The New Year has begun and the first episode of Sherlock Series Three has aired.
Here is your only warning: this review will contain spoilers. So if you have yet to watch The Empty Hearse, my advice to you is load up BBC iPlayer. Right now. And then read this immediately afterwards, of course.
The initial reaction was to be expected. Joy. Relief. Anticipation for what’s still to come. It’s everything the return episode should be. It has warmth, humour, and a lot of scenes that touch the coldest of hearts (yes, even Sherlock Holmes’).
After a minute or two however, after the credits have rolled and the TV is turned off, there’s a small niggle in the back of the mind. There’s something about the new episode of Sherlock that leaves an odd taste in the mouth.
Before all the fans reading this get ready to angrily defend their detective, it’s not that the episode is disappointing. In many ways it exceeds expectations. Nor is the criticism a comment on the writing or acting talent. Maybe this is just pernickety, but the flaw of The Empty Hearse is that it’s not about Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective at all. Instead it focuses heavily on Sherlock’s newfound ability to create and maintain friendships, to feel human emotions he previously denied. At one point the man verges on tears. This episode is seeing all the pieces put back together again.
There is nothing wrong with this, and it’s impossible not to share the emotional rollercoaster various characters are taken on. It may though leave those audience members who love the thrill of the chase and the cleverness of the crime a little bored.
The Empty Hearse is any fan’s dream episode. Three conspiracy theories are put forward, one of which is so ridiculous it’ll have you rolling in the seat laughing. There is another joke about the relationship status of John and Sherlock (“for the last time, Mrs Hudson, I am not gay!”) to kisses between lead actors, one a romantic fantasy and the other very, very bizarre. Sherlock’s parents were on-screen for the first time ever, as well as Dr Watson’s girlfriend, all of whom are played by the actors’ real-life relations (Cumberbatch’s parents and Freeman’s partner Amanda Abbington). To top it all off, the deerstalker is voluntarily brought out for another outing.
What it gains in such moments, the episode loses in plot substance. A striking example is the theme of a major terrorist attack on parliament being over bowled by the reunion between the two male leads. Sherlock has indeed returned from the dead, but when a mighty bomb is imminent there’s something to be said for putting feelings aside and getting on with the job at hand. The tightness of prior episodes’ investigations is here a little loose, which trivialises an issue that is currently very much a public concern. Maybe the mind-palace is too swamped by the sudden rush of human emotion to remember that it’s bonfire night?
All matters aside, The Empty Hearse delivers a knockout return for the London detective, and is a fun reintroduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes. It certainly sets up questions and possibilities for the remaining episodes, most notably a shot of confirmed villain Charles Augustus Magnusson in the final few seconds, a character based on an actual Conan Doyle nemesis.
A trailer has already aired for episode two, The Sign Of Three, which takes place during John and Mary’s wedding day. It looks as if the comedy will continue – Sherlock has been made best man – but hopefully with the big comeback done and dusted, the real sense of danger and wit which made Sherlock so compelling from the beginning will be revived alongside television’s number one detective.