One of the things I admire the most about BBC’s Sherlock is the way they use story titles. As someone who read these stories as a youth and became very familiar with the names of the key episodes in the Holmes world (such as “The Empty House”, “A Study in Scarlett”, “The Sign of Four”), it’s a constant source of amusement and surprise to me how Mark Gatiss and Seven Moffat and the other Sherlock writers creatively incorporate them. Right from the first episode of season one, “A Study in Pink”, I liked that the producers and writers were knowingly adding tags to this new series that the true Holmes fanatics would appreciate, while they still attracted viewers who had never read the original stories.
The first episode of season three, “The Empty Hearse”, gets big points right off the start for not only referencing “The Empty House” – the original story in which Holmes returns apparently from the dead – but in the way it uses the reference. It’s two years after the battle with Moriarity (in the season two finale, “The Reichenbach Fall”), and most of the world has given up on Holmes, including John Watson. Some Holmes fans have kept the faith through a network of conspiracy theorists who rally around a website whose theme is “The Empty Hearse”, and which postulates endless theories about how Holmes could have faked his own death. The episode, in fact, gives us a few different ways this could have been accomplished, and when Holmes finally reveals the “true” story of his elaborate ruse, the conspiracy theorists refuse to believe it. That little touch of genius is as good an example of any of the subtle wit and intelligence of this show.
Just to make it clear in case there is any doubt: Sherlock is a great show. The intellectual humor and wit make it extremely appealing both to long-time fans of Sherlock Holmes (such as me) and fans who have never read a Holmes story. Unlike some other modernizations of Holmes, this show never talks down to the audience or relies on cheap humour and clichéd situations. And, of course, we have to mention the always-stellar work of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as Holmes and Watson respectively. As Holmes, Cumberbatch hits just the right note of intensity and vulnerability (although I think Jeremy Brett still takes the “ultimate screen Holmes” prize for bringing a sadness and insecurity to the role that Cumberbatch has yet to match). Watson is in some ways the more difficult role, as he has to be the “straight man” and yet he serves as the audience’s proxy in the action. Freeman is wonderful, and particularly, this episode, “The Empty Hearse”, may be his finest hour yet as Dr. Watson.
No spoiler alerts for those unsure of whether Holmes would return for season three: this is one of the most famous stories of fan-related pressure on a writer in modern history. In 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in the story “The Final Problem,” only to be forced by fan pressure to write additional Holmes stories a decade later. The first of these was the novella The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902, but this was a “prequel” and did not necessarily suggest that Holmes had survived his final battle with Moriarity at the Reichenbach Falls. “The Empty House”, published in 1903, is an unambiguous return of Holmes. In that original story, Holmes is found working undercover by Watson, having faked his own death and traveled the world, supported by his brother, Mycroft. Watson is naturally upset that he was not taken into Holmes’s confidence from the start, but in that stiff but warm Victorian style, Holmes is quickly forgiven, and the characters are ready to move forward together with a whole new set of adventures. (Doyle would continue to write Holmes stories for another 24 years, until Holmes was an elderly, “Semi-retired beekeeper living in India”.)
As with the rest of the ingenious episodes of Sherlock, “The Empty Hearse” follows the general contours of the original story while adding its own modernized notes. Here, the emotional impact on Watson, in learning that Holmes is still alive, is handled with much more emotional honesty than Doyle could muster 110 years ago. Watson is, of course, devastated and feels betrayed by both Holmes and his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss). The show calls back to that heartbreaking final moment in last season’s finale, “The Reichenbach Fall”, where Watson stands at Holmes’s grave and begs his friend to give him some sign that he isn’t really dead. Holmes himself watches the scene surreptitiously but does not reveal himself. When the two are finally reunited in this episode, Watson’s pain and hurt are evident, and Martin Freeman delivers an absolute master class in playing repressed British-style emotional turmoil.
The other major plot development in this episode is the introduction of Watson’s girlfriend, Mary Mortsan (played wonderfully by Amanda Abbington). In the original texts, Watson was married and even a father with a private medical practice in the later Holmes stories. The character is consistent here as an intelligent, relatively conservative and traditional Englishman who is intelligent enough to be fascinated by Holmes and drawn into his orbit. His love interest faces her most obvious test in terms of her compatibility with Holmes, but Mary finds Sherlock as fascinating as Watson and even enjoys his peculiarities, particularly those that make Watson uncomfortable. It’s wonderfully enjoyable to watch Mary and Sherlock interact in this episode, as she fits right into the dynamic established between Holmes and Watson. Bad writing or casting here could have ruined everything, but Abbington doesn’t put a foot wrong as Mary, creating a charming, quirky character that is a welcome addition to the Holmes-Watson team.
The plot itself becomes another game of “cat and mouse” between Holmes and an invisible terrorist threat that initially captures Watson and places him in the heart of a bonfire initially being lit for Guy Fawkes Day. The Fawkes theme continues throughout the episode, as the ultimate threat involves diffusing a bomb on the underground train meant to explode underneath the houses of Parliament. This plot point, very similar to V for Vendetta, has received some attention in the popular media with some calling it an unauthorized adaptation of the famous comic book. I don’t see that, myself, because the whole plot contrivance exists in order to get Holmes and Watson alone in an emotionally tense situation so that they can clear the air about their feelings for each other and about Holmes’s recent disappearance. When Holmes (spoiler alert) simply switches the bomb off, completely eliminating the threat with a simple flick, we should be reminded that the bomb was always a MacGuffin.
The ending, featuring Watson proposing marriage to Mary, sets up the next episode, “The Sign of Three,” and promises many more adventures with Mary, Holmes, and Watson that I can’t wait to see. And the final teasing shot of a blue-eyed villain watching the events unfold is a familiar storytelling trope. But since the death of Moriarity (at least that death was unambiguous), it seems only fitting that the producers and writers would devise a new genius villain to take on Sherlock as season three continues.