Sherlock Series 3‘The Empty Hearse’

The game is back on in this Mark Gatiss penned season opener and after two years the only disappointment is that we have Operation and not Chess. Having survived an impossible fall in the last episode, Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the great Detective forced back to London by his brother Mycroft (also Gatiss) to solve a terrorist threat. Whilst some uneasy Christ imagery nails the early scenes to a cross, as the writer relishes every last second to delay the resurrection, the episode is a confident reminder of Sherlock’s impeccable style.

Observing London from a rooftop, Sherlock is presented with a wry self-awareness after the Hobbit-induced break. In commandeering an impressive shot from Skyfall the show runners set their cinematic sights high and they don’t fail to disappoint with smart transitions gliding across a slick 90 minutes. That being said there are a few messy moments from director Jeremy Lovering and those are some that seem to lose interest in filming the characters coherently, and sometimes at all. It’s the same crime yet to be solved in modern Doctor Who and it’s a worry that for all the pulling and spinning, it all feels and looks a little bit more like falling over. Were the show less frantic at these times the writing might feel that much more rewarding, especially as one climactic scene is jarringly cut away from in a Sopranos-esque jitter that makes you question if the TV is working properly.

With an omnipresent smaugness however, Sherlock is almost cool enough to pull it off and the flatter moments (those that there are) don’t seem to matter. Much of this comes from charismatic performances from the two leads. Martin Freeman, having escaped the spotlight as Bilbo, reaffirms his abilities here with an amusing, if heartfelt portrayal of the grieving GP. Cumberbatch, thankfully, is given more to do here as well with enough emotional beats and super sleuthing to keep Tumblr happily occupied for the next decade or so. It could even have been easy for newcomer Amanda Abbington (Freeman’s partner both off and on screen) to disrupt the Kirk/Spock mega-bromance but she is instead a confident addition. Yoko? Oh no.

The reunion scenes, deftly both hilarious and dramatic, are the episode’s finest moments and Gatiss seems to know this. While the V for Vendetta style plot creates intrigue, its primary purpose is as a catalyst to the band getting back together and it’s a shame, but probably a necessary one, that it never feels like more. Although as Molly joins Sherlock aboard the investigative TARDIS in searching the London Underground, there’s a sense we’re off the rails with Gatiss indelicately hammering home the need for Rosemary and Thyme to get back in the garden. However other scenes more than make up for this with some selfishly clever wordplay given to Mycroft by Gatiss whose interplay with his brother gives those reaffirming winks to the viewer, even if they are ever so slightly smug.

Much of what The Empty Hearse presents is confident, assured writing and it’s an irresistible counterpoint to Doctor Who that the series even in its lowest moments is still a taut, engaging drama. In some of the bolder moments, Gatiss sidesteps the needless explanation of Sherlock’s survival with some hilarious explanations, mirroring the online mania that has over-analysed and endlessly dissected over the past two years. In not giving us a concrete conclusion and finally getting Batman back with Robin, Gatiss somewhat bravely reminds us that it’s all elementary – “It’s just a magic trick.”

★★★★