The season-two cliff-hanger of what happened to Sherlock Holmes ranks up there with TV’s biggest mysteries: Who shot J.R.? What exactly is the island on Lost? And just who are the people still tuning in to Fox’s Dads? But “The Empty Hearse” doesn’t waste time pondering Holmes’s fate further, picking the action up right where we left off almost two years ago with Sherlock tossing his phone and seemingly leaping to his demise from the top of London’s St Bart’s Hospital. We’ve seen that part before, of course, but this time we’re shown the bigger picture: a series of crash cuts revealing a Mission: Impossible–style team of agents, a cast of extras, and British mentalist Derren Brown helping the cantankerous crime-solver to set the scene whilst the detective himself bungees off of the building, smashes through a window, and smooches Molly before popping the collar on his iconic trenchcoat and waltzing off to a pounding dubstep soundtrack.
But just when you think the world has gone mad, that the show’s jumped the shark, nuked the fridge, and indeed bungeed the Sherlock; we’re brought back to earth with a bump, Detective Lestrade voicing the opinion we’d all been building toward over the preceding five minutes: “Bollocks!” Indeed, it all turns out to have been nothing more than a conspiracy cooked up by a guilt-ridden Anderson, the forensic expert who played a prominent role in Sherlock’s undoing at the hands of Jim Moriarty.
“A bungee rope, a mask, Derren Brown?” asks Lestrade. “Two years and the theories keep getting more stupid.” Lestrade might as well be speaking for writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss; who are taking the time to acknowledge the rampant speculation that’s taken over the Internet like an illiterate burger-eating kitten in the two years since Sherlock’s death-defying stunt. It’s the start of a running gag throughout this episode that sees the writers doff their deerstalker in the direction of the fan’s who’ve dreamt up ever more absurd explanations for the events of “The Reichenbach Falls.” Later, we’ll see an explanation involving a torrid love affair involving Holmes and Moriarty, plucked straight from the more lurid annals of Sherlock fan-fiction. Near the episode’s conclusion, there’s also time to pick-up an elaborate theory involving airbags, body doubles, and a squash ball placed under the armpit. Each explanation is fundamentally flawed and almost instantly dismissed by the characters on-screen.
It’s an impressive feat, one that niftily sidesteps the anti-climax that was an all-too-likely scenario in this opening episode. You see, the trick was not how to explain Sherlock’s apparent cheat of death, but how to ensure that after two years of waiting that it wasn’t a disappointment. As Sherlock himself states “Everyone’s a critic” and the solution is as ingenious as any cooked up by the great detective himself — the writers choosing not to reveal the actual order of events but instead play out a series of surreal scenarios that simultaneously scratch the audience’s itch for information whilst continuing to infuriate them with the absence of anything concrete.
Anyway, back to the action. It’s clear that plenty of water has passed under the bridge in the two years since we last stopped by Baker Street. For starters, John has moved out of Mrs. Hudson’s digs, found himself a lover (played by his real life partner Amanda Abbington), taken a job as a GP, and even grown a moustache, a grizzled soup-strainer that would look more at home on a used-car salesman than a faithful companion. Sherlock, too, has been busy. Not only has he been deconstructing Moriarty’s criminal network, he has also found time, it seems, to hit the gym (well, something in Sherlock’s world has to explain the physique Benedict Cumberbatch’s sporting thanks to his role in the Star Trek sequel, right?). But whilst he’s a little less angular than we’ve seen him in previous series, he’s still the same old Sherlock, deducing his way out of a tight spot with some Serbian villains (led by Baron Maupertuis, one of many canonical references sewn throughout the curtain-raiser) before engaging in some mental jousting with his brother Mycroft, who has called him home on a matter of national security — an imminent terrorist attack on London.
The scene adequately set, it’s on to the serious business of the episode, with Sherlock revealing his apparent resurrection to his long suffering friend. In Conan Doyle’s original tome, “The Empty House,” Watson’s reaction is typically understated: “I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted.” There are no such delicacies in this modern day reimagining, however, as Freeman’s character proceeds to punch, head-butt, and storm away from his recently revived running mate. You can’t blame him really. Sherlock’s glib approach — he dons a fake moustache and impersonates a French waiter — is undoubtedly as infuriating to Watson as it is for viewers, who are at the whims of TV writers attempting to wring every ounce of comic effect out of their characters. It’s a criticism that can be levied at Sherlock throughout the season-three premiere, actually. Gone is the “high functioning sociopath” whose disdain for human interaction was only matched by his awkwardness around it. In his place is a charming, comedic character who plays the board game Operation, introduces us to his parents (played by Cumberbatch’s actual folks), and even rides to Watson’s rescue on top of a jet black motorbike.
The super-sleuth has become a sort of superhero. Gone are the bouts of brilliant reasoning. Instead, his deductions seem to pop out of thin air, making them appear more of a sixth sense than the result of close observation and meticulous analysis. True, there are sequences parachuted in to remind us of his methods, like a scene involving Mycroft and a discarded woolen hat offering a particularly enjoyable reminder of the detective’s deductive powers. But unfortunately, these get lost in an episode that’s crammed to the brim with narrative threads, many of which are left dangling in the wind by the time the credits role.
A scenario involving John’s kidnap and a brush with death at the bottom of a celebratory bonfire also feels particularly rushed; though, as we see by the end of the episode this is clearly designed to set up events with an as-of-yet unidentified big bad later in the series. It’s probably fair to say that this week’s case is also somewhat under-served. The story involves a defected British diplomat, a subway car full of explosives, and a plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster that feels like it’s been plucked straight from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
In truth, it’s little more than a means to an end, an opportunity to lock our detective duo into a near death situation that brings about their reconciliation. But then the same could be said for the entirety of “The Empty Hearse.” Given how much of the show revolves round their relationship, the reunion was always going to dominate the events of the opening episode, since the writers had to return Sherlock to something close to its status quo. In that regard, “The Empty Hearse” can be regarded as a success. Yes, it misses a few beats, but despite its flaws the season-three opener is breezy, kinetic, and every bit as intelligent as its forebears. It’s a slow start, but now that Sherlock has found its scent, the game is most definitely afoot.
Lord Moran — The episode’s dastardly defector is a clear reference to Colonel Sebastian Moran, who, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tomes, was one of Moriarty’s lieutenants.
Sumatra Road — The location of the abandoned tube station is another canonical reference to the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a case mentioned in Conan Doyle’s 1924 story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” It’s not alone. The stepfather posing as a boyfriend (“A Case of Identity”), Watson’s Russian patient (“The Empty House”), and the blog entry Mary reads aloud (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”) are also inclusions that will have caught the attention of eagle-eyed fans.
Professor Presbury and the monkey glands — This throwaway line from Sherlock is actually a reference to “The Adventure of the Creeping Man.” In the story, the titular Professor is rejuvenated thanks to a drug extracted from monkey glands, which itself could be a sideways reference to Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in last summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness.
Japanese wrestling —We’re told that one of the thirteen scenarios for Sherlock to escape the rooftop involved “a system of Japanese wrestling,” a reference to the martial arts Holmes uses to throw Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls in the books.
What’s with all the dust? Am I the only person who noticed the number of shots of dust particles in shards of light? (I counted five.) Is this just a stylistic flourish or a sign of something to come?
What’s up with Mary? There’s something odd about the future Mrs Watson. For starters, how did she know the text message included a skip code? Is there more to her than she’s letting on?
Who’s the big bad? At the end of the episode, we see a bespectacled figure looking over some video footage of Watson’s rescue. Who’s the big bad and what does he want with our hero?
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