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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Sherlock: "The Empty Hearse"

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR "THE EMPTY HEARSE"

I saw this episode at a preview screening a couple of weeks ago, which undoubtedly coloured my feelings somewhat. Basically, watching anything it for the first time in a cinema of hyped-up fans makes everything seem Very Very Exciting. It's the difference between watching a Marvel movie at home on DVD, and showing up to a midnight screening full of people who applaud and scream in the middle of the big fight scenes.

My own feelings on Sherlock are somewhat ambivalent because I love ~Sherlock Holmes~ in general, but I tend to feel that the whole Sherlock phenomenon is a little overrated. In the plus column, the casting is fantastic, the dialogue is frequently excellent, and the writers get to play around with a 90-minute thriller format rather than a typical 40-minute episodic crime TV structure. On the more negative side, two of the six current episodes are kinda bad (or straight-up offensive), and the rest of the good episodes are sprinkled with moments of Steven Moffat's trademarked sexism, which I find offputing. Two years of watching Steven Moffat's increasingly awful Doctor Who had made me somewhat trepidatious about the new Sherlock, so I was happy to discover that The Empty Hearse is, in fact, brilliant.
The best thing about this episode was its lack of predictability. Obviously there's always going to be a certain amount of Chekhov's Gun with Sherlock, but as ever, most of the the crime storyline was ridiculous enough to be unguessable -- which has always been the strength of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, really. Also, the story deviated A LOT from its supposed inspiration The Empty House, particularly when it came to the way the main characters and relationships developed in Sherlock's absence.

Anderson is the biggest surprise, switching over from being an avowed Sherlock hater to being his biggest fan. But in terms of sheer performance, Martin Freeman was my favourite because of JOHN WATSON: RAGE MACHINE. The whole basis for the John-Sherlock relationship in this adaptation is that John is attracted to Sherlock's bizarre personality and lifestyle, and Sherlock recognises that John is nowhere near as normal as he appears to be. This means that John is always at his most interesting when he's acting outside of his "normal guy" persona, ie being stupidly brave or incandescently angry, or just abandoning societal convention altogether. John Watson being exasperated at Sherlock's ~antics is entertaining enough in small doses, but it's not anything we haven't seen before in a million other odd-couple buddy cop TV shows. As in any Holmes adaptation, the more Watson is allowed to shine, the better the story is as a whole.
Criticisms

I'll be interested to see what the fan response is to this episode. Watching it in such an isolated environment was weird because all of my opinions were formed in a vacuum, rather than being influenced by the reactions of other fans. It's entirely possible that I'll rewatch the episode when it airs tonight, and realise that this review is 100% wrong. But from my experience at the preview screening, I LOVED IT... with a few inevitable caveats. First of all, I think a lot of fans are going to be annoyed by the Molly's character arc. The Empty Hearse avoided many of the weirdly misogynist quirks of some previous episodes, and Molly's personal journey seemed awesome -- right up until the last moment, when she turned back into a punchline, unknowingly dating some Sherlock lookalike because she's in denial about still being in love with him. Personally, I didn't find this very annoying because I thought Molly was otherwise given a great role in the episode, but I can foresee other people being pissed about it.
Another thing that will look bad when framed against the flaws of previous seasons is just how white this episode is. There is no racial diversity in the main cast, to the extent that the only central character of colour from earlier episodes (Sally Donovan) is completely absent, while her white male counterpart (Anderson) was given a far more significant role. This episode was free of the racist undertones of The Blind Banker, but that may have been because they just sort of... whitewashed the whole thing, removing that "problem" entirely. I found this particularly noticeable because I've been watching Elementary recently, a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that features a realistically diverse cast for a show set in a major city like London or New York


Fandom

I wrote a non-spoilery article about Sherlock's relationship with fandom a couple of weeks ago, but IMO there are thousands more words to write about the way this show interacts with fan culture within the narrative itself. The big thing is the in-universe fanclub, including the obligatory slash fangirl -- who was, thank god, not the mocking portrayal she might have been. You guys may disagree, but I thought her little cameo was pretty entertaining, and didn't really deride slash fangirls in the way Supernatural has done in the past. Anderson was the one who ended up at the butt of the jokes, and while I don't have any real investment in his character, I think the decision for him to turn into this guilt-fuelled Sherlock fanboy was an interesting and entertaining character choice. 

Although I don't think Anderson's new character arc is "bad" or in any way detrimental to the story, I personally find Sally to be a far more interesting character. Hopefully she'll return in later episodes. Anderson's progression makes sense for his character, but it's essentially just another example of an ~unappealing and abrasive man being given more screentime and eventually "proven right," which is something we've already seen with Sherlock, Mycroft and Moriarty in this show. Anderson is the flip side of this, a pathetic loser who we're not really meant to find likeable on a personal level, but I still found his new role to be needlessly indulgent.

Because we're on Sherlock's side, Anderson and Donovan seem like antagonists in the first two seasons. But their role is actually far more neutral in the sense that they are the "good guys" but view Sherlock's antics from a more realistic standpoint, ie that he's always barging onto crime scenes and causing chaos while they're trying to do their jobs. Also, the reasons for Donovan's dislike of Sherlock were always far more sympathetic than Anderson's. Sherlock purposefully antagonises both of them, but Anderson came across as a jealous, bitter idiot, while Sally Donovan was characterised as a good detective who just happens to dislike Sherlock... which was understandable, considering the fact that he treated her like shit, undermined her authority at work, and is kind of a misogynist.
Don't get me wrong, I really DID find Anderson's character journey to be truthful and entertaining in this episode, but it just felt like he was being rewarded for bad behaviour or something. In the first two seasons, Anderson and Sally are the voices of doubt and realism, countering Sherlock's over-confident bravado and egotism. It would've been equally easy to use Sally in Anderson's role instead, with a few tweaks to the way she reacted to the revelation that she'd been wrong about Sherlock. They couldn't have given her precisely the same role as Anderson, but maybe something a little more Hermione Grangerish -- using her detective skills to try and track Sherlock across Europe in person, for example. Or spearheading the campaign to clear his name with the newspapers who slandered him in the first place. 
Sherlock fandom exists within the show, both in that Sherlock himself has fans and followers, and in the more meta sense that in one or two scenes, real-life fans snuck into the background of certain shots while they were hanging around the set. At the cast and crew Q&A after the screening, the episode's director said that the scenes filmed in the Underground were the worst, because you can only bring a skeleton crew into the Underground, and it's impossible to shut off a big enough area to film without catching some passers-by in the background. So it was impossible to avoid filming a few background Sherlock fans by accident.
I find it pretty funny that despite all of the noisy protestations to avoid spoilers for how Sherlock managed to fake his death, it's actually very difficult to spoil. The writers may have included a bunch of different ~clues in The Reichenbach Fall, but they had two years after that to read the multitude of fan theories, and Gatiss made it very clear that he was influenced by fandom when he was writing The Empty Hearse. Which you can kind of tell just by watching it, TBH. The fake flashback scenes are a nod to how much the audience has been thinking about this for the past two years, and it's no coincidence that they were mostly told from the perspective of Anderson/a fan. My favourite was the first one though, because a friend had "spoiled" me for the whole hypnotism thing. I had such low expectations that I could almost believe that Moffat and Gatiss would explain Sherlock's return using a bungee cord, a fake Cumberbatch mask, a grab-and-kiss makeout scene between Sherlock and Molly (Steven Moffat thinks these are HILARIOUS and has included like five in the last season of Doctor Who alone), and Derren Brown. Luckily this was not the case, but I was probably the ideal audience for that opening scene because I totally bought it.
(There's also the fact that the final, "real" explanation for Sherlock's survival is not remotely reliable, so we may never know the true answer. Some people will probably think this is a cop out, but I don't really mind. He's alive; we always knew he'd be alive; who gives a shit.)

Mary

In the original Holmes stories, Mary is little more than an afterthought. I didn't have huge amounts of optimism for her role in Sherlock, partly because of Moffat's bizarre interpretation of Irene Adler last season. In fact, I'm kind of surprised they even bothered to include Mary in the first place. Luckily, Amanda Abbington was pretty charming in the role, and her relationship with Sherlock is slap in the face to every idiot who thinks that female love-interests automatically ruin the beauty of a male/male buddy-cop dynamic. Given the bare bones of Mary's role in this episode, she could very easily have been annoying and OTT, but I think Amanda Abbington sold it because she's just so good at those catty sideways glances. Also, she looks like a normal human middle-aged woman, which: thank god.

Miscellaneous
  • The montage of Watson's shitty GP's surgery patients: hilarious.
  • All the moustache jokes: also hilarious.
  • COSTUMES. Loved all of Mary's vintage fashion. Ditto Molly's knitwear, even though I have a sneaking suspicion they were trying to ~dress her like a cat lady~ or something.
  • I actually could not watch while Sherlock was doing that whole routine with the false moustache in the restaurant. NOOOO.
  • Mycroft: obviously as splendid as ever, but this new development of him having actual emotional vulnerability and insecurity was icing on the cake. Mycroft fanfic people are gonna go bananas.
  • WALLPAPER, LOL. Back when this blog was only a couple of months old, I wrote about the wallpaper in season 2. AND IT'S BACK, AND BETTER THAN EVER BEFORE. The set designers always bring A++ wallpaper game to this show. Very impressive.
  • The budget was clearly higher, and it showed. But unlike plenty of TV shows that get popular and end up rolling in money, the expense actually seemed worth it. It was showy, but not pointlessly showy. They're using the money in the right places.
  • Lestrade: still a silver fox. Obviously.
  • Some of the sped-up visuals and codes scrolling across the screen were kind of ridiculous-looking. Reminiscent of a 1990s TV documentary or something. But whatevs. Not really important, since the vast majority of the episode looked beautiful.
  • Sherlock himself had basically zero character development, but OH BOY, WAS HE MESMERISING. The last thing I saw Cumberbatch do was the godawful Fifth Estate, so this was a real relief.

14 comments:

  1. SPOILERS


    I just watched the episode with my dad and we both loved it. I, like you, have caveat criticisms of the episode as well and a few are the same as yours.


    My biggest problem was with Molly's treatment since she always seems to get the short end of the stick. I wasn't surprised that she married a Sherlock look-a-like after she said something about her type, but I am disappointed that they went in that direction.


    I didn't notice the white washing, but you do have a good point. The production probably won't fix it, though.


    As far as story, I am confused by why Anderson did a 360. Your analysis of him before Reichenbach I believe is spot on. The transition to obsession just doesn't reason well for me (albeit the obsession is much more understandable for Anderson than if Donovan did it since she seemed more sincere about disliking Sherlock). Like you, I believe Anderson's journey was interesting to see.I hope Donovan's outcome is revealed but this I also believe is unlikely.


    I'm glad the fans weren't vilified for having weird theories and it was fine in the end. From the aftermath of the pre-screening I'm not sure how I feel about the fourth wall with Sherlock, especially to the extent it was included in this episode. The screening's reaction couldn't have been predicted a year beforehand so there's nothing the production could have done, anyways. I love that the show acknowledges Holmes's popularity as it gives the show a realistic feeling.


    I'm very excited for the next episode because this one kept me on edge. This was a good story even if it diverted away from the source material a lot. Can't wait to see what you think of the next few episodes as well!

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  2. The thing that strikes me the most about the episode was how abusive Sherlock and John's relationship felt to me. John's emotional pain, anger, and feelings of betrayal are almost entirely dismissed by Sherlock and even by Mary, or alternately played completely for laughs. Even his forgiveness came from Sherlock's manipulations instead anywhere sincere or organic. It only made Sherlock an even less likable character than he was before.

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  3. A critique of your article - you keep mentioning everything that isn't clearly feminist about Sherlock and Doctor Who and blaming Moffat about it. While I understand how River Song and Irene Adler may draw the hate of modern-day feminists, with Amy, Clara, and Molly, the characters seem well-written, three-dimensional, and in no way defined by stereotypes, and I certainly can't understand why you think his writing is misogynistic. Furthermore, several of the examples you've drawn from Doctor Who and from Sherlock - including this very episode - were not written by him at all, and it seems very narrow-minded to blame everything you dislike about the female characters on shows of which he is the head writer on him.


    As for the white-washing of the cast, it honestly isn't really any whiter than it already was. They only added a single new main character, and they cast Freeman's real-life partner for that role. And Donavan and Anderson only made appearances in a single episode last season, and only when the story required it.

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  4. I personally find that a TV show such as this, in the beginning, had so much potential, however it has been quite destroyed by its lack of realism. Nothing seems to fit. The whitewashing, as you mentioned, is something that is so far from London (I should know, I live here, and often, in a day, probably 50% of people I meet aren't from England or even Britain).
    Also, the lack of sympathy and kindness Sherlock showed was intolerable. In no reality could I see any sensible person (as John is portrayed) accepting Sherlock back into his life after the heartache and grief and regular potential death he has caused him, I'm surprised he didn't seriously injure him as any sane person is sure to have these urges.
    My final major complaint would be all the crazy, showing off graphics that made me forget the storyline and feel like I was watching a music video. It seems to have gotten even worse the more popular the series gets and was too frustrating as it distracted from the storyline and made Sherlock look even more idiotic than usual.

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  5. I think a lot of the things you mention here are down to personal taste. Like, I personally find the graphics annoying as well, but IDK if it's really a criticism for most viewers because I rarely see anyone commenting about that stuff at all. As for the lack of realism... the storylines itself are, obviously, completely ridiculous, but they don't really try to frame them like they ARE realistic, if you see what I mean? I often get the impression that the writers (particularly Gatiss) are purposefully writing this completely ridiculous, funny, OTT show, but then it's the viewers/fans who are all, "this is an incredible, serious crime drama!" which, you know, it really isn't. So it kind of depends where you're coming from in the first place, as a viewer.

    As for the whitewashing: I agree. It's weird to have such a white cast. It's also frustrating that this is rarely remarked upon by anyone other than ~Tumblr social justice bloggers~ because it is a genuine flaw in the show, and detracts from the experience for many viewers.

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  6. I thought it was pretty in-character for Sherlock, in that he was already a massive dick. The only thing that changed was that his circumstances escalated, ie he had the opportunity to seriously ruin John's life rather than just being petty and abusive on a day-to-day level. In most shows where an "unpleasant" or arrogant character is in some kind of partnership with a more balancing/friendly influence, the character journey for the ~unlikeable genius~ character is that they learn to be more human and sympathetic. The difference with Sherlock is that he basically never learns, and is ALWAYS just as abrasive and thoughtless as before. So it's not really a step backwards in terms of character development -- it's more like he just stays still, but as viewers, we were expecting him to develop and mature as a character. Which he does not.

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  7. If you are a fandom fan, you loved this, but if you wanted a detective story with clever deductions, you didn't get that in Sherlock. Every good note in the story became underminded later - as you mention, Molly had moved on, only to hookup with a Sherlock lookalike, Sherlock had a babbled somewhat apology for John that was negated by the absurd stunt of making John thinking he was near death for the 'turnoffswitch' bomb.
    With so many loose threads and tenuously linked scenes, there was no terror (with the exception of John under the bonfire) and so much time was spent with self-reverential nods to fanfiction, there was a big Empty Center instead of an Empty Hearse.

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  8. Interesting to read! Very! I don't agree with everything but it's good to read all the different takes. I found the moustache joke cringe-making but okay, there were worst bits so I'm even willing to let them go and accept them as some sort of compensation and symptom of awkwardness. But for me too much was played for laughs. Aha, so Mary is the first name of Watson's wife in Conan Doyle canon? I hope they don't kill her off as Conan Doyle did with Mary!! Also Mary was also quite tolerant and solid of Watson's foibles and Watson's weird friend so that fits. I also found Cumberbatch awful in Fifth Element but actually found him somewhat flat as Sherlock in last night's episode. The channelling of Martin Crieff just felt tired, as if he's only got so many bows to his fiddle. Freeman impressed me much more with his single-minded Watson-ness.

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  9. Great review! Just wanted to share my thoughts on Molly's fiance - I thought having him look like Sherlock was funny but it didn't turn her into a punch line in my opinion. I thought it was just kind of a cute nod to her crush on Sherlock. She describes him in a couple lines when she says goodbye to Sherlock, and he is obviously completely different from Sherlock (and not a sociopath haha). So finding out that he looks similar just means that she has a physical preference, which everyone kind of has.

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  10. I saw this episode and while I enjoyed it, I felt it was a let down. If that makes any sense. I don't know but something felt off about last nights episode(and no it wasn't the lighter tone).
    The thing about this show is, while the plots have never been that strong(Except TRF), it's been able to hide that the cases don't make that much sense sometimes by the wittiness, slight humour & showy conversations. Add on to the fact that the show is very "showy". Visually it's fantastic. But plot wise it's not always the strongest.
    But for some reason last night was my 1st time noticing the bad writing with the plot. THAT HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE WITH ME. EVER. It usually never stands out to me but it did. I don't know if I should be worried about the direction this is heading in or not. Of course I will place my final judgement when the series is over. I wouldn't be surprised if this season turns out to be the weakest though. I love this show but as a fan I feel that its only right to point out its flaws. Flaws that can bring this show down.
    The show just felt all over the place last night. I hate to say it but the "Elementary is better" saying rings some truth.
    Anyway great review.

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  11. Miss Don't Shoot3 January 2014 at 02:34

    Regarding the critique of Sherlock's character. It was made clear that John both heard and probably saw Sherlock, at 221B or anywhere he went with Sherlock. To him he WAS dead. He forced himself to move on to a degree where he even cut off all contact to dear Mrs. H, because he couldn't bear the hurt of being reminded. Sherlock has no idea about this nor about the level of pain as he's probably never experienced himself.
    Think about it. To Sherlock John was alive. And he heard John's plead at his grave, "Please, don't be dead" thus reassuring Sherlock that however long it took, John, his John, the first person who bothered trusting him despite his flaws and the first person Sherlock's refered to as a friend, would always wait for him, thus making socially backwards-Sherlock think that John at any day would be pleased and happy to see him.
    Furthermore, to Sherlock, John was and is ever-present, as seen in various episodes where he talks to him when he's not there. I could very well imagine that Sherlock practically hears John replying as well, just as was shown in EH.
    Sherlock abusive? Rude? Manipulating? He has been all along. RF was all about manipulating John. How did you expect him to be any different, better even, after two years of running, fighting and enduring torture, being all alone and only having his imaginary John as peoper company?
    Sherlock returns but in his mind he's never been away from John, so he carries on as if he's just been gone a few days.
    That's great character development and it gives you a great insight, this is a sociopath who lacks the most basic understanding of what love and care is, but he's understood and learnt that he needs people, and that he will always need John. John, who was so impressed with his witty remarks that it instantly formed a bond and friendship, so he makes puns and does silly tricks to get John back. That's how he won John over in the first place, why not do it again? That's not abusive, that's caring when you don't know how else to. It's no different behavior than seen in HoB. Sherlock angers John terribly and knows he has to apologize, which he does, and when he learns that's hardly enough to win John over, he proceeds to praise John with the exact same words that John's used to describe him; amazing, brilliant, fantastic. Because that's what worked so maybe it works again.
    I huff at the idea that he wasn't well written here. It shows us exactly how much of *beep* Sherlock is due to his Aspergers/etc. but if you think about it and stop blaming Moffat this and that under the sun, it's a perfect picture of a man that's suffered for the sake of his friends and probably took a few steps backwards in regards to social behaviour during his 'death' and is now trying to make everything okay again for the person he cares about the most, even when he doesn't really grasp why or how he cares.

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  12. It does not in any way excuse the complete lack of diversity throughout the episode, but apparently the actress playing Sally Donovan was doing some filming for pilot season over here in the States and so was unavailable. I've heard she will be in one of the other two episodes, she just couldn't do this one.

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  13. I love love love this article and agree with a big chunk of it. I am not sure if it interests you but I nominated you for the Liebster Award http://catsfika.blogspot.ro/2014/01/liebster-award.html/

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  14. I too am looking forward to either Skye or Simmons having to use a curling iron while IN FLIGHT. (Or Skye wearing her hair in a braid to bed or something.)
    Actually I feel a little cheated that for all of Skye's attempts at subterfuge, there has been no real 'getting ready' sequence in what I've seen so far.

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