By Anastasia Klimchynskaya
Let’s start with a recap: two years ago, “The Reichenbach Fall” left us with two cliffhangers, one intellectual, the other emotional. The first: how did Sherlock Holmes survive jumping off a five-story building? The second: where does his “death” leave him and his relationships with the people he cares about?
After two years, “The Empty Hearse” has finally aired to resolve those hanging questions, but somehow, in doing so, it just leaves one huge emotional gap. Sherlock’s second season saw unprecedented character growth for the eponymous character, and the blossoming of a beautiful relationship between our two protagonists. Its deeply moving finale, in which Sherlock supposedly sacrifices everything for his friends, left us with some pretty big emotional expectations. But, while “The Empty Hearse” may be both fun and funny, dramatic and fast-paced, entertaining if not overly clever, it simply doesn’t follow up on those emotional promises made by Sherlock two years ago, and therein lies its weakness.
The episode tackles the intellectual cliffhanger first, though, quickly cutting to the chase with that explanation we’ve been awaiting for two years. It’s fast-paced, exciting, and involves two bodies, a bungee cord, and a dramatic kiss with Molly Hooper –
…wait. That’s perhaps one of the cleverer aspects of the episode: just as you’re wondering why you’re getting the explanation the BBC’s kept such a tight lid on for two years, just like that, it turns out it’s not the real one. It’s only a story made up by Anderson, who looks a little insane with grief and rather resembles the Sherlock fandom during the last two years (trust me, I know.) It’s a clever way to deal with audience expectations that have been building for two years while deferring the actual explanation.
The episode cuts quickly from a story to what’s actually going on: Sherlock taking down Moriarty’s network. He’s wheedling information out of unwitting people and getting tortured in the process, but not for long: with Mycroft coming to the rescue, we get little more than a tantalizing glimpse into what must have been a profoundly traumatic two years for Sherlock Holmes. But, terrorists threaten London, so it’s time to leave the feelings behind and speed back to good old England and John Watson.
Except, as it turns out, John Watson has moved on, moved out of Baker Street, and all but forgotten Sherlock Holmes. If “The Reichenbach Fall” was tragic, with the sacrifices Sherlock was forced to make, then the idea that John Watson could have moved on from the relationship that’s defined the series is perhaps even more tragic (we’re not going to talk about the mustache. That’s the most tragic thing of all). It’s also canonically accurate; still, it’s a piece of that emotional gap that we didn’t get a chance to see John grieve.
Sherlock’s return comes at the worst possible moment: just as John Watson’s about to propose. It’s incredibly fitting for Sherlock’s character, who’s never had any understanding of social grace, and his disguised return as a French waiter brings back the old dynamic between John and Sherlock: a clueless, socially inept Sherlock, and the long-suffering John Watson, who’s had one too many of Sherlock’s ineptitudes. John’s reaction is much more appropriate than fainting, but, though the drawn-out joke of John’s anger is hilariously funny in the moment, it’s more than heartbreaking in retrospect. After the anger, there’s a brushed off explanation, and the two, sadly, go their separate ways.
Still, these few scenes do have the merit of introducing John’s fiancée, Mary Morstan. She’s the bright, shining star of this episode, and played to perfection by Freeman’s real-life spouse. Unlike John’s string of unremarkable girlfriends, Mary is interesting, intelligent, perceptive, and sassy. She’s not a bland love interest: she’s a complement for John, a match for Sherlock, and a compelling, conciliatory force between the two, thankfully fitting in perfectly between them rather than being an unnecessary third wheel.
Unfortunately, these character interactions aside, the episode gets too busy with things like plot and manufactured drama to give the time of day to its potential for actual drama. Said plot leaves much to be desired: it seems that Sherlock Holmes has moved on from finding stolen paintings to serving queen and country as he frantically attempts to prevent the blowing-up of Parliament. It’s fast-paced, and suspenseful, and so patently resembles every single spy movie ever that there’s very little room left for Sherlock Holmes in it. There’s certainly very little actual deducing, and, marvel of marvels, Sherlock Holmes (who has every nook and alleyway of London memorized) is not aware of the fact that the London Underground has unused stations. Who knew that a plot could revolve entirely around Sherlock’s ignorance of things he’s been shown to know?
In the midst of this, John Watson also gets to star as the damsel-in-distress yet again: despite his military training, it’s time yet again for Sherlock Holmes to be the knight in shining armor to his friend. He more than rises to the challenge, almost literally throwing himself into a fire to save him. The scene’s significance will supposedly be revealed in later episodes, but it does serve the function of paving the way for the climax of the episode – and of the ensuing emotional confrontation between John and Sherlock.
With the two trapped in a subway car with a ticking bomb, it seems that finally those emotional promises will be followed up on. Sherlock revealing his motivations and that broken partnership that’s been half the tragedy of this episode will be on the mend. That’s where the scene seems to be going: in a high-stakes moment, Sherlock breaks down and confesses his guilt and regrets. Cumberbatch plays Sherlock’s emotional range to perfection, from desperate and manic to caring and remorseful, in a scene more than evocative of that rooftop phone call. Freeman plays John’s responses to perfection: first his disbelief, then his anger and desperation, and finally, his forgiveness. It’s moving, it’s heartbreaking, it’s –
Contrived. It’s not what you thought, because lo and behold, that bomb has an off switch. Sherlock likes his dramatic scenes, and John Watson totally called it: this is yet another emotional set-up, for John Watson and viewer alike.
At least, however, we get what we’ve been waiting for all along: the explanation of how Sherlock survived and what happened that day at Bart’s hospital. As it turns out, Sherlock didn’t fake his death to save his friends. That heartbreaking moment that stayed with you for two years? Surprise! It was, quite simply, the most convenient way to take down the rest of Moriarty’s cronies. Incidentally, those cronies don’t seem particularly clever, since pulling off the whole endeavor was about as easy as asking a few snipers to reconsider and letting everyone in the world except John Watson in on the secret. Which begs the question: why exactly isn’t John Watson in on the secret? And what happened to that sniper we actually saw leaving in “The Reichenbach Fall?”
I can’t quite work up the energy to be intellectually upset, though, because I’m still a little emotionally upset that everything we saw in “The Reichenbach Fall” was a lie. All of Sherlock’s emotional growth last season seems to have politely stepped aside in the name of making Sherlock and Mycroft clever than anyone else. Similarly, the importance of the relationship between the show’s two protagonists seems to have made way for the plot twist that Sherlock Holmes knew what he was doing all along, making all the crying we’ve been doing for the past two years rather moot.
In the end, this episode piles up clever trick on clever trick. There’s too many emotionally candid moments that turn out to be plot twists to make it possible to take anything seriously, and I’m rather personally starting to feel like John Watson: I’m drowning in all the drama and emotional manipulation to find something to be invested in. Let’s hope that either the deducing or the relationships improve before next episode.