Doc On The Box – Sherlock – The Empty Hearse

Two years have passed since Sherlock Holmes took a nose-dive from a hospital roof. Most people have moved on but a group of conspiracy nuts believe that Sherlock faked his own death. And while their theories as to how Sherlock pulled off the impossible may be rather far-fetched, it doesn’t mean that their belief in Holmes is unfounded. An underground network of terrorists are planning something big in London – and Mycroft Holmes knows exactly one person who can get to the bottom of things. So it’s time for Mycroft’s brother to come home… but to what sort of welcome?

Sherlock Hearse


The first two series of Sherlock were almost universally applauded – but with such a cliffhanger at the end of The Reichenbach Fall, could the writing team possibly come up with a satisfying explanation?

The opening few minutes… that took some nerve on the part of the writer, Mark Gatiss. Practically everyone watching would have been contemplating a bungee cord that definitely wasn’t there before being distracted by Derren Brown’s appearance… had they lost the plot? Was this the ultimate cheat? And then the punchline. At that point, I had absolutely no concerns about the episode. It was going to be wonderful. And it was.

Basically, nothing has changed apart from John’s moustache and his rather more explainable anger at Sherlock’s return – not just the manner of his return (and I love that Sherlock actually thought it was funny)  but the number of people who knew he was still alive. As with every magic trick, the explanation would never live up to the trick – some people seem to think that we still haven’t seen the true explanation, but I’m pretty sure the last explanation was the real one.

Anyway, back to Sherlock. Amanda Abbington makes a wonderful debut as Mary, John’s sort-of fiancée. It would have been so easy to make her anti-Sherlock, so making her instrumental in getting the bromance going again was a masterstroke. The rest of the regulars are on form as well, and it was nice to see a (slightly) expanded role for Louise Brealey as Molly.

Plotwise, the story had nothing in common with the short storyThe Empty House, but that’s probably a good thing, as the plot of that one is pretty weak. Unfortunately, the actual threat was very much the B-plot here, and James Moran was wasted. It’s clear from the final scene that the story isn’t over – although it remains to see if the man in glasses was behind the whole thing or just the incredibly tense bonfire scene…

So one of the finest TV shows ever made is back and it’s as wonderful as ever. Roll on The Sign of Three!


  1. I haven’t seen this episode yet but am very much looking forward to it. I don’t know if this is in any way appropriate to the episode yet, but I’m reminded of a couple quotes from Jonathan Creek: “People beg me to explain something; it’s the last thing they want to hear, ’cause you’re disproving a miracle. Houdini walked through a wall two bricklayers had built onstage: People swore he had the power to dematerialise. You find out he he used a trapdoor under a carpet, it’s too mundane: you feel cheated. That’s all magic is, an illusion. …” and “We mustn’t confuse what’s impossible with what’s implausible. Just about everything I dream up for a living relies on stuff that’s highly implausible. That’s what makes it so hard to work out; no-one thinks you’d go to that much trouble to fool your audience. …” Good to know that there’s a difference from “The Empty Room” so that there’s some element of surprise.


  2. I liked the little nods to the original story – Holmes mumbles about a Japanese martial art (baritsu in the book), and the old man with the book on Tree Worship and the British Birds magazine appears too.


  3. I watched with some trepidation. Sherlock can be sublime (A Study in Pink/A Scandal in Belgravia) and it can be brain-meltingly awful (Hounds of Baskerville/Reichenbach Fall). But I always experience a strong reaction, and I’m always excited to watch, even if I’m cross by the end. It’s never failed to be imaginative and memorable.

    So I was really surprised to find this just… dull. The end of Reichenbach Fall looms so large that it swallows up 80% of the episode. The terrorism arc is pretty tame (and once again relies more on everyone else being stupid than Sherlock being clever), and we don’t even know Moran exists for at least an hour. And while there’s nothing wrong with shaking up the pace and switching out plot for characterization, I don’t think the relationship between Sherlock and John was even very interesting here. It certainly lacked the spiky tension that we’ve seen in the past.

    Gatiss’ writing doesn’t help. He’s got some good jokes, but in his episodes Sherlock is noticably more acidic and insensitive while John is more blandly angry/reverent depending on the point in the arc. To me they often feel like different characters from the rest of the series, despite the strength of the acting.


    • We’re not going to agree as I enjoyed Hounds and Fall tremendously. One thing that did disappoint me on this episode that I forgot to mention was how it undermined The Reichenbach Fall, claiming that Moriaty was being played the whole time. That was a shame…


      • Sure, but I can imagine even people who loved The Reichenbach Fall might not have wanted to spend an hour picking over its bones. Up until now there have only been very loose connections between the episodes. Even as a fan, you must surely agree that this is the least ambitious episode to date?

        For me, the inconsistency issues in Fall are just too numerous (How can Sherlock be faking it, when the characters who are accusing him have SEEN him work his magic on THEM? Are they accusing themselves of conspiracy?! If Moriarty is actually an actor, or has set up an actor persona as an alibi, why does no-one recognise him during the trial of the century? How can Sherlock be so intelligent but know nothing about binary? How can Moriarty know this quirk well enough to trick him using it?) As a result, they undermine the puzzle that the episode sets at the end. I just didn’t care how Sherlock faked his death, because I no longer trust that the show is set in a consistent version of reality which bears any resemblance to our own.

        That’s really not the end of the world. Consistency isn’t the be-all and end-all of storytelling, especially in a series with such distinct episodes. But doubling down on the problem by dedicating over an hour to explanations of something that didn’t and couldn’t make any sense in the first place doesn’t help, even if you get some great jokes out of it.

        But still, hopefully that’s the end of the issue and the next two episodes will be a return to form. I don’t deny that when it’s firing on all cylinders it’s some of the best television out there.


      • Actually, I considered the explanations of his survival to be the least important part – hence the joke versions. I didn’t see it an hour being spent on explanations – the majority of the non-plot (and I agree there wasn’t enough of the actual plot) was concerned with Sherlock and John’s relationship.

        And yes, parts of The Reichenbach Fall made no sense, especially the “actor” claim. But it made a great spectacle – edge of the seat drama unless you thought too much about it. And I think it clearly depends on the viewer if that works for you – it entertained me while watching it, and that’s good enough for me.


  4. Despite my disappointment, the acting and direction were superb as always. I especially liked Mrs Hudson’s reaction. I bet that was a .gif within 30 seconds! And at least it’s only a few days until the next episode…


  5. It’s still one of the best, and most audacious shows on telly.

    Also you might have missed – there’s a tiny reference to the new villain in the rolling news coverage.


  6. It’s unfortunate that unlike Doctor Who episodes which are shown hours later in the United States after their debut in the UK, Sherlock episodes are shown months later on PBS, and cut to boot. To add insult to injury, I believe the DVDs of the episodes shown in North America have the cut versions on PBS.


  7. Like you Steve, I was completely captivated by the hilarious reversal after the insanely complex ‘explanation’ (and another hilarious reference to Derren Brown after the 50th DOCTOR WHO episode 🙂 ) – How he got out of it is not important (and yes, I agree, the final one is basically the right one in my book) but the impact it has on the characters is and it thankfully never lost sight of that. Each of the previous series has had one episode that I liked a little less and it’s always been the middle one, but it only seemed so in the context if the sheer wonderfulness of the show – but Sherlock is just the best entertainment on the box – let’s hope it’s not another 2 year wait for the next series – but first … roll on Sunday!


  8. If they weren’t going to properly reveal how Sherlock managed to fake his death, they should have told us that, instead they kept a lot of people waiting two years.


      • Steve, I think the episode made it clear that the third explanation was another fake. Anderson spots a bunch of holes in Sherlock’s story, and then wonders why Sherlock would even tell him how he did it because he’s the last person Sherlock would tell the truth to. Then he turns around and Sherlock’s gone.

        Also, the deduction about the similar corpse is undermined in the final moments of the episode when Molly introduces everyone to her “special friend”.

        Also, are we even sure that fellow *was* Moran? We never find out his name, after all, and based on the brief half-glimpses we got of Moran in Season 2 (remember the accomplice in the child kidnapping case?) it seems unlikely to me that *that* was Moran.

        I thought the episode was good. Martin Freeman once again proved that he *is* Watson, and I enjoyed the drama aspect of the episode. I did think, however, that the actual plot took way too long to start, and the way they keep hiding the answer to Sherlock’s fake death means that the ultimate answer, when revealed, had better be bloody brilliant, and I’m not quite convinced it will be.

        Credit where credit’s due, though, I was convinced that that first explanation was the real one and was ready to express my outrage at its sheer stupidity. Well-played, gentlemen.


      • OK – first of all, I think that the questions generated by the third explanation were to illustrate that there would always be questions – they’re more of the “weren’t you rather lucky that it worked”. I didn’t see any hint that there’s another explanation out there – I may be wrong of course, but I think that’s the last we’ll see of this plot point.

        As for why Sherlock told Anderson the truth? Well, why would he talk to him at all? Sherlock likes to show people how clever he is and John wasn’t interested in how he survived.

        And the special friend looks nothing like Sherlock – just the same height and dress-sense. How does that undermine the explanation? And the accomplice was never named as Moran in Series 2, was he?


      • I agree with this assessment of what happened, Patrick, although I’m not sure why you’re confident that anything further will be revealed. Personally, I don’t think it’s going to come up again.

        But I admit I also found the scene you’re talking about confusing.

        Unusually for Sherlock, I think the score and the acting were to blame: the nervous strings suggested higher stakes than the dialogue did, and I wasn’t sure whether Anderson was genuinely laughing, annoyed or having a serious psychotic break. Having watched it again, I’m none the wiser. The fact that the scene was sandwiched by two unrelated ones (there was no link in subject, theme, tone or chronology) but used transition effects to suggest that it WAS related also confused me. I’m going to post on my own blog about Sherlock in a bit, which might be a better place to discuss it. It’s hard to talk too much about it while respecting the Doc’s spoiler policy.

        This specific confusion of mine is most likely a bad post-production/cutting/editing decision, and not Gatiss’ fault. But more broadly I think this highlights why Reichenbach Fall really was a harmful episode, and why “Don’t think about it too much” is easier said than done. You think that scene definitely shows the explanation was fake and the Doc thinks the opposite. You can’t both be right.

        Sherlock’s explanation IS flawed for the reasons that Anderson said, but Reichenbach Fall and other episodes have shown that the kinds of flaws don’t always matter in Sherlock. Except when they do. So what are we supposed to think? Reichenbach Fall has undermined the viewers’ ability to understand the implicit rules of the show, even for viewers who liked the episode overall. That may not be fixable.


      • Sorry, Rich, but I see nothing that needs fixing. Yes, the bit about Moriarty being a children’s TV presenter doesn’t make much sense – although there are a lot of satellite channels that only a handful of people watch – but even then… there may have been a ban of photographs of accused criminals until proven guilty (which is generally the case) and he didn’t stick around for photos after the trial. That cuts it down to people in the courtroom not recognising him – possible.

        Obviously a show like Sherlock requires a suspension of disbelief, which I’m more than happy to make.


      • To quote Lestrade: B****cks! Everything’s on Youtube, especially children’s shows. Reporters aren’t idiots. Moriarty and Sherlock were both on the front pages, for various reasons, which was a visual motif throughout the episode. And even if you ignore the public, Lestrade and his team know what Moriarty looks like. Sherlock riffs on technology when it wants to, ignores it when it doesn’t.

        It doesn’t matter. If you’re suspending disbelief, you’re suspending disbelief. There doesn’t have to be an explanation. My only point is that this approach to writing has consequences which seep out beyond the episode itself. Viewers, if newspaper comment boards can be trusted as providing a fair cross-section of opinion, are finding it much harder to decide whether contradictions in the new episode are clues or hand-waving.

        I think you’re oversimplifying. Yes, all fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. But the second series of Sherlock, by design, requires multiple suspensions of disbelief which mutually contradict each other. That’s because it aggressively uses its own implausibilities as meta-fictional plot fodder.

        “It’s possible to write a computer code which can hack into anything.” “No it’s not, and anyone who thought it was in an idiot.” “But it IS reasonable that IF such a code existed, it would be possible to encode it into binary.” etc. etc.

        It’s tiring, because it’s constantly rewriting the contract of which bits we’re supposed to be suspending our disbelief over. The only way to navigate this simply is not to suspend disbelief, but to parse it as “Blah, blah, computers, I have the upper hand.” “Blah, blah, numbers, no I do.”

        That’s fine. Plenty of fiction uses jargon and double-speak as shorthand for its characters being clever. But Sherlock is a show ABOUT intelligence, reasoning and deduction, so “Don’t think about it to much” is a viewing strategy which is directly at odds with one of the core messages/themes of the show.

        None of this stops it being entertaining. I just don’t think it’s a sustainable strategy, as evidenced by the fact that even fans are notably more tetchy and confused. People have blamed this episode. I’d blame the previous one.


      • Sorry, obviously that should be something like “…a couple of dozen digits of binary.” Everything CAN be expressed as binary finger taps, if you’ve got enough lifetimes to spend!


      • Yes, of course. And I’m really not trying to have the last word on this, just that your last comment provides a good distillation of HOW we disagree, and that I’m obviously not quite getting my point across, if anyone else who is more on the fence is interested.

        Yes, we (and basically everyone else) will be watching next episode. But that’s not the programme makers winning “in the end”. That’s them “being alright for now…”. My worry is that this isn’t sustainable in the long run.

        As a fan, presumably you want Sherlock to continue for as long as possible. For my part, I’m interested in how Sherlock’s approach to consistency in the fandom is relevant to my own work: advising authors with smaller and less stable audiences on how best to manage an on-going series and (sometimes very limited) reader feedback. Although the fans are passionate and vocal, I doubt they make up the core audience in terms of numbers. Maybe I’m wrong there. But my gut feeling is that fans’ opinions should be respected, but treated with caution. Like a kid in a sweet shop, immediate gratification overrides any warning signs about future stomach aches.

        Anyway, I’ll shut up now! I really am looking forward to Sunday’s episode.


  9. The main problem I have with the show is that almost all of Sherlock’s deductions are never grounded in reality. It’s like he’s got some kind of super-power, which may not be coincidental in this age of Marvel movies. For example, the court room scene in S2E3, when the judge got irritated with Sherlock: none of those deductions could be made in real life, therefore they’re not impressive. The writer is simply making the other character say, “Sherlock’s right” even when it’s doubtful that he is. It’s inauthentic. I know it’s just a TV show, but in the original stories, the majority of Holmes’s deductions were achievable. The whole point of Watson writing the stories is that they are ‘demonstrations’ (as Holmes called them) of observation, and how any one could do it if only their paid more attention to things (hence the number of steps up to 221b).

    The reason for this, of course, is that Sherlock is only as clever as the writers controlling him, and although I think the writers overreached themselves with the ‘fake death’. Not giving a definite explanation and cloaking it in ambiguity is a defence tactic to those who are unimpressed with it. At the end of Poirot, you don’t have him saying, “Of course, mon ami, that may not be the truth after all. Who really knows for certain what happened?” Writing, quite often, is about bravery and risk. They should have the guts to explain how he did it, and disregard the doubters. Sitting on the fence or hedging bets is not a satisfactory conclusion. We may still watch the next episode, but some might lose respect and enthusiasm for a show which doesn’t deliver on it’s promises.


    • I actually prefer the lack of explanation because some of the ones from the original stories are really just speculation but Holmes is never wrong. I think I actually prefer the superpower version. But bear in mind, I’m not a massive fan of the original stories…

      And I think I’ve said enough about the explanation in other comments but given that whatever the explanation, the internet would have lit up with issues with it, why not derail the discussions by pointing them out on the show itself?


  10. Just saw this episode and have to say it was unwatchable. A couple of chuckles in the dialogue, but the plot – such as it was – was dull as dishwater.


  11. What was good about it? There was barely any mystery and it was forty five minutes till anything happened. There were some witty lines, but mostly it was mundane. The ITV series was far better and much more faithful to the character.


    • It was witty, entertaining, developed characters that we already care about, resolved a cliffhanger, set things up for this series… the only issue that I had was that the Moran plot was underwhelming. But the rest of the episode was so enjoyable, that didn’t particularly concern me. But it looks like we’re not going to agree on this one…


  12. I noticed several homages to Sherlock films of the past. At one point Mrs Hudson uses a line I believe is from ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’. And when Sherlock dismisses Watson’s questions with ‘You know my methods; I am well known to be indestructible’, that’s a direct lift from John Neville in ‘A Study in Terror’.


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