|Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman dazzle in "Sherlock"|
The writers of Sherlock had an impossible task in essentially rebooting the series after a two-year hiatus and the mammoth cliffhanger we were left with at the conclusion of the second season. Writer Mark Gatiss had to a) explain how Sherlock faked his death in a way that was realistic and interesting, but not obvious; b) reveal where Sherlock had been for the last two years in a way that was also realistic and interesting, but not obvious; c) reestablish the relationship between Sherlock and John; and d) pen an engrossing mystery that can provide a framing for the episode. Given those standards, I’d say Gatiss went two for four. He nailed the relationships material and the “why” behind Sherlock’s two-year hiatus, but the episode’s slight mystery combined with the cop-out in explaining how Sherlock pulled off his disappearing act made for a somewhat disappointing return, even though the performances were, as always, spectacular.
Starting with the positives, it was so fun to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman together again. I often wish that we could get more episodes of Sherlock than the three that are made every few years. But part of what makes the show so great is the talent behind the main characters and it simply wouldn’t be the same show without them. So making compromises to meet their schedule only makes sense. It’s particularly great to have these two back because “The Empty Hearse” really services its characters well. The relationship between John and Sherlock is complex. It’s become clear over the first six episodes of this series that, while Sherlock may not need John to solve his cases, he plainly needs him in a personal sense. John is his focus and his constant, even if he may also be just another goldfish, as Mycroft so callously puts it.*
* And how great was Mark Gatiss in that scene? I love that they’re hewing to the original version of Mycroft who is actually more intelligent than Sherlock if just without his brother’s sociopathy. It adds a nice dimension to his character and I’d love to see the two work together more.
What makes the two characters’ reintroduction work so well is the deep affection they clearly have for each other. Sherlock is not so eager to reveal his secret to John if he does not truly value their friendship. Similarly, John’s reaction would not be so, well, punchy were it not for his deep feelings for Holmes. That entire fight scene, in fact, between John and Sherlock was just marvelously executed, in writing, acting and editing. “The Empty Hearse” spends a large chunk of its running time bringing these two back together because it is the most important piece of the foundation to lay for the coming episodes. And while I may not have entirely bought Sherlock’s reasoning for keeping John in the dark, the reveal that this was all an elaborate setup to dismantle Moriarty’s network was at least satisfying.
What was less satisfying was the explanation of how Sherlock faked his death. I understand that it’s been two years since the episode first aired and that fans have had a long time to formulate and perfect their own theories of what happened. I also appreciate the meta-treatment the show gave those theories during the episode. But giving us three different possibilities for how the scenario played out and implying that none of them may have even been the truth seems to me to be a cop-out. It isn’t easy to provide a resolution that fans will both enjoy and not pick at relentlessly, but you have to have a resolution of some sort. By Clue-ifying the solution here, the show makes it seem like it doesn’t trust its own decisions.
Also underwhelming was this week’s mystery which basically boils down to finding a missing subway car. That the mystery is slight is not surprising given how much time had to be dedicated to getting John and Sherlock working together again, but you can’t dedicate that little time to a story and then have it be an enormous, potentially world-changing terrorist plot. The character work throughout is, as usual, fantastic. It just feels like an awfully “important” story to get such short shrift in the time department.
Overall, Sherlock’s return was something of a mixed bag. The character development was spectacular, as usual and expected. But anything remotely resembling plot felt half-baked or like fan service. Hopefully, with the reintroductions out of the way, the show can get back to spinning more of Steven Moffat’s marvelously twisted yarns.
A couple of spare thoughts –
I immediately like John’s fiancée Mary. But something seems a little bit off about her. I really hope she doesn’t end up being a bad guy or otherwise betraying John. I don’t think Sherlock is the type of show that would go down that road, but too many years of watching television have made me distrustful of immediately likeable new romances.
Again, more Mycroft. I love the idea that Sherlock has an intellectual superior out there somewhere just being awesome.
There were a lot of gags in this episode that, while funny, felt out of place, most noticeably the Holmes brothers’ game of Operation and Molly’s fiancée bearing a remarkable similarity to a certain, emotionally stunted super-detective.
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