Sherlock Series 3 Review “The Empty Hearse”

This review contains lots of spoilers for the third series premiere of Sherlock aired on BBC1 on January 1st, so if you don’t want to know then I’d recommend clicking away before you ruin it for yourself – this episode is better watched without knowing.

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Few shows achieve the level of anticipation that Sherlock has preceding it’s third series premiere on New Year’s Day in the UK, and it’s not overstating it to say that ‘The Empty Hearse’ might have been the most important episode of the show’s run to get right. There wasn’t much Gatiss and Moffat could have done that was more stressful for hard-core fans (and the viewing public at large) than killing off their titular detective and not revealing his true, living status to a grieving John Watson, but the rise and rise of fevered fandom in the wake of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ meant that concocting the show’s return after a full two years away must have been a supremely difficult endeavour.

What a relief, then, to say that the episode is for the most part a roaring triumph. Every criticism was anticipated, every character moment done on the writer’s terms and every moment of drama and (to a lesser degree) intrigue meticulously planned and executed. It walked the line between poking fun and being needlessly irreverent, and there’s a definite sense that Sherlock’s comeback has been worked out and worked out again over the two-year hiatus. There’s something so pure and satisfying about a show that manages to unseat an audience who thought they had it all worked out, and ‘The Empty Hearse’ did that again and again over its 90-minute running time.

Of course they weren’t going to give you the definitive answer in the first five-minutes (though they most certainly had me fooled and crying foul when Derren Brown showed up) and of course Sherlock and John weren’t going to fall into a lover’s embrace when they were reunited. For anyone who had kept one foot in the Tumblr tag since our hero leapt off that roof, the way the writing chose to sidestep every expectation – as well as introduce the uninitiated into some scenarios they might not have considered – was mind-blowing, and the episode was artful in its ability to speak to both ordinary viewers, Doyle fans, those coming in for the first time and the dedicated fandom at all times. There might have been scenes that poked fun a little too hard, but that was thankfully rare.

The introduction of the central mystery and series-long villain was in there somewhere, but both the bonfire scene and threat of a terrorist attack on Parliament were both only used here as ways for Sherlock and John to interact following a hostile first encounter. Both actors were on fine form here, and the emotional moments were as satisfying as those included in the previous instalment. But this episode was, primarily, trying to make its audience laugh at their own heightened expectations, and most of the key moments were playfully executed in a way that didn’t diminish their deeper impact.

In fact, I can’t remember laughing as much during an episode of telly, and every minute of the feature-length episode was entertaining, suspenseful (not least because of the wait for a final explanation) and joyous. This was an episode that, aside from recent examples such as the Doctor Who 50th anniversary, the Broadchurch finale or possibly Breaking Bad, had more responsibility on its shoulders than anything I can bring to mind. If it had failed, or the comedy hadn’t landed in the way it did, there will have been an unpleasant, and no doubt audible, reaction (akin to Watson’s own repeated throttling no doubt).

There will be those who aren’t happy – represented beautifully by Anderson and his wall of crazy – but they’ll hopefully be in the minority. It wasn’t the steadiest or most coherent hour that the show has ever done, but it was an episode that felt warm, clever, humorous and heartfelt – everything we remember the show being. After two years away, and with only 11-days for us to enjoy its three episodes, it’s just bloody brilliant to have it back.

What did you think of the episode? Did you like Amanda Abbington’s Mary? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.