Sherlock The Empty Hearse

BBC1 01/01/14
Written by Mark Gatiss / Directed by Jeremy Lovering

Just how good is this? Two years after Sherlock faked his own death and ignited a debate as to how he did it comes the revelation. We knew, of course, that he wasn’t dead because we saw him at the end of the last series but the question that has been debated right up until this episode was broadcast is how they did it. By which I mean how did the character do it and how did the television programme stage it? Brilliantly, both of these notions are addressed in a script that may just be the best thing Mark Gatiss has ever written and that’s saying something. Bristling with vigour, thrills and wit, `The Empty Hearse` is a ceaseless joy to watch from start to finish as it twists and turns through several developments. As for that explanation- well, just for fun you get several options during the course of the episode until the real one is revealed by Sherlock himself near the end. Or is it?
Actually, the way Sherlock cheated death was he can fly.

Very few television dramas contain such detail, such skills in every second of their running time. I’ve probably only scratched the surface of what’s in this episode but there is already enough to make me think this will be a contender for the best episode of any show this year. You have to be patient though because the style unfolds amidst bursts of graphics and images and sometimes with dual scenes playing out. Sometimes this is comedic – for example when Watson’s patient’s maladies are interspersed with Sherlock’s theories. Sometimes it is very edge of seat exciting such as Sherlock’s motorbike dash to save Watson who is trapped in a bonfire. Gatiss has the confidence to sideline the antagonist’s plot to the second half as he slowly reunites the returned Sherlock with a Watson who has moved on in some respects – he’s about to propose to his girlfriend- but not in others.  As ever the series’ love of dialogue and language is to the fore (a simple play on the word `underground` delights) and even the secondary characters add splashes of colour.
We find a Sherlock who is subtly changed from the previous two series. He’s more mischievous now, more prone to play a sly trick than simply look disdainfully down at other people. The sequence where he disguises himself as a French waiter to re-introduce himself to John is worthy of any comedy series. Right at the end too he pretends he can’t diffuse the bomb that will shortly blow them both up just so he can get John to say something kind and then he laughs at it!  Before he would refuse to really engage with people, now he seems to enjoy baiting them. He has become that difficult proposition- the friend whose behaviour constantly frustrates you but also attracts you at the same time.
The episode becomes partly a study of friendship and how it can be repaired. Watson is stunned by his old friend’s return; not by how he achieved his disappearance but rather why he didn’t forewarn him and doesn’t really know whether he is pleased or not especially as it interrupts his personal life.  I don’t think I’ve seen Martin Freeman act as well as he does here. Gifted a multi layered arc through which Watson has to journey he scores at every level and remains the audience’s touchstone. There are moments where he does something small that speaks volumes and other times when he is so broad it is bittersweet and wonderful. Benedict Cumberbatch has added more variety to his already peerless Holmes, this new delight in wrong footing people suits him well. There are also more of Sherlock’s blistering deductive interludes which the actor has become so great at delivering.
Gatiss playfully approaches some of the theories viewers, critics and fans have salivated over for the past two years in two sequences that incorporate the main ones including the idea of the face mask and a funny moment with Derren Brown! The `real` solution, assuming it is, turns out to be more about illusion with road closures, lots of extras from the detective’s homeless network, crash mats and strategically placed vehicles. Yet as you watch it you wonder whether this is partly telling us how the television programme itself staged the stunt. This blurring of the lines is always hovering on the sidelines of the series but never more so than in this story.

BBC cuts meant the cast had to use torches to get back to their dressing rooms.
Of course it’s not all clever talk and trickery, there are plenty of visceral thrills to be seen. In fact the moment when Watson awakes trapped underneath a bonfifre is uncomfortable to watch because it is so convincingly rendered. There are several excellent action scenes and a Guy Fawkes inspired plot seemingly masterminded by a new villain whom we glimpse at the end. Anyone thinking that without Andrew Scott’s inspired Moriaty the series would fall short can be reassured it does not though Scott does get a couple of brief appearances one of which seems to hint at some more lurid fan fiction! Supporting characters have their moments to; Mark Gatiss himself delivers another impeccable performance as the even less warm than his brother Mycroft while Una Stubbs makes her brief appearances memorable with wonderful human reactions to all the madness. Amanda Abbington’s Mary is a strong addition as John’s fiancĂ©e – in just one sentence she nails all that we need to know about the character when she tells a befuddled John “I like him” after her first encounter with Sherlock. There’s a strong role too for Louise Brealey as Molly who gets to be a sidekick for a day and demonstrates why Sherlock needs Watson.
`The Empty Hearse` is another triumph for a series that seems only able to improve on near perfection as it develops. It’s become such a part of the TV landscape you forget this is only the seventh (!) episode. Now, the bar has just been raised again. Welcome back, Sherlock the man and the series!

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