations, although it never reaches the nadir in quality of season one's "The Blind Banker." I should say, the visualization of Holmes' "memory palace" as a sort of goofy touch display leaves something to be desired.
Finally, the final episode is "The Reichenbach Fall," in honor of the location where Holmes and Moriarty fought their final battle in Doyle's novels. The first two episodes are together, "The Rise of Sherlock Holmes" as media celebrity and popular curiosity and in this episode, Moriarty makes good on a promise to burn Holmes completely and thoroughly, indicting our detective in the press, making him an outlaw, and threatening Holmes' friends and loved ones.
Cumberbatch and Freeman have an easy chemistry this season, simply expanding on the relationship from the first. I'm still not especially thrilled about Andrew Scott's manic take on Moriarty (he comes off as Joker-like without the menace). However, Lara Pulver (True Blood, MI-5) is impossible to take your eyes off of as Holmes' foil. If the entirety of this season was simply about their back and forth mental fencing, you would have heard no complaints out of me. Still, "A Scandal in Belgravia" is in and of itself an embarrassment of riches for Sherlock fans.
The final moments of the last episode leave things completely and totally upended for the extended cast after Moriarty and Holmes' face-off goes how it's supposed to go. It will take might work in the next season for Gatiss and Moffat to make a convincing case that their resolution to this ending is anything but a cheat, but at this point, they've earned a degree of this viewer's trust.
Presentation and Special Features
In terms of special features, we've got commentaries on "Hounds of the Baskervilles" and "A Scandal In Belgravia" and the Sherlock Uncovered featurette. While a commentary track on "Falls" would have been welcome, (or even preferable to "Baskervilles"), any insight into the show is welcome, including a fun dissection of one of the best scenes from "Belgravia' involving a dead man by a lake and a pneumatic bed.
Visually, the disc is aces, with fantastic depth effects (used expertly in "Baskervilles" during a scene with a panicking Holmes). The colors seem well-calibrated here, keeping the sort of low, cool colors typically on display in this series.
It's an excellent disc for a pretty dang good series.
Sherlock Season 2 is available on DVD and Blu-ray.