Two years ago, in “The Reichenbach Fall”, Sherlock Holmes fell from the top of a hospital in London, in front of numerous witnesses including his friend John Watson. The world thought him dead—well, the fictional world did. Viewers in the real world knew that it was some sort of trick. We got to see Sherlock still standing, quite alive, at the end of the episode, watching Watson at his grave. But for two years, we’ve all been trying to figure out how he did it.
In “The Final Problem” by Arthur Conan Doyle, the original Sherlock Holmes faced off against his greatest enemy, Moriarty (who never actually appeared in any other Doyle story), and the two of them fell to their deaths from the top of Reichenbach Falls. It was Doyle’s full intention that this was the final end for the great detective. Doyle wanted to concentrate on other things; however, public pressure brought him round to resurrecting Holmes several years later in “The Adventure of the Empty House”. At that point, it was necessary for Doyle to find a way for Holmes not to have died at the Reichenbach Falls after all. A lack of eyewitnesses at Holmes’s death made this relatively easy for Doyle.
The TV series Sherlock, however, one-ups its source material by having Holmes fall to his death in front of witnesses while also knowing, in advance, that Holmes will somehow survive. Of course, that method can’t be revealed to the audience immediately. Throw in two years of waiting for the next episode, and you have the two years of fans trying to figure out the mystery for themselves. It was certainly something I contemplated more than a few times. It was always clear that Molly was involved somehow and I figured there was a good chance that Mycroft would be (especially since Mycroft is one of the few who know of Sherlock’s survival in Doyle’s stories), but I must admit, I could never come up with an explanation I was satisfied with. I could always finds holes in anything I came up with, although, to be honest, I always figured there was a good chance the explanation the writers came up with would have holes in it as well.
But the long wait has finally come to a close as Sherlock has made a triumphant return to television screens. Like the viewers, it has been two years for the characters and most of them have moved on with their lives—until Sherlock Holmes suddenly returns. I have to say, this episode was worth the long wait. “The Empty Hearse” by Mark Gatiss (the title being a play on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House”) does an excellent job of re-establishing the major characters and where they are now in their lives, while introducing (and resolving) a brand new mystery, and hinting at the story arc for the season. Indeed, it’s rather impressive how much happens in this episode without it all becoming a jumbled mess, making for ninety minutes of highly enjoyable television.
In the opening moments, as we see the recap of Holmes’s fall and start to glimpse other things happening that we didn’t see before (like people carrying away Moriarty’s body), it creates the impression that the explanation of Holmes’s survival is about to be immediately revealed. But then things take a turn. What we see becomes more and more far-fetched: Holmes jumping with a bungee cord—why wasn’t that seen last time? Homes kissing Molly like an action movie star and striding triumphantly away! Something seems off at this point, though I must admit that when I first watched it, I didn’t quite clue in to what was happening despite having seen “Many Happy Returns”, the prequel which came out around Christmas and more or less sets up the explanation for these opening moments. So I was mildly, but pleasantly, surprised when we soon learn that this isn’t the real explanation of Holmes’s survival, but rather another of Anderson’s wild theories, one that Lestrade dismisses as absurd—which, indeed, it is.
Of course, what is perhaps more surprising and maybe even a little aggravating is that the real explanation never comes in this episode. We get a couple more false explanations (including the hilarious one where Holmes and Moriarty are colluding together) before the episode is over, but not the truth. Perhaps it’s a little dig at fan speculation that what we get are two speculative versions and one outright lie from Holmes himself. A part of me wants to scream, “Argh!”, but it’s actually a really good kind of aggravation, partly because it’s not at all what we expect, and partly because half the fun of Holmes’s survival is trying to figure out how he did it. The lack of a reveal strings that fun along a little and adds to it, and I really love that the episode does this.
So, what of the real explanation, then? The version Holmes tells Anderson starts out the same as what he tries to tell Watson earlier in the episode, so either that part of it is true or he was intending to lie to Watson as well. The best lies are built around elements of the truth, so either explanation is possible. But does it really matter? I’d honestly be quite happy if the truth is never revealed, although I also don’t think they should overdo the false explanations—what we get in this episode is enough of that. I suspect the answer will probably be revealed by the end of the season (which, at the time of writing this, I have not seen yet, although many of you reading it may have already seen since it has already aired) and that won’t bother me either. But if it remains unrevealed, I don’t think the show will suffer any. We know Holmes survived and we know he did it in some extremely clever way. Revealing the truth runs the risk of it not quite being clever enough, of not quite living up to the version in viewers’ heads. Leaving it unstated lets our own version rule unhindered, which in some ways, is possibly better.
It also leaves room for the effects of Holmes’s survival, namely on his relationship with Watson. Mark Gatiss wisely makes the story about that rather than dealing with the fiddly, technical details of how Holmes survived. A step-by-step guide to how to fall off a hospital roof without dying makes for far less interesting drama than the relationships between the people involved do.
If anything does actually distract from the relationships in “The Empty Hearse”, it’s the humour. This is a very funny episode, and for the most part, Gatiss uses the humour to good effect. Alas, I do find that, at times, the humour trivializes the emotional trauma that Watson has gone through. Even John attacking Sherlock (multiple times) is played for laughs rather than emphasizing the hurt John is dealing with. To a certain extent, this is meant to take the edge off the situation. Sherlock isn’t the style of show that bludgeons viewers with intense emotional experiences. Still, I think it goes just a little bit too far here.
Part of the problem is that it also lessens Sherlock’s culpability. The truth of the matter is Sherlock Holmes can be quite a jerk and he constantly gets away with it. Shrouding his actions in humour lets him get away with it in the eyes of the viewers as well. We laugh and quickly forget how awful it would be to be there ourselves. That may well be intentional, but I do wish Holmes would be taken to task for his behaviour a little more often. Victorian Sherlock Holmes got away with being a jerk, too, and Sherlock is probably trying to copy that to a certain extent, but the social mores of today would make it much more difficult for a modern Holmes and Sherlock only occasionally acknowledges that. There’s also a bit of Steven Moffat’s fear of consequences (which I’ve talked about numerous times in my Doctor Who reviews) going on here.
That aside, while I would have liked to have seen a bit more of John’s inner turmoil (or rather, a bit less humour masking it), I do think “The Empty Hearse” does a good job of dealing with the consequences of Sherlock’s faked death and two-year absence. We get to see how each of the principal characters have dealt with it, and even some of the supporting characters, like Anderson. In “Many Happy Returns”, we were left with the question of why Anderson, who previously hated Sherlock, was now heavily into proving that Sherlock didn’t die. Now we learn that it was guilt over believing he had driven Sherlock into committing suicide that lead him down his current path. It makes for great, believable character development. I also really like that Lestrade (whom Anderson could never convince that Holmes was still alive) pretty much takes Sherlock’s survival in his stride with no more than an uttered, “You bastard.”
As a whole, “The Empty Hearse” is actually a very good character episode, with the mystery of the terrorist plot being little more than a backdrop. We even get a bit of a look into Mycroft’s psyche and are introduced to their parents! I really like that they’re so incredibly normal.
Molly gets a good role in this episode, too. In previous episodes, she’s generally been little more than a person that Sherlock treats incredibly badly but who still maintains a crush on him. In this episode, we get to see a little bit more of who she is, and although she’s obviously still hung up on Sherlock, we do see that she has a life beyond him (even if her new boyfriend is something of a Sherlock clone—in appearance, at any rate). We also get to see her using her intelligence when serving as Sherlock’s Watson-replacement and investigating the skeleton.
Perhaps most notable amongst all the characters in this episode is Mary, John’s fiancée. As she is a brand new character, the episode has the difficult task of establishing a relationship between her and John that has occurred almost entirely off-screen, but it does this pretty well. Part of this comes down to Amanda Abbington’s performance. She imbues Mary with an instant likeability. The episode also allows us to see little snippets of their lives together, from the initial dinner where John tries to propose but is interrupted by Sherlock’s return, to glimpses of home life and work—where she is apparently John’s receptionist. It never makes a great deal out of these things, but rather simply presents them as they are and allows the viewers to extrapolate the rest.
Finally, there is the terrorist plot, which as I said above, is really just the backdrop of the episode. It’s what the team of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are up to while we get the real story of the characters involved. The mystery itself is actually a pretty simple one (I doubt there’s anybody who couldn’t have guessed that there had to be a place to disembark between the two stations). We are, of course, also introduced to an ongoing mystery—the metaplot for the season—and I will admit to being suitably intrigued.
Overall, “The Empty Hearse” is a great start to a new season of Sherlock, and I’m looking forward to the remaining two episodes. Time to watch “The Sign of Three”!