Sherlock’s fall, The Empty Hearse, and magic tricks

Feature Louisa Mellor 3 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Now that The Empty Hearse has aired, we look at how it coped with the final problem: how Sherlock Holmes survived the fall…

Warning: Sherlock spoilers.

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".

Christopher Priest, The Prestige, 1995.

“It’s just a magic trick” Sherlock told John Watson in January 2012 before jumping off St Barts' roof to get better acquainted with the pavement. It was a useful plant, that line, later used by Sherlock's writers as a banner to raise against crowds baying for explanations. Because after the pledge, turn and prestige of a magic trick have played out, what’s the one thing a magician should never do?

Tell us how he really did it.

“There are only so many ways someone can jump off a building and survive” Mark Gatiss said, hinting that the solution to Holmes' survival was more evident than some thought. “There’s a clue everybody’s missed” said Steven Moffat, sending us all off in the other direction. BBC execs kept the embers of speculation aglow by describing the mystery as the best-kept-most-hotly-anticipated-question-on-everybody’s-lips.

Gatiss’ script for The Empty Hearse continued the game by floating the idea of Holmes as an unreliable narrator. “If you’d pulled all that off, I’m the last person you’d tell the truth to”, said Anderson on hearing the Lazarus explanation. Moffat spun out the subterfuge at The Empty Hearse preview screening, introducing doubt as to whether “Sherlock Holmes has bothered to tell Anderson the truth”. “Indeed” replied Gatiss, adding “That is a very plausible version of how he did it.”

Plausible, but not an unequivocal answer is the message. It was a magic trick, remember. You wouldn’t ruin a magic trick by demanding to be told how it was done.

Magic, in many ways, is the last recourse you’d expect Sherlock Holmes to take. Conan Doyle’s character is the doyen of rationality. He dismantles the devil by showing us the luminous paint on the dog’s maws. He washes the beggar’s face to reveal the businessman who vanished into thin air. He gave us the much-quoted, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Those are hardly the words of a magician.

The language of conjury though, insulates Sherlock’s writers against appeals for disclosure. By describing the fall as a magic trick, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat divest themselves of the job of having to ever give a definitive answer. They, like their version of the character, can talk about methods, indestructibility and truth protected by the knowledge that magic tricks are applauded without their secrets being revealed. The final act of a trick, as Christopher Priest writes above, isn’t the explanation, but simply bringing back what disappeared. That’s the prestige; that’s what gets the crowd cheering.

It was so when Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock at the turn of the nineteenth century – a retcon if ever there was one. After eight years of public pressure to pluck his most popular character out of that waterfall and give him the kiss of life, Doyle capitulated. Back Holmes came with a flimsy explanation of his survival involving a Japanese system of wrestling and a feat of impossible mountaineering. The public, presumably, shrugged off the details and jumped for joy. Here’s to twenty-five years more of Sherlock Holmes! Who cares whether or not his story stands up to scrutiny?

Gatiss and Moffat faced a very different problem resurrecting their Sherlock. In Doyle’s case it was a question of fans petitioning for their hero to stop being dead, and eventually succeeding. The original return from Reichenbach was an ad hoc business, improvised to fulfil a need. As long as he came back, plausibility and cleverness weren’t a priority.

Because we knew Gatiss and Moffat’s Holmes was always returning from the grave, we asked much more of them. We asked for the impossible in fact; to be surprised and satisfied by a solution that was as ingenious as it was watertight. We not only wanted the magicians to reveal their methods, but for those methods to have been designed by a mind as extraordinary as Holmes’.

There’s the rub. Despite the popular statements of belief in both Sherlock Holmes and Father Christmas, neither actually exists. Little wonder then, that Gatiss and Moffat had to find an alternative way out.

How did they manage it? With audacity, wit, and - like Doyle - by paying careful attention to the public mood. Gatiss knew about our theories, so he hooked us in for some good-natured teasing. He anticipated the seam of blasé dyspepsia running through parts of fandom, and pre-empted that criticism with a grin and a wink. If you lot aren’t going to satisfied, The Empty Hearse told us, you’ll at least be entertained. You can take a joke can’t you?

Not everyone is willing to. Some viewers, understandably, will think the ambiguity a fudging. They, like their avatar Anderson, will stay dissatisfied that we don’t yet know for certain, or that operation Lazarus (crash mat/lookalike corpse/squash ball/window dressing) has its own inconsistencies.

Others will allow that offering up fake solutions - the first two preposterous and the third at least plausible - without categorically revealing anything, has its own shades of brilliance. Irritably reaching after fact and reason may be a Holmesian trait, but readers and viewers don’t have to adopt it. With fiction, we can be kept in the dark about the mechanics of magic as long as we believe it.

After all, isn’t it essential to Sherlock Holmes that he knows more than we do? We need him to always be the cleverest person in the room. We need him to be in possession of knowledge we don’t have. The Empty Hearse knowingly and entertainingly made sure of that.

Read our spoiler-filled review of The Empty Hearse, here.

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"Warning: this article is teaming with Sherlock spoilers"

I'm only just starting to read this article but I'm pretty sure you mean't to use the word "teeming" in your warning unless, of course, the article is partnering up in some way with another called 'Sherlock spoilers' ?

Now I've finished reading the article I think your spelling of "teaming" is probably correct and you indeed mean it in the partnership sense because, as far as I can see, there is only really one spoiler in the article - that the episode does not provide an obvious explanation for how Sherlock was able to fake his death. Hardly the 'teeming' I had in mind.

Good article though. I enjoyed it.

Thank god for this! Finally, a website has done a write-up of the Sherlock opener that a) doesn't just assume the validity of the Lazarus story and b) embraces the ambiguity.

I loved the playfulness of the various explanations and the nods to rabid fandom. I wouldn't even mind if they never explained it.

What do you mean Father Christmas doesn't exist????? Spoilers!

Before watching the episode, all I wanted was to know how he did it. After watching the episode, it made me realise that it doesn't actually matter.

He does exist - he just doesn't go to Louisa's house because she is on his naughty list.

This, this and thrice THIS!

Not tricks, illusions. A trick is something a wh*re does for money.

It's similar to the Joker's explanation of how he got his smile in The Dark Knight - there are so many false dawns that the lack of a comprehensive answer doesn't detract from the entertainment of the journey.

It's never bothered me at all how he did it. At the end of The Reichenbach Fall we knew he was alive anyway, all the hype about an explanation seemed over the top to me, I just wanted new Sherlock.

I do however think they might give us an answer near the end of episode 3, either way it's great to have Sherlock back.

Now as for #moriartylives ...

The problem is: Moffatt and Gattis had no intention of telling us how he did it, they should have told us that beforehand. Instead, nine million people tuned in to see how he did it.

Sherlock magic tricks have always gone like this:
The pledge - Moffat and Gatiss show us a seemingly ordinary person/object
The turn - Sherlock makes a brilliant deduction or performs some brilliant act based on that person/object
The prestige - Sherlock EXPLAINS how he came to his conclusion or performed the impossible.

Everybody should remember the first episode where Sherlock knew everything important about Watson at a single glance (besides the sister). If somebody does that in real life it's enough to impress me. When it happens on a TV show, written by people who know everything about every character it is not impressive. The impressive part to me, or 'the prestige' of that trick was when Sherlock explained how he figured all that out (tan lines, posture, limp, phone).

If Moffat and Gatiss start to have Sherlock do amazing things without offering plausible explanations then it's just completely against the nature of the show, and gives them an excuse to do it in the future. I have no doubt we'll get our explanation, probably in episode 3, because it has been established over and over again that Sherlock can't stand not professing his genius. In the TV world the magic isn't in writing that something amazing happens, the magic is in finding a clever way to explain it.

And I presume that when you wrote "mean't" in your comment, you actually meant "meant"? ;-)

Bravo that man, you have bested me sir.

i think yer old enough to know the truth now Paul :)

True. Unless, there is no magic trick. Holmes has to interfere with Watson's love life because he cares more than he an possibly admit. Similarly, it might be possible that Sherlock threw himself off the hotel with no plan or expectation of survival and it was purely an act of sacrifice, but can't admit to that either. (So he was genuinely dead on the floor, but managed to be saved in hospital and took two years to fully recover.)

A key part of the explanation which is being missed in all of the chatter I've read since 'The Empty Hearse' was broadcast is the fact that Holmes knew what Moriarty was up to all along. That's a big deal.

If we'd known that when we were watching Holmes' apparent suicide we'd probably have been expecting something less clever (such as we actually got) all along. We were assuming (well, I was) that Holmes had had to come up with an escape plan on the hoof when he found himself going to meet Moriarty on the rooftop. In fact, Holmes apparently knew exactly what to expect and was able to enlist the help of 25+ other people to get out of it.

Also, I suspect that re-watching 'The Reichenbach Fall' would be much less enjoyable now that we know Holmes is aware of what's going on all along. Watching him being nearly outwitted and having his reputation ingeniously destroyed by Moriarty was compelling and great to watch. Every great fictional hero needs a nemesis who is his or her equal. But if Holmes knew what was happening all the time, all of that is undone. Moriarty wasn't so smart after all.

And when the new villain introduced in 'The Empty Hearse' appears to be getting one over on Sherlock in the next two episodes, why should we be believe that's what's really happening? The required sense of peril and danger will be undermined.

I'm sure The Prestige didn't come out in 1995...

Yeah, I think it was 2005 or thereabouts.

Assume the quote's from the book, not the film. That was 1995 I think.

Ah right, I didn't realise it was a book too!

The novel did.

A fictional magic trick is a load of bollocks. Not giving a solution is poor writing; Sherlock Holmes could have flapped his arms and flown away, and the writers said 'There is an explanation, but we're not going to tell you'. In a magic trick you know that the move from the set up to the final image is possible because it's right there, the magic trick lies in disguising how you get from the former to the latter. In fiction it needs to be possible too, and it's the task of the writers to prove that it's possible.

Without an explanation, Sherlock Holmes didn't survive that fall.

(NB. I actually assume that his explanation to Anderson was correct and a double bluff, given that the details match up with Sherlock's statements to John elsewhere. But I want to attack the notion that questions are more important than answers in fiction, because without an answer the question is meaningless)

Well, he certainly couldn't have done it without me.

Or candy.

The great way about how they did it is that people who liked the explanation can say "yes, he was telling the truth", while those who hated it can say "no he wasn't, we still don't know but at least it wasn't that!"
Revealing the exact explanation would cause more criticism than only possibly revealing it. And that's why Sherlock is just marvellous.

Is candy the payment or the wh*re?

Or me.

Or even me.

I firmly believe that when Watson asked him not to be dead Holmes in fact did hear him from beyond the grave and reality rewrote itself to bring him back. Im okay with thus as we all are aware that the character of holmes and his stories, AND this show, are fictional. So weird stuff can happen sometimes.

I didn't care how he did it. He's Sherlock, he's brilliant, he can do stuff like that. What I was more interested in (and what I was pleased to get) was how people would react to his return, what he'd learn about the reactions, and if this stunt caused him to evolve as a character.

A while ago I bet someone from this website that my theory was right. Unfortunately I cannot remember who it was.

Anyway although the majority of my theory was shown (the one with the mask) I was not 100% right so I now need to donate £10 to a charity of this persons choice. But I cannot remember what they were called or which thread it was on. Do if this was you let me know which charity, otherwise it will be to the Wakefield Hospice charity, a very worthy charity.


I didn't. I turned up to watch an episode of Sherlock. I'd watch it whether they told us or not since it's such a great show.

All narrators are unreliable - the events after all never happened. Gatiss just acknowledges this and geeks squeal in pain. Some people don't like being told Sherlock isn't real.

They can't tell us how he did it. It never happened.

Hubris, thy name is internet comments sections!

The people complaining will be the same people who hate the ending of Lost, for the same reasons. To hell with them, frankly.

Everyone keeps saying the explanation wasn't divulged but I thought it was!

I also initially felt the episode fell short somehow, it was too hectic. All those nods towards all the theories was queer, it is somehow odd to drag reality into fiction that that, it can seem quite arrogant.

However I watched it for a second time and I enjoyed it so much more! I can only conclude that I was sherlock starved for 2 years and was gagging for it! I greedily consumed the episode and was 'rampantly' watching but was left feeling a bit confused and slightly sullied. On the second viewing I savoured it and appreciated it and indeed thought it was brilliant.

As long as they stay true to the format and don't make him too super hero ish, keep it modern, urban and witty I will love it forever.

Never watched Lost. But i hated this episode if only because it felt quite lazy (basically we know Cumberbatch in a coat will sell so to hell with the details), Holmes with a terrible French accent, Holmes on a motorbike, Holmes saying "All bombs have an off switch, terrorists can get into serious trouble otherwise" and all the stupid little half-assed explanations they tried to sell, and the loosest adaptations of a Doyle story ever. LAZY.

It's still not clear why the kidnapped girl screamed when she saw Holmes, though it's easily explainable (a mask, a double - surgically altered or not). I expect someone's already suggested this, but what if Moriarty was not the real Moriarty? Surely it would be too easy to check whether Richard Brook had appeared in specific children's shows or not. Maybe the guy at the end of The Empty Hearse is the real one..... Sherlock's comment about being indestructible is a direct lift from A Study in Terror, in which John Neville's Holmes escapes from seemingly inevitable death in a burning building. Fun... great to have 3 more episodes.

Sounds to me like they promised the world, then gave three quickly rendered solutions, none of which was correct. You all got stiffed by Moffat again, so glad I didn't watch this polluted garbage. Instead, I filled my time watching TNG and Voyager, where the resolutions to plot threads, whilst hasty, actually were the resolutions. lol. Enjoy your Moff-cop outs, guys :)

Lost was a huge let down.

Well said, Moffat as pulled another huge bluff.Everyone was expecting a resolution, they got nothing but hype and guff.

Don't worry about it, 10 million other people, probably the same people as the 9 million who watch Sherlock, got stuffed on Christmas day by Moffat too. Yet they keep coming back for more, hoping it will get better, but it never does.

The worst batman films ever.

It seems Moffat as spent the whole year nodding to rabid fandoms:)

Sherlock specifically explained the girl in his explanation to Anderson - or do you mean that if you choose to discredit the validity of that explanation, then that plot thread is still left hanging?

Except this wasn't a stage magician - it's a work of fiction. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the writers to reveal their solution. Especially since they've said that they had a solution at the time of writing the Fall.

You're an idiot.

You're such a childish toolbag. Why don't you go have a wank, you hateful moron?

Yes, that's what I meant. There wasn't a specific explanation of the girl's reaction which existed separately from that, so is it a crucial part of the solution to the fall, or not?

Yes, rewriting a subroutine is by far the best possible story resolution. Over and over.

Sherlock Holmes only knows more than we do until the end of the episode. The reveal of the information, or of how the information was acquired is the best and most important part of the episode. A magician can get away with a magic trick because it is happening in real time before the audiences eyes, but in a television show everything is happening behind the scenes. You can't just do some "movie magic" and then not explain how it works in the story. It's cheating, and it is extremely unsatisfying. Maybe some people don't care how he did it, but after goading the fandom on for two years, it is the writers duty to explain how he survived.

So far, I have chose to take the airbag theory as the truth. I don't know why he told Anderson, or why it was placed where it was in the episode, but I need a solution, so I'm taking it.

Finally managed to catch up with Sherlock last night and thought it was great. Very funny in places and loved the way they toyed with the 'how did he survive the fall' situation. Good stuff!!!

hey Homeless Man #17, you still owe me £10!

I liked this article a lot. Thanks!

Very possible.

Watching this made me realise what's been bothering me for so long with Doctor Who, as this episode of Sherlock had exactly the same problem.

Both Who and this Sherlock are far too pleased with themselves, and spend more time revelling in how great they are than they do in actually being great.

Sherlock 3.1 was just soap opera twattery for the most part. I enjoyed it and all, but it was still 90 minutes of twatting about and saying 'hey how cool are we? we don't even need to tell you the answer to the huge question we posed.'

Lost has left a terrible, terrible legacy behind it.

But....remember at the end of season 2...Sherlock is standing by his grave, perfectly ok. Ahhhhhhh!

Agree, Doctor Who s7, Time of the doctor and now Sherlock Series3, are absolute shambles. Is Moffat trying to make them both sitcoms that are so up their arse they aren't funny. This episode must rank as one of the worse things ive seen in a long time.

The entire final season was muck. A wizard did it was the explanation for everything.

Exactly. It is why in The Prestige we are shown how it's done, because just being told by a movie/book isn't enough. We need to be shown that it was real. That is the real prestige when a magic trick is done in fiction.

This episode was a cop-out and a lazy failure of writing. The article above tries hard to defend it, but it's indefensible. Sorry. I am annoyed by it.

The people who hated the ending of LOST were entirely justified in doing so. After 5 years of investment you expect some kind of ending which... No, actually, just some kind of ending.

Isn't it possible that he simply fell, genuinely expecting to die, but just about survived his injuries? This is by far the most logical explanation, and the explanation of why there was no explanation. He expected to die, but decided to use his survival to boost his reputation, letting everyone think he somehow faked it. His brother paid off the relevant ambulance/medical people to say he died. It wasn't a trick. He nearly died because he fell off a building.

I agree. I can only hope they reveal it later in this series, and are delaying it to keep us hooked.

Exactly. A question only means something if it has an answer; that's why magic tricks work, because we know there is an answer. When a writer poses a question we have to be given an answer, because otherwise the writer might not have thought of one and the question loses its meaning.

However, the characters don't always need to know the answer. For example, in Doctor Who: The Girl in the Fireplace, the Doctor never learns why the robots targeted Renette, but we do. The Doctor retains the mystery, but the story's integrity is justified for the audience. In contrast, the finale of Torchwood: Miracle Day featured a lot of people saying 'no-one knows why, but this is what's happening', and the entire story loses its integrity. Without reason, nothing happens. If you haven't got an explanation, you haven't got a story.

Very true. If I was even certain that the writers had definitively a caste iron explanation, I think I could take the characters within the show never knowing, but there's a certain payoff the audience requires that needs offering. If the show was about magicians and illusions you could get away with something vague, but Sherlock by its very nature is about unraveling mysteries.
And this is the real rub: it's very easy to set up a smart question in fiction, it's VERY hard to pay off an equally smart answer. I'd have been more impressed if we'd seen the plan in full motion even if the characters did not. Not had it explained and narrated, but had the whole trick explored - for that is what Sherlock is meant to be about.
You leave viewers waiting two years, vagueness just looks like weakness. Sherlock is about reveals not vagueness, it seems very timely the one time they are vague is on the hardest answer to answer well.
Not that it spoiled my enjoyment of the episode, but on an academic level I don't think the argument washes that this was a way to do it. In my head, for the record, it was as told with minor tweaks we didn't get explained, but what we got was the gist.

Really? I think that's a pretty flimsy premise. Lots of questions don't have definitive answers and still mean a hell of a lot. Where do we come from? What happens when you die? What was before the Big Bang? We don't need to know the answer to understand the importance of the question. In the episode they have provided us with two potential ways they could have told us Sherlock managed it. In doing so they are saying "we could have easily made it one of these, but this is a magic trick and a good magician doesn't reveal how he did it". I think that's great. If they hadn't suggested anything vaguely plausible and just said "you'll never know", then THAT would have been lazy writing.

I.e. By showing us potential solutions the writers prove that they could have pulled it off and also give the story integrity by showing that the miracle they performed in the last series was possible. However, choosing to be ambiguous about the exact methods has it's own integrity in regards to the concept of the magician. I think it's a very clever balance that Gatiss and Moffatt have struck.

Ah, now I explicitly said I bought Sherlock's explanation to Anderson. That did me fine, because it was an answer, it showed that the writers had thought of a solution. You're right, they gave a decent enough solution while still allowing for alternative views.

However, the article was basically saying that the writers DID say things that were only vaguely plausible but not the real answer (saying we shouldn't know the solution because it's a magic trick), and that that was okay; that's a point I do not agree with, because it suggests that questions don't need to have answers. Questions DO need to have answers; the reason questions like 'Where do we come from' and that ilk inspire us so much is because we know that there is an answer, even if we never discover it. In fiction the writer is God; he must know the answer to any question he poses of his characters and his stories, because if he doesn't then the question is void. Like I said, Sherlock could have flapped his wings and flown off, and the writers fobbed us off with 'a magician never reveals his secrets' and by this article's logic that would have been acceptable. No. There needs to be an answer, or the question can't happen.

That is also why, even though I found the solution to Anderson to be plausible enough, I appreciate people complaining that they were being fobbed off with nonsense like the solution didn't matter.

I agree. See my above reply.

You do realise Gatiss wrote the episode yes? I know common thought by bitch boys on the net these days is to attack Moffat at every turn but you will notice that the show has 2 show runners and this episode had 1 writer so please, bitch at the right party else it makes you look like a Moffat hater and you are, of course, not that I'm sure.

This is exactly what I was thinking through this whole article.

Yeah, I hated the first episode when I realized what it was doing, but I loved the second episode.

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