The Empty Hearse

(70 comments)

This month we're filling in the gap between the last TARDIS Eruditorum post and the start of the Capaldi reviews by doing Sherlock Season Three on Tuesdays. These posts are sponsored by my backers at Patreon. If you enjoy this blog and want to continue seeing media criticism past the end of TARDIS Eruditorum, please consider backing.

"We're going to lie to you," Sherlock announced to ring in 2014, and then it went on to do just that. It had, in the tradition of fair lies, told as much well in advance. "It's a trick. Just a magic trick." And so, of course, it was. Indeed, The Empty Hearse is in effect a ninety minute exercise in arguing that the question of how Sherlock survived The Reichenbach Fall is irrelevant, or at least largely uninteresting.

To call this a bold response to one's own iconic pop culture moment seems an understatement. And the reactions at the time are worth recalling, even if it is only a year on. First and most interesting were those who felt that The Empty Hearse was mean-spirited in its treatment of fandom, a criticism that focused especially on the depiction of slash fiction within the episode. And yet it's difficult to quite articulate what about the portrayal of slash fans is offensive here. The only person to really mock them is Anderson, and Laura's observation that her Sherlock/Moriarty slash is no more ludicrous than some of Anderson's own theories is, in the context of the story's larger attitude towards the idea of "solving" Sherlock's survival, significant. She, at least, is in on her own joke, which Anderson never gets to be.

And it is, ultimately, the joke that's at issue, which is where this episode's boldness comes in. That The Empty Hearse was going to be read largely in terms of how well it resolved the cliffhanger was, of course, a foregone conclusion. You don't get to have that kind of media coverage and then not be judged on how you stick the landing. Devoting an entire episode to it instead of, as they had with the cliffhanger of The Great Game, lampshading it with an absurdly reductive resolution was essentially a necessity. But what wasn't necessary was making The Empty Hearse into a ninety minute exploration of what it means to resolve the cliffhanger in the first place.

Which brings us to the second reaction, the accusation that the story was self-indulgent. Which misses the point in many ways. Yes, three separate flashback sequences of "how Sherlock did it" are a bit self-indulgent, but this is clearly the purpose of the exercise. The resolution isn't how Sherlock did it, it's Sherlock and John making amends over a ticking time bomb, hence the cut to the "actual" explanation (which may or may not be the actual explanation, but is, one suspects, the explanation they had in mind when they filmed The Reichenbach Fall) in the middle of the climax, so as to hammer home the point about what actually matters in resolving the cliffhanger.

This gets to the third interesting reaction at the time, which was the degree to which this episode's best case scenario was clearly "not failing." It was generally judged to have done so, but praise for the episode was thin. It was designed to get the highest ratings of Season Three, but even before The Sign of Three it was also fairly obviously designed to be the least important one - the one that tied off the unfinished business of Season Two and cleared the decks for the other two episodes, one of which, we should recall, was only four days away anyway.

The snarky thing to say right now would be "plus it was the Gatiss episode," although that's unfair in the context of Sherlock in particular. Nevertheless, it's worth remarking up front about the implications of moving the Steven Moffat episode to the end of the run, given that it is clearly, after two seasons, Moffat who writes the big showpiece episodes of Sherlock. The decision to have the show's big open not be its creative showpiece is, in hindsight, significant, as it turns the series into, in effect, a training exercise for His Last Vow.

Which brings us back around to the issue of lying. Because the real crux of this is why it doesn't actually matter how Sherlock survived. For one school of thought, this was a point of maximal hubris - how dare you build up a cliffhanger for two years and then declare that it doesn't actually matter? But, of course, the episode ultimately makes a fairly compelling case, demonstrating that it's not actually very hard to come up with ways Sherlock could have survived, and that, indeed, people had spent the last two years coming up with a near-exhaustive list.

And then there's the other school of thought - the one that says that Sherlock is a show about the relationship between two people, and that the entire point of using Sherlock Holmes as the vehicle for this is because the actual act of deducing things and solving mysteries is effectively trivial. This, it's pretty obvious, is the school of thought that the actual people making Sherlock subscribe to. And so in the face of a cliffhanger mystery that threatened to consume the entire definition of what the show was, this sort of retrenchment was absolutely vital.

And in hindsight, it's what turns out to be most important about this episode. Watching Amanda Abbington's performance with knowledge of what's to come is fascinatingly revealing - her delivery of the line where she notes that of course Sherlock told Molly he was alive, because he'd need a confidant is delightfully nuanced - you can see her own version of John and Sherlock's addiction to what they do as she finds herself instinctively playing along with Sherlock, providing the basis for her beautifully delivered "I like him" in the cab to John. This is clearly what the show would like to be doing, and fair enough - it's appreciably more exciting than a ninety minute tease to get us back to the point where we actually have a functional show again.

It seems silly to complain that The Empty Hearse is bad, not least because it isn't. But it's ninety minutes of retraining us to watch Sherlock - reminding us that this show is a shell game about how many steps ahead of the narrative Sherlock is, in which everything we see is game for a sudden forced reevaluation. Gatiss fills the intervening moments well - the choice of the Underground setting based on seeing Web of Fear is sweet, not least because Gatiss is right that it provides good imagery - and the fact that they do the Giant Rat of Sumatra case is both a nice nod to Sherlock Holmes canon and a charming Doctor Who joke.

More substantively, there are some great character moments both small (Lestrade's reaction to Sherlock's return, John apologizing to Mrs. Hudson in an inversion of the train scene at the end) and large (Mycroft and Sherlock's game of deductions). At every turn, this is better than it needs to be. But it is, I think, the episode of Season Three where it doesn't feel like their heart is in it, and when they're stuck doing what they have to do instead of what they want to do. The result is a beautifully made clearing of the throat, to which the only real response is "fair enough, what's next?"

Comments

David Anderson 2 years, 1 month ago

It seemed obvious to me that Anderson was the butt of the slash fiction joke.

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Scurra 2 years, 1 month ago

I love Elementary (and Castle, and Monk, and all those other nonsense quirky detective shows that the US does so well) because they are - for better or worse - actually detective shows. Those stories are about the plot, with some character development - better in Elementary than in many shows, admittedly, but still subordinate to the plot. (I hate "police procedural" shows because they're dull. Or maybe it's because the quirky 'tec shows are more puzzle boxes than anything else and that's my thing?)
Sherlock isn't one of those shows, probably because it doesn't have enough space to be one. It's not even really a character piece, although it does that better than most.
Writing this, it has finally occurred to me that Sherlock is actually a James Bond movie. All those quirky detective shows (even allowing for the ridiculousness of the scenarios engineered to make it possible for the characters to actually work) have a vague pretence of living in the real world - contrived murders included.
But I think I'd argue that Sherlock clearly does not. Sherlock's world only exists for the purpose of telling these few Sherlock stories. (In that way, it's very akin to the Star Wars "universe, which so utterly fails to be plausible as anything other than a device for telling one specific story, but that's a whole different argument,)

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EvilBug 2 years, 1 month ago

Moffat thinks he's clever. He's not. If he doesn't know how Sherlock survived, he shouldn't make us ponder this for months. The Empty Hearse was the day I realized that Sherlock is a terrible show.

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

I really enjoyed the fact that the episode played with myriad possibilities and speculation about how the fall was carried out and didn't aim to *solve* it was wonderful. Brilliant character moments - I especially enjoyed the deductive sparring between Holmes and Mycroft. I didn't ever find the way the episode played with truth and fiction a problem, but found it celebratory and an absolute joy.

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5tephe 2 years, 1 month ago

I completely agree with your review of this one Phil, apart from one minor quibble.

I never got the sense that Gatiss or the show approached the brief with a sigh of having to get a chore out of the way. I think all concerned, but Gatiss especially, leaped at it with full riotous enthusiasm.

I remember a childish voice within me being miffed just as it ended,that they had declined to mail down the exact method of his escape. For about half a second. I wad them flooded worn joy at the gumption an sheet insight of it all.

Of course it doesn't matter! Hell, in the original work we only have Holmes' unreliable (and frankly implausible) word to go on anyway. It suddenly occurred to me that HE could well have been lying to Watson, and all my life is never realized it till I saw this version.

Moat and Gatiss expanded the Canon for me, and that was a rare treat.

Bravo!

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5tephe 2 years, 1 month ago

Gah. Typed on a phone. Sorry. You'll work it out.

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

I felt myself too that the whole episode was written with real joy and freedom; revelling in all the probabilities whilst creating lots of room for the rest of the story to flow.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

I too think it's written with pleasure and verve. But I think Phil has a point in consideration of what follows it. Because what follows makes The Empty Hearse feel perfunctory.

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Adam Riggio 2 years, 1 month ago

It's a weirder show than it looks from the basic description on the tin. It's gotten weirder than it was at the beginning. I'd say it's actually not that clever anymore (though it was at the beginning). It's a very smart show, sometimes too smart for its own good.

Phil's on to something when he talks about how, ultimately, the exact mechanics of how Sherlock survived don't actually matter to the story. Most of the time in action shows, especially in pre-2000s American television, when a character comes back from their apparent death (especially when it was a season-ending cliffhanger or other major event), it's barely explained how or why. I'm thinking in particular of how Murdoch survived getting blown up so many times on MacGyver.

And that's corny as hell. But the solution to a cliffhanger of how a character survived some event of their certain death would never quite satisfy. It's the old lesson that the solution to a mystery is always more satisfying, inventive, or freaky in the head of many individual audience members than the producers can actually develop. The Empty Hearse swallows this dilemma whole.

It lampshades the meta-fictional aspect of this dilemma precisely because it doesn't settle for certain on one single explanation of Holmes' survival. Instead of the show imposing a master narrative and a clear canon of events on the audience, Sherlock has done a weird, experimental thing by opening up an empty space in the narrative for the audience's theories about Holmes' fake death to fly around and interact. Sherlock fans can now discuss among themselves how they wrote the show in this blank space that was left for them.

If you're used to the style of narrative where all the blank spaces are filled in for you, then you'll be dissatisfied with this new way of shaping a fictional narrative. But I, at least, don't really feel much attachment to this more passive, completist way of absorbing narrative.

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EvilBug 2 years, 1 month ago

Most modern shows, probably post-LOST (and whodunit series like Sherlock, long before that) invite audience to participate in guessing game. Part of the fan social experice is to compete with others on guessing. And although fan ideas might be cooler, more extravagant than correct answer, correct answer is the core mechanics that makes cliffhanger meaningful. Not giving an answer is the most unsatisfying answer.

Doyle meant to kill Holmes and than caved under pressure and brought him back. What's Moffat's excuse.

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David Anderson 2 years, 1 month ago

Moffat and Gatiss are writing an episode which is about how cliffhangers work, and the fact that fan ideas can be more fun than the correct answer.

It's not that they didn't come up with a solution: they showed two, either of which would have been acceptable as solutions. That they didn't just pick one is not because they couldn't think of which one to pick or couldn't be bothered. Not liking postmodernist stories about stories is a fine aesthetic taste, but that doesn't mean that postmodernist stories about stories are terrible.

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Scurra 2 years, 1 month ago

Doyle meant to kill Holmes and than caved under pressure and brought him back.
Really? So he wrote a story in which nobody saw anything, let alone a body? And we're supposed to believe that he "caved under pressure" to bring Holmes back?
Yes, I am aware that Doyle had expressed his dissatisfaction publicly. But then again, Davies & Moffat spent their entire Who careers lying as well...

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Seeing_I 2 years, 1 month ago

There's something interesting to be said about the conversation between Sherlock and Doctor Who, with Moffat working out his theories of cliffhangers, narrative substitutions, etc across both platforms. I don't know exactly what, but...there's something!

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Ombund 2 years, 1 month ago

"There's something interesting to be said about the conversation between Sherlock and Doctor Who, with Moffat working out his theories of cliffhangers, narrative substitutions, etc across both platforms".

I think Phil said it back in the Wedding of River Song entry. The Empty Hearse is essentially the same story but with the emphasis now correctly on the emotional effects of the apparent death, rather than the mechanics of the reveal (which are inevitably destined to be an anti-climax anyway).

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

@ Jane, yes in that context the other two episodes do in narrative terms go beyond this first one as well as taking the experiment to new places.

@ Seeing_I, absolutely there is and Ombund has it above. The key point I agree is in the movement away from *cool* mechanics and into exploring how the actions of characters and their consequences affect one another. Yes the discovery of a truth behind a mystery will probably always turn out to be much less exciting than anything our imagination can generate.

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Theonlyspiral 2 years, 1 month ago

I would also like to point out that it doesn't matter if other shows invite you to play a guessing game. Sherlock comes from across the pond, and TV made by the BBC is a slightly different animal than American productions. This isn't a show that services fans first. It was obviously a love letter to them, no question. The fact we have Anderson's group of fans and that the obvious shots taken at them aren't is telling. Gatiss can be very nasty when he wants to be and he simply wasn't here.

It's interesting that you bring up LOST especially when juxtaposed with works involving Steven Moffat, considering that he never gives you the solution. There's no way to figure most of his stories. He never gives you the chance. The paranoid reading style that comes out of the X-Files and the 90's just doesn't interest him.

It does obviously interest you. But I think you're coming to the bar at a sushi restaurant and ordering chili. I don't watch soap operas or sitcoms. They're just not things I enjoy. Sherlock isn't a procedural, it's a character piece with those tropes and identifiers being borrowed and arranged in ways that allow the writers to tell stories about Mary-John-Sherlock.

It might not be what you're looking for, but I don't think it's terrible.

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UrsulaL 2 years, 1 month ago

This episode felt, to me, not like a mockery of fandom, but rather a love-letter to it.

People sitting around for hours, talking about Sherlock Holmes? That Gatiss and Moffat, and that's why we have the show in the first place, because they are people who could spend hours on a train talking about their favorite stories.

And the fact that we see a community built up around this obsession. Isn't that the whole production of the show? Friends and family, creating and sharing stories together.

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Adam Riggio 2 years, 1 month ago

Not giving an answer is only unsatisfying if you want to be given an answer. Keeping the actual cliffhanger resolution mechanics indeterminate lets you write it yourself. If you find the guessing game fun, there's no reason for it to end.

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

Agreed, I think the whole approach of those running the show, especially Moffat and Gatiss is that of love for the source material.

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 1 month ago

If only they'd left the end of Doctor Who Series 6 ambiguous too, regarding how the Doctor survives his 'death', instead of just using a crappy shape-shifting robot.

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Leslie Lozada 2 years, 1 month ago

@adam


Your first sentence sorta related to LOST, in the sense that there was a faction that only cared about the characters.

I would be one of them.

To me, this episode is amazing, and yes they could have explain it but it's alright if they didn't.

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storiteller 2 years, 1 month ago

"It's interesting that you bring up LOST especially when juxtaposed with works involving Steven Moffat, considering that he never gives you the solution."

I think it's telling that most of the shows that inspire these paranoid readings have almost universally panned endings. There's just no way that they could possibly match what was in people's imaginations. They either became a confusing mess (X-Files and Lost), never explained large chunks of the story (both) and/or had a somewhat unsatisfying explanation (also Lost - by the point X-Files explained things, most people stopped watching).

The only show to do this satisfactorily for me is actually Twin Peaks, where they went completely bonkers and made one of the trippiest, most confusing finales of all time that is meta as hell.

So personally, I didn't get offended by this episode of Sherlock (I suspect I will have deep disagreements with Phil on His Final Vow) and it just may be not your taste if it bothered you to the core. ]

Also, I love Sherlock in that goofy hat.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 1 month ago

This seems a silly argument considering Moffat's body of work - Phil has clearly traced Moffat's ability to create effective mysteries and puzzle-box plots with satisfying answers nearly in his sleep. If Moffat didn't give us this particular answer, it's not because he can't or won't be bothered to think of one, but to make some sort of point, which Phil outlines above. Your mileage may vary, and I certainly can't say that anyone is obligated to like this episode or Sherlock on aesthetic grounds. But the charge that Moffat isn't clever or that Sherlock is (on these grounds) a bad show seems pretty unfounded.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 1 month ago

I agree - I really found this episode energetic and enjoyable. The criticisms of making fun of fandom don't seem to realize that it's also affectionate towards fandom, and self-parodic if anything. I thought all three of these episodes were great, actually.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 1 month ago

Yup, agreed.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 1 month ago

Other shows with controversial endings are Prisoner and BSG. I'll defend the former. The latter is a tougher job; a show about people who have never agreed on anything for four years suddenly has them all unanimously agree on a crazy, self-imperiling action they would never conceivably agree on.

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

Meant to post comment above in response to UrsulaL.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 1 month ago

My only regret about the multiple solutions is that by the time I watched it I'd been spoilered that the first one wasn't real. Which meant I didn't get to spend five minutes fuming that it didn't make sense before going "Ahhh!" which is surely the correct reaction.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 1 month ago

But why are we talking about Moffat at all? Thomas wrote "Reichenbach", Gatiss (co-showrunner, lest we forget) wrote "Hearse". Even accepting EvilBug's premise that there's one way to write a detective show and this wasn't it, the only reason to use the episode to beat Moffat around the head is if you want to beat Moffat around the head and this episode happens to have come to hand.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

I'm gonna have to be that guy.

Answers to questions ARE interesting. They're why we analyze anything at all, whether it's an astrophysics problem or an episode of television. The cliche that the mystery is always more wonderful than the solution is exactly that: one of those maxims that sounds counterintuitive and poetic, qualities which are too often mistaken as indicators of truth. The questions and the mysteries are indeed more intriguing if your answers and solutions are terrible. "The solution is never more interesting than the mystery" is only true if you don't put in the creative work to make both of them interesting. I'm not saying it's lazy not to do it; I'm saying a lot of writers swallow this idea whole and put in the work elsewhere.

So if the place you put in the work is in depicting the relationship, well, okay. What did we find? It's been a while, so there are probably nuances I've forgotten, but mainly we found that Watson was angry at being deceived by Sherlock. I can't say I was clever enough to come up with any of the "how did he survive the fall?" hypotheses on my own, but I would be pretty fucking stupid if I couldn't have guessed at how this would affect their relationship. It was fun to watch, because Cumberbatch and Freeman are magnificent in these roles, but it was not at all interesting or surprising.

Are we really all so brilliant, so well-educated, such polymaths that we know enough about physics, medicine, anatomy, psychology, sociology, and so on that the mechanics of a feasible solution to the fall are really less interesting than a few "I thought you were dead, how dare you" scenes? And more importantly, can we really not think of how a carefully chosen solution to the problem wouldn't have expanded the storytelling possibilities from there on? Some of them were relatively self-contained, but some could just as easily have led to an expanded role for the Irregulars, developed Sherlock's relationship with Molly, or even just added "you drugged me" to Watson's list of grievances. Aggrieved but unwavering loyalty is a given for the Sherlock/Watson relationship, and as endearing as it is, it is only reinforced here, not really explored.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed this episode, as I've enjoyed 7 out of the 9 Sherlock episodes so far. But the non-solution is frustrating for the same reason that the non-motive in episode 1 is frustrating: it removes a genuinely worthwhile and interesting layer from the story and puts a shallow game in its place, and then it insists we're better off for it. I just can't agree.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

The unsatisfying nature of not giving an answer really helps explain the way millions of people watched and loved this episode.

Stop trying to elevate your personal taste to universal aesthetic judgment. It's a dreadful habit.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

But the solution to a cliffhanger of how a character survived some event of their certain death would never quite satisfy. It's the old lesson that the solution to a mystery is always more satisfying, inventive, or freaky in the head of many individual audience members than the producers can actually develop.

So why pose the mystery in the first place? If the producers can't develop something more interesting than I can, first of all it suggests that my imagination is more sophisticated and powerful than theirs (which I doubt), and second of all, if the solution doesn't mean anything, what does the mystery mean?

The mere fact that people even tried to figure it out suggests that the solution is in fact very interesting. And why in the world we can't have both the solution to the mystery AND the reaction to the death is baffling to me.

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Anton B 2 years, 1 month ago

As an amateur magician (prestidigitation and close-up card stuff) I was once performing, impromptu for a group of, slightly stoned, friends. One of them became quite agitated and verbally aggressive, insisting that "You're not magic, it's just a trick!" to which I replied along the lines of "Well duh! I never said I was, I'm showing you a trick". I refused to show him how the trick was done though and he came up with a couple of ways I could have achieved the effect (both of them wrong but I denied the plausibility of neither). I think the point I'm making is that it's usually nothing but disappointing when the workings of an illusion are revealed and to do so often destroys the 'magic' of the effect. In the case of the episode of Sherlock in question, I think Moffat and Gattis are saying the same thing. The people who get angry about it are those who, like my friend at the party, make an assumption about the nature of the narrative being presented and feel that in some way they are being cheated.

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Carey 2 years, 1 month ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

I think one of the hard lessons I've had to learn about Sherlock is that "the nature of the narrative" is not to be a detective story. But in a typical detective story, we do learn whodunnit and howdunnit, and it's not disappointing at all unless you're just the kind of person who doesn't like detective stories.

If you're an amateur magician, I bet you are interested in how a particular trick is performed. I suppose it's possible that you feel disappointed every time you learn how to do a new one, and yearn to feel the same sense of baffled wonder you're trying to induce in your audience, but I'd be willing to bet that the methods and mechanics of the trick are interesting to you personally, and that's part of why you do it. There are probably members of your audience who are let down when a seemingly impossible thing turns out to be entirely possible, but there are probably others like you who find it more interesting to know how a trick is done rather than less.

Not that I'm saying you should reveal all your secrets. I know that's not how magicians roll. I'm just saying it's not a universal truth that an unsolved mystery is more compelling than a solved one, and that there is probably a sizeable chunk of Sherlock's audience who are detective fiction fans and are fascinated, not disenchanted, by finding out how "impossible" things can be done.

If that's not the story Moffat and Gatiss chose to tell, that's cool. If they honestly believed that story is impossible to tell in a compelling way, I think they underestimated themselves.

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Carey 2 years, 1 month ago

"So why pose the mystery in the first place?"

I think Phil may have said this in previous Sherlock essays, but it definitely needs to be born in mind now: Sherlock is as much an exploration into all interpretations of Holmes over the one and a quater centuries of his existence, but extrapolated primarily from Doyles original stories, as it is a mystery series or character study. The Empty Hearse is about the intervening century's seeming dissatisfaction with the solution to The Empty House, and how many times the 'real' story has been told of what happened either instead of or after The Final Solution. In some Michael Dibden's mind, he was Jack The Ripper; in Nicholas Meyer's mind he finally confronted the tragic death of his mother by his father's hands while she was in the embrace of Holmes' maths tutor, leading him into cocaine addiction and a vendetta against professor Moriarty who wasn't actually a master criminal, simply a participant in adultery. I'm sure I've seen a collection of stories where Holmes absconds to the Far East after the Reichenback Falls, and another where he heads to the U.S.

This is one of the many things The Empty Hearse is doing, and doing spectacularly well. 2013 was a good one for Mark Gattis the writer: exemplary episodes in two of televisions best shows.

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Anton B 2 years, 1 month ago

@encyclops
Of course you're right but there is always a part of me that's slightly disappointed when I find out how a trick is done. It's somehow never as 'clever' as one would like.
Now from the point of view of a writer, then yes I would love to see how Gattis or Moffat might have extricated Sherlock from his death and in fact two or three perfectly reasonable explanations were shown. Worrying about which was the 'real' one is as pointless as believing that all fiction is 'gossip about imaginary people' or that Tom Baker's head was being held underwater for a whole week between episodes of The Deadly Assassin. Of course it would be annoying if every detective show employed this tack from now on because the 'narrative' of most detective shows is the solving of the puzzle. Sherlock, as Phil Sandifer points out, despite copping some of their tropes, is not most detective shows.
Returning to my card trick analogy. If I showed you an illusion and then presented you with three different and equally viable ways it could have been done, that might (in the right circumstances) enhance the entertainment value without spoiling the 'magical' effect.
What The Empty Hearse did, for me, was perform the post-modern trick of showing the structure of a genre trope in order to deconstruct and examine it. This did not negate the, probably thousands, of other more traditional puzzle style Sherlock Holmes TV shows, films etc that already exist; any more than an experimental cover of a classic pop song 'destroys' the original.
I can, however, see how some people might be frustrated or even angry about this. My housemate at the time, funnily enough an avant garde musician but a Holmes fan of the traditionalist school, hated it.

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David Anderson 2 years, 1 month ago

To follow along the same lines...

I think the key to what Moffat and Gatiss are doing is the slash fiction. What the joke is saying is that slash fiction is just as fun and engaged a way to respond to the series as any other form of engagement. And in order to make the serious point behind the joke stick, the episode can't then go on to say, slash fiction is all very well, but here is the proper answer. The difference between Laura and Philip is that Laura thinks Sherlock is a fictional story, and she is of course quite right.
What Moffat and Gatiss are doing is taking a stick and poking the idea and structure of cliffhangers in detective fiction in general because that's actually quite interesting.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

What The Empty Hearse did, for me, was perform the post-modern trick of showing the structure of a genre trope in order to deconstruct and examine it.

Which I think is not a terrible thing to do. That I personally found it rather less interesting than other people did doesn't matter in the grand scheme. But the main point I want to make is that if "The Empty Hearse" is worth watching -- and I thought and think it is -- it's not because it left a mystery intact. It's because of what it did instead of explicating that mystery in the traditional way. Leaving a mystery unsolved is sometimes more interesting, but it seems as though we turn that sometimes into "always" through a weird game of poetic telephone, and it (obviously) drives me up the wall. :)

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5tephe 2 years, 1 month ago

I do know exactly where EvilBug and encyclops are coming from, but when you say "if [Moffat] doesn't know how Sherlock survived..." you're missing a big point.

Moffat does know. Had he decided to, he could have told Gatiss to write ANY specific escape concept, insisted that it was the RIGHT answer, and we would all have had to wear that. Even if it was a dumb as Laura's idea. Now THAT would have been disappointing.

Instead he offered
First: One unsatisfying but technically plausible one.

Second: Laura's one, to lampshade how ridiculous you can get when trying to unravel conspiracy theories, while also pointing out HOW DAMN MUCH speculation there already had been around the question, and thus that no matter what solution Moffat/Gatiss put forward someone on the internet was about to start crowing "I WAS RIHGT!"

Third: Sherlock's own explanation. This looked like it was going to be the ultimate solution that we were going to be given, and while plausible, had a hole, which Watson pointed out as we all realised it.

Then Sherlock flat out tells Watson that he's still got secrets, and he's not going to tell him how he did it.

Rather than Moffat "not knowing", it is instead Moffat acknowledging that he could set everything in stone, but that it would in some way detract from Sherlock as a character. Like I say in my earlier post (below) it suddenly made me realise that Holmes could well have been lying to Watson in the Conan Doyle story: why not? It actually makes a lot of sense.

It is Moffat allowing us all to have whatever version we want to in our heads, as well as allowing Sherlock to be the mysterious character that he is.

Remember, it's not like there are an actual set of historical events that happened, with one true objective version, that has to be explained. Any solution was only going to be Moffat's version. Not Holmes'.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

Just to point out, there's no reason to think that Moffat is the senior partner in creating Sherlock or that he gives orders to Gatiss.

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5tephe 2 years, 1 month ago

...fair point. Reflexive habit from Doctor Who, I guess.,

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

I'll put my hand up and admit it was me above who used the word "always" when I said "a mystery will probably always turn out to be much less exciting than anything our imagination can generate". What I really could have done was phrase it better by saying that for my own self it will often be the case that over explained mysteries will be less interesting - rather than sounding absolutist about it and driving folk up walls :)

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Kit Power 2 years, 1 month ago

Seconded. The idea that having an actual solution would automatically diminish any of the rest of the great things this episode does seems on the face of it a false statement. Thanks for being That Guy - I didn't have the energy for it, but I wholeheartedly agree.

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David Anderson 2 years, 1 month ago

The meta-fictional aspect of The Empty Hearse and the multiple solutions feels more like Moffat's techniques and concerns rather than Gatiss'.

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

The way I see it, BBC's Sherlock is a superhero series (specifically, it's Batman, with a Catwoman, a Joker, and a guest appearance by Lex Luthor) and CBS's Elementary is a cyberpunk detective series. The most interesting result of this is how each show treats Mr. Holmes. Sherlock is "the world's first/only consulting detective," whereas Sherlock is "one of our consultants". Sherlock just has to be appreciably and visibly a better detective than anybody else in the world of his show, Sherlock has to be a better detective than everybody else in fiction.

Ironically, Sherlock's drug problem is treated as a punchline (literally, every single time it's brought up, it's either the setup or punchline to a joke), but Sherlock's is treated as a full on yellow wooden kryptonite Super Weakness. But then, tortured detective, hardly genre busting there...

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

>But the solution to a cliffhanger of how a character survived some event of their certain death would never quite satisfy. It's the old lesson that the solution to a mystery is always more satisfying, inventive, or freaky in the head of many individual audience members than the producers can actually develop.

I'm forced to reject this statement on very personal aesthetic grounds. It's certainly the case that not every resolution to every mystery can be satisfactory, but it's self evidently false that "the solution to a mystery is always more satisfying, inventive, or freaky in the head of many individual audience members than the producers can actually develop." If nothing else, the producers always have, in their favor, the fact that they can unilaterally declare things which then totally change how people interact with the entire work. Which is to say, the creators have the power to create plot twists. Nobody even knew there was a mystery to be had about Luke's father until Vader told him the truth. In the particular example of Sherlock, the escalating revelations of things which we know to be true (namely who knew about what, when) serve to completely change the game for us. We knew Molly had to be in on it, we didn't know the same of Mycroft, 100 homeless people, dozens of gunmen taking aim at Moriarty's assassins, the dizzying array of backup plans, each with its own name...

... anyways, on the topic of the actual episode, Moran was a bit lame, wasn't he? I really preferred the Elementary version, I think...

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

The only objection I have to the "how he did it" segments is that we only get two. Three would have been proper (not counting the slash fiction one, though do see the point of it, marking slash fiction as just as valid a way of interacting with the story as trying to figure out the mystery), but I remember hearing a rumor before the episode came out that, in fact, every episode in the series would have a fake explanation or two, which would have been hilarious, turning the resolution to the biggest cliffhanger in the series into a running gag.

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

I just sorta mumbled an incoherent version of this a few threads up before coming across this. This is what I was talking about up there, only expressed much better.

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Kit Power 2 years, 1 month ago

No Jarl, you did good too - thank you also.

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David Ainsworth 2 years, 1 month ago

There was never a mystery here to begin with, though. It's like Davies' line on children being too wise to think Rose would get killed off: we've already seen that Sherlock survived, and know that the show is coming back. The only story left to tell about faking his death is a Columbo-style story about his survival being painstakingly uncovered, but Sherlock spoils that by revealing himself.

Asking "how did he do it" clearly amounts to asking a series of loosely related questions. How did they film it? What's inplied by what they didn't film? What did the writers have in mind? These are all questions that deny the power of audience interpretation, that claim only the creators of something get to tell us what it means.

Complaining that those creators tell us that what it meant was entirely about the relationship between Sherlock and John, NOT about the specific mechanism involved in Sherlock faking his own death, is to complain that only the creators' interpretation matters but that their interpretation is wrong.

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David Ainsworth 2 years, 1 month ago

Key to this episode is Sherlock's (genuine, I think) explanation that he had a dozen contingency plans in place. Both he and the writers are saying there are a bunch of answers. And this is fiction, not astrophysics, so no objective answer exists to be proven from observation. That means only the writers know what Sherlock "really" did. If they tell you they never bothered to decide what that was for certain, shouldn't that be a problem with the LAST episode, and not this one?

I agree that Empty Hearse is being deliberately frustrating, though, like the friend who tells you a riddle and then says "I don't actually know the answer." But is a riddle with multiple right answers really a riddle of the sort you describe?

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Anton B 2 years, 1 month ago

So am I right in my understanding that some people are insisting that, in order to satisfy some imagined dramatic convention, the author(s) of The Empty Hearse are obliged to give their own 'definitive' explanation of how their eponymous protagonist survived (a fact that was established at the end of the previous series and in any case is made pretty obvious by the very existence of a further series, named after the said protagonist) but reserve the right to disagree with that explanation? I don't see a problem with that. However that disagreement shouldn't be used to critique the episode on anything other than a subjective level. Again, that's fair enough. The death of the author (the suggestion that 'authorial intent' is an unqualifiable and irrelevant concept) is, after all, hardly a new tool in literary or media studies close readings. I always find it interesting though when people get annoyed or alarmed by the power that gives them as viewers or readers.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

Oh, it's not just you, Daru -- I hear that all the time. And I hear it because yeah, often it IS true, and that's because it's much easier to come up with a compelling mystery than it is to come up with a compelling solution, just as it's easier to start a story than to end it, or really to start pretty much any project than to complete it.

I'm sounding like a broken record here so I'll try and shut up. :)

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

So am I right in my understanding that some people are insisting

I'm not sure which people you mean. I assume you don't mean me, but just in case, I'm not insisting anything remotely like that. I can't speak for anyone else. :)

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Anton B 2 years, 1 month ago

No certainly not you encyclops, or anyone on here actually but I do get the impression that it's an attitude that has been expressed elsewhere.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

These are all questions that deny the power of audience interpretation, that claim only the creators of something get to tell us what it means.

Complaining that those creators tell us that what it meant was entirely about the relationship between Sherlock and John, NOT about the specific mechanism involved in Sherlock faking his own death, is to complain that only the creators' interpretation matters but that their interpretation is wrong.


I'm confused. Are you saying that it's disempowering to the audience to rob them of the opportunity to guess at the different ways Sherlock could have survived, but that it's not disempowering to them to rob them of the opportunity to guess at how this affects the relationship between Sherlock and John?

Imagine if rather than showing us scenes where John reacts to learning that Sherlock is still alive and that Sherlock reacts to John's anger, those scenes were never filmed and we merely see them together afterward. We have to infer what happened between them, to exercise the power of audience interpretation to fill in those blanks with whatever we imagine. Certainly it is exactly this sort of thing that fanfiction does all the time, as the episode itself reminds us with the Sherlock/Moriarty smoochtease (right, I'm never saying that again).

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

I agree that Empty Hearse is being deliberately frustrating, though, like the friend who tells you a riddle and then says "I don't actually know the answer." But is a riddle with multiple right answers really a riddle of the sort you describe?

It depends on why my friend told me the riddle. Was it because he enjoys pissing me off and wanted to see me try to figure it out? Was it because he likes the idea of a riddle with multiple answers and finds that interesting? Was it because each of the multiple answers tells us something different about him as a person? Was it because he believes the answer to a riddle can never be as interesting as the riddle itself? Or was it because he wanted to make some condescending point about people who try to figure out riddles?

I feel as though the main reason Thompson/Gatiss/perhaps Moffat posed this particular riddle/mystery/puzzle/astrophysics problem was to make sure people didn't forget about the show for the two years it was off the air. Luckily they came back with what I personally thought was the most consistently enjoyable season yet, and I totally include this episode in that.

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Matt Moore 2 years, 1 month ago

As noted in the write-up of The Reichenbach Fall, that episode does not end with the same cliffhanger as The Final Problem. Holmes is definitely alive rather than possibly dead. And we see him just after an outpouring of grief from Watson. The cliffhanger being put forward is not "how did he survive?" or even "why is he in hiding?" but rather "what will happen when Watson finds out he's alive?" That's what's being set up in that final scene.

Now the cliffhanger for Sherlock lasts around 2 years. The suspense goes on for a long time. And inevitably the explanations that are given are not going to provide as much measure pleasure as the speculations in the interim.

The Sherlock product team don't pretend to be unaware of their fan base. Are they mocking them in fanfic sections? Well, yes. Totally. They are not saying that fan obsession is normal or worthy of praise. But they are also mocking them with a certain amount of insider observation - they are fans themselves.

It's perhaps worth noting what the fans are obsessed about. They are obsessed with solving a puzzle rather than the emotional and human implications of that puzzle (slash fanfic aside). Which is exactly the criticism that other characters make of the titular protagonist. He's more concerned with intellectual challenges and adventures that the people around him.

Returning to the Reichenbach Fall, the emotional charge in the fake death comes from the choice presented to Sherlock at the end. He has to give up everything at the end to protect the people that have become his friends. But of course, he doesn't give up everything, he outsmarts his enemy and lives. Which is perhaps one reason why he acts like a dick in The Empty Hearse. He's been able to avoid some of the hard choices that lead to personal growth just because he is a genius. The denouement at the end of His Last Vow doesn't allow him to do that. He gets well & truly outsmarted and has to make a choice that has a real personal cost for him. Unless he engineered both the Magnusson shooting and the "did you miss me" thing, of course.

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

Yeah thanks encyclops, honestly that's why I love this site and the commenting community, that there's diverse opinions and we can listen to each other. So cheers for "being that guy".

I'm sure that part about a story being easier to start than to end was possibly the case Conan Doyle - if you chuck your hero and his nemesis over a cliff that's gonna be hard to come back from. I think The Empty Hearse works a whole lot better, for example, than Doctor Who series 6 where the whole possibility of being trapped by the end of the story was kind of scuppered by the series beginning with the climax.

Anyways, enjoyed your comments, cheers :)

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

My mother's theory is that Mycroft and possibly Sherlock as well are actually the engineers behind Moriarty's seeming resurrection, using footage recorded during Moriarty's incarceration in The Hounds of Baskerville. I could definitely see Mycroft doing it, but I'm not sure about Sherlock.

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Matt 2 years, 1 month ago

More to the point, I could see Moffat doing that. But I hope he won't.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

They are obsessed with solving a puzzle rather than the emotional and human implications of that puzzle (slash fanfic aside).

Well of course they are. The emotional and human implications are obvious, in part because, even though you're suggesting otherwise, they don't see the world the way Sherlock does. The answers to the question "what will happen when Watson finds out he's alive?" are thunderingly obvious. Anyone who's watched television or, really, ever interacted with people knows what will happen. Watson will be relieved and angry. He'll forgive Sherlock sooner or later, because if he doesn't the show is over. There's nothing to speculate about. It is in fact because emotions come naturally to Sherlock's audience and the solutions to the puzzles that are obvious to him do not come naturally to us that there is a puzzle to solve here at all. And if this were not the case, we wouldn't watch Sherlock because it would serve our particular interests so poorly.

Jarl, I think your mother's theory is much better than Moriarty actually being alive. Pretty much the only way to get Sherlock out of this jam is to pretend there still exists a threat only he can eliminate. And who better to pull the strings of a fake Moriarty than Sherlock's brilliant brother?

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 2 years, 1 month ago

That fact that we even need a scheme to bring Moriaty back to keep Sherlock around is reminding just how unbelievably stupid the last ten minutes of His Last Vow is. Mycroft - who at times is the British Government and once stuffed a plane full of real corpses to try and foil terrorists - can't just, I don't know, take the laptop out of Magnussen's hands and then have him disappeared? no! Sherlock's got to kill him for... because... and then his brother has to have exiled... because.

God I hate that ending. I hate it so much.

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Matt Moore 2 years, 1 month ago

"The answers to the question "what will happen when Watson finds out he's alive?" are thunderingly obvious" - really?

Knowing that something is going to happen is different to watching it play out. Otherwise this episode would have been very different. "John, I'm back". "You bastard. I am angry. Now I am relived" - instead we get Mary Morstan, Sherlock teaming up with Molly and things eventually playing out in the tube car. You can disagree with that as an effective episode structure but this episode is about a new set of relationships as much as it is about a plot to blow up parliament or winding up viewers with multiple solutions as to why Sherlock is not dead.

Incidentally, there are many possible outcomes to Sherlock coming back but given the brevity of Sherlock's run it makes it difficult to do extended character arcs (with Sherlock & Watson being apart for an extended period of time) - so you can understand why the writers have made the choices they have. Nevertheless, they are choices.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 1 month ago

Having been thinking about this, here's my wishy-washy syncretic view: If you really want there to be a definitive answer, then there's no reason the explanation Sherlock possibly gives Anderson isn't it. It does, after all, provide what we really want from the real explanation, which is an opportunity to complain that it doesn't make sense and our version was better.

If, by the time you get to that point, you've decided that it doesn't matter how Sherlock survived, that works too; Anderson himself casts doubt on the theory and it's possible he may have hallucinated the whole conversation.

I was rather surprised to find myself in the second category, which I attribute to this blog having persuaded me there's more than one way to watch a TV show.

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Mackerel Sky, Ltd. 2 years, 1 month ago

So great to see you do a piece on Skyfall for this blog--I love that film! Especially the shots of our protagonist looking soulfully off into the London skyline middle distance, the sequences in the underground which are awesome if you don't think too hard about them, and the vague villainy-villain plot that involves blowing buildings up in downtown London and generally messing Parliament up. Awesome movie!

...what's that? This is actually a review of the third season of Sherlock? Well never mind, then.

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Michael Fuller 2 years, 1 month ago

"The denouement at the end of His Last Vow doesn't allow him to do that. He gets well & truly outsmarted and has to make a choice that has a real personal cost for him."

That's it for me as well. Perfectly said.

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Graham 1 year, 4 months ago

I think it's amusing how obsequiously fans - who had spent two years wondering how Sherlock survived the fall - suddenly decided it didn't matter, simply because they were told to think that.

Everyone I spoke to at the time, before seeing the episode, were saying, "Oooh, I wonder how he did it!", and afterwards were saying, "It doesn't matter how he did it."

It felt eerie. Almost like they had been hypnotized. But I guess that's how impressionable they are. The plain truth is that Moffat was intimidated by all those theories and how clever they were. Instead of competing with them, he instead told us all, "It doesn't matter anyway!"

It was a bit like a little boy wanting to play football because he knew he was good at it and suggesting to his friends that they play it. And then, on seeing someone else who was better than him, said, "Actually - let's not play football. It's rubbish. Let's do something else instead."

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