When Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss made the enormously ballsy move to modernize one of Britain’s most beloved cultural icons way back in 2010, they fell over themselves apologizing before the series premiere to audiences and journalists alike for their audacious transgression against tradition. Sherlock Holmes with a smartphone? Ridiculous. By the time A Study in Pink rounded off its one and a half hour duration, of course, Moffat and Gatiss were heroes, visionaries, geniuses. SHERLOCK, the BBC serial “based” on the Conan Doyle detective stories (more sly winking homage than straightforward adaptation), is arguably the biggest Sherlock Holmes phenomenon since Conan Doyle wrote the original stories, when the author was mobbed after killing off his lead character and when lines of excited fans formed round the block for new copies of the Strand magazine. What contributes to this enduring fandom 126 years after the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet? Perhaps it is how although Sherlock holds the rest of us humans in poor regard for our lack of intellectual prowess, while you’re reading the stories or watching the show, you feel invigorated by Sherlock’s intelligence, you feel somehow you’re part of the story, that when Sherlock says, “Ordinary people are idiots”, he doesn’t mean you, just the others, and you never liked them much anyway.
Nowhere was this fandom more explicit than in the breathless anticipation for the premiere of the third season of SHERLOCK, The Empty Hearse. In the previous episode, THE REICHENBACH FALL, we’d seen Sherlock in a ferocious battle of wits and wills with his arch-enemy, the “Napoleon of crime”, James Moriarty. Last we saw of Sherlock was when he forced Moriarty to shoot himself in the mouth and then jumped off himself from the top of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, blood and guts everywhere, to the shock of his bro-in-arms Dr. John Watson, only to somehow resurrect himself a few days later, still hiding from public view. As to how he did it, we were left in suspense. For two excruciating years, during which the Internet was driven to near-collapse by the sheer volume of fanfics and conspiracy theories by millions of awestruck fans.
The pressure was on Moffat and Gatiss now, more so since Gatiss himself said that if Sherlock Holmes faked his own death, it would have to be the best faked death of all time. How to satisfy the screaming, starving hordes outside their windows now? Well, elementary, my dear Watson. You let the audience decide what they want to believe. Three explanations are given for Sherlock’s Lazarus-like rebirth, from the ludicrously badass (my friends and I literally whooped at the first theory) to the patently ludicrous, even involving some of the most popular fan-generated theories into the episode. The Rashomon-like structure makes sure nobody’s disappointed. And if they are, Sherlock even says what must have been on the creators’ lips too, once they received the inevitable critical fanmail – “Everybody’s a critic.” This self-aware light mockery, the spirit of levity that pervades throughout the episode, despite the serious and often self-serious nature of the threats to London’s security that Holmes and Watson must neutralize, is what makes SHERLOCK so delightfully entertaining. This is a man who shot heroin into his veins and says he can deduce everything worth knowing about a person within five seconds of meeting them. How dare you take this character so seriously, Moffat and Gatiss seem to reproach us. Let us have some fun with him.
And yet Holmes, who used to handle rather petty, if strange, crimes involving jealous murders, mysterious codes and strange houses, in the original stories, has been elevated here to the level of an international superhero. Throughout the series, the Queen has depended more than once solely on the expertise of Holmes, and so have various premiers and leaders from around the world. When Sherlock stands on a high rooftop, Belstaff coat blowing in the wind, looking out across London, you cannot miss the similarity with Batman or Superman doing the same thing with their respective dominions. London, clearly, is Sherlock’s city.
The other big hurdle to be crossed by The Empty Hearse was how to tackle the complicated Holmes-Watson reunion. Well, frankly, Martin Freeman outdoes himself. It takes an enormously talented actor with some brilliant lines to outshine Benedict Cumberbatch in full motor-mouthed glory, but Freeman accomplishes it with rage-filled silences, choked accusations and the humanity that he brings to the show, that has always been the anchor, the rooting point of SHERLOCK. Some tense laughter and some violence later, they depart on their separate ways, Watson with his fiancée Mary Morstan, and Sherlock back to 221B Baker Street to look for a new sidekick. Of course we don’t buy it, this rift between the two. We know Watson will be back, it’s just a question of when, and it happens soon enough, in fiery circumstances. But enough about that.
The episode also introduces two new characters, one of them very briefly but ominously, the boss villain Charles Augustus Magnussen. The other is Mary Morstan. Now this is a tricky character, a possible impedance to the Holmes-Watson bromance, a much-beloved aspect of the show. If she turned out to be a Yoko Ono, heavens save her. Fortunately though, Moffat and Gatiss jump clear through this hoop when Mary tells John in the privacy of a taxicab after Sherlock makes his tempestuous re-entry into their lives, “I like him.” On the other hand, Sherlock’s affections for pathologist Molly Hooper is made quite clear, but she has apparently moved on. Or has she? Well, we’ll see about that later. Sociopaths are just her type, aren’t they?
There’s a plot here about an “underground” network of terrorists threatening a V for Vendetta style fireworks show, but it’s a MacGuffin, really. The crux of the show revolves around the theme of reunion and rebirth. Holmes and Watson, Holmes and Mycroft, Holmes and London, Holmes and Molly Hooper, Holmes and DI Greg Lestrade, Holmes and Anderson, Holmes and Mrs. Hudson. But the most important of all, Holmes and you. In the pilot episode, Mycroft told Watson, “When you walk with Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield.” We have seen the battlefield and by God, we love it. Holmes is motioning us on, to enter his world of master villains, thieves, murderers, blackmailers and racketeers, of spies and counterspies, of kings and emperors, and we’ve been waiting for two years to heed his call.