Sherlock, season three.

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.

(I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the series already; you may want to start with my reviews of season one and season two.)

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.


  1. No thoughts on the final minute of the season?

  2. I understand that one must be able to accept some plot holes and such but I felt like the interlocking cases in the 2nd episode seemed a bit too contrived and left me wondering how Holmes couldn’t see the big picture…

    I also felt the ending to the 3rd episode was as un-Holmes as you could get. I feel like Doyle’s Holmes would have found another way and that this ending was a cheap way out for the writers.

    The episodes were good, just not as good as the previous two series and while it left me disappointed there were good points as well. To me, the brilliance of the first two seasons and the original works was the simplicity of the acts of crime that looked so complicated at the start… the stories told this season didn’t leave me feeling the same way.

  3. I respectfully disagree. I thought the third episode was fantastic. Definitely my favorite episode this season.

  4. I thought the first episode was a high point, but the second and third (aside from a few great moments during the best man speech) were my two least favorite episodes of the whole series (in the U.S. sense of the word “series”).

    Ultimately, I missed the lengthened (nearly) full-episode crime solving from the first two seasons. That was my main problem with the Magnussen story: the character was so shallow that the final scene didn’t have much of an impact.

  5. I suspect I’m with Eddy re: the final minute. I actually found this season an overall disappointment (aside from the second episode, which was fantastic). But the last minute has me excited-beyond-belief for Season 4.

  6. I’m with you Keith on episodes 1 & 2, and really enjoyed #2, the wedding scene was just brilliant, some of the best TV I have seen in the last few years in terms of the acting, the writing, and how it both furthered the story and deepened the character. On Episode 3, I felt some of the letdown as well, but the part that did grab me was mind palace vs. MIND PALACE. I agree with Bobthemule that ACD would have found a more Holmesian way to solve that case, but I loved the concept that here was a match of wits/brainpower that set Holmes back a bit, rocked him, and put him on his heels. And the final minute, well, have to see what they make of it next season, withholding judgment for now…

  7. But it is much better than your version set in NY…..

  8. I agree that the third episode was a bit disappointing, however I loved that Sherlock played his “I’m a high functioning psychopath” card instead of his normal “I’m cleverer than you are” card and I think it showed character development which may foreshadow next season when Moriarty returns. Sorry for the run on sentence.

  9. I like the third episode until the ending – bad in all respects. As said above, it was a cheap way out and it really debased Sherlock Holmes, the character. In the original story, it wasn’t the strongest ending, but they could have essentially repeated that and it would have been better than this.

  10. I didn’t comment on the end of episode 3 to avoid spoiling it for anyone. I disliked it across the board – the resolution and the final sequence that set up season 4. It read as false to the character and manipulative of the audience. Sherlock failing to anticipate Magnussen’s secret was plausible, but him failing to come up with any move other than the one he ultimately took felt far less so.

  11. I thought Sherlock would’ve figured out that Magnussen had the vital information locked in his head during the pub/glasses scene. Therefore I expected him to have anticipated Magnussen’s reveal and been ready with a trump card once Magnussen played his hand. Maybe Mycroft listening in on their conversation and, upon realizing Magnussen had no tangible material to hold over his enemies, disappearing the creep to some UK-run black site.

    Of course, I also kept thinking that the guy was such a soulless thug that it was a wonder nobody had just up and shot him in the face prior to us meeting him in this episode. I guess I’d’ve preferred seeing Holmes get the best of him rather than doing what he did.

  12. *spoilers*

    (though previous comments have mostly let it all out of the bag)

    I don’t think he failed to anticipate Magnussen’s secret at all. Remember that he asked Watson if he’d brought his gun, which is presumably the one he used. Also, it seems to me that Sherlock hated Magnussen much more than the episode directly let on, with perhaps the brief moment he looks at the newspaper to read of Lady Smallwood’s death hinting at his resolve. I mean, on some level, he respected Moriarty as a peer, but Magnussen merely shared with him a singular gift, and Magnussen was wholly bent on using it for his own advantage at the great expense of everyone else. I don’t see how what he did was any different than what Watson did for him in the very first episode. It wasn’t my favorite episode–The Sign of Three was utterly brilliant–but it moved the characters forward in an interesting way, and tied up some loose ends that were lingering in my mind from the previous episodes.

  13. I agree with JD and Todd, I enjoyed episode 3 up until the Magnussen conclusion. I was expecting Mycroft or his agents to be the instrument, not Holmes, especially after the megaphone from the helicopter instructing Holmes and Watson to back away and Holmes asking for a verbal confirmation, presumably with Mycroft listening, that Appledoor was only in Magnussen’s mind. I think it would have been much stronger if Magnussen knew he had been beaten at his own game.

    Keith, Adrian is referring to Elementary, which is on CBS (I think), and has Holmes (played by Johnny Lee Miller) set in NY as a consulting dectective to the NYPD and features Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. It isn’t bad for a major network show, but certainly isn’t in the same class as this version.

  14. Any thoughts on Mary, Keith? I thought she was an absolutely fantastic character. So much so, in fact, that I was mad at Moffatt at the beginning of ep 3 for taking her in a cheap, obvious direction. I was glad when it turned out that *****spoilers*****she wasn’t just using John*****end spoilers*****.

    My thoughts on the final minute: it probably was a cheap move by the writers, but, at the same time, it was Sherlock making a big, bold move to protect two of the only people in the world he loves. It’s a continuation of what he showed us in ep. 2.

  15. That’s the only possible justification for the end: that it was in keeping with Sherlock’s willingness to do anything for John. But, Sherlock having to resort to murdering his foe, rather than beating him fair and square, is so out of step with the character of Sherlock Holmes. (And I think the series has already made the point that Sherlock loves John dearly; we didn’t need to see what we did to understand that.)

    And maybe that is the takeaway: TV Sherlock, while based on ACD’s Sherlock, will do things that the latter would never do, and the characters aren’t intended to truly be one and the same.