Like a bajillion other people, I’ve been waiting for two years for BBC’s Sherlock to return to television. Scheduling conflicts for leads Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (John Watson), as well as a little side commitment for producer and writer Steven Moffat, pushed back production for a seeming eternity. To say I was excited as the air date approached would be an understatement. Not “wedding-day” excited, but not too far a step back from there. I’m not obsessed—I don’t write fan fiction or anything—but I have had some pretty intense conversations about how Sherlock survived.
I had no doubt that Sherlock would be incredible. After all, they had two years to work on just three episodes, and their previous efforts were mind-blowingly good. Generally speaking, I’m not a re-watcher; I don’t like seeing TV episodes or movies more than once. I get bored too easily. Sherlock has been a massive exception. I’m not going to admit how many times I’ve watched the first two seasons, though I will say that I did so yet again in preparation for The Empty Hearse, episode 1 for season 3, and expectations were high.
First the good: Holy Rusted Metal, Batman! I frigging adore Amanda Abbington as Mary Morstan, and the chemistry between John, Mary, and Sherlock is, well, explosive. They’re great together. This isn’t too surprising, as Abbington is Freeman’s real life partner and mother to their two children. Abbington’s Mary is warm, funny, and delightfully manipulative. She immediately picks up on a skip clue she receives from one of the episode’s baddies. Sherlock’s once-over lists her as clever, disillusioned, a liar, and lover, among others. I really want to know what exactly is meant by “liar.” Can you imagine how awesome she’s going to be if Sherlock identified her as clever?
There was also a boatload of fan service in this episode. I’m pretty sure that Anderson and his Sherlock fan club/support group, the (eponymous) Empty Hearse, are only in the show to be a mouth for Sherlock’s legion of fans. Their conspiracy theories could have been lifted from any one of literally dozens of websites. His wall:
is covered with theory-tracing paraphernalia to communicate for the really slow people exactly how mad Anderson had been driven over his guilt about Sherlock’s suicide and his desperation to bring him back. How many of you caught the T.A.R.D.I.S. in the corner? Of course, the fan service didn’t end with conspiracy theories and mad Anderson. There was also the kiss with Molly Hooper and the fan fiction fodder with Jim Moriarty.
I love a lot of things about Sherlock, both as a series and as a character. The emotional work of the series is humanizing a genius isolated by his own brilliance and slowly teaching him what it is to be a man, and, more importantly, a friend. His small epiphanies, moments of surprise, empathy, and humor, grow warmer with every episode as Sherlock becomes invested in his relationship with John. Watching him declare John his friend in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the second episode of the second season, was triumphant (even if he was doing so in part to manipulate John into drinking the hallucinogenic tea). The changes in Sherlock’s character because of his interaction with John are evident from the first episode when he stops himself from revealing John to the police, and grow within the series–evident in the changes in Sherlock’s demeanor toward Molly, to the tears on his face during the goodbye at the end of “The Reichenbach Fall.” In “The Empty Hearse,” Sherlock is warmer, more likely to smile, and still blissfully out of touch with how normal people react to things. He is utterly convinced that his dear friend John will be happy to see him, despite vanishing and hiding the truth from him for two years. His shock at John’s reaction to his return is beautiful to behold. To be fair, so is John’s reaction. Sherlock is a jerk, and John really doesn’t pull his punches.
There is a fantastic moment in “The Empty Hearse” where Sherlock and Mycroft are discussing Sherlock’s strange new habit of making friends. Mycroft claims that being around normal people is like “watching goldfish,” but Sherlock insinuates that, since he’s been gone for two years, perhaps Mycroft has found himself a goldfish. Mycroft demands he change the subject in such a way that I hope there will be a Chekhov’s Gun moment later in the series. This moment is gold. In rewatching earlier episodes, the character growth is tangible. Though out the series, the writers have done an incredible job of building rounded characters with personal arcs.
This brings me to the beginning of my issues with “The Empty Hearse.” The poor directing decisions and writing gaffes managed to shake my trust in the series. I don’t know that they will do something with that amazing bit of dialogue between Sherlock and Mycroft. In the past, I’ve loved the use of minute details to hint at the overall plot. I’ve watched and rewatched “The Empty Hearse,” and from what I can tell, they didn’t do nearly so much with the set pieces and little acting tells. In this episode, the writing felt lazy regarding the mystery itself, as though the writers were more interested in the characters than the plot (to be fair, so am I).
The primary drive of the episode was to bring back Sherlock and move John back into the position of sidekick/goldfish/foil, while still allowing for emotional growth, character development, and fan appeasement. But, oh yeah!, they’re supposed to have a mystery as well, preferably one that allows Sherlock to demonstrate his appreciation for his heterosexual life partner by saving his life (again) and emotionally manipulating him into accepting an apology (again). The actual mystery was “meh” because we had seen all the elements before–crucial detail revealed by someone else’s neurotic hobby was so “The Great Game.” Saving someone’s life thanks to needless cryptic clues delivered by proxy: also “The Great Game.” The ease with which the mystery was solved felt unsatisfying. The episode starts on Bonfire Night. What else could the mystery be? The newly introduced villain was needlessly creepy. Doll heads in fruit bowls just seems like overkill.
Here’s the rant: Speaking of overkill, could we talk about lens flair? In Star Trek: Into Darkness, it was kind of cool, but too much. Why on earth did director Jeremy Lovering think that much lens flair was necessary in a subway tunnel, or in the stairwell, or any of the other random places it appeared? Or we could discuss the series of “mind palace” moments were Sherlock stopped what he was doing and closed his eyes for a while, accomplishing nothing save stalling the momentum of the episode? The placement of the actual “how he survived” reveal was absurd, cutting the climax of the episode in half and killing all seeming tension. Admittedly, that could have been the writing, but the point still stands.
I loved the fan service that cluttered the episode, and I loved every moment of the emotional denouement. Gatiss and Moffat know how to write complex characters and watching Sherlock navigate what it means to be a friend is a joyous thing to watch. He cares deeply about John, and is somewhat shocked that those feeling are reciprocated. He’s worried about Mary, but is already beginning to trust that he needn’t do so. In the hands of a better and more experienced director and solid editor, this could have been a decent episode. As it was, it’s a pale shadow of the Season 2 opener, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” an episode so tightly and cleanly written and directed that not a moment of screen time is wasted.