'Sherlock's "The Empty Hearse" Reunites Holmes & Watson With Buoyant Emotional Reverence
BBC's Sherlock , much like its beloved title character, has been long gone and long missed. In the time that the show has been absent, its two leading men — Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Sherlock Holmes, and Martin Freeman as his devoted friend and partner Dr. John Watson — have become exponentially more well-known internationally, and the already notorious fandom that has long followed the show's every move has grown stronger, more creative, and more impassioned every day.
Given that that's two years' worth of days, that's saying a lot.
It took me three hours, the first time around, to watch this episode of Sherlock. The stopping, the pausing, the rewinding, the appreciating. This was, in a way, just in keeping with what the last two years in Sherlock viewership has been — crazed and curious. It's impossible to not try to soak in every detail. But this time around, the episode was new.
Sherlock's Season 3 premiere, "The Empty Hearse," takes its name and its central Holmes-ian concept from the Arthur Conan Doyle story "The Empty House." For those who need the catch-up, that's the one in which Sherlock Holmes makes his return to London three years after faking his own suicide. In the BBC universe of the show, this took place two years ago — in-world and in our world — when Sherlock Holmes plummeted from the roof of St. Barts Hospital to (what John Watson thought was) his untimely death.
Where that episode ("The Reichenbach Fall") was harrowing, "The Empty Hearse" is cathartic. Moriarty's web of villains defeated, Sherlock Holmes swaggers back into London with the help of his brother (Mycroft Holmes, as ever haughtily portrayed by the series' co-creator Mark Gatiss), ready to reclaim 221B and John Watson as his own.
Interspersed into the episode are theories as to how Sherlock survived the fall, as dreamt up by a group of conspiracy theorists serving as completely unveiled proxies for the fervor of the fanfic-writing, GIF-ing, in-depth-theorizing hordes of fans who kept the show in the zeitgeist during its lengthy absence.
Luckily for everyone, the interspersions of theories serve more as a loving homage to the fannish spirit than as mockery. Out of it, we get Sherlock on a bungee-cord, smashing through a window to ravage the morgue-working Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey, who steals many a-scene this episode), as well as a fit of giggles and an almost-kiss with, of all people, Moriarty (Andrew Scott).
It all reminds me of this quote from Lev Grossman's relatively long-ago TIME piece on fandom and fan fiction:
"Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language."
BBC's Sherlock has become notorious for its rabid fans, and there's one thing that should always be remembered alongside them: Sherlock is fan fiction all its own. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat did not create Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, nor the stories that made them famous. Arthur Conan Doyle did. Gatiss and Moffat, for their parts, grew up loving those stories and those characters, as many love their adaptation now, and so they plopped them into modern London. It's an AU, which, for the uninitiated, is fanfic speak for "alternate universe."
It only follows, given the long and tenured history of fandom surrounding Arthur Conan Doyle — Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a member of prestigious Sherlock Holmes fan group the Baker Street Irregulars — that Sherlock pay homage to the ways in which people are interacting with it all in modern times.
Which brings us back to what we're interacting with this time around. There's only one kink in Sherlock's plan of smooth reunion: John Watson, now mustachioed, has spent these last two years grieving.
His life was so bowled over by the loss of his best friend that in the time that's passed, he hasn't once been back to 221B, and has in the process left Una Stubbs' Mrs. Hudson woefully neglected. (Though, to give her some credit, she plays it wonderfully.)
He's also got a brand-new lady love: Mary Morstan, played to charming perfection by Amanda Abbington, Freeman's real-life longtime love.
I hold no envy for any woman tasked with stepping into the midst of the dynamic Cumberbatch and Freeman both established and perfected all the way back in episode one. But Abbington does more than enter into that dynamic: She elevates it. I don't know how she does it, honestly, but does it she does, and you could feel an entire audience falling in love with Mary Morstan perhaps even more quickly than one John Watson did.
John Watson, for his part, has taken Mary to a fancy restaurant to propose. He has no qualms and she'll surely say yes, but unbeknownst to them both, there is a Sherlock Holmes loitering nearby, dressed as a french waiter and desperately trying to spring the surprise of his survival on John, sure he'll be pleased and no doubt picturing the two of them absconding to Baker Street afterwards for a good laugh. This is, of course, pure Sherlock: Out of touch with reality of humanity to a hilarious, if often cruel, degree.
Needless to say, John does not take Sherlock's revelation as well as Sherlock had hoped. The entire reunion scene — from the moment Sherlock entered the restaurant to the moment we close on Mary and John driving away — is, to put it mildly, the epitome of everything this show does so well. It's a blend of comedic acting (Sherlock's "surprise!" and puns as the French waiter, Sherlock's ill-timed jab at John's mustache, John's violent reaction), A+ directing and cinematography, and deeply emotional character moments. One should never underestimate the power of Martin Freeman's face, for the journey it takes throughout this scene — and throughout mere nanoseconds — is truly ridiculous, and truly astounding.
It's an important scene for Sherlock as well, and one that no doubt moves him as a character: You can actually see the moment when Sherlock realizes how thoroughly he's hurt John Watson, and you can see almost immediately that he intends never to let that happen ever again.
John's reaction is violent, to say the least — he attacks Sherlock not once or twice but three times in retribution, and tries to attack him a fourth time before realizing that, in the latter case, it's really an old man and not Sherlock tricking him. (A nice nod to the Arthur Conan Doyle character's penchant for disguise, by the way.) But that's where Mary Morstan steps in: She volunteers almost immediately to "talk [John] 'round" to welcoming Sherlock back into his life, and it's through this and, well, every other second she's onscreen that you realize just how well she fits into the dynamic of Sherlock and John. She doesn't displace the energy; she adds to it. Defending Sherlock's choice in who he told about the fall? Laughing at Sherlock's mustache joke, and prodding John about when he'll see Sherlock again? She and Sherlock racing to John's rescue after he's kidnapped and stuffed into the heart of a bonfire? All but the last so charmingly nonchalant? This one's a keeper, John Watson. Sherlock also takes an immediate liking to her, which is a rare gift for a man with so few people in the world he genuinely likes.John is not the only one Sherlock must reunite with, of course: There's also the Molly Hooper (who was in on the plan all along), Greg Lestrade (who greets him with an on-point "Oh, you bastard," followed by a bear hug), and Mrs. Hudson, whose reaction is a rather appropriate scream. This episode has an often manic energy to it, fervent in its devotion to making this reunion with Sherlock Holmes fulfilling not just to its characters but to the audience itself. And overall, in my perspective, it is. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that this episode, as well as the ones that follow, are very much about devotion, and very much about love. There's all the irreverent "how did he survive the fall?!" segments of the episode, and they do answer that question, but it's really not about the answer: What this show has always been about is its central characters, and how it is that they connect. This is a huge part of why it's such a relief that Mary Morstan connects so easily, and it's what makes it so thrilling to watch Sherlock and John struggle to reshuffle that connection with all that's changed in the time that has passed. Sherlock is, even through all the changes, still Sherlock. In this episode, this means a couple of things: 1) that he dives immediately back into his world of consultant detecting, this one in the name of protecting London from an imminent terrorist attack, taking on Molly as his assistant in John's stubborn absence, 2) that this leads to a climactic scene in which it's Sherlock's wits against certain death.This scene takes place in an abandoned London Underground tunnel, a bomb ticking away with only seconds left, but let's acknowledge the tension for what it really is: An excuse to get Sherlock Holmes and John Watson to talk about their feelings. Because they've certainly got a lot to work out, and they're too British to do it without the threat of never seeing daylight again. And so John Watson, thinking these are the last words he'll ever say as a living person, tells us how he feels, echoing what he said to Sherlock's grave at the end of Season 2 (emphasis mine):
The threat was, of course, neutralized by Sherlock before any of this confession took place, which he neglected to tell John because he wanted to know if John still loved him. Never forget that the dude's a notorious asshat — but no take-backs, John Watson! You said it, and it was just the glorious emotional cap I needed for such a glorious, emotional, hilarious, reverent episode of television.
This review is already insanely long, but here are some other things that caught my eye:
- If you're ever wondering why Benedict Cumberbatch is a sex symbol, all you need do is watch that theory scene in which he kisses Molly. THAT JAWLINE. <img src="http://lovelace-media.imgix.net/uploads/76/95f683f0-63ba-0131-5d8f-62cfd516cda6.gif?w=320"/>
- We get to meet Sherlock and Mycroft's parents, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch's real-life parents (a genuine treat!), Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton. They're completely normal compared to their sons, which is kind of brilliant.
- Molly Hooper really deserves a round of applause. Just in general, but especially in this episode.
- I'm assuming I wasn't the only one reminded heavily of V For Vendetta by this episode's use of Guy Fawkes Day?
- The running joke of the Mind Palace is at once great and a thing that could get old quick.
- The scene in which Sherlock expresses his concern at his elder brother's lack of friends seems to be an important moment that shows us where Sherlock is this season: He's been without the people he loves for two years, and this return (coupled with the way his absence hurt those same people) sees a newly devoted friend in Sherlock.
- Tell me on Twitter (@AlannaBennett or @Bustle) what you thought of the scene in which Mrs. Hudson was genuinely convinced that John and Sherlock had been in a romantic relationship. Queer-baiting or understandable? Funny or deplorable? Tiring or cheer-worthy? All of the above, maybe?
- Acting! Writing! Directing! The show proved once again to never underestimate its production value.
Next week? A wedding, a toast, a murder.
Images: BBC, Tumblr