Sherlock: “The Empty Hearse” Review

“The Empty Hearse,” an apt name for a somewhat soulless episode that felt like an imitation of Sherlock rather than the real thing. Where was the depth, the tightness, the novelty we have come to associate with this show? “The Empty Hearse” wasn’t a bad episode of television in relation to much of what is on today. But it was a bad episode in relation to most of the Sherlock episodes that have come before it. Don’t get me wrong — I am overjoyed to have Sherlock back — but, after two years and such a promising setup, I expected better.

What my face looked like whilst watching the episode.
My face whilst watching the episode.


Detective vs. action hero

As much as I enjoyed watching Sherlock race to evade helicopter snipers in the Serbian wilderness, I couldn’t help but wish this episode had been given a smaller budget. Sign me up for more scenes of Sherlock drinking tea and deducing people. Because Sherlock isn’t an action hero. Or, at least, he’s not supposed to be. Not this incarnation. Sure, he can handle his own in a fight, but he rarely has to — because he’s about brains, not brawn. I don’t want to see Sherlock drive across London on a motorcycle  to save John (something reminiscent of Clara’s ride in the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who). I want to see him work things out with his massive brain. And, for all the times I want to see Sherlock out-think everyone around him, I want to see him struggle just as much. I want to see him not get things, to not understand pop culture or social cues.

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Sherlock is such a compelling character in part because he isn’t always cool. He’s different and awkward and has serious struggles like drug addiction and depression. He has trouble interacting with other people. There wasn’t any of that here. Sherlock was a man constantly in his element, and it was a disservice to the character this show created and fostered in the first two seasons. Because this Sherlock felt invulnerable. He felt fake. Returned from two years of systematically killing people and, only days prior, getting beaten to a pulp, Sherlock showed no signs of emotional or physical damage. He was returned to London not the same man, but arguably a more together one. If this was the changed version of Sherlock the show wanted to present, then they needed to do much more work to sell it.

The heart — sometimes, it gets hurt

For a show that started out with John’s nightmares of the war in Afghanistan, Sherlock’s somewhat seamless reintegration back into his old life felt dishonest. I recently read Doctor Who review in The Atlantic  that critiqued Moffat’s era as one without consequence. No one really dies, or — when they do — it is off-screen and of old age. That’s what this episode felt like: an episode without consequence. Which is kind of tragic because consequence was all it ever really needed to be. The terrible aftermath of Sherlock’s decision to jump off that roof, how he and everyone he loved had been changed by it. Not the slapstick dramedy of his return.

Sherlock being sorry

Now, it could be argued that Sherlock’s callous treatment of John throughout this episode, which culminated in him tricking John into thinking they were both going to die, was an example of just how clueless he still  is. But it didn’t feel clueless; it just felt cruel. And there were no narrative clues to imply that this behavior was anything other than acceptable, which left me very disappointed. Maybe Sherlock shouldn’t take the consequences of his faked death seriously (at least on the surface), but the show definitely should. I’m assuming — read: hoping — that some of this will be addressed in the next two episodes, but I wish more had happened in these 90 minutes. Episodes have to make narrative sense by themselves; the can’t just depend on being contextualized by the rest of the season. Hopefully, that happens, too, but these accomplishments aren’t mutually exclusive.

My face when John’s feelings weren’t being validated

The tonal shift

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one confused about the jarring shift in tone this episode represented from last season’s “The Reichenbach Fall.” John Watson was, too! There is a scene in which he bemoans the fact that he’s the only one who seems to be acting like a human being in reaction to Sherlock’s fake death. It was meant to be played for laughs, but I didn’t find it funny. Probably because I was right there with him. I couldn’t understand why this show wasn’t taking itself seriously anymore. It has always been funny, but not at the cost of its drama. This was neither the first nor the last meta-moment in this episode. “The Empty Hearse” was chock full of self-reflexive jabs, and it only added to the tonal confusion that came from jumping to this after the near-perfect (and perfectly serious) “The Reichenbach Fall.”

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When is meta too meta?

Answer: when it works against the internal logic of the show. “The Empty Hearse” was one big meta-fest — from the casting (Sherlock’s parents were Cumberbatch’s own parents; Mary was played by Freeman’s real-life partner) to the quips (one wouldn’t be surprised if those “how’d he do it” sequences were found on Tumblr). Seemingly every other line felt like a self-reflexive comment on what had come before — both on-screen and off. After two years of cyclical analysis, commentary, and speculation, we didn’t need another voice to be added to the same topics of cultural discussion. We needed fresh material. Overall, “The Empty Hearse” felt a bit like a slap in the face to the hardcore fanbase of the show, a wolf delivered in Benedict Cumberbatch clothing. (Though, it is important to note, many Sherlock fans were pleased with the episode, proof that television-watching — like all art consumption — is a very subjective act.)

A wolf in Benedict Cumberbatch clothing
A wolf in Benedict Cumberbatch clothing

For me, this episode didn’t feel as much about advancing the characters as an exercise by co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in reclaiming this show as their own, of showing a distorted representation of the passionate cultural discussion that has happened in blogs, fanfic, fanvids, fanart, etc. over the past two years, then literally having Sherlock say: “Be careful what you wish for.” Which is kind of a jerky thing to do. The equivalent of knocking down the snow fort you built just so the other kids can’t play on it.  Because, in going super-meta in this episode, they messed with the formula of this show. I’m all for television shows switching it up to evolve, but this wasn’t an evolution; it was a mutation. A jump from darkly-tinged, visually-stylized character drama to a somewhat lighthearted slapstick action adventure with moments of genuine emotion were quickly played for a laugh.

Hi! Magazine has a review I really liked on the episode that skews towards a criticism of this meta element:

This show isn’t just for the hardcore fans. There are nods, sure, but occasional tokens of acknowledgement of the ‘fandom’ seem more like jokes at their expense. The ‘shipper’, who suggests Moriarty and Holmes spent the last two years embarking on an illicit affair, or Anderson – who personifies the fandom’s reaction to the episode quite well in the last few minutes. Given that the fandom is, at best, indifferent to ‘Philip’, was it scathing of the show to suggest that they are Anderson? And more importantly, will the fandom, so blindly uncritical of ‘their’ show, even realise?

But forget all that. This show isn’t pandering to the hardcore. This is for everyone. As long as you’re white, male, cisgender, middle-class and heterosexual. Because they need representation the most, right?



Stylization vs. gimmick

When does stylized direction become gimmicky? When it stops serving a narrative purpose. There was some effectively stylized sequences in “The Empty Hearse.” I loved the sequence of Sherlock adopting a disguise to reveal himself to John. The manipulation of shot speed, upbeat music, and familiar on-screen text made these scene highly watchable. We not only watched Sherlock as he crossed the room. We were inside of his head through the clever editing and direction. The sequence of Sherlock studying the Underground lines in his mind palace felt a bit gratuitous, but was beautiful and fast-paced.


But there were some moments when the direction felt more gimmick than purposeful stylization. It’s the difference between a shot like this one in the Sherlock pilot, “A Study in Pink”:

Sherlock texts the press corps during a police briefing
Sherlock texts the press corps during a police briefing

…and a shot like this one in “The Empty Hearse”:

Sherlock's fan club receives redundant news that the hat detective is alive
Sherlock’s fan club receives redundant news that the hat detective is alive

In the latter, we are getting more information. The director is not pausing to show a shot of the phone with the text on it, or to have the receiver read it aloud. They are giving us the text, who is receiving it, and everyone’s reaction all in one shot. In the latter example, the information is redundant. We know that Sherlock is alive. We know that the world knows, as it has been broadcast on television. And we already understand that this is a group obsessed with the Sherlock mythos.

It may seem like a tiny, insignificant thing, but when the direction is meant to mimic how Sherlock sees the world, it makes a difference. When the direction slips in its novelty, cleverness, and quickness, so does the character. Lackluster direction (again, mostly compared to the stellar direction that has come before) has a direct impact on Sherlock’s character, who already felt somewhat different in this most recent installment.


Paul McGuigan is the director who created Sherlock‘s distinct visual style. (If you don’t believe me, watch the unaired pilot.) Unfortunately, McGuigan didn’t direct any of the episodes this season.  Because I am a nerd, here is a list of directors for all Sherlock episodes:

  • Paul McGuigan directed “A Study in Pink”
  • Euros Lyn directed “The Blind Banker”
  • Paul McGuigan directed “The Great Game”
  • Paul McGuigan directed “A Scandal in Belgravia”
  • Paul McGuigan directed “The Hounds of Baskerville”
  • Toby Haynes directed “The Reichenbach Fall”
  • Jeremy Lovering directed “The Empty Hearse”
  • Colm McCarthy directed “The Sign of Three”
  • Nick Hurran directed “His Last Vow”
Paul McGuigan has been as much a part of forming Sherlock’s character as Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven Moffat, and Mark Gatiss, and his absence here is most keenly felt. That being said, Toby Haynes directed perhaps my favorite Sherlock episode in “The Reichenbach Fall.” And I’m pretty excited to see what Nick Hurran brings to the table in “His Last Vow.” Hurran recently directed “The Day of the Doctor,” aka the 50th anniversary special, a huge responsibility he pulled off with flying colors.

Aspects I liked (Yep, there were some)

  • Mary. We still have much to learn about this character, and — with this latest installment — I am still not convinced that Moffat & Co. can write compelling female characters who have identities outside of their relationship to the main male protagonist, but she had her moments. And the brief sequence in which Sherlock read her was one of my favorites of the episode, and an example of solid use of the famous Sherlock word cloud.


  • The only character dynamic that I felt was adequately addressed in this episode was the relationship between brothers Mycroft and Sherlock. We understood and believed that their relationship has changed over the past few years. More than that, we gleaned some insight into their childhood together. The scene in which they played Operation, then deduced the owner of the hat was one of the best of the episode, and an example of how humor was used in the episode without undermining the integrity of the scene.

operation gif

  • The pyre fiasco. Even though I knew John wasn’t in any real danger of dying, I couldn’t help but be totally freaked out by his almost-burning in the Guy Fawkes’ pyre. (Moral of the episode: Always check your pyres, England!) It was also the only point in the episode in which Sherlock demonstrated anything other than selfish behavior in relation to his relationship with John. I kind of wish this sequence had come at the end of the episode. It makes more sense to me that John would forgive Sherlock for not telling him about his fake death after something like this, rather than getting tricked into it in a bomb plot fake out.
My face during the pyre scene
My face during the pyre scene

I am done trying to talk myself into loving things that disappointed me. Don’t get me wrong – I am ecstatic to have Sherlock back. I just couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by that episode. And I couldn’t help but think that the new series/season is now one-third over. I am willing to hold out to see if there are narrative arcs that will be concluded in the next two installments, but the fact remains that – in a 90-minute episode – more should feel resolved. I’m only so critical because I love this show oh-so-much. Because I know it can do better. And because, if we only get three new episodes every two years, I really want for them to blow me away.

Additional notes

  • It was very cool to watch this episode after having recently viewed the re-discovered “Web of Fear” episode of Doctor Who. Mark Gatiss said that the classic Who episode was an inspiration for this Sherlock episode. Like “The Empty Hearse,” “Web of Fear” deals with dangers hidden in the London Underground. Such a cool setting — I wish “The Empty Hearse” made better use of it. The bomb threat was the lamest mystery this show has done so far.

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  • “So just your brother, Molly Hooper, and 100 tramps.” — John on Sherlock’s fake death crew
  • “If you seem slow to me, imagine what other people are like. I’m living in a world of goldfish.”– How Mycroft sees the world
  • “Not and underground network, John, an underground network.” — Sherlock cracks the case

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5 thoughts on “Sherlock: “The Empty Hearse” Review

  1. Excellent review! Despite the cute little comedy sketches, or perhaps partly because of them, to me this episode feels like a great “empty” break in the show’s character and plot arcs. The comedy didn’t have to prevent an intense examination of what happens when a loved and trusted friend lies to another friend who already has “trust issues.” But the rambling structure and vague plot let the comedy do just that.

    In scenes with John, Sherlock’s giggles and smiles looked far more like the charming Mr. Cumberbatch himself than like Sherlock. Set against the realism of Martin Freeman’s acting, all this rather out-of-character representation of amusement left the impression of a Sherlock sadistically and cruelly enjoying torturing John. Sherlock never offered any explanation as to why he let John suffer in ignorance for two years, nor did he even say exactly what it was he was claiming to be sorry for (“Isn’t sorry what you’re supposed to say?”).

    The Three-Stooges-like plotting of the scene (s) where John expresses his anger in a series of attacks in a series of increasingly cheap eating places, as well as the sudden interruption of the car/carriage scene by another explanation for the fall, work to defuse tension and avert focus from John’s and Sherlock’s attempt to work out a reconciliation.

    My discomfort has been reinforced by the second episode where feelings between John and Sherlock are poured out for the audience, but in a much more sentimental and conventional way – and relayed to us in the almost chaperone-like presence of Mary and an observing on-screen audience. Those words of love, that hug, would have been far, far more powerful in The Empty Hearse as part of the forgiveness scene.

    I feel that these two episodes have given the hard-core fans almost everything they ever realistically hoped to see (even ballet!lock) except for what was most wanted and needed: a truly honest dealing with the results of Sherlock’s deception of John.

  2. You put many of my own thoughts into words, much more eloquently than I could ever have. Thank you. Like you, I am only so hard on this episode because I love BBC Sherlock so much and have come to expect such high quality episodes. Especially after all the build-up and after what I agree with you was the perfection that was Reichenbach, this feels especially off-the-mark, empty, and dumbed down. I’m glad The Sign of Three was better, but I must admit I’m really looking forward to what I anticipate will be a much more serious and detective work-heavy finale. I’m sorry to see the season go and I know they will rip our hearts out, but at this point I just want to get back to something more like the Sherlock we know and love.

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