Note: this article was also published on Neon Tommy.
Sherlock, series 3, episode 1, “The Empty Hearse”. Written by Mark Gatiss (based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle); directed by Jeremy Lovering. Copyright 2014: seen January 19, 2014.
It’s been two long years since John Watson (Martin Freeman) – and the rest of the world – watched Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) plunge off the top of Bart’s Hospital in the season 2 cliffhanger of Sherlock. And while we, the audience, know Sherlock’s still alive (we see him in the last scene, as well as the knowledge that Sherlock couldn’t exist very well without it’s titular character), John Watson (as well as most of the remaining in-show characters) don’t.
On Christmas Eve, BBC One released a prequel episode, “Many Happy Returns,” showing that while Sherlock has been crossing the continent solving crimes, forensics side character Anderson (Jonathan Aris) has been following and has determined that #sherlocklives. We also see that John, while somewhat having moved on, is still requesting that Sherlock not be dead. As the promo for “The Empty Hearse” states, be careful what you wish for.
The episode starts off with a bang, with an action-filled explanation of how Sherlock survived that is filled with so many tropes that it becomes unbelievable. Thankfully, it ends up not being a real explanation: but it does exactly what it’s meant to do. Writer (and co-creator) Mark Gatiss gets this episode off to a rousing start, and it quickly transitions to showing our two main characters: Sherlock, getting ready to come back to London to help stop an apparent terrorist threat, and John, existing in his life with the famous Watson ‘stache, and getting ready to pop the question to Mary Morstan (played by Martin Freeman’s real life partner Amanda Abbington).
Overall, the episode is well done. The reunion scene between Sherlock and John is the perfect combination of awkward, dark humor (especially on Cumberbatch’s part, giving him a chance to show off his comic timing and using an accent that may be familiar to fans of Cabin Pressure) and drama (this time, on Freeman’s part, who acts his pants off balancing between the sheer relief at seeing Sherlock alive and the utter fury at being lied to and not being included). It is this scene that is the heart of this episode, and is at both times hilarious and heartbreaking.
There’s also some good smaller moments, especially a scene between Sherlock and his brother Mycroft (played by Gatiss) and a small scene where we meet Sherlock’s parents (played by Cumberbatch’s real parents, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham).
However, the episode is far from perfect. That terrorist plot that brings back Sherlock is so close to the plot of V for Vendetta, you’d think that Lestrade (played by Rupert Graves) would’ve said something (since Graves was in said movie). The direction is under someone new this time, Jeremy Lovering, and it shows: it’s much more“Bourne Identity than it has been in prior seasons. When Sherlock does his scans (especially on Mary), there’s no sense of how he came to those deductions, unlike before. And finally, for a show that’s housed under the Mystery! label, this episode is very mystery-light and it’s the type of mystery that you don’t really see many clues on re-watching that lets you figure it out. When the episode ends, you get the feeling you just watched the first act in a three-act play, making it difficult to delve too critically into it without knowing where it’s going.
In an interview with Den of Geek, co-creators Steven Moffat and Gatiss state that they are interested in having Sherlock not be a detective show, but rather a show about a detective. This episode definitely fits into that category, as it’s much more about the characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and their reunion, than it is about the mystery.
Considering it’s been two years since we last had a new Sherlock, however, this episode is overall a winner. Having a prolonged time made fan expectation extremely high, and this could have seriously bombed ala “The Phantom Menace.” Thankfully, this fan’s expectations were met, and I eagerly await to see what’s on the horizon for our fair duo.
Watch the trailer for the next episode, “Sign of Three,” which airs January 26, below.
Sherlock can be seen on PBS (and on PBS’s website), and has two more episodes this season.