The Sign of Three started as the last episode finished: badly. The first third of the episode was awful and the second third poor, but the last part returned to the exciting, fast paced and intelligent drama that made Sherlock so good in the first place. The show seems to have lost its way during the two year break between series two and three, and I’d like to take a look at what’s gone wrong.
The episode spun around John’s wedding to Mary Morstan, climaxing with the reveal that two recent cases Sherlock had been working on were linked to a plan to kill John’s former army commander during the reception. Sherlock solved the case before disappearing into the night, leaving John and his new wife with the knowledge that a third Watson would soon be on the way.
Too much of the episode was given over to broad comedy. Sherlock is not a sitcom; it’s a drama with comedy elements. The show works best when it builds jokes into the dialogue, humanising the characters and providing some relief from the often scary drama. This episode though started like a jokey sitcom about the awkward but loveable Sherlock.
At one point, Sherlock interrogated the wedding party, which is something I could see him doing, completely unaware of how inappropriate it would seem, but the scene crossed a line into ridiculous camp. ‘Do you have anything to say in your defence,’ he asked Mary’s ex-boyfriend. That’s the type of punchline a sitcom character – The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper maybe – would say, with a laugh-track over the top.
The Sherlock of this series is too different from the character in previous series; jokey and playful, not aloof or arrogant enough. At one point, Mary manipulated Sherlock into taking a case in order to assuage his wedding nerves. So Sherlock is now someone who can be fooled by an ordinary person? She even gives a thumbs up to both John and Sherlock at the same time, without the latter noticing. This is the same guy who is so perceptive he can tell that someone is having an affair by the state of their clothes alone.
It’s okay – indeed necessary – for a character to change over time, but some of these changes are occurring too fast, without proper motivation, or are contradictory to Sherlock’s core attributes i.e. his incredible intelligence.
A lot of this episode focused on Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies and people’s reaction to them, such as a strange series of flashbacks showing characters appalled at the idea of Sherlock giving a best man speech. I think the Sherlock writers have fallen in love with their character a little too much. Or maybe they are playing to the gallery. The Guardian’s TV critic Mark Lawson wrote a great article about the show, arguing that it risks becoming skewed towards an audience of obsessive fans who are in love with Sherlock and his quirks. It’s becoming professional fanfiction, bordering on self-parody.
It’s not a coincidence that the episode improved once it started focusing on plot: the cases Sherlock and John investigated. The scene with Sherlock surrounded by the women from one case, trying to work out the connection between them all – making mistakes along the way – was a return to what this show used to be about: Sherlock’s intelligence, smart screenwriting and innovative directing, production and editing. This second act still wandered into bad comedy territory – Sherlock and John’s drunken adventures went on way too long – but it was certainly better than the first.
Things really kicked in though once Sherlock realised mid-speech that his recent cases were linked to the wedding. This was the show in its element: Sherlock smarter than everyone else, pacing the room, trying to connect all the pieces and work out which wedding guest was the intended victim and which was the murderer.
Sherlock is best when it is doing this, because in amongst all the excitement and drama there is still room for jokes and character insight. As Sherlock struggled to work out how to stop the major being killed, John pointed out that Sherlock should be able to solve the case now there was pressure on him to do so. ‘You are not a puzzle solver – you never have been; you’re a drama queen,’ he shouted. Later Sherlock stopped the major from killing himself by alluding to their similar status in John’s life: ‘Not at John’s wedding,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t, would we? You and me. We wouldn’t do that to John Watson.’
This is character insight and development done right; grounded in drama and teased out through plot. This is what Sherlock used to do.
Of course, the concluding act wasn’t perfect. Some of it pushed credibility – could you really stab someone through their body without them noticing? But I’m willing to suspend disbelief in certain situations, as long as you don’t, oh I don’t know, have an emotionally charged, fake suicide cliffhanger ending and then drag it out over two years and then fail to offer up an explanation. It’d be tough to suspend disbelief in such a completely hypothetical situation as that.
It’s a shame that so much of the episode was boring, comic nonsense. There were hints here and there though that Sherlock is still Sherlock. It wasn’t just the final act – the scene with Sherlock interrogating the jilted lovers, the phone call between Sherlock and Mycroft, and much of the dialogue throughout, were all fantastic. If the show had a proper eight episode series, then an episode like this would be forgivable. As it is, we now have just one episode left to rescue the season, and it’s going to have to be utterly outstanding to make up for the two disappointing ones we’ve had so far.
- The entire opening part with the bank robbers was just a stupid, predictable joke about Sherlock’s selfishness, a joke we’ve seen a good few times before in this show.
- The flaws this series have mainly been in the writing; the directing, editing and music have been as fun as ever. I particularly liked the three jump cuts as Sherlock stepped off the top wedding table during his speech, leaving his awkwardness behind and entering his comfort zone of scrutinising a room full of people.
- I like having an hour and a half to luxuriate in Sherlock but these last two episodes could have been easily cut to a single hour.
- A comment on The Guardian’s recap pointed out that an Empress of Austria was killed in a similar way to the soldier in this episode, with the tightness of her corset keeping her alive after being stabbed with a sharpened needle.
- I enjoyed the final scenes; Sherlock’s loneliness at the party and him walking into the darkness with the muffled sounds of the wedding in the background.
- ‘Do you remember red beard?’ Mycroft said to Sherlock mysteriously. My guess is Red Beard is a childhood pet, and that something went horribly wrong with it.
- I liked the photographer murderer, because it allowed him to be shown throughout the episode without arousing suspicion. The camera shots themselves – the camera’s/murderer’s point of view – were a nice touch. That said…
- …is a wedding where the world’s greatest detective is best man the most sensible place to kill someone? The show suggested that this was the only location the major could be found at and killed, but we know the murderer dated the major’s house staff and thus knew where he lived. Couldn’t he have snuck in at night and killed him?
- ‘So why don’t we see him anymore?’ ‘Who?’ ‘Your previous commander.’ ‘Previous commander?’ ‘I meant -ex.’ ‘Previous suggests I currently have a commander.’ ‘Which you don’t.’ ‘Which I don’t.’
- That Mark Lawson piece I linked to above is worth reading. It compares Sherlock with the new Doctor Who, and some of the comments underneath make great points.