'The Empty Hearse': Sherlock's brilliant premiere trolls Watson and fans alike

By James Hibberd
January 20, 2014 at 04:22 AM EST
PBS
S3 E1
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  • TV Show
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Two years. Two years we’ve waited. Nobody should have to wait two years for a TV show. Star Wars movie? Sure. To get married? Okay. To flip your condo? Fine. But not to see a TV show. Especially a show that’s as brilliant as Sherlock AND concluded with a huge cliffhanger. The wait was downright cruel. We understood, in theory — the stars of Sherlock were busy slaying orcs and menacing the Enterprise and other big-screen ventures. But it was still an awfully long time, and wouldn’t you know it — that wait has been mixed into the creative DNA of Sunday’s season 3 premiere, along with plenty of other fan-driven notions.

So now it’s back. The best bromance on TV. The crime drama for those of us who don’t even like crime dramas. The title of the new 90-minute episode is “The Empty Hearse,” playing off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes-return story “The Empty House.” To fans, though, this is “the one where Watson finds out” and the one where we find out how Sherlock survived his fall — But do we really find out? We got the answer from PBS. Plus, we’re going to do a deep-dive on the best scene in the episode (and it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of).

We open with instant excitement as we’re back at the rooftop: We’re going to find out how Sherlock survived! We’re going to find out immediately. No mucking around. And what we see is … insane. Scenes leading up to Sherlock’s rooftop leap, a reminder that Sherlock told Watson it was “a magic trick” and that he insisted Watson stay in that exact spot across the street. Then: A team out of nowhere grabs Moriarty’s body, puts a Mission Impossible-style Sherlock mask on the corpse, Sherlock leaps with a bungee cord, bounces back up and smashes through the window, smooches Molly (!) and Moriarty’s disguised body is left on the sidewalk for Watson to find — but not before he’s given a hypnotic delay by Darren Brown (U.S. translation: British hypnosis celebrity). It’s all very exciting …

And pretty disappointing in its ridiculousness.

Just when we’re starting to think, “Oh well … maybe the rest of the episode will be better?” We hear–

“Bollocks!” Lestrade denouncing Anderson’s theory that we just witnessed as to how Sherlock faked his death. We realize: We’ve been punk’d! Or whatever the Brit version is of Punk’d. Relief floods. Oh Sherlock, we knew you wouldn’t do that to us. Lestrade chastises his ex-forensic guy Anderson, who’s now turned into a Sherlock conspiracy theorist racked with guilt for seemingly driving the detective to his death. “Two years and the theories keep getting more stupid,” Lestrade says.

While it takes some big Baker’s Street balls to troll fans who have been waiting this long, it’s quite clever to bring the Internet speculation surrounding the cliffhanger into the show itself.

More action: A man running, being hunted by Serbians in a modest-budget British-TV way. We see Sherlock being beaten, sort of. No face, but clearly the gym training is paying off (if not for Benedict than at least for his body double). He tells his tormentor his wife is cheating on him, ridding himself of one guard. Then his brother Mycroft steps forward,  disguised as another guard, and tells him and us that there’s a terror attack being plotted against London by an “underground network” and it’s time for him to come home. Sherlock gives us a little smile.

Blasphemy confession: I’ve never liked the Sherlock credits and titles theme much. I mean, they’re fine. But every other element of Sherlock is elevated — the writing, direction, acting. The titles seem like what you’d expect from a BBC drama of a modern day Sherlock, sort of CSI: Baker’s Street, and no more than that. In other words, it’s like they were designed for a more modest version of Sherlock than the one the producers and cast actually pulled off. I know, I know, you disagree. That’s okay. Our relationship is strong enough to handle our difference of opinions.

Sherlock gets a shave and a haircut and we learn he spent the last two years dismantling Moriarty’s network.  The best bit is Sherlock asking about Watson, quite casually, like he doesn’t care all that much. He sees Watson’s photo. Watson was so devastated at the loss of his friend that he’s grown a horrendous ‘stache. Sherlock says he’ll have to shave, “It makes him look ancient. I can’t be seen wandering around with an old man.”

Mycroft warns Sherlock that Watson has moved on with his life. “What life? I’ve been away,” and proposes surprising Watson. “He’ll be delighted.” Mycroft is amused at how much his brother is misreading the situation.

NEXT: The big reunion

Watson returns to 221B for the first time in a couple years. Mrs. Hudson is quite peeved at him and understandably so — he hasn’t called or written. It’s pretty heartless of our warm humane Watson. “It just got harder and harder to pick up the phone, somehow.” She reveals she couldn’t bring herself to rent out the flat, which is probably the toughest thing in this episode to buy given the going cost of a two bedroom in Central London.

Watson reveals he’s getting married, and there’s an exchange where Mrs. Hudson thinks he and Sherlock were gay. It’s amusing, but this is one running gag on the show that should probably be retired. It’s one thing for strangers to mistake them their relationship, but it’s odd to have Hudson not knowing better.

And now … as much as we’ve wanted to know how Sherlock survived his fall, this is the real scene we’ve wanted to see — the reunion. It’s written and played brilliantly. Like Doyle’s original short story upon which this episode is very loosely based, Sherlock opts to appear in a disguise, here cleverly snatching items as he strolls through a fancy restaurant to look like a snooty waiter. We’re treated to some playful banter between a clueless Watson searching the wine list and Sherlock making recommendations. “Well, surprise me,” Watson says. “I’m certainly endeavoring to, sir,” Sherlock replies.

Enter Watson’s significant other Mary, played by Martin’s real-life partner and Mr. Selfridge star Amanda Abbington. The casting smacked of such nepotism that I had a tough time being excited by it, but she’s perfectly charming in the role.

Watson is going to propose, which makes this scene all the better. She knows what’s coming. He fumbles, Watson-like, through the question. Disguised-Sherlock returns with the wine, hinting, hinting…

Watson finally sees him. Really sees him. His expression is … hard … and difficult, at first, to read. It’s complex, and not easy to peg one emotion on it. As Sherlock continues going through his prank, Mary gives voice to the moment. “You died! You jumped off the roof!” Sherlock says, “The short version: not dead.”

Then Watson’s synaptic storm appears to congeal into one clear one emotion: rage. Sherlock rubs off his mustache and teases Watson, “Does yours rub off too?”

And Watson rightfully attack him! Cut to another, cheaper, diner. “How could you do that?” Watson asks — which is perfect. Not everybody’s question, of how DID you do that, but how COULD you do that.

Frustratingly, Sherlock doesn’t explain the obvious reason for his ruse that we all know about and that would make Watson feel better — that he was protecting his loved ones from Moriarty’s network. Screenwriters often have characters omit such information to add more drama, but it’s annoying. When Sherlock reveals that both Molly and some of his homeless network were in on the gag, Watson attacks again.

Outside, Sherlock once again mocks the mustache. It’s really bugging Sherlock because as he pointed out, it makes him (Sherlock) look bad by association. “Mary likes it,” Watson says, which Sherlock points out isn’t true. Watson: “Oh brilliant! This is charming. I’ve really missed this.” And so have we. With that line, we feel like the duo are really back together, at least for the moment.

Mary tells Sherlock she’ll talk Watson around to forgiving him, which surprises Sherlock (and us). He sizes her up and discovers she’s a Size 12 cat lover, among other things.

With that reunion done, we see Sherlock reunite with a few other old friends. Saying hello to Molly, scaring the bejesus out of Hudson. And Lestrade recognizes him at merely the sound of his voice and gives him a big hug — awww.

Finally, we get what happened on the roof. The real story — we think? A dummy with a Sherlock mask goes over the edge. Sherlock and a very much alive Moriarty sit on the roof and snicker to each other, then turn sober. They lean in to kiss— whaaa?

Another feint! Drat. More Sherlock fan-fic inspired tales from conspiracy theorists. Anderson has a Sherlock club dubbed “The Empty Hearse” debating various ways he could have survived. They see a great headline on the telly: “Hat Detective Alive.”

Next, another stand-out scene. The Sherlock and Watson reunion is clearly the emotional high-point of the episode. But the most interesting and perhaps best-written scene is this one: Sherlock and Mycroft.

NEXT: Deep dive on perhaps the most revelatory scene in Sherlock history

First there’s a nice tease that we think the Holmes brothers are playing chess when they’re actually playing Operation, a game we presume they played as kids. We learn a lot about their upbringing and make a surprising discovery — Mycroft is considered smarter than Sherlock. That’s true in the original stories, but hasn’t been so clearly demonstrated in the series until now. We’re told Mycroft considered his younger brother dumb by comparison and they used to play another far more educational game as kids — “deductions.”

I love this because it explains a lot about Sherlock’s abilities and the Holmes brothers’ personalities. That Sherlock’s crime-solving genius is an extension of a game he played versus his smarter older brother really helps sell the idea of why and how he’s such a deductive genius. It also explains his propensity for showing off — he’s the younger child who was starved for attention and praise. Mycroft can do deductions too, he just doesn’t feel the need to impress others as much, thus he works in the shadows putting his brain to use for queen and country.

The other layer of this scene is Sherlock chiding his brother on his social isolation. Mycroft actually brings up the topic inadvertently by noting, in a terrific line, “If you seem slow to me, Sherlock, can you imagine what real people are like? I’m living in a world of goldfish.”

S0 Sherlock proposes they play a game of deductions. The entire point of the deductive game wasn’t to see who could figure out more about the owner of the hat (Sherlock already knows the owner), but to reveal that Mycroft is blind to his own social isolation — he can guess everything about the owner correctly, but misses that the person lives an isolated life. At the end of the exchange when Mycroft realizes what Sherlock is implying, he says, “I’m not lonely, Sherlock.” When Sherlock pointedly says, “How would you know?” he’s referring to Mycroft’s deductive blind spot that he just revealed — if he can’t recognize the loneliness in others, he cannot recognize it in himself.

It’s a superb scene. One that deftly gives you a deeper sense of both men. Sherlock has grown to recognize that — “high-functioning sociopath” or not — he craves companionship, Watson in particular. Whereas Mycroft is convinced such relationships are unnecessary. The scene even drops the word “elementary,” though Mycroft says it instead of his brother. Let’s give a hand to Mark Gatiss, who not only wrote this episode but plays a perfect Mycroft (and has a voice that I want as my GPS navigation).

And that’s it! So next week’s episode…

What’s that? There’s more? Oh, so there is. Never going to get used to this 90-minute format compared to U.S. dramas with their 44 minutes. That’s right, they have to solve a case and stuff. We get some filler — albeit very entertaining filler — as our story works to reunite Sherlock and Watson.

First there’s a sequence where Holmes asks Molly to fill in as his substitute partner and she does her best, but Sherlock literally can’t get John’s voice out of his head. They have a nice break-up scene where she reveals her engagement and he tenderly tells her she’s the person he cares the most about. I couldn’t help but think: But isn’t Watson the person he cares most about? Because we haven’t gotten the sense he cares that deeply about Molly. Realized after reading comments Sher meant that she was the one who mattered most to his plan, which makes more sense.

Then we have a harrowing diversion where Watson is kidnapped, drugged and stuffed into a bonfire pyre, Wicker Man-style, by persons unknown. Thankfully, Mary is a nurse and everybody knows that all nurses are trained to immediately spot skip codes.  This is the start of the terrorist plot-line. Best I can gather: This was a depiction of Bonfire Night / Guy Fawkes Night in Britain where bonfires are burned with effigies of Fawkes. For those who haven’t caught V for Vendetta lately, Fawkes was a member of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. The plot’s failure is celebrated on Nov. 5 (which is a bit confusing in this episode, because the Bonfire Night gathering is shown a night or two before Nov. 5 occurs in the episode).

NEXT: The fall solution revealed? Tease for next week

Anyway: We know Watson isn’t going to die, but it’s it’s a disturbing nightmarish sequence nonetheless as he struggles to regain his voice and Sherlock and Mary race to save him. Sherlock navigates by his own handy mental GPS … presumably without Mycroft as the voice. He probably could have gone a tad faster had he left Watson’s girlfriend back at the flat.

Watson pays Sherlock a visit as the detective ushers out a rather nice older couple that we learn are his parents (!). The duo are played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s actual parents, too. Watson remarks how ordinary they are and Sherlock retorts that’s it’s a cross he has to bear. It’s a fun scene, though feels like it contradicts what we heard earlier, about Sherlock and Mycroft growing up isolated from other kids — their parents don’t seem like the type of people who would treat them like flowers in the attic.

Sherlock dives into trying figuring out the “underground network” terrorist cell. Watson does what he’s good at — inadvertently tipping off Sherlock with an innocuous question or comment (in this case echoing back to him: “Any idea who they are – this underground network?”). Sherlock realizes it’s an Underground network — meaning the London tube system, and it’s the 5th of November, so somebody is going to use a detected subway car to blow up the Palace of Westminster.

Sherlock and Watson break into an abandoned railway station where there’s no cell service and Sherlock has refused, seemingly, to call the police. They find an abandoned car and its stuffed with explosions and a ticking clock. Sherlock says he has no idea how to dismantle the bomb — he even checks his mind palace, nada. You would think somebody who’s written a blog post on the bearing strength of natural fibers would have at some time looked up how to dismantle a bomb, but no. They’re both seconds from death.

We get a very vulnerable Sherlock like we haven’t seen before: “I’m sorry. I can’t do it John. I don’t know how. Please John, forgive me.”

John thinks Sherlock is playing a trick, and rightly so, but caves anyway: “You are the best and wisest man I have ever known. Of course i forgive you.”

Then we get a flash to–

Another rooftop solution! This is the most plausible yet, though still a ways from believable. In short: Sherlock knew Moriarty was going to want him dead. He worked out 13 possible scenarios and with his brother devised a counter-move for each. Once Moriarty killed himself, Sherlock texted his brother the code for this exact situation. Operatives hustled out an airbag behind the ambulance station out of view from Watson. Sherlock jumped into the airbag, the bicycle-guy stalled Watson, the airbag was hustled away and Sherlock played dead, with a ball under his armpit to slow his pulse.

We see Sherlock telling all this to Anderson, but then this solution, too, seems to melt away. Is Anderson is having a deranged fantasy and not really talking to Sherlock?

We’re back in the subway car and Sherlock is snickering. He found an off-switch to the bomb and was pranking John — and us — yet again — about not knowing how to turn it off. Watson is mad enough to kill him and Sherlock replies, “Oh killing me. That’s so two years ago.”

Later they have a tender moment as Sherlock reveals he heard Watson’s grave-side wish. We meet Molly’s boyfriend, who looks and dresses suspiciously like Sherlock (so maybe she’s not over him after all). Sherlock puts on his deerstalker cap — embracing his iconography — and strolls out to meet the world. “Time to go and be Sherlock Holmes.”

And that’s where this dense, funny, and thrilling episode ends. Unusual, too. The crime mystery felt like an afterthought (concluded by a literal “Off” switch) as the show focused on Sherlock and Watson’s relationship. It revealed nothing about who was behind the attempt on Watson’s life, so that monitor-watching Big Bad has yet to be revealed. It also played a bit more like a comedy than an average episode. And while Sherlock has always been a fan-savvy show, the fandom-service was laid on pretty thick — there were so many nudges the episode practically leaves you with bruised ribs.

And is that the real solution to how Sherlock survived, or is that still to come later this season? Anderson himself poked holes in it and says he’s a “bit disappointed.” To some extent, disappointment is inevitable, but one would hope for something more plausible, or at least told with more firmness. It would have been cool for Sherlock to have said something right before they walked out in their last scene, a casual shrugging and brief throw-away of how he did it, either confirming the airbag version or something else, just tossed off like it’s no big deal. I’ve been tentatively told from a PBS source that the airbag version is … yes, IT. I’m double-checking this right now, waiting for firm confirmation that this last solution is indeed meant to be the real one. The ‘ol ball-under-the-armpit gag was a good simple element, at least. But I do feel that, especially after two years, it’s a bit of an elegantly constructed cop-out to not clearly/definitively reveal a solution.

Next week: The oddest, sweetest, most surreal episode of Sherlock ever! Until then, here’s a transcript of the Sherlock vs. Mycroft scene. And remember: “Weight loss, hair dye, Botox, affair.”

Episode Recaps

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the celebrated U.K. series
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  • 01/19/14
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