Warning: this review contains spoilers.
So here we are, the big day: the wedding of Dr and Mrs Watson, and with Sherlock as the best man, what could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. The Sign of Three is quite unlike any episode of Sherlock we have seen before, tipping the scale much more towards the comedy. It breaks from the normal pattern of solving crimes and cases and instead intermingles them within the main event, the wedding. Though there are bound to be people who will groan at this change in tact, obviously the episode sticks to its roots. It is without a doubt being the best mid-series episode to date.
Starting off as you would expect, Lestrade and Donovan are struggling to crack a case that is increasingly frustrating the Police Department. Over a course of quick transitions, amounting to around 12 months, they finally get their break. But midway through the operation to nick the criminals, Lestrade gets a text from Baker Street requesting ‘Help!’ Building upon the reunion hug of The Empty Hearse, Lestrade backs away from the case of his career to go and help a friend in need. He musters up as much back up to assist him with whatever trouble Sherlock has gotten into, only to arrive at 221B Baker Street to find the Detective frantically hovering over his laptop with a copy of ‘How to Make a Memorable Best Man Speech’ to his side. That’s how the sequence builds: a long, drawn out story before delivering the killer punch line, just as a good joke should be. Before the title credits have gone up, the tone of the episode is set, and we’re in for a fun ride.
Sherlock has never been comfortable with social gatherings, so just imagine how he would react at a wedding. He has to deliver a speech, walk arm-in-arm with the bridesmaid, make nice with John and Mary’s friend – all social situations that he would find uncomfortable. Yet that makes his attempts all the more wonderful. Sherlock’s devotion to John is made crystal clear by the fact he goes through with all of this, more or less without a fuss. One fantastic moment was when a wedding guest shied away from greeting the Detective due to the fact they had already met when he had been interrogated as an ex of Mary’s who still had feelings for her, followed by one of Cumberbatch’s most terrifying smiles. Everything that Sherlock does in this episode, whether he succeeds or fails, is in aid of John and Mary’s big day and there is something admirable in that, considering the hell he had put John through for the past two years.
Mary Morstan (played by Amanda Abbington) gets a greater opportunity for character development than she had previously. The Empty Hearse was more about Sherlock and John’s reunion, but The Sign of Three gives more attention to the bride. If there was any concern that she was going to cause a wedge between Holmes and Watson, it is dispelled in this episode, as she does the exact opposite. During a flashback to the planning of the wedding, Sherlock starts deducing which guests don’t like Mary by examining the envelopes of their replies. If this had been John, he would told him to shut up. But Mary asks ‘Who else doesn’t like me?’ There is something about Abbington which makes her naturally funny, and fills the gaps left by striking differences between Freeman and Cumberbatch. Sensing that the prospect of the wedding is unnerving Sherlock, Mary convinces John to get Sherlock out on another case. But equally sensing John’s resistance to the wedding planning, she makes a similar deal with Sherlock to get Watson out of the house. She knows how to handle the pair of them, something neither Holmes or Watson have managed over the course of two series. Any concerns I had about her character have been eased, and I look forward to seeing her develop further in future episodes.
There are small moments in the episode which are intended to provide comic relief, but just seem a little bit out there and not in sync with the rest of the episode. This is a shame because most of the biggest laughs came from the cleverly built up dialogue or the execution of the actors. These seem trivial and irrelevant in the grand scheme of the entire episode, but there are some moments, such as Sherlock marching dramatically wearing a tall, bearskin hat and Mrs Hudson’s blunt delivery of her physical relationship with her late, convicted husband, that either are not needed or seem a bit sluggish. However, this review wold be incomplete without mention of the Stag Party, which is the most bizarre, yet hilarious sequences I have seen on British TV for a long time. With the music score revamped to a techno tune, Sherlock and Watson both get increasingly drunk and attempt to solve a case in their intoxicated states. This could seem like a scene from a farce, but works in this instance purely because we haven’t seen them in this condition before.
The usual structure is not present here, but there are a handful of small, minor cases that are picked up during Sherlock’s best man speech. My main criticism of the episode is that there are too many flashbacks, cutting back and forth from the wedding to the past, and sometimes we remain so long in the past that we forget that we are actually at the wedding. Either way, what starts off as a series of insignificant, if not intriguing, unconnected cases, all the strings are tied together nicely at the end, and that makes it all worthwhile.
Feelings towards Molly are ambivalent. In The Empty Hearse, it seemed as if she was over Sherlock, but in this episode, she still seems to be hung up him. This makes it seem like it is not over yet, which is also why I am not quite sure about Molly’s would-be boyfriend Tom. With her track record, the repeated jokes about him being a sociopath are making me uneasy. It seems like things are going to end badly for her.
The writing of Sherlock’s best man speech is particularly strong. It turns in every direction, but all roads lead to the same ending. There is a point where, after getting embarrassed by the telegraphs he dutifully reads out, he returns to default Sherlock-mode and starts going around the room, in turn, insulting each and every one of the guests; perhaps not what he intended but succeeding all the same. Yet there is a wonderful reversal where he identifies every fault that people have made about his personality: “rude, most inconsiderate person possible” and finishes with “I was confused by the question of being a Best Man because I never thought I’d be a best friend.” It is a wonderfully presented moment which sets praises for not only the writing, but the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman. It is hard to imagine any other two people filling the role.
Overall, The Sign of Three surpasses the quality of The Empty Hearse. Rather than lingering on a past episode, it stands on its own, as each Sherlock episode tends to. It offers a slightly different flavour to the series, but a welcome one. However, it is disheartening that we start to feel that Sherlock is losing John. Despite Mary not coming between them, and actively trying to keep them together, there is too much trying to stop them: Mrs Hudson’s “married life changes people” speech and Mycroft’s “don’t get involved” sneers. Even more heartbreaking is the final scene, which sees Sherlock standing in the middle of the dance floor, completely alone after being ditched by a bridesmaid. This was a rather tragic ending to an otherwise fun and comedic episode.