Monday, January 20, 2014

Sherlock Returns: "The Empty Hearse"

*Minor spoilers for the series ahead*

In 2010, enjoying considerable success in both Great Britain and the United States after taking over showrunning duties on Doctor Who, Stephen Moffat teamed up with actor/writer Mark Gatiss to resurrect another famous figure in British pop culture: Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Sherlock, which aired its first three installments in 2010 on BBC in Britain and as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery" in the US, brought Holmes into the 21st century, seeing him serve as a consultant with the London Metropolitan Police Service to help them solve the crimes that seem unsolvable. It's not that Sherlock-type characters had been missing from the television landscape: there were no shortage of detective shows that drew influence from Doyle's tales (CBS' CSI immediately comes to mind), and FOX's House was a spin on the sleuth as a doctor rather than detective. But simply put, there hadn't been a proper retelling of these stories in some time.

More after the jump.

It's been nearly a year and a half since the series' last episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," aired. That episode famously ended with Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) faking his own death after a fatal showdown with his nemesis Moriarty (Andrew Scott), leaving many fans to wonder how he managed to pull off such an impossible feat. Last night, the first episode of series three, "The Empty Hearse," kicked off by surveying where the characters are in the wake of Sherlock's "death." Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) is still reeling from the loss of his professional partner and friend, but is approaching proposing to his girlfriend Mary (Amanda Abbington). Sherlock, meanwhile, has been scouring the globe to eliminate the rest of Moriarty's network. He's found by his brother Mycroft (Gatiss), who informs him that he needs to return to London in order to foil a possible terrorist attack. However, Sherlock's return complicates matters with Watson and their relationship.

What's distinguished the new version of Holmes is how the series has presented him as a sociopath rather than just a brilliant detective. The Sherlock of Doyle's stories was prickly and antisocial, and the series does a great job at honoring that fact. Watson, then, is the audience surrogate, as he expresses the fascination and exasperation that one would expect in the presence of this hyper-intelligent jerk. For the series' overarching plot, this relationship has always been the key, as it spans past the self-contained mysteries of each episode.

"The Empty Hearse" is a different kind of episode from the previous six installments in its treatment of the Holmes-Watson relationship. Up until this point, the mystery has always been front-and-center in any given episode. The series, then, has always placed itself within Sherlock's mindset: the thrill comes from unravelling the twisty, knotty plot, and solving the "whodunnit?" alongside the protagonists. The interpersonal stuff - the "human" stuff - isn't nearly as interesting as the chase. However, in "The Empty Hearse" the Holmes-Watson relationship forms the core of the episode, with the terrorist plot playing out around the edges. If this comes at the expense of the mystery's intrigue - and indeed, it never does feel particularly urgent, with the resolution hardly mattering - then it does so to the benefit of some great moments that, for the first time, examine Sherlock's humanity and vulnerability. That second part is particularly important, since the show has always been enamored with its protagonist to the point of turning him into a superhero. Holmes is taken aback that Watson would be so angry to find that the friend he mourned is still alive and over two years never bothered to let him know. It makes sense that Watson would be - he had already been through so much as a vet of the Afghanistan invasion, and now to go through inner turmoil all over again for nothing would make anyone reasonably angry. And, of course, they don't completely patch everything up here, but the episode does take steps to show Sherlock willing to work to repair their broken friendship.

It's especially nice to see a bit of character development coming from this show. One of the main criticisms that Sherlock has received is that it favors style over substance, using plenty of flashy editing and ambitious cinematography to mask its lack of characterization and greater themes. This is a valid criticism, as the show can at times seem so enamored with its visual style that it feels like a lesser copycat of a Danny Boyle film, and there's certainly been a coldness to the way that it treats its characters. But "The Empty Hearse" feels like a response to those criticisms, and it handles them ably while unveiling new aspects of Holmes and Watson in ways that feel organic. It's a healthy dose of heart for a show that, like it's protagonist, has always been wrapped up in its own head.

It should be interesting to see how this new, introspective take on the character plays out over the course of series three. Though each episode is 90 minutes long, playing out more as a set of made-for-television movies than a television series, only having three episodes to work with is a limited timeframe, particularly since there will still need to be fresh, engaging mysteries to solve. However, the show is making the effort to be more than just a clever entertainment, finally examining these characters and what drives them to keep chasing shadows in the dark.

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