I have recorded elsewhere in these chaotic pages* my deep and abiding love for the Holmes-Watson canon and my hopes and excitement regarding BBC’s Sherlock as a modern take on that canon.
This post isn’t going to reflect many of those positive feelings.
The Internet as a whole has had Opinions on Sherlock Season 3 Episode 1. I know this only because when I spoke to T about this, she said, “I’ve head things from the Internet. Watch it. And then tell me how it is, because I’m too apprehensive to watch the thing myself.” Well, now I’ve watched it, and I have my own Opinions. Because my opinions are usually vulnerable to a good argument from other points of view, I haven’t bothered to venture into the Internet’s morass of Opinion yet. So here you have it, a purely personal view of the latest —
WHAT IN HELL WERE THEY THINKING?
The Empty Hearse, on first watch, is a melodramatic, over-edited shadow of Sherlock, with few good character interactions and a tissue-thin excuse for a plot. When I tell you that Anderson’s theories, John’s eventually-fiancee Mary, and the frequency with which John punches Sherlock in the face were the best parts of this episode, you’ll begin to understand my Opinions on the subject.
First, the good, which I’ve summed up above. If you’ve watched the trailers and mini-episode, you’ll have an inkling of how far Anderson’s fallen in the world. Essentially booted out of New Scotland Yard, he’s now grown facial hair almost as criminally unattractive as his actual hair, and is president and chief lunatic of the We Believe in Sherlock club. Apparently, his main goal in life is now to accost Lestrade and feed him increasingly outlandish theories about how Sherlock might have survived. One involves a bungee-jumping Sherlock; another, an almost-kiss moment between Sherlock and Moriarty, featuring a cardboard cut-out of Sherlock. Ludicrous as this all is, the theories provide a little comedic relief… unless you start reading them as Moffat-Gatiss Make Fun of the Sherlock Internet Rabble. Sneering nods to unlikely character ships? Check. Contemptuous references to Sherlock crazy-fans? Check.
One thing Moffat-Gatiss really did get right was Mary Morstan. She’s cute, sweet, is clearly affectionate towards John, is smart, and somehow likes Sherlock. Sherlock, of course, reads her like a book — those tag clouds, when overused, are really twee — but doesn’t overtly object. Mary’s characterization makes perfect sense, since she’s one of the few clients canon-Holmes has who consults him with her story all laid out and the evidence neatly presented. Holmes, in fact, comments on her sharpness and professionalism. (Watson is mostly preoccupied with goggling at her.) Ironically, the one character we tend to ignore in canon turns out to be the one character Moffat-Gatiss actually get right this episode.
Another satisfying set of scenes in The Empty Hearse is John’s reaction to the fact that his best friend is, in fact, not dead. Sherlock’s reppearance itself is astonishingly cheap for a show of this calibre (a waiter with an execrable French accent and a drawn-on mustache, really?), but John’s reaction is perfect: he a) wrestles Sherlock to the ground in the fancy restaurant in which he is about to propose to Mary, b) punches Sherlock in the diner they then decamp to, and c) headbutts Sherlock in the fish-and-chip shop they eventually wind up in.
Most canon-enthusiasts will tell you that Conan Doyle’s meek, seemingly mentally incapacitated Watson, who accepts Holmes’ reappearance in his life with nary a murmur, makes no sense. This is a man with a temper and a strong attachment to the best and wisest man he’s even known. So Moffat-Gatiss’ version of John, who’s furious at being excluded from the Sherlock survival plot and at, well, Sherlock, makes sense. And I was thoroughly entertained by the reminder that John Watson is basically a man who can charm the ladies, save lives, and throw a mean punch.
But let’s not forget the reason John’s so willing to split his knuckles on Sherlock’s infamous cheekbones: Sherlock himself.
In The Empty Hearse, Sherlock is a massive, breathtaking, colossal asshat.
Casually exchanging barbs with Mycroft, he is puzzled when his brother mentions that John has moved out of 221B and to all external appearances now has a life. What life? asks Sherlock. I’ve been away two years!
Appearing out of nowhere in a posh restaurant, utterly ignoring and interrupting John’s proposal, Sherlock nearly induces a cardiac arrest, then proceeds to strongly suggest that John shave off his mustache, post haste.
[Quick aside: that mustache was the silliest disappointment in a show littered with disappointments. Its sole purpose was, apparently, to make John look foolish in front of Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock and Mary. Ultimately, it serves as a crude reminder to us that John still gives a damn about Sherlock’s opinions. I suppose we couldn’t possibly have figured that out ourselves.]
And finally, sitting in a train carriage wired to the gills with explosives, Sherlock tearfully confesses to John that he has no idea how to defuse the bomb, that he’s incredibly sorry, that he’s ruined John’s life… and the look on John’s face, good god! Of course he’s called bomb disposal, he turned off the bomb — it has an off-switch, obviously, John.
Even more baffling, given this backdrop of jerk-ness, is Sherlock’s attitude towards Molly. Awkward but sincere thanks would have made sense, given what we know of Sherlock’s personality. Aloof dismissal, even, would have worked if we were only going off this episode’s Sherlock, whose ego has somehow inflated beyond the boundaries of the known universe. But a startlingly heartfelt, frankly soppy line about how Molly was the most important person to him? I… don’t buy that.
The Sherlock-cardboard-cutout theory I mentioned earlier doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched now, does it? And we haven’t even gotten to the structural defects of this episode.
Sherlock — being chased by Croatian guards (why, you ask? That’s not relevant) — is called back by Mycroft to investigate an underground network. This network turns out to be … in the Underground. Somewhere in the middle of all this, John is kidnapped inches away from 221B’s front door, and almost burned alive as part of a Guy Fawkes celebration. The underground network is revealed to be a terrorist cell poised to fell the Parliamentary building with bombs on November 5th.
This isn’t a mystery so much as an excuse for character interaction, except the character development never even got off the ground. Is there any motivation for this terrorist cell except anarchy? Why is the underground joke such a pathetic one? Why are the deductions Sherlock makes barely explained and not very interesting? Why is John kidnapped, and by whom, and why did they text Mary? Why the everloving hell does John waltz right back to Sherlock the day after he’s rescued, acting as though all that punching was just his way of being affectionate? What is the point of introducing Sherlock’s painfully normal parents for two whole minutes? Why are the editors so enamored of the distracting text overlays and overly dramatic fade outs and sound effects and empty tube stations shots?
I thought this was a mystery show, you guys. This plot was about as substantial as cotton candy.
I care about this show. I care that pop culture and good cinematography and history and British humor can co-exist with a timeless classic, and I care very deeply that this show respect its viewers and its characters.
If Moffat-Gatiss did, in fact, intend to convey that impression, then they missed their mark. By a very wide margin.
*Author still unable to decide if referencing precise dialogue from canon is impressive or pathetic.