Thanks to some hints, and a lot of inventive thinking, I believe I've a fairly good notion of how Sherlock faked his death. You are invited to pitch in, comment with your insights and mix things up.
To be clear, if you haven't watched the final episode of the most recent series of Sherlock, stop reading this and head on over here. I'd hate to give away something important. Like the fact he fakes his death.
The Reichenbach Fall, the culmination of series 2, ends on a 'who dunnit' note - or rather, a 'how who dunnit'. It is a wonderfully written piece, providing plenty of winks and clues as how Sherlock might have got away with it - fueling months of speculation and theories. I'd like to get the ball rolling with the following discussion.
Moffat and Gatiss are very, very good at what they do, but they have to play an awkward game with every episode; how do you give the audience just enough of a hint that they'll be able to keep up with the mind of Sherlock, but keep them in the dark concerning the really vital matters than only a genius detective could thread together? The audience has to be satisfied, but in order for that to happen, Sherlock must be left with a final Ace up his sleeve.
Each episode has a few hooks in its script or filming which are duly threaded together in a final big reveal - not unlike a dramatised version of a Derren Brown stage act. The audience emits an "OOOOH! I knew it!" and those of us who noticed the clues receive a deeply smug feeling, believing that were we to put some time and effort in, we too could be just like Sherlock. But we've got a job, and our cheek bones are no where near as finely pointed - we're of much more use to the industry we work in. I believe the audience was given just enough of these hints in The Reichenbach to gain a fairly good impression of what might have happened to allow Sherlock to fake his own death.
The biggest, fattest hint that the writing doesn't even attempt to cover up is Sherlock's evident reliance upon Molly - the pathologist/coroner who we all know loves and adores Sherlock. Indeed, she is apparently perfect for helping him go about his secret death. Watch the scene at 01:02:25 on the iPlayer. It plays out as follows:
Sherlock: "You were wrong you know. You do count. You've always counted and I've always trusted you. But you were right. I'm not ok."
Molly: "Tell me what's wrong."
Sherlock: "Molly... I think I'm going to die."
Molly: "What do you need?"
Sherlock: "If I wasn't everything you think I am, everything that I think I am, would you still want to help me?"
Molly: "What do you need?"
Sherlock: "You..."We might note that Sherlock is already very much aware of his impending fate. When he joins Moriarty up on the roof for the final stand-off, the idea of his own suicide/death seems a sudden and unexpected surprise to Sherlock. This scene with Molly would clearly suggest that Sherlock has worked out Moriarty's plan far earlier than he lets on - we might suggest that his play acting is a key aspect to his own survival.
Molly, being a coroner/pathologist/wonder lab girl, is the perfect agent for Sherlock's plan. Aware that he will need to fake his own death, he needs to place his faith in someone who can help him die - officially.
Sherlock plans his own jump from the roof of the hospital, and asks Molly to help him stage it. In this way, he is able to maintain control of his entire suicide, from the location to the means. He invites Moriarty onto the roof - a perfect location for jumping to his death, which Moriarty even comments upon himself: "Glad you chose a tall building. Nice way to do it..." 01:11:25. All that Sherlock has to do is to somehow get Molly to help him survive the fall.
At 01:13:51, when looking down at the pavement below, we get what I believe is another hint from Moffat and Gatiss as to what is about to happen. When looking down at the foot of the building, we notice a figure, wearing a large coat and black hat, with several bags spread out on a bench - Moriarty comments: "Oh... you've got an audience now."
From the way it's filmed, I believe that Moriarty is referencing the individual at the bench, given all the other people in shot are passers by, not really paying any attention to the two on the roof. It's my opinion that this individual at the bench is either Molly, or more likely, one of Sherlock's well know homeless network - a bag man. They have been instructed to be at this spot at this time, knowing that Sherlock is about to jump, and they need to prep him a landing pad.
The scene plays out, Moriarty dies, but Sherlock still has to face jumping and fake his death in order to save his three best buds. The next slightly odd sequence, which lends support to my theory, is the final conversation John Watson and Sherlock. Sherlock is at pains to keep John away from the bottom of the building, telling him to "Turn around and walk back where you came." Sherlock doesn't want John to be able to see the spot he's about to fall to, making him return to a point where the location is out of sight.
Is this because the figure at the bench has begun to prepare for Sherlock's fall - rigging something, anything which might be able to protect him a certain amount when he lands? When Sherlock is 'revealing' to John he's been fibbing all this time, his choice of language is, I think, another clue - "It's just a trick, it's just a magic trick", a hint at what he's about to pull off. The emotional phone call plays out, and we get to slow-motion jumping time. Hearts are in mouths. Heads are behind cushions. Sherlock jumps... and then hits the floor.
Or rather, we think he does. When he actually hits the ground, thanks to the camera angle, we can't actually see what he's landed on at all. Why not show us that he hit solid pavement? Importantly, John didn't see him hit the pavement either.
John heads in for a closer look - clearly, he like us, can't believe what's just happened. He turns the corner to see what's going on. A truck full of bin bags is pulling away. Carrying a homeless helper? With bin bags, or something big and soft for Sherlock to land on before it's chucked in the back of the truck before John got to see it? Or, perhaps more possibly, was this truck the landing pad which Sherlock required? Does he merely jump into the waiting truck and flop himself onto the pavement?
And then another strange thing happens. Before he gets a chance to press in closer, John is taken out by a random cyclist. It's odd. Why does he get taken out by a cyclist - very purposefully cycling into the back of him like that? Is it because the cyclist needs to knock him over - because he can't be the first to the scene, because Sherlock is still in the process of faking his death? The cyclist - again part of team Molly - needs to delay John and so takes him down. Strange, coincidental things don't get written by Moffat and Gatiss very often. Everything usually happens for a reason, even when it looks like a chance happening - we just haven't had Sherlock to help explain away all our doubts.
At 01:21:41, we return to the bird's eye view of Sherlock's splatted corpse. We should note that the person in the big coat with the hat and bags is no longer there. They've buggered off, despite being the only person we previously saw from this position who didn't look like they were in a hurry to get anywhere. Assuming that this was Molly, or a person under Molly's guidance, I think they would have had the chance to cover the lovely Sherlock in a bit of fake blood, slip him some kind of drug which slowed his pulse (a possible use of Rhododendron?), and scuttled off into the crowd - or they were in the back of that truck that we mentioned earlier? Or hiding in the phone box?
All Molly has to do is to act as the coroner looking after Sherlock's body and officially declare him dead and all. They bring in drugged up Sherlock, acting all dead, she tells him the coast is clear and up he pops, ready to fight crime while being a lovable clever clogs.
As has been discussed in the comments below, there might have been a body switch. We know that 1) no one could survive that fall and 2) Sherlock is very much alive at the end of the episode, so he didn't fall to his death. We just have to work out how he survived - or rather, how he managed to avoid hitting the floor. It's very possible he could have landed in the bin truck mentioned above - but then how do we get a dead Sherlock dropped on the pavement? A body double? Well, despite this sounding silly, the episode has already used that exact feature. When confronting the daughter of the US ambassador after her kidnapping, she screams, recognising Sherlock as her abductor. We could suggest that Moriarty's plan has planted the idea of using look-a-likes in Sherlock's clever little mind. We just won't get to find out who the body is until a new series.
In my view, he either a) found the original kidnapper who looked exactly like him - or his mask/disguise - killed him, put him in the back of the truck and dumped the body when he landed safely in the back of the himself. Molly then has to pretend it really is Sherlock's body, declare him dead, and Sherlock's in the clear. This doesn't seem like Sherlock though - to kill a man for his own ends. More likely, I think is b) Sherlock uses a dead body - one that doesn't matter, like one of the dead assassins who had been trying to keep him alive earlier in the episode. He manages to put a face mask on the dead assassin, and goes through with the plan as above, dumping the body from the truck for Molly to then declare as his dead corpse.
Some have suggested that he could have used Moriarty's corpse for the fall, remaining on the roof himself to scurry away. I have some issues with this theory: firstly, that he doesn't seem to delay enough in his final moments on the roof to retrieve and disguise Moriarty's body; secondly, that I think the Sherlock we see falling through the air is very much alive and kicking; finally, I don't believe Sherlock thought Moriarty would kill himself.
Indeed, it is because of this final point that we are offered another clue as to Sherlock's plan. Throughout the scene on the roof, Sherlock is at pains to keep Moriarty away from the edge of the roof after a certain point in their conversation - or rather, is keen to stop him looking down. I wouldn't be surprised if he holds Moriarty over the edge of the roof just to prevent him from looking down at whatever device/plan Sherlock has arranged for himself below.
Clearly, the next series will give us a big reveal, but I'm putting my money on the series of events running along a variation of the above lines. In fact, having recently had a good snoop around various other theories out there on the web, I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a body double, and Sherlock went from roof, to back of the truck, to the floor, splattering himself in blood in the processes, before slipping the squash ball under his armpit (he was seen playing with it earlier in the episode) to prevent his pulse from being detected by Watson. It won't be exactly like that, as Moffat and Gatiss never make it as obvious as I've just made out.
For what it's worth, I also predict that next series we might see a far more undercover Sherlock, with no more of this celebrity status to cloud his crime solving, nor John's blog to get them cases. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original novels, Sherlock returns having faked his death, and continues to live in 221b Baker Street, quietly going about solving crimes. Could we see an undercover Sherlock return in the next series?
Does anyone else have any thoughts?