Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

‘Holmes!’ I cried. ‘Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive?’” – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Adventure of the Empty House

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

It has been, as was noted several times in the script for this episode, just about two years since we last saw an episode of Sherlock (give or take a fortnight). In that time, the stars and writers of the show have hardly been idle. Benedict Cumberbatch has been seemingly everywhere, most notably as the villain in Big Hollywood Movie Star Trek Into Darkness, while Martin Freeman has had two lengthy epics released in which he plays Tolkien’s famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins (with a third due this year). Mark Gatiss has busied himself with MR James adaptations and a series on European horror movies, while Steven Moffat has been busy with something called Doctor Who.

Still, even with all this other work, those concerned with the show normally seem to go the extra mile with Sherlock, delivering an end product that is polished to near perfection. With two years to work on it, and the need to provide one of the most keenly anticipated cliffhanger resolutions in recent TV, you’d hope that new episode The Empty Hearse would live up to previous efforts.

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Sad to say, I didn’t think it did. Not that it was a bad piece of television – it can still stand head and shoulders above the majority of current TV drama. It was a hugely enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. But compared to previous offerings in the series, it seemed somehow… unsatisfying.

I should hasten to point out that this was nothing to do with the production, which was as lavish and well-directed as ever, courtesy of Jeremy Lovering. Nor was it the fault of the cast – all concerned delivered some excellent dialogue with their usual panache. No, I think what bothered me was the plotting. Mark Gatiss’ script obviously had a lot to accomplish in bringing Sherlock back from the ‘dead’, dealing with the other characters’ reactions to that, and telling a thrilling mystery tale along the way. That’s a tall order for anyone, and it’s perhaps no surprise that those elements didn’t seem as well-balanced as they could have been.

The series has always played fast and loose with its ‘adaptation’ of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as shown in last season’s closer The Reichenbach Fall, which took very little from Doyle’s The Final Problem. Here, as there, we had many knowing nods to the Holmes canon, but the actual plot was virtually all Gatiss.

Aside from the punning title referring to Holmes’ return from the dead in The Adventure of the Empty House, and the (barely seen) villain being Lord (formerly Colonel, presumably) Moran, there was little of Doyle to be seen in the story proper. There was an 1898 Doyle story (not explicitly about Holmes, but featuring “an amateur reasoner of some celebrity”) called The Lost Special, which features a mysteriously disappearing railway train. It didn’t, however, disappear in Central London and threaten to blow up the Palace of Westminster. That element seemed very obviously taken from the work of Alan Moore, though it’s only in the movie version of V For Vendetta that the train blows up Parliament – in the comic it blows up 10 Downing Street. Nice model explosion though, every bit as good as the aforementioned movie.

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While we waited (for quite a long time) for the main plot to get going, there were plenty of incidental Doyle allusions along the way, though very few had any relevance to the main plot, and missing them would hardly have alienated the casual viewer. Mention was made of Baron Maupertuis (referred to in passing by Watson in The Adventure of the Reigate Squire), and the unfinished Underground station at ‘Sumatra Road’ was presumably a nod to the ‘Giant Rat of Sumatra’, as mentioned in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. The client with the lost penpal who turned out to be her stepfather was the basic plot of A Case of Identity.

Sherlock and Mycroft’s deduction competition has its origins in Mycroft’s introduction in The Greek Interpreter, though it’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle that features deduction about a client from his hat. The text message that requires one to read every third word has its origins in The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, and its mention of “John or James” is a sly wink to the fact that the continuity-disregarding Doyle actually renamed his protagonist from John to James Watson in The Man with the Twisted Lip.

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The genuinely amusing (if predictable) sequence in which John mistook one of his patients for Sherlock in disguise featured the old man trying to flog him cheap-looking DVDs whose titles were those of books the genuinely disguised Holmes tried to sell Watson in the original Adventure of the Empty House. And, of course, we finally saw the introduction of John’s fiancée Mary Morstan, as introduced in The Sign of Four. Let’s hope Mary gets a better deal than she did in the original stories, where she patiently put up with Watson’s dalliances with Holmes before dying between stories then never being mentioned again.

The inclusion of Mary, and the idea that John is “getting on with his life”, show one of the series’ genuine improvements over the work of Doyle. For the original author, once the main characters were established (over the opening two chapters of A Study in Scarlet), they were rarely delved into in any depth, and they certainly never developed as such; character depth was reserved for the other protagonists of the stories, usually to provide motives for the crimes.

Sherlock the TV show, however, has made a virtue of delving into and developing its two main characters and their relationship. Given the situation here, that came very much to the fore, and was done brilliantly. With the relationship that’s been established for Sherlock and John, John’s aggrieved reaction to his friend’s reappearance was more believable (and more fun!) than the original Watson’s swooning into a dead faint. I imagine I would have thumped him too.

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It also served to show that Sherlock still isn’t that great at empathy – but his character has definitely developed from the “high-functioning sociopath” we met at the start of the series. Last year had a gradual process of ‘humanising’ him, as he came to realise how much he needed, and actually liked, his friends. That wasn’t lost here, as we saw from his heartfelt thanks to Molly (even accompanied by a chaste kiss), and his attempt to explain to the bemused Mycroft why being different didn’t necessarily mean being isolated.

However, while the show’s focus on the characters is definitely welcome, in this episode it felt very much as though it took precedence over having an actual plot. The characterisation, performances and dialogue are universally excellent – funny, heartfelt and sympathetic – but when the show spends more time on them than the actual plot, it’s in danger of becoming more like a soap opera than a thriller. In that, it seems to be heading into similar territory to that other modern day Holmes analogue, Dr Gregory House, whose later episodes were more concerned with the regulars’ relationships than any actual plot.

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And the plot, when it did come, felt disappointingly straightforward after the twisty-turny games of previous episodes. Having previously established that it was coming up to Guy Fawkes Day gave most of the game away (does anybody really still do “Penny for the Guy”?). With that in mind, the kidnapped John’s placement in a soon-to-be-lit bonfire didn’t come as much of a surprise. Nor did, once we’d established that a carriage had been removed from the train, the ultimate plan to blow up Parliament, by a villain whose identity wasn’t established until near the end, and who never even got a spoken line, much less any kind of motive.

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To an extent, it felt like it had been made up as it went along, rather than the meticulous plotting and establishing of suspects in previous stories. The fact that “a terrorist threat from an underground network” had to be taken literally to make sense was a nice bit of semantic wordplay – but if you’d recently watched Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who ep The Name of the Doctor, that gambit might have felt a bit familiar.

For the true nitpicker, there’s an online analysis of why the episode got the geography of the London Underground wrong online already; though a more pertinent question might be how the unfinished station whose ground level entrances were never built could be directly below the Palace of Westminster – were they planning to put the entrance in the lobby? On a less hair-splitting level though, the lack of ultimate resolution to the plot was frustrating. Previous stories, even if they hinted at a larger arc such as that involving Moriarty, had closure on an individual level. Here, while we know that Moran was somehow behind the bomb plot (though not why or how), there was no explanation as to the kidnapping of John which took up a fair bit of the story, and no indication that the two crimes were necessarily even connected.

As Sherlock noted, that’s what real life is like – you don’t get to know all the answers, and that can be frustrating. On this show, however, that felt like the writer making an excuse. Given the established style of Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who, I’m sure that answers will be forthcoming as to the identity of the mysterious silhouetted figure who seems to be orchestrating events. But while that might be what real life is like, it’s not what Sherlock, the show, has been like until now, hence the frustration. Ironically, this is what Steven Moffat is often lambasted for on Doctor Who – but it feels like it fits better there, with so many more, and more frequent, episodes to play with. I know many Who fans who would seriously disagree with that, however!

In part, the slenderness of the plot and its delay in properly getting going were due to the sheer amount of time the episode spent on the resolution of THAT cliffhanger from last time – which, as the episode went on, felt increasingly self-indulgent. The opening sequence, of a seeming explanation whose obvious fakeness came either with the kissing of Molly or the appearance of Derren Brown, was an amusing nod to the online fan theories, which was fine.

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But then to have another (amusing though it was to see the sniggering Sherlock and Moriarty lean in to lock lips), really did smack of self-indulgence. The net effect was that, when we finally did see the ‘proper’ explanation, it was an anticlimax and faintly unconvincing – was Sherlock lying? And to use the sceptical Anderson as yet another dig at the online fans felt a bit like trying to have your cake and eat it, not to mention a bit patronising.

To be fair, whatever explanation was offered was unlikely to live up to what had been dwelling in the fans’ fevered imaginations for the last two years. Moffat previously said that there was a clue everyone had missed in the previous episode; presumably he was referring to the Sherlock lookalike Moriarty had used to abduct the little girl, which I think most of us did remember. Logically this was the corpse that was buried, though why it had to be placed on the pavement before being replaced by Sherlock himself for John’s identification was a bit of a puzzle – why not just have Sherlock lay there from the off then autopsy/bury the corpse? Still, though, offering three potential explanations NONE of which is necessarily the truth smacks of cheating, I’m afraid.

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Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t entirely a negative review. There was a lot of excellent stuff in there – Sherlock’s gradual rebuilding of his relationship with John, Molly’s ill-fated attempt at replacing him, the delight of Una Stubbs’ Mrs Hudson at seeing her troublesome tenant back again. It was good to see more for Gatiss to do onscreen as Mycroft, and the reveal of him as Sherlock’s ‘Serbian’ captor was a genuine surprise – even if Gatiss doesn’t really have more than one performance up his sleeve whatever character he’s portraying.

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Thankfully, Cumberbatch and Freeman do, and they were as excellent as ever – I liked the business with John’s moustache, and Mrs Hudson’s belief that Sherlock and John were actually lovers. It was a further ‘humanising’ touch that we saw Sherlock’s parents – and that he was embarrassed by them! “They’re so ordinary,” remarked John; but they’re not. They’re actually Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents – Doctor Who fans will probably have at least recognised Wanda Ventham, who appeared on the show several times in the 70s and 80s.

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I also liked the introduction of Amanda Abbington (Martin Freeman’s real-life partner) as Mary – one episode in and she’s already been given more depth, and more pluck, than her counterpart from the original stories. With Gatiss frequently given more stick than Moffat about his ‘inability’ to write strong female characters, Mary was a welcome addition to the ensemble. With the next ep being entitled The Sign of Three, presumably she’ll get even more to do – the original Sign of Four being the only time she really has any role in the original stories beyond being ‘Mrs Watson’.

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No, there was plenty about The Empty Hearse to like. It had almost everything required to make another sterling episode of Sherlock, bar a sense of closure. The problem with it lay in how all those elements were balanced out across the episode, making for an enjoyable but uneven watch. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle manages to explain his hero’s survival in a few pages of The Adventure of the Empty House, having already taken time to set up the ensuing mystery that takes up the rest of the story. For this episode, if the writers wanted to take anything from Doyle, it probably should have been that sense of structure and narrative economy. Still, at least Sherlock has finally embraced “The Hat”…

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