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?”