The upside to Sherlock having only nine episodes is that it’s easier to review and analyse every single episode in the space of a month! So we’re going to spend some time ranking the episodes from worst (not that any Sherlock episode is truly bad) to best. Spoilers follow, so you really need to watch the whole series, like, right now, if you haven’t yet.
Starting from the bottom…
The Empty Hearse
Summary: This is the episode where we find out how Sherlock faked his death. Oh, and there’s some kind of terrorist plot in there somewhere.
Why it’s ranked here: I think the Series Three premier is a perfect example of the downside to ending a season on a total cliffhanger and then going on a two-year hiatus. Because Mark Gatiss didn’t write this episode. Tumblr wrote this episode. They had two years to do it in, so I suppose Mr. Gatiss, like many a student during finals week, decided it would save time if he just copied and pasted. As a result, we get three different explanations of how Sherlock survived, all of which had been speculated on the Internet beforehand; just about every ship in the fandom is represented (Sherlolly, Sherlock/Moriarty, and, of course, Johnlock); and Anderson has even been turned into a stand-in for the fans (complete with merchandise and sanity issues).
It’s definitely good for a show to be aware of its fanbase, and there’s nothing wrong with writers taking a peek at Tumblr from time to time, but I think there’s a limit to how self-conscious a story can get before it becomes annoying–especially a relatively serious story like Sherlock. “The Empty Hearse” came very close to reaching that limit for me. After the taut drama that made up the first two series, it was a bit of a let-down to get a whole episode with basically no plot except the reconciliation of Sherlock and John. It needed to happen, of course, but did we need to spend 90 minutes on it? Yes, Sherlock as a French waiter was funny, Molly taking John’s place was cute, Mary Morstan was a nice addition to the cast (for this episode, anyway), and they did do a clever job of anticipating criticism from the fans, but there was just so little meat to the story. The mystery wasn’t compelling. There was never any sense of danger or urgency–bonfire and bomb threat aside, there was no way either of the two leads was going to die in the first episode of Series Three. So most of the episode’s run time that wasn’t spent explaining Sherlock’s “death” was used to make all the characters crack rather tired jokes about how completely not gay John and Sherlock are. The explanation of the “fall” made pretty good sense, but on the whole, I was dissatisfied. This episode was fluff.
But lest I seem to criticize too harshly, it has to be said that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were as brilliant as ever in “The Empty Hearse.” No Sherlock episode can be truly terrible as long as those two are trading sarcastic witticisms with each other. They are two of the most entertaining British actors I’ve ever seen, which is saying quite a lot. And so, despite its flaws, I enjoyed this episode thanks to them.