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Sherlock: "The Empty Hearse"

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Steven Moffat’s Sherlock has always labored under some imposing shadows. As the most-adapted character of all time, Sherlock Holmes has plenty of competition: Vasily Livanov, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Jonny Lee Miller. And Moffat’s also up against Arthur Conan Doyle, who got so sick of of Holmes he literally threw him off a cliff, only to bring him back because he was desperate for cash and wanted fans to stop chasing him in the street screaming for more.


Nearly every incarnation of Holmes that’s run long enough has had to tackle one of the most awkward scenes in canon, in which a returned Sherlock announces himself to Watson. The scene itself is pure Victorian fan service, with a disguised Sherlock casing Watson's crime scene and then sneaking into 221B for his reveal, followed by apologies and a loving welcome home. Depending on the script and the leads, it can be a joyful moment or a poignant one. (I still pine for a revival of the TV-movie series from the early 2000s, with Ian Hart as an incomparable Watson, just to see how he’d tackle it.)

So how does this Sherlock handle it? At a restaurant, with Holmes as a high-snot waiter interrupting Watson’s proposal to Mary Morstan. John, understandably, can’t process the deception and attacks him; cut to a less-posh place, where the conversation picks up directly until John attacks him; cut to a deli, where the conversation picks up directly. Sherlock assures John sotto voce that John’s missed this, insults Watson’s moustache (again), and bids goodnight to Mary, who murmurs, “I like him,” to John when they’re alone.


And that’s Moffat’s return to Sherlock this episode in a nutshell: Some clever edits tipping into overdone while burying character beats, Watson’s internal conflict dismissed, another woman who just can’t help but enjoy the sociopathic little scamp, and a healthy spoonful of fan service to make the medicine go down.

Maybe a more-than-healthy dollop. Moffat has a very direct and sometimes antagonistic relationship with his shows’ fans, whose attention he seems to equally crave and hold in contempt. One of the most off-putting threads in “The Empty Hearse” is its attempts to illustrate how Sherlock survived the Fall, for which Moffat assured viewers the answer was forthcoming. Spoilers: nope. Instead, we get a collection of fan scenarios that could have been lifted from Tumblr. Anderson’s involves a kiss with Molly; in another, Sherlock and giggly co-conspirator Moriarty lean in for a rooftop snog (doesn’t happen, of course), thanks to the imagination of a dreamy Sherlock fangirl. Sherlock later outlines a solution of his own, but the show winkingly determines that, too, is a lie.

The thing is, it’s not actually necessary to explain the particulars. The importance is its effect on a grieving Watson, and the show would have fallen flat on that alone, since Sherlock never apologizes. It takes a near-death experience for John to reconcile with him—one of the more broken Holmes and Watson partnerships to appear on-screen. Moffat made much of having the answer—only to come back and suggest that anyone interested in particulars was not only wrong but laughable. So what begins as a thin gimmick quickly gets exhausted.

As with Doctor Who, Moffat has become his show’s biggest problem—this episode is primarily concerned with being as cool and implacable as the Sherlock it’s created. (We’re saving man-child stuff for later, I assume.) Much ado about the Belstaff coat? Cumberbatch’s parents in a cameo as Sherlock’s parents? Tearful declarations of feeling at the climax of the action? Sufficient declarations of No Homo beforehand? Occasional, often dismissive nods to the canon? Moffat has it all; it’s going to be a meta season.


It would be a shame if the season spins out this way. When the show can get off its hamster wheel, it’s possessed of an engaging supporting cast who make great work of their material, and who could use a little more to do. A scene of John visiting a stung Mrs. Hudson to make halting apologies for his absence brings back their lovely rapport in just a few sentences, and in the moments he’s allowed to react to Sherlock’s return, Martin Freeman’s mingled relief and fury collapse him like a stomach punch. Amanda Abbington (Freeman’s real-life partner) makes a low-key Mary, though the “liar” that appeared in Sherlock’s assessment of her is probably going to bite John in the ass. Mark Gatiss, when he can remember to act, has his usual easy chemistry with Cumberbatch, and an interesting beat about enforced loneliness that hopefully might lead somewhere. And Rupert Graves, who’s beautifully milks every moment of his time here, gives Lestrade the line delivery of the night after Sherlock announces himself—growling “Oh, you bastard” from around a cigarette. (Then he hugs him, of course; everyone on this show is mandated to forgive Sherlock anything.)

But the standout this episode is Louise Brealey, whose Molly serves as a barometer of Sherlock’s devastating friendly fire. (Even this is meta; we’re assured Molly was instrumental in the Reichenbach ruse, but Sherlock never cares enough to give specifics.) Brought in for a day of Watsoning as Sherlock tries to get back into the swing of things, Molly provides enough forensic knowledge to make Sherlock jealous—a telling detail that would have been interesting to deconstruct. But when she asks him what’s really going on and is told the day was her thank-you for services rendered, Molly flinches back against the gesture, so tightly coiled that her very intensity silently calls Sherlock to task.


As always, he needs it. Cumberbatch, a capable actor whose Holmes ranges from serviceable to very good depending on the material, finds himself with a thankless task this episode. He’s in fine form as a callous narcissist, but for now, introspection takes a backseat to re-establishing his flash with a public that’s missed him (both with the show and the audience at home–told you we were in for a meta season).

His Holmesian muscles aren’t particularly flexed, given a standard procedural in which Sherlock’s called on to discover a terrorist cell intent on blowing up Parliament on Guy Fawkes Day, which seems like the sort of thing British Intelligence might be looking out for on an annual basis. But the procedural this time is an afterthought (Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered after a while, either), and it’s in his relationship with Watson that this episode rightly hangs its hopes. The plot exists to get the pair of them in an exploding subway car for a heart-to-heart. Unfortunately, the episode’s attempt to balance Watson’s palpable grief with determined slyness undermines both approaches.


For two years, John’s been grappling with a loss that left him feeling helpless, guilty, and alone, and in an episode that has plenty of time for cameos by Sherlock’s parents, we get mere moments of his grief. (In canon, Watson takes up the investigative mantle, but this Watson’s sworn it off. It’s an interesting character beat that fits this John—whose devotion to Sherlock has always had less to do with enjoying his methods than becoming personally closer—but it slips by unaddressed.) Sherlock did himself no favors with his reintroduction, and by letting others in on the ruse—duplicities John discovers by degrees—there’s a breach of trust the show would have to make real effort to address. Yet it largely refuses to engage Watson’s grievances, even sticking him in a bonfire for Sherlock to rescue as a reason to swiftly return to the fold. Even in the weaponized subway car, Sherlock wrings tearful forgiveness from John by convincing him they’re moments from death, and then flicks the bomb’s off-switch and mocks John for doubting him. It doesn’t so much re-establish a snarky equilibrium so much as it re-establishes that Moffat’s Sherlock is a total dick.

The season will hopefully earn its lightheartedness by making Sherlock atone for the manner of his return, in which he comes closer than ever to mirroring Moriarty (though given the tone issues, I’m not sure the show still sees the parallel, even if it really should). As such, the final few minutes introduce a sinister Bond villain alongside some wedding shenanigans, promising intrigue, and whimsy. And their last scene gives us a perfunctory reconciliation between Holmes and Watson before Sherlock presents himself for his adoring public, apparently marking John’s grievances handled.


We’ll see what this season does for the rest of us.

Stray observations:

  • Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand./ “My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies.” - “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • Sounds like we could be getting more of Moran this season.
  • Glad we spared a moment to make fun of Molly’s Sherlockian physical type; she definitely needed some more patronization by the text.
  • “I am not gay.” Moffat, I do not care whatsoever one way or the other about this, but after six 90-minute episodes rife with queerbait, it’s past being a running joke. Let it go.
  • I enjoyed John blurting “Mind Palace!” like the catchphrase of a Saturday morning cartoon, where Sherlock would rise into the air and spin slowly until an answer occurred.
  • “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes.” “You should put that on a t-shirt.” If this actually ends up on a shirt, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If it’s already on a shirt, don’t tell me.
  • For those who dig a little meta in their Sherlock, 1988’s Without a Clue brilliantly deconstructed the myth behind Holmes, with Ben Kingsley as a Watson doing all the heavy lifting, and Michael Caine as the actor he hired, who’s absorbed the credit like a sponge. It’s the Galaxy Quest of Sherlock Holmes; recommended.