Sherlock "The Empty Hearse" Review: Long Live the Bromance of Baker Street

By Kaitlin Thomas

Jan 20, 2014

Sherlock S03E01: "The Empty Hearse"

After two years away, Sherlock's Season 3 premiere was probably one of the most highly anticipated episodes of television in recent memory. It felt great to return to Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's complex world of Sherlock Holmes, but it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. Despite a near-perfect outing for the triumphant return of the boys of Baker Street, I do have a few quibbles. It feels wrong to nitpick something that is—for all intents and purposes—perfectly satisfying in almost every way, but yet here I am, because "The Empty Hearse" almost felt too simple to be an episode of Sherlock

I don't mean the answer to how Sherlock survived the fall was simple; it was anything but. However, the actual case that was tackled over the course of the episode just wasn't as complex as what we've seen from Sherlock in the past. Sherlock literally just flipped the on/off switch on the bomb in the subway car to disable it? Really? That was it? I do think the easy resolution of the case was purposeful, and I'll get to that in a moment, but I also feel like it was a little disrespectful to fans who tune in to watch Sherlock solve terribly complex mysteries as a nice complement to his relationship with Watson. I also think it's ridiculous to believe the bomb had an on/off switch. In the history of bomb-diffusing scenes in film and on TV, when has there ever been an on/off switch? Is this a real thing? I don't know too much about them, but that seems like something only Dr. Doofenshmirtz would do, you know? Sherlock has always asked a lot of its viewers—the many moving parts involved in faking the title characters death are a perfect example of the layers it adds to its mysteries—so the switch just felt a bit ridiculous.

Of course, that's not to say I have a better idea for how that scene could've played out. It would have been more unbelievable if Sherlock had been able to diffuse the bomb in a real way. But the off switch still feels like a cruel joke played on the audience, just as Sherlock used it to play a cruel joke on Watson. Thinking he was about to die alongside his best friend, the best friend he'd only just been reunited with after two years, Watson forgave Sherlock for lying to him about faking his death and for not telling Watson the truth when clearly a very large group of people—including Mycroft—knew that Sherlock wasn't actually dead. It was a great and necessary moment for their relationship... and in typical Sherlock fashion, he was a complete dick about it. And while his asshole behavior is actually—God help me—part of his charm, I don't know how Watson puts up with it sometimes. 

Watson's anger over the discovery that Sherlock had lied to him about being alive—right as he was attempting to propose to Mary, naturally—was played perfectly. It would have been out of character for Watson to hug Sherlock the way Lestrade did, just like it would've been out of character for Sherlock to quietly approach Watson at home. Thinking Watson would be excited to see him—not to mention laugh at his accent and disguise—was exactly the right way to write that scene for Sherlock, because he doesn't consider how his actions affect other people. Watson was hurt, just like anyone in his situation would have been, and every time he attacked Sherlock it felt completely deserved. I also particularly liked how the caliber of restaurants they were in decreased with each fight. The scene began in a restaurant where the men were in tuxedos and ended with Sherlock's bloody nose at a deli counter. Hell hath no fury like a pissed off John Watson, I guess. And that's what "The Empty Hearse" was really about, anyway: Sherlock and Watson's relationship.

There's obviously an overarching narrative structure for Season 3 the same way Jim Moriarty carried through Season 2, but despite narrative threads, "The Empty Hearse"—more than any other in the series—was never about the case or what else is coming down the pipeline in Season 3. Rather, it was about the fallout of Sherlock's faked death and the rebuilding of a friendship that occurred once Watson discovered the truth about his friend's non-demise. While former episodes made it feel like their friendship and its nuances were built and influenced by the cases, "The Empty Hearse" did the opposite. 

The case involving the bomb in the subway car purposefully took a backseat to—and was even used as a prop in—the rebuilding of that friendship (but maybe not necessarily the trust, given that Watson believed Sherlock to be a tricking him in order to get him to say something nice—which he was). So I'll forgive the writers for giving the bomb an off switch, because I also acknowledge that it was never supposed to be the main storyline, and because the story, despite seemingly being wrapped up, is far from over if the final scene is any indication. The mysterious stranger sitting in a dark room (with creepy dolls and clowns, so it's obvious he's evil), watching a recording of Sherlock rescuing Watson from the burning Guy Fawkes effigy was unexpected, but also not all given that we never discovered the reasoning behind his kidnapping. Who do you think it is?

The explanation of how Sherlock survived the fall at the end of "The Reichenbach Fall," was saved nearly until the end of "The Empty Hearse," though the episode poked fun at the question with a few fake-outs throughout. They turned out to be more of Anderson's conspiracies, or conspiracies born from the minds of members of the Empty Hearse—a Sherlock Holmes fanclub formed by Anderson following Sherlock's supposed death. Those moments are fun and feel a bit like fan service, because fans have been attempting to figure out how he did it since the world first witnessed Sherlock's body falling from the roof two years ago. 

Everyone had their own idea of how he could have survived, and the ideas played out on screen felt like they could have been pulled straight from Sherlock fan-fiction (that's not a knock against fan-fic, by the way). The conspiracies included mind-control and Sherlock becoming an action hero (complete with kissing Molly), while another ended with Moriarty and Sherlock faking Sherlock's death so they could ultimately be together. I'm not sure the series needed to fuel that fire—Watson insisting he wasn't gay to Mrs. Hudson was plenty funny, but there's a reason the saying "too much of a good thing" exists—but it was actually very funny, especially knowing it obviously wasn't the truth. 

The truth (or was it?!) was actually a combination of people coming together at the exact right time to keep John from getting too close, to help Sherlock jump on to a big mattress thing-y, and to fling a dead body resembling Sherlock out of a window. The plan, as we're led to believe, was called Lazarus, in what I can only assume was a nod to Saint Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus after four days. I'm still skeptical about whether or not this is the real story of how it happened, but Sherlock is just douche-y enough to equate himself to a saint who was raised through a miracle by Jesus, so I'm not ruling it out either. 

Of course, Lazarus was also the name of a Midwest-based department store which eventually merged with Macy's, and maybe Sherlock just appreciates shopping on a budget, I don't know his life. It's also possible he recently re-watched Casper and stole the name from the machine (also named for Saint Lazarus) that brought people back to life in the film and didn't even know about the Bible connection (doubtful). Either way, his "resurrection" was ridiculously complex, and it definitely didn't end with Sherlock making out with Moriarty. I mean, this isn't Elementary. (I kid. I've never watched that show, though I hear great things about it.)

Sherlock's return was, as I said above, perfectly satisfying in nearly every way, and when the next two installments of Season 3 eventually shed more light on the connecting narrative threads, I'm sure I'll completely forget about the silly on/off switch and chalk it up to Gatiss (who wrote the episode) being influenced by Steven Moffat's latest adventures with Doctor Who. But all in all, it's very hard to argue with the happiness Sherlock's return has given us, especially when the episode so neatly brought the boys back together and set up the season, so let's just be happy we only have to wait a week until the next new episode and call it a day.


– This episode was loosely based on "The Adventure of the Empty House," which also saw Sherlock return after his "death" at Reichenbach Falls. The meaning of the episode title could refer to Sherlock's empty hearse, because his body was obviously not present in any casket that would have been driven to his gravesite when it was buried two years ago. "The Empty Hearse" was also the name of Anderson's Sherlock Holmes Fan Club. Finally, the episode title could've referred to the empty subway car carrying the bomb, which ultimately would've brought about the death of many members of Parliament.

– I admittedly have not read many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories (I'll get around to all of them after I fake my own death and destroy the dangerous empire of my arch-nemesis), so feel free to point out any references to them in the comments.

– Mary is kind of awesome. I like that she doesn't dislike Sherlock, but instead finds him kind of interesting and looks at the relationship of Sherlock and Watson in an exciting way.

– R.I.P., The Mustache Heard 'Round the World

– Molly is engaged to a Sherlock wannabe. Of course.

– We met Sherlock's parents in this episode and they're NORMAL. How did those lovely people create two eccentric characters like Sherlock and Mycroft?

What did you think of "The Empty Hearse"?

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  • michaelcwiak Apr 04, 2014

    Who knew fuzzy caterpillars could be glued above a person's lip and not move? It made Watson look so gay, I thought he was going to put a Village People's song on the stereo. Of course, it had to be Mrs. Hudson who brought it up, making it seem both utterly comical and yet touchingly normal. The fact that Watson had been mooning like a love-sick teenager in Sherlock's absence, only now coming by to pay his respects, really underscored the unspoken depth that Sherlock had inspired within him.

    I was a bit surprised by the theatricality involved in staging Sherlock's death, although I am rather skeptical of him sharing the details with Anderson. Was it yet another barb in their one-sided battle of wits? Its quite obvious Sherlock was upset with Anderson for setting up the fake skeleton for him to solve, so giving him a plausible and yet equally idiotic version of the tale (with Anderson being the leader of that asinine society) is probably why Anderson was on the edge of madness after being told. Could it be true, could it be a lie: its like watching a cat play with a ball of yarn.

    However, Sherlock's failure to understand the depths of Watson's own feelings was...hilarious. Also, how could he have missed the very obvious details of John being at dinner with another person (Sherlock should have deduced the bulge in his jacket suggesting a small box, suggesting a ring, suggesting a dinner date based around a marriage proposal.) For all his brilliance, Sherlock has a bad case of leaving common sense at home on his mantle sometimes. However, I think its due to the fact that just like John has never had a friend like Sherlock, I honestly think Sherlock has never had a friend like John (or been desired by another person like The Woman.) Seeing how close he is to Mycroft, and seeing what kind of person Mycroft is, I can easily see why Sherlock might fundamentally revel in his relationship with John while, at the same time, being so clueless about it. Grow up around someone who can tear at your skin like a razor, you'll eventually be caught off guard by someone who simply accepts your mental superiority while wanting to be in your company. Watson, unlike Mycroft, deeply admires Holmes for his intellect.

    Contrast this with the deduction game Mycroft and Holmes played at the apartment. It wasn't a contest, it was a game of chess played with razor sharp intellectual blades, looking to make a wound so deep and precise the person has to struggle to recognize they have been cut (Mycroft: I'm not lonely. Sherlock: And how would you know?) The elaborate disguise to surprise John, that wasn't just Sherlock being Sherlock, that was Sherlock not realizing that he doesn't have to look out for a knife from John (but he does have to be careful of being head-butted.) It's almost as if Sherlock was home-schooled by a cult and only now is old enough to be out in the real world, interacting with it through the fractured lens of his upbringing. He knows the details but fails to understand the context.

    Was the bomb plot ridiculous, of course. Why design an off switch when you have a remote trigger (far easier to have a remote deactivation code?) And its really not surprising he would 'force' John to forgive him through manipulation. Sentimentality, or too much of it, is a weakness Sherlock can't afford in his work, so he has to force people to do things, like grieve faster, than they would normally like. And that usually means being an ass about it. Let's not forget Sherlock isn't used to normal friendships, he's going to need proof that people like him for who he is, smart, manipulative, romantic, idealistic bastard that he is. Sherlock wasn't just laughing at having tricked John, he was laughing at the joy of finding out he was right, that despite his tests, John still treasures that bond, sometimes more than he is willing to admit. That Mary so easily liked and accepted Sherlock so soon after meeting him suggests John's instincts for surrounding himself with the right people are pretty spot on.

  • Lolajane Feb 07, 2014

    "the silly on/off switch" bothered me too, but I later reflected that it helped to convey the sense of betrayal Watson felt, since it was a letdown as a case for the comeback episode, kind of a betrayal of sophisticated mystery fans. "Mary is kind of awesome. I like that she doesn't dislike Sherlock, but instead finds him kind of interesting and looks at the relationship..." I agree there as well and appreciated the review.

  • SagaNylund Jan 23, 2014

    "In the history of bomb-diffusing scenes in film and on TV, when has there ever been an on/off switch? Is this a real thing? I don't know too much about them, but that seems like something only Dr. Doofenshmirtz would do, you know?" - Actually Doofenshmirtz would probably only make an "on"-switch and forget about the "off"-part, only to accidently glue himself onto the bomb and then by mistake push the button.

    I thought this episode was somewhat slow, but still entertaining. And as you pointed out it revolved more around Sherlock and Watson, and the aftermath of the season 2 finale. Looking forward to the next two episodes! :)

  • McCovey Jan 22, 2014

    This series is good enough, but I can't find the greatness in at that so many other people do. It is clever, but it is too clever at times. This show was actually OK for me, and I didn't mind a simpler plot. The more complex plots are often too complicated and can get a bit silly also. I am not a fan of all the words on screen and the noises and lights, etc, that we have to see as part of Sherlock thinking. I think that is gimmicky. But, I do watch the show as it is decent entertainment with some clever spots and dialogue.

  • greasy82 Jan 22, 2014

    Not only are they normal, they're Benedict Cumberbatch's real parents!

  • mrjimmyjames Jan 21, 2014

    So glad to see that Watson isn't keeping his stache. I've always hated that aspect of the Watson character.

  • mrjimmyjames Jan 21, 2014

    Great show.

  • AshleeReign Jan 21, 2014

    The bottom line is that Sherlock is extremely enjoyable to watch.

    The writing and acting is superb and rivals everything else on tv right now.

  • bejt10 Jan 21, 2014

    amazing ep
    martin & amanda are soooooo adorable together

    "I don't shave for sherlock holmes"- best line of the ep! :)

  • Acrobit Jan 21, 2014

    Ehh, this episode was fine, I guess. More of a filler, basically saying 'this is where we are now.' Of course, the problem with this is that it's a third of the frickin' season. I usually don't mind filler episodes, as they're often great for character development. I don't need steady progression to a usually-disappointing endgame in shows, but here, I don't want to think they're just gonna coast these next two years by flicking a few episodes at us.

    Still, it was fine. I actually wouldn't have minded if Sherlock had run the majority of the episode on his own (as he'd been for the past two years or w/e) and picked up Watson at the end. Sherlock and Mycroft could really make a terrifying team for one episode.

    Anyway, Mary's great. I hope this is the Suck episode of the season, though. Tradition seems to dictate that there must be one.

  • sylaine Jan 22, 2014

    It is kind of the weakest episode in the season. The second one is a bit of a base breaker, I'm afraid. I think it's absolutely awesome, but I do understand why some people don't like it. You're right about the problem being the episode count. I doubt anyone would complain so much about 3x01 and 3x02 if we had, I don't know, at least 6 episodes a season. But then again character development is very important. And this season is very much about the characters and their relationships. The Sherlock from the first two seasons and the one in the third sometimes appear to be two different people - but he also went through some pretty life-changing events and even Sherlock Holmes can't not be affected by two years on the run and torture.

  • Caviezelized Jan 22, 2014

    I actually think all three episodes are weak. Then again, I didn't think all of the episodes from Seasons 1 and 2 were great either. So maybe I just think the show is overrated altogether.

  • Caviezelized Jan 21, 2014

    Prepare for even more filler in episode 2. I completely agree, this would be much more acceptable if the season were even twice as long. As it is, it just seems self-important. They're taking the fan frenzy for granted to get out of being really creative with the writing.

  • hopitopia Jan 22, 2014

    oh, not more filler! Ugh! I agree about the fan frenzy, still think Moffat and Gatiss are great writers, and this episode disappointed me, as I hold them to a high standard. And yes times three to the idea of more eps=ok to have so-so eps!

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