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"?
AIRED ON 1/12/2014
Season 3 : Episode 3