Sherlock – Season 3 Premiere – Recap: Sherlock Lives
Recap and review of Sherlock – Season 3 Premiere – The Empty Hearse:
So how did he do it? How did Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) fake his death? The season three premiere of Sherlock provides us with three explanations of increasing unlikelihood. “The Empty Hearse” doesn’t really seem intent on giving us a definitive answer, as the issue is less how he did it, and more how his return affects those around him. John Watson (Martin Freeman) has fallen into despair following Sherlock’s death, but those feelings are complicated with his return. It’s a pretty fantastic premiere, and bodes well for an equally momentous season ahead.
The episode opens with a tongue-in-cheek answer to how Sherlock faked his death in “The Reichenbach Fall”, and it sets the tone for how gloriously absurd this episode will become, in places: he pulls it off with a bungee cord, a team of assistants placing a fake mask on Moriarty’s corpse, and the aid of famed illusionist Derren Brown. Th show has frequently joked around with the concept of Sherlock Holmes as a kind of action hero, and this sequence takes it to its logical extreme, with Sherlock bursting through the lab window and planting a kiss on Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) like some sort of swashbuckling Errol Flynn character who’s about to put a sword between his teeth and swing back out to battle. It’s a terrific bit that is revealed to be the guilt-ridden musings of Anderson (Jonathan Aris), who hasn’t forgiven himself for doubting Sherlock. In the intervening two years, Holmes has not only been cleared of all wrongdoing, but was proven to have been telling the truth about Moriarty (Andrew Scott), which has a mournful Lestrade (Rupert Graves) toasting Sherlock’s memory. If it seems like the opening to this episode is all over the place, I would imagine it’s a purposeful choice on the part of writer Mark Gatiss and director Jeremy Lovering, as we essentially touch base with the entire cast in order to see how Sherlock’s death has changed them. It’s a bit of a tonal whiplash, given the variance in tone between comedy and reflective drama, but it’s a narrative technique that largely works.
In the intervening years, John has not only acquired a mustache (which nobody seems to like), but he’s also got himself a girlfriend, Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). John is only just beginning to truly get on with his life, finding a sense of normalcy that, while not exactly ideal, is enough to get his mind off of his dead best friend. He returns to 221B Baker Street for the first time, and visits with Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs), whom he’s only spoken to infrequently in the past several years, on account of the grief that surfaces whenever he visits his former landlady. It’s early into the episode, but this is ultimately among the most touching scenes of the entire story, as Freeman’s performance illustrates just how heavy the weight of Sherlock’s absence is bearing upon him, even now. Of course, the scene also illustrates the inconsistency in tone, as the conversation between John and Mrs. Hudson quickly turns into a comedic exchange, as John reveals his plans to propose to Mary, taking Mrs. Hudson off-guard, as she’d always assumed Watson and Sherlock were lovers. It can be a bit jarring, at times, to have the sentiment in a given scene vary so wildly, yet this is one of the hallmarks of Sherlock. In essence, it wouldn’t be Sherlock if it were all one or the other: all dour and self-serious, or all lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek. It’s the blend of the two narrative approaches that makes the series as fun and affecting as it often ends up being.
But we still need to answer what Sherlock has been up to for the past two years. Thankfully, the answer is quick in coming: he’s been in Serbia, allowing himself to be captured by insurgents and interrogated, eventually sending his own interrogator away by deducting that the man’s wife is having an affair right at that moment. But one interrogator still remains — however, it turns out the second interrogator is an inside man: Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss). Mycroft has come to pull Sherlock out of his mission to see how far Moriarty’s crime network ran, and to dismantle it from the inside. While it’s a worthy mission for Holmes, London needs him now, as an underground terrorist network is threatening to launch an attack, and they need to figure out the details in order to stop the attack before it’s too late.
Eventually, the Holmes brothers return to Baker Street, as Mycroft explains to a stunned Sherlock that John has moved on with his life. Sherlock’s inability to recognize how the people in his life can exist beyond him is one of the hallmarks of his character, as he’s a self-professed sociopath. Hell, he doesn’t even recognize how deliriously messed up it is to just show up and crash John’s proposal dinner dressed as a French waiter, revealing that he’s faked his death all this time without any warning whatsoever. This element of Sherlock’s character makes for a wonderfully dramatic scene packed with tension, as we wonder when John is going to boil over and lash out at his best friend. It’s fairly unsurprising that John loses his temper and violently lashes out at Sherlock, pummeling him with fists and, later, demanding to know why he did what he did (a question which, to Watson, and also the series, is more important than the how).
It’s hard to do any kind of justice to the emotional impact of these scenes between the two: John swears he’ll never speak to Sherlock again, while Mary assures Holmes she’ll do what she can to bring Watson around. And it’s just as well, as they’re desperately needed. The episode sort of takes off from here, as we get Molly filling in as companion until John can be encouraged to forgive Sherlock. Yet the Hooper/Holmes pairing doesn’t last for long before it becomes the Holmes/Morstan team, as the two most important people in Watson’s life team up to rescue him after he’s revealed to have been abducted by a mysterious third party. It isn’t until Sherlock and Mary deduce the code of the mysterious abductor’s text messages that they are able to save John, who is about to be unknowingly burned alive on a bonfire pyre. Luckily, Sherlock and Mary make it just in the nick of time, bringing the former friends to reconciliation.
From there, the episode becomes classic Sherlock, with Holmes and Watson reunited again. It’s the more fun portion of the episode, as Cumberbatch and Freeman are back to jocularly playing off of one another. We even get to meet Sherlock’s parents, in a wonderful cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch’s real mother and father. These bursts of characterization are wrapped around a fairly compelling central mystery, as Sherlock and John struggle to foil the terror attack, which turns out to be a recreation of the Gunpowder Plot — it is the 5th of November, after all. And so the race is on to defuse the bomb embedded in a train headed for the Houses of Parliament, bringing us to a thrilling climax as they infiltrate the underground network, discover the train…and then discover neither of them has any idea how to defuse a bomb. And to make matters worse, the villain behind the plot, Lord Moran, has triggered the device, locking them inside the train carriage with no hope of escape.
And so it comes to one of the best scenes of the entire series, as Sherlock breaks down and admits that he can’t defuse the bomb. Unfortunately, this is where it all ends for them, and you’ve never seen a person sorrier to have to say such a thing than Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding here, reflecting that despite his alien nature, Sherlock is still very much a human character, particularly where his own guilt and responsibility are concerned. He’s less devastated for having imperiled himself than he is for having put John in this situation, taking him away from Mary, perhaps forever. In this moment of pressure and despair, John breaks down and forgives Sherlock for all his deception and hubris, saying that Sherlock is the most remarkable man he’s ever known. It’s a scene that could easily come across as schmaltzy and melodramatic, yet Martin Freeman finds the sincerity of the character, and the insistent bravery of a man facing his end.
Of course, it’s almost entirely undone when Sherlock begins laughing hysterically, revealing that the bomb had an off-switch, and that the police are on their way to bust them out. This is one of the problems the series has had that has divided the fanbase: just how likable is Sherlock? I mean, we can see he’s a relatively good man, yet he’s also kind of a dick. And “The Empty Hearse” seems to go out of its way to remind us as much, since Holmes is an enigmatic guy who can’t really relate to other people the way they want him to. He deals with people on his terms, forcing them to play his game, and it makes him come across as petty and abrasive. But how mad can we really be at him? By episode’s end, it’s clear just what John means to Sherlock, cruel jokes be damned.
As the episode comes to a close, we get another explanation for how Sherlock faked his death, as Holmes tells the “truth” to Anderson (who has created a group devoted to figuring out how Sherlock did it). Yet there’s no real guarantee that this is the actual answer, as Anderson even muses at the end that he would be the last person Sherlock would ever reveal the secret to, and so we’re left to wonder if Holmes has revealed anything at all. With that said, the explanation is the most plausible of the three we saw (with the second being that Holmes and Moriarty were in on the suicide together — a what-if scene that ends with an almost-kiss between the two nemeses that is likely to set tumblr on fire). Sherlock states he had devised several different protocols with Mycroft before meeting with Moriarty on the roof. Once he figured out Moriarty’s game, he sent a text to Mycroft to set one of the protocols in motion: Sherlock’s homeless network dressed up as doctors, bystanders, while one of them played the cyclist who knocked Watson to the ground, buying the team more time to bring in a giant inflated air bag to break Sherlock’s fall, as a building obstructed John’s view of the pavement on which Sherlock fell. After landing, the bag was removed while Sherlock’s body was replaced by the corpse of a Moriarty associate. Holmes was then covered in fake blood while he placed a squash ball under his armpit to cut off his pulse. It’s an irreducibly complex solution, but it makes about as much sense as any explanation the show might have given us.
And so it ends, with a festive gathering at 221B Baker Street: Molly introduces her Sherlock look-a-like boyfriend, while John introduces Mary to Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade. It’s a welcome return to the more lighthearted Sherlock, and it’s just as well. While much of the premiere is a self-serious exploration of how deception affects the best of people, it’s also fun in a way that few shows on TV these days are. Whether it’s John getting teased about his mustache (“I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes!”) or Sherlock tearfully begging John’s forgiveness, there’s as much to laugh about here as there is to be gripped by. The season is only three episodes long, but it’s already off to a great start, as the episode closes with the sinister tease of the identity of the man who had Watson captured and placed on the bonfire. As the season rolls on, I’m sure we’ll get more on who this enigmatic figure is, but for now, I’m just glad to have Sherlock Holmes and John Watson back.