Unlike some fans, I loved season three. What I didn’t love though, was “The Empty Hearse”. In fact, it is now my least favourite Sherlock episode. My problems with this episode are very different from the usual points of critic.
The on-going commentary on fandom? I loved that! The three solutions? I think it was genius approach to what would have been a let-down in any case. The scene with the bomb? I totally dig the off-switch!
No, what I dislike about this episode mostly comes down to structure. Watching it I often get the feeling that Gatiss had a lot of ideas, but problems to connect them to a working narrative frame.
For example the prologue. It consists of three elements: The fake first theory, followed by John and Mary standing at Sherlock’s grave, followed by Sherlock in Serbia. And I admit, as much as I like the moment of John standing at the grave, it feels squeezed in (and don’t get me started on the cut from the coffee cups to his eyes), especially since we already see Sherlock’s grave stone at the very beginning. To me, it would have made much more sense if the grave scene had been the first of the episode…it would have been the perfect start since the last episode ended with John leaving there. They could have ended the scene with the close up to the grave stone and then shown the fake first theory. I actually think that it would have heightened the impact, because the scene at the grave is so calm, and the speed of this one would have been a great contrast. The audience would have no less believed that they now get the solution. Plus, the dialogue of Lestrade and Anderson ends with “And may God rest his soul” – is there anything more fitting to show Sherlock everything but restful in the next scene?
The next “scene of contention” is for me the various scenes of people encountering Sherlock again, leading up to the totally fannish second theory. I have two problems with those: One, John laying awake in the bed doesn’t really fit in. Two, where the hell are the reporters in the following scenes? A celebrity coming back to life, but Sherlock can go wherever he wants with no problem?
There are two prerogatives “fighting” with each other. Gatiss obviously wanted the “big press scene” at the end of the episode. Understandable, it’s a perfect closure. At the same time though, Sherlock coming back must be public, not just for the “Oh my god” scene, but mostly in order to explain clients turning up at his doorstep.
My solution would have been to give Sherlock coming back and his first reconciliation with more time…not more screen-time, just more time. For example, add a line in the scene between Sherlock and Mycroft that the press is now loosing interest and clients are now showing up again. Give it the appearance of at least a week long time-jump instead of just one or two days. End this scene with a shot of John laying awake in bed, thinking, followed by him shaving. This would also give John some time to come to terms with his feelings. After that back to the montage of Sherlock and Molly dealing with clients while John has a “normal” day – imho the high point of the episode, after the first fake theory.
Speaking of fake theories, the next and last big stumbling stone is for the placement of the third theory. Gatiss said that it felt right to place it in the middle of the bomb situation. From an audience pov it is more than a little bit confusing, because it first seems to be a leap forward, and then a random scene in the future. Or something which never happened. It certainly doesn’t work as pov from someone since it cuts away from John’s face and John isn’t present during the scene in question.
To me the perfect placing for this scene would have been when John asks Sherlock how he has done it and Sherlock looks thoughtful. Cutting to the recording in this moment would foul the audience into believing that this is from the interview first. Going then back to Sherlock’s “you know my methods” line would leave it open if Sherlock remembers something what happened or if he indulges in a nice little fantasy.
Naturally it is easy to criticise after the fact. Still…I think that a little bit tweaking of the structure would have made the whole episode better. As it is, it is a little bit disjointed.