The Empty Hearse: Well, the short version…Not dead!
Posted by ajjwrites
Oh man. Sherlock’s BACK, and with a wild hope.
First of all, let me say I don’t envy Mark Gatiss and the writers. They had to set out to accomplish, with style, several very difficult objectives:
1) provide a satisfyingly clever explanation for how Sherlock faked his death;
2) explain *why* he then spent TWO EFFING YEARS after said death not telling John (when he was perfectly okay working with Molly and various other accomplices etc);
3) lay out and respect the seriousness of John’s grief, and yet have them grope towards some sort of relationship again by the end of the 90 minutes; and
4) show how each of these men have changed in those two years apart in a way that makes character sense, because there is no way Sherlock’s death wouldn’t traumatize John, and I’d argue that not even Sherlock would emerge unscathed from the experience of gaining, and then suddenly losing, a bond that pressed deeper than any had ever before.
Like every other fan, for two years I’ve been following the vigorous fan speculation about How He Did It, and I think it would’ve been impossible for the series to satisfy everyone – because of course, there’s only so much you can do without a Derren Brown. I actually think the writers succeeded here in treating this impossible task with the amount of weight it deserved – which isn’t much beyond style, but damn, what style! The Rashomon gallops from the spectacular, to the hilarious, to finally calming down and getting to the quiet and serious bits. We got three gorgeous setpieces that toyed around rather cheekily with our fan theories, showing a naughty bit of thigh here and there, but in the end the answer was: well, we’ll (probably) never find out. Which can be frustrating, but I think it’s also expected if Sherlock is to keep at least some of his aura intact.
“I don’t care about the how,” says John. “What I want to know is the why.” Because out of all the vital plots that needed to be figured out in this comeback, the most important one was this – where are John and Sherlock now? Their odd gravitational pull once seemed practically rebellious in its refusal to not exist like all the forces of logic and reason would’ve dictated, but one of its halves watched it smash into the pavement and the other stumbled away with the pieces into another orbit. Because the very last time Sherlock saw John – yes it was at gunpoint, yes not even Sherlock and his massive brain could’ve clevered its way out of this one, but the point is that the very last thing Sherlock did was crush the beating heart of this show with his own hands.
Because it may bear his name, but the show’s never been about Sherlock: it’s always been about Sherlock and John, John and Sherlock. Moriarty didn’t need to put a bullet through John’s head to destroy that; if he could just make Sherlock hide forever, if he could make Sherlock do something unforgivable, then he would win in the only way it mattered. He didn’t even need to be there to see it, because he’d already seen how it’d play out … Sherlock’s body, bleeding out on the ground, John frozen in place a foot and a lifetime away. Why fulfill your promises yourself if you can make your target do it for you?
In the end, Sherlock did burn the heart out of himself.
Does Sherlock have a heart?
That’s one of the biggest mysteries of this entire show, isn’t it? Even though we know that Sherlock isn’t some unfeeling psychopath who only cares about puzzles like Donovan says, if you think about how Sherlock treats the ‘little’ people around him. well, it’s not typically a pleasant experience for them. From their perspective, he really is this brilliant, clinical freak; this alien species so utterly superior in intellect that we’re just lab rats to observe and dissect and snark. That’s why what unfolds in Reichenbach Falls isn’t unbelievable: Sherlock’s genius is a marvel, but it’s also an intellectual bully that never remembers its victims; Sherlock saves people, yet you always get the sense it’s for himself.
His own pride, his own amusement. We are worthy of his energy only insofar as our puzzles are worthy. Sherlock goes beyond just ignoring social niceties or social norms; Sherlock ignores people. If the game is dangling in front of him he’ll zip over humans and their human things – things like feelings, and hopes, and fiercest needs – without glancing back.
So to somehow get – make – what he had with John is a freaking miracle. Because Sherlock’s not supposed to have the motivation, must less the ability. Because Sherlock only has enemies, or worshippers.
The whole first two seasons is this process of humanizing Sherlock, not by bringing him down to earth but by bringing the earth to him. Through John we inadvertently set off on this exploration of how far Sherlock can be humanized. But look back on A Study in Pink, and look at how desperate and enraged Sherlock was at the cabby dying in front of him, still clinging to the answer with his rodent like smirk to the very end. That was all Sherlock cared about in that moment: was I right? God, was I right? Because Sherlock cares more about being right than being alive.
Sherlock cares more about being right than living.
John sort of falls into Sherlock’s orbit by pure cosmic chance. Maybe if he’d sat down for a rest on another bench, their only intersection in this world would be the one where a mystery rips into John’s life; where Sherlock strides through the soft places with careless elbows like he does in all the other ordinaries, and John’s fist curls in his pocket beside the lame leg. However it happens, John saves Sherlock’s life in A Study in Pink, and from then on he keeps saving Sherlock’s life.
Not that Sherlock pays much attention at first, of course, though John’s sharpshooting is rather handy. But not even Sherlock can dismiss a man as a prop forever, and by being unable to dismiss this other thing, this solid human thing that actually wants to travel and sleep by Sherlock’s solitary roads, to name it quite brilliant where others would say freakish, Sherlock begins to find that he doesn’t really want to dismiss it. That there are things he almost … likes outside the Game. Things that he finds, somehow, in their own way… fun.
John is a fan of Sherlock in the sense that Sherlock is a fan of Sherlock.
Sherlock is perfectly fine if people don’t understand how wonderful and brilliant Sherlock is, but this is a bit of an unforeseen wrench in plans: that finding of the one person in the whole world who shares your secret delight.
It’s quite splendid, really.
John isn’t about to make Sherlock nice or interested in people-feelings or even vaguely presentable enough to take home to your mum, but he does poke at all those neglected places in Sherlock, which then reminds everyone they exist. Sherlock doesn’t have to be ordinary, but he doesn’t have to be a freak either. He can say things like “sorry”. He can feel real fear, and real pain, when John gets kidnapped and strapped to a bomb. He can feel something inside him thud for someone else.
Sherlock has seen a lot of victims, but the first one that really hurts – hurts on an emotional level, not just wrings his brain – is John. He may not have even realized it until he stood on that roof, but he certainly realized it after being forced to shred it up. What is it they say? You don’t really know what something’s worth till it’s gone…
In two years John obviously changes in his grieving – the mustache an amusing physical manifestation of how fast he’s aged inside – but Sherlock to me has changed even more underneath that perfectly preserved peacoat. At first, I was a little disappointed Sherlock seemed so fresh rather than more overtly traumatized, because he’s been in hiding for two insanely stressful years in crime cells, and even more importantly, because this is the first time he’s ever given himself to something so serious – and then had it wrenched away in one fell swoop.
So I would’ve guessed that Sherlock might’ve come back a little cut up, in all honesty. Being lurched back into loneliness after experiencing a tiny glimmer of what Not Lonely might feel like isn’t a trivial thing. But after some further reflection, even though I do still think the tone of this premiere leant to the irreverant/funny side to a surprising degree, I’ve decided that I don’t think Sherlock’s come back Perfectly Fine at all.
I actually think Sherlock’s come back terrified.
Specifically, with regards to John. Everything else is a certainty – London is his old stomping ground, Molly and Mycroft were already in on the scheme, Lestrade will always put up with the collateral damage of being in Sherlock’s life. John is the worry. John is his soul’s open-bottomed center.
Look at how casually Sherlock slips in a question about John as he dresses himself for his return – he frames it as a mission, that the only reason he’s returning to London is because Her Majesty demands it and Sherlock himself is rather eager to return to the hunt. He needs John for the mission, of course; he swerves – in rather clipped, brisk tones, flipping open the dossier – the dangerous notion that he might, simply, need John.
Sherlock doesn’t do serious very well – his main weapon is wit, whether acerbic or insolent. He switches to amusement as he studies the picture, dryly decimating the mustache and then sarcastically quipping he’ll just pop out of a cake. What I want to point out here, though, is that Sherlock’s other main armament is on full display here, and in fact throughout this entire damn episode: this kind of bratty, willful innocence. This determination to just ignore everything he doesn’t want to, this bloody single-minded resolve to just stride straight through and pretend he has no idea these silly humans would have these silly reactions because he’s Sherlock Holmes and he just doesn’t do humans, nope sir. That’s Sherlock’s fallback mode throughout this premiere when it comes to John. When Mycroft raises the unthinkable suggestion that John might have moved on with his life, Sherlock simply scoffs and barrels past – OF COURSE JOHN HASN’T CHANGED AND HAS TOTALLY BEEN WAITING FOR ME FOR TWO YEARS WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY LALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU – with a snort-grimace so transparent that it screams how long Sherlock’s been worried about exactly that.
But Sherlock, being Sherlock, isn’t about to come out and just say it. Instead, he has a good idea – he’ll just glide up behind John and surprise him like a really pleasant surprise and John will be SO shocked – but GOOD shocked – and, well, yay! Even better he’ll pull it off with this really clever and funny prank and so even though John probably hates him he’ll find the disguise – especially that matching mustache – so lovably-dastardly funny that he can’t help but be charmed! Sherlock, you genius!
I have a very strong suspicion that Sherlock does in fact know that his reception isn’t going to be a warm one. I don’t think Sherlock’s emotionally repressed as a character per se, but I do think he’s trying very hard to evade it here, how his insides feel like they’re trying to hollow themselves out. Because Sherlock’s never dealt well with the not knowing, and so Sherlock resorts to what is to him comfort food: a really childish trick that will probably still piss John off, but at the same time be so pathetically sad that John can’t stay mad at him. This is Sherlock saying, you know I’m stupid! Please don’t hate me…?
What’s really interesting is that Sherlock doesn’t lose his balance like this around anyone else. He is in complete and utter control of the rest of his city. He saunters back into Miss Hudson’s kitchen. He waits by the locker to give Molly Hooper a bit of a fright. He drawls his entrance to Lestrade from the gloom with his typical flair for the theatrical. But with John, Sherlock can’t pull off his usual pristine poise. With John, Sherlock has to grab at his Stupid Sherlock cap and pretend he has no idea why they’re not just jumping back into bed crime-solving together because that was totally fun. But what Sherlock’s really avoiding with his grim determination to keep it all lighthearted, of course, is the terror that the alternative – getting on his knees, treating it with the seriousness it deserves – would reveal both too much of Sherlock and not enough for John.
It’s not a joke to Sherlock at all. In fact, it’s precisely because it’s so not a joke that Sherlock has to joke to survive it.
We all know Sherlock can be such a child, but here I think it comes from a more adult place. Realizing that you’ve really, really fucked up, realizing that you really hurt someone, being terrified that you can’t make it okay again…. those are adult feelings, the sort of dangerous waters you only really start to navigate in adulthood. I can’t believe I’m saying it because Sherlock practically seems above mundane things like time but I think he has matured, and you can see it in the way he treats just about everyone with so much more recognizable decency than two seasons ago. He thanks Molly, spends a whole day with her, rips down that insecurity in her heart that says she doesn’t matter. He tolerates rather than eviscerate and drive away Mary on sight, as he has every other one of John’s girlfriends. He resists poking apart Train Man’s “girlfriend” to his face, even though it’s a devilishly easy target. He returns Lestrade’s embrace. He touches Anderson. He talks to his parents! Basically, he spends his first few days back in London affirming to people that they matter.
Most tellingly, he’s now spending time with Arch nemesis Mycroft, and burying almost this kind of concern in his usual snark: admit it. You’re lonely. Because in gaining and losing John Sherlock knows now that loneliness (not just boredom, loneliness) does exist for even people like them, and even though it’s embarrassingly sentimental that kind of half-life’s not enough for him anymore.
That’s why he comes back with a bang. Not in the sense that he developed all this elite skills dismantling international crime in Serbia, but in the way he throws himself into spinning and mending all these relationships that he probably didn’t even realize existed before John entered. His expressions are freer, more expressive – when he’s frustrated, he’s really frustrated; when he’s playful, he’s really playful. When he tries to wrack his mind palace for answers towards the end, you can see his face just contort in pain and desperation. Not that Sherlock’s gone and turned into a jester or an emo, but look at how fully he inhabits his body now compared to when he was languishing on the couch in wait of a mystery to save him … It’s like he wants to catch up on all he’s missed – not just in the last two years, but in the previous thirty-something.
Sherlock really has grown, and I think it says so much that the one person he can’t show it to is John.
That’s not entirely his fault – John doesn’t give him the chance to prove himself after the first re-encounter, and the next instance was hardly the best time for a heartfelt talk. Sherlock saving him deserves a bit of begrudging thanks, of course, but John’s still wary, more willing to fall back into the rhythm of the Game than of John and Sherlock. It’s only the ticking train bomb at the end of the episode that finally provides the needed push for them to let it all out. No more joking now, no more pretending. Their spat is a vicious one, battered by deeper currents than the specter of imminent death: John blames Sherlock for a helluva lot more than not calling the police (why do you never call the police? translates: why do you always do this to me?), and Sherlock is angry-hurt-afraid that this worst scenario of his is playing out, this world where John refuses to accept how seriously Sherlock means his sorry, even though he means it more than he ever has anything in his life.
In the end Sherlock’s Return to London plays out the only way, I think, it could’ve: Sherlock on his knees, begging a distraught John for forgiveness, like it’s the last chance for real this time. And if you really listen, Sherlock’s apology is revelatory of the direction his guilt wanders:
“If I hadn’t come back you wouldn’t be standing there…you’d still have a future …with Mary -”
Sherlock loves playing the over-dramatic, but I think he revealed too much of his hand this time. You see, in his exile, Sherlock probably thought up plenty of scenarios for John in a Life Without Sherlock. Some of these were terribly insipid and colorless and boring of course, Sherlock’s ego couldn’t imagine otherwise; but in others, John wouldn’t feel compelled to shackle himself to a life that strapped him to bombs, or pinned him in front of crossbows, or flushed him into the path of a sniper’s scope. John would be safe. John would have a perfectly ordinary life. And incredibly, because of John, Sherlock’s not so inclined to dismiss those as worse than death anymore.
If Sherlock hadn’t returned, John might’ve indeed found a better life without him.
And yet he returned.
1) A small part of Sherlock thinks taking John back was selfish.
2) Sherlock feels guilty for it. Now this is new. Because worrying about someone in danger isn’t an unfamiliar sensation anymore to Sherlock, but feeling guilt about being the one to place them there? That’s inner conflict. That’s room for character growth. That’s a route I can actually see this season going if it’s a dark one, because in his exultant love for the Game has Sherlock ever really, truly thought about all its consequences? Has the Game ever ratcheted its demands so far as to force him to choose between this life, and the other?
We know how deeply Sherlock cares about John, but does he care enough to let him go?
Of course, we can’t have the series becoming too emotional, so the show undercuts the pouring-his-heart-out scene with a “TADA! It was a prank all along!”, because Sherlock is a lovable troll and Sherlock always wins somehow in the end, including things like John’s forgiveness. It’s almost a relief, because now we can get back to the way things were again without the awkward. But I think the ending gets the point across: every word each of them confessed to the other was true. Sherlock used up his magic trick with John at Reichenbach Falls; now they both know each others secrets.
In the end they return to the same place; it’s just themselves who’ve changed.
- Judging by interviews I have a darker take than Gatiss and co, who have already said this series will be ‘funnier’ than before. I love my camp and I’ve already rambled my feelings above about how lighthearted doesn’t necessarily mean trivial, but I also worry that going for laughs while trying to keep that emotional core will make this series very, very busy indeed. That was probably my main rec for the episode – there were so many things going on here with all veering in tone that it was very difficult for one thread to stand out and hold everything together. The Empty Hearse club, three separate fake-out explanations, Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes, London trains, Sherlock reversing the tables on Mycroft, John and Mary, the sequence where Mary and Molly showed they couldn’t make up for the real thing, Sherlock’s parents, John Getting Kidnapped, Sheriarty, TWO Sherlolly kisses, Anderson’s hysterical breakdown, the incredible amount of those flashy fast-forward shots that are this show’s trademark. I know that this is probably setting up several plots for the next episode, but I really think this premiere would’ve worked better if it stripped down some of the frill and allowed more space for the characters to breathe. Let us get to know them again. With Sherlock engaged in such a whirlwind of activity, his character almost seems too stretched between all the people he has to reclaim again. It’s too deft. It’s as if John aside, Sherlock sweeps his life back together with such ease that it almost feels triumphant, when he’s a character who already “wins” so much that a lot of his tragedy comes from the way he pays a price for his victory – in wrapping all his worth in the game, in hurting people he didn’t need to, in rejecting opportunities for something more even when they’re thrust in front of him over and over again. Now, troll or not, Sherlock actually seems to know what he’s doing on a human level – especially with John back on his side – which makes me wonder where he can go from here. I’d be terribly disappointed if he ends up a clever parlor trick, the genius detective that refuses to be housebroken rather than a man who spent two years on the run, and another thirty-something on a different kind of one. As a fan for example I welcomed the chance to see his parents, but I can’t help but feel that this episode would’ve been better served keeping them as a nugget to explore later. Just to watch Sherlock, just Sherlock, in quiet a little bit.
- There’s Something About Mary. She knows about skip codes, she was the one sent the text – something else is going on here. I’d be very curious to see how they met.
- Couldn’t Sherlock have called and have them simply arrest North Korea guy earlier? He didn’t necessarily have to carry the trigger, but they might’ve gotten intel on who did. This entire plot was a bit thin given the stakes Mycroft kept impressing to us viewers (apparently Sherlock is now James Bond).
- Molly’s new boyfriend looks like a bit taller, I approve, but he’s probably a serial killer.
About ajjwritesYou think you've got the whole world figured out, haven't you? I haven't. I'm ready to be surprised.
Posted on January 13, 2014, in Facebook, Festivals, Funny, Inspirational, love, Motivationa, Movies, Politics, Social networking, Sports, TV Shows, Uncategorized and tagged 221, A Scandal in Bohemia, abbington, adventure, adventures, amanda, anderson, awkward, b, baker, BBC, be, benedict, blogging, brealey, cardiff, comedy, confidante, Confidence, consulting, crime, criminal, cumberbatch, dead, detective, donovan, dont, drama, empty, england, evil, facebook, freeman, gatiss, genius, good, gregson, hearse, Holmes, hooper, hudson, james, jeremy, jim, John, just, lestrade, london, louise, love, lovering, many happy returns, mark, martin, mary, miracle, molly, more, moriarty, morstan, mrs, mycroft, of, one, romance, sally, Sherlock, sleuth, street, stubbs, the, The Red-Headed League, Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, twitter, una, Watson. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.