It's been two years since The Reichenbach Fall, but Sherlock has finally returned with a suitably witty and emotional first episode.
Sherlock (the character) has always swaggered about, confident in his own abilities and with a trademark, if often unintentional, biting wit. They are qualities that Sherlock the show has exhibited from its first episode; even A Study in Pink had an inbuilt confidence in its concept and execution thanks to Paul McGuigan's direction. The Empty Hearse was the most self-assured episode to date with Mark Gatiss' script revelling the impact of Sherlock's return and those around him, uniting them all into the big reveal one at a time.
In terms of the wider plot, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) has almost singlehandedly dismantled Moriarty's criminal network whilst being 'dead' only to find himself faced with his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) in a jail cell. It turns out that there is a terror cell planning an imminent attack on London and Sherlock is required to help foil it. Returning to London, Sherlock is surprised to discover that not only has John Watson (Martin Freeman) moved on, but he is about to get engaged and has, shock horror, moved out of 221B. They are soon forced back together in the name of Mycroft's case, a seasonal plot to blow up Parliament, and the gang are once again reunited.
That confidence that I mentioned earlier permeated every aspect of The Empty Hearse, a fine return for everyone involved. Mark Gatiss' script was one of the wittiest yet, granted Cumberbatch and Freeman some truly brilliant lines. The editing was also nothing short of spectacular, particularly in the cross-cutting for Sherlock and Watson's respective scenes with clients and patients. It gave the episode a quick pace and a knowing air that never fell into arrogance, played with enough humour to keep it light whilst also allowing the more emotional moments to rise to the surface.
The restaurant scene was so beautifully played from the very beginning, not only allowing Benedict Cumberbatch to wheel out his comedy French accent, previously utilised to great effect in the radio series Cabin Pressure (and thus my customary plug for that show is worked in), but also for Martin Freeman to follow up that graveside speech with some of the best reactionary acting in the business. The balance between the comedy and the drama of the situation was perfectly pitched, allowing for the emotional resonance of John's reaction to hit the spot whilst the violent reactions, the changing locations and moustache-related running jokes to re-establish their relationship and the chemistry between the two actors.
It wasn't all about Watson though as Sherlock goes round, alerting his colleagues to his return. A particular favourite was his reunion with Lestrade which featured the best reaction, second only to Watson's. Rupert Graves is one of the unsung heroes of this series, absolutely sublime as the put-upon inspector who always finds himself a little sidelined. Elsewhere, Molly (Louise Brealey) as Sherlock's new sidekick allowed for some of the quieter moments of the episode as Gatiss rattled through seemingly as many textual references as he could. However, it was the expanded relationship with Mycroft that resonated most from the great visual joke of them playing Operation to the clear affection/antagonisation that they share.
These reunions also served to show how the two years on his own have taken their toll on Sherlock himself, as well as those around him. Throughout the series, he has displayed the lack of understanding when it comes to human relationships and does so here, incredulous when he discovers that John is no longer waiting for him to return. However, the fake Jack the Ripper scene has Sherlock hearing John's reactions to his comments and actions; there's a realisation here that he actually needs John by his side. Molly serves as a decent foil for a day, but that relationship isn't one based on challenging Sherlock, but adoring him (despite Molly's insistence that she has moved on). Likewise, in the final confrontation between Sherlock and John, he demonstrated his true reliance on John, but this being Sherlock, it couldn't be said in a genuine fashion, it had to be performed whilst he had the upper hand in knowing the bomb wouldn't go off.
The episode was easily the funniest it has been and acted almost as a love letter to the fans who had been kept waiting by the various delays in production. Anderson acted as the audience within the episode, the Sherlock fan with endless theories as to how he did it, pouring over angles of descent, Derren Brown and acts of derring do like flying through windows and kissing Molly. It was an affectionate nod to the endless, obsessive theorising that we've all gone through since The Reichenbach Fall (yours truly included) and, whilst it could have easily been a snarky swipe at all of us, it was clearly done with the greatest of appreciation. Fan fiction references even snuck in there with the scene with Moriarty on the roof which nodded towards the Moriarty-Sherlock shippers and allowed the brilliant Andrew Scott to return to the role, if only briefly.
Not having a definitive method of escape proved to be a masterstroke, allowing each and every member of the audience to cling on to their own personal theory or see it referenced in Anderson's group. It was probably the only way of dealing with the hype surrounding Sherlock's demise in a satisfying way and somehow, not actually knowing how he did it doesn't seem so awful, it just seems fitting for the character. If anything, the focus on Sherlock's return left the sub-plot about the terrorist attack a little underdone when compared to the rest of the episode, but The Empty Hearse was always going to be about re-establishing the central relationship, rather than having a complicated mystery to solve.
It certainly wasn't the strongest Sherlock episode in terms of driving the plot forward; the parliamentary explosion narrative seemed a little superfluous until the climactic scene in the underground train car. It served its purpose in getting John and Sherlock to be honest with each other in an extreme situation, but just felt a little underdone. The aspect I did like about it though was that it had Sherlock reaching for the most complicated answers when faced with the disappearing passenger or the underground network, only for it to be a ridiculously simple answer that he'd missed. Perhaps we might get slightly simpler mysteries in future, or at least ones whose explanations are a little more understandable.
Bringing Sherlock and Watson back after two years was always going to be a tough ask, but Gatiss managed it with aplomb, a fitting reunion for everyone and one which clearly has a huge amount of love for its audience. It's so good to have them back and with a new antagonist on the horizon too.
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