The BBC 's "Sherlock" returned Sunday night two years after its second series concluded with an audacious cliffhanger that sent fans into a frenzy of far-fetched theories about how genius detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) faked his own death, leaving behind a bloody corpse and an emotionally wrecked John Watson (Martin Freeman). Many theories were blatantly wrong, while some seemed fairly plausible.
But the achievement of "The Empty Hearse" - the confident, playful first installment of series three - is in its unrelenting conviction that our fervent desire to know how Sherlock survived was always misplaced, because the show's clever plotting is only secondary to its characters.
For example, this episode's central mystery - regarding an imminent terrorist attack on London - is general and unoriginal, just a pretext to reunite Sherlock and John. Even Sherlock has trouble taking the case seriously when his brother Mycroft comes to him with scarce details: "A secret terrorist organization is planning an attack? That's what secret terrorist organizations do. It's their version of golf," he says.
The cast of the BBC’s “Sherlock” returned this month after a two-year hiatus. Pictured are Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), Mary Morstan (Amadna Abbington), John Watson (Martin Freeman), Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), DI?Lestrade (Rupert Graves)?and Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs).
The bond between the two leading men has always been the emotional core of the show, so when Sherlock tactlessly reveals to his best friend that he's not actually dead during a very important dinner, John is justifiably angry.
The reunion scene is comic gold, handled with a physicality that relieves two years worth of grief John had been carrying since he watched Sherlock seemingly fall to his death. Never has the show been this funny and moving, marking a turning point for a series that was always more technically impressive than emotionally engaging.
That is due in part to John's new love interest, Mary Morstan, played with great warmth and quick humor by Amanda Abbington, Freeman's real-life partner. Morstan becomes a catalyst for Sherlock and John to openly consider the status and development of their relationship. Her presence here puts into question the future of the show's tried-and-true dynamic of Sherlock and John solving crimes without concern for their own well-being.
But for all the novelty in "Hearse," there's still plenty of recognizable elements, many of them improved, such as the way Sherlock's thought process and mind palace are expressed visually. His thoughts are no longer just projected in front of him for the audience to see. He now imagines and manipulates fully-realized environments and eventualities. The effect can be eerie at times, further emphasizing Sherlock's alienation from normal people. But it gives this episode a sense of style that is more interesting than the mystery itself.
Then again, the plot here is deliberately thin, and makes for a last act that is almost self-indulgent in the way it reestablishes a friendship and a lifestyle that has been put on hold for far too long. The sequence - of John and Sherlock looking ever so smooth as they traverse the dark depths of the London underground, flashlights in hand, alone in an attempt to stop a catastrophe as an equally smooth soundtrack plays in the background - is almost insecure in its extended way of reassuring the audience that the game, is indeed, back on.
But that's a mere quibble about a thrilling episode that satisfies on every other level.