Through the first two seasons of Sherlock, the one episode people consistently cited as the “worst”—and I use that term very loosely, as there’s no such thing as a bad episode of Sherlock—was season two’s “The Hound of Baskerville”. That was the one episode that in no way tied back to Moriarty, and so it ended up having a kind of inconsequential feel. It feels a bit like a placeholder, like a kind of thematic intermission. Well, with Moriarty gone, so far season three has a similar time-killing feel to it. It’s not that the episodes aren’t good—they are very good. It’s just that they don’t feel important and without the looming threat of a Big Bad, they lack the gravitas of the previous seasons of Sherlock.
But that’s not really a bad thing. It’s nice to get to enjoy Sherlock and John Watson without waiting for the other shoe to drop, to just get to live with these characters and not worry about What’s Next. There’s no urgency, that’s true, but there is fun. And episode two is really quite a lot of fun. On the whole, I enjoyed this one more than “The Empty Hearse”. I laughed out loud several times, there were meaningful character moments, and the smugness detected in “Hearse” was dialed back here. It’s still a little smug, but it lacks totally that mean-spirited edge that cropped up in “Hearse”, and it also had less of the hyper-editing that detracted somewhat from the pace of “Hearse”.
Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of good editing and the style flourishes we’ve come to expect from Sherlock. There are. It’s just that here they serve the story better. The best example is when Sherlock recounts John asking him to be his best man, the scene cutting between Sherlock delivering his speech at the reception of John and Mary’s wedding, and John asking at the Baker Street flat. It’s perfectly timed and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, once again, knock their delivery out of the park. The only transition I didn’t like in this episode was the time-lapse of plates being cleared at the reception, and that’s just because people eating is gross.
“The Sign of Three” is the first multi-case episode we’ve had on Sherlock. As the title suggests, there are three, two which Sherlock recounts at John and Mary’s wedding reception, and one which occurs contemporaneously. They do tie up and end up solved by the end of the episode, which is satisfying on one hand, but I wouldn’t have minded being presented with the history of the cases that John and Sherlock couldn’t solve, if only because that would be different and interesting. But the point was to illustrate how John Watson helps Sherlock be Sherlock, and to that end, the cases—and the episode—succeeds.
One thing we get in this episode—which we also got in “Baskerville”—is a sense of who John was as a soldier. Freeman does a great job of portraying a man who never stopped being a soldier, even when he stopped soldiering, giving John not only force of command but also dignity. Where Sherlock describes himself as “ridiculous”, John is not, if only because what John does matters in a way that Sherlock doesn’t. As he says, he can solve your case but John can save your life. Much of this episode is about to the friendship and extraordinary love between these two men, and Sherlock’s flighty, often accidentally insulting, best man’s speech is grounded by the tremendous respect he obviously has for John.
I say “extraordinary love” because I can’t think of another show so dedicated to portraying such deep platonic love between men. It’s easy to read homoerotic tension into Sherlock Holmes, but this particular version is really about their friendship—their brotherhood. So far in season three we’ve seen Sherlock getting along quite well with his actual brother, Mycroft, but you can’t help but feel that John Watson is the brother Sherlock chose. For as much as he disdains love and emotion as the enemies of the logic he so values, it’s clear that Sherlock loves John very much, and that that love has grown to embrace Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington, who continues to be GREAT) by the simple virtue that they both love John.
A lot of time was spent in this episode foreshadowing potential changes to John and Sherlock’s relationship as John gets married. Everyone talks about it being the “end of an era” and Mary goes out of her way to get John and Sherlock out on a case together, to show them that just because she is now part of the equation, it doesn’t mean their crime-solving ways have to end. But for all her reassurance that things won’t change, you can’t help but feel the tonal shift at the end of the episode, that Sherlock’s final toast to John and Mary is portentous and that the last image of Sherlock leaving the wedding early—something Mrs. Hudson warned against—is particularly foreboding. There’s just one episode left in season three, and it’s starting to feel rather ominous.