Monday, January 27, 2014

Sherlock - The Sign of Three - Episode Review

Warning: spoiler-filled rant ahead.

And…apparently the game is not on. It’s tradition that the middle episode of each season of Sherlock will be the weakest, but The Sign of Three is possibly my least favorite episode of all three season so far. The tragedy is, I know Steve Thompson – the writer – can do better. While season one’s The Blind Banker was corny, season two's finale The Reichenbach Fall was excellent.

But let’s get down to it: the first thirty minutes are great. We’re thrown back into the swing of things, as Sherlock starts to deal with the idea of life without single John. “It changes people, marriage,” says Mrs. Hudson, widow of a double-murderer. The wedding itself starts about twenty minutes in—naturally we completely skip any proceedings inside the church and fast-forward to the reception. A group of amusing flashbacks show Sherlock organizing the wedding, warning off Mary’s ex-boyfriend and having a brief Iron-Man-3-esque personal cute kid. Sherlock has a conversation with Mycroft which, once again, emphasizes how much the wedding is going to change the Watson-Holmes relationship.

Then comes the speech, which I expected to last about five, maybe ten, minutes. My first mistake.

I admit that it’s an original idea to compose an entire episode of flashbacks contained in a best man’s address, but it’s something that has to be dealt with cleverly. In this case, the execution is far from clever, and at about the forty minute mark I was longing for Sherlock’s speech to be over. Unfortunately, we still had half an hour of Benedict Cumberbatch narrating a succession of seemingly unrelated, disjointed, trying-too-hard-to-be-funny cases. Sherlock in many ways runs on dialogue, the chemistry between the leads, and this episode is a monologue.

This episode’s biggest problem is that it assumes the whole wedding thing will be more interesting than the normal state of affairs, i.e. chasing villains, investigating international scandals, stealing ashtrays from Buckingham Palace. And that assumption is completely wrong. Just because it is interesting to imagine Sherlock Holmes being John Watson’s best man, it doesn’t follow that tracking him in real time through the preparations, stag night, and onto the dance floor will also be amusing. In fact, it comes very close to compromising the character’s integrity, removing him so far from the dignity and careful isolation of the Victorian Holmes that it’s difficult to tell him from Jonny Lee Miller’s insipid modern boy-prodigy.

Of course, it’s funny to put Sherlock in modern situations and ordinary places, but only if it’s abundantly clear that they are not his element. It may seem strange, but I think the thing that annoys me the most was when the audience laughs at Sherlock’s speech, or awws when he says something sweet, like the invasive canned laugh on old sitcoms. Sherlock is a show-off, yes, but the whole point is that he has an audience of one: John—not a whole army of boring modern people. Then he plays the violin for the final dance—on a stage. Sherlock isn’t a public person—he never has been. It just doesn’t feel authentic. 

The prelude to the speech, in which he insults the audience, John, and the world in general, then does an abrupt about-turn into earnest humility, is appropriate, exquisitely written, and genuinely moving, but is quickly cheapened by the fact he repeats a weaker variation several times. YES. We know how much you love John. John is a life-saver. Nobody can live without him. Except for two and a half years overseas without a second thought, apparently.
That sort of repetition is a problem—Sherlock has marriage-won’t-change-things talks with Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, and John, while John has another with Mrs. Hudson. The drunken stag night drags on into obvious slapstick and a painful client interview—though the lab beakers full of beer were funny (FYI: for a primer on how to do a Holmes/Watson stag night, see Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows). There are a number of scenes that seem to exist for no other reason but padding—when Lestrade and Molly talk in St. Bart’s, when Sherlock and Molly talk in St. Bart’s, the random “inexplicable” case. Sherlock’s mind-palace sequence meanders through an elimination process and fritters away time asking women about their make-up. He asks for suggestions on a murder case from the crowd, and I was wondering for a while if we were going to have everyone’s opinion.

By the time we finally get around to unveiling the fact that there had, among the jumble of Sherlock’s rambling, been a murder, I was so sick of the gigantic yellow reception room that the revelation—a predictable one—brought no emotion but relief. Finally, the loosely connected flashbacks are drawn together into a slightly plausible, and quite clever, conclusion, but lacking in drama. It's too bad that the book was only barely referenced, because the series is at its best when playing with Conan Doyle's original.

Overall, I wish I could be more positive. I seem to be one of the only people who disliked the episode (it’s hard to tell among the rabid fandom). But the whole idea struck me as contrived - Sherlock just happens to list the stories that have to do with a man who is coming to the wedding? He's not aware that he's assembling the evidence? I don't buy it.

There were things I liked:

“I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy….John, I am a ridiculous man—redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.” That was just beautiful, a wonderful example of Sherlock’s new conscience—he has begun to see the truth about his character, the first requirement on the road to redemption.

“Of course you’re my best friend.” Freeman at his best. This was a lovely, heartfelt, funny scene.

 “I’m going to run him.” I just love how Mary is messing with both Sherlock and John and they have no idea.

The opening scene was quite funny, though I wish they’d followed it up. I felt for Gavin—I mean Greg.

I noted the foreshadowing of Sherlock’s “last vow.” At the moment, I’m trying to drum up some optimism for next week.



  1. Grinning and nodding. Now just copy and paste the substance of your criticisms over nearly every other episode of Sherlock, and you'd be getting close to where I am on the show. :-)

    Thinking back over each show, I think the unaired pilot and _The Great Game_ came closest to realizing its potential for me, minus the gay jokes in the pilot and re-writing the entire portrayal of Moriarty in _The Great Game_. Clever cases, fast-paced storytelling without tons of filler, and warm, witty chemistry between the leads, without using sensationalism as a crutch. _The Blind Banker_ suffered on the first and second counts (especially the whole circus act at the the end--cringe), _The Hounds of Baskerville_ got bogged down on two, _Scandal in Belgravia_ was a complete disaster on four (still gets my vote for worst episode yet), and _Reichenbach Fall_ in my opinion also failed on four.

    The chemistry between the leads is the one thing that never diminishes from episode to episode, and it's what keeps drawing me back in the vain hope that everything else around them will improve. We definitely saw some of that in this episode, and the bits you highlighted were truly funny and moving. But I think the problems you aptly picked apart are really some of the same problems that have been endemic to the show from day one, just perhaps inserting themselves so obviously here that even you can't ignore them. :-D To illustrate my point, the unaired _Study in Pink_ had all the ingredients that made that episode good, but the additions in the official one were all just extra plot contrivances and tacked on filler. And that was the first episode ever.

  2. I enjoyed this episode very much. I found it very intriguing, as it was a episode of change. And I love Watson's wife--she's such a strong, put-together character. Can't wait to see more of her. And I agree on all the good points that you mentioned. I actually liked how they did things in this episode. But I like seeing writers change things up a bit. I was amused. I guess I approach the show from the standpoint that I always expect a few really great episodes, and episodes that will be gentler, more just for amusement. Not that I condone bland filler--obviously not--but I thought this episode was interesting in itself. And the line of good point one--that has to be the best in the entire episode.

    yankeegospelgirl, I agree about episode one. Although didn't necessarily dislike the additions in episode one, I liked the conciseness in the original pilot. In my opinion, it showed Sherlock being more unnerved, so more human. BUT I loved the addition to the scenes of Watson going through the buildings, trying to find Sherlock. Or was that in the original too? Now my memory getting blurry.

    Anyway. In the end, we all know it's a fantastic show. ;)

    1. On second thought, I may have to bump the episode up just based on that one line. :) I think I'd have liked it better if I had watched it in segments, instead of all at once on TV. But there were still sequences that just dragged on too long and plot holes and so on. I think my greatest complaint is that it's more of a romcom episode than a Sherlock episode. Fun to shake things up, but you can only go so far without breaking genre conventions.

      I do love Mary, though - at least in this episode. I'm curious as to what you think of her in His Last Vow - I'll say nothing here, but I'm going to review it as soon as it comes out Sunday (I've already seen it on the web). At the moment, I'm torn. She and Martin Freeman were so good in it, but I'm just not sure I like the writing decisions. Anyway, that'll have to wait.

    2. Mmmmhm, I feel another mutual consensus coming on. :)


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