How will BBC’s Sherlock tackle the problem at the very heart of the Empty House?

To truly engage with any story, the reader has to like or at least care about the central character.  This is something which I have always found difficult about the original Empty House.

I had followed as the earlier stories took me through the many adventures Watson had experienced since meeting his eccentric friend in the lab at St Barts. I had come to learn through his words that Sherlock Holmes was not simply a thinking machine but also possessed a great heart.  I truly believed that he cared deeply for Watson and trusted him above all others.  But then along comes the Empty House and these beliefs are thrown into doubt.

I find it hard to like Holmes in the Empty House.  At the centre of the story is a massive lie and we learn that rather than trust Watson with the most important secret of all, Holmes turns to Mycroft instead.  Holmes leaves poor Watson believing that he is dead, not just for a few days but for three years.  During that time Watson also suffers the loss of his wife – something which Holmes knows about but still doesn’t make contact.

And why does he do all this?  Well, basically because he doesn’t think Watson can be trusted with the truth.  He thinks that Watson’s strong feelings towards him would cause him to let slip the truth or not write of the ‘death’ so convincingly in his published accounts.  Well if you knew he cared so much about you, how could you put him through three years of unnecessary mourning?

Holmes leaves all his affairs in the hands of his brother Mycroft who also colludes in hiding the truth from poor old Watson.  Then, to make matters worse, instead of quietly reappearing and being contrite about his actions, Holmes turns up in Watson’s study wearing a disguise and tricks him into thinking he is an old bookseller.

When he eventually reveals the truth in a typically over-the-top fashion, Watson faints due to the heightened drama. Holmes then proceeds to prattle on about his travels and meeting the Dalai Lama.  By that point I would have just slapped him.  But no, good old Watson forgives all and happily trots off with him to share a new adventure.

So why did Holmes play dead for three years?  It’s never been entirely clear to me to be honest.  He claims that because they thought he was dead, he was able to round up the last of Moriarty’s gang and bring them to justice.  But Moran knew he was still alive – wouldn’t he have told everyone else?  Were these people really such a threat to society now that their master had gone?  Sounds to me like he just enjoyed a bit of an adult gap-year (or three) travelling and experiencing new things whilst his only friend mourned his death and that of his own wife.  Shocking behaviour.

So how will BBC Sherlock tackle this?  There are a few key differences to consider.  Sherlock’s death is a rather more noble action in their version of the Final Problem.  Moriarty/Jim forces him to commit suicide because it is the only way to call off the snipers who are about to kill the people he most cares about.  He fakes his death and goes into exile in order to save his friends.  So far, so forgivable.  But will the writers stick to the original and keep him away for three years?  If so, how can he come back and justify that?  He saw John’s heartbreaking sadness at the gravestone and seemed genuinely moved by it; surely he can’t leave him to mourn for three whole years?  And if he does, forgiveness needs to be harder to achieve than in the original.    He needs to really work for it.

In Barefoot on Baker Street I give Holmes some pretty big consequences for selling such a big lie to those he loved.  He doesn’t get away with it quite so easily, even though the events of the Empty House run pretty much the same as they do in the original story.  He has to face the reality of what he left behind and how life has moved on without him.  Watson has come out from Holmes’ shadow to become a stronger, more confident person and the dynamic of their friendship has changed forever.  Will it be the same for John?  Will he flourish or crumble without Sherlock?

As the reader works their way through the Return of Sherlock Holmes, it is possible once again to see Holmes’ great heart and love for his friend – even paying above the odds for his medical practice via the mysterious Doctor Verner just to have Watson back at 221b.  I do forgive him in the end – it just takes me a bit longer than it took Watson.

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14 Responses to How will BBC’s Sherlock tackle the problem at the very heart of the Empty House?

  1. Note that at the start of the BBC Sherlock – The Reichenbach Fall, John is relating events that he says happened 18 months earlier so already a year and a half has passed. The writers are already creating a “Great Hiatus”.

  2. Joe Revill says:

    I have argued elsewhere (http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/the-mystery-of-reichenbach/) that the illogicalities in “The Final Problem” suggest very strongly that Dr. Watson was not telling the full truth about these events. I am inclined to believe that he knew all along that Holmes had survived, and that the story of Holmes’s return in disguise (and Watson’s uncharacteristic fainting) was another of the Doctor’s fabrications, perhaps based partly on the Gospel narratives of the Resurrection. Otherwise, as you point out, it all makes little sense emotionally. Why would Holmes put his friend through that suffering, and how could Watson forgive him so easily?

    • That’s a really good though Joe, and as we know, Watson did like to embellish the stories – something which Holmes often took issue with. But still, I can’t quite believe that Watson would lie to such an extent to his trusting readers. Which ever way you look at it though, the Empty House just doesn’t really work.

      Thanks for your comments.

  3. mala says:

    I have no idea of the BBC Sherlock and no plans of watching it anytime soon..as far as the Empty House goes..i think your diagnosis is missing a key point that Holmes makes, about Watson’s emotional nature and difficulty keeping secrets. Yes it does look rather cruel to not tell a companion/friend but it was necessary for Holmes to save his life…the reason also why Watson readily forgives him is also his own awareness of his nature. Moriarty’s comrades also had the home watched, the first place they’d have found him is with Watson so is it not any wonder Holmes had to take extreme precautions in this regard. (Moran is watching the house and knows he is alive only after he shows up, not before!),

    • I have often wondered whether Holmes was trying to protect Watson but I am inclinded to think that Moriarty’s gang weren’t interested in the good doctor. Holmes was the prize.

      Moran knew all along that Holmes was alive because he was the one who threw rocks at him as he tried to climb away from the falls – he ‘had kept guard while the professor attacked me. From a distance, unseen by me, he had been a witness of his friend’s death and my escape.’ Towards the end of the Empty House, Holmes confirms that it was Moran – ‘When we were in Switzerland he followed us with Moriarty, and it was undoubtedly he who gave me that evil five minutes on the Reichenbach ledge.’

      • mala says:

        Perhaps but Moran only found him at 221 B. That showed he did not have as much of a network to follow Holmes around..and Holmes did right being in hiding until time was right to come out.

  4. Teri White says:

    I took the comment about 18 months to mean that he hadn’t seen the therapist since he met Sherlock, not that it was that long since the death! John’s feelings were still raw. I think this talk was very soon after the ‘death.’

  5. Victor Mackenzie says:

    Remember in The Hound of the Baskervilles when Sherlock was sitting at the fireplace and he doubted himself and told John that he didn’t “have friends” which he corrected later to John that indeed, no, he does not have friendS (emphasis on plural) that he’s only got one friend and he only said that after John walked away from him at the church when he tried to get Watson to help him, because John was upset that Sherlock earlier asked him why he would listen to him, after all, he’s just a friend, right? So, if John had that reaction to Sherlock saying he doesn’t have friends, then how on earth will his reaction be anything less than extreme to the greatest degree of refusing to talk to Sherlock? Or perhaps he could go completely opposite, punch Sherlock while exclaiming that its impossible for him to just waltz in after three years ( or however long the producers decide to make Sherlock’s apparent “death” last) and say “I’ve really been alive all this time, I’ve just never bothered to tell you. Here I am!” And therefore, conclude that he’s an imposter or that he, himself, has somehow been intoxicated by a hallucinogenic drug. Or perhaps after Sherlock’s fall, he commits himself to hunting down Moriarty’s gang, however improbable and I honestly don’t see how that could be even injected into their storyline, but it’s traditional or clishé of most stories where a characters’ beloved friend, family member, lover, child, ect. Is killed, and the other commits themselves to revenge, but I don’t really see that plausible for John’s character. More likely than not, the resolution episode will start with some clues Sherlock has left behind for John to reveal that he’s not dead, considering Sherlock’s personality. But I remember reading, I think it was The Dying Detective in my seventh year of primary school, where Sherlock pretended to be dying because he did not believe John could act as well if he knew he was alive, so there’s that probability. Most of these guesses are shots in the dark towards a target that is moving, but nevertheless it’s fun to contemplate how these personalities would interact in this situation. I think everyone’s a little bit antsy to see how it plays out and also a tad bit worried that it’ll be disappointing or unfitting, given the eccentric characters and how the original story played out.

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