Gird yourselves, everyone, because I’ve got a crazy revelation for you that’s going to knock you right off your stump:
Sherlock’s not dead.
Okay, well, yeah, sure, we sorta knew that last season by that shot of him standing in his own cemetery, quite alive, watching his friend mourn. But he’s back, really back, now, and so is the walking talking trench-coated tall pale slab of chaos that is Benedict Cumberbatch. “The Empty Hearse,” the first of three 90-minute episodes that will make up the third season of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s grand creation, spends its first act, as you’d guess, on the messy concept of reunion. John Watson (Martin Freeman) has more or less recovered from losing his god-like idol, and he even has a new girlfriend called Mary (Amanda Abbington, who is also Freeman’s real-life girlfriend if you’re interested in such trivia). But life is still a bit drabber than before, and there’s a shadow on his face that you guess will always be there, a faint penumbra falling just outside his generalized melancholy left by the ghost of the most colorful figure anyone could possibly imagine.
And when that iridescent creature returns, in disguise as a waiter at a French restaurant, you can bet John is miffed (and not only because he was about to propose to Mary). That’s the problem with having a borderline sociopath as a best friend; he’s not really going to understand your pain very well, and even if he does, he won’t give two figs. Sherlock thinks the situation is comedic, and it is, but John repeatedly attacks him throughout the night as his relief and happiness meets the recurring realization of how lightly everyone treats his pain. Sherlock is forced to recruit Molly (someone even more enamored of him than John) as his new assistant, and together they discover that an old skeleton in a warehouse is merely a plant by Anderson, his old rival and current crackpot who runs a fan group convinced that Sherlock’s not really dead.
He soon discovers what we already knew, but not before he and his fellow conspiracy theorists dream up all kinds of scenarios on how Sherlock faked his own death, the funniest of which comes from a girl in goth attire who imagines that the detective and Moriarty had a giggling, homoerotic relationship. None of them are right, and the mystery of how this death was faked runs through the whole episode, until the very end when Sherlock reveals the intricate plot to Anderson himself. He and his brother Mycroft planned ahead for 13 scenarios, and the bums and passersby on the street were confederates in the plot, helping to convince everyone that the death was real in order to save the potential victims in sniper sights. John’s grief, sad to say, was unfortunate collateral damage. But Anderson doesn’t know whether to believe him—after all, why would Sherlock tell him?—and we don’t either. Still, it’s the most plausible explanation yet, and maybe the only one we’ll ever get.
As for Mycroft (Mark Gatiss himself), he maneuvers to bring Sherlock back to England to help stymie what might be the greatest terrorist attack ever on British soil. The dynamic between the two brothers is as delightful as ever, with Mycroft’s drier humor working as a perfect echo to the more frenetic pace of the younger Holmes, and their dueling genius driving each to new heights of creativity. The plot, as it turns out, is a little mundane by Sherlock standards—a member of the House of Lords is complicit in planting a bomb in a stolen subway car beneath parliament—but the conclusion, about which it’s enough to say that Sherlock toys with John’s emotions again in a perfect callback to the earlier reunion, is satisfying in the usual ways.
Because the relationship between Sherlock and Watson is the essence of this episode, and the series as a whole. The wider world may suspect that they’re gay, or misinterpret their friendship in a thousand other ways, but at root they each need the other. The hallmark of any great television friendship is how the status can change based on the moment; Sherlock is the genius, and Watson needs him for his brain and his brilliance and his excitement, but there are times when practicality is called for, and steadiness, and sanity. At these moments, we see that Sherlock needs the stabilizing force of Watson just as deeply; they are perfect for each other, a symbiotic relationship externally hilarious, internally rather touching.
The underground plot is foiled, but there are lingering mysteries. Chiefly: Who attempted to burn Watson alive on Guy Fawkes night? The engine of the season has been set in motion, and one of television’s most unique shows rushes forward. Sherlock is unique among crime dramas in that it refuses to languish in the somber valleys of criminal psychology. Sherlock can’t brook depression, or anything, really, except forward momentum. And so he floats on, author of his own free-flowing current, borne ceaselessly into a breathless future.