When Your Mind Palace Fails You: Sherlock‘s “The Empty Hearse”

I’ve been waiting two whole years to say it: Sherlock Lives!

And for those of you who #believeinsherlock, “The Empty Hearse” was sure to be a treat in more ways than one. It’s already aired in the U.K., so let’s talk…

Spoilers below for the episode. Possible spoilers for future episodes in the comments.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse

So Mycroft nabs Sherlock from the world wide field because there’s a terrorist threat that needs fixing in jolly old England. Sherlock heads back and breaks up John’s special engagement dinner by accident by way of telling him that he’s alive. John musses Sherlock’s face a few times for his trouble, but his intended—Mary—tells Sherlock that she’ll get him to come ’round. Sherlock leaves John be and tries to get on without him, first asking Molly about with him for fun and hearing John’s voice all the while in his head.

John gets rid of his mustache (it turns out that both Sherlock and Mary hate it), and is about to stop by at 221B to try and sort things with his pal when he gets kidnapped and stuffed in the middle of some choice kindling right before Bonfire Night. Mary gets a creepy text message, runs right to Sherlock with it because she’s sharp and awesome and doesn’t waste time like our boys, and they motorcycle to John’s rescue.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, John Watson

The terrorist plot unfolds when Sherlock talks to a client with a love of trains who shows him security footage of the tube featuring a missing subway car. They find out that the car is being housed in an unfinished tube station, and that it’s directly under Parliament; it’s wired with a bomb to blow up the U.K.’s leaders before they can vote on a piece of important terrorism legislation. John and Sherlock are on the train as the bomb’s timer begins, but Sherlock doesn’t know how to diffuse defuse it and begs John to forgive him before they both go up. When John finally does, Sherlock reveals that the bomb had an off-switch the whole time. He tells Anderson how he really faked his death (or does he?) everyone celebrates the gang being back together and John and Mary’s engagement at Baker Street.

Rather than Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right hand who appears in Doyle’s “The Empty House” tale, the Lord Moran of this episode is in on the plot to destroy Parliament. We find out at the end of the episode that all of this is likely being masterminded by Charles Augustus Magnusson (who was revealed prior as the main series three villain, played by Lars Mikkelsen, an update on the character Charles Augustus Milverton who appeared in a tale sharing his name in the canon); he shows up at the very end of the episode going over footage of John’s close shave and Sherlock’s reaction to nearly losing his beloved blogger.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, John

The actual pacing and movement of the episode is a bit staggery; there’s too much to get through in such a small space, and while the new director’s style is in tune with the show’s aesthetic, it needs a little time to breathe before it’s comfortable. All the same, it’s hard to care because everyone is back and better than ever, and there’s a whole lot of love in the air. From Lestrade’s bear hug to Mrs. Hudson’s scolding of John’s absence, everyone is just as happy to see each other as we are. (Also, it would seem that Mrs. Hudson is still convinced that John and Sherlock were dating, to the point where she interprets John’s engagement to a woman as him moving on from all men due to Sherlock’s death. Mrs. Hudson, you are perfect. Never change.)

It would seem that if Sherlock told Anderson the truth, he and Mycroft were playing Moriarty from the beginning. This is interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily because it makes Mycroft and Sherlock’s relationship register as much closer than it ever did. Did John’s affect on Sherlock lead to an easier working rapport between the brothers? Regardless, all the scenes between them are more darling than they have any right to be considering how chilly Mycroft is eternally—they seem more like family than ever before.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Mycroft

Either way, what this episode is really concerning itself with is the furthering of Sherlock Holmes’ emotional education at the hands of his friends. He hasn’t quite got it down, but he’s learning and trying harder than ever before. Despite his tactless reveal to John, you can see that he’s nervous, that he’s making such an effort to do it right and simply has no idea how he should go about it. (Always quiet and perfect, Martin Freeman’s careful treading over John’s anger and difficulty expressing his deeper feelings verbally is tragic to watch.) He tells Molly that she’s not there to be John when she helps him out, though he still makes the mistake of calling her John; so he’s aware that putting her in that position isn’t fair, but he wants to be kind and thank her properly for helping him when he needed it most.

See Sherlock Holmes. See Sherlock Holmes feel.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Lestrade

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse

He cares so much that he flat out admits he’s happy to have friends to his ever-judgmental brother, then even goes so far as to tell Mycroft that he should try it himself. (Speaking of which, it was so nice to see “Anthea” again! Come on, Mycroft, if you keep her around, she must be less irritating than a goldfish. You should play Boggle with her.)

Parts of Holmes fandom has always expressed aggravation with the fact that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is far less warm and kindly than his original mould, but that would seem to be the point; what we are witnessing in Sherlock over the seasons is the title character’s transformation from human calculator to a man who knows the value of his relationships and the importance of other people’s feelings. He’s still manipulative, still lacks a filter at times when he needs it most, but he enjoys his interactions with others more. He also seems to care more for his clients’ welfare—his reactions to the brief cases we see him work with Molly show him more clearly concerned with serving up justice, rather than dismissing people if he deems a case too boring or silly.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Molly

Sherlock is growing, he’s gathering people to him, he’s learning to embrace his own absurdity—as clearly evidenced by his donning the deerstalker at the end of the episode. He’s already had his image torn apart… what does it matter if it never gets entirely rebuilt to the same unfeasible stature? He has what matters, and now he knows that.

I’m sorry, I just need to stop and squeal embarrassingly for a moment, because you might not have noticed but Sherlock’s mom and dad were being played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s actual parents, and they were so adorable I just might die. This also gives us a very interesting window into Sherlock and Mycroft’s upbringing—Mr. and Mrs. Holmes must have just sat by and watched as those boys raised themselves, being so far behind their progeny. No wonder Mycroft half-raised his baby brother. And now he must suffer through Les Mis, and no one feels bad for him.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Sherlock's parents

Time to take a moment and talk about the new love in John’s life, a role so ably played by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington. Here’s a list of what Sherlock gleans from Mary based on his first observations:

  • Guardian
  • Linguist
  • Shortsighted
  • Secret Tattoo (Where? Of what? I DEMAND EVIDENCE.)
  • Only Child
  • Disillusioned (Aw, why? Does she need to solve crimes too? I bet she does.)
  • Lib Dem
  • Bakes Own Bread
  • Appendix Scar
  • Cat Lover
  • Part Time Nurse
  • Liar (About what? Liking John’s mustache? Talking to John on Sherlock’s behalf? We know she does, so then he’d be wrong about her… so maybe she lies about other things?)
  • Size 12 (Guess he feels like that’s super important to notice since the Irene Adler Measurement Debacle. Sigh.)
  • Clever

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Mary

And we know how hard it is for Sherlock to admit other people are clever, but then it is also canon; Holmes was immediately complimentary of Mary Morstan’s intellect in Doyle’s writing, just upset about Watson running off so fast to marry her. It was nice to see the character well-respected, rather than being portrayed as some sort of wet blanket who is preventing the crime-solving superteam from getting back together. She is a perfect balance between them, actually—she instantly goes off on Sherlock for leaving John in the dark for two years, but is more than willing to turn around and laugh at John when he won’t let go of his anger. Hopefully we’ll see lots more of her in the future. (Likely, as the wedding is next.)

There are so many little nods to the fandom and fan culture in general that speak a lot like a love letter to everyone who’s been carrying the torch for these past two years; the ridiculous theories perpetuated by Anderson and his cohorts are inspired by many of the more insane fan explanations following “The Reichenbach Fall” (particularly the bit about the Mission Impossible style masks, which was very popular for a while there). There’s a nod to the Sherlock/Molly fans with that heroic kiss when Sherlock crashes through the window in Anderson’s version, then another to Sherlock/Moriarty fans with their near snog suggested by another Empty Hearse Club member. Anderson’s rage with the offending slash fan was perfectly on point—in his madness, Philip Anderson has become that fan, the fan that makes fandom no fun for anyone by insisting that his version of everything is the only correct one, and dismissing anyone who disagrees.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Moriarty

Oh, Anderson. We should hardly be surprised.

Some questions for the future:

  • Okay, Anderson went off the deep end, but where the hell is Sally Donovan? Obviously she didn’t have a breakdown like his, but is she still on the force? How did she feel about Sherlock’s eventually proved innocence? Considering that her ire toward him has always been the most bitter, it would be nice to see where she stands.

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse, Anderson

  • Is the new man in Molly’s life really okay this time around? He does seem like a Sherlock stand-in, so we can only hope Molly’s truly happy and not filling a gap. And that he is not secretly evil.
  • What is Magnusson up to at this point in the game? We know from the canon tale that he’s a blackmail artist of a premium variety; was threatening John just an example to the detective, proving that he knows his weak spots? Was it a test to make sure John was still it?

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse

And how did you enjoy it? Are you excited for the next episode?


Emily Asher-Perrin was so happy every time John body-tackled Sherlock for being an ass. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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