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The Empty Hearse: more critical (still spoilerish) thoughts)

I’ve fangirled (when did that become a verb) with the best of them over the first two BBC Sherlock episodes. As a fan, I liked them, really liked them. They’re fun and lighthearted and approachable in so many ways, and still felt true to the characters built up over the series if not the Doyle stories. Sherlock is more pulled toward actually caring about people in a variety of ways than I can imagine the Doyle character ever being, and much more human in his own unique way. But that’s not actually unique to the new series, is it? This is a retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mythos more than an adaptation of those stories, I’ve always felt, so I’ve always been prepared to give Moffat and Gatiss a fair amount of leeway in that department.

Still, there’s something about this first episode that isn’t sitting well with me at all. In two days the BBC is about to lay the finale and inevitable cliffhanger on us, and I rather suspect that’s where peoples’ focuses will be in the upcoming weeks. Rightly so, if previous series are any judge. So before everyone’s attention gets diverted, I’d like to try to work out why something about The Empty Hearse simply refuses to sit well with me. Major spoilers for TEH, and possibly minor ones for TSOT, behind the cut.

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As far as I’m concerned, The Empty Hearse had two main jobs, besides the obvious job of being a good Sherlock episode on its own. (You know: case, deductions, resolution, etc.) Namely:

1. Tell us how Sherlock survived the fall.

2. Tell us why Sherlock got up on the roof to begin with.

And really, it didn’t do a very good job on either point. Which would have been not great but at least tolerable on its own, as Sherlock has a history of giving us two episodes that really hit it out of the ballpark and one that’s more of a dud. Usually it’s the middle episode (TBB, THOTB), but if it had to be the first one so be it.

But instead of getting a thoughtful answer, it sometimes seems like that team’s process looked more like this:

(original source unknown; let me know and I’ll credit.)

Even that would have been fun and excusable, particularly if it didn’t mean spending one-third of such an anticipated series on what was essentially fan indulgence. The real problem is, the show writers and so on (who I’ll collectively call “Moffat” from here on out, since he seems to be the “buck stops here” figure for this series) took the opportunity to make fun of serious fans, particularly those who spent much of the last two years creating fanworks and theorizing and dissecting pretty much everything about the roof scene for the last two years. That’s a lot of emotional trust placed in the show creators, and rather like Sherlock’s valuing of cigarettes when he’s just been handed a case, they just tossed that aside.

Let’s start with the first question because it’s the most straightforward question: how? Moffat’s team gives us not one but three theories of how it happened. The problem is three are put forward by what I can only describe as obsessed fans acting as obsessed fans: first, Andreson explaining to Lestrade [all links video] how the body was really Moriarty’s corpse wearing a Sherlock mask, and then when a member of Anderson’s fan club (the eponymous “Empty Hearse” club) suggests Sherlock and Moriarty faked their deaths together. Both theories are poohpooh’ed by the other people hearing them, and both also involve a rather passionate kiss (or an almost-kiss in the Moriarty case). They’re clearly played for laughs and presented as ridiculous.

The problem is, they were both seriously developed by fans, with some people convinced they were real. The second theory is pure farce, but the first isn’t so out there, given what we knew by the end of Reichenbach. Two of the very few pieces of canon we had to work with were that a body resembling Sherlock fell from a height a trained doctor assumed would kill him; and that Sherlock needed Molly’s help. Dropping a look-alike, already-dead body and having Molly pass it off as Sherlock is probably the simplest explanation I can imagine – much more plausible in its way than the third scenario, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The second scenario really is ridiculous, which is okay on its own (comic relief, you know). If the show needed it, which it didn’t because the show had no real tension. And if you didn’t use the walking, talking stereotype of a slash fanfic writer and give her a scene built around what struck me as the single most implausible slash pairing imaginable. I make it a point not to trash anyone’s OTP, and I won’t write off entirely the possibility of someone convincing me, but in terms of both emotional plausibility and simple plot logistics, this one strikes me in the same category as pairing off Frodo and Sauron. So on top of saying fans have some kuh-RAE-zy theories about just how Sherlock survived, you’re holding up the fandom at its most implausible and putting her out there as a representative of all those people not on the show trying to work out how Sherlock lives.

This is worth mentioning in the aftermath of [Caitlin] Moran-gate. You don’t take people’s passion and act like it’s a shameful thing, particularly when that passion is what makes your own success possible. Doubly so when there’s already a stigma against it in the media. Triply so when it’s So. Damn. Reductive. Because some slash writers and fans of homosexual relationships in the show may (nix that: do) go too far – but for some of us this is a serious attempt to understand the show and interact with us. And in this case, it’s not built on nothing, even if it’s not the show’s intent.

As a side note, I could say quite a bit on John’s tea with Mrs. Hudson in this episode. I won’t because I would be repeating myself, but I place it in this same category of “scenes whose only obvious purpose i to make fun of your fans.”

Finally there’s the third theory, where Sherlock apparently makes a video-recorded statement for Anderson about how he actually did survive the fall. This comes the closest to being an actual explanation, not discounted by other characters and presented as ridiculous. Still, something about it, particularly parts just after this clip, strike me as more akin to Anderson’s fantasy than anything that actually happened. I mean, who precisely could get Sherlock to sit down –and on the record, no less– with Anderson? It’s frustrating, because if Team Moffat actually wanted to tell the story, there are characters it could be told to. Lestrade. Mrs. Hudson. (Give her something to do other than berate and squeal this episode, please…) Even a few brief flashbacks when thanking Molly for her role. Or make it serious, give us a real interview and end with John watching it on the television, as proof that he still is drawn to Sherlock. Maybe pan out to the engagement party for John and Mary.

Alternately: don’t tell it. If this is really the kind of thing where Moffat didn’t want to nail down one version as the definitive version, which would have been frustrating but at least less weaselly, he had John say he wasn’t interested in hearing it. Fade to black, next scene. Frustrating as a fan, yes, but ultimately a decision I could have lived with, and one where I would have felt much less mocked.

On to question #2: why did Sherlock go up to the roof in the first place? I’ll actually be using a part of the roof-top scene with my class this semester, when we discuss Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Book III. In that passage Aristotle distinguishes between three kinds of acts: those things we choose to do freely (voluntary), those things we choose to do, which are in themselves bad but where there’s no better options (nonvoluntary), and the kind of acts where we don’t have a free choice in the matter (involuntary). As an example of the second kind of act, Aristotle discusses a ship captain caught in a storm who throws the goods he’s towing overboard so he can maneuver better in the storm. A more modern example is the moment from (I think) the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, where Elizabeth has the pirates throw all their treasure overboard as they try to outrun Barbarossa. It’s not the kind of thing anyone in their right mind would try to do, but given the choice between being caught by the Black Pearl with your treasures or escaping without them, it makes sense to try for the latter.

Similarly for Sherlock. No one is going to choose to risk his life, certainly have to disappear from your world indefinitely, when there’s another way to do it. If it’s that or seeing (and causing, in a sense) the deaths of so many people you care about, it’s a different matter entirely. I think Aristotle would agree, once Aristotle got to the roof, the decision to jump was nonvoluntary. It’s not the kind of thing any rational person would have not done, which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s okay to do. It’s like the ship throwing his goods overboard – wrong in the sense that you’d never choose it if you had another good choice, but what could you do at that point?

That’s once you get to the roof, though. A much more interesting question, and one I still want to see answered in the worst way, is: how the heck did Sherlock let himself get into that position and leave Watson holding the bag, specifically after Baskerville where he promised never to manipulate him for a case the way he did?

Doyle’s answer is perhaps the only one I’ll ever find convincing. In the short story “The Empty House,” he writes

I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.

and later in the same story,

I had only one confidant — my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret. For that reason I turned away from you this evening when you upset my books, for I was in danger at the time, and any show of surprise and emotion upon your part might have drawn attention to my identity and led to the most deplorable and irreparable results. As to Mycroft, I had to confide in him in order to obtain the money which I needed.

He goes on to say two of Moriarty’s henchmen escaped jail after the events surrounding the Doyle-canon Reichenbach fall, and he had to travel first to Tibet and then to Persia (not too far off the mark for the Christmas minisode) in order to deal with them. If they knew he was alive, they would try to kill him, and he couldn’t trust Watson to handle the information discreetly. In the BBC version, Sherlock deal with the last remnant of Moriarty’s crew just before Mycroft calls him back to London, along with the very real threat to Watson’s (and Lestrade’s, and Mrs. Hudson’s) life if it’s learned that Sherlock’s been faking this death. It’s an open question whether criminals would be so loyal to Moriarty that they’d still go after their target. But I can at least buy Sherlock assuming they would, because they’re criminals and it’s not good for business in a power struggle to show mercy or let Sherlock get away with things. Because the dude has an ego big enough to cushion a fall off St. Bart’s and I can see him thinking it really was all about him.

So to summarize, I can see Sherlock having a rather plausible answer for John’s question:

1. I wasn’t actually sure I would have to die, though I knew it was always a possibility.
2. I honestly didn’t realize you would be so affected by my death. (c.f. Sherlock’s bafflement that John is concerned about Sherlock’s press reputation earlier in TRF)
3. Once I knew I was going to have to disappear, I couldn’t actually tell you without putting you, never mind Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, in danger.

Or, if you want it put more graphically (unsure of original source, so again if you know please tell me, although I think this may be from someone named winchesteredsalvatore on Tumblr?):

This is the moment the fandom was expecting. After two years, this is the moment we deserved. I can live with Sherlock not having thought through that John would be so affected earlier on because, yes, he’s on the run and getting beat to a bloody pulp which simultaneously keeps even a high-functioning sociopath quite busy and gives him an illusion (maybe even truth) of playing hero to use as a shield against self-reflection of what he’s doing to the people he loves, or should love for shame.

So yes, I can see him getting to that moment without working through the cost of what’s going on here. I can see him needing to hash it out at some point after those glorious fights that kept getting John, Mary, and Sherlock thrown out of restaurants – I really did love them! But the next day or at some point, I need him to say more than just “Moriarty had to be taken out.” Well, yes, nice first step, next question: Why did it have to be you? If you knew there was a good possibility you would have to die, why couldn’t you have given me fair warning, particularly after you promised me you wouldn’t put me through hell like that to solve one of your cases?

At which point Sherlock is free to make his objections: that he really hadn’t thought of that, that he couldn’t have warned John without putting his life in danger, that when he promised “it won’t happen again” after Baskerville, he meant something else entirely. Perhaps John could hit him again if necesssary, or do the quiet frustration thing he does so well, or make one of the faces Martin does so well. Maybe Lestrade would have to intervene to smooth things out. Because more Lestrade would be really well done, and was IMO very much needed. The bro-hug was wonderful, but not nearly enough after what he’s been put through. Or use the Fawkes bonfire moment as a way to show Sherlock a milder version of what John went through.

I suspect fanfic will set to work about repairing this reconciliation. It’s entirely possible we’ll get a good dose of this in “His Last Vow,” which is why I was actually a little hesitant to write on this yet; the first two episodes are simply so light, I suspect there’s a good deal being set up and hidden in plain sight for the final episode. So, at some level, a lot of this is (a) still fixable by the show and (b) perhaps eminently more fixable by the fans, who are so very talented and will likely have a while to do it right after Sunday night.

But really, Team Moffat: you guys had one job. When you decided not to give us a serious crime to solve in TEH, and when you introduced a plot line that you more or less dropped in TSOT (who is going after John and why, and veiled references to CAM notwithstanding), your only real job was to give us a thoughtful, emotionally resonant answer to the questions you left us with at the end of “Reichenbach.”

If the complete story isn’t tellable at this point in time, we still need domething to go on. Because: making fun of your fans like this and doing it in a way where I’ve read much better fanfic? Really.

Really really?

Not cool.

It’s perhaps a testimony to the episode to this show that, aside these rather serious problems with the show, and on top of my frustrations at *cough* certain gender, race, and sexuality limitations (I haven’t seen a whiter crowd since the latest GOP convention), I still loved the episode. I really, really did. But these things were not unnoticed, particularly as I at with it longer and longer. As a fanfic writer and a fan of slash who felt more than a bit miffed at the way she saw herself portrayed on the screen, my integrity demands I say something.

On a related note, does anyone have a handy TARDIS? Because Sunday night can’t come quickly enough.

3 Comments

  • Tay Mueller (fileg)
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    I don’t think any of the three explanations we were given is supposed to be the true one. Perhaps we will hear it later on, or perhaps, like Doyle in The Empty House, all we will ever get from the man who knows is – we both fell and I didn’t die. My guess is that we will continue to hear other people’s theories, telling us more about them than Sherlock.

    • fidesquaerens
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      I’m actually okay not knowing. I do have my theories, but the why has always been so much more important to me than the how. What bothered me more than not being told, though, was the way we weren’t told in a way that seemed to make fun of certain people. At the end of the day it doesn’t keep me from really liking the episodes (I can still do my fangirl squee thing) – but it does stay with me and complicate that reaction at some level.

  • lisaquing
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I was confused and disappointed by the episode. I wondered if it was just me, since I watched it when sick and distracted. And I don’t have nearly enough brain power to give it any more thought. So thanks for writing all that!

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