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The Ending Of Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows Explained

Let's set the scene: In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), the ominous criminal mastermind whose coming was foretold at the end of 2009's Sherlock Holmes, is up to a world of no good. His brand of machiavellian tomfoolery, combined with his knack for staying a step ahead of Baker Street's preeminent consulting detective, has led to dire consequences. Hotels full of carefully chosen entrepreneurs have been ever-so-precisely exploded. Through surreptitious industrial skullduggery, Moriarty has acquired the rights to every big-name warmongering business worth mentioning, setting himself up to make a fat stack of cash once the world war he's orchestrated starts heating up. Perhaps most damningly, Moriarty has even killed Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), every Sherlock Holmes fan fiction author's favorite character to speculate that Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has a thing for.

Unfortunately for Moriarty (and fortunately for fans of World War I taking place during the right century), in the sequel movie, Holmes discovers the key to his rival's enterprise: a small, leather-bound notebook containing the ne'er-do-well's lengthy list of accounts. Holmes steals the book, deciphers its contents, and, while Moriarty is distracted, enlists the help of Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) to drain Moriarty's finances, donating the money to a charity for war widows and orphans.

Helpfully, all of this is revealed alongside a terribly thematic game of chess that Holmes and Moriarty play, which culminates in Holmes' declaration of "checkmate." Of course, the game isn't really over until somebody throws a tantrum and flips the board, which Moriarty proceeds to do — figuratively speaking.

Join us as we unpack the ending of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Sherlock Holmes and the importance of being armrests

The climactic final sequence of the film occurs at Reichenbach Falls, a throwback to the classic Holmes story The Final Problem, in which author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sends his most famous character tumbling into a watery grave because he really wanted to stop writing Sherlock Holmes stories. The altercation is dramatic: Holmes and Moriarty do battle in their respective mind palaces, with the hero realizing that he can't win in a fair fight. Bereft of options, Holmes wraps his adversary in a bear hug and throws them both over the edge, presumably to their mutual demise.

But just as Doyle himself eventually figured out, there's not much money in killing the beloved protagonist of a series of ongoing stories. Like in the books, Holmes' death in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is overplayed for dramatic effect. It's not explicitly stated how he survives in A Game of Shadows, but in the book The Adventure of the Empty House, readers learn that Holmes had grappled his way to survival through the use of Japanese wrestling. Something to think about for the next time you fall off a cliff.

The final moments of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows show Holmes leaving a semi-sociopathic breadcrumb trail of clues for his pal Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) to follow, culminating in the uncomfortable realization that, through the art of camouflage, Robert Downey Jr. could be in the same room as you at any time. Reading the final page of Watson's memoirs, Holmes adds a winking question mark to the words "The End." 

The game, once again, is set to be afoot — this time in the form of Downey Jr.'s proposed Sherlock Holmes franchise, featuring movies, miniseries, and HBO Max streaming shows.