Sherlock 3×01 Review: The Empty Hearse
For two years us Sherlock fans have been waiting for our beloved characters to return. We’ve absorbed all the bits of information from the set, clung to the creators’ every word, and grown extraordinarily excited over the few seconds of footage fed to us by the BBC. Two years is a long time for hype to build over a show and the showrunners added to that fanfare with their rather unique way of announcing the premiere date at the end of November. What we were rewarded with after the long and grueling hiatus was an episode filled with emotional character reunions, an alarming amount of nods to fandom, and plot points both predictable and unexpected alike.
The episode starts with a giant amount of trolling from the writers. We’re immediately given a theory about how Sherlock survived the fall, but the ridiculousness continues to build until it’s revealed that it’s just a theory by none other than Anderson. In the mini episode Many Happy Returns we learned that Anderson has spent the past two years obsessing over Sherlock and the continued outlandish theories only further drive that point home. Later on in the episode it’s even revealed that he’s the head of some sort of Sherlock conspiracy theory club. Of all the characters on the show, Anderson seems to be the one most like us during the hiatus. This is in stark contrast to how most of fandom felt over the first two seasons where he was almost universally hated. Two years is a long time, though, and he seems to have felt the same frustration as we did over the years and evolved as a result.
The true emotional punch to the gut came with all the introductory scenes involving John. We learn that he’s returned to Baker Street for the first time in two years, the flat clearly being too much of a reminder of what he lost when Sherlock fell. He informs Mrs. Hudson that he’s “moved on,” which she interprets as him having found a new boyfriend. The jokes about everyone mistaking John and Sherlock as a couple continue into season three, it seems. It’s been a running gag since the pilot. Some may view the gag as a playful nod towards shippers while others may see it as queerbaiting, but either way it’s a part of the narrative and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. Alas, John does not have a new boyfriend, but rather a girlfriend named Mary played by Amanda Abbington. Mary is a character from the books so we once more have a tie in to the source material.
Abbington was truly a shining point of the entire episode. For those of you who don’t know who she is, Abbington is Martin Freeman’s real life partner and mother of his children. Abbington and Freeman make a beautiful real life couple and that chemistry bleeds over to John and Mary quite easily. They didn’t have too many scenes together in the episode, but I bought them as a couple almost immediately. They have an ease around each other that can easily be attributed to them being real life partners. John plans on proposing to her and fully moving on from his life with Sherlock very early in the episode, which immediately sets up just how much things have changed in John’s life. Before John can fully finish his romantic gesture, though, Sherlock appears as a waiter at the table with an incredibly thinly veiled disguise and mucks up his plans. The scene played out like one I’d read in fanfiction dozens of times. That’s not exactly a bad thing, but I was surprised that fanfiction seems to have gotten so many details of the encounter so right all the way down to John punching him in the face. It felt like a natural response, I suppose, so they couldn’t exactly leave such a visceral reaction out of the script.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Amanda Abbington play off each other other remarkably well, too. Mary likes Sherlock right off the bat, but later in the episode when they team up together to rescue John we really get to see how they work as a team. They both care for John very much, which automatically gives them something in common. They make a surprisingly good duo as they race to the bonfire to rescue John from certain death. Another part of the scene that I very much enjoyed was that it was John who played our damsel in distress, not Mary, which is a nice way to go against conventional expectations. Whether Mary will be put in the line of fire in future episodes is unknown to me, but it’s great to set her up as a strong woman capable of doing the rescuing before they flip in and put her in place of needing to be rescued herself. While I have been paying attention to spoilers, I don’t know what’s in store for Mary beyond what is in the original ACD canon. Her set up was very satisfying, though, and I’m excited to see what comes next for her.
Molly also played a large part in the episode, which was a pleasant surprise. In Anderson’s first theory Sherlock kisses her, which caused a huge ripple through fandom, eliciting loud reactions both positive and negative all across social media. Outside of that fantasy, however, she becomes Sherlock’s partner for much of the episode essentially taking John’s place. Like Anderson, Molly becomes somewhat of an audience surrogate during these scenes. She’s very much infatuated with Sherlock and when he accidentally refers to her as “John” it cuts deeply. I have a lot of sympathy for Molly in regards to her feelings for Sherlock. Being infatuated with unobtainable people is sort of a fangirl’s signature state of being and it causes a bit of pain that the only romantic moment she is likely to have with him is in Anderson’s fake theory fantasy.
One point of contention that I have is the difference between the way that Molly and Sherlock’s fantasy kissing sequence was handled versus the way that Sherlock’s fantasy kissing scene with Moriarty was displayed. Both are essentially set up the same. They are part of two rather outlandish theory sequences that are clearly rooted in fantasy, but the heterosexual kiss stays while the homosexual scene cuts out moments before it has a chance to escalate. This seems to state that homosexuality is still taboo, which is something I had truly hoped we’d moved past by now. The BBC has been incredibly progressive with it’s representation for the queer community, and yet here they seemed to have taken a step backwards. What’s even more strange is that this episode was written by Mark Gatiss, a gay man, so I’m not entirely sure why the scene was cut short like it was. This isn’t even something that I personally ship, but the difference in treatment between the two fantasies definitely stood out.
Near the end we get yet another explanation for how he “did it.” Once again fandom got many things right with their theorizing. The rubber ball came into play, which many suspected it would, but so did a bouncy castle which sort of came out of left field. Sherlock reveals all of it to Anderson in a taped confession, but soon Anderson begins to question the little details of the whole ordeal and we are left questioning if we’ve actually been told the truth about his fall or not. The fact that John asks him at the end to tell him how he did it and we’re left hanging makes me doubt that we got the truth this time. As Anderson so aptly pointed out, he wouldn’t exactly be telling Anderson such a large secret before anyone else. The long stream of fake theories throughout the entire episode is truly master trolling and I want to both tip my hat for a gag well played and threaten the writers with bodily harm for stringing us along.
The episode was mostly satisfying, though the trolling about how he did it was a constant source of frustration. I feel like with the amount of hype that has been building over the years regarding this episode it’s very hard to live up to everyone’s expectations, but the episode comes close enough to perfection that it ultimately left me pleased. The series has a lot to live up to and a very short time to meet those extraordinarily high expectations. We’re already a third of the way through the season and only have 11 more days until another (most likely) extremely long hiatus begins. I truly hope they keep the momentum going and deliver what the fandom has been craving since 2011.
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.
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