‘Sherlock’ Season 3 Premiere Recap: “The Empty Hearse”

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After taking a two-year hiatus so its costars could take a jaunt through Middle Earth, Sherlock in 2014 is less a season premiere than a relaunch. Going into its New Years’ Day UK airdate, “The Empty Hearse” was staring down a daunting series of tasks. Could Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat live up to the fan anticipation, which approached hysteria on certain sections of Tumblr? Could they move the show past Moriarty and make it into a sustainable series? Most importantly, could they provide a decent answer to the “how did he do it” question?

Looking back, it’s impossible for Sherlock to have succeeded on all these fronts, tying up loose ends even as its co-creators attempt to move beyond the stupendous cliffhanger of “The Reichenbach Fall.” To this viewer, though, Moffat and Gattis did an admirable job, injecting some tongue-in-cheek humor and silliness back into Sherlock’s DNA after the dead-serious Moriarty faceoff. In the form of Mary and this season’s as-yet-faceless Big Bad, there’s some fresh blood, but the emotional core of the show is the relationship between Sherlock and his perennial straight man. And “The Empty Hearse” admirably manages to do what Sherlock needed to: addressing some of the serious issues between them while bringing the duo closer to a deep mutual understanding that retains its odd-couple entertainment value.

As for the Reichenbach Question, some will take issue with the show’s meta approach, with Anderson as stand-in for the fandom. I thought it was a nice touch, acknowledging the impossibility of providing a satisfying answer as to How Sherlock Lived while still giving at least a plausible explanation. (I’ll admit the corny bait-and-switch opener fooled me, but I’m glad the show proved my initial is-this-SERIOUSLY-how-they’re-going-to-do-the-big-reveal thoughts wrong.) The show managed to poke gentle fun at its fans — although the Sherlock-Moriarty fakeout’s winking acknowledgement of all the queer-baiting left a bad taste in my mouth — while giving them what they deserved after years of holding out: a resolution that deftly walked the line between an underwhelming reveal and holding out altogether.

Besides feeling true to character, Watson’s pronouncement that “I don’t care how you did it; I want to know why” reminds us that the why really isn’t important compared to what it means that Sherlock thought nothing of letting his only friend believe he’s dead for two years. The quick transition from Sherlock’s silly French waiter act to his totally deserved punch in the face tells us to shut up with our conspiracy theories and focus on the fact that Sherlock dumped a lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage on someone else without a second thought. There’s a real violation of trust there, one that’s underscored by Sherlock’s willingness to pull the I’m-about-to-die schtick all over again in the train car. It’s a gaping personality flaw that Watson eventually chooses to accept, but “The Empty Hearse” makes the point that Sherlock’s callousness isn’t a charming quirk; it makes him a terrible person and an even worse friend, meaning that being close to him comes at a cost.

Interestingly, Mary is depicted as someone who could bring Holmes and Watson closer together rather than drive them apart. She is, of course, this show’s most fully developed female character by far, and I liked the cheerful pragmatism that allows her to jive with Sherlock even after she calls him out for screwing over her boyfriend. Still, Moffat and Gatiss don’t deserve a cookie for creating a woman with a personality. It’s great that she fulfills some of John’s emotional needs while recognizing Sherlock’s importance to him, but as long as she’s a happy, helpful need-fulfiller and not an actual part of the team, this show still isn’t over its Woman Problem. And maybe that’s the issue: no one but Holmes and Watson is ever going to be more than an expendable player, including any female characters.

And, oh yeah, there was an actual case this week! The underground bombing story didn’t serve much of a purpose beyond bringing Sherlock out of hiding, which brings us to one of the inevitable problems with Season 3. The nitty-gritty crime solving on this show has never been quite as gripping as the character development that allows Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to work their magic; what made “The Great Game” and “The Reichenbach Fall” so excellent is that the Moriarty conflict fused the two so seamlessly. As Sherlock’s perfect foil, Moriarty represented a Joker-like opportunity to externalize the protagonist’s psychodrama about the tragedy of his enormous intelligence (and capability to help people with that intelligence) coming at the expense of being a normal human being with normal relationships. No case, and no villain, is likely ever going to be that compelling again, which is why the bomb felt like more of a comedown than an actual plot line.

Instead, we’ve got the tacked-on scene where John gets kidnapped and stuck in a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The scene serves two purposes, one of which is to reiterate for us that, yes, Sherlock really does care about John, and we can begin to forgive him for going AWOL. But near-death as a means of showing emotional attachment feels cheap here, especially since Sherlock used it much more convincingly with John’s gravestone speech last season.The fire also introduces us to the aforementioned faceless villain, which feels like a halfhearted attempt to initiate a season-long storyline on a show that’s better off being the best possible version of a serial now that Moriarty’s out of the picture.

So at the end of the day, with London, John, and Sherlock all safe and sound, I’m pretty satisfied with “The Empty Hearse.” I’m not sure if Sherlock is ever going to top “Reichenbach,” or that the series should have tackled Moriarty so early. But this show still does clever dialogue like nothing else on television, and Cumberbatch’s rendition of an iconic character remains as addictively watchable as ever. Sherlock is finally back, and though it may not be better, it’s still one of the best.