Sherlock S3 E1: The Empty Hearse

Sherlock is, overall, an unconventional series. They like to drop breadcrumbs early on that are easy to miss, threads that eventually tie into a later plot element and only then make sense. This is part of what makes the show so clever, but that always leaves them on the knife edge of leaving too many viewers too confused, or giving the impression that events occur out of left field. Personally, I think it takes me three passes with anything complex to really get a handle on my opinion, and Sherlock is no exception. One for the heart (gut emotional reactions), one for the brain (evaluating what’s really happening), and one for the mechanism that makes it tick. I have to say that Sherlock Series 3 is the one I’m most conflicted about, and I think it will take another full pass through the season to really line up my thoughts and draw a conclusion.

I was initially in agreement with the fandom consensus that the case in the episode was too light, but on viewing #3 I feel less so. There’s some very deliberate structuring to make story elements overlap, so that you simply don’t register that one storyline is concurrent with another. They’re laying down the groundwork for one event while your attention is focused on another (e.g., always read the headlines on papers characters are reading). They’ve got a lot to pack into this episode, too: Sherlock’s return and the consequences of that, the question of “how he did it” lingering from the S2 cliffhanger, the events in John’s life in the intervening period, two cases, AND some subtle but critical setup for following episodes. That is a whole lot of pieces of furniture to move around. On top of that, there’s the “emotional baggage” of the characters AND the viewers that needs shifting after the two-year hiatus.

And it’s a bit of a Herculean task. [SPOILERS – ASSUMES YOU HAVE SEEN THE EPISODE]

Sure, the original Sherlock Holmes fans survived 10 years during which their favorite detective was (actually) deceased. Modern viewers have to thank their lucky stars, frustration aside, that two movie stars came back for TV at all. But that’s still a long time to leave the audience to their own devices, scouring every detail of the episodes and building their own worlds in the meantime. If viewers were going to be upset, it would be that the reveal of the “mystery of the Fall” failed to live up to their imaginations. So if anyone’s going to be alienated by this episode, it will be the “reveal” that kicks everything off.

But they play mercilessly and brilliantly with our expectations in response to this pressure. The faux “reveal” at the start, paired with a later, similar scene, relies on showing up how absurd many of our innocent theories were precisely by convincing us we were right. “But…really? REALLY” we cry. And then conveys that sense of horror into relief at having been wrong. It is, quite frankly, genius. And probably the only way the writers would’ve survived the Fall.*

The danger of this tack is it will read to some viewers as flip and out of character. They’re cursed a little by their own success here; the S2 finale Reichenbach was so emotionally and intellectually intense that it casts a long shadow over the rest of the series. It makes it easy to forget that a significant part of John and Sherlock’s relationship is giggling like schoolboys in the most macabre of contexts. That doesn’t justify being overly indulgent, but in this specific episode I feel it IS justified – for complex reasons that aren’t immediately apparent.

Speaking of giggling inappropriately, the train car sequence seems to have been a sticking point for fans, too. But I agree with the Baker Street Babes that it’s quite functional. Sherlock sees an opportunity to use the situation to bring issues that need to be addressed out into the open. It’s not just for John’s sake. In spite of comments on the dangers of “humanizing Sherlock at one’s own risk”, he is human, and I think he needed to know John forgave him so they could move on. And it lets John to say to Sherlock’s face instead of his headstone that he is the “wisest and bravest man”; and who has lost a loved one that doesn’t have things to say they desperately wish could be heard? This setup is what allows for the scene at the end of the episode in the hallway at 221B, also: it opens the door for John to admit that he had asked for “one more miracle” at Sherlock’s grave, and for Sherlock to admit that he heard it.

The silliness has a similar function for the fans; after so much emotional intensity, a gap that led to a slow descent into madness (if you don’t believe me, look up “traffic cone” and “I only have Juan”)…there may not have been a viable choice but to get them laughing at themselves before we went back into the story. We need to be able to move on, too, as the audience. We need, just as John and Sherlock did, a valve to let off a backlog of pressure; and that valve is humor. It’s not a situation that can be easily compared to other shows or films, which is something I’ll get into in another article after the season has finished its US airing.

Regarding some more specific details…

Do we know what the real solution to the Fall is? As to whether the solution that Sherlock tells to Anderson is true (or whether he was there at all) – I think it is. Maybe it’s the version of the truth that Sherlock wants to tell, but it’s likely the details of the “how” are quite accurate. Why tell Anderson the truth, if he doesn’t tell anyone else? Precisely because he’s the last one Sherlock would tell. It’s a kind of catharsis for Sherlock, mixed with revenge.  Sherlock gives him exactly what he wants, but he won’t believe it and it will torment him. Even worse, if Anderson tells anyone, no one will believe him. (Should we be worried about what this means if Anderson represents the audience? Hah.)

New series, new directors… A shift in directorial style seems appropriate paired with the passage of time and tonal change. But like many, I feel there are moments that are a bit too much experiment and not enough experience; like a student filmmaker playing with new toys. Some of the superimposition and video projection is highly effective, and some of it bends towards 90s music video. “Mind palace” sequences aside, there are a few camera and editing choices that don’t work for me, particularly in the transitions. Sort of like an episode of MI-5 that just got a new set of Final Cut tools. But when things do click into place, it works very well. I would point to the opening “reveal”, in which the frenetic pace works extremely well with the music to set an exciting and intense emotional tone. It’s also effective in the motorcycle sequence – the strongest integration of the “mind palace” concept in series 3, maybe.

It’s also largely effective in the bonfire scene – with the exception that I and at least a few others found the depiction of John’s imprisonment to be a bit TOO confusing. It’s great at building tension from his disorientation. But having had several conversations about what exactly was happening and why John seemed unable to cry out, it may have been a little too disorienting for the audience.

On the flip side, I have to give a shoutout to the whole team for the “rapidly worsening eatery” sequence, where we seamlessly transition from a classy place to a fast food joint to the street as John and Sherlock’s altercation carries on. It’s hilarious and communicates what’s happening very economically. Also, I did notice a lot of fans mentioned the gorgeous “dust motes” shot in 221B, which leads me to believe that a few more well-placed quiet moments might’ve gone a long way. I confess that I’m biased because I already liked Paul McGuigan prior to his directing any episodes of Sherlock, so I’m devoted to the specific style he defined for the show.

A detail I wish had gotten more screen time – Sherlock hearing John’s voice in his head criticizing him during his deductions. Presumably this is a parallel to John’s psychosomatic limp; he’s experienced a trauma by being separated from John (“I’d be lost without my blogger”), and this is the symptom. It’s hard to say whether it’s stylization or intention that most of Sherlock’s deduction sequences are disorderly in this episode, but I’d have liked to see that followed through on.

In defense of casting Benedict Cumberbatch’s actual parents (both experienced actors who were very famous in their day): it sells intimacy expediently for a character who is famously NOT intimate. The same technique saves time convincing us of Mary and John’s pre-existing, offscreen relationship (Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington are in fact married), a nice bonus from what otherwise would still have been good casting.

On parallels, callbacks, and call…forwarding? I liked the parallel with the first series, that John hears their conversation on the stairs from Study in Pink when Sherlock argues that John loves it. At the end, it’s John telling Sherlock that he sees his passion: “You love it – being Sherlock Holmes”. It’s convincing, too, since Sherlock pauses before he goes out the door to put on his deerstalker – the very mantle forced upon him by the public that he’d vociferously rejected before. It’s a major turning point for his character that he embraces this public identity.

Without mentioning any spoilers for 2 and 3, I suspect the thin nature of the case in this episode – particularly the conclusion – may be due to…extenuating story factors. Going back to the breadcrumbs I mentioned at the start, I would urge anyone who has seen only this episode so far not to let snap judgment taint their experience.  Maybe “threads” is better than breadcrumbs; the stories have a warp and a weft, and up close it’s not so easy to see how they form the image on the tapestry. It’s risky storytelling, since we’re all quite used to highly episodic TV; but try to roll with it. As I said, I’m still somewhat reserving my own judgment and will write again after 2 and 3, particularly on why I think Sherlock should be analyzed in a fundamentally different way than an hour-long drama.

*I want to point out that in spite of the production’s necessary posturing about how none of us had a clue, we actually were “right”(isn). No one of us is as smart as Sherlock Holmes; but combined, we’re certainly as smart as Moffat and Gatiss. It doesn’t diminish what they did, but that bears mentioning. 😉 Sherlock fans definitely nailed some details they were expected to miss. Smart bunch of bananas. I’d love to talk about the fandom’s Believe in Sherlock movement in this context, but without further info about when segments were written and filmed and any magic done in editing, I can’t speculate.

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Anne Darkly
Professional geek, plush artist, movie lover, writer trying to get back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. There's wagon involvement. Everyone told me to get a blog, so I did. Yee-haw.
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