In its brief two-and-a-half season tenure, Sherlock has always struggled with its second episode. I doubt anyone remembers much of “The Blind Banker” beyond a collection of painful racial stereotypes, and iconic as its source material is, “The Hounds of Baskerville” felt like a lull between Irene Adler and the big Moriarty showdown. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that “The Sign of Three” stands out among its show’s mere eight episodes to date. Thanks to an unconventional structure and a conflict that centered more on its characters than the supposed mystery in question, “The Sign of Three” pulls Sherlock forward rather than acting as a placeholder.
“The Sign of Three” is the John Gets Married Episode, a milestone not nearly as dramatic as the Sherlock Dies Episode or the Sherlock Resurrects Himself Episode, but an important one nonetheless. The main event is taken care of within minutes, cemented with some neat Matrix-esque visual flourishes that set the tone for a particularly playful episode, at least as far as styling goes. The rest of the ninety minutes is centered around the reception, particularly Sherlock’s best man speech.
Asking a sociopath to prepare an emotional tribute is a solid comic premise, and initially, Moffat and Gatiss deliver. Our hero begins with a monologue that doubles as the Atheist Neckbeard manifesto, but before Sherlock’s real or fictional audience can get too enraged (Love “stands in opposition to the cold reason I hold above all things?” God is “a ludicrous fantasy created to provide a career opportunity for the family idiot”? Seriously?!) we’re free to move on to the moving part. It’d be pointless to transcribe all of the speech here, but the main theme is an expression of gratitude for John’s friendship. Sherlock rarely acknowledges how difficult he is to deal with on a daily basis, but his punchline sums it up nicely: “If I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it’s because I never thought I would be anyone’s best friend.” Awwwww.
There’s also a lot of fun had here with the more childlike aspects of Sherlock’s character, albeit to the point of reducing him to the idiot savant type that gets trotted out on too many a crime show. The flashback to John’s proposal that Sherlock be best man in the first place is downright adorable (“I’m your best…friend…?”), and even though it reeks of fan-service, it still rings true to the oblivious nature of the man who doesn’t think the Earth orbiting around the sun is a fact important enough to keep in his head. Ditto the stunned reaction to his audience’s tears: “Why are you all doing that? Did I do it wrong?”
The remainder of “The Sign of Three” centers around a couple flashbacks, the first of which establishes the actual main conflict: the effect John’s marriage will have on the one constant in Sherlock’s life. The phrase “end of an era” gets passed around a lot, and though Watson doesn’t think anything will change, he and Mary work awfully hard to convince Sherlock otherwise. (Again, Mary functions in this episode as a curiously enthusiastic helper type, but unlike last week, I’ve seen the finale at this point, and will therefore hold off any further comments until that recap.) He even out-and-out tells Sherlock he’s just as important as Mary, although at this point the detective’s too wrapped up in his coping mechanism latest case to listen.
After “The Bloody Guardsman” comes “The Mayfly Man,” wherein we see Sherlock’s version of a bachelor party. It’s one of the more ridiculous stunts Moffat and Gatiss have ever pulled, and whether or not one buys into it will probably depend on one’s tolerance for the show’s sillier elements. I found Drunk Sherlock fun, dubstep-y theme music and all, but I imagine M.I.A. would have an aneurysm if she found out her music was used as a soundtrack for two white dudes chugging scientifically calibrated amounts of beer out of lab beakers. And the twist on Sherlock‘s signature deductions-as-text trick was genuinely clever.
Though I was initially impressed that Sherlock‘s creators were humble enough to grant its hero an unsolved case, the episode’s final twenty minutes are dedicated to corkscrewing its two subplots into a bigger mystery-of-the-week. The final twenty minutes are dedicated to finding the would-be murderer of John’s former commanding officer, a haunted, hulking war hero who’s gone into hiding after leading a group of new recruits to their deaths. As always, the procedural element of the episode is the least interesting, with the exception of Sherlock’s manic “part two” of an otherwise successful speech. (And an interesting elaboration on the Sherlock-Mycroft psychodrama, but as with Mary, more on that next time.) The officer is saved, the Bloody Guardsman’s murder is solved, and the Mayfly Man is uncovered. Yay for plot resolution.
The episode’s title gets its name from the revelation that Mary’s pregnant, a fact that seems to drive home John’s newly reduced presence in Sherlock’s life in a way the wedding didn’t. But even though we’re led to believe Sherlock’s walking out of two lives where he believes he’s no longer wanted, we know that’s not true since someone has to star in next week’s finale.
My main takeaway from “The Sign of Three” is its character study of John, a character who’s typically second fiddle to Sherlock‘s more complex namesake. John’s empathy, concern for others’ lives, and understanding of the more quotidian aspects of human nature are highlighted here as necessary complements to Sherlock’s cold, calculated reason. Moffat and Gatiss finally explain here why Sherlock and Watson are a team and not just a detective and his documentarian sidekick, and it goes a long way towards making their dynamic into a sustainable, believable partnership. This may not be Sherlock‘s most essential episode, but it serves its purpose well, and for a midseason installment, that’s all we really need.