The Empty Hearse: An Off Switch for the Bomb or an Off Switch for the Show?

I know; it’s a long title.

Tonight is the second episode of the BBC’s highly-anticipated third series of Sherlock, and so I thought I’d have a quick look at episode one. In particular, I want to have a look at the scene in the train carriage.

[If you haven’t guessed yet, this post contains extreme Sherlock spoilers, Just a quick warning.]

The climax of The Empty Hearse was full of emotion; Sherlock and John had followed all of the clues to the source of the problem: an underground carriage re-purposed as a bomb. Not only had they realised they were right, they’d also realised… neither of them knew how to disarm a bomb. And it was two and a half minutes away from blowing them up.

Now, let’s ignore the fact that it’s the kind of thing most people think of before they put themselves in the position of being blown up, because I want to focus on how they stopped it from happening: clicking the off switch.

To anyone reading this who hasn’t watched the episode, this probably sounds ridiculous. A bomb? With an off switch? And it just happened to be simple enough that anyone who found it could use it? And it was in easy reach and sight?

Sounds like a coincidence to me.

Now I’m not going to go into detail about coincidences as there are people who have said it much better than I could, but in short, coincidences for the bad guy are believable. Coincidences that go in the good guy’s favour? Not so much. In fact, they’re downright ridiculous. Your character is supposed to do things for themselves and learn from them.

Here, in a coincidental little off switch, Gatiss (the writer of the episode) made a significant mistake. He did what every single one of us wants to do every now and again and copped out on thinking of something clever. Therefore, he ruined a show which is built on cleverness.

Or did he?

As a fan, the first thing you want to do when you find a plot hole or other issue is to gloss over it, and so I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that perhaps — just perhaps — the breaking of this cardinal rule was not only patched over but also to some extent a good point of the show.

To explain what I mean, let me repeat part of what I said earlier about coincidences: your character is supposed to do things for themselves and learn from them. And this is where the ‘patched over’ part comes into play. Because, while neither Sherlock nor John learnt anything from flicking an off switch — apart from that perhaps bomb disposal isn’t as difficult as people say — they did both gain something from the experience.

Sherlock didn’t mention to John that he’d found an off switch. And so John believed he was about to die. While it isn’t the first time John has found himself in a life-threatening situation, it is possibly the first time that he’s had chance, to some extent, to say his goodbyes. And here we get some wonderful development of John’s character, because we see him with the knowledge that he’s about to die. He has two minutes or so left of his life, and we get to see what he does with them.

Basically, he compliments Sherlock. But that’s a conversation for another time.

There’s character development on Sherlock’s side as well, because here we see what lengths he’ll go to to repair his relationship with John — or soothe his ego, depending on the way you look at it. He would allow his best friend to think he was dead just because he wants to be forgiven. Whether this is something that’s been residing in him the whole time or has developed during his time with John or even has developed while everyone’s thought he was dead, this is the first time we’ve seen it and I think I’m allowed to call it character development.

So why was all of this possibly even a good point to add to the show’s dazzling brilliance? How could breaking such a basic rule of credulity go in favour of the episode? Well, initially because the show was already stretching those boundaries; the episode was a myriad of fan theories and hopes thrown into one, and while that was incredibly lovely (as I’m sure I’ll touch on in a later post), it also broke the fourth wall just a tiny bit.

My main love of this scene, however, comes from the ridiculousness of it: Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective and brightest mind of an age, saving himself and his friend from certain death by flicking a switch. Anyone could have done it. John could have done it. But he didn’t, and I think that’s what makes this scene so wonderful.

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