Sherlock series 3 episode 1 review: The Empty Hearse

Sherlock returns with a rollicking, fun start to series three. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review, here.

3.1 The Empty Hearse

That was a smart solution – perhaps the only solution– to defuse the tension of two years’ speculation without leaving anyone disappointed. Make ‘em laugh, as the old song goes. Make ‘em laugh. Make ‘em laugh. Make ‘em laugh.

The fake explanations were a jaunty way to get us all to release the breath we’d been holding since January 2012 with a guffawing splutter. Inspector Lestrade’s “Bollocks!” told us we’d been had and silenced living room orators of both the ‘I knew it!’ and the ‘Seriously? How lame is that?’ variety. Of course it wasn’t Moriarty in a Sherlock mask. Of course there wasn’t a bungee rope. Of course Sherlock didn’t crash through a window like Errol Flynn and snog Molly’s face off. And of course Derren Brown wasn’t in on it.

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As well as relieving the geological pressure weighing on a single plot point in a single episode of television, the rollicking fake-outs were also a canny way to keep us all paying attention until we were given the real story.

If, indeed, that’s what we were given. Was the videotape confession a definitive answer to how Sherlock faked his death? (Come back tomorrow for more thoughts on that). Whether or not you share Anderson’s fan-pre-empting disappointment at the revelation, it’s as good as we’re going to get. Mark Gatiss, this episode’s writer, calls it “a very plausible solution”, and we’ll have to take him at his word.

After that switcheroo opening got us up to speed, the lengthy but enjoyable homecoming parade began. Indeed, we were forty-five minutes in before wheels started turning on the central tube train intrigue.

Before all that, Sherlock was revealed to us topless, bearded, in a horrible wig and crucifixion pose (the ‘Lazarus’ code name used later on not the only nod to his Christ-like powers of resurrection). Some fun with deductions and a brittle brotherly exchange later and Sherlock was on his way back to Baker Street to track down an underground terrorist cell and “drop by” his old mucker, John Watson.

The Watson/Holmes reunion was the second hurdle the episode had to jump, one it cleared with a surprising cocktail of silliness and grief. That Martin Freeman’s livid, choked silence could still be heard through Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Sellers-style buffoonery is testament to his talent. Comic rage turned out to be just the way to play the scene (too heartfelt and you’re in shipping territory, too chummy and it’s a disservice to the Watson/Holmes relationship). There were laughs, shock, grief, more laughs, a rugby tackle, yet more laughs, a head-butt and finally, a sulking separation.

Amanda Abbington slotted neatly in to the machinery of the show as John’s fiancée Mary Morstan (met through work and not, as in the Doyle stories, a case) as if it was ever thus. Her “I like him” verdict on Sherlock, despite John’s ire at the catastrophic proposal dinner, positioned her as an independent thinker as well as cannily armouring her against potential fan resentment. Woe betide the woman who comes between those two.

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What followed was a festive selection box of comedy, action, sharp dialogue, and yet more comedy. The Empty Hearse wasn’t Sherlock’s most coherent episode, nor was its central case its cleverest (the underground terror cell being an underground terror cell isn’t all that smart a revelation), but it was plump with incident and enormous fun.

Director Jeremy Lovering gave it plenty of characteristic visual flash too, whizzing through Sherlock’s mind palace to a pulsing soundtrack and framing stunts as if we were watching a Bourne movie. The handsome ninety minutes raced along from reunion to set piece to farce to heroic exploit. A motorbike leapt up steps, Parliament exploded. It was Sherlock the action hero. Sherlock accelerated.

The punch lines too, sped along like the clappers. No opportunity for a gag was missed, from the Holmes boys playing Operation, to the running joke of John’s moustache (just a lark, as it turns out, not a plot point), to Dr Watson’s embarassing bodies patients being naughtily spliced with Sherlock’s investigations, to the realisation that Molly had done anything but “move on”. The Empty Hearse may have seen Sherlock Holmes plagued by accusations of showboating and trying to rein in the smart-arsery, but the series itself has no such concerns. Justifiably, it’s the BBC’s biggest show-off, and this episode found it cheekier than ever.

On that note, the red herrings performed another role in The Empty Hearse by absorbing Sherlock’s real-world celebrity and serving it back up to fans with a cheeky wink. The fantasy versions of Sherlock shared lingering kisses with Molly and – very nearly – Moriarty, echoing a thousand fanfics. The red carpet was all but rolled out for the return of Sherlock’s fan-favourite Belstaff coat. “I believe in Sherlock Holmes” said Anderson at one point, speaking in hashtag.

When a show joins in with the shipping and throws opens its doors to fandom, it risks becoming a pantomime of its greatest hits, its story playing second fiddle to the preening moments when it flashes its veneers and winks to camera. At worst, it becomes an end-of-term revue sketch, a ham and in-joke sandwich. Mostly, The Empty Hearse avoids all that. It’s both solid all-round entertainment and a treasure trove for a dedicated hard-core. Yes, it knows where to position cues for Sherlock geeks to whoop with delight, but that’s no distraction to the enjoyment of the millions-strong audience who haven’t spent the last two years updating blogs with rooftop fall theories and calculating angles of impact.  

References to Conan Doyle were perhaps more glancing even than usual. Names were borrowed from previous cases (The Adventure Of The Empty House’s Sebastian Moran’s name was lent to Sherlock’s big ‘Rat’ the Moffat and Gatiss-supplied teaser word for this episode, the Lord plotting that Guy Fawkes stunt on the Houses of Parliament). Sumatra Road, the location of the half-built tube station, referred to the Giant Rat of Sumatra, an adventure mentioned in passing in the Doyle stories. Sherlock’s machine gun fire deductions took in A Case Of Identity and more, we had a nod to Holmes’ monographs with his blog entry on natural fibre tensile strengths, and in the same enjoyable scene, an “Elementary” from Mycroft, but largely, the patchwork plot was a brand new construction. (One in-joke, the appearance of a very ordinary Ma and Pa Holmes, referred not to Doyle but to the star himself. TV fans might have recognised actors Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton sat on the Baker Street sofa, aka Mum and Dad Cumberbatch.)

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What the plot lacked in harmony, it didn’t quite make up for in peril. Exciting as motorbike chases and old-fashioned bomb countdowns can be, the likelihood of Watson being killed off acting the hedgehog in that bonfire, or of the pair of them being blown up in that tube car was precisely nil. The terrorist thriller stuff though, was secondary to the real purpose of The Empty Hearse, which was to reunite Sherlock and John, put a lid on the ‘how he did it’ theories, and get the BBC’s brilliantly entertaining Sherlock motoring once more. Introducing a new villain in the shadows to boot (one with a Moriarty-like taste for playing games, it appears), the series three opener did all that and more. Roll on The Sign Of Three.

Read the post-screening Q&A with Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, here.

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