The Many Faces of Sherlock’s Empty Hearse

New Year’s Day heralded the return of Mark Gatiss’ and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, the third series of which has been hotly anticipated since the last aired two years ago. Expectation has been steadily building, not least because the modern day incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective had faked his own death at the end of series two, and fans have spent the last two years conducting vigorous autopsies of the scene.

What is to be the first of three episodes opened with a brilliantly self-aware deconstruction of the scene which toyed with this very penchant on the part of the viewer for creating conspiracies which have dominated discourse on the program in the intervening years. The viewing experience was incredulous as Sherlock-cum-superhero negotiates a bungee style jump from the roof before expertly diving in through a window to get the girl, while Derren Brown successfully works his mind magic on a disorientated Watson. There is no doubt that certain viewers were prematurely registering their disgust online before allowing this excellent decoy to reach its conclusion.

As this riotous reconstruction ends, it transpires to be the brainchild of Anderson who conveys it to DI Lestrade together with other wild theories. In the last series, Sherlock offered a perspective on fame damage which manifested itself in the shattering of his reputation via the media. Anderson now shoulders guilt for playing his part in this, and his oscillation from critic to fan is symbolic of a fickleness among the viewing public. These kinds of seemingly trivial chats over coffee are where those in the public eye can be made or broken, and as both raise their cups to their mouths, there is a fantastic dissolve which sees them melt into Watson’s pupils; a man feeling the very real effects of both Sherlock’s death and the destroying of his impeccable reputation.

Critics and conspiracy theorists are mocked throughout, as a club of Sherlock fanatics called The Empty Hearse, lead by Anderson who is convinced he is alive, offer a hilarious commentary on how theories built on nothing can be discussed in a life or death fashion. Another wonderfully ludicrous alternative death scene arises showing Moriarty and Sherlock working together to dupe the world before giving in to their feelings with a kiss. As the news that #sherlocklives populates their phones within seconds of its appearance on television, and their frantic realisation sees them go crazy as the screen floods with hashtags, it’s a perfectly perceptive depiction of such an event.

This acts as proof of course that Anderson is right, but his assertion is conveyed as being purely a matter of chance rather than based on any tangible evidence, for how could he have known? As Sherlock sits before him in a metaphorical scene of microscopic viewer analysis of their subject via the camera, he delivers yet another version of the death scene. This is purported to be the real one, but even this cannot be truly relied upon as fact. Despite being arbitrarily proven right about Sherlock being alive, and offered the privilege of this sitting with him, Anderson is still dissatisfied. He wouldn’t have faked his death that way apparently, and is disappointed, to which Sherlock brilliantly replies, “everyone’s a critic”. This scene excellently conveys how certain conspiracy theorists and critics will never be satisfied with anything other than their own ideas or beliefs.

While viewers continued to be perplexed over just how Sherlock managed to fake his death, an impending terror attack drives his investigations which mirrors the plot of V for Vendetta; not only is the it to take place on 5 November, but involves a train filled with explosives to be driven beneath Westminster. The 2006 cinematic adaptation of the novel uses a Guy Fawkes mask which has become popular for use in protests, generally by those engaging in anti-establishment activism. Watson is kidnapped and placed in a bonfire as a veritable Guy, but is saved by Sherlock just after the fire is lit. Sherlock has thus succeeded in liberating him from the mask of the Guy, and the fiery pyre of protest. Further, as they locate the underground train containing explosives, Sherlock manages to stop it, observing, “there’s always an off-switch”. It’s notable that the topic for discussion in Parliament is an anti-terrorism bill.

Masks and disguises feature throughout as real moustaches are shaved, fake moustaches are applied, and a mask of Sherlock’s face even features in one reconstruction. This theme of masking and unmasking, and truth versus reality, often proving inconclusive, is Brechtian in its effect.

The subversion of the conclusion of V For Vendetta and Watson’s liberation from the mask of the Guy are interesting aspects of Sherlock that have the potential to be overlooked by those whose main focus is the truth concerning Sherlock’s faked death.

The title, The Empty Hearse could be seen to have a dual meaning. Firstly, as the title of Anderson’s group, it mocks the pointlessness of obsessing with conspiracy theories. At the best of times, the viewer cannot relate to Sherlock’s abilities and must simply accept them, and yet on this occasion feel they can somehow get to the bottom of this particular achievement. Their speculation, like a hearse without a coffin, serves no purpose and is of no value.

My second interpretation involves considering the abandoned tube train as an empty hearse, thus reflecting the futility of terrorism. As long as acts of terrorism can be prevented, as Sherlock has done, hearses carrying victims will be otherwise empty. In the context of both of my theories, it is worth considering Sherlock’s pertinent observation; there’s always an off switch.

This episode of Sherlock sparkled with humour, depth and feeling, and contained plenty of aspects, beyond the obvious, which are worthy of serious consideration. With a program of such quality, it would be a crime to overlook them.

By Emma Hynes



  1. Did you think the masking and unmasking also referred to the finality of Watson’s assertion that he and Sherlock were not lovers?


    1. Definitely. Well spotted. Perceptions versus truths and myths versus realities were suitably ubiquitous throughout and invariably involved disguises and masks.

      It’s worth pondering this however; the fact that we are still essentially uncertain about the fall despite several explanations succeeds in undermining any definitive clarity we can hope to receive, and so it could be said that while Watson has firmly and definitively unmasked his sexuality, Sherlock’s asexual nature is still the site of a disguise of sorts. As you say, it is Watson alone that provides the definitive unmasking. We still wonder, if no longer concerning any relationship between the two, at Sherlock’s desires.


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