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Sherlock’s “The Sign of Three” Proves a Marked Improvement on Season Opener

By on January 28, 2014
Pictured: Martin Freeman as Watson (L) and Benedict Cumberbatch (R) as Holmes. Image © BBC

Pictured: Martin Freeman as Watson (L) and Benedict Cumberbatch (R) as Holmes. Image © BBC

By Anastasia Klimchynskaya

Rejoice, for Sherlock’s back on our TV screens for the second time in two years; we can put off the terrible inevitability of another lengthy hiatus for a whole week. 

Plus, “The Sign of Three” is a marked improvement over “The Empty Hearse,” with all the deducing, the plotting, and the characterization back in full force. What’s best about the entire episode, though, is the way that it’s a celebration of what we’ve come to love about Sherlock without all that breaking-the-fourth-wall stuff that “The Empty Hearse” was so oversaturated with.

The episode does get off to a predictable start, and I don’t mean the headlines of bank robberies thrown at the screen to set the mood for a detective story. Rather, it’s Detective Lestrade, running desperately to save Sherlock Holmes in response to his texted plea of “help me” that has the feel of inevitability about it: you know, you just know, that Sherlock’s not actually in trouble and our dear Lestrade’s in for a surprise. The moment of comic relief is almost predictable, as Lestrade barges into Baker Street with maximum backup only to find Sherlock facing the great hurdle of all writers: the blank Microsoft Word document.

But, after this predictable start, the episode evolves into the convoluted web of story that makes Sherlock such a joy to watch. The plotline here is my no means linear, and it’s refreshing, in a way, that the episode is tangled as a mystery Sherlock occasionally solves, and yet that it somehow fits together more than seamlessly. Of course, that also makes it endlessly difficult to pick it apart in the interests of analysis and review, as that would make the whole beautiful, intricate edifice come crumbling down. Nevertheless, I shall make a valiant effort to commentate on the parts, with the caveat that this episode is the definition of the whole being greater than the sum of those parts.

Image © BBC

Image © BBC

It all comes down to a wedding. That’s the simple part: John Watson and Mary Morstan are getting married. After a few beautiful shots of the entire, gorgeously-dressed Sherlock cast (they really do wear beautiful costumes on British shows), we move on to the most important part of that wedding: the best man’s speech, which is the thread that links the entire episode together.

It’s a speech that, first and foremost, allows the episode to flash back to the time between Sherlock’s return from the dead and the wedding itself, presenting us with an opportunity to (finally) see him building- and rebuilding – relationships with the people in his life. Whereas “The Empty Hearse” was equal parts action and misdirection, this episode seems to legitimately take seriously the task of exploring where our protagonist stands with his relationships after his two year absence. He’s clearly mending his relationships with the people who have made his life (his conversation with Mrs. Hudson harkens back to their old, antagonistic fondness, and he’s clearly back on good terms with Lestrade), and forming new ones – most significantly with Mary Morstan. It’s an endearing relationship, equal parts fondness, admiration, and protectiveness, and yet that something more. Perhaps it comes from that keen understanding Mary seems to have of the importance John and Sherlock have in each other’s lives, and the way she gracefully moves through the story while pushing together the two estranged protagonists.

Image © BBC

Image © BBC

It’s a relief to see her do so, because it allows for the well-loved and time honed combination of crime-solving and partnership. Even if John and Sherlock’s relationship is not what it used to be – the two of them, together against the world, taking on criminal masterminds and devious dominatrixes – they’re solving cases again, and there’s something so familiar, so right, about it that it’s like coming home. There’s also the good old game of fun case names (“The Elephant in the Room” is spectacular), the ridiculous disguises (Sherlock attempting to pass as a guard at a royal palace), and the general combination of humor and mystery that brings the two together. The entire thing also leads to what has got to be one of the most hilarious things seen on television ever:  John and Sherlock’s stag night. Backed by a soundtrack of the remixed, drunken-sounding Sherlock theme to accompany the drunken pair, it’s a hilarity one shares with the two protagonists on screen.

It’s also refreshing to see John as so much more than a sidekick throughout all the action and adventure: instead, he’s the brave, resourceful partner, with fire and spirit hidden in Martin Freeman’s small frame and left over from John’s military days.

But, to save the best for last, the most spectacular part of the entire speech is what it reveals about Sherlock Holmes and his relationship with John Watson. The two have been at the heart of the series for two seasons, and as we’ve fallen in love with Sherlock, we’ve fallen in love with John and Sherlock, with a partnership and a friendship. The speech is a celebration of those things, spoken by Sherlock Holmes himself. That speech is a feat in itself, because it’s just so Sherlock: he manages to be, at the same time, insensitive and caring, socially inept and yet incredibly human, and overly clever to boot. The detective who’s valued head over heart has become both head and heart, managing to at once try to solve a mystery and openly, unabashedly acknowledge his affection for his blogger and his friend. This, friends, is both characterization and character development: a Sherlock Holmes (brought to life, admittedly, by Benedict Cumberbatch’s spectacular, and probably incredibly taxing, performance) who is strange, unique, smarter than everyone else – – and yet, as John Watson so aptly put it, “the most human – human being.” John Watson may have spent the past two seasons being Sherlock’s humanity, but this time, it is Sherlock Holmes who seems to be the truly humanizing force of the story, and yet, thanks to a combination of brilliant acting and beautiful writing, remains completely in character.

Image © BBC

Image © BBC

All of those things come to a head when it turns out there’s going to be a murder at the wedding. This is where all the pieces come together. It turns out – a little too conveniently, and this is one of the weaknesses of the episode – that the cases John and Sherlock have been solving all episode are actually intricately tied to this impending murder. But, this convenient coincidence aside, it’s a brilliant way to meld the emotional arc of the episode with the excitement of the detective aspect of the show. Plus, this climax is an excuse to finally have a glimpse of Sherlock’s mind palace, another clever aspect added to this episode. It provides a glimpse, yet again, of both Sherlock’s thought processes – as he works through clues and draws conclusions-  and his feelings – as it turns out that the palace is filled with people, from his brother Mycroft presiding over the proceedings to John Watson’ by his side.

The episode ends with some incredibly sweet (and quite tantalizing) moments. One of them is Sherlock’s relationship with bridesmaid Janine: they’ve been flirting throughout the episode, and it seems that Sherlock’s acquired another Molly Hooper: an original character who likes Sherlock and yet disconcerts him, wonders about him and yet at the same time sees just a little bit through him.

Most interestingly, though, is Sherlock’s Last Vow (the title of the ensuing episode, and so, despite all the sentiment in it, it’s got to be important). Sherlock Holmes makes a promise to always be there for John and Mary Watson, and one wonders just how far he’ll have to go in the ensuing episode to keep that vow.

But, rather than speculate about the inevitable dark twists to the plot to come, it’s best to revel in the joy of this surprisingly lighthearted episode (for once, nobody dies). It’s the story of a detective who blends the heart and the mind, the detecting and the feelings, the cerebral and the emotional. It’s this combination of deduction and emotion that’s always been the heart of Sherlock, and it’s good to have it back.