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Television Review: Sherlock – Season Three

Sherlock – Season Three (BBC; 2014)

There’s a particular scene in the midst of “His Last Vow”, the final episode of the third season of BBC’s acclaimed hit Sherlock, that encapsulates how this latest set of modern-day adventures of the world’s only consulting detective swerves so unwisely off the road. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is intently laying out expositional detail on his latest devious criminal nemesis, arch-blackmailer and media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), but his compatriot John Watson (Martin Freeman) repeatedly pulls away from the details of the case to satisfy his curiosity concerning Sherlock’s new girlfriend (Yasmine Akram). The scene is a microcosm of the show’s encroaching failures in its third season as it increasingly privileges the sort of narrative elements that the literary iteration of Holmes would consider trivial frippery over the hard logic of deduction that he believes to be pre-eminent.

The show’s creators and overseers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the latter also plays Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, the secret brains behind seemingly everything the British government does) have always adapted and reconstituted canonical Holmes elements for contemporary concerns, as well as for their particular narrative style. Sherlock often manifests as a display of witty people saying witty things all while being aware of how witty they are and wittily letting the air out of their inflated balloon of wit at every opportunity. But it has also intelligently engaged with its voluminous source material and produced slick, entertaining takes on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective tales with likable lead characters whose personalities and emotional concerns (or, in Sherlock’s case, the lack thereof) are fleshed out without sagging the fast-moving, tightly-constructed stories. It was, in brief, a clever and marvelous balancing act that couldn’t possibly last.

It doesn’t last very deep into the third season, but it’s not any sort of immediate, stunning fall from grace, exactly. The premiere episode “The Empty Hearse”, as the title advertises, addresses last season’s cliffhanger ending of Sherlock’s faked death in a suicidal fall from a building before Watson’s eyes, after James Moriarty (Andrew Scott) backed him into it with a reputation-destroying masterplan, death threats to his friends, and a shocking suicide of his own. By “addresses”, I mean several possible explanations for how Sherlock pulled it off are presented but even the supposedly definitive version he presents to former police tech skeptic-turned-true-Holmes-believer Anderson (Jonathan Aris) has evident room for copious doubt. This playful flirtation with destabilizing unreliability shows Sherlock‘s tongue-in-cheek cleverness to its most favourable effect.

John Watson (Freeman has been noticeably aged by working on a Peter Jackson production) doesn’t much care how Sherlock pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes for two years before re-appearing in London as if nothing had happened. Watson grieved for his friend and compatriot in his reticent way, moving out of 221B Baker Street and mostly cutting off contact with landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). He’s moved on, grown a mustache (nobody likes it) and is about to propose to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington, Freeman’s real-life partner) when Sherlock makes his flamboyant return, which gets the master sleuth a few resentful punches to the nose from his erstwhile partner in fighting crime. Of course, Watson will get over his anger soon enough to help Holmes to foil a modern-day Gunpowder Plot threatening Parliament. And he’ll forgive Sherlock sufficiently to invite the adventurous detective to tackle an even more stressful challenge: being the best man at his wedding.

This he does in “The Sign of Three”, as saggy, frivolous, and self-indulgent a shark-jumping episode as can be imagined for a show of Sherlock‘s quality. Perhaps Moffat and Gatiss (along with co-writer Stephen Thompson) are elaborately satirizing the sappy and sentimental “special episode” gimmicks attending television weddings, after all. They do include a mystery (involving a secretive murder attempt on Watson’s former commanding officer), some of Sherlock’s rambling best man’s speech manages to be amusing and even touching, and there’s a side-splitting (if totally, character-diminishingly silly) tangent involving Sherlock and Watson getting blind drunk and then attempting to investigate a case.

If there’s not multiple organs in that box for scientific experimenting, I’m afraid that the gift will go amiss.

But even as its embedded clues are expanded and paid off in “His Last Vow”, it’s difficult to understand “The Sign of Three” as anything but inconsequential, and sometimes quite possible to understand it as kind of annoying. In adapting the Holmes property for modern considerations, more focus has been directed on Sherlock’s emotional psychology, his status as a “high-functioning sociopath” who doesn’t comprehend let alone share the sentiment of “normal” human beings. This negotiation goes overboard in “The Sign of Three” with multiple professions of Sherlock’s fondness for Watson that far outstrip any expression of personal feeling that is consistent with the canonical character (at least in its proper Victorian literary form). It’s also the most meanderingly-written episode of the entire series, and introduces the concept of Sherlock being lonely in his cerebral, antisocial isolation and yearning for connection. Holmes is outside of people, and the wine flows.

Give Sherlock‘s writers enough time, though, and they’ll gladly upend your expectations and contradict your initial reactions and interpretations. As mentioned, Sherlock appears to have a girlfriend in “His Last Vow”, a development so entirely outside of the norms of his behavior that Watson has troubled believing it. As it turns out, Janine (who he met at Watson’s wedding) is simply being used to get access to Magnussen, and if Sherlock needs to feign a marriage proposal to get close to his true quarry, so be it. This is more like Holmes, and less like Sherlock; the more familiar first-name titling and referencing in dialogue (we even get his full name at the end of the season, as well as meeting his parents) telegraphs the increased closeness and personal investment encouraged by Gatiss and Moffat. Reintroducing the great detective’s drug addiction (Watson finds him in a heroin flophouse, a contemporary take on his appearance in a Victorian opium den in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, and Holmes is a touch overfond of the morphine he’s given after being shot in pursuit of Magnussen) increases the scrutiny on Holmes’ private life away from his cases as well.

As Sherlock feels a nagging tug away from the adventure and danger of “the game”, Watson cannot help but be drawn inexorably back into it. If it isn’t enough that Sherlock’s detection activities interrupt his marriage proposal and intrude upon his wedding, the Magnussen case threatens the basic trust of Dr. Watson’s relationship with his new wife. Abbington’s Mary Morstan is less the stable figure of settled middle-class domestic respectability of Conan Doyle’s stories, which is just what Freeman’s Watson craves. She’s fond of Sherlock (unlike the witty, slightly antagonistic Mary of Guy Ritchie’s recent Hollywood Holmes films) and encourages her hubby to solve crimes with his longtime partner. But she’s no housewife, and turns out to have had a checkered past as an intelligence agent before assuming the Mary Morstan identity. Even when consciously retreating from a life of excitement and intrigue, Watson chooses a life partner who embodies those same qualities.

The revelation of Mary’s secret identity sets up the climax of “His Last Vow” and of the season. Magnussen sees fit to neutralize Sherlock’s investigations of him by blackmailing Watson with evidence of Mary’s past. Sherlock believes he can make a deal for this evidence, but makes a terrible miscalculation, or what seems to be one at least (the sleuth also seemed caught unawares by Moriarty’s gambits in “The Reichenbach Fall”, but reveals in “The Empty Hearse” that he and Mycroft concocted an elaborate plan to entrap Moriarty and only the consulting criminal’s suicide was unanticipated). In a season especially absorbed with how Holmes relates to and differs from other people, a major error stems from his inability to conceive that someone (namely Magnussen) might be more like him than he might have imagined.

Sherlock Holmes’ solution to the problem Magnussen poses, however, reaffirms the fundamental extremity of his distance from “normal” humans. As so often happens, the moral and legal consequences of his “solving” of this difficult case are swept away by his special abilities and Britain’s dire need of them. The last moments of Sherlock‘s uneven third season tease a tantalizing return of old nemesis Moriarty (the bursts of eccentric, unpredictable energy that characterize Scott’s singular performance are much missed, although he crops up on occasion in flashbacks and fantasy sequences). But the experienced fan of the show is ready for this to be further misdirection by the creative team. This sort of misdirection is a large part of what makes Sherlock so consistently appealing, even through its frequent issues in this season in particular. Misdirection is indeed great, but Sherlock‘s creators would be best served to be careful not to let it go in the wrong direction.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television
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