Sherlock: Why The Empty Hearse Was A Disappointing Episode

And we still don’t know why Holmes pretended to be dead.

Alexander Sigsworth


Screencap from BBC iPlayer.

After a two year absence, Sherlock was back. And in that time, it had built something of an Internet following; fanfics were written about the two leads, theories were created as to how the title character cheated death at the conclusion of The Reichenbach Fall, and the return of the show was hyped-up to phenomenal proportions (such is the effect of only producing an average of one and half episodes per year). But, when it did return, it would seem the writers had become over-confident, and now wanted to make the show for the fans, not the audience. The result was disappointment from those who don’t engage in Internet fanaticism. Allow me to explain…

The episode is titled The Empty Hearse, following a tradition of adapting original Holmes stories with a twist, eg: The Hounds Of Baskerville from The Hound Of The Baskervilles, A Scandal In Belgravia from A Scandal In Bohemia and A Study In Pink from A Study In Scarlet.

And in this instance, The Empty Hearse is a fanclub of deerstalker-wearing gothic teenagers who spend their only appearance speculating that Holmes pretended to be dead so he could pursue his one true passion of Jim Moriarty, yet claim to “take it seriously”. Now, this is all very well, except writer Mark Gatiss decided it would be a good idea to actually show this happening, meaning that we (almost) see Holmes and Moriarty getting a bit more intimate in their relationship. Thank goodness for that almost.

It may have been thrown in there for comedic purposes, yet to someone who actually does take the show seriously, rather than only saying he does, it’s all very… unnecessary. And that’s because it’s only one of many versions of The Reichenbach Fall that are shown in this episode.

The first happens at the beginning, involving a bungee rope, a latex mask and Moriarty’s corpse. This is then revealed to just be in Anderson’s head. Which is fine, quite honestly. It was an effective way of opening the season and establishing the current state of affairs. But rather than eventually revealing how Holmes actually did escape death, the show decides it’s going to milk the anticipation behind the revelation by creating several versions of it, and embedding them into the eighty-five minute narrative. Which would normally be a very cool idea: show lots of plausible ways it could have been done, like many great crime dramas do.

Instead, for some reason, it decides that it’s only going to show the versions online fans want to see – hence we have “Sheriarty” (a combination of Sherlock and Moriarty for people who don’t spend all their time online writing fantasies about this sort of thing) actually being featured in the show. That’s the second. The third was called “Lazarus”, and was worked-out thoroughly. This was presented in a style that made it seem as if you were finally being told this time: a flashback during a tense mid-episode cliffhanger that saw Holmes unable to disarm a bomb. We cut to him telling the truth to Anderson on tape – very serious, and covers every possible question the audience may have.

Except it didn’t, and Anderson realises that what we were just told isn’t what happened and that Holmes had duped him. And in doing so, had deceived us. Again. Unless that is how it was done, but the writers decided it would be clever or funny to make us question the first explanation we’re given that isn’t ridiculous or a fanservice. Not that Holmes being unable to disarm to bomb had any tension anyway – it’s not as if we didn’t know they’d survive. (Even if the solution was an off-switch – I mean come on! Do bombs even have an off-switch?) The only reason it seemed to be so “threat-y” was to make the flashback more effective, which was pointless anyway considering it wasn’t even definitely true. As if the reset button technique was bad enough, it turns-out Holmes had already used it and was just playing a nasty trick on Watson. One of the things I’ve noticed with Holmes’ characterisation in this episode is that spending two years in the wilderness seems to have made him into an even bigger jerk than usual – from the way he treats his parents to the way he steals possessions in a restaurant (even if nobody notices for some reason).


Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s difficult to write for an audience, while keeping the fans happy… except it’s not. Many writers struggle to draw the line between a story and fanservice (something that should always be avoided), as most of them simply don’t realise they can quite easily please everyone by simply making an episode as good as it can be. Not by making fanon a part of the canon, which is what happened in this episode. I can’t help but think it was therefore written in-part, by fans online. If anything, the result that is The Empty Hearse proves why fans shouldn’t be involved in the writing process, which they appear to be in this case, especially as part of that fanon includes most characters believing that Holmes and Watson are genuinely an item – even Mary Morstan, Watson’s girlfriend, believes it and even jokes about it. Let me put that another way – Mary Morstan jokes about her boyfriend being gay. And cue the joke about putting “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes” on a t-shirt.

Not only is the show referencing its fans – it’s addressing them, giving them instructions which they know will be followed. This is a further example of writers communicating with “Sherlockians”: create a fictional fan group that believe the kind of thing some real fans do (albeit it a tiny amount), and then create a slogan for that group. Just like that, it becomes a thing. And that’s because the writers are aware that they are influential. They can simply bang a gavel and declare something to be a truth if enough people become excited about it on Tumblr.

Which means that the show has, in a way, transcended. The script has gone from being a television episode blueprint to a language that can only be understood by native speakers – ergo, the kind of fan it wants to address. To anyone else who can’t decipher the code (as intended by the writers), it’s gibberish and they may as well not bother watching.


The effect of this is not a good one: it leaves the episode plagued with scenes created specifically not for fans, but a certain kind of fan – the ones who write episodes like The Empty Hearse every day, yet are few in number, but are being considered in the writing process nevertheless, which makes it look like a reflection of fanfiction in the show itself. Perhaps this could explain why it’s also a particularly badly-written episode in the first place – character development is practically non-existent. Holmes reveals he’s alive to most of the characters in montage, who immediately get over it and pretend he was never even gone for almost two whole years exactly. And the one character who does react in a realistic way seems to do so only because he’s more important than the rest, and is given a few emotional scenes just so he can also shrug it off without any explanation being needed.

He also seems to take nearly burning to death pretty well, in a scene that, I might add, is just terrifying, even for Sherlock. Isn’t it funny how this episode was completely without explanations for important plot points? Just how we never actually discover what Holmes told Scotland Yard that got Moran arrested. I mean, sure: we, the audience, know he’s a terrorist, as did Holmes, but as soon as his bomb’s disarmed and the police arrive, it’s as if his guilt didn’t need to be proven in any way. Unless it was in Holmes’ speech at the end, although that cuts-off to show us yet another villain who did absolutely nothing. Not to mention the amount of material taken from V For Vendetta – a film about a terrorist blowing-up Parliament using the Underground, starring Rupert Graves. Seriously, has nobody noticed this?

That’s not an episode – that’s a crossover. You can tell simply in the lack of sophistication that normally makes Sherlock such a wonderful drama – this essentially is a fanfiction, but one written by someone on the writing team, and produced as canon by the BBC. And not without typical fanfiction-esque trademarks on the way – pairing characters, inserting hidden references and parodying itself. That kind of thing does exist on the Internet, and I’m fine with that. But it should never exist in the source material.



The Empty Hearse suffers as an episode so much due to the way it’s attempting to please a specific kind of viewer that is a tiny group compared to the rest of us. It threads things in that don’t need to be there, and to most people, will just look silly. Once something looks silly that didn’t before, you can’t believe in it. And this episode disappointed me because I couldn’t believe in it like I could the rest (even The Blind Banker, which might not be highly regarded, but is still an original idea, other than the material its adapting). I feel alienated as a viewer because I feel like the writers don’t want me watching the show, since I’m not part of their new apparent target market – fangirls who “ship” characters and genuinely believe in “Johnlock”.

And this isn’t me not enjoying that sort of thing, but the most important rule of any show is that you keep fanon separate from canon. And you certainly don’t merge the two together, or you create a comedy that is only appreciated by the few, not the many. The episode was supposed to reveal why and how Holmes faked his death, which it didn’t. Instead, it just beat around the bush, not actually telling us what we’ve waited two years to find out, preferring to throw-in scenes that didn’t happen anyway just to make the Internet go “squee” and treating the proper television audience as if it doesn’t matter.

And I still don’t know why Holmes pretended to be dead.

Holmes: “I’ve disappointed you?”
Watson: “That’s good. That’s a good deduction, yeah.”
– The Great Game