Analyzing the reunion of John and Sherlock, their relationship, Sherlock’s characterization and the role of Mary in the episode.
It’s not Personal, just Business.
I have never agreed with the saying “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. Being able to give and receive criticism objectively is an important skill to develop for people in all walks of life. Unfortunately some readers have taken my criticisms of last night’s episode to be a personal attack on their favourite TV character. Last night’s episode had some serious flaws, and whilst it might have pandered perfectly to a certain crowd it does not mean it lived up to the standards we have been expecting and deserve. Sherlock started out, maintained and marketed itself as an intellectually challenging show. The plot twists were exquisite, the crime solving original and extraordinary. The Sherlock and John relationship was a wonderful complimentary angle but it was not the whole show. Last night’s episode threw all of that in the bin and was instead assembled from a checklist of fan wishes, almost as if Gatiss has simply taken all his inspiration from his fan mail.
The show had positives but the negatives cannot just be ignored, particularly as they managed to derail the positives.
The Empty Hearse turned into The Empty Plot but far more than that it also turned the characters into something less than what they had been.
My Kingdom for a Plot
Why are plots important? Well, some people could write a whole book about that topic but I will stick to: because that’s what makes a random sequence of words into a meaningful story.
Now there are some genres of writing that do not rely very strongly on a complex, intricate plot to keep its audience (for example literary porn). However detective stories are definitely not in the same category as literary porn. Plots make or break detective stories and despite what has been going on in the Sherlock fan-community, the last time I checked Sherlock was still a detective story.
So what happens when your detective story has an empty plot? Well it loses all sense of structure and identity. Without structure it is very hard for the reader (or viewer) to emotionally engage and invest in what is happening. If they are not emotionally engaged how can the writer create and then resolve tension?
The problem with the Empty Hearse is that it had a horrifically weak plot which simply could not carry the show. Instead short-lived tension was created via a series of high-adrenaline scenes with imperilment of major characters (which in itself was self-defeating because we knew they wouldn’t die). Now the wonderful thing about the previous Sherlock episodes was that they used their length to their advantage. They could build a complex web of plot and subplot, creating a constantly mounting tension throughout the show which can be climactically resolved at the end.
However when the plot is too weak to carry the show, the time ends up being filled with consecutive yet unrelated distractions like side stories which never tie in satisfactorily with the original plot, superfluous scenes made purely for laughs. The tension in each small section never truly builds and thus when it is resolved there is never the same degree of satisfaction.
Now many people seem to think that focusing on characters makes up for having no plot but it doesn’t. In the Conan Doyle stories even though they were very short, he still managed to bring out all the nuances of each character using the plot. The plot was the fulcrum and the beating heart of the story. It enabled characters to present more than one dimension and to fulfil their development cycles.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Sherlock.
Sherlock’s “Character Development” or Lack of Thereof
I have already discussed the problem with the introductory torture scene: a classic example of style over substance. Yes the cinematography was as you’d expect from Sherlock but overall the melodrama served no purpose throughout the show. It is not mentioned again and apparently has no long last effects on Sherlock.
The problem with this episode is very much the lack of change in Sherlock’s character. Here is a man who has been travelling round the world dismantling a secret and highly dangerous crime organisation. He was tortured and from the marks on his body during the show – the session had been going on for some time. This probably wasn’t even the most traumatic of Sherlock’s experiences either.
I understand the yearning for everything to be back to normal in season 3, but it is just bad writing when the title character remains unchanged after two years of isolation, fear and pain. Sherlock is the hero of the story and the common thread that binds all three series together. However in any good story the protagonist changes the world but the world also changes the protagonist. We saw some fairly promising hints at the end of series 2 about Sherlock’s character development.
However despite the monumental shift in Sherlock’s life after his “fall”, there is no hint that his journey off screen has given him any new insight into his own behaviour or caused him to revaluate the true meaning of his relationships. He hasn't even regressed in his behaviour (he's still behaving in the same way as before just more inconsistently), or displayed any signs of psychological trauma after the torture session. Sherlock returns the same as ever but he’s just now more inconsistent with his bad behaviour which gives the whole show a slightly out of character feel.
Yes, Sherlock did treated Molly with respect during the one day they spent together but he had already made the leap towards treating Molly as a person at the end of the Reichenbach Fall, that whole day (which was frankly wasted plot-wise) was just icing on the cake. It did not add much more depth to Sherlock’s development that hadn’t already been placed by the short phrase “you do matter”. They didn’t have to drag the audience on a whole day of solving superfluous cases that had nothing to do with the main plot. There are many other touching and meaningful ways Sherlock could show his gratitude. The actual scenes we see yet again reinforces Sherlock’s self centeredness. Even though it is billed as Sherlock letting Molly be his assistant, and even though she appeared to enjoy it, in the end that day was still all about Sherlock.
I wanted to see that the two years away had some effect, negative or positive on Sherlock because he is human. It would have made him more relatable and nuanced as character instead of simply being the superman who shrugs everything off. The only true hint that Sherlock even suffered emotionally during his two years away is scene between Mycroft and Sherlock when they deduce his Icelandic Sheep Wool Hat, and yet that loneliness and the yearning for home is never truly brought to light in Sherlock’s interactions.
If you actually look at the scene between Mycroft and Sherlock - their relationship hasn’t significantly changed. We knew they had a close bond before this episode, we have just never overtly witnessed them spending time alone together in the way this scene is set up. Yes the scene where they play operation gives us more insight into their relationship but it is the same relationship they had before. We have nothing to compare this operation scene with – because the only scenes where Sherlock and Mycroft are alone have been previous tinge with tragedy.
The character “improvements” we see in this episodes are merely echoes of what had happened already in the TRF. The best I can say is that the episode elaborated on the concepts in a very unsubtle manner.
Sherlock understands he hurt John but he knew that before he even took the jump. He apologises and allows John to violently assault him, which can be construed as guilt but beyond being a punching bag, Sherlock never acts on his guilt. He doesn’t attempt to make reparations, and he never intended to – instead he arrogantly suggests in the opening scenes that John doesn’t have a life without him. Sherlock expects to come back into John’s life and carry on as normal and when he discovers his friend has moved on – he doesn’t care about simply imposing himself.
Some fans find it endearing that Sherlock just assumes everything will be the same on his return as if it was born out of naivety because Sherlock doesn’t “understand” human emotions. I have tried to explain time and time again that Sherlock understands human nature and its motivators perfectly well or how else is he able to solve crimes?
Sherlock’s actions are born out of selfishness and arrogance. He doesn’t believe that John wouldn’t simply “get back with him”. He happily ruins John’s engagement dinner because he doesn’t want to wait for a more convenient time for John. Sherlock has been away for two years – he could wait a few more hours but he doesn’t want to. Some people find the eagerness charming but frankly it simply demonstrates a blatant lack of consideration for John. This wasn’t some simply dinner, that restaurant in Marylebone was exclusive and expensive. Sherlock knew it was a very special evening when he first heard that address and he wanted to impose himself.
Is there a degree of sexual jealous? Absolutely not – I do not see any sexual attraction between John and Sherlock, just pure possessiveness on Sherlock’s part.
Sherlock is perpetually stuck in the moral development phase of early childhood (Explaining Sherlock’s Sherlockness). He is still at the stage of objectifying people. This does not mean that he doesn’t love people and it incapable of feeling. He merely has yet to put aside his own selfish tendencies for the emotional needs of others in a consistent manner.
He can do it sometimes (re: Molly) but a lot of the time he simply doesn’t because that would be inconvenient.
SideNotes on Mary
Frankly I’m not sure why Mary was even in this episode as much as she was. A cameo appearance would have been good enough to set up for the wedding in the next episode. Did she really do anything significant besides alerting Sherlock to the fact that John was in danger and being a fan girl? Couldn’t the kidnappers have text Sherlock if getting him to rescue John was the whole point?
Even if she had played an instrumental part in getting John and Sherlock back together (which she didn’t), that would have taken away from the emotional reconciliation and not added to it. It wouldn’t be same if John finally agreed to see Sherlock again because his fiancé told him to.
Some fans have pointed out that Sherlock being nice to Mary is a sign of his “development”. Firstly Sherlock isn’t nice to Mary – he merely refrains from abusing her the way he abuses John or Molly or even Mrs Hudson. Secondly it was quite clear from the get go that Mary was almost as much in love with Sherlock as she was with John. Sherlock enjoys admiration when it is convenient and with Mary it was very convenient given her promise to talk John around. John’s previous girlfriends had been superfluous to Sherlock’s needs but he knew that Mary could be useful.
Forced Expressions of Love
Now we get onto his terrible behaviour on the District Line Train when he allowed John to believe they would die for far longer than was necessary. Sherlock enjoyed watching John struggle with his emotions and the traumatic memories of past near-death experiences. John is man who has some very disturbing experiences in his past as a soldier and a doctor. Even the experiences we have seen are enough to emotional cripple ordinary people but even as an extraordinary person, John is still affected by them.
The entire exchange between Sherlock and John was cruel and exploitative. Sherlock has not progressed from using John, in fact in many ways he has regressed. At least in the Hounds of Baskerville, Sherlock was “kind” enough to explain that using John as a lab rat had some purpose to solving the mystery. In the Empty Hearse – Sherlock’s crude manipulation was simply to satisfy his own emotion desire to actually hear John say that he was forgiven. It wasn’t good enough for Sherlock just to be content to know that John is back with him – he has to force the man into saying it out loud by making him think he was going to die. That is truly selfish behaviour.
Some fans might have found it touching that John finally spills his emotions all over the train in one final moment of desperation but there is nothing touching about being forced to voice your feelings. The forced nature of John’s forgiveness detracts away from the meaningfulness of the act. Yes, it shows that John is reluctant to voice his feelings but we knew that after the first 10 minutes of ASiP. Forcing John to say “I forgive you” completely ruins any true emotional reconciliation between the two characters. The entire forgiveness scene would have played out much better if the writers had allowed John express his feelings in his own time.
Disturbingly the scene remained me far too much of emotional abusive relationships I have had the displeasure of witnessing.
Even if emotionally torturing your best friend was social acceptable, the actual scene has no real tension. Sherlock and John have been to the brink of death before – we know they are not going to die. The suspense in ASiB wasn’t whether John would die; it was how Sherlock was going to get them out of there unharmed.
The gunpowder plots whilst overblown and melodramatic had a great deal of potential to create some real tension. Getting to the bottom of the plot could have been an amazing way for Sherlock to demonstrate a whole new level of deduction and perhaps a few SIS skills. We could have seen Mycroft and Anthea “in action”. Instead we get fed a jumbled story line filled with distractions that add nothing to the empty plot.
Three Become One
The main body of responses I got from the first part of Empty Hearse post-mortem can eb split into two groups
a) “It’s the first episode so there doesn’t need to be a plot”
b) “The shows is all about Sherlock and John so the first episode should be devoted entirely to their relationship”
Seriously? Have I been watching a completely different show for the past four years?
I fell in love with Sherlock because it was a clever witty show filled with intricate plots and intriguing mysteries. The characters were nuanced: they changed and grew with the story. Each episode was its own mystery but they had an overarching theme tied together with a melodramatic but well portrayed villain.
When there are only three episodes per season and each episode is the length of a feature film having such a weak plot would disappoint even viewers who had no previous experiences to compare it to. Yes fan-girls have been left with brain damage after seeing all the scenes they wanted come to life – but was pandering to fan demands really the point of Sherlock?
I do not think that Holmes and Watson’s relationship is any less important in Conan Doyle’s books than in Sherlock. Conan Doyle was just more subtle in his writing and constrained by Victorian standards of behaviour. Sherlock on the other hand pretty much killed subtly with this last episode and spent more than half the time focused only on John and Sherlock’s relationship which frankly ended up in a very nasty exploitative place. Holmes never purposely emotional manipulated Watson for his sole gratification. There was always a higher aim when he had to keep Watson purposefully in the dark.
Will the next episode have more plot in? I hope so, but does it matter? If this was the first in a fourteen or twenty episode series than I wouldn’t mind too much but the Empty Hearse is one of three. So even if the next episode manages to live up to the previous series, we have still been cheated out of a decent plot.