Monday Musings: Restructuring The Empty Hearse

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.

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The Final Solution?

Before I start, here a big warning: This article will contain spoilers for “The Empty Hearse”. If you haven’t seen it yet, read on your own peril (or the peril of your enjoyment of the episodes when it finally airs).

I don’t intend to do a review about the whole episode, but about the one aspect a whole fandom was theorizing two years about: How did Sherlock survive the Fall? Two years waiting and now…well, now we get two crack-pot solutions and one which might be the right one. Perhaps.

Actually, not perhaps. I am absolutely sure that the third one is the one the writers had in mind when they wrote TRF. Accusations have been levelled that it was simply based on what fans have come up with, but just because it was most likely the most popular theory with some additional details thrown in, it doesn’t mean that this wasn’t the one the writers had in mind all around. After all, as they rightly pointed out, there are only so many ways to survive a fall like that, and the clues on which the fan theory is based are already there in TRF. It’s not really surprising that after two years, the fans came very close to the truth.

Which left the writers in quite a conundrum. Because no matter what, after all this time the audience would most likely be disappointed. It’s like visiting a magic show, it is only fun as long as we don’t know the trick. As soon as we get a look behind the scenes, the magic just disappears. This in mind, the writers gave us the option to discard the third theory too, if we wanted to. It was overall very cleverly done (though I wouldn’t have mined to see the real solution in the first two minutes and then go on with the episode, spending more time on the reunion and the actual case, I can’t deny that the fake ones were fun to watch).

But let’s run down the hints in TRF and see how they figured into the third solution.

This clue goes back as far as ASiB. During the breakfast scene with Mycroft, the newspaper has an article about it. This was a hint the fandom could discard as soon as the DVD was out, since the commentary revealed that this was originally supposed to be a hint, but didn’t end up being one because of later rewrites. The Q&A after the premiere of The Empty Hearse elaborated further. I wasn’t present, but Den of Geeks has helpfully wrote up the important points of the exchange  here. To quote Gatiss: “We were going to do it as a two-stage trick. There was going to be a sort of  window cleaning platform which Sherlock would hit and then another body would  drop out, this is an old trick. It’s actually why there is a reference in a  newspaper to a refit of the historical hospital. And then we changed our minds  because Toby Haynes, who was the director of The Reichenbach Fall, said  the ambulance station is at exactly the right level, we don’t need an extra  thing, so that’s how that came about.”

During the hiatus I didn’t really want to speculate to what degree Mycroft was involved. Mostly because I was pretty sure that he was part of the plan (after all, it was the same was in canon, and he was suspiciously absent with his surveillance towards the end of the TRF), but enjoyed the fantasy that he really thought, just for a moment, that he might have caused Sherlock’s dead. But if you wanted to think about it, Mycroft’s involvement was pretty obvious from HoB onwards. For starters, why should he let Moriarty go? Would Mycroft really make such a big mistake of giving Moriarty information of any kind about Sherlock without considering the possible consequences?

Another question which was impossible to solve and only partly answered in TEH was to what degree Sherlock put up an act during the episode. It was pretty clear that he was at least one step ahead of Moriarty, but how ahead was he really?

So, let’s put the scenes we saw in TRF and TEH back to back and look how they related to each other, starting with the day Sherlock jumped. Mycroft is calling John to him in order to tell him about the assassins living at Baker Street. Why is he doing it this day? They are apparently living there a while already, and Mycroft decides to tell John exactly the same day Moriaty makes his final attack? Most likely Mycroft knew that Moriarty was on the move, and wanted to prepare John, just in case. What follows is the kidnapping case, which comes to heat when the girl “screams her head off”.

The idea that Moriarty used a double is not as far-fetched as it might sound. After all, he didn’t need a twin, he just needed a resemblance which would fool a distressed child. Same statue, same hair colour, same clothes, and some similarities in the shape of the face would be enough for that. And Sherlock knows that. It’s the most obvious explanation, after all.

Next Sherlock leaves John behind, claiming that he “wants to think” in the cab. Which might be the truth, or he anticipated the possibility of Moriarty ambushing him, and he didn’t want John close to him. (In fact, he seems trying to get rid of John multiple times during the episode and only relents after John joins him for his arrest). At this point, he has a general idea of Moriarty’s plan, and mostly plays along, but I don’t think that he really knows what the final move (his own suicide) will be until he flees with John later on and encounters Moriarty at Kitty Riley’s home. Luckily, he has a plan, just in case he has to fake his dead.

At this point he and John split up for a brief period. John goes to Mycroft. And Sherlock? Now that he knows that it will most likely be necessary, he talks to Molly and ensures her help. She searches for the body of Moriarty’s henchman (honestly, even if there hadn’t been a convenient look-alike, it can’t be that difficult to find a body which will look like Sherlock from afar). Prepared with the rubber ball, he then thinks. The scene in TEH suggests that he thinks about the 13 different plans he prepared with Mycroft should the need arise. But he for sure thinks about the last puzzle piece he is missing – the code. He most likely knows that it is fake, but he needs to know what Moriarty hid during his visit in order to play his role convincing during the last confrontation. When he realizes what the fake clue was, he sends Moriarty a message and waits.

The one luring John away is most likely send by Moriarty himself. For three reasons: One, Sherlock gives Moriarty a place to meet, but not a time. He couldn’t know when Moriarty would turn up, so sending John away would make no sense, because the likelihood that he would be back too early was too high. Two, it would explain how the sniper knew were to set up. There was no need for him to follow John, because Moriarty told him that he would be back as soon as he realized that the message was a fake. And three, in canon the message is from Moriarty, too.

I guess if Moriarty hadn’t lured John away, Sherlock would have done it himself somehow. But since he does, Sherlock only has to stay where he is, picking up the ball and going to the roof, pretending that he fell for Moriarty’s scheme hook, line and sinker.

I guess the 13 different plans did not all involve actually jumping off, but also variants in which he got to Moriarty otherwise. In any case, the first step is to get Moriarty away from the edge so that he is not able to notice the preparation down on the street. He even remarks in TRF that there is by now an audience down there and we get treated to a shot of the truck and a couple of people. Sherlock succeeds on luring him away by asking him for “a moment of privacy”. Once he is sure that Moriarty can’t see what is going on, he takes a last shot to take him down differently by threatening him. Moriarty kills himself.

In TEH admits that Sherlock didn’t predict that Moriarty would go that far, despite the death wish established in TGG.  But his move leaves him no choice. He steps on the edge and sends Mycroft a message, according to TEH. Everything which happens down on the street is now controlled by his people. Most likely even the cab driver works for Mycroft. It would certainly explain why he let John out at exactly the right place, or why in TRF Sherlock was able to deal John before he even left the cab. John is a little fast on his feet, but Sherlock lures him back to the position where he left the cab. The position from which he can’t see the street due to the ambulance depot in front of him. Sherlock does his magic trick speech. Meanwhile everything is set up (they couldn’t do it beforehand, because John might have seen it).

According to TEH, Sherlock jumps into the air cushion, and Molly throws the body of his double out of the window. The latter part explains why we did see a body landing on the ground in TRF. It certainly served well as a riddle for the audience. But it is really necessary to fool John? And what about the truck? What is it’s purpose? Perhaps it will later remove the air cushion and serves, until this point, as an additional “screen” so to speak to make it more difficult for John to see everything?

Sherlock certainly could just take the place of the body himself from the get go in the time John needs to get around the depot. But this would give him less time to work on his fake wound. Either way, while John is disoriented, Sherlock takes the place of the corpse, puts the rubber ball in his arm pit and stops his pulse. The writers were a little bit out of luck with this one. I am fairly convinced that the majority of the audience would have needed a little bit more time to figure this one out if the same trick hadn’t been shown around the same time in “The Mentalist”. Either way, the people surrounding Sherlock make sure that John looks for the pulse at the right arm and in general keep him away far enough that he won’t notice the “window dressing”.

Meanwhile the sniper lowers his gun. During TFF the audience was fooled into believing that he fell for Sherlock’s trick, too, but that would only work if the sniper had watched only John during the whole time, which is pretty unlikely. From his position, he should have seen what was going on. In TEH we get the explanation that he “reconsidered” because a second sniper behind him “convinced” him.

So far, so good. All this could work. Certainly it could go wrong, too, but I guess Sherlock did plan for a couple of eventualities. There are still two questions left, though, one minor and one big one. The minor one is: What happened to Moriarty’s body? Anderson was convinced that Moriarty is dead. The fan girl thought he was alive. I guess, Mycroft removed the body, though, in order to confuse Moriarty’s network.

The major one is: If the sniper was invited to reconsider – for whom was Sherlock doing his little show? Just for John? That would be very, very cruel. There had to be more people of Moriarty in the area, or at least someone who would check the security cameras later on (which would mean that the plan had to be created in a way that it looked convincing on the footage, too). Since Moriarty says “Unless my people see you jump.” and there had to be someone whose job was to inform the assassins if they should go through with the plan or not, there are clues that there was at least one other watcher. So did Mycroft keep an eye on him, too, made sure that he was in a position from which he couldn’t see what was truly going on?

Those two questions are the only ones I really would like an answer to. Otherwise I am actually very satisfied with version 3, and ready to accept it as the final solution.