Sherlock has a problem. For two years now it’s been brewing in the show’s massive fanbase. How exactly did Sherlock survive that fall? Fans have been theorizing nearly non-stop about the character’s death-defying stunt, and that two-year hiatus has given those theories time to grow and become cemented in people’s minds.
The greatest fault in Sherlock’s return episode, “The Empty Hearse,” is that the absurd nature of the cliffhanger can’t really have much of a satisfying explanation. It’s just been too long, with too much hype built-up around a cliffhanger that was inherently difficult to work with. The writers seem to have grasped that, as “The Empty Hearse” was far more concerned with the emotional implications Sherlock’s actions had on the other characters, rather than the simple mechanics of how he accomplished the feat. When Sherlock finally explains how he faked it, the truth is ultimately far less satisfying thanks to the anticipation that has surrounded the reveal. Mark Gatiss seems to understand this, however, as Anderson’s frustration and dissatisfaction largely mirrors the fans’ reactions. It’s a smart way to acknowledge the less than thrilling explanation, while also teasing the wild fan theories that have been circulating the internet.
Production-wise, the show is still very pretty and carries a nice cinematic feel to it. The moments where the text flies on screen to show what Sherlock is thinking do feel a little overwhelming—in particular the motorcycle race to save John felt bloated with unnecessary slow motion and text that largely ruined any sense of suspense.
If an unsatisfying cliffhanger resolution is the main problem with the “The Empty Hearse,” then its main strength is its approach to all of the characters. Sherlock’s reunion with John felt properly emotional, and John’s difficulty in forgiving his friend felt very believable. The end, when John forgives Sherlock before the supposed detonation of the bomb, brought superb performances out of both Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman (John Watson). It also showed what a total ass Sherlock can be when he showed that he had already turned off the bomb. The idea that a massive bomb intended to destroy Parliament has an on/off switch felt like an unusually lazy move for a show that usually has excellent writing.
Sherlock’s interactions with Molly and Mycroft were, surprisingly, some of the most noteworthy of the show. Sherlock talking to Molly before she quits and his conversation with Mycroft about being lonely were surprisingly genuine for what is usually a jaded and cynical character. He’s still an ass of course, but he’s not quite the same character that jumped off the roof of the hospital, and that’s a good thing.
“The Empty Hearse” did the best that it could with what was a nearly impossible task. It wrapped up the loose ends from the second season, showed how characters had changed, and set up a story-line for the final two episodes of the season. “The Empty Hearse” should serve as a warning to show runners everywhere against writing cliffhangers that aren’t capable of supporting equally satisfying resolutions. When Sherlock jumped from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s two years ago, it was a thrilling, heartbreaking, and highly creative twist. By comparison, the attempt to rationalize and explain what really happened felt uninspired. With the messy cliffhanger finally out of the way, hopefully Sherlock can go back to delivering more of the top-notch storytelling that fans have come to expect.