In a recent interview with Digital Spy writer Catherine Earp posted on the fifth of January, BBC Sherlock’s Martin Freeman is quoted as saying of the program, “No-one is a buffoon in it, and what I really like about it is that it’s writing for grown-ups, where you're not having to cheat the audience. I’m purely trying to play this part the way I approach everything, which is to be truthful. I was trying to make Watson a feasible soldier, a feasible doctor. I wanted to give him a strength and a vulnerability.”
According to the vast majority of Sherlock’s fans—even those who find co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s cold-blooded Sherlock Holmes a bit like dry ice on the palate from time to time—Freeman’s Dr. (or Captain, depending on your mood) John Hamish Watson is one of the most feasible, strong, and indeed vulnerable Watsons we’ve yet delighted in onscreen. Those of us preoccupied by the original character as penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (and I count myself “preoccupied” at levels approaching Captain Ahab’s enthusiasm for whales, if not quite Humbert Humbert’s interest in nymphettes) adore the Good Doctor for any number of reasons, of which kindness, bravery, and loyalty are but a few attributes nestled within a deliciously complex person. He is a man who can bear insults with dignity and wit without ever being diminished by them, a man who can forgive his closest friend (those insults I mentioned? yep, they came from that dude) for faking his own death for a period of years, a man who can both shoot a spectral hound and help wean his best friend (that death thing and those insults I mentioned? same guy) off a drug habit that at one point threatens to “check his remarkable career.”
And it seems as if, at long last, BBC’s Sherlock Holmes is coming round to our view of the matter: John Watson is by far the best and bravest chap to wander the streets in plaid button-downs and avuncular pullovers.
Editor's note: There be episode spoilers ahead, laddies…
If this review comes across as an ode to John Watson, be it so and gladly, for that’s what “The Sign of Three” is—a tribute in the form of a best man speech, with some dalliances for clever crimesolving en route. Benedict Cumberbatch’s lithe, cutting Sherlock has a problem, we learn in the opening minutes. No, not that kind of problem, not the mortal kind that prompts Rupert Graves’ exceptionally well-intentioned Detective Inspector Lestrade to summon every police car and helicopter to Sherlock’s aid after receiving a series of frantic emergency texts. Sherlock has been asked to serve as best man for John’s wedding, and the challenges this role presents him, as well as the speech resulting, serve as the spine of a very complexly written screenplay.
All three of the show writers are credited with this episode, and while a text penned by Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, and Steve Thompson all at once might easily have proved confusing, we are saved by—counter-intuitively enough—an almost gleeful excess of clever casework. Much of what seems peripheral at first matters greatly by the time the climax winds up to its midnight chime. Sherlock’s best man speech proves to be by far the longest (and one of the most moving) in the history of the wedded state, and between outpourings of typically nuclear Sherlockian snark and (far more shocking) quiet, firm declarations of devotion, we are treated to a number of old cases and flashbacks, all of which culminate in a sort of deliciously tangled foodfight of a plot resolution, supposing the pasta was crafted by Mario Batali and the sauce simmered for two or three days by Lydia Bastianich. Is it a bit of a hot mess? Well, yes, but it’s also thoroughly wonderful.
In short, the mystery element is well done, and it owns none the glib there-are-terrorists-whoops-look-we-thwarted-them quality of “The Empty Hearse,” which barely bothered to bestow a name on its villain, let alone spoken lines. The once-aloof detective’s wedding speech serves as the spine, other scenes branching off and spiraling back as needed, and this would be dizzying if not for the absolutely masterful direction of Colm McCarthy, whose eye for clarity and character is a joy to watch. The camera cuts intimately between Mary, John, and Sherlock, who all appear by now to be close friends, weaving and losing focus when the lads tie one on (for science, of course) during the fantastically bromantic stag night, and the clues—we have clues this time, ladies and gentlemen—hark back to the canonical cases in truly fascinating ways.
I didn’t notice it the first time viewing. It required a fellow Baker Street Babe/Adventuress of Sherlock Holmes to set me straight. But the case, involving a death threat against Captain John Watson’s “previous” commanding officer (Sherlock has apparently cast himself in the new role) is a fairly exact blend of The Sign of Four and a short story, the sublimely intriguing “Adventure of Silver Blaze.” This particular investigation is a favorite of readers and—surprise surprise—even of Doyle’s, the man who viewed Sherlock Holmes as an intellectual exercise akin to guest writing episodes of Barney and Friends. The final clue Sherlock employs to implicate the photographer is a negative one—who but the man hired to take pictures will show up in no part of the documented wedding?—which is eerily reminiscent of the infamous “curious incident” of the dog which did nothing in the nighttime. Additionally (and I think conclusively), Jonathan Small the nefarious photographer rehearses his murder on an unsuspecting guardsman, which is a direct parallel to the lame sheep Holmes discovers prior to the theft of the thoroughbred in “Silver Blaze.”
These canonical nods are frequent and endearing, as ever. One of the greatest delights of the Sherlock series is that its creators are avid, rabid, card-carrying, flag-flying, singlestick-wielding, baritsu-chopping fans of the original stories. Sherlock’s best man speech is thus an amalgam of lines of spoken dialogue from The Sign of Four, observations Watson makes throughout the canon, even a reference to the rather obscure “Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” a fairly tepid and shoddy tale ostensibly penned by Holmes after Watson has deserted him for his sixteenth or seventeenth wife, which includes the introductory passage:
Speaking of my old friend and biographer, I would take this opportunity to remark that if I burden myself with a companion in my various little inquiries it is not done out of sentiment or caprice, but it is that Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own to which in his modesty he has given small attention amid his exaggerated estimates of my own performances. A confederate who foresees your conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed an ideal helpmate.
We are well-used to left-handed compliments coming from Sherlock Holmes, but rarely has he ever expressed himself quite so thoroughly on the subject of Watson’s many fine shortcomings, and the canny viewer will at once see the parallel to Sherlock’s praise of John as a contrast to his own brilliance, similar to brides choosing plain companions for their wedding day. (An observation that earns him precisely zero points among the bridesmaids.)
The element of the episode that shocked me—and I was not expecting to be shocked, in any way, shape, or form—is the candor of the conversations Sherlock and John share throughout the wedding and its buildup, conversations in which the word “love” is employed sincerely and without retroactive irony, conversations that would never ever never have taken place in the original canon ever, but which are perfectly canonical despite that fact. Sherlock Holmes has a single great friend in his life, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he was the best man at John Watson’s wedding in 1888 or thereabouts, but the strides the BBC character has taken in his emotional intelligence frankly floored me. Is Sherlock unlikeable? Yes, about as unlikeable as termites, but apparently he knows this fact, and when he says he cannot congratulate John on his choice of companion—a direct echo of the terribly lonesome conclusion of The Sign of Four—he is talking about himself, not about Mary Morstan, and the soldier who merely gave a courageous nod to his closest friend’s grave after delivering a heartbreaking speech to his (supposedly) dead companion is moved to tears by learning the depth of Sherlock’s affection.
Could this all have been simply maudlin and sentimental, a wedding episode drenched in gardenia scent and sloppy feelings? Absolutely. But Cumberbatch delivers the lines as if they are simply data, proven data which bears no relation to sentiment whatsoever, and is in fact extremely discomfited when the entire guest list whips out their hankies in the face of his flood-inducing poetry. Still better, the show writers have written an absolute fourth quarter slam dunk in the person of Mary Morstan. Amanda Abbington plays her with an innate sense of genteel side-eyed humor that cannot be faked, and her graciousness infuses everyone around her in a golden glow of decency and caring. Could that have been revolting and facile? Absolutely. But Abbington is so kind and canny, and her Mary is so amused by Sherlock’s nonsense, that even the casual viewer can’t help but want to ask her out for a pint to talk about their feelings.
It has been pointed out by Sherlock’s many critics (any show with a nearly ten million person viewership has plenty of those, and rightfully so, and they make stellar points) that the character arcs are all well and good, but that the crimesolving has suffered in the third series, that adventure has taken a backseat to mending fences and discussing dodgy emotions. This is a fair criticism, but whether you buy it or not depends on your reasons for reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course we all read them due to myriad motives: the crimes are vivid and clever, the element of danger is frequently chilling, the writing is superb, the air of London is thick with intrigue, and the Great Detective and the Good Doctor restore some vigilante-style order to the world when chaos would otherwise reign. But there is another reason for reading (and rereading) these tales, and I’ve never heard it better phrased than by Steven Moffat in his interview with Mark Gatiss and Louisa Mellor for Den of Geek:
If you look at the original stories, you were far more interested in Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes than you ever are in anything they may encounter. The best bits in all the stories are always the openings when they’re in Baker Street together discussing some nonsense, so people have been in love with that friendship for a very, very long while and in typical storytelling mastery, Doyle only addresses it once. For a second Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs thinks that Dr Watson has been shot, just for a moment, well he has been shot, and just for a moment when it comes to Watson, the mask falls and it’s a huge emotional thing but it’s once… But you never doubt for a second as you read those original stories that these are two best friends in the world, they like nothing better than to sit and chat.
BBC’s Sherlock has made a bold stroke with “The Sign of Three,” and that’s extrapolating the characters into their fully modern incarnations. Was the Mary Morstan of the canon a bright, brave woman and also a crimefighting enabler, an intelligent and understanding addition to the dynamic duo whose chemistry she might well have interrupted if she were inclined toward the petty? Absolutely she was, but we hardly ever got to see it, and thus Abbington’s Mary is an absolute gift to the Sherlockian nerd. Did the Dr. Watson of the canon ever pull rank as an army veteran? Not to my knowledge, but he does in this episode, and a modern man would if it was to save a life, and the facets of his character shine all the brighter for it. Did the Dr. Watson of the canon save any of Holmes’s clients (or culprits) in a medical capacity? Yes, but it wasn’t ever emphasized because John Watson was writing these accounts in the first place, and it makes perfect sense for the modern Sherlock to laud John as a healer in addition to his marksmanship skills and general badassery. Did the Sherlock Holmes of the canon ever say that he and Mary loved John most in all the world? No, Holmes would have donned a shiny white latex bodysuit with crown detailing and danced backup for Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance video before that happened.
But would it have been true? Absolutely.
A rather gigantic reveal takes place at the end of the episode that has Sherlockians worried. Worried on behalf of characters we care about, and leery of “His Last Vow,” which promises to be a heartbreaking cliffhanger par excellence. I submit that, while these anxieties may be uncomfortable, they are also the result of very good television, and I look forward with trepidation to reviewing the final episode of series three next week. In the meanwhile, hug your loved ones, amass your shock blankets, and we shall all quietly quiver together in expectation of Charles Augustus Magnussen.
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