You can't please everyone all of the time.
I don't suppose it's too much of a surprise that there's been something of a backlash by some of the more devoted Sherlock fans. After two years waiting to find out how Sherlock faked his own death, some viewers were disappointed to not get a definitive answer. Perhaps we will, in time, but until then, the elaborate yet plausible scheme Sherlock describes to beardy Anderson seems the most likely. Those who are desperate for a definitive answer missing the point. It's the speculation that's fun. Starting the episode with an absurd but justabout believable sequence that had us going “Oh, yes, see, I thought so,” before being rudely shown that it was absolute rubbish, is a wonderfully cheeky bit of fun at the expense of the fans and their myriad explanations. Not to mention the shippers – Sherlock/Molly, Sherlock/Watson and Sherlock/Moriarty, they all get their moment. Plus, a Derren Brown cameo. It's such fun.
Still, that's all window dressing. What I've been waiting for is the first scene between Sherlock and John. As well as being quite hilarious, with Sherlock donning his least convincing disguise in all of the many, many adaptations, it's quite beautifully played by all concerned, most particularly Martin Freeman. He truly is one of our great actors, and the series is damned lucky to have him play Watson, and play him so perfectly. The scenes in which Sherlock is reunited with Mycroft, Lestrade, Molly and Mrs Hudson are all brilliantly done, each reacting differently and perfectly in character, but nothing tops that moment when John finally recognises Sherlock.
There are, of course, numerous references to the canon, from the Sherlock fanclub Empty Hearse itself, the name a cheeky nod to the original grand return story, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” to numerous asides to other adventures, even a possible hint towards Doyle's non-Holmes story “The Lost Special,” in which a train goes missing on a section of disused railway. The actions of Sherlock across the world, undoing Moriarty's criminal network, is bound to provide fresh fuel for the fanfictioneers. Indeed, adventures with Baron Maupertuis and the Sherlock version of Sebastian Moran have already cropped up across the web, so it was inevitable that they would appear, even briefly, in the series itself. And, of course, there are the obligatory Doctor Who references. You can ask me if you didn't spot them.
For once, I could really believe in the fraternity between Sherlock and Mycroft, as the highly amusing game of Operation! gave way to both a 'deduction off' and a frank (for the Holmeses) discussion on companionship and loneliness. A rather wonderful scene. Add to that the very sweet cameo from Sherlock's surprisingly normal parents, played by Cumberbatch's own parents Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton, and it's a veritable family reunion.
On the other hand, there's the addition of Mary Morstan, beautifully played by Freeman's real life partner, Amanda Abbington. Naturally, there's fantastic chemistry between the two, but also between Abbington and Cumberbatch, selling the beginnings of a friendship between the two characters. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the three characters develops.
While the character moments are perfect, the humour is spot on and the setpieces are suitably tense (the chase to rescue Watson from the bonfire is terrifying in conception, if a little poorly directed), there is something missing from this episode. It lacks a strong central mystery, instead throwing varied elements into a pot and stirring them around in the hope that a strong narrative will result. Unfortunately, it doesn't, leaving this story rather less than the sum of its parts. It sets off an intriguing new storyline regarding the new villain behind the terrorist network and Watson's abduction. As an episode in itself, however, it lacks something, never reaching the heights of the previous two season openers.
Nonetheless, The Empty Hearse succeeds in reintroducing the core elements of Sherlock and whets our appetite for the events to follow (in rapid succession, the next episode airing on Sunday). Like Sherlock himself, Moffat and Gatiss are adept at manipulating us until we once more ensconced in Sherlock's world, as unable to resist as John Watson.