Well, that didn’t take very long. (Once I get something in my brain it nags at me until I write it.)
I’m not a filmmaker (my experience extends to having taken a couple of film classes in college) so keep in mind that the following scene analysis was written by an amateur, albeit one who has loved films all her life and has watched this particular scene an embarrassing number of times. [Warning: the following is post is image heavy.]
[For reference, the scene begins at the 46:10 mark of the BBC/DVD edit of the episode.]
We begin the scene with Sherlock standing in the hallway, right after identifying Irene Adler’s body. The first shot we see of him is a medium closeup through a window in the right-hand side morgue door. Shots through windows are meant to separate us, the audience, from the characters. So we viewers are not only “physically” distanced from Sherlock here, but we’re emotionally distanced as well, since we see only the back of his head and not his face.
The shot is held as Mycroft opens the left-hand side door and enters the hallway. Notice the way that Sherlock almost imperceptibly turns to his right at the sound of the door opening, acknowledging Mycroft’s presence.
Mycroft then stands between us and Sherlock, completely dominating the frame and obliterating Sherlock from view. A hint, perhaps, at Mycroft’s dominance as Sherlock’s older brother?
But then this happens:
Mycroft stands behind and to the right of Sherlock, literally at his shoulder. That’s a supportive position, and where Mycroft basically remains for the rest of the scene.
Mycroft then offers Sherlock the cigarette, which is presented almost like a literal peace offering (and under the guise of a Christmas present). Of course, we learn later that Mycroft has ulterior motives and that this cigarette is a test of Sherlock’s willpower.
Notice the reflection, BTW: we are still at a distance from the characters, observing them through the morgue window, but we are a little bit closer because this is a tighter closeup, rather than a medium shot.
At least we were still in the morgue before, but now we’re literally outside in the cold, looking in at these two characters. In fact, throughout the scene we are constantly being kept off-kilter and variously distanced from the Holmes brothers: far away, then close, then back again.
Here we finally get to join them in the actual hallway. Not only that, but we get a medium range close-up and can clearly see their faces for the first time. Sherlock is skeptical at the offering of the cigarette, but is about to take it anyway, and Mycroft has the saddest smile I’ve seen on just about anyone.
Another offering from Mycroft as he lights the cigarette for Sherlock. (And yes, unlike on Mad Men real cigarettes were used here. Enough of them that Benedict Cumberbatch eventually got nicotine poisoning from filming so many takes of this scene.) I love the reflected dual flame in this shot.
This is just a gorgeous shot: smoking looks great on screen (not so in real life, kids). Notice that we’ve also been kicked back out of the hallway and are observing through the morgue window again.
Sherlock is not only shot in semi-profile (he’s actually turned more towards the window) but he also has his coat collar turned up, further blocking some of his face. He is emotionally closed off and we are closed off from him, still observing through the morgue window.
And back to the hallway again, as Sherlock tells Mycroft that Irene left him her phone. Notice that the lighting has a chill to it: it’s sort of a metallic, bluish gray, meant to mimic illumination from overhead hospital lights.
Sherlock continues to smoke and finally notices the crying family in the background, through the door at the end of the hallway. Did Mycroft not notice their crying, or was he just ignoring them?
We literally peer over Sherlock’s shoulder at the grieving family. His collar is blocking part of our view, which is a long shot down the hallway, through a set of doors. As viewers, we are more physically distant from that family right now than even the Holmes brothers.
Everyone’s favorite shot: Sherlock and Mycroft turn to observe the family. In previous scenes in the series between Mycroft and Sherlock, they were always either sitting or standing directly across from each other in an adversarial position. The exceptions to this are in The Great Game and two earlier scenes in Scandal (the breakfast scene and the Buckingham Palace scene) where Sherlock is seated while Mycroft is standing. Those scenes help establish the power dynamic between the two, with Mycroft as the authority figure (in those instances, he not only physically towers over a sitting Sherlock, but does so while directly ordering Sherlock to do something).
In this scene, however, we get our first shot of the two brothers as equals. They are side by side for the first time. We are back where we started at the beginning, looking through the morgue window in a medium closeup, with the door taking up the left side of the frame. Except now it’s not Sherlock alone, he has Mycroft there at his shoulder: behind him, supporting him.
"Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?" Sherlock asks, and though we’ve seen Mycroft look at Sherlock almost constantly throughout this scene, this is the only moment where Sherlock actually steals a glance at Mycroft.
As Mycroft gives his answer (the “caring is not an advantage” speech) we are suddenly thrust down to the opposite end of the hallway. The Holmes brothers are now in a long shot, far away from us. We cannot make out their faces. We are, in fact, looking at them from the same distance that the grieving family would look at them. As viewers, most of us would identify more readily with the family weeping over the death of their loved one on Christmas than with the two scarily intelligent brothers who are discussing the downside of emotion, so the camera almost puts us in the family’s place. I write “almost” because notice this is also shot at a low angle - floor level - so the Holmes brothers are not only distant, but they are also both in a superior position. We have to look up at them from this angle.
When we come back to them, Mycroft is once again looking at Sherlock, observing, while Sherlock never looks at Mycroft and, in fact, turns away.
I’m not actually sure what you’d call this angle, because it’s not quite severe enough to be a traditional high angle shot, nor a bird’s eye view. Medium view, maybe? But whatever the term, the high angle means that we see the characters (in this case, primarily Sherlock) as diminished or smaller, in contrast to just a few seconds ago. The camera is clueing us in here, “The Holmes brothers think they’re so above emotion, but don’t believe them.” This is further accentuated by the shot being through the window: we are once again outside, looking in. Not only that, but the window is dusted with snow - again with the coldness, the iciness, that is recurrent throughout this episode.
"Well. You barely knew her." Sherlock scoffs and walks away after Mycroft’s meager attempt at comfort, and Mycroft looks at the ground.
It is only after Sherlock says, “Merry Christmas, Mycroft,” that Mycroft turns fully towards Sherlock and watches him walk away, wishing him a happy new year in return. I’m guessing that, in Holmes world, that translates to “I love you”/”I love you, too.”
We are back to looking up at Sherlock, seeing him as superior. His mask is back in place. That cigarette he wasn’t sure he wanted and was hesitant to smoke inside a hospital? Now he’s going to tap the ash onto the floor. He’s broadcasting that he doesn’t care.
As soon as the door shuts behind Sherlock, Mycroft takes out his phone to call John. Notice BTW that we hear only two beeps. The first beep is obviously him turning the phone on (or unlocking it), but then Mycroft presses only one other button (the second beep) before the phone immediately rings John. Yes, I do believe that Mycroft has John on speed dial! (I was obsessive enough to check Baskerville, too: when Sherlock calls Mycroft, he also only presses two buttons and then we hear that speed dial-y sound of a programmed number. Though Sherlock does pause longer between the two beeps while looking at his phone [his back is to the camera] so he could actually be scrolling through his contacts to get to the number. Whatever, don’t judge me and my obsessive love for this show, you’re the one reading this.)
John answers back at Baker Street and informs Mycroft that they looked in all of Sherlock’s usual drug hiding places, but found nothing. Note how warm and glowing the lighting here is - what with the crackling fire and the Christmas lights - in contrast to the cold sterile lighting of the morgue.
When Mycroft tells John that he’s never sure when it’s a danger night and, "You have to stay with him, John," he is not only in shadow but also towering over us, the viewers.
When John insists he has plans, Mycroft cuts him off with a simple, “No,” and hangs up. Mycroft is, at that point, right in front of the camera. We’re still on the floor and all we can see is his bottom half. Mycroft is therefore thoroughly dominating and wielding his power over us, the viewers, at the same moment he is wielding his power over John.
And the closing shot of the empty hallway as Mycroft leaves the frame.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my obsessive, nearly frame by frame analysis of my favorite scene. Needless to say, I think those 13 Emmy nominations are richly deserved.
[Screencaps courtesy of this site.