in Television

TV Review: Sherlock Returns in “The Empty Hearse”

Fans of Sherlock have been waiting for two very long years for the third season to come out. To give some perspective on this, in two years’ time (the last episode aired Jan 15, 2012), a pope resigned, the U.S. government shut down, and an elementary subatomic particle of the universe (Higgs Boson) was discovered. Yes, that’s how long we’ve been waiting.

Spoiler Alert: Sherlock is, indeed, alive.

In the last episode of the second season, “The Reichenbach Falls,” audiences were left with the image of Sherlock plunging to his death from St. Bart’s hospital, after he seemingly has no other choice. We are left with the image of a bereaved John Watson gazing at Sherlock’s tombstone, praying that he isn’t’t dead. In the last moment, as the camera pans away, we realize that Sherlock is still alive, listening to the whole speech from behind some trees.

So maybe it wasn’t as terrible of a cliffhanger as it could have been. After all, the writers of the show could have easily had John staring at the tombstone, and an ambiguous profile in the background, making it even more mysterious as to whether or not Sherlock was actually dead.

Sherlock has developed a track record of getting things done on their own time. With the first series being released in 2010, fans were forced to wait for two years until the second series, and keeping with that, another two years before the third one. Talk about a very long engagement.

Luckily, I jumped on the boat quite late (in time for the second season to be released), so I guess my wait time has not been as colossal as some other fans I know. After all, four years, from start til now, is a very long time.

Despite that, loyal fans will not be disappointed in the third season. “The Empty Hearse”, the first episode of the third season, proves that even after all this time, the actors and writers of the show still know what it takes to bring back the original spirit of Sherlock that fans adore.

Starting with the actors themselves, slipping into all of their respective roles seemed effortless, and it was a joy to see that the essential characters they were playing had not been altered. Since 2010, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch’s careers have skyrocketed; they are both now international stars, with a very respectable number of huge franchise films tucked under their belts (The Hobbit, Star Trek, etc). Yet, coming back to doing a relatively “small” show, neither of the actors brought ego to their characters. Despite all of their successes, I never once felt like they were doing a disservice to the characters of Sherlock and John by introducing new traits, or new personalities. Perhaps it was because my first exposure to them was through Sherlock, it was nice for me to see that essentially, they were still Sherlock and John, not Benedict playing Sherlock, and Martin playing John.

As such, because the actors themselves have lived with these characters for so many years, I thought that the director really didn’t serve a huge role in this episode. It has been said that TV is the writer’s medium, and for this show in particular, I find that statement correct. Without Mark Gatiss, the show would not even exist, and would definitely not be the same. No other Sherlock adaptation has provided such a unique spin on the character of Holmes.

The one problem I had with the episode was the blurring of mass culture with the original product, or rather, through Stuart Hall’s school of thought, taking the decoded fan version of the show and re-encoding as canon of the actual show. What I mean by this is that prior to the rise of mass culture and the “spectacle” of modern pop culture, auteurs had full control over what their characters did. My one big issue with the new series and, what I suppose, will prevail throughout the rest of the series and into the next ones, is the infiltration of fan culture into the show.

This is obvious in many respects; (SPOILER ALERT) from the almost-kiss between Moriarty and Sherlock, to the cute “boyfriend” quip from Mrs. Hudson, the previously hinted at  subtext has now left the realm of subtext and become show canon. My problem does not lie in the subtext at all; in fact, many adaptations of Sherlock feature this subtext, both in movie and in TV form, and I believe that if you look hard into the original canon literature, it is possible to decode it as such.

My problem here lies in the idea that the writers of the show are actively interacting with fans and specifically catering the show to match fan expectations, and thus deviating from what would otherwise be serving the canon and characters of the show. Essentially, it feels like what Henry Jenkins would call “textual poaching” has influenced the writers of the show for the sake of drawing in more viewers of the fan culture of the show, en masse.

In a way it isn’t unexpected, because in the postmodernist era, there exists a blurred line between the work (the object before it is consumed by culture) and the text (interpretation by spectators). Whereas culture was once dictated by the hegemonic “power bloc”, it has since petered out into the society of the spectacle, as DeBord would refer to it. And while I can see the reasoning behind catering to audiences (read: the Fisk-ian “culture economy”), it bothers me that the show has been purposefully commoditized in a way that may, or may not, have been true to what the writers were trying to accomplish, if they were not in contact with the fans.

While I can admire the tactic of gratifying a large majority of their audiences by giving them exactly what they want, it leaves me feeling strange that the distinction between the original texts of a work is so being influenced by the fan culture surrounding it. Perhaps the unveiling subtext-to-text was what the authors had planned all along, but for that, no one will ever know, due to the very friendly rapport that the writers and fans have formed.

Nevertheless, I thought that the writers did a great job of resurrecting (literally) the character of Sherlock in a way that did do service to the original character that they had in mind. He was just as witty, sarcastic, and socially awkward as he was in the previous two series. In addition, John Watson was as acerbic and biting as ever, keeping perfect pace with Sherlock.

What I particularly enjoyed about this episode were the interpersonal interactions between each of the characters and their various reactions to Sherlock being ‘not dead’. The episode itself felt like it was less about the adventure rather than setting up an exposition for future episodes, and a lot of it had as much to do with Sherlock reconnecting to London as it did with characters from the show reconnecting to Sherlock. I particularly loved Greg “Graham” Lestrade’s sentiment, and Anderson’s surprising sense of guilt and responsibility he felt about Sherlock’s death. To me, the character reactions were what I was primarily looking forward to in the upcoming season, and the writers delivered on that front.

I’m excited to see what adventures are next in the rest of the series, and in seasons four and five, now that they have been officially announced. Now we can only hope that those will come around before the next millennia!