That’s more like it, show! After an ineffective debut to the season, Sherlock is back in top form with “The Sign of Three,” a sentimental, sweet, and funny episode cleverly-structured around the best man toast Sherlock delivers at John’s wedding. The episode met with mixed reactions from the Interweb — don’t they all? — as it was more character than crime-solving, but not from this fervid fan. I saw this episode described as “a love letter to John Watson,” and I find that an apt designation. Though Sherlock is in nearly every scene, it is his love for John that becomes the focus, and his choice to put his friend’s happiness before his own interests that give the title detective some well-earned character development…
A perfect storm of fourth wall-breaking
One of the complaints leveled against this episode — and the third season in general — is that it makes references and jokes only the most faithful of watchers (and Internet trollers) can understand, resulting in the alienation of the casual viewer. I understand where this critique is coming from, but I think Sherlock is in the unique position of being a television show that can get away with some heavily self-reflexive moments (as long as it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the characters, tone, or plot).
Why? Well, I could make an argument it is because the Sherlock Holmes fandom has an historical legacy of self-reference, but I think it has more to do with the structuring of this particular adaptation than any incarnation which has come before. Sherlock is a series that produces only three episodes every few years. The slight episode order allows for greater analysis of each installment, scene, and line of dialogue, while the unbearably long hiatuses offer a length and intensity of cultural discussion relatively rare in a television industry where networks are nervous to let too much time pass between seasons in fear the audience will lose interest. But this cultural discussion — if passionate and sustained and multi-faceted, as the one surrounding Sherlock most certainly is — can add so much to the watching of a show. As television becomes more cinematic in both form and production quality, one of the only things that sets it apart from film is the cultural conversation that happens around it. The fact that each episode isn’t a one-off feature that may or may not have a follow-up. Films have a distinct (and, generally, immediate) beginning, middle, and end and — even with the most talked-about trilogies — there is only so much room for cultural discussion when everything is a remake, adaptation, or so formulaic you can practically predict the plot before you see it.
The difference between meta-brilliance and meta-destruction
Of course, though I believe Sherlock is perfectly poised for some self-reflexivity, not all meta is created equal. Unlike some of “The Empty Hearse”‘s painful stabs at self-reflexivity, the ones thrown out in “The Sign of Three” didn’t compromise the integrity of the characters or show to make an in-joke. It helped that the script and direction were much tighter, and it was hilarious to a height that “The Empty Hearse” never reached — partially, because the tone of the episode allowed for it.
This wasn’t Sherlock coming back from the dead; it was a celebration of two peoples’ love (arguably John and Sherlock’s more than John and Mary’s). The jokes — self-reflexive or otherwise — worked within the characters’ already-established habits and behaviors. More than that, they played off of them, or revealed new, logical facets of Sherlock and John’s complex personalities. This was particularly true for Sherlock, who showed some serious growth in his ability to put his friend’s happiness above all else, as manifested by Sherlock’s intense involvement in the wedding planning. This feels a logical consequence of Sherlock’s time away. He is committed to ensuring John’s happiness even if it means losing him a bit because he has so much sadness for which to make up. The rightness of Sherlock’s characterization in “The Sign of Three” only worked to highlight just how confusing his characterization in “The Empty Hearse” truly was.
Is this show only for the hardcore fan base?
As far as the complaint that Sherlock is now being made only for the hardcore fan base, aka the people who get each and every in-joke because they spend too much time on Tumblr (i.e. me), I don’t think that’s true. I think a well-crafted story like this one can be enjoyed at many levels. But, even if that particular critique had merit, I wouldn’t really care. So much television is made for the casual viewer. The casual viewer ruled the television landscape for far too long. Now, more and more, television makers are taking television audiences more seriously. They are assuming their attention and intelligence. This makes for better storytelling. And, for those who find Sherlock too hard to follow, there’s plenty else on offer to devour — or, you know, nibble at.
I think part of the stigma against television comes with this assumption that everyone is a casual television watcher. Sure, many television watchers turn on the television and decide what to watch after — and that’s totally cool — but that’s not how I watch television. I engage. I dissect. I converse. I watch my favorite shows again and again, always on the lookout for a friend who hasn’t seen it so I can share it with them and live vicariously through their first-time reactions. (Seriously, if you’re not up for hours of British television-watching, don’t become friends with me.) For me, television isn’t just entertainment, it is immersing myself in an exploration of human nature, society, and myself. It’s an exploration of why we tell stories and how they may or may not be changing as we (hopefully) evolve as a species.
Platonic male love
Of course there were things about “The Sign of Three” I didn’t like — the show’s consistently worrying depiction of women in relation to Sherlock’s character — but there was so much that I loved. This episode was a delight, and the seriousness with which it treated the relationship between John and Sherlock was everything that was missing in “The Empty Hearse.” In whatever ways Sherlock falls into bad habits of representation, I will always love it for the way it prioritizes platonic male love. That Sherlock and John can be the most important people in one another’s lives and not be romantically or sexually involved is kind of amazing. (Though not mutually exclusive with my plans to become a writer on this show twenty years from now when social mores about sexual fluidity are more liberal, and have these two fall madly in love. But, you know, I can wait.)
How and why we all watch television can be so different. Like all television consumption, reaction to “The Sign of Three” comes down to what you watch this show for. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but: Do you watch it for the mysteries or for the characters? (You’re allowed to watch it for both.) I would argue that “The Empty Hearse” satisfied neither, while “The Sign of Three” skewed heavily towards character (though I thought the crime-solving segments were fun and fast-paced). We’ll have to wait to see if “His Last Vow” can satisfy both.
- Was Season 3 master villain Charles Augustus Magnussen the “CAM” who sent Mary a telegram for the wedding? (“Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes, from CAM. Wish your family could have seen this.” When Sherlock read the message from that particular absent well-wisher, Mary looked freaked out. If it was Magnussen, how do these two know one another? Did the villain have something to do with the death of Mary’s family? And what does this mean for John and Sherlock? Eek.
- “Am I the current King of England?” Ha.
- All of this:
- So glad that Dean Thomas survived.
- Death watch: Someone has to die in Sunday’s episode, right? I totally thought it would be Mary, but my roommate informs me that you can’t kill a pregnant woman on television. So, now my money is on Mycroft.
- Now that we know what Sherlock’s last vow is (“Mary and John, whatever it takes, whatever happens, from now on I swear I will always be there. Always. For all three of you.”), what can we deduce about the season finale, titled “His Last Vow”? I’m guessing Sherlock will have to make a tough choice between saving the Watsons and saving someone else he cares about. (Bad news bears, Mycroft.)