After a two year wait coming off of the cliff hanger in the wonderful episode “The Reichenbach Fall,” the Sherlock team had a lot weighing on them in terms of expectations. With enthusiastic fans hyping up the return of the show and the actors and showrunners promising closure to the ending of season two, it appeared nearly impossible for the show to live up to the hype.
Miraculously, they did, not only returning to old form but also adding new elements that allowed for the show to take steps into new territories, allowing the characterization to take precedence over the plot—for a rare moment the show picked substance over style.
The overarching plot is about how Mycroft calls upon Sherlock to make his return to London to investigate an underground terrorist organization that plans on using the tube to bomb Parliament.
But the real story, the real heart of the matter, is how Sherlock reenters Watson’s fractured life, and if he can forgive the friend that duped him so completely.
We meet up with Sherlock who has been undercover and Mycroft has come to retrieve him. They work on infiltrating Sherlock back into his old life without too much hassle and his main priority is going back to 221 B Baker Street and reuniting with Watson.
However, as Mycroft informs him, Watson has moved on with his life and may not be ready to jump at his beck and call.
We flash to Watson as we learn that he’s been in a committed relationship and as he tells Mrs. Hudson, is ready to propose. The woman in question is Mary Morstan (played by the charming Amanda Abbington and coincidentally, Martin Freeman’s real life partner). His plan is to propose to her at dinner later that night and of course that’s when Sherlock plans to make his reentrance.
But with an extra flair for the dramatics. For a genius sleuth he has very poor timing.
In a comedic scene (stretching Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting muscles as he’s allowed to move out of the highbrow brooding style) Sherlock disguises himself as a waiter and tries to get Watson’s attention with a number of puns and hand gestures but they all fall flat until after Mary has met up with him. Just as John’s about to pop the question, John finally looks up at Sherlock and goes into a shock because his best friend has literally risen from the dead in front of him.
Sherlock tries joking—about the mustache—and then tries to explain and finally lands on an apology just as John springs into action, tackling Sherlock to the ground.
Cut to the next scene where they’ve moved locations and John wants to know the why not the how (which I’m sure most of us fans were outraged about) and Sherlock begins to explain which illuminates the situation in a negative way—Sherlock had let a number of people know of his plan but not John. So John attacks him again.
Cut to yet another location where Sherlock is trying to tell John that he needs him back in his corner, but spinning it so it seems it’s to John’s betterment. He tells him that John must have missed what they had, the rush of the case, and the excitement of the game, how it often felt like the two of them against the rest of the world.
And that’s the last cut after John seemingly head butts him, leaving Sherlock with the most obvious injury as his nose bleeds and he and Mary watch on as John calls for a cab. She tells Sherlock not to worry, although she says his people skills could use some work and there’s a nice, easy bond that immediately forms between the two people that care for John the most. It also allows for a moment of humanity from Sherlock, who is able to interact with Mary without talking down to her or being snide—it’s a short, sweet conversation that leaves Sherlock with some hope about the future of his and John’s relationship.
The one maddening part about this sequence is that its showrunner Steven Moffat’s way of skirting the issue about how Sherlock survived the fall. The end of series two left us with a shot of Sherlock alive and watching over John and the big question was how were they going to handle the how? Well, it seems like they may not at all. Throughout the entirety of the episode we’re given theories (a fan shoutout), one thinks Sherlock was attached to a bungee cord and was hiding out with Molly, another thought that Moriarty and Sherlock were in a secret relationship and then the third—of which Sherlock explained himself to a stunned and guilty feeling Anderson—had a very strategic means of a crash pad, some fake blood and someone knocking John down. The latter is supposed to feel like the truth until he leaves, leaving doubt in Anderson and well as the audience’s mind of the validity.
It feels like a cheap shot, my idea is that if a showrunner, writer, what have you, is going to introduce a complex and intricate storyline they need to have the outcome planned out and the wits to execute it with intelligence. Don’t start what you can’t finish.
Luckily, the episode is riddled with enough truly revealing character moments that it doesn’t matter that the plot falls to wayside a bit. There’s a bit when Sherlock and Mycroft are having a brotherly moment of rivalry but it does much in showcasing how much the two in the past and present have relied on each other’s company to stem impeding loneliness. We see that he and Molly Hooper’s relationship has developed after she aided in saving his life when he brings her on a case because John refuses to answer him, needing a replacement. He’s shown as being respectful towards her and appreciating her presence and it’s a simple, budding friendship that works tremendously in the favor of Sherlock’s character. We even see Sherlock’s parents (played by the actor’s real parents) and how they interact in a normal, familial fashion.
No matter the iteration, it’s the Watson and Holmes partnership that drives the story so the episode is at its best when they’re finally reunited. John is mysteriously put into a dire situation where he’s buried in a pyre that’s about to be lit and Sherlock and Mary must save him in record speed as they’re taunted by an anonymous source. It’s a heart-racing scene that shows just how much the two care and the moment that Sherlock realizes that John could possibly be burning alive is a revealing moment as Sherlock’s typical cool and detached exterior is broken as he frantically digs John out and pulls him to safety.
It seems that the lifesaving moment is enough for John to come calling and it corresponds with Sherlock finding himself involved in the terrorist case. Sherlock has been told about a mysteriously disappearing train compartment and they believe that it’s being used as a way to link themselves to a terrorist organization. Sherlock and John go to investigate.
While investigating it leads them underground through the train tunnels and it’s while looking that they find the empty train compartment, alone in the middle of the tracks. Sherlock and John go to investigate and once they’re on they realize that the compartment is the bomb and work actively to defuse it and just as they begin to go to it the compartment begins to move, locking them in on a moving bomb counting down to detonation.
John tells Sherlock to figure it out and Sherlock desperately tells him that he doesn’t know how, that despite his infinite knowledge there are some things outside of his expertise. Yet another character-building moment that allows for more access into Sherlock’s mind.
All seems to be lost and Sherlock asks John to please forgive him, growing tearful and ashamed for what he put his friend through, for having dragged him to his own death while making him suffer through his. It seems genuine, and despite John thinking that it’s all a rouse he tells Sherlock that of course he forgives him, that’s he’s the best and wisest man he’s ever known.
It turns out that he was being duped and Sherlock laughs telling him he found an off switch to the bomb and called the police and they were saved—but he wanted to hear it from John regardless. Sure, it’s Sherlock being a sneaky little bastard but it was also a wonderfully shot scene that allows more color and shading for the character.
The episode ends with everything seemingly on the mend. Sherlock has revealed himself to everyone and he and John are back to old ways aside from his being engaged to Mary.
They end on a sentimental note where John tells Sherlock that he stood before his grave and asked him for that one last miracle—to please be alive.
Sherlock replies and tells him that he heard.
For the longest time, my major complaint about the Sherlock series and the way it was run was the lack of growth the characters went through. We are supposed to buy that Sherlock and Watson are the closest of friends, to the point that Sherlock’s death would absolutely devastate Watson and completely uproot his life. Yet we never saw the development, we didn’t see moments of friendship-we saw Watson idolize Sherlock with a God complex, follow him around and act as a doormat to Sherlock’s genius. We saw them enjoy each other as companions, as a means to the end of loneliness but until the “The Reichenbach Fall” our knowledge of their friendship was surface level: we didn’t know just how deep their connection ran.
And then their conversation happens at the end of season two and their codependency comes to the forefront and due to the expert way that it was shot and the impeccable acting by Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, they sold us on it. Despite a lack of evidence from the previous episodes, we believe wholeheartedly that this separation would emotionally wreck them, the stakes are tension-filled and their words seem honest.
Going into season three, the hope was that the show wouldn’t forget that moment, the moment that turned in into one of the best and most emotionally satisfying episodes of television. Steven Moffat, known for his appropriation of egotistical, cool and aloof characters and by defining Sherlock simply by his mind is to take away the facets and subtleties that elevate his character from a caricature: it’s his relationship to John that makes him human. This was the component I was most concerned about, that Sherlock wouldn’t have changed or wouldn’t have warmed after two years away, so to be proved wrong was a pleasant surprise.
“The Empty Hearse” was a greater episode than I could have ever hoped for as a reviewer, more so as a fan who has long followed the show. Many may be less than pleased by the flippant nature that they handled the cases but what this show has always needed was a sense of levity—a sense that they weren’t taking themselves so seriously that any chance of fun was tossed out the window. And they delivered in such a way that it allowed my affection for the characters, Sherlock in particular, to grow and for my interest in the show to be rejuvenated.
Next week is John and Mary’s wedding, what kind of havoc do you believe will take place?