The frenzied discussion over Sherlock's return, and how he survived that fall off the roof of Saint Bartholomew's Hospital, reached fever pitch ahead of New Year's Day episode, The Empty Hearse. The solution was never going to meet expectations, and whilst this episode may have focused too much on past events to flesh out its own story, it was still an incredibly fun and confident return for the smash hit show.
First the solution, with writer Mark Gatiss cheekily toying with audience expectations by providing us with multiple explanations as to how Sherlock faked his death. The first is the blockbuster opening that a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up, featuring an internet-breaking kiss between Sherlock and Molly, Moriarty's corpse wearing a Sherlock mask, and Derren Brown stepping in to hypnotise John Watson.
The second comes from the even more demented realms of fan fiction, as a Sherlock dummy goes over the ledge whilst the detective and Moriarty share a romantic kiss. The final one, a confession Sherlock delivers to a guilt-ridden Anderson, is rather mundane and disappointing, as the sleuth reveals the use of a body double, padded landing and a rubber ball to stop his pulse. But as Gatiss revealed earlier this year, "There's only so many ways you can fall off a roof and survive".
"I don't care how you did it, I just want to know why."
But aside from these clever revelations, it was the emotional impact of Sherlock's absence which was focused on in this episode, as John notes, "I don't care how you did it, I just want to know why". The man hurt most of all by seeing Sherlock "die", over two years he has grieved and managed to not only grow some terrible facial hair, but start a new life with fiancée Mary (the fantastic Amanda Abbington). Once more highlighting just how alien and emotionally autistic he is, Sherlock thinks turning up dressed as a waiter for John's romantic dinner date with Mary will be a fun joke.
In the books, when Watson discovers Sherlock to be alive he merely faints. But the as ever brilliant Martin Freeman shows us a much more authentic reaction to his return, sucker-punching Sherlock and lambasting him for letting him think he was dead. For such a deliciously cerebral show, using flashy cinematography and rapid editing to match Sherlock's nimble mind, Freeman makes sure we're kept grounded throughout, and lets Sherlock realise just how big a hole was left in his life by his departure.
This wallowing over the events of the previous episode meant that there unfortunately wasn't much by way of story in The Empty Hearse. The vague terrorist plot, involving a stolen tube car (not carriage), John being holed up in a Bonfire Night remaking of The Wicker Man, and a plot to blow up Parliament were elements more James Bond than Sherlock Holmes. Jeremy Lovering ramped up the show's hyper-kinetic aesthetic to match blockbuster ambitions, as we also got a thrilling motorbike race against time and even an Independence Day-style money shot where we see the Palace of Westminster blown up.
This was an episode clearly designed to wow its now international fan-base, and whilst it was a little too self-congratulatory, it was still a pure delight to see Cumberbatch and Freeman on the case once more. With teases about Sherlock's backstory (Benedict Cumberbatch's actual parents play Sherlock's parents in a cameo here), as well as the new villain of the piece staring at Sherlock through a monitor, it was great to see Sherlock land on its feet so triumphantly. Next up a wedding, and the one dreaded obstacle Sherlock cannot escape, delivering a best man's speech.