It’s been two very long years since the last series of Sherlock, and that wasn’t always the plan. Martin Freeman’s rather prolonged Hobbit schedule and Steven Moffat’s commitment to Doctor Who kept pushing the filming of the third season further and further away until eventually the fan anticipation for its return became deafening on the internet. Pages and pages of fan theories about how Sherlock Holmes might have gone about faking his own death showed up online, and t-shirts and Tumblr memes everywhere joined in the discussion. At a certain point, the fan fervor over how it happened became all encompassing, and any explanation by the production team would have disappointed a percentage of fans.
This is why “The Empty Hearse,” the premiere of Series 3, does exactly the right thing in commenting on the internet hysterics and giving fans three possible outcomes visually depicted, and they all have an equal chance of being true or untrue. Well, not the middle one that the Scottish girl concocts. That’s just dumb. Mark Gatiss’ script tied up many of the loose ends and did the nearly impossible by making the public’s constant two-year demand for more Sherlock the focal point of the episode, and largely making it work. It won’t be every fans cuppa, and it took a second viewing from me to really appreciate it, but I think it’s the perfect “and we’re back” episode.
We find out early on that Sherlock Holmes has spent the last two years covertly traveling the globe dismantling Moriarty’s crime syndicate, but now it’s time for him to come back, and Mycroft pulls him out of Russia, right after getting pretty severely beaten up. Good older brother, that Mycroft. Sherlock thinks he will be able to just jump right back into the way things were, and even thinks John Watson is still living at 221B Baker Street, but oh, how naïve Mr. Holmes can be.
In the interim, Watson has moved on with his life; he’s started practicing medicine, he’s been seeing a woman named Mary Morstan, and he’s even grown a moustache to show that time has passed. He apparently hasn’t even been to see Mrs. Hudson since Sherlock died and she hasn’t been able to bring herself to change anything about their flat, which is convenient for set-dressing purposes. But, the crux of everything is, he’s finally moved on. He’s grieved and is ready to begin a new life after proposing to Mary.
But, since Sherlock is kind of a self-centered ass, he decides not to prep Watson at all and merely surprises him in the middle of dinner by pretending to be a waiter. John reacts the way you’d expect, by hitting him several times, but Mary seems to like him. John, however, doesn’t want anything to do with Sherlock, and for a modicum of good reason. After all, Sherlock gets Mary to admit she doesn’t like John’s ‘stache, so it’s already too late.
The episode spends a great deal of time on Watson being angry with Sherlock and not wanting anything to do with him, but realizing he’s missed the thrill of the chase and the danger of solving crimes. Sherlock, on the other hand, needs to re-acclimatize and recruits Molly to be the surrogate Watson for a day so that he can get his deductive brain firing again, and the two go with Lestrade, who is surprisingly pleased to see Sherlock back, on a weird case involving a skeleton and a book purporting to be written by Jack the Ripper. This ends up mostly being a thank you to Molly for being integral in him faking his death, but she can’t be Watson beyond that day.
The actual mystery of the episode, involving an Underground terrorist network, a disappearing MP, and a train carriage (or car) full of explosives under Parliament on November the 5th, somewhat takes a back seat to the business of the characters coming back together again. On first watch of the episode, this was a tad disappointing, seeing as the mystery had always been the number one focus of the episode and the character-building moments, which fans all love by the way, were in aid of that. In “The Empty Hearse,” it does seem that the mystery is in aid of the characters, but I actually think there’s nothing wrong with that. The series has become so popular and so beloved simply because of the characters and the way they handle the business of dealing with crimes and each other. The friendship between Sherlock and Watson on the show has become the stuff of legend, and to ignore that, and ignore the time the characters have been apart and the time fans have been away from them, is to do a disservice to the great job the writers have done thus far of making us love the characters.
All of the characters are served very well by this episode. Cumberbatch and Freeman are such a terrific onscreen pair, and it really is great to see them back together again. Starting with last series, I’ve become increasingly impressed with the way Moffat, Gatiss, and Steve Thompson have made the supporting characters such a huge part of the show and so important. Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson has always stood out to me as being way too funny for the small part she has to play, but in this episode she really, really gets to shine, being the sort of kindly matron you expect, but spouting strange references to her sordid past and her liberal social views, which are really wonderful. Rupert Graves is an excellent Lestrade, because he’s not a dope like he can sometimes be portrayed, but still knows he’s nowhere near the detective Sherlock is, and doesn’t even care that Sherlock can’t remember his first name. Louise Brealey as Molly continues to melt hearts as the shy and lovelorn medical examiner who nevertheless is fantastic at her job and capable of doing a lot more. Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes gives the prickly, supercilious performance you’d want from the character, and in this episode, he and Sherlock get to do a lot of great mental sparring. They really all have become this great family of characters.
Added to that family is Mary, played by Amanda Abbington, Martin Freeman’s real-life partner. It must be difficult to come in to such an established world with characters who are all exactly what they need to be. It’s a credit to Abbington that she’s able to be as warm and weird as she is without becoming a caricature or a noticeable extra wheel. I wonder if the makers were worried about fans not connecting to her character because of this and went out of their way to make her a delight. There’s something more that we’re not seeing about her, but she’s definitely cemented herself nicely in the mix.
The last things I want to talk about, though there are plenty more, are the depictions of possible solutions to Sherlock’s faked death. At the beginning of the episode, we see an action-movie version from former policeman Anderson with Sherlock crashing through a window, a mask put on the dead Jim Moriarty, and illusionist Derron Brown making Watson forget a couple of minutes of his life. The second is the “fangirl” explanation from a devotee of the behatted detective in which Sherlock and a not-dead Moriarty chuckle as they fling a really silly-looking dummy off of the roof and then make out. And finally, we have Sherlock’s version of things he relays to Anderson, involving tying up the loose ends from “The Reichenbach Fall,” getting everything exactly right involving Mycroft and the homeless network, and putting a squash ball under his arm to momentarily stop his pulse in his hand.
This, I think, was a genius move by the writers to at once acknowledge all the many fan theories out there and more or less wave their hand as to which one it actually was. Sherlock tells John, before he’s cut off by anger, that there were thirteen possible scenarios, and even though what he tells Anderson seems perfectly legitimate, it very likely could be another of the 13. Anderson’s reaction of “Eh, it’s not what I would have done,” is a very clever nod to the way fans concoct their own outcomes and get disappointed if that’s not what happens. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter HOW Sherlock faked his death, only THAT Sherlock faked his death. Clearly Mycroft, Molly, and members of the homeless network were in on it, so whatever actually happened, there are enough pieces in place that it could make sense.
There are still some unanswered questions from this episode, beyond the death-faking, and the main one is who put John in the bonfire. We see a glimpse of this person in the closing moments of the episode. Who is this person? Why did he do that to John? We’ll find out. Unlike the previous two series, and especially Series 2, this year there aren’t any super-well-known Conan Doyle stories from which to draw, so the writers are pulling from many, which can make for a bit of an unfocused narrative, but, since the episodes are more character-centric, that seems to work very well.
It took a second viewing, but I actually think “The Empty Hearse” is a really fantastic episode and a great return for the characters that not only reestablishes the status quo, but also addresses the long wait. Smart writing, I think.
For next week, Steve Thompson writes “The Sign of Three” with some assistance by Gatiss and Moffat. It jumps six months forward to John and Mary’s wedding. Enjoy the teaser!
Oh, and, fun fact, Sherlock’s parents in this episode were played by Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton, Benedict Cumberbatch’s actual parents.