SHERLOCK 3.01 ‘The Empty Hearse’
Episode Title: "The Empty Hearse"
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Jeremy Lovering
Previously on "Sherlock":
As much as “Elementary” has its moments, “Sherlock” is the only modern day Sherlock Holmes series that anyone really needs. Even after a two year absence, “Sherlock” is innately satisfying and entertaining.
“The Empty Hearse” even uses the two year gap as a story point, as Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) finally returns to London. The explanation of what Sherlock was doing in that time makes sense, but that wasn’t the question that consumed “Sherlock” fans. Everyone wants to know how he survived The Reichenbach Fall, even within the world of the show!
Everyone except for Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman). John isn’t interested in how Sherlock did it, he wants to know why. John may have wished for Sherlock to “not be dead,” but he’s so angered by the deception that it threatens their unique friendship.
I have to wonder if Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat even know how Sherlock made it through the second season finale alive. Because there is no real answer to be found in this episode. The first two scenarios for Sherlock’s survival were hilariously over-the-top, including a memorable cameo from Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott). By the time that Sherlock offers his own explanation, his account seems plausible. But we’re also invited to distrust Sherlock’s tale by the person with whom he confides.
Despite the ambiguity, it’s hard to find fault with that approach. Sherlock enjoys being “Sherlock Holmes” as John says late in the episode. If Sherlock revealed exactly how he lived then it might undermine his mystique… and Sherlock is fiercely protective of that.
There are full spoilers ahead for “The Empty Hearse,” so if you haven’t seen the third season premiere of “Sherlock” then you should probably skip this review or else John Watson will go up in flames.
Getting back to “Elementary” for a moment, it’s worth noting that “Sherlock” Season 2 ended before CBS’ modern day Sherlock Holmes series began. “The Empty Hearse” seems to comment on “Elementary’s” female Watson by teaming Sherlock up with two different women… one of whom is actually a Watson-to-be!
Sherlock’s first Post-Watson partner is Dr. Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey). Two years ago, I wrote in my review of “The Reichenbach Fall” that “Molly is also not one of the three people that Moriarty threatened, which means that he overlooked her… It was Moriarty's first major mistake, because I believe that Sherlock would not have survived without her off-camera assistance.” Sherlock essentially says the same thing in this episode as he thanks Molly and asks her to solve a few crimes with him.
Of course that means that Sherlock solves all of the crimes while Molly looks impressed or bewildered. Yet even with Molly as his primary audience, Sherlock can’t shake the occasionally disapproving voice of John in his head.
By the end of their day together, Molly seems to realize that it’s not working. And it’s worth noting that she was hoping that Sherlock was asking her to dinner before he made his initial offer to her. In the first two seasons, Sherlock was sometimes thoughtlessly cruel to Molly simply because he lacked an understanding of just how deeply he was hurting her. Time hasn’t completely mellowed Sherlock, but he shows more grace towards Molly with some genuinely grateful gestures. Sherlock even demonstrates some emotional growth when he doesn’t comment on Molly’s new fiance, Tom (Ed Birch)… who looks very familiar.
Sherlock’s other female partner in this episode is Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), the woman who is engaged to John Watson. When John goes missing and the kidnapper sends a taunting message, it’s Mary who teams up with Sherlock to save John. Much to John’s dismay, Sherlock and Mary get along very well even when John is furious with Sherlock.
The core relationship of “Sherlock” is still the one between Sherlock and John. “The Empty Hearse” spends a lot of time on the restoration of the partnership between John and Sherlock while dealing with the emotional fallout of Sherlock’s deception. Amazingly, Sherlock has very little understanding about why John is angry or how John could possibly have a life without him. It’s a very narcissistic world view, but it’s Sherlock. Was anybody really surprised by how self-centered he can be?
Rather than embrace his old friend, John attacks Sherlock and he even headbutts him at one point. From an outside perspective, Sherlock’s attempt to turn his return into a joke by disguising himself as a waiter was an amusing aside, but it’s easy to see why that only made John angrier. John is also upset when he learns that Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) was in on the secret of Sherlock’s survival, but John lived with his grief for two years.
Mycroft and Sherlock actually get more bonding scenes in this episode than in the previous installments of “Sherlock.” For the first time, we really get to see that Mycroft is a deductive genius on par with Sherlock himself. Yet for all of their highbrow pretensions, it was unexpectedly funny to see them playing the Operation board game.
In another comic twist, we meet Sherlock’s parents as played by Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham. I don’t know if Sherlock’s parents have ever been depicted before, but they were amusingly normal and down-to-Earth compared to their sons. That’s a great twist.
The mystery of this episode revolved around an underground terrorist threat that was serious enough for Mycroft to retrieve Sherlock from his self-imposed exile. However, the terrorist threat was only a secondary concern in this episode. It only existed as a flimsy excuse to get Sherlock back where he belongs with John by his side. Sherlock even milks the threat to get John to forgive him in the face of death… only for Sherlock to laugh about it when he reveals what’s really happening to an infuriated John.
Near the end, we catch our first glimpse of Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), the man who apparently orchestrated John’s kidnapping. I’ve been avoiding spoilers about this character and I suggest that all of you do the same.
Regarding the supporting cast, “The Empty Hearse” didn’t give DI Greg Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) much to do besides offering their reactions to Sherlock’s return. However, it gave a very fun part to Philip Anderson (Jonathan Aris), who has gone from Sherlock’s biggest detractor to one of his most ardent admirers. Even when Sherlock gives Anderson the answers he wants, nothing can live up to the myth of Sherlock that he has created in his mind. This seems to be a slightly joking take on the “Sherlock” fandom, as Anderson has assembled his own Sherlock fan group, one of whom probably writes Sherlock slash fiction.
Even at 90 minutes, this episode feels like it ends just when things are getting really interesting. Minor flaws aside, “The Empty Hearse” was worth the long wait. “Sherlock” is back and the game is on again.