‘Sherlock’ recap: Season 3, Episode 1, ‘The Empty Hearse’

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are back in Baker Street. Credit: BBC
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are back in Baker Street.
Credit: BBC

Last time on “Sherlock,” Jim Moriarty shot himself and Sherlock Holmes claimed to be a magician, only to have his greatest trick go horribly wrong on the sidewalk in front of St. Bart’s Hospital after he took a swan dive off the roof.

But wait! That’s just what John Watson thought he saw. In fact, Moriarty is dragged off the roof by a couple of techie makeup artists (presumably freelancing between “Mission: Impossible” movies), while Sherlock never hits the pavement thanks to a bungee cord. Instead, he crashes through a window, sweeps co-conspirator Molly Hooper into an MTV Movie Award-worthy kiss, then slinks off as Derren Brown hypnotizes John and sets his watch back an hour.

“Bollocks!” cries DI Greg Lestrade, just as you were about to turn off the TV in an incredulous huff. This high-tech fanboy fantasy turned out to be the work of Philip Anderson, one of the Scotland Yard forensic techs who cast suspicion on Sherlock before his faked suicide, now a jobless conspiracy theorist. “Two years and the theories keep getting more stupid.”

Turns out that since Moriarty used the press to turn himself into an actor and Sherlock into a consultant on his own crimes, it’s only now that journalists have thought to fact-check any of it. And, whoops, turns out scoop-hungry tabloid writer Kitty Riley didn’t bother so much with the truth. You wound us homely scribes, episode writer Mark Gatiss. A glass of wine, perhaps, to soothe the pain — especially as the next scene opens on John Wats-ON YOUR FACE? Sorry, not judging, coping takes many forms. Apparently for John it’s a mustache — and a girlfriend!

Meanwhile, somewhere in Serbia, a man is captured in the woods. Turns out Sherlock Holmes hasn’t spent the last two years swanning around the world as an international consulting detective, but growing his hair out and eluding thugs to dismantle Moriarty’s network. He manages to keep his handsome jawline intact by convincing his interrogator that his wife is being unfaithful as they speak. He dashes off, and the man placidly watching it all resolves into Mycroft Holmes, come to take Sherlock home: “Sorry, but the holiday is over, brother dear.” Um, getting chained up and beaten is not most people’s idea of a relaxing weekend, but Sherlock’s frenemy (and fellow member of the undead) Irene Adler does, so maybe Mycroft found her another job after sorting that ugly business of selling state secrets.

Once in Mycroft’s secret bunker, Sherlock certainly implies as much, though unwisely with an employee of his brother giving him a straight razor shave at the time. Mycroft assures him that any pleasure he got was negated by the effort of two hours spent learning Serbian and then infiltrating the gang. “The noise, the people” — it’s like he rescued Sherlock from a solicitous woman at a society party, not a torture chamber. Possibly, for wealthy geniuses, they’re the same thing.

In any event, Sherlock is needed to save London from a terrorist threat. To which his only response is asking after John, who doesn’t yet know Sherlock is back, so let’s give the fate-of-the-free-world stuff a rest until the important bit is settled, brother dear?

Back in Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson nearly breaks her teaset serving the apparently equally long-absent John a cup of tea. Isn’t porcelain abuse illegal in Britain? Accompanying the passive-aggressively steeped brew is a bitter slice of truth, mind the crumbs don’t stick in your unbecoming mustache, dear. Old ladies can be so blunt, but you can’t say anything back because what sort of monster would?

But it’s not just John’s facial hair she takes issue with — his announcement of intent to marry is met with, “So soon, after Sherlock?” He replies, for the countless useless time, “I am not gay!” You can almost hear a Bravo style consultant sneer, “Not with that mustache.”

“I think I’ll surprise him,” Sherlock thinks out loud in response, because he’s not so small-minded as to let a bit of ill-thought out fuzz keep them apart. But only once he’s gotten his best accessory back: the Belstaff greatcoat. Nothing less than the full effect will do for John Watson. Now, where in London can one get a great big cake to jump out of?

By which Sherlock means disguising himself as a waiter at the fancy London restaurant where John is having dinner. Wait, John’s wearing a suit and tie? And nervously chugging wine? I’m no consulting detective (that coat was discontinued, alas) but John is planning to propose! However, that won’t be the highlight of the evening if Sherlock Holmes has anything to do with it. And what better way to tell a friend you’re not dead than with a dramatic reveal? The whole sequence channeling his Victorian ancestor’s trademark gift for disguise — spilling a glass of water to swipe a bow tie, sneaking eyeliner from a lady’s clutch to draw on a tiny mustache — is as good as any tongue-twisting, camera-zooming, text-spinning deduction. As is the result: John is too distracted trying to find his courage in the wine list to recognize him. “Surprise me,” he says at last. “Certainly endeavoring to, sir,” Sherlock sulks.

But John needn’t be so nervous, as Mary properly takes her place at the table. Easy to see why he likes you, Ms. “I agree, I’m the best thing that could’ve happened to you” Morstan. But before John can stammer his proposal to this tiny, blonde, lady version of his equally self-assured and deprecating BFF, Sherlock reveals himself in a flourish of fake French accent and Clark Kent-style removal of wide-rim hipster glasses. Magnifique, non? For this elaborate and incredibly emotionally miscalculated ruse, John finally hurls himself bodily at Sherlock — to choke him to death right on the restaurant’s floor.

The reunion resumes at a second, more casual eatery, where Sherlock blames Mycroft for the decision not to reveal his alive-ness to John after the stunt at St. Bart’s and admits that more than two dozen people knew his secret — which earns him a split lip. Sherlock takes out his frustration by telling John that everyone hates his mustache, even Mary. “This is charming, I’ve really missed this,” John growls. They just want what’s best for you, really.

His charm offensive at an end, Sherlock tells John the real reason he’s back: Some bad people are about to blow up London, won’t you come and play with me? That goes as well as expected, but as Sherlock mops his bloody head-butted nose, Mary assures him that she doesn’t mind sharing. Seriously, she says she’s going to “talk [John] ‘round.”

Before that image can sink in, it’s time for another fall theory: Sherlock sends a dummy with his face pasted on it sailing off the roof of Bart’s while he and fake suicide buddy Moriarty giggle and, finally having shed this mortal coil, move in for a kiss. (In the twisted way of heroes and archenemies, this has a certain logic to it.)

This turns out to be the work of a member of The Empty Hearse, a Sherlockian conspiracy group founded by Anderson. “It’s just as plausible as some of your theories,” she haughtily tells his incredulous face, in an appreciated nod to the many fans who draw, write and cosplay their own romantic scenarios. Though she doesn’t hold with wearing hats.

At the Watsons’, Mary is reliving the greatest hits of John’s blog as he dabs on shaving cream in a reluctant bow to popular pressure. Mary teases him, like besties in 10th grade, asking if he’s going to see Sherlock after schoolwork. John insists he has more self-respect than that: “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes.” Would it help to know he did the same for you?

The hard part over with, Sherlock reclaims his rightful place in 221B. Finally, it’s time to tackle this terrorism business with Mycroft — by way of a game of Operation, then a deduction-off over a knitted hat left by a prospective client. Don’t question the methods of genius, especially when they’re this entertaining.

Nonetheless, Sherlock is having trouble without an assistant, and as John’s told him to “F-cough” (this involves a hilarious montage intercutting their workdays to finish each other’s sentences) recruits Molly to be his not-John, not at all, just be yourself. Time for yet another case that isn’t solving who’s behind that “imminent” terror threat to London. “This one’s got us all baffled,” Lestrade says, ripping off the wrappingcrime scene tape. You really shouldn’t have, but as long as we’re all here. Sherlock gets to work — until John’s voice starts intruding in his thought process. But it turns out that Molly is not the only thing wrong about this case: The room has been staged.

So long as we’re exercising our deductive muscles, let’s visit the train-obsessed owner of the deduction hat. A man gets on the last Tube car (not carriage, tyvm) and doesn’t get off at the next and last station. For having been a naughty boy, Christmas seems to have come early for Sherlock with another locked room mystery. As he returns to 221B to eat his feelings about having all this fun and no John to share it with in fish and chips, Mary rushes in. John has been kidnapped, and she’s receiving skip code messages. Wait a tick, how does a nurse know about skip codes? It was just a joke before, but did John actually find the female equivalent of Sherlock?

After channeling his inner Gandalf to commandeer a motorcycle, Sherlock and Mary ride off, arriving just in time to save John from becoming part of a Guy Fawkes effigy. The very next day, John comes calling at Baker Street (necessitating Sherlock to kick out his shockingly ordinary parents, lest they embarrass him while he’s got a boy over) because apparently all it took was being nearly burnt alive to get John back in the game. Practically as soon as they get to work, Sherlock realizes that the man who never got off the Tube is an overseas minister — and he took the entire train car with him.

They head down into the Underground and find the bomb intended to blow up Parliament is not on the train — it IS the train. Note to self: Find out what cellphone carrier suitcase detonators subscribe to, since apparently the bomb that Sherlock and John are sitting on can be remotely activated even as they can’t get reception to contact Scotland Yard.

On their own, and the mind palace wing devoted to bomb disposal still only in the planning stages, Sherlock asks for John’s forgiveness in what seem to be their final moments. “I wanted you not to be dead,” John says; sheepishly, Sherlock admits, “Yeah, well, be careful what you wish for.”

But under duress, John reaches past the anger and betrayal he’d more or less already set aside to forgive him anyway, because John is a junkie and Sherlock is his adrenaline dealer. With that, we cut to the real explanation of how Sherlock faked his death: a combination of a giant blue air bag, a spare corpse and some quick work by the people on the ground. Sherlock’s audience for his reveal, Anderson, responds with… a noncommittal sound, followed by, “That’s not how I would’ve done it.” (To which Sherlock replies, equally sardonic, “Everyone’s a critic.”) Because as much as we all wanted to know how Molly Hooper, a squishy ball and a cycling hooligan added up to Sherlock surviving a five-story fall, revealing the method substitutes the excitement of witnessing something unbelievable with boring old science.

Back in the train car, the man so recently declared “the best and wisest [John] has ever known” has broken into sobbing laughter at his panic. Bombs, it turns out, always have off switches! Wait, do bombs have off switches? Have all the dramatic sequences in movies over whether to cut the blue or red wire as the music ratchets up the tension been a lie?! Maybe not, but putting Sherlock in mortal danger again was a doomed endeavor from a narrative standpoint: “Killing me — that’s so two years ago,” he reassuringly offers John, who looks ready to either get back to strangling him or laugh his way into a straitjacket together. Just like old times.

“Don’t pretend you’re not enjoying this,” John tells Sherlock as he prepares to resurrect himself properly (deerstalker on his head, partner back at his side) before the eager press corps on his doorstep. Don’t worry, John, not even Sherlock Holmes is a good enough actor to pull that off.

Even the sinister glimpse of this season’s baddie at the end couldn’t detract from the joy of seeing the boys back in Baker Street after the frankly sadistic two-year hiatus. Next week: Sherlock must give a best man’s speech at John’s wedding. His greatest challenge yet?

Contact Eva Kis via email at eva.kis@metro.us.


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