TV Review: Sherlock – Season 3 Episode 1: “The Empty Hearse”

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

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EPISODE: "The Empty Hearse"

SYNOPSIS: Two years after the devastating effects of The Reichenbach Fall, Dr John Watson has got on with his life. New horizons, romance and a comforting domestic future beckon. But, with London under threat of a huge terrorist attack, Sherlock Holmes is about to rise from the grave with all the theatricality that comes so naturally to him. It’s what his best friend wanted more than anything, but for John Watson it might well be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’! If Sherlock thinks everything will be just as he left it though, he’s in for a very big surprise.

REVIEW:  Well, here we are after an incredibly long wait to find out just how Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) faked his death at the conclusion of the second series of the BBC hit.  As the episode opens, we are treated to the explanation that all of us anticipated and theorized and I found myself disappointed at the prospect of it being so, well, predictable.  That is only to find out that we are simply hearing a theory from one of many who wish the titular detective was not dead.  And so we are back to the gloriously well written world of SHERLOCK.

Creator Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss knew they had a lot to live up to since SHERLOCK last aired.  In the time since the second series concluded, both Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have skyrocketed to fame.  Bringing them back together for the three mini-films that comprise the third series means that not a moment can be wasted in making these episodes count.  As the show wisks us on a very James Bond-like reintroduction to Holmes, it becomes evident that while the actors returning to their roles is a welcome sight, this season is going to be very different than the preceding pair.

All of the trademarks are back, including the on screen analysis of what Sherlock Holmes is deducing, references to his Mind Palace, and of course the banter between Holmes and Watson.  But, there are two things in "The Empty Hearse" that draw away from the mystery of the episode and make it very unlike what we have come to expect from SHERLOCK.  First is the needed explanatation for what happened in "The Reichenbach Fall" and how Holmes faked his death.  As Watson so blunty puts it, we actually want to know why he did it just as much as how.  The episode features several possible explanations for how the death was faked, all nodding at what the online fandom SHERLOCK has built over the years including an action-packed version, a homoerotic version, and then the simple and logical reason that turns out to be the truth.

The truth turns out to be perfectly choreographed but ultimately ordinary.  As former Scotland Yard detective Philip Anderson tells Holmes upon learning the truth, it is "somewhat disappointing" to which Holmes replies "everyone is a critic".  This perfectly surmises the impossible task SHERLOCK had after such a cliffhanger.  No one would have been satisfied with the chosen solution and this episode had the difficult task of addressing it.  Which is the second issue with the episode.  Instead of a case for Holmes and Watson, "The Empty Hearse" instead feels like it has to spend the majority of the episode addressing the cliffhanger and not nearly enough with an actual case.  There are dozens of great moments in this episode that are between Holmes and Watson as they have to basically learn to trust each other all over again.

We know that Holmes and Watson are the best of friends in a truly odd relationship and the new season of SHERLOCK seems intent to put a little humanity into Holmes.  He is still the brilliant sociopath he always has been, but there is more emotion in him now than we have ever seen.  Throwing Watson's fiancee Mary into the mix is, unlike in the Robert Downey Jr films, not a wrench but a welcome third wheel that provides the impetus for these boys to become men.  Holmes has never had a friend like Watson in his life and now as he sees his compatriot slipping away it forces him to reflect on himself.

But therein lies the second problem with this episode.  When the central mystery involving stolen train cars and a possible terrorist attack in London results in Watson being kidnapped, the result is a thrilling race to save him but there is no real explanation as to why it even happened.  With only three episodes each series, SHERLOCK needs to be tighter with the subplots.  Will this hanging thread be addressed in a future episode?  The final scene of the episode offers a glimpse of upcoming villain Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen) watching footage of the bonfire, but this almost feels tacked on rather than part of the episode.


SHERLOCK is back and as good as we have seen it.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman do not disappoint, nor do the returning supporting players.  The addition of Amanda Abbington, Martin Freeman's partner in real life, is a welcome new character.  This episode goes to prove that three stories is far too short for each season of SHERLOCK and not a moment can be wasted in each.  Without his nemesis Moriarty looming over him this round, Holmes is instead forced to reflect on the greater threat of losing what means the most to him: his best friend.


"The Sign of Three" –  Sherlock faces his biggest challenge of all – delivering a Best Man’s speech on John’s wedding day! But all isn’t quite as it seems. Mortal danger stalks the reception – and someone might not make it to the happy couple’s first dance. Sherlock must thank the bridesmaids, solve the case and stop a killer!


About the Author

5931 Articles Published

Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.