How Did Sherlock Survive His Suicidal Leap?

In Sherlock’s season premiere there was an audacious plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament—but wait?! Didn’t he commit suicide last season? Warning: Spoilers, sort of.

Hartswood Films/BBC for MASTERPIECE

The British updating of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock, does not return to American screens until January 19 on PBS, so we’ll be careful not to spoil it for you. But the much anticipated third series was back on UK screens last night, New Year’s Day.

Fans of the series will need no reminding that at the end of the last episode, almost two years ago, Sherlock, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, apparently flung himself to his death off the roof of St Bart’s London hospital after being forced into it by his nemesis Jim Moriarty (who shot himself, but not before promising Sherlock that his friends and family would be murdered if he did not go ahead and kill himself).

The suicidal leap was observed by his sidekick and blogger scribe, Dr. John Watson, an Iraq war vet played by former loveable schlub Martin Freeman, previously known as Tim from the UK version of The Office. Holmes saw the body, lying bloody on the pavement in the closing seconds of the last series, yet there were many hints that Sherlock somehow faked his own death, that it was “a conjuring trick,” not least the fact that Conan Doyle did something similar in his literary original, The Final Problem, in a story set at the Reichenbach Waterfalls in Germany. (He brought Holmes back to life for commercial reasons.)

On Christmas eve the BBC released a seven-minute short, entitled Many Happy Returns, that set the stage for Sherlock’s return. It has now been viewed over six million times. So there was little doubt that Sherlock survived. But how did he do it? The opening minutes apparently showed us, in an astonishing sequence featuring a cameo appearance by the British hypnotist Derren Brown who put Watson under to buy Sherlock a crucial few seconds.

It was heart-stopping, head-spinning stuff—but it was also, one felt, just a bit too ridiculous for this clever and wry program that many are hailing as the best remake ever, period.

Cleverly, the sequence was swiftly revealed as the wild fantasy of a Sherlock obsessive who runs a fan site called The Empty Hearse, cleverly mirroring the obsessive tweeters who have been circulating these theories on twitter for the past few months in the real world.

So the spoiler in this review is, there is no spoiler. We did not discover how Sherlock did it. We did, however, discover that there were 13 possible scenarios for his escape from the roof of the hospital, and with three of those eliminated in the course of the new episode, it’s going to be fun seeing how the other possibilities are played out over the next few weeks of this (much too short) three-parter.

Many of the reviews in the UK today postulate that we have—in one of the scenarios involving an airbag and a squash ball—indeed seen how Holmes did it, but the hints in the show that this was just another story were all over the place. Furthermore, it is hard to believe writers Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s emotionally numb brother, British spy Mycroft) and Steven Moffat would throw away their trump card so casually.

The episode itself concerned an audacious plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and the tale rollicked along at its usual cracking pace. The sharp editing can be slightly too much at times—when the idea of floating little bits of text over a sequence was first introduced it no doubt caused a sensation, but the moment has undoubtedly passed—but overall the cut is witty and enhances the story.

But the beating heart of this series is still the fantastic chemistry between Holmes and Watson, and the scene where Holmes reveals himself to Watson, disguised as a waiter in a French restaurant, expecting a hug and getting a headbutt, is pure genius.

At the end of the 90-minute episode, Watson, tells Holmes “I could kill you.”

“Oh please,” Holmes replies, “Killing me is so two years ago.”