Sherlock: The Empty Hearses

The Empty Hearse was one of the most audacious pieces of TV in years. It bravely chose to give viewers three different solutions to Holmes’ survival of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, all just about plausible. It even, rather splendidly, teased us with a further ten possibilities. The most important question in the history of the series was answered with even more sleight of hand and an hour and a half which saw fan theories and movements directly addressed and acknowledged on screen. The lack of definitive answers didn’t matter. All that matters is Sherlock lives and the game, once again, is on.

 The Empty Hearse was one of the most self-indulgent, bloated pieces of TV in years. It refused to give viewers a clear answer as to how Holmes survived The Reichenbach Fall, instead pandering to the fan community at the expense of the casual viewer. There was no coherency, no plot, just a never ending stream of televisual conjuring designed to either set up the next episode or make us think the last one had been concluded. Sherlock lives. The game is back on. But they only have two episodes to make us care about that.

This is clearly all part of a plan. We obviously haven’t seen everything yet, after all, there are another ten ways he could have got off that roof. As the next two episodes go on, we’ll see more and more until it’s revealed that Moriarty is alive, the entire thing was designed to be an even more elaborate ruse than we thought and will end on another monstrous cliffhanger. The journey isn’t done yet. Sherlock lives, but only because he either hasn’t landed yet or was never on the roof at all.

Find the solution you like and stick to it.

That’s what the show has decided we have to do. It’s almost impossible to not make an inherently divisive piece of genre TV these days, and ‘The Empty Hearse’ was certainly that. However, it was also something that a lot of TV tries and almost all of it fails to achieve; subversive. It folded in fan culture and theories, character development for everyone, a whacking great Alan Moore homage and the two year wait for answers to create a story that up close is hugely satisfying but from a distance becomes something entirely different and for many, far less satisfying.

Up close though, it doesn’t just run it swaggers. The opening is positively bolshie, laying out a completely plausible take on his escape and then showing us it’s fantasy. That becomes a motif throughout the story, as we see three different takes on how he cheated death. The first is the Hollywood action one, replete with slow motion, high tech and a full on kiss before the world ends. It’s brilliant and nonsensical and presented with a gleefully straight face.

But so is the second one, where Holmes and Moriarty planned the death in order to elope together. This is the moment the episode comes closest to the edge, incorporating ‘shipper’ fandom. Here’s how Wikipedia defines that;

Shipping, derived from the word relationship, is the belief that two people, fictional or non-fictional, would be interesting or believable (or are, or will be, or should be) in a romantic relationship. It is considered a general term for fans’ emotional involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction

It’s an extreme form of postmodernism, combining elements that don’t go together and finding evidence for them. Like postmodernism it’s basically structuralist lego and, like postmodernism, it all comes down to what you can prove as much as what you can’t. Done wrong, incorporating shipper fandom would have simultaneously alienated casual viewers and royally pissed off every Sherlock fan with a tumblr account. Fan culture gets very touchy when the spotlight gets turned its way, largely because what often follows is pointing and laughing. Thankfully it’s actually one of the best scenes, the shipper a cheerfully grounded, pragmatic lady who takes precisely none of Anderson ‘s crap and holds to the theory that works for her.

Then there’s the third one, from Holmes. This is the most plausible, simply because he’s the one telling us. It’s also the most plausible because the mechanics of it are the most Holmesian. Whereas his original self was a practitioner of Bartitsu, the gentleman’s martial art, this Holmes clearly likes Aikido. Keep things moving around one another, place your opponent where you want them to be. Control their line of sight and you control them. This feels like the sort of plan Holmes would execute but, even here, there’s the tiniest element of doubt. What’s interesting is that doubt is based in character rather than fact. Anderson’s catastrophic decision in the previous season allowed Holmes to get the job done, but it also destroyed his life. There’s a poetic, layered sense of justice to telling a man who wants the truth exactly what he wants to hear and it not being good enough. That’s also exactly the sort of justice Holmes enjoys.

The issue with the episode comes not from this but from the reaction Anderson has to it and how that’s echoed out in the real world. Earlier in the week I participated in a BBC radio discussion about the show. The main question was ‘how did he do it?’. Everyone involved had sat through the full episode, been provided with these solutions and, somehow, it still wasn’t enough for many of them. There was a sense of a lack of closure, a feeling of things left unanswered. That seemed to extend to the one caller, who, shortly before a staggeringly upper-class attempt at flirting with the host, complained that the episode made no sense and there was no recap of what had gone before.

It was a fun, but in some ways shocking experience. The second point in particular because the entire premise of the season 2 cliffhanger is two words long; Sherlock jumps. Anyone paying attention to the show, and paying attention in this context means being alive in a room where it’s playing on TV, would pick up on that. There’s a difference between spoon feeding and drip feeding your audience and thankfully the show plumped for the former.

The first point is more valid. The three theories were scattered throughout an episode that also included a James Bondian excursion to Europe, the introduction of two new characters, a further insight into Holmes’ methods, attempted murder by bonfire and a special guest appearance by the closing act of V For Vendetta. The plot was minimal, but several of the character moments hanging off it were amongst the show’s all-time greats. Holmes’ way of saying thank you to Molly was genuinely very sweet, and the final scene of the pair of them heading in different directions redolent with meaning. Likewise, one of the most affecting moments of the episode was Lestrade hugging Holmes when they were reuinted for the first time. Another still was the relaxed way that Mary decided she both accepted and liked Holmes and the gentle, affectionate way she ribs John into doing what’s best for him. Even poor, doomed Anderson had his moment in the spotlight and if the plot was minimalistic, the character moments were on point, precise and affecting.

That may also be the reason many people felt dissatisfied. This wasn’t so much a script as it was a freeform space for Gatiss to play with the new set of toys the show has. In some cases, especially Mary, that worked beautifully but it’s not without its speed bumps. The climax for example, set in a London Underground train repurposed as a bomb, was a mcguffin lifted in its entirety from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s greatest work, V For Vendetta. On paper it’s both a fairly obvious nod and a slightly rushed ending, as Holmes uses the situation to get the moment of catharsis he needs from his best friend. It’s a slightly weak note to end on, in keeping with the episode’s choice of character over plot.

In practice though, it’s as subversive as everything else here. Thematically this is the end of V For Vendetta, but this is a deliberate choice rather than a lazy riff. The bomb hasn’t been set by an anarchist intent on bring down a corrupt system, but rather a corrupt politician intent on bringing down a basically sound one. Holmes and Watson don’t let the bomb go off, knowing that something better will emerge from whatever follows, but rather defuse the bomb and call the police. They’re agents of order rather than chaos. Even with the image of politicians in the country at an all time low, even with the fact John Watson is an injured Afghanistan veteran, they still stop the bomb. The message is simple; ideas are always bigger than the people involved and the ideas, to quote Alan Moore, are bulletproof.

The Empty Hearse was a willful, contrary piece of television that, in some ways, was doomed from the moment it was commissioned. A two year gap between seasons meant that expectations were sky high and could never be fully met. Instead, just like Sherlock, Gatiss found a way to win, and, in doing so leave no theory, and no fan, behind. All we know is all we need to know; Sherlock lives. Everyone gets to follow their own Empty Hearse and all of them, oddly, appear to be heading to a wedding. Whether that’s just the wedding of John and Mary, or of character and plot, will be answered later on today.

Thanks to WhatCulture and the BFI for the photos.

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One comment

  1. “There’s a poetic, layered sense of justice to telling a man who wants the truth exactly what he wants to hear and it not being good enough.” I agree with the audacious assessment. There is no solution that would suit the whole of the fandom, so I think the sleight of hand Gatiss chose was wise. No matter what you do, people will complain (elimination of already rare female characters *cough*). Making that conversation part of the narrative: excellent.

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