Last night the new season of Sherlock finally made it to America in an episode that was written with fans' freak outs in mind. "The Empty Hearse," which witnessed the return of Sherlock Holmes to the world of the living, was an exercise in fan service, but that's not entirely a bad thing.
Mark Gatiss' script (Gatiss also plays Mycroft) allowed for numerous meta readings. Mrs. Hudson's anger at John's lack of communication in the time Sherlock has been gone could be read as fans' frustration that it took two years to get a new series. Even the title of the episode, "The Empty Hearse," while being a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle's The Empty House, was, in the context of the show, actually the name of the fan group analyzing theories of Sherlock's death.
The episode's fan appeal was a ballsy move on the part of Gatiss and Steven Moffat. While the die-hards will always love the show, more quizzical fans could see all the inside jokes as a sign that Sherlock's crawled up its own ass. But in a way, that self-importance, with perhaps a lack of self awareness, is perfectly Sherlockian. Sherlock, our favorite high functioning sociopath, decides to turn his return into a French farce, not realizing that, no, John wouldn't be necessarily happy that he was kept in the dark about the fact that his best friend wasn't actually dead.
Re-watching the first episode after having seen the full series, though, you realize there's a lot more going on than inside jokes. But! The inside jokes are still very fun. Let's read into them.
The Reichenbach Theories
The episode doesn't come right out and say how Sherlock survived his fall. Instead the show essentially recreates the Internet chatter by presenting three different theories, varying in levels of ridiculousness, one of which, the one told by Sherlock to his former-enemy-now-fan Anderson, is maybe actually the truth. The theories:
1. Anderson's theory told to Detective Inspector Lestrade as the show opens: Moriarty's body was thrown off the roof instead of Sherlock's, but was disguised as Sherlock's thanks to some stellar prosthetics. Sherlock survives via bungee chord. Derren Brown hypnotizes John.
2. Theory posited by goth fan girl: Sherlock is on the whole survival thing with Moriarty. They throw a fake body off the roof and then go in for a kiss.
3. The videotaped theory presented to Anderson by Sherlock: Sherlock, with help from Mycroft and his homeless network, falls onto an inflatable air bag. Molly provided a body, allowing enough time for Sherlock to switch places with the corpse, and put a squash ball underneath his armpit to cut off his pulse. "Bit disappointed," Anderson says, after the reveal. "Everyone's a critic," Sherlock responds. It's an admission by Gatiss that nothing will live up to what fans have envisioned. Is it the truth? Who knows.
References to the show's lively fan fiction culture peppered the episode. For one, in the first hypothetical Sherlock survival theory, Sherlock survives via bungee chord, bursts through a window, and then makes out with lovestruck pathologist Molly Hooper. The Sherlolly ship has a robust life on the Internet. There's even an entire website dedicated to the fandom. The episode continues to entertain a Sherlock-Molly fantasy, as Sherlock enlists Molly to help him out in place of John. Molly, of course, we learn is otherwise engaged, but this GIF lives on.
Sherlock slashfic—fan fiction featuring gay sex—is so prominent that it has a thriving life even in China. The show is keenly aware of this. Not only did the episode feature the obvious references to everyone's suspicions about Sherlock and John's relationship—"Listen to me, I am not gay," John declares to Mrs. Hudson, who assumes that he's getting married to a man—it also gave audiences some Sherlock-Moriarty love. The imagined Sherlock-Moriarty kiss, also had a special impact since it came from the mind of a member of Sherlock's fan club. Essentially, the moment was an TV manifestation of an Internet trope.
Martin's middle finger
Freeman's habit of flipping the bird is well known.
Aside from being British TV shows featuring weird yet somehow attractive male leads, Doctor Who and Sherlock share a bond in that Sherlock creator Steven Moffat is the showrunner on Doctor Who. Hence, Wholock is the fan manifestation of that crossover. And it got some life in the episode, when Sherlock enemy-turned-obsessive, Anderson, clearly thought the Doctor's ship the TARDIS might be somehow involved in Sherlock's survival.
ANDERSON THOUGHT SHERLOCK FAKED HIS DEATH WITH A TARDIS pic.twitter.com/pS2saPTmKW— stayin alive (@amandaabbington) January 2, 2014
All in the family
As we mentioned in our preview, Mary was played by Amanda Abbington, Martin Freeman's real-life partner, and Sherlock's parents were played by Cumberbatch's real-life folks. Speaking of Mary, what exactly is up with her anyway? After the episode aired in England people picked up that when Sherlock reads her he reads "liar" and "clever." (GIF via Hypable.)
Conan Doyle connections
The Holmes buff—whose love for the character goes beyond Cumberbatch fan fic—will notice references to The Adventures of the Empty House, the Conan Doyle story in which Sherlock is brought back from the dead. Metro has a breakdown of all the references to the Holmes canon. But perhaps what's most interesting is what's not similar. As opposed to in the book, John does not faint upon seeing Sherlock. In fact, he attacks Sherlock three times. The episode, however, did feature some nods to the canon. For instance, in the show, John thinks an elderly patient is Sherlock in disguise. It is not, but in the book Sherlock does come to him in the guise of an old man with "books about tree worship, British birds and the Holy War." The quirky dude that John encounters in the show has "DVDs about tree worship and the Holy War and a ‘British birds’ porn mag."
Elements of the show simply seemed tailor-made to excite fans. There's running gag about John's mustache, for one, which results in the line "I don’t shave for Sherlock Holme." That, yes, is already on a t-shirt. John's Mary makes fun of John's blog. Sherlock puts back on his coat again for the first time since his "death" with flair. Then, when explaining to Anderson how he survived he declares: "I've got lots of coats." Sherlock and Mycroft work on their brotherly issues over a game of Operation, in a scene that is partially about comic relief, and partially about delving into the psyches of these strange brothers.