This week’s newest episode of Sherlock “The Sign of Three” is a play on an original Holmes story entitled “The Sign of the Four.” In the original story, one of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s longer pieces, this is when John Watson first meets his to-be wife Mary Morstan and it’s when Sherlock Holmes’s affinity for morphine and cocaine are introduced. It was also one of the first stories to truly humanize the Holmes character. At the end of the story we learn that Watson has proposed to Mary and she has accepted. The story ends on a dour note:
“‘The division seems rather unfair.’ I remarked. ‘You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?’
‘For me,'” said Sherlock Homes, ‘there still remains the cocaine bottle.’ And he stretched his long white hand up for it.”
Not exactly the most pleasant way for a Sherlock story to end, with our leading protagonist facing loneliness and the loss of an era that defined him. Needless to say, with a title such as “The Sign of Three” and such an obvious play on an original story title, fans may have been worried that the episode would face a similar outcome, one of abandonment, loss and Sherlock Holmes fallen back upon a bad habit.
For a while it seems that the show has decided to go in the polar opposite direction, opting for merriment, some slapstick humor and loving gestures of friendship instead.
Lestrade is called away from a case that has been eating away at him for months by what is a seemingly dire text from Sherlock requesting help. Of course, once at 221B Baker Street, Lestrade learns that it was nothing of the sort and instead was Sherlock needing as much information on being a best man for John’s wedding as possible.
This sets up the main priority of the episode: defining Sherlock’s role in John’s life and vice versa.
We jump ahead to the wedding reception where we watch as Sherlock tries to navigate how he must behave at such an affair. As they’re greeting the queue of guests we learn the background work Sherlock has done for some of the guests: he instructed an ex-boyfriend of Mary’s to stay away from her and conduct himself in a strictly platonic manner and he made friends with a child by introducing him to the criminal world.
He has done his research.
Inside, we see John greet his recluse of a friend James Sholto, a military acquaintance who after an incident that left many dead had retired to a private home in order to keep out of public scrutiny. Sherlock and Mary watch on and she comments that before the two of them there had to have been another person, another outsider, for John to align himself with.
Food is eaten, drinks are downed and chaotic camera work is implemented by director Colm McCarthy who seems to have just learned about jump cuts and quick editing by the bright and hectic style of the entire wedding scene.
Usually the camerawork and artistic eye behind the director’s camera is a strong point for Sherlock, giving it a cinematic edge against other TV dramas—this time it didn’t work.
It’s about the time where Sherlock must give a speech and at first we believe he’s going to cause secondhand embarrassment for the entire lot of us—and he still does at times—but first, he is completely and totally sweet. He speaks of how he is an obnoxious ass of a man and how because of that he never expected to be anyone’s best friend, nevertheless someone’s best man. He’s perplexed by the situation (explained more thoroughly through a flashback of John asking the question and stunning Sherlock into silence) and because of that feels a greater amount of responsibility to the man who calls him his best friend. He talks of John’s character, of being the best and wisest man he has ever known.
This is when he realizes everyone is crying at his touching speech and is forced to pause before resuming.
I’m of the mindset that the scene would have been perfect as it was if it had been left alone there. But instead they pressed on some more.
Sherlock goes into a flashback about a guard who believed he was being stalked but instead it turns out that someone was trying to murder him. The attempted murder and subsequent saving of the young man is a roundabout way for Sherlock to explain how goodhearted John is and how while Sherlock is searching for murders, John is instead looking to save lives.
Instead, it seems like a way for the writers to inject more story into a directionless story.
It also sets up a later story.
As does the next tangent that Sherlock goes on.
The next anecdote takes place after John and Sherlock have gotten themselves suitably drunk and a woman has come to inquire about a missing boyfriend—or a ghost date. Sherlock and John are too incapacitated to adequately take on this case and make a mess of it. But the next morning, as they awake in a jail cell with a pair of killer hangovers, Sherlock realizes the potential to the case and goes about solving it which leads to an extensive sequence where he interrogates other women who have gone on similar ghost dates.
It seems like an inconsequential subplot until he comes out of his flashback and focuses back on John. He’s a moment away from the toast when he realizes that someone in attendance is in danger of being murdered. He stops the room’s activity and tries to solve it without upsetting the peace of the moment and comes to the conclusion that it’s Sholto who’s in danger and alerts him, signaling for him to leave.
He, John and Mary are not far behind and find Sholto locked in his room where he plans on committing suicide, rather than allow someone get to him first. Sherlock talks him out of it, saying it isn’t something he should do on John’s wedding day. Sherlock tells him that he has realized how he was about to be murdered—in the same way that the young guardsman had been targeted. It was a small blade inserted into their uniform belts that would cause an incision that would be hardly detectable until the belt came off and triggered the slice.
They caught it in time to save him.
Sherlock tells Lestrade that the attempted murderer was the camera man who had a vendetta against Sholto and the wedding is saved! Although, due to the pacing and odd way that the plot times were distributed, it doesn’t seem as if there were many stakes to begin with.
Sherlock has time for one last speech where he accidentally lets out that Mary is pregnant and goes to congratulate the happy couple. He attempts to see about the maid of honor who he seemed to have a connection with, branching out, but sees her already dancing with another man, and leaves. He’s done what he was there to do, deliver his best man speech and now, for the night at least, he is no longer needed.
The trouble with this episode, which announces itself immediately, is the way in which the narrative meanders through its 90-minute runtime, rarely seeming to pick a direction in which they want to follow and instead writing about whatever direction seemed to have popped up in the writer’s room. The only scenes that seemed to have a focus were anything regarding the actual wedding ceremony, but other than that it was a mess of singular vignettes, whether it be John’s stag night—which was funny but the joke was spread thin—or Sherlock’s never-ending speech which was used as an overarching plot device to tell multiple little stories.
Despite my enjoyment at how the show has managed to dedicate time to fleshing out their wonderful characters, I am less enthused by how they’ve let the mystery fall by the wayside. A good show can give us either A or B, but a great show knows how to infuse the two, writing a show with rich characters and suspenseful stories. I’m attached to the characters of Sherlock and I’m more than pleased to see them being given more nuances but it isn’t as gripping when they’re not doing anything of substance.
Regardless, this is an episode that nearly works in its entirety and the ending. And in a roundabout manner, gets back to what I was speaking of at the start.
It turns out, in the end, after Sherlock has made his speeches, performed his best man duties, has opened himself up in a wholly human way that we’ve never seen before, saves the day and rescues a man John admires, he still ends up alone.
Mrs. Hudson at the start of the episode mentioned her best friend at her wedding and how marriage is an end of an era no matter the good intentions put into preserving a friendship. She said her friend left the wedding early and asked who leaves early at a wedding?
Perhaps a man who watches people laugh, dance and engage in a manner that has never befitted him? Perhaps a man who has realized that there is no room for him in the happily married couple’s life, no matter the shared adoration? Perhaps a man who simply believes his job has been done.
What was left for Sherlock at the end of the episode as he strode away from the wedding, donning his coat as if it were a set of armor and went into the night? Lestrade booked the camera man killer, Watson and Mary got their wedding and blissful happiness at the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy and he walks away alone?
What is Sherlock heading to?
Although nowhere near as strong as “The Empty Hearse” and too mindless in its plot direction, the episode hardly meets a series low (that honor still goes to the awful “The Blind Banker”) and it makes up for its (many) shortcomings by the warmth, development and sincerity of the character moments.