After two years in hiding after faking his own death, Sherlock comes back to London to prevent a terrorist attack. He reconnects with his old friends, but has some trouble rekindling his friendship with John, who feels betrayed by his deception.

The Breakdown

The show opens with a flashback of Sherlock’s death from season two. While Sherlock stands on the roof of St. Bart’s Hospital and talks on the phone with John, a crew of people drags the dead body of Moriarty away and put a prosthetic mask on him to make him look like Sherlock. Sherlock jumps off the roof attached to a bungee cord, while a bicyclist distracts John, and the crew arranges the Sherlock look-a-like on the sidewalk below. Sherlock bungees back up, crashing through a window where Molly Hooper is waiting. He brushes the glass out of his hair and gives her a passionate kiss before walking away into obscurity. To give the crew more time to arrange the scene, Darren Brown intercepts John and hypnotizes him.

The Empty Hearse

“Bollocks!” Lestrade is getting a coffee with a disheveled looking Anderson, who has just told him his theory of how Sherlock might have faked his death. Driven by the guilt of ruining an innocent man’s reputation and possibly causing his suicide, Anderson is convinced that Sherlock is still alive. Lestrade tells him to let it go, that Sherlock Holmes is dead. News reports reveal that Moriarty’s network has been dismantled and that Sherlock has been vindicated. Meanwhile, a mustachioed John visits Sherlock’s grave with a mystery woman by his side.

In Serbia, a long haired man runs through the woods perused by gunmen and a helicopter. He is captured, brought back to an underground base, and is tortured. The long haired man tells his torturer a number of facts about his everyday life and that his wife is cheating on him with the next door neighbor at that very moment. The torturer rushes away to investigate. A second man in the shadows tells the long haired man that he’s gone through a lot of trouble to find him. The man in the shadows turns out to be Mycroft Holmes and the long haired man is Sherlock. Mycroft tells Sherlock that he needs him to investigate a potential terrorist attack in London.

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John visits 221B Baker Street, seemingly for the first time in a long while. Mrs. Hudson is angry with him for not calling. She also doesn’t like his mustache. John apologizes, saying that he tried to stay in touch but that it got harder and harder to pick up the phone. John tells Mrs. Hudson that he’s met someone and that he’s getting married. Mrs. Hudson is surprised when John tells her it’s a woman, since she could never be convinced that John and Sherlock weren’t secretly a couple.

Meanwhile, Sherlock gets shaved and cleaned up in Mycroft’s office. They argue about the method Mycroft chose to extract him from Serbia, allowing him to be beaten to a pulp before intervening. Mycroft tells Sherlock about the information they received about an upcoming terror attack on London. Sherlock, however, is only interested in John. Mycroft hands him a file with a recent picture. Sherlock doesn’t like the mustache either. Sherlock decides to surprise John at the restaurant he has plans to eat at later.

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Sherlock arrives at the restaurant and contemplates the best way to surprise John. He wanders around the room, pilfering items to make up a disguise as a French waiter. He approaches John’s table and asks if he can help. He keeps trying to reveal himself, but John, thinking he’s a waiter, barely glances at him. Sherlock wanders off defeatedly to retrieve John’s wine order from the kitchen. Meanwhile, John tries to figure out the best way to ask his girlfriend Mary to marry him. Mary returns from the ladies room and John awkwardly starts to propose. Mary gets the gist, but Sherlock interrupts at the last moment and finally gets John’s attention.

Predictably, John is overwhelmed and Sherlock belatedly realizes that he has completely misjudged the situation and John’s reaction. John eventually tackles Sherlock after he makes one too many cracks about his mustache. They relocate to a café to talk more, where Sherlock starts to tell John how he faked his death. John only wants to know why he didn’t tell him and who else knew he was still alive. John attacks Sherlock again when he finds out over 25 people knew all along. The relocate again, where John finds out that Mary doesn’t like his mustache either. Sherlock tells John about the terrorist attack and that he needs his help. When Sherlock presumes too far, John attacks him again. Sherlock doesn’t understand where he went wrong, thinking that saying sorry should have been all that was required. Mary marvels at his ignorance of human nature, but takes a liking to him and promises that she’ll bring John around.

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There’s another flashback to Sherlock’s death, where the figure on the roof is a dummy attached to a rope, and Moriarty and Sherlock sit together out of sight while Sherlock talks to John on the phone. At the end Sherlock throws the rope, letting the dummy fall to the ground. Moriarty and Sherlock laugh together, then look deep into each other’s eyes and lean in for a kiss. “Are you out of your mind?” Anderson has been listening to a theory a member of his discussion group has put forward about Sherlock’s death. She claims it’s no more ridiculous than any of Anderson’s crazy theories. Suddenly, the news breaks that Sherlock is still alive.

Mary excitedly reads John’s old blog while John prepares to shave. Mary insists that he’s shaving his mustache off because Sherlock hates it, not because she does. Mary asks him if he’s going to see Sherlock again. John says no, but Mary carries on like she knows it’s bound to happen. Meanwhile, Sherlock sets up his investigation into the terrorist attack. His method is to keep an eye on a number of important telltale individuals. If they do something out of the ordinary, he knows where to look. Sherlock and Mycroft play what we are lead to believe is chess and actually turns out to be Operation.

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Mycroft reminds Sherlock again that an agent died to bring them the information that a secret underground network is planning a terror attack, but Sherlock finds the information obvious and not worth the risk. Surely a secret terrorist organization’s job is to plan secret terrorist attacks. Mycroft and Sherlock talk about their childhood and how they both thought Sherlock was an idiot until they met other children and realized their mistake. Sherlock inquires about Mycroft’s love life, which Mycroft finds appalling. They play deductions, which leads Sherlock to imply that Mycroft is lonely. Mycroft leaves, slightly unsettled and incredulous.

Sherlock goes back to work. This is intercut with John at his boring medical practice, having to deal with frustrating medical problems all day. He watches the clock impatiently. Meanwhile, Sherlock invites Molly to solve crimes with him. John encounters an unusual patient and mistakenly believes that it’s Sherlock in disguise again. John embarrasses himself and scares the old man half to death when he tries to pull off his beard. Sherlock and Molly meet up with Lestrade to investigate the case of a skeleton sitting at a desk in a basement. They discover a hidden book entitled “How I Did It” by Jack the Ripper. Of course, Sherlock discovers that the skeleton is only six months old and the Victorian clothes it’s wearing was recently sold by a museum in a fire damage sale. It was all a hoax to get someone’s attention. During all this, Sherlock hears John commenting in his head and has trouble not responding to him.

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Molly and Sherlock go to see a man who works for the London Underground who has brought a case to their attention. He shows them surveillance footage of a man who gets into an empty car at Westminster, but isn’t on the train when it arrives at the next station. This man is Lord Moran, one of Sherlock’s indicators. Later, Sherlock says thank you to Molly for helping him fake his death. Molly decides that she can’t keep solving crimes with him – she’s recently and happily engaged and can’t keep pining away for Sherlock – but that she very much enjoyed the day.

John decides to go see Sherlock but gets drugged and abducted outside of 221B. Mary gets a text in “skip code” alerting her that John has been kidnapped. She goes to see Sherlock and they rush away to save him. Meanwhile, John finds himself paralyzed under a bonfire about to be lighted. Sherlock and Mary arrive just in time to pull him from the burning pile.

Later, Sherlock sits in 221B listening impatiently to an older couple when John comes in the room. Sherlock rushes the older couple out of the house, then explains to John that they were his parents. John is dumbfounded that they were so ordinary, and then annoyed when he finds out that they also knew about Sherlock’s fake death. Sherlock explains his investigation into the terrorist attack and shows John the footage of Lord Moran disappearing on the train. Sherlock then realizes that there’s a car missing between stations, that one car must have been diverted. They also realize that there’s a special session of Parliament that night, November 5, which happens to the day the gunpowder plot against Parliament was originally foiled. The terrorist attack must be against Parliament, and the “underground network” isn’t a secret organization, but the network of Underground tunnels. They Skype with the train guy and figure out to where the car must have been diverted.

John and Sherlock rush to the Tube and traverse the tunnels until they come across the car. They discover that the entire car is wired to be a bomb. Lord Moran arms the bomb remotely from his hotel room while John and Sherlock are in the car. John tells Sherlock to defuse the bomb, but Sherlock claims to not know how. As the timer counts down, Sherlock apologizes and asks one more time for John’s forgiveness. John forgives him and braces himself for the explosion.

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There’s a cut to a video recording of Sherlock explaining how and why he faked his death. Mycroft and Sherlock came up with a plan to take down Moriarty. Mycroft fed Moriarty information about Sherlock, and in return Moriarty hinted at the extent of his criminal empire. They let him go to make him believe he had the upper hand and allowed him to ruin Sherlock’s reputation. As Sherlock keeps saying, there were thirteen possible outcomes once he met Moriarty on the roof and each were researched and given a code word. Once Moriarty killed himself, Sherlock texted Mycroft the code word to set the plan in motion. Everyone in the street was part of the plan and the rest of the area was closed off. While John’s view of the street was blocked by an ambulance station, a crew set up a giant airbag to catch Sherlock when he jumped. The airbag and Sherlock were taken away in one direction while John came around in the other direction.

Another crew brought out a lookalike body to set in the street for John to see while Sherlock prepared to take its place. A bicyclist knocked John down in order to make the switch, and Sherlock lied down in the street, covered with stage blood and holding a squash ball under his armpit to temporarily mask his pulse. John’s role in all this was specifically to witness and confirm Sherlock’s death – without him, the plan might not have worked. Sherlock is revealing all this to Anderson, who is recording it. While Anderson appreciates the plan, he feels somehow disappointed by the explanation. Then it turns out that Anderson was the one who set up the Jack the Ripper skeleton hoax in order to get Sherlock’s attention. Then he begins to doubt that Sherlock is telling him the truth – that maybe there was more to it and that Sherlock is merely telling him a story. Sherlock leaves and Anderson goes a little crazy, tearing down all his papers from the wall and eventually collapsing to the floor.

Back at the train car, John continues to brace himself for the explosion when he hears Sherlock starting to laugh. Turns out he found the off-switch and used the situation to his advantage to get John to forgive him. Not long after, the police come along to take care of the bomb. Another group of police arrest Lord Moran at the hotel before he gets away.

At 221B, Mycroft calls Sherlock, begging him to take over babysitting their parents at a showing of Les Miserable. Sherlock refuses and joins the little party of friends he has over – Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, John, and Mary. Molly arrives with her fiancé Tom, who is a Sherlock lookalike, complete with curly dark hair, high cheekbones, blue eyes, long coat, and scarf. Sherlock and John leave the party to greet the press mob outside.

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The Analysis

The first and maybe only complaint that fans of this show are likely to have is that it is never satisfactorily explained how Sherlock faked his own death. There are many theories – ranging from the convoluted to the improbable – but even the explanation that comes from Sherlock himself may very well be a lie. Knowing Steven Moffat’s work as well as I do, I honestly expected nothing less than perfect opaqueness regarding the promised solution. It is classic Moffat to promise one thing, but deliver another thing that still technically fulfills that promise. This tendency is both brilliantly infuriating and wonderfully creative. I, for one, was never particularly interested in the How and love the “pick your adventure” style ending.

It also works as a witty commentary on the fan hysteria surrounding the season two cliffhanger and the multitude of wild theories explaining how Sherlock faked his death. The fact that Anderson became a crazy fanboy and formed his own conspiracy discussion group is a subtle and hilarious nod to the obsessive nature of the unexpected fan culture surrounding this show. I remember the frenzy surrounding season two and seeing “I Believe In Sherlock Holmes” graffiti scrawled on everything from subway stations in Boston to bathroom stalls in Seattle. No single explanation was ever going to live up to those expectations, or to the creativity of the internet community. Anderson says it best once Sherlock has finished his explanation. He agrees that it’s clever, but after all the speculation and tireless research and endless anticipation, he can’t help but feel disappointed. “It’s not how I would have done it.” He comments. Sherlock replies by saying, “Everyone’s a critic.” In the age of the internet, that has never been truer.

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The episode itself is brilliantly written, smartly structured, and beautifully complex. Writer Mark Gatiss delivers his typical fast-paced, snappy dialogue while maintaining complex depths of emotion and continuous character development. The relationship between John and Sherlock is as powerful as ever, despite a period of unrest between them following Sherlock’s return from the dead. Actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are as dynamic as ever as John and Sherlock, but with fascinating new differences in their characters cultivated over time. There is particularly something about Sherlock that is different from when we last saw him two years ago, as if he’s matured in his time away. He has had a definite shift in attitude about the importance of friendship – of which he unsuccessfully tries to convince his brother – and a newfound affection for those friends. At the same time, he seems to have an even greater, more restless energy and a new penchant for jollity. It’s almost as if he’s had time to season.

I am interested to see if we’ll get deeper into the lives of secondary characters this season. It occurred to me upon a second viewing that Lestrade just might be totally in love with Molly Hooper. When he asks her if she and her fiancé Tom are serious, he seems both fearful and hopeful. It might just be my imagination, but he definitely displayed an attraction to her at the Christmas party during A Scandal in Belgravia (S02.E01). I would be interested in seeing their interactions in the future. Sherlock also opened up some possibilities by questioning Mycroft about his personal life and the possibility of “a friend”. Mycroft seemed horrified by the idea, but the though sparks the imagination. Might we learn more about Mycroft as this season progresses? And of course, there’s the addition of Amanda Abbington to the cast as John’s love interest, Mary. Abbington is Martin Freeman’s real life partner, and their chemistry shines in every scene. Just as Abbington is a fan of Freeman’s friendship with Cumberbatch, Mary is a fan of John’s friendship with Sherlock. In turn, Sherlock seems to be friendly with and fascinated by her. I am looking forward to how this triangle develops as well.

Overall, the show remains as stylish, modern, and original as always. It is also wickedly smart when it comes to knowledge of the original Conan Doyle stories, peppering quotes and references throughout the episode. I would rate this episode as possibly the best to date and am very much looking forward to what comes next.