Sherlock, season three, executive summary: fun, amazing, disappointing, in exactly that order.
When your seasons are just three episodes long and each one of them is the length of a short feature film, it’s hard to build up longer story arcs or engage in large-scale character development. For the third season of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffatt’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a modern setting, we do get some surprising alterations in Sherlock’s character, but unfortunately some of it comes at the expense of what makes him who he is: The deductions.
We last saw our titular hero taking a dive off the edge of a building in a staged suicide attempt that was intended to foil the evil plans of evildoer Moriarty and save John Watson, a riff on the short story “The Final Problem,” where ACD killed off Holmes, only to bring him back a few years later in response to public outrage over the character’s death. We knew Holmes didn’t die here, but the first episode had to, as it were, un-kill him – and the writers had a bit of fun with it, posing increasingly preposterous solutions before showing what might be the actual one, only to have Holmes himself cast doubt on his own explanation of actual events. (Gatiss has pointed out that there are only so many ways to jump off a building and survive, so I think we can accept Sherlock’s last answer as the correct one.) “The Empty Hearse” thus brings Holmes back to life, to London, and to Dr. Watson, the last of which provides some of the series’ darkest comedy to date – as one might expect Watson to be a little peeved that his BFF faked his own death and disappeared for two years without a word. The series of reunions that bring Sherlock back, more or less, to his old circle of partner-antagonists takes up the bulk of the episode, but we do get an actual case, this time an act of domestic terrorism that Sherlock has to stop both by deduction and by action. The balance of intellectual crime-solving, the interplay between Sherlock and Watson, and the filling in of the blanks of the previous season’s cliffhanger differs greatly from the formula for the previous six episodes, but Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) carries the extra weight beautifully and the episode felt like an appetizer for the remaining two parts of the season.
The second episode, “The Sign of Three,” was a high point for the series, perhaps my favorite episode to date, in large part due to a tour de force performance from Cumberbatch, balancing Sherlock’s discomfort with social situations (here, as the best man in Watson’s wedding) against his intense fascination with the puzzle of any case – here, two mysteries that intersect at the wedding in a third incident that Sherlock has to try to prevent while giving the traditional speech. Cumberbatch owns the screen, pushing the boundaries of the character, mostly showing more humanity through his evident affection for Watson (hey, the short stories were one of literature’s original bromances), radiating huge quantities of energy through his voice, his body language, and his facial expressions as he first stalls for time and then solves the case without ceding the floor. It’s a peculiarity of the episode that Watson is relegated to a side character in an episode devoted to his own wedding, but as great as Martin Freeman is as the good doctor, we are here to see Mr. Holmes do his thing, and in “The Sign of Three” (an allusion to the short novel The Sign of Four) he does it superbly.
That peak made the third episode, “His Last Vow,” an even bigger letdown than normal. Sherlock has disappeared again, this time for a shorter period, and Watson finds him working undercover, in the middle of a case, with the target the media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen, a blackmailing version of Rubert Murdoch who holds a trove of damaging information on virtually everyone of importance in the Western world. The client is unclear, at least at first, although the case eventually takes on a more personal aspect for Sherlock, leading him to an emotional reaction that puts his ability to solve the case rationally in jeopardy.
Aside from the return of Janine (played by the Irish-Pakistani comedienne Yasmine Akram) from the preceding episode, “His Last Vow” fell short in every aspect that has made this series so great. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is limited, and strained when it occurs; the rapid-fire His Girl Friday dialogue that populates most of the first eight episodes is nearly absent here, and their chemistry with each other is short-circuited by Watson’s ire over Holmes’ initial disappearance and later by the personal nature of the case. We get very little of Holmes’ deduction, and what we do get is short of the mark. Lestrade doesn’t appear – in fact, he’s in far too little of this season overall. The villainous Magnussen is too odious, comically repugnant beyond the point of realism. I don’t wish to spoil the twist, but my understanding of that method of information storage is that it works for short-term storage but not the kind of long-term solution Magnussen would require.
So while “The Sign of Three” was revelatory, a leap forward for the series by developing its central characters while meeting or exceeding its previous standards for intelligence, the rest of the season was a disappointment. Had “The Empty Hearse” been the only deviation from the series’ main formula, the season could have been as good as or better than the first two, but the decision to craft a melodramatic finale that deemphasized Sherlock’s essential Holmesness did not succeed.