It’s been a long two years waiting for Sherlock to return, but the season three opener, “The Empty Hearse” was not, it seems, a return to form. Eschewing the traditional format of the series to deal with the ramifications of last season’s fake-out death sequence, the Benedict Cumberbatch-fronted series sat squarely in the emotional aftermath of Holmes’ trickery and deception in the name of tying up loose ends (literally and otherwise). And while it was an overall highly entertaining jaunt, the episode did leave us feeling slightly underserved given its overindulgence in the “how did he do it?” smoke and mirrors game.
The build-up to the explanation of Sherlock’s survival of that brutal fall from so long ago now has been the touch point of all publicity for the series up to this point. It has been speculated on to death: from Comic-Con to Tumblr to reputable entertainment outlets and beyond. It’s all anyone could and would talk about — without actually saying anything. Unfortunately that anticipation and build-up ultimately became the burden that broke the episode’s back. Had Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss pulled it back a bit more — eschewing all-out fanboy indulgence for a bit more of the tension-building nuance, the whole thing would’ve been a positively bombastic return.
Throughout the episode, we were served several plausible (and one hat-tipping fan fiction Moriarty/Sherlock kiss realized — oh, the Tumblr GIFrenzy; we can only imagine it) and entertaining scenarios that would’ve explained how and why Sherlock was able to fake his own death in the name of dismantling Moriarty’s crime organization over the course of his two-year disappearance. And, perhaps smartly, the end revealed that none of the scenarios were actually the truth because the truth never lives up to people’s wants and expectation.
But all of that playing around caused the main mystery — the impending terrorist attack — to be relegated an afterthought, and without more attention paid to that, it forced the episode to feel a bit bereft of action and excitement — and made the Sherlock/Watson reunion that much more exciting. (Minus the bomb bit, which was particularly clever and hilarious.) Looks like we have to wait awhile longer to meet this year's creepy, evil bad guy. Stick that in your mind palace for another day.
But that wasn’t to say it was all-bad. Quite the opposite — most of the episode was incredibly good. I mean, really, let’s be frank: even the worst Sherlock episode is going to far exceed the quality of most other things on television. Our expectations have just been made incredibly high given the perfection of seasons past. A blessing and a curse, Moffat and Gatiss have on their hands. So let’s look at all the things that the episode did right.
The Emotional Pay-Off: Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson wasn’t so quick or keen to accept the reality of Sherlock’s existence, and it was incredibly satisfying to watch. From the hilarious restaurant gag wherein he did not recognize Sherlock for far to long, to Watson’s emotional admission when facing his perceived certain death, the tête-à-tête between them as they reestablished their friendship was equal parts funny, emotional, and — best of all — engaging. It was their old gag born anew. It felt honest, and Freeman’s vulnerability was engaging and carried just enough anger throughout. Everything was heightened, which made every emotion, action, and reaction feel that much more satisfying.
The Funnies: Especially wonderful was the comedy that punctuated an episode largely dedicated to dealing with poor Watson’s emotional turmoil. From the Empty Hearse fan group (featuring Sharon Rooney of the oh-so-incredibly E4 series, My Mad Fat Diary, which needs to jump stateside ASAP), to Sherlock’s turn as a waiter, to the presentation of the fantasy fall-explanations, the comedy of the series was particularly on-point. In a show that could very easily take itself entirely too seriously, the comedic breaks were some of our favorite bits.
The Progression: It seems as though the isolation has done Sherlock a bit of good, and — shockingly enough — brought about a bit of a change in the detective. Even maniacal geniuses have emotional growth spurts! Or, well, in this case: character development, as it seems being away from John and Molly made him realize just how much he cares and, yes, even loves the two, in his own Sherlockian way.
The Questions: Like any good episode of television, "The Empty Hearse" added just as many questions as the ones it answered, leaving us wondering heaps heading into episode two. Is Mycroft able to be trusted? Who staged the Guy Fawkes attack? What's Mary Morstan's deal? Can she be trusted? And when will poor Molly realize her new boyfriend is a merely a poor man's version of Sherlock? The set-up for the next two episodes was delicious, to say the least.
Ultimately the series ended with a nod to what we were all waiting for: that it’s “time to be Sherlock Holmes.” Luckily, the actors and characters at the center have never been better. Here’s hoping the next two episodes (and that rumored Christmas Special) do just that. For anyone who hasn't experienced the mini episode "Many Happy Returns," check it out below.