Sherlock: The Sign of Three

So, the new Sherlock TV show. Not to be confused with the new Sherlock Holmes TV show, Elementary, which actually isn’t that bad if you sit down and watch it. Its opening sequence is a dozen times better, for a start – am I really the only one who completely despises that loud, tuneless rock track that Sherlock has?

But yeah, Sherlock, the one with Martin Freeman of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and that very British, very popular, very tall institution that I’ll just call “Big Ben” from here on out. It’s hard for me to state a single opinion on Sherlock. On one hand, it has a blisteringly high entertainment value, with top-notch acting, stylish presentation, witty and clever interplay between consistent and well-developed characters, excellent adaptation of the classic stories I’ve read many times…

On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to call myself a Sherlock fan, because that invariably associates me with Big Ben’s legions of squealing ladies (and quite a few cheering men; I am nothing if not tolerant in my vaguely hypocritical condescension). The fans have been responsible for most of the worst moments in the show, most of which have been in the most recent, third season – and yet that also had most of my favorite moments in the series too, so I’m not sure what to think.

I think a point few have picked up on is the similarity between this show and season 1 of HBO’s True Detective – both center around a deep, conspiratorial mystery investigated by two men, starring a socially withdrawn scholar torn between cold logic and his newfound partner and friend, a more audience-surrogate family man with a violent history. On a gut level I like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s efforts a lot more  than I do Big Ben or Martin Freeman’s, just because it’s stripped of all those fandom problems that complicate my feelings so much.

This is a new year, though, so let’s accentuate the positive and make long-winded jokes about the negative. This will be a review of “The Sign of Three”, my personal favorite episode of the show, but I’ll be taking out some moments to talk about how it earns this title by avoiding the mistakes of other episodes. People just won’t learn if you don’t tell them what they did wrong and show them how to do it right.

The Sign of Three starts with something we don’t get a whole lot of in the show – perspective. We have a long, very mannered montage of Inspector Lestrade doing some important, difficult, yet completely normal police work – staying on a difficult case over a long period and having to outsmart the bad guys by leading them into an ambush. Oh yeah, the bad guys in question? The Joker’s goons. Just putting that out there.

Dr. Strange is just about least interesting casting choice for Big Ben. Hell, even Captain/Mrs. Marvel would at least have some potential.

Eccentric private detective, internet sensation and cartoonishly tall man Sherlock Holmes sends Inspector Lestrade asking him for help just as he’s finally about to arrest the Joker, and he relies on Sherlock so much that he goes immediately to 221B Baker Street with heavy back up, only to find that he just needs some help writing a speech he’s going to present. Cue the wha-wha-wha-whaaaaa!

This is one of the greatest strengths of the writing – it’s able to balance all the banter and subversions of standard mystery story convention with more modern and completely serious mystery stories, without either really emerging as more important than the other. It’s a delicate line to walk, and it doesn’t always work, but it’s in top form throughout the episode, only falling too far into comedy in a few choice spots.

Like this.

See, the setup for the episode is that Sherlock’s trusty sidekick John Watson is getting married to the love of his life, Mary – because Sir Arthur D. sort of ran out of creative names right around the time he created Sherlock and Mycroft. But I digress – Sherlock is John’s best man, and is daunted by the prospect of having to write a speech for the occasion. Eventually, he decides on making the meat of the speech being a recounting of a few of the cases he and John have had over the years.

This has been an episode premise I’ve been dying to see ever since the show started: A clip show. My favorite of the Holmes stories were always the shorter efforts – stuff like The Copper Beeches or The Red-Headed League – I’ve always their punch more enjoyable than the stuff from the novels. Despite this, one of the best things about Sherlock is that each episode is movie-length, because it allows for the minimum amount of crap to get in the way of the down and dirty mystery plotline. I’ve been wanting a clip show for a while because it would be a perfect opportunity to meld these two things I like so much – have some framing device where we get two or three different self-contained cases, that of course turn out to be related in the end.

This is almost exactly what I was hoping for: At the wedding, Sherlock starts telling about his exploits, but not after a very serious bout of self-effacement where he methodically tears down the “tortured, lonely genius bishounen” idealization of himself that’s so popular among fangirls. One of the things that rubs me the wrong way is that his character hasn’t appreciably gotten out of this since the beginning of the show despite the substantial development Big Ben has tried to provide him with, and it’s sort of weird how they’re completely blind to that despite being so self aware in most other cases – yeah, Sherlock calls himself a sociopath a lot, but that label is really devalued when it becomes a catchphrase…or a one-liner, like it is in the season finale.

[You can tell they were resisting the urge to have him say “I’m a high-functioning sociopath, bitch!”, but why didn’t they resist the urge to overuse that line in the first place?

After that he finally gets to recounting the cases; both of them are unpublished by Watson on his popular blog, because neither have been definitively solved, but his point in recounting the stories is how John still did tons of good for people despite Sherlock not being able to crack the cases. One of them is a classical locked-room mystery, where John was able to save the erstwhile victim with his medical skills (Also, the victim plays the Dr. Watson role on How to Get Away With Murder – can’t really think of any joke for that, besides the ongoing joke that is the dialogue of that show). The second is a mysterious man who used his extraordinary powers of memory and disguise to impersonate dead people, and use these powers to pick up women…not the most useful thing could do with those powers, but, as Watson points out, the most obvious and safest for some lonely dude, who didn’t commit any substantive crime other than possible adultery, and thus would be pointless to seek out.

This doesn’t feel right to me as a justification for leaving the case unsolved, but it’s the busy run-up to the wedding, so I can see why he’d let a boring case like that slide.

This leads back to the idea of marriage as something to be avoided, and escaped – which leads to the discussion of John’s bachelor party. Sherlock and John go on a pub crawl and drink out of yards of ale and get in a punch-up – ooh, look at me and all my fancy Anglicisms. Of course they get blind drunk pretty fast, since they hardly ever have the time to drink, and immediately get hired for a complicated case as soon as they go back to their apartment…uh, flat… and try to sleep it off.

They have to perform an investigation and interrogation while completely soused. This sequence goes on for about ten minutes, which is why I can’t definitively say the show is a lighthearted mystery series rather than a crime-based comedy show – the two keep getting switched out for one another. I’m not complaining about that, but I am when the mystery and comedy both are pushed aside for winks to the fan community, which is the latest in a long line of constant gripes I have with Steven Moffat if the last season of Doctor Who is any indication.

The in-universe fan club in another episode this year has literally no other reason to exist, and it just isn’t interesting or insightful in the slightest.

This investigation completely fails, but going over it in his speech, Sherlock realizes that it was in fact connected to the other two unsolved cases, and works through the investigation almost completely silently as the tension climbs. Eventually, he figures out that all three cases were just the unnecessarily complex build-up to the real crime, which is to be committed at the wedding!

You see, one of the wedding guests is an old military friend of John’s, who did a lot of morally gray army stuff while John was back in the base watching reruns of M*A*S*H*. Besides earning him the enmity of one particular dude with a complexity obsession, a name taken from the original bad guy of The Sign of the Four, and no other qualities; this also turned him into Two-Face:

Ooooh, so that explains the presence of the Joker!

But he’s an okay guy once you get to know him, I guess. So Sherlock and John team up to save his life, although most of the real legwork is done by Mary, John’s wife.

Oh, right, John has a wife now. She’s a real win for the series, since she has deep emotional ties to both Sherlock and John without being too dependent on humor to forge those bonds, meaning we finally have a straight man to the two divergent comedic types. I also like how she manages to have an important role despite taking a backseat to both of the main two, unlike certain Companions I could name.

Sherlock turns over the blank-slate bad guy over to Inspector Lestrade, and then we get my favorite scene of the episode – which is my favorite because it doesn’t exist.

You see, each season of Sherlock has had a mysterious bad guy who controls the lesser bad guys throughout the season, meaning that each episode ends with those lesser bad guys reporting to the greater bad guy, who then makes a stupid little statement about how everything is going according to plan.

This especially got worse this season, since Moriarty had died and we had to wheel in a replacement on the double. The dude gets fleshed out in the season finale when we find out how gloriously loathsome he is, but for the longest time the only thing we know about him is that he’s got a nebulous plan for Sherlock and John. So the name “Emperor Palpatine” just seemed right for him.

Better hairdresser, though.

But this is the first episode in four years with a definite culprit for the crime who doesn’t go running off to Emperor Palpatine at the end. It’s a little thing, but it really seals this episode as my favorite – sometimes things can go on to your characters that make sense in the context of the world around them, without needing to lead up to your big arc plot.

Now that’s a really rare quibble for a show – nine times out of ten I’d complain for the opposite reason. I’ve been mean to the show, but it still has some of the best written mysteries on the air.

These scores for the season as a whole:


TWO THUMBS UP: Mystery plotting, the balance between drama and comedy

THUMBS UP: Mary Watson

THUMBS DOWN: Emperor Palpatine

TWO THUMBS DOWN: That cliffhanger, Sherlock becoming more of a cartoon character (not helped by being played by Big Ben)

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