Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen the episode, this might give away a couple of things – so come back later if you don’t want to read any potential clues.
After the torment of two long, torturous years waiting with bated breath for the return of the world’s greatest detective (No, not Batman), Sherlock was finally released onto our screens this new year’s day, with a fun, fantastic and sprightly introduction to season three. It seemed that after we were forced to wait an age for an explanation as to how Sherlock survived that fall at the end of season two, the only way that he couldn’t be re-introduced with style and skill was with an air of humour. Rather than maintaining the tension that had been lingering in the air since that dreaded fall two January’s ago, The Empty Hearse played upon the questions that we, as fans, had been asking ourselves during the interim. Ever since 2012, the internet has been utterly awash with questions, and the brand new episode refused, as usual, to give us the answers that we craved straight away. Instead of immediate satisfaction, we were teased playfully with a series of delightful, spurious explanations – each one more brilliantly absurd than the last, keeping us amused and distracted from the tension that had built in that desperate search for answers. As a huge fan of Derren Brown, I confess to a small amount of disappointment upon discovering that he wasn’t actually involved in the survival of Sherlock, but his cameo was a fun extra, all the same, and the fake explanations in all of their glory allowed us to release that breath we had all been holding for two strained years.
The directors were in a particularly difficult situation after such a long absence, and the playful, coquettish response to the new series helped the episode to cut through all of the emotional debris that season two had left in its wake. Of course, as well as serving to relieve some of the pressure that had been looming over an entire fan-base during one fantastic episode of television, those fake-out explanations were a wonderful way to keep us entertained as we explored and deduced our way towards the real story and answers that we wanted – if that is indeed what we were given. The video-taped confession towards the conclusion of the episode was not, to me, a definitive answer to how Sherlock went about faking his death, but as Mark Gatiss – the episode’s writer – suggested, it is a ‘very plausible solution’, and perhaps the only one that we are going to get.
After the fun of the introduction brought us up to speed, the welcome home party for the detective began, and we were already at least half-way through the episode before we had been properly engaged within the central intrigue of the tube-train and the ‘underground’ threat. Before all of that, Benedict Cumberbatch was hurled sweating, bleeding and bruised back into our lives, shirtless, bearded and with an absurd wig as he was beaten to a pulp. The fact that he was restricted in a crucifixion pose was particularly interesting to me, as one of the many cheeky nods to Sherlock’s Christ-like powers of resurrection throughout the episode (take a moment to note the ‘Lazarus’ code-name, later on). A little bit of entertaining sibling rivalry in the form of what could only be described as a ‘deduction-off’ with Mycroft later, and Sherlock was quickly back on his way to seek out his companion John Watson, and – as something of a side-note, track down an underground terrorist cell.
Personally, I loved the reunion between Watson and Holmes, as in my opinion, it managed to tackle a particularly difficult situation with a remarkable concoction of grief and humour. Benedict Cumberbatch’s ridiculous behaviour teamed with Martin Freeman’s choked, livid silence and tense expression created an atmosphere of brilliantly comic rage that made the reunion not only memorable, but believable too. The mixture of laughs, shock, grief and violence made for a perfect reunion for a complicated pair, and Amanda Abbingdon managed to slot quite neatly into the ensemble as John’s fiancée Mary – even if the two did meet through work instead of a case as in Doyle’s version. The ‘I like him’ comment from Mary served to introduce her as an interesting, independent person, whilst ensuring that she did not become an easy source of fan resentment in coming between the much-adored Holmes and Watson duo.
On the note of fandom love, the red-herrings strewn throughout the introductory episode served another role by taking on the real-world celebrity of Sherlock and serving it back to the fans with a sense of inside understanding. The fantasies of Sherlock snogging the face off Molly, and – almost – Moriarty managed to echo a thousand different fan-fictions, and the red carpet was rolled out with style for the return of that much loved Belstaff coat. Of course, when a show joins in with the internet fandom that it has created, it risks becoming something of a pantomime of itself. However, The Empty Hearse, managed largely to avoid replacing a great story with jeering winks and nudges to the camera. It provided both good entertainment to those simply looking to enjoy some good television, and a treasure trove for the hard-core fan. The episode knew exactly where to position certain cues for the geeks to cheer with delight, but that didn’t restrict regular viewers from enjoying the episode if they hadn’t spent the last two years updating blogs with rooftop survival theories and fantasy romances.
Perhaps the only real problem I had with the new episode was the absence of a sense of actual peril. Although the old-fashioned bomb-countdowns and motorbike chases were quite exciting to witness – I couldn’t quite believe that there was any real danger of Watson being burned to crisp in a bonfire, or that the two of them would blow up in a tube car. In all honesty, I was never really scared for their lives, and the tension didn’t build in such a way that I was sat on the edge of my seat waiting for Sherlock to come up with an ingenious method of getting them out of trouble. Of course, the argument can be made that the terrorist thriller action was not the primary purpose of the introductory episode. Rather, The Empty Hearse was a way of reuniting John and Sherlock whilst putting a lid on those ‘how did he do it’ theories so that we could focus on getting back into the true spirit of the series once again. Introducing a new villain lurking in the shadows with a great Moriarty-like penchant for playing games did help me to get excited for the coming episodes, and despite the lack of ‘peril’, I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction to the new series. Bring on The Sign Of Three.
Come back next week for our look into the next episode.