Any wedding episode that manages to be totally lacking in corniness without having The Rains of Castamere on its playlist is a jewel, and while The Sign of Three is without doubt the most atypical of all Sherlock episodes in terms of just about everything, it has the distinction not only of being a jewel, but of being a remarkably well-thought-out and impeccably-structured rendering of a fiendishly-complicated plot, and a moving and hilarious bringing-to-light of everything that is good about the Sherlock-John relationship.
It’s John and Mary’s wedding day, and Sherlock has found the build-up to the event rather distressing, for more reasons than one. Firstly, because of a deep-set fear (that he insists on denying) that John’s being a married man will spell the end of their partnership and will inevitably consign him to the gallows of haunting crime scenes with only a skull to talk to; secondly, because he has to make a speech as best man. His fears on the first count turn out to be groundless, most obviously because John can’t imagine a life without solving crimes, blogging about it and sniggering when Sherlock forgets his pants, but most importantly (and realistically) because John has had the good (and rare) fortune to fall in love with a woman who actually encourages their bromance (Sidebar: Mary is fucking awesome, she like totally sees that they’re both afraid things will change because of her, and likes to make them sneak around together like naughty schoolboys when she’s actually the person who planted the idea of doing the actual sneaking. But anyway.) As to Sherlock’s fears about the best man speech, well, those do turn out to be justified, and it is when confronted with a hall full of loud, half-drunk, oddly-shaped wedding guests and too nervous to be anything but himself, that Sherlock sets the ball rolling across a barrage of memorable cases, anecdotes and other totally sincere praises of the incomparable John Watson that takes an entire episode to navigate, and that soon transforms into one of the most important deductions of Sherlock’s life as it becomes clear that the wedding day is also one ingenious murderer’s personalised version of judgement day.
Structuring an entire episode around a best man speech, and managing all the inevitable back and forth craziness incumbent upon such a structure, is a huge risk for any production to take: too much, and the audience can’t follow, too little, and the audience falls asleep. In the case of The Sign of Three, the risk pays off beautifully, and a sizeable chunk of the credit for that success goes to writer Stephen Thompson, who, despite his evident prowess and talent from a technical perspective, is also wildly imaginative and unfailingly good at bringing that imagination to the screen; most especially in the devices he employs to help us see what’s going on in Sherlock’s head; some of them classic, some of them entirely new. The most intelligent, and the most entertaining of these, is the lengthy scene involving Sherlock, a lecture hall full of women, Mycroft providing helpful hints from on high, and a surprise appearance by Irene Adler (defrocked), who is promptly told to ‘get out of my head, I’m busy!’ It’s a fantastic metaphor – and it looks good too.
Whereas last week’s episode was definitely Martin Freeman’s in terms of acting, Sherlock belongs, this week, to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock is utterly unpredictable in this episode (more so than usual, I mean); acting his charming, high-functioning-sociopathic self one minute, and unabashedly praising his friend with total and complete sincerity the next, to the point of making every person present burst into tears. The language might very well have seemed cringeworthy, and out-out-character in the hands of any other actor, but Cumberbatch delivers such a deadly combination of gravity, coldness, emotion and drama that the considerable amount of gut-spilling he does in the praising of John’s character is beautifully touching, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly believable in a character who prides himself on his own freedom from sentiment. Acting kudos also go to Amanda Abingdon, who is luminous, smart and hilarious as Mary, and to Alistair Petrie, who is tragic and charismatic as John’s ex-commander, Major Sholto.
A huge improvement from last week across the board, The Sign of Three does nevertheless leave one wishing that something more would have happened, or at least that things might have been a bit less predictable. It’s a problem that also popped up in The Empty Hearse, but The Sign of Three is simply too much fun for me to throw my toys out of the cot about it. And there’s always next week; which, considering the story on which it is based, will more than make up for these rather glaring deficiencies in plot.