Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014) is the resolution of one of television’s greatest cliffhangers — how did Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) avoid death when he jumped off St Barts hospital roof? There are only a limited number of ways in which this could have been arranged. Endless hard copy and online articles, comments,and forum posts have speculated. So now we come to the big reveal as Mark Gatiss, the clever scriptwriter, explains how his version of the magic trick was performed. The opening minutes replay several of the possibilities: that someone took the body of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and dressed it as Sherlock, while Sherlock did a bungee jump and crashed through a window where the testosterone rush could be channelled into constructive activity. The hypnotist arriving to implant suggestions in the mind of John Watson (Martin Freeman) has a fanciful air about it, but it’s all part-and-parcel of the enthusiasm with which fans have taken up the challenge of second-guessing the script and everyone is entitled to see some of the theories tested out on the small screen. Meanwhile, Sherlock remains “dead”, using the time to track down and dismantle Moriarty’s network.
Two years later, the news media are abuzz. The police have confirmed the nature of the set-up to destroy Sherlock’s reputation. This rehabilitation of the Sherlock name empowers Mycroft who, for once, goes undercover to track down his brother. They meet up in Serbia where Sherlock’s somehow having a bad hair day. It seems there’s a need for his skills back in London. You can tell how desperate the times have become because Watson has grown a mustache. Even Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) finds this exuberance of hair distressing. She thinks it makes him look old enough to be a Hobbit. So there’s this chatter: a terrorist cell is planning something spectacular. Only Sherlock can save the day. It’s time for the resurrection. Although I’m not at all clear why he has to come back to life to catch these dangerous people. Surely he could sneak up on them without them noticing?
There’s a nice piece of byplay over whether Watson is proposing to marry a woman. It’s so soon after Sherlock died, etc. The whole question of a gay relationship between our dynamic duo has been grist to the mill for fannish speculators, but coming from Mrs Hudson, it seems slightly unsavory. And, to complete the surprise of his return to the land of the living, Sherlock bursts into the restaurant where the oblivious Watson is waiting to propose to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), his intended (and Martin Freeman’s partner in the real world — it keeps all the plum roles in the family, as it were). The face-to-face discussion of why Sherlock never let even a hint of his survival come Watson’s way is meant to be entertaining. Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs Hudson are less confrontational. To get the investigation underway, the Irregulars are triggered — they never really thought he was dead anyway. As is required for a Sherlock Homes episode, we then have a deduction session. It’s padding out a few minutes as Sherlock and Mycroft consider a hat but it ends up revealing in that Sherlock uses the “game” to suggest Mycroft is lonely and should do something about it. Who knew he cared? As a reward for helping him fake his death, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) is drafted in to replace John. Boring clients are intercut with boring patients as John stubbornly refuses to leave the practice.
The introduction of the man who disappears from the last car on the underground train is the first sign of possible terrorist action. The episode then catches fire with John’s elevation to the status of guy-about-town. It’s a nice touch but the date should have been better trailed. The only thing left to fill out a few more minutes is the arrival of Sherlock’s disgustingly normal parents. This is amusing for five seconds and then we’re looking for afoot to get the game in motion.
The task for this episode is to balance three completely different elements. We have to be led over the resurrection hump so Sherlock can get back on to the immediate case. It doesn’t really matter whether any of the explanations tendered are convincing. All they have to do is be vaguely appropriate, make us smile, and give Holmes and Watson a chance to reach some kind of accommodation so they can work together again. Then there’s the terrorism case. This is not so original, rerunning the Guy Fawkes trope through V for Vendetta. But I suspect the intention was to produce a climax to give our two heroes a chance to clear the air even though the bomb is turned into a kind of joke at Watson’s expense.
Although the first element starts well in the restaurant and the A&E department, I think the joke is milked just a little too much. Indeed, the script seeks to draw humour from Watson’s distress and grief during the two year period he believed Holmes to be dead. The current anger is entirely justified since Holmes offers absolutely no explanation of why Watson could not have been trusted with the truth. Indeed, I would go one step further. This seems to be the explanation of the fall. The whole street has to be closed off and the team of well-rehearsed people swing into action with Operation Lazarus (so none of Moriarty’s snipers could possibly have noticed this disruption to traffic in central London). It’s all to do with sight lines and what key people can see from where they are standing. In a way, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter whether this elaborately stage-managed trick could ever have been pulled off in the real world — evacuating all the buildings around the square and inside the hospital so no-one else could have seen it done through a window, stretches credibility. The whole point as a piece of television is to entertain. So does it succeed?
Well, here’s the problem. The only sight lines the script seems to care about are those from Watson’s point of view. This is reinforced by the arrival of the cyclist. Taking one step back, there would seem to be two key people here. We have Watson who should be trusted to keep the secret and the sniper who is about to shoot Watson. The sniper is the one who matters and, no matter how brilliant the mind planning the trick, it would not be possible to predict exactly where the sniper would take up position. If the sniper could see the trick performed from his high vantage point, he would shoot Watson (and Holmes). We’re therefore left with the paradox that Holmes primarily aimed the trick at Watson while Mycroft’s merry men may have intercepted one or more of the assassins.
Then there’s the third strand which is to provide the broader narrative drive for this three episode season. Watson is smitten by Mary but she’s obviously not what she seems, instantly recognising the code used in the SMS. The end of the episode is setting up a new villain who attacks Holmes through Watson (or attacks Mary through Watson). Which only leaves us with the curious incident of the body in the room. This seems to have been staged by Anderson (Jonathan Aris), one of the forensic team at New Scotland Yard, and it doesn’t really fit into the story at all. Or perhaps I misunderstood. . .
Putting all this together, I think the team of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat always had built up expectations to a point when they would disappoint more than they pleased when this episode aired. That said, with worries about the way Holmes and Watson are now relating to each other, I think The Empty Hearse was as entertaining as it could have been or we had any right to expect.
For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)