Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.
How did Sherlock fake his death? The Empty Hearse, the first episode of Season Three, finally gives us some answers. In fact, it gives us three. And, along the way, throws in an appearance by Derren Brown and a handful of saucy snogs – then watches as a devoted fan group (led by guilt-ridden cop Anderson from Seasons One and Two) reacts to the theories.
Yes, that’s the point Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ reboot of Sherlock is at: the point at which it starts to send up its own fan base. It’s all affectionate and good-natured, but there’s no hiding it: Sherlock has officially reached the smug stage.
There’s always been a sense of satisfaction surrounding the know-it-all sleuth’s adventures, but it hits a peak as Benedict Cumberbatch’s resurrected detective waltzes back into John Watson’s (Martin Freeman) life, while the show’s signature hyperactive editing produces false start after false start to show how funny and clever everything is. The actual plot – an easily-solved mystery involving an underground terrorist network – doesn’t even begin until 45 minutes into the 90-minute episode. But while some might be put off by the show’s proud vibe (even Benedict Cumberbatch’s parents have a cameo), the truth is that it’s too entertaining not to enjoy it.
That’s partly because the opener is packed full of genuine laughs, from the self-aware to the slapstick – one scene where Sherlock displays his art of disguise as a French waiter, perhaps the first time the BBC series has tried for out-and-out comedy, is guffaw-inducingly good. But it’s mostly because after six chapters, Sherlock’s ensemble are so well established that we actually care about them. Screw how Sherlock faked his death; the important thing is how his friends react. And Moffat and Gatiss are smart enough to know it.
Martin Freeman leads the way as an endearingly outraged Watson, whose huffing and puffing is so sincere that you actually stop staring at his dreadful moustache. His new girlfriend Mary Morstan (Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington) slots into the frame neatly thanks to their easy chemistry. A quick dose of Sherlock’s Spidey Sense tells us the important things in an instant – “Guardian, Bakes own bread” – while her unexpectedly pro-Sherlock demeanour keeps their awkward triangle from entering tired territory. Una Stubbs, meanwhile, remains charming as landlady Mrs. Stubbs, squeeing as much as everyone watching at home when that familiar silhouette shows up on her doorstep.
The show is stolen, though, by Sherlock’s ever-hopeful love interest Molly Hooper and snooty brother Mycroft. Louise Brealey and Gatiss have long been the series’ most important supporting characters, providing heart and back-story for our enigmatic hero. Now, they look to be getting more screen time than ever; Mycroft enjoys donning a Serbian accent before some petty intellectual squabbling with his sibling, a pleasant reminder that he is traditionally the smarter of the two. But Holmes Junior is given the last laugh as Gatiss’ script gives more emotional depth to Mycroft than we’ve seen previously – then leaves him stuck in a theatre watching Les Miserables with his mum.
As for Molly, she gets the chance to step up as Sherlock’s sidekick. “Do you want me to be John?” she asks. “Be yourself,” he responds. This episode marks the first time the sociopath has shown real affection for another person, a tender moment between the two proving not only how fantastic Breasley’s understated turn is, but how vital her role is as the show’s most honest character. A brief glimpse of her other romantic conquest hints that we’re only going to see more of her as Season Three continues.
With all of that going on, it’s no wonder that The Empty Hearse forgets to bother with story. Feeling like something cobbled together from Skyfall and V for Vendetta, it’s an underbaked adventure that, tellingly, is cut away from during the climax for another self-indulgent flashback. That uneven pace, though, only gives more weight to the emotional catharsis that follows; if The Empty Hearse’s narrative is contrived, at least it’s contrived as an excuse for more character building.
This is far from the show’s peak of A Scandal in Belgravia or A Study in Pink, which contained these smaller moments within an arresting thriller, but it’s an enjoyable romp that zips past. With its familiar, excitable camerawork, recognisable theme tune, flawless costume design and comfortable cast, Sherlock slips on again like a used trench coat. A final teaser leaves you eager for Sunday to arrive and finally reveal the season’s big bad villain (played by a certain someone from The Killing). The real cliffhanger, though, lies in waiting to see these characters together again. On that level, at least, Sherlock has never been more suspenseful.
How exactly did Holmes do it? Who cares? Sherlock lives. And that’s all that
Sherlock Season 3 and 4 are available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018. Seasons 1 to 3 are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Season 3 is on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Sherlock: Season 3 on pay-per-view VOD?
Photo: BBC/Hartswood Films