TV Review: Sherlock: The Empty Hearse


S3, E1: ‘The Empty Hearse’

Isn’t it great when you can shit on your fans instead of writing a story?

Grade: F. For F$@k. You. Moffat.


In 1895, Arthur Conan Doyle published a series of short stories called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. The collection contained one story called The Final Problem, in which Sherlock Holmes met Professor Moriarty, grappled with him over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, and fell to his death, taking ‘the Napoleon of crime’ with him. Conan Doyle was all set to move on from the consulting detective, but his reading public had other ideas. They bombarded him with letters, they besieged him – literally – at his house. One woman reportedly called out ‘bring him back, you brute!’

So back, with dragging feet, he came in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. One can only imagine the impotent fury Conan Doyle must have felt at the people who had helped make his fortune, but were determined that he be chained to their appetites. His disdain for their neediness. His rage at their entitlement.

But Conan Doyle – whether or not you agree with him – had some reason for his rage. He wanted to move on from Holmes, and his fans wouldn’t let him. Moffat? Gatiss? What have your fans ever done to you to deserve such searing contempt?

‘He’s got on with his life.’ ‘What life? I’ve been away.’

He’s ba-ack! Having spent the past two years doing all sorts of Unspecified But Awesome Moriarty-Beating Things, Sherlock has been hoiked back to the land of his fathers by his big brother. Not before he was roughed up by some sort of Serbian baddie, of course, as Sherlock indignantly points out. I am completely on Mycroft’s side, by the bye – if you had the chance of watching Sherlock get a bit of a kicking, wouldn’t you take it? I would.

And in those two years? John Watson has grieved and found himself a charming lady (played by the delightful Amanda Abbington). John’s taste in women has so far been impeccable. His taste in facial hair, on the other hand…Yep, he’s grown a grandpa moustache. Sherlock sniffs that ‘that’s got to go, for a start’ in a fussily proprietorial way that makes me giggle despite myself. He is loudly certain of his welcome, in the teeth of Mycroft’s dismissal. And I watch, gloomily, as one by one my hopes diminish and disappear with a flatulent sound.

First hope: that John has kept up an interest in crime since Sherlock’s disappearance. He actually knows that Sherlock’s alive, and has paid a long-overdue visit to 221B to lie in wait for his friend. When said friend shows up, John will tackle him to the floor and give him a thrashing that will make that Serbian prison feel like a day-spa.

Nope. He’s mourned and turned his back on Mrs. Hudson because it was just too painful, you see.

Second hope: that when Sherlock shows up, John will give him a look of freezing blankness and then turn his attention back to whatever it is he’s doing, forcing Sherlock to give John a proper apology and work on getting his trust back.

Third hope: Okay, probably not. But at least that John will give Sherlock a proper kicking, physically and verbally, and the two will have a proper heart-to-heart and Sherlock will give John a proper apology/explanation.

Nope and nope. Sherlock shows up at the restaurant where John’s about to propose to his girlfriend and impersonates an ‘Allo ‘Allo Frainch Accainted Waitairr, because presumably someone thinks that’s charming? The music loudly telegraphs How Very Winsome and Quirky This All Is. I cannot adequately describe how obnoxious it is. Especially when Martin Freeman is doing some marvellous work laying bare how shitty it feels to mourn someone who trusted you less than he trusted twenty-five random homeless people and Molly Fucking Hooper. And Benedict Cumberbatch is doing even subtler and finer work showing the nervousness of a man who knows he doesn’t deserve a welcome, but is fronting it out because that’s the only way he knows how to operate. There is depth and pathos to the performances, if the direction and music weren’t continually shrieking at you that this is an amusing misunderstanding that will all be sorted out once John stops being such a big girl about it all.

Everybody collaborates in this, up to and including the otherwise charming girlfriend who randomly announces that she likes Sherlock. Likes the guy who lied to her husband-to-be, broke his heart and then reappeared two years later with a false moustache, zero apology, in fact nothing but an ‘I need you’ and a quip about the facial hair. Why? Based on what, other than the fact that All Must Adore Suelock Holmes? It’s one thing to tell John to put aside his feelings temporarily and work with Sherlock on a case (oh, a terrorist’s going to blow up London, in case anyone’s interested). It is quite another to imply to him that he has no right to be furious. John, come sit here next to me, love. The others can gaslight you all they want, but I know the truth. Although they’re right about the moustache. It ages you.

‘This is just another one of your bloody tricks. Just to make you look good, even though…’

Anyway, John gets shanghaied into helping Sherlock, they wind up on a tube with a ticking time-bomb, Sherlock begs John’s forgiveness, John’s suspicious, but – thinking they’ll die – admits to Sherlock that he is the best and the wisest man he’s ever known and he’s so pretty and the sun shines out of his pretty pretty bum and John’s so sorry he was cross, darling, but it hurt so terribly to be left behind, and Sherlock bursts into tears – of laughter. Actual laughter. Because he knew John was secretly pleased to see him! Silly John, thinking that your feelings had any merit, or that Suelock Holmes would ever face any negative consequence for his worst behaviour! Ha, the idea. It’s Suelock’s world. You just live in it.

And you know what? No. Fuck you, show. Sherlock Holmes betrayed John Watson and used his very real grief to lend cover to his story. Holmes didn’t lie to Watson in the original stories. He really was going to die, and that was going to be the end of it. But you, Mofftiss, knew that you’d be bringing Sherlock back. And you went ahead with the lie to Watson anyway. What’s your reasoning?

‘You overdid it, you and your little fan club.’

The reasoning? We don’t need no stinkin’ reasoning. Not when we’re having such enormous fun with fan theories! Oh, here’s Sherlock slapping a mask of his own face onto Moriarty! Here’s Sherlock making out with Moriarty! Here’s Sherlock using the rubber ball to mask his pulse and make good his getaway! See us sneer at every single lovingly-crafted theory on the internet, without conclusively offering an actual solution of our own!

And it’s not just the fan theories we’re after! It’s fans themselves! Here’s the ferret-faced forensic pathologist who dared doubt Sherlock! See now his Damascene conversion to one of the faithful! See his Wall of Conspiracy Theories! See his sad little club where other losers theorise about how Sherlock may have survived! See the fat goth fangirl who thinks Sherlock would make out with a boy! You know, like a homosexualist! Can you believe there are women on the internet who have and express sexual interest in men like tall, lissom Benedict Cumberbatch? Even the ugly ones? Well, we’ll show them, eh? Take that, fans who demand answers! And that, fans who think we’re not awesome on female characters! Take that! ‘And that! And that, and that, and that!

Look, I’m over expecting the show’s mystery plots to make even a lick of sense. I understand that, in Moffat’s words, this is a story about a detective, rather than a detective story. But either way, Moffat, shouldn’t you be writing an actual story?

Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods

  • The title and rough premise of the story borrows from The Adventure of the Empty House, which is of course the tale of Sherlock Holmes’s miraculous return. I suppose we were spared John’s passing out, which is Watson’s somewhat limp reaction in the original stories.
  • ‘Elementary’, says Mycroft. ‘Oy gevalt’, says I. And notice, again, that this is a reference to a misattribution, rather than to any actual Holmes arcana.
  • The show keeps trying to find the right context for ‘Once you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ You know what might help? Writing an episode worthy of that line. Just a thought.

Odds and sods

  • Hudson insists on believing that John is gay. John insists on correcting her – at the top of his voice. Moffat insists on thinking this is the funniest gag on the face of the planet. I contemplate tattooing the words ‘Yes I do believe WE GET IT’ on the inside of Moffat’s skull.
  • The musical cues are so obnoxious in this episode. I quite enjoy the Bourne Identity-esque riffs soundtracking Anderson’s first theory, but the noisy tootling at the Wacky Hi-Jinks when Sherlock’s impersonating the French waiter? Which intensifies when John first punches Sherlock?
  • In an unbearably twee moment, Sherlock and Mycroft play ‘Doctor’ while reminiscing about their childhood and being taken to meet other children. In another, we meet a sweet old couple to whom Sherlock is a little gumboil, and it transpires that they’re his parents. Oh God, Steven Moffat’s been reading tumblr fanfiction prompts again. Please, someone, disconnect his Wi-Fi.
  • I guess Mycroft and Sherlock’s duelling deductions were cute enough. Although when Sherlock said ‘let’s play deductions’, I could see the Archive Of Our Own logo in my mind. Please, I beg you, Moffat, stop reading Sherlock fanfiction.
  • Sherlock loudly demands ‘you know what’, and is presented with his Belstaff coat. He slips into it with the ceremony of a knight slamming down his visor before a big joust. I assume – though I hope so much that I am wrong – that the internet shat itself in excitement at the moment.
  • Oh Christ, the Mind Palace is back. If this becomes a regular feature, recapping every one of these things will take three times as long – every time Sherlock disappears into the palace and the music swells, I have to stop to take a cringe break.
  • Oh dear God, Sherlock thanks Molly for her help by….letting her tag along with him while he shows off? Although I guess he’s sort of reasonably polite to her while he’s doing it, so that’s something? I’m reaching here.
  • Oh God, Molly’s new beau looks just like Sherlock. You’re pinching plots from Friends, now, Sherlock?
  • The show goes full-on Bourne when John gets kidnapped, and Mary runs to Sherlock for help – intriguingly having spotted the ‘skip code’ in the cryptic message she gets sent about John. Sherlock commandeers a bike and he and Mary ride off to save John from being sent up in flames – this show never met a baroque murder mechanism it didn’t love. Points to the show for endowing a ladyperson with basic competence, but do we need to have any damsel in distress, even if it happens to be a man?
  • You don’t need to know about the plot. The only good thing about it is that for the first time in a long time London has felt like a main character in the story in the way it ought to be.

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