“I don’t care how you faked it,” fumes John Watson following Sherlock’s return from the dead. Viewers who’ve just watched the episode might well share John’s irritation, but they won’t share that sentiment.
Two years we’ve waited. Two years of theorising, speculating and finally resigning ourselves to the fact that we won’t know – not exactly or for sure – how Sherlock managed his death-defying plunge from the roof of St Bart’s Hospital until we see it on screen. But now we have seen it – and we still don’t know…
The Empty Hearse, Sherlock’s New Year’s Day resurrection and return to BBC1, presented us with a number of ways in which the genius detective might have faked his own death (and kept his best friend from finding out about it) but it didn’t give us the longed-for satisfaction of a final, definitive explanation.
The initial two “solutions” turned out to be bright red herrings – far-fetched theories dreamed up by members of a fan group who maintained that Sherlock was still alive even before he resurfaced.
The first one started well, and certainly contained what Sherlock Holmes would have called “points of interest”. At the screening where I saw the episode there were cheers when Moriarty’s corpse was fitted with the Sherlock mask introduced in the last series. And I’m not saying we weren’t all caught up in the moment when our hero bungee-jumped off the building, smashed through a window on the way back up, then grabbed Molly Hooper and gave her a big snog before breezing off down the corridor. Hey, there was pumping music and a room full of excited people who fully expected this to be the solution, so give us a break if it took a few seconds for the critical faculties to kick in.
The second fake fake death was even further over the top, and even more fun, with sniggering schoolboys Sherlock and Moriarty joining forces to fool John with a makeshift dummy that wouldn’t have been worth a penny on bonfire night, before giving a hilarious nod to Sherlock “slash fiction” by leaning in to share a kiss.
Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss admits that the phenomenal reaction to the cliffhanger episode, and the myriad theories that followed, were what prompted himself and Steven Moffat to come up with their own dummy solutions. “We had absolutely no idea it would take on the epic proportions it has, so by the time we came to actually do it we had to address the fact that it’s become so [huge]. Because there are only so many ways you can jump off a building and not hit the pavement. I think people were expecting something semi-mystical – a Tardis, probably.”
But Gatiss says they had the real solution mapped out from the beginning. “We knew right from the start how we were going to do it,” he told the audience during a Q&A after the screening. “The important thing – unlike the original story where Sherlock disappears into the waterfall and he’s mysteriously unretrievable (it’s a waterfall, bodies float!) – is that he essentially dies in John’s arms and then reappears.”
Viewers were made to wait until the very end of The Empty Hearse for the third solution, courtesy of Sherlock himself. From the inflatable crashmat hidden by a low building, to the cyclist who deliberately knocked John to the ground, buying time for Molly and members of Sherlock’s “homeless network” to bloody up his “dead” body, this was indeed the version many fans had been expecting (albeit with a surplus corpse thrown in for good measure). The squash ball under the arm to mask Sherlock’s pulse – a technique used on stage by Gatiss’s friend Derren Brown – drew cheers at the preview screening.
But as Sherlock’s explanation drew to an end, everything we’d just been told was called into question. Journalist and Empty Hearse founder Anderson pronounced Sherlock’s version “a bit disappointing” – clearly a reaction Gatiss and Moffat were half-expecting/guarding against when they wrote the episode – before starting to pick holes in it (real-life fans have since been doing the same). As an increasingly hysterical Anderson began to rip his plans from the wall an amused Sherlock didn’t try to convince him otherwise. And when John later asked him for the explanation he remained enigmatic, teasing “You know my methods”.
So was that last solution the correct one?
“That’s presuming, of course, that Sherlock Holmes would bother to tell Anderson the truth,” said Moffat. “We might still not know.”
“[But] it’s a very plausible version of how he did it,” Gatiss was quick to add.
So what is going on? Are Gatiss and Moffat hedging their bets: if we like Sherlock’s solution, great, if we make fun of it or poke holes, well who says it was the right one anyway?
Or maybe the ambiguity is just part and parcel of the ultimately unknowable enigma that is Sherlock?
“I certainly am wondering at the end ‘Gosh, I wonder if I even know’,” said Benedict Cumberbatch.
And if Sherlock Holmes himself can’t work it out, what hope is there for the rest of us?