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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.