After a two-year hiatus, the BBC’s “Sherlock” has finally returned to answer the question that has been on everyone’s mind since January 2012: How did Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) fake his death? The show’s exceptional third series premiere, “The Empty Hearse,” takes its time answering this question. Most of the episode is spent reintroducing Sherlock’s world and exploring his renewed relationships with the people in his life.
As “The Empty Hearse” teases the viewer with possible explanations for Sherlock’s faked death, it becomes increasingly apparent that the solution is not all that important. Sherlock is eager to brag about how he accomplished the feat, but each time he tries to do so he is interrupted by Watson (Martin Freeman), who cares more about why he faked it. By the time we learn the answer to how he carried out the hoax, the explanation has little importance in light of everything else that occurs in the episode.
Cumberbatch and Freeman are in great form in “The Empty Hearse” and deliver some of their best performances on the show to date. Cumberbatch shows that he has missed his iconic role through the smile on his face during the scene in which Holmes reveals himself to Watson. As is to be expected, Watson is not too pleased to find out that Sherlock faked his death while he, Watson, has spent the last two years grieving. However, Freeman’s performance, Mark Gatiss’ great script, and Jeremy Lovering’s excellent direction do an outstanding job of avoiding soppiness. Instead, Freeman handles Watson’s anger humorously. Furthermore, the duo’s scenes together reveal that Sherlock’s time away has humanized him.
The case of the week is even less important in the scheme of the episode. Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), drags Sherlock back to London to prevent a terrorist attack on the city, making the show all the more culturally relevant. The show’s inaccurate depiction of the London Underground highlights how the case of the week receives less attention than one would expect. This lack of development does not work against the episode—the case merely serves as a tool to further character development and explore how Sherlock’s relationships with those closest to him have changed.
Mycroft receives the most attention out of any character. Through several excellently scripted scenes between him and Sherlock, we learn that Mycroft is considered to be the smart brother. The brothers’ relationship has grown less hostile, and it appears as though the show’s writers are trying to move beyond Mycroft only antagonizing Sherlock—he’s slowly taking on the role of an adviser.
Lovering does a spectacular job of reacquainting the viewer with Sherlock Holmes’ world after a two-year absence. One of the episode’s strongest scenes just so happens to contain no dialogue and simply pans around Sherlock as he stands atop a roof gazing at London. As he “breath[es] in” London, the viewer does so as well. Lovering’s masterful use of visuals to guide the viewer through Sherlock’s investigative process, which is itself highly visual, makes for an episode that is not only emotionally but also aesthetically compelling.
Amazing cinematography coupled with strong character development makes “The Empty Hearse” the show’s strongest series premiere to date.
The final two espisodes of the third series of “Sherlock” air at 10 p.m. on Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 on PBS.