I actually disliked a lot of “The Empty Hearse”, unlike Saika, so I wasn’t much looking forward to yesterday’s “The Sign of Three”, either. Imagine my surprise when this episode of Sherlock turned out to be the fluffiest, most fun episode of TV I’ve seen in a long while. Spoilers after the jump!
From the first sequence of scenes, where Lestrade is called away from his job to help with the urgent matter of Sherlock not knowing how to write a best man speech, it was clear that this episode would be a good deal more flippant than any previous episode of Sherlock. And for the most part, it was this flippant attitude which I loved about “The Sign of Three”. Sherlock, upon being asked to be best man at John and Mary’s wedding, freaks out. No lie. And then, in true Sherlock manner, he goes after the role with all the analytical tenacity he uses on his cases—he plans out John’s stag night to the milliliter, he YouTubes how to fold fancy napkins, he deducts how the seating should be arranged, he bribes guests into behaving.
As a fan, I loved every second of it—as a critic, there were some things I thought could be improved. Although Sherlock’s best man speech was as sweet and as Sherlockian as one might have wished, setting the rest of the story within that narrative framework didn’t quite work over the ninety-minute episode. It made the episode into writer Steve Thompson’s seminal work in telling, not showing, as Sherlock was quite literally telling us about adventures that he and John had had. It was only in the latter half of the episode that the intercut narrative flattened out into a straight retelling of the stag night and the mystery of the Mayfly Man, but that was the other problem: once we were firmly in a past scene and not jumping back and forth from wedding and mystery, I forgot we were supposed to be in the wedding.
Which brings me to this series’s plot arc. In a three-episode season, we don’t need a filler episode, and yet that’s what this episode seemed like—fun, but filler. Many fans thought Sebastian Moran was meant to be the villain for Series 3, and instead the villain is Charles Augustus Magnussen, a character whose name hasn’t even been explicitly stated in any of the episodes thus far. (I only know because I watched the BBC’s episode three trailer.)
I don’t mean to say that Sherlock can’t be any fun, of course; I’m saying that it is possible to have both fun and plot simultaneously. “The Hounds of Baskerville”, my favorite episode up until this one, was also a filler-ish episode that didn’t move the overarching plot forward, but it did have Moriarty and Mycroft in one last foreboding scene at the end. However, Moriarty was in Series 1 and 2 from their inception, threaded through the episodes from the very first crime in the pilot, so meeting him in “The Great Game” didn’t come as a shock, and seeing the extent of his villainy in “The Reichenbach Fall” didn’t come as a surprise. Other than one scene of Magnussen viewing the footage of Sherlock and Mary pulling John from the fire in “The Empty Hearse”, we don’t know anything about him. It actually puts him at more of a disadvantage compared to Moriarty—Professor Moriarty is known to any casual Sherlock fan as Sherlock Holmes’s timeless adversary, but only astute readers of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories will know of the character on which Magnussen is based. A few more scenes establishing his character and his motivations in “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” would really have shown the audience why he’s so fearsome. Instead, Moffat might just use the beginning of “His Last Vow” to tell us, over and over again, that Magnussen is DANGEROUS.
What we do know about Magnussen, oddly, seems tied up with Mary Morstan. This episode, we find out that Mary is an orphan, but at the wedding she receives a telegram which reads, “Mary, lots of love, poppet. Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes from Cam. Wish your family could have seen this.” Mary could have a good friend named Cam, but I think the writers are hinting that Cam is CAM—Charles Augustus Magnussen. If Mary does know our villain, it would fit with the emphasis on her character which we’ve seen so far—Mary is the one who pushes Sherlock and John back together, Mary can tell when Sherlock is fibbing, and both Sherlock and John care deeply about her. Mary, unfortunately, also dies in ACD canon for unknown reasons, which leads to John then moving back in with Sherlock at 221B Baker Street. Given that Mary’s character has been defined by her importance to both John and Sherlock (she doesn’t have any family, we don’t know where she and John met or why she seems to work for him, and we never even find out if the bridesmaid, Janine, was her friend) and, well, given that Steven Moffat is writing the next episode, you’ll forgive me if I’m worried that Series 3’s good-natured fun is about to take a gigantic left turn into the horribly depressing.
As for Sherlock himself, though, I found his sincerity to be a little strange and even out of character. His utter confusion in the face of societal norms, I get. But it’s hard to reconcile this Sherlock, who spent the entire episode waxing poetic about John Watson, with the Sherlock of one episode prior, who emotionally manipulated John into thinking they were both going to die just to get John to confess that he forgave Sherlock for Reichenbach and all its aftermath. Sherlock’s grip on human relationships has certainly been on an upward progression—the Sherlock who couldn’t see why John was trying to get off with Sarah in “The Blind Banker” is not the Sherlock who stood up for John at his wedding—but this avalanche of feeling seemed like too much, too fast. This is again a place where the story would have benefited from more showing and less telling—in the six months since “The Empty Hearse”, Sherlock’s suddenly gone from a person who childishly interrupted his best friend’s proposal, several times, to a person who calls himself “a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of [John’s] friendship”. I do think this progression is possible—but I would have liked to see it happening. Instead I and the audience are just told, “It happened! Enjoy your new Sherlock!”
Moffat’s said before that Sherlock is not a detective show, but a show about a detective, and in Series 3, I can finally see it. Sherlock’s learning, however haphazardly, to build relationships with people who are not John, and he’s learning to strengthen his relationship with John without remaining the same abrasive dickhead who carried us through Series 1 and 2. He’s even starting to show some slight signs of humility—Mycroft’s cold intellectualism is placed visibly above Sherlock in his mind court, and John’s very human nature is what Sherlock turns to when reason and logic are no longer enough. Both episodes of Series 3, so far, have included some discussion of loneliness and friendship: Sherlock calls Mycroft out on being friendless and alone, and Mycroft warns Sherlock that John’s wedding means it’s the end of an era.
Even though I don’t buy Sherlock’s character development completely, Sherlock’s clearly meant to be in a place where he no longer wants to be friendless and alone. And yet he leaves the wedding early, alone with his cheekbones in a shot that could have been straight out of the pilot episode. In the last episode of Series 3, what is Sherlock going to do now that he no longer sees a place for himself at John’s side? I can’t wait to find out, so I’m looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to “His Last Vow”.