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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sherlock: “The Sign Of Three”

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Watson’s getting married! And we’re all invited to celebrate the charming couple, solve a highly coincidental murder, sit through an overly long best man’s speech, and get amazingly drunk. After a particularly rocky opener in the disconnected and emotionally-throttled “The Empty Hearse,” “The Sign of Three” settles in as the squishy middle of the third season. And while it solidifies this series’ increasingly-meta tone (there’s plenty of fan service here), it also provides breathing room for some welcome beats with its lead characters.

The majority of the episode takes place at the wedding itself, with liberal flashbacks to the pair of seemingly-unrelated cases that, because this is TV, come together at the very height of the festivities. But its best moments are the rare, quiet moments between Sherlock and Watson slipped in among the set pieces and memory callbacks. In particular, this episode gives Watson a moment to step beyond the often-subsumed damsel this iteration of Sherlock has made him: asking Sherlock to be his best man. Quietly confident, stopping short of indulgence but still undoubtedly fond, this is the Watson of Conan Doyle’s stories, who does much better without his best friend than his best friend ever does without him. (At the end of The Sign of Four, the Holmes adventure from which this story takes its title, Sherlock calmly announces that in Watson’s absence, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.”) Freeman, who shines throughout this episode, is at his best in this little scene at the kitchen table.

He also, as it turns out, plays a pretty great drunk. Their stag-night montage leads to two-man parlor games at 221b in which Freeman is note-perfect, and watching Sherlock slosh his way through an impromptu investigation is more clever meta than anything we got last episode. (Best one’s a toss-up between “I know aaaaash” and “sitty thing.”) The always marvelous Alice Lowe, as a nurse convinced she dated a ghost, gives a hilarious intensity to her plot-device part; you almost wish she’d come to the wedding.

And oh, the wedding. Amanda Abbington continues to enjoy herself immensely as Mary, though her screen time is relegated to tossing out clichés (she lost a lot of weight to fit into her dress, in case we were burning to know that) and matchmaking between this show’s real couple. She gets one intriguing beat—shooting down Sherlock with “I’m not John, I can tell when you’re fibbing”—but it goes without comment. That’s a shame, because it says a lot about her that merits exploring, and it also says a lot about John, none of it super great.

But naturally, the main event in this episode is Sherlock: his reaction to his date (a game Yasmine Akram), his ability to solve a crime in real time in a room of tipsy revelers, and his speech. Cumberbatch does a yeoman’s work, though the speech itself outstays its welcome, and unfortunately, once again, we’re offered Sherlock as an uneasy balance of arch superhuman and floundering man-child.

Not that he’s without his moments—his sincerity with suicidal Major Sholto about sparing Watson any pain on his wedding day almost eclipses the ruin Sherlock’s already made of Watson’s wedding day. But this Sherlock, as written, tends to traffic in aggressive coolness and rudeness, interrupted by bouts of petulant melancholy—an approach that works against any nuances brought up in the interim. While it works as shorthand in a series as limited as this one, it still often misses the mark on his potential complexity and ultimately leaves him feeling slightly static.


Stylewise, we get some admirable flourishes in the flashbacks: Watson’s superbly fleshy blink on waking from his stag-night blackout is great. But its flair is sometimes stylized to the episode’s detriment. Sherlock’s mind-palace interrogation of victims of the Mayfly Man is sharply done (Vicky needs her own show), but coming in the third act of an episode rife with trick cuts, it feels like overkill when it shouldn’t. Less-frenetic editing of Sherlock and Mycroft’s phone call could have gone a long way here. In fact, less of that could have gone a long way, full stop: Mark Gatiss has leveraged himself into significantly more screen time, but being the ever-present taskmaster of Sherlock’s subconscious and his mid-treadmill confidential bestie feels like a bit too much of a character who’s at his best in small, antisocial doses.

Still, the crimes (which dovetail so nicely it’s nearly comic) provide a solid backdrop for the wedding, the whole ensemble comes together in a single scene, and there’s enough real feeling between Sherlock and John to carry the day. Besides, the closing reveal that Mary’s pregnant, and Sherlock’s promise not to make any more vows, can only mean total disaster awaits everyone next episode, so you might as well enjoy this dance party while you can.


Stray observations:

  • An observation from last week: There was some consternation that I laid responsibility for the show's overall thematic and characterization shortcomings not with Mark Gatiss, co-creator who received script credit for that episode, but with Steven Moffat, showrunner and public face of the show. A showrunner is often considered a synecdoche for the show in general, particularly for a limited series, for which it’s easier to maintain creative control. I continue to think a showrunner like Moffat is knee-deep in, and answerable for, any decisions made about this show. As an example, this week splits writing credit among Stephen Thompson, Moffat, and Gatiss, with Moffat mentioning to the press that he wrote much of the best man speech that serves as both frame story and centerpiece of the third act.
  • Mrs. Hudson’s unconscious grief about losing friends in marriage, and her darkly comic views about dear departed Mr. Hudson, give Una Stubbs some lovely moments with Watson. She also gets the runner-up line delivery of the week in response to Sherlock’s questions about whom you’d murder at a wedding: “I think you're a popular choice at the moment.”
  • “Do you always carry handcuffs?” “Down, girl.” Wow. Thanks, show.
  • That opener of Lestrade abandoning the case of the year to rush to Sherlock’s call for aid is indicative of one of the show’s least endearing facets. Lestrade’s later visit to Molly to discuss the toast is even worse—not only does this universe forgive Sherlock everything, but what percentage of everybody’s day is spent talking about him? It’s entirely possible to make a Sherlock Holmes adaptation in which there are times Holmes is merely tolerated by those around him. This iteration continues to play for laughs what feel increasingly like low-level hostage situations.
  • “This blog is the story of two men and their frankly ridiculous adventures.” If this gets any more meta, next season’s going to be entirely compiled of webcam reaction footage to this season.
  • Speaking of: “There are two people who have done that, and the other one is… a complete dickhead.” See also: “You’re a drama queen.” Don’t worry, this is Sherlock; no one will ever hold him to it.
  • Line delivery of the week: Freeman’s “Of course you are.”
  • I’d be interested in a monograph on the forensic applications of postmortem roasting of the optic nerve.
  • Geothe, quoted in The Sign of Four: “Schade, dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus dir schuf, denn zum würdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff.” [Alas, that Nature made only one man of you, when there was material enough for a good man and a rogue.]