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 trivial resolution was 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 fairly clearly 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. There is no reasonable understanding of the Moffat/Gatiss partnership in which Moffat is not the senior partner. He’s emphatically Gatiss’s boss on the other show they work together on, he co-owns the production company, his wife and mother in law are executive producers, and, more broadly, literally nobody, one suspects Gatiss included, actually disputes that he’s the far better writer. In Seasons One and Two he wrote the big showpiece episode that got the bulk of the attention and praise, and, as you’d expect given the usual graph of television ratings over a season, he went first. This time, however, he’s moved to the final slot, with Gatiss getting to do the one everyone is going to pay attention to.
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. It’s easily the best thing Gatiss has written up to this point. 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?”