SHERLOCK: “The Sign of Three”

Historically, the second installment of a Sherlock series is the weakest. Not this year!

Liked last week’s “live” recap? Cool, because I’m doing it again. Rambling ahead.

John Watson is getting married!  Hardly earth-shaking news, as the source material has been around for over a century, but let’s see what spin Moffat & Gatiss have put on it. The game is on…

We begin 18 months ago, as Lestrade and Donovan (hello, Donovan…are you feeling guilty, too?) are on the trail of the “Waters Gang,” a notorious group of robbers who they’ve come close to nabbing on multiple occasions, but never close enough. Every few months, the gang hits another bank, and a comically frustrated Lestrade knows the only way they’ll catch them is in the act.

Present day: the trap is set! You know these bad guys mean business because they’ve got clown masks a la The Dark Knight.  Scotland Yard is all over it, but…as Lestrade moves in, he gets a text: “BAKER STREET. NOW. HELP.” Uh-oh. Lestrade bails on his potential career case and heads straight for Sherlock BECAUSE HE’S A GOOD FRIEND, calling backup en route. But instead of a kidnapping or firefight, he finds Sherlock just sitting at his computer. What did he need help with? Oh, you know. Writing a best man speech. “You didn’t go to any trouble, did you?” he asks. Sirens.

Poor Lestrade.


So Sherlock has either discovered his heart, or one has simply grown in the time since he’s met John, but either way he’s taking his duties extremely seriously. He’s even writing a violin composition to perform at the reception! Mrs. Hudson is giddy about “the big day,” but Sherlock just wants to get it over with. He then drops a truth bomb on Mrs. Hudson: her husband was a convicted and executed murderer, so what does she know about marriage? (Ha!)

Is it out of character for Sherlock to care so much about John’s wedding? It’s an interesting question, because as this season takes a more introspective look at the characters — the show is now much more interested in Sherlock and John as friends, and as people, than the cases they solve — it makes sense for some of those layers that Holmes has built up to be slowly peeled back. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because the writing is still so sharp and the performances so deft, but it’s a noticeable change. Moffat’s getting pretty brazen with the fan service, too. “Into battle,” Sherlock sighs as he puts on his tux.

Somewhere else in London, a military man is getting ready for “battle.” Close up on the gloves and the belt…camera tilt up to show a grim, scarred face…

Photographs! (In “bullet-time” style, no less.) Sherlock meets Mary’s maid of honor Janine, a confident girl with an excellent sense of humor, who realizes his usefulness right away when he begins finding the flaws in men she might be interested in having a fling with. Heh.

In the receiving line, an awkward man named David awkwardly greets Mary and John, and — flashback — we see Sherlock confront him about his latent feelings for Mary, and let him know he’ll be watching him very, very closely. Next: a mildly cold-blooded young boy, who Sherlock has gotten to come out of his shell (and perform his duties on the day) by showing him pictures of grisly murders. Cute, and hilarious.

Ahh, it’s all happening so fast! It’s the dinner — John is happy to see that soldier from earlier arrive, who turns out to be Major Sholto, John’s former commanding officer and currently something of a recluse. Mary is surprised to see him there at all, quoting John as saying he’s the “most unsociable person he’s ever met,” which Sherlock obviously takes personally. Sholto had commanded an operation that went horribly wrong, and he was raked over the coals for it in the press. Explains the scar, and his demeanor.

Mycroft’s lair. He’s…exercising? On a treadmill? He pulls up his shirt and looks disappointed at his stomach. Weight doesn’t come off that quickly, Mycroft. He gets a call from Sherlock, who confirms that Mycroft will not be coming to the wedding. Mycroft warns Sherlock about “getting involved,” and alludes to something about “Redbeard” that doesn’t seem to have any purpose besides unsettling Sherlock (granted, something Myrcroft loves to do and is good at).

Oh God, Sherlock’s speech! Here we go.

“Family and friends, and…others……uh…..” Not a good start, Sherlock. Lestrade and Molly look on, worried (FLASHBACK — turns out the two of them and Mrs. Hudson have already discussed how this will go, and their outlook is grim) — but John reminds him to read the telegrams from absent well-wishers, which he does. Hearing Benedict Cumberbatch say “big, squishy cuddles” is worth the price of admission. He flips through the rest quickly. “Love…love…love…you get the gist. People are basically fond.” Enough of the telegrams. “When John asked me to be his best man, I was confused…”

So if you haven’t already figured it out, this episode has an unconventional and complex structure; we’re going to be ping-ponging back and forth between wedding and pre-wedding throughout. Flashback: John breaks the news to Sherlock in a roundabout way. Sherlock is unbelievably thick, but eventually gets the point. Blink blink blink. Dead silence. (In the present-day, he explains what he would have said, had he actually said anything. “I was even close to being moved.”) In the past, Sherlock finally speaks. “So, in fact…you mean…I’m your…best…friend?” AWWWWWW. Big, squishy cuddles!

Wedding. Sherlock’s extraordinary monologue continues (and Cumberbatch is, as usual, on fire), and once he makes it clear that weddings and marriage basically go against everything he stands for (making everyone extremely uncomfortable in the process), he goes on to say some nice things about John — and admit how terrible he is at this sort of thing anyway. (“I did not expect to be anybody’s best friend…John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.”) John has endured tragic loss (“sorry again, about that last one,”) but he wants John to know that he and Mary will never let him down as long as they live. Cue tears around the room. Sherlock is terribly confused. “Did I do something wrong?”

You’re doing great, Sherlock! If only everyone would stop crying — and John stop hugging him — he could tell some “funny stories.”  Sherlock offers a brief summary of some of their strangest cases together: “The Hollow Client,” “The Poisoned Giant,” a matchbox that glows when opened like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the literal “Elephant In the Room” — it’s like this episode is a clip show, only the clips are all new. Again, this is a really neat conceit, and the editing is terrific. But the story that Sherlock really wants to tell is “The Bloody Guardsman.”

It begins with Sherlock helping Mary do the seating chart for the reception, which he’s obviously quite good at because he knows who hates who and who hates her. (What else is he good at? Napkin origami! “That just…sort of happened.”) But Mary’s playing a double game here: she’s been plotting — separately — with Sherlock and John to have each get the other out of the house, because they both need a break. Mary’s kind of awesome — and it’s terrific that Sherlock isn’t going the cliched route of having her become a wedge between the show’s real couple. The three feed off each others’ energy so well, something that I imagine is helped tenfold by Amanda Abbington being Martin Freeman’s actual wife. Anyway, so John makes Sherlock pick a case: a young guard at the palace named Bainbridge (Dean Thomas from Harry Potter!) believes he’s being stalked. Hmm…

Instead of waiting for the guardsman to go off-duty, Sherlock steals one of those big bearskin hats and marches into the barracks. (No one sees him because…he’s Sherlock!) Meanwhile, John goes to see the guard’s C.O., who doesn’t really want to give him the time of day, until he recognizes him as the fellow who hangs around with “that detective with the funny hat.” Unfortunately, Bainbridge is discovered — dead! In the shower! Yikes! The C.O. wants to assume Sherlock (who has just been brought in) and Watson are responsible, but there’s no weapon, and the door was locked from the inside. Is it a suicide? No, he was murdered…wait! He’s still alive! John takes control and saves the kid’s life. But how was he stabbed?

Wedding. Sherlock quizzes the room for ideas. Lestrade thinks it was a dwarf in the vent (thanks for playing, Lestrade). Tom, Molly’s fiancee, suggests a “meat dagger.” (“Sit. Down.” Molly tersely whispers.) But the truth is, Sherlock never solved it. He told the story because he wanted to credit John for saving Bainbridge while Sherlock was focused on the crime. And of course, Sherlock’s not out of anecdotes yet…

Flashback: Stag Night. Sherlock asks Molly to help determine the exact amount of alcohol he and John can drink on their bender to stay buzzed but not get wasted, so he shows up at their first (tightly-scheduled) stop with a pair of giant flasks. He even knows exactly when they’ll have to go to the bathroom. But eventually, John has had enough of the science, and sneaks a pair of shots into the equation when Sherlock’s not looking. With that, we reach the funniest sequence in the history of Sherlock: DRUNK SHERLOCK.

Even the camera is a little bit warped and fuzzy as Sherlock and John arrive back at Baker Street, a mere two hours after they left. So with both of them plastered and some time to kill, they play 20 questions. Sherlock, naturally, is trying to guess himself. (Not the King of England, though. Good guess.) John is trying to guess “Madonna.” Unfortunately, Sherlock doesn’t even know who Madonna is.

God, this whole thing is hysterical. Cumberbatch and Freeman just ace it.

A client! At this hour? Of course they’ll see her!

The woman, Tessa, had met a nice man and saw him for dinner, but he disappeared without a trace and now she thinks she legitimately encountered a ghost. The owner of the house she visited died weeks ago. Drunk John is falling asleep. Drunk Sherlock is intrigued. “The game is…something!”

Sherlock’s usual deductive skills are a little…off.  The on-screen text as he studies the scene: “Chair.  Speaker thing. Skull? Deaded? Client…cardigan?” (I’m dying, here.) “He’s clueing for looks,” John helpfully offers. Tessa introduces them to her landlord as “Sherlock Holmes and John Hamish Watson.” Sherlock: “Don’t compromise the integrity of the –” as he throws up on her floor.  Oops.

Lestrade, who greets them in a holding cell the next morning, also thinks this is hilarious. Hungover John: “Could you speak a little more quietly?” “NOT REALLY!”

Baker Street. Want to hear more about Mrs. Hudson? Of course you do! Her husband ran a drug cartel! She was relived when he was arrested, because it was “purely physical” between th–AAAAND John is done with this conversation, thanks. He goes to check on Sherlock, who’s been doing some research about other women in the area who have recently claimed to have gone on a date with a ghost. In his mind palace, he eliminates all but a handful, who he chats up online to find out more.

What do these cases have in common? The man used different addresses, names, and appearances; the women have different professions, different dream dates, different makeups and perfumes; what’s this guy — “The Mayfly Man,” as Sherlock calls him — up to? Ah…all the women have a secret, and log off in a hurry when he asks one too many questions. “Enjoy the wedding,” Tessa says. John: “Maybe he’s married?” Ah!

The wedding: Oh. Sherlock’s turned off the audience again. But the charm of the Mayfly Man wishing to escape the shackles of domesticity isn’t the point — it’s about how John always sees the things Sherlock doesn’t. That case hasn’t been solved, either. But Sherlock has them raise their glass to toast the happy couple, until….EPIPHANY. Sherlock’s wine glass slowly falls to the floor.

Mind palace. Tessa knew John’s middle name! (How? it took Sherlock years — eventually ordering John’s birth certificate) to find out. She knew about the wedding, too. The invitations listed his full name. That can only mean one thing: the Mayfly man is here. He’s here in the room!

Sherlock — with some prodding from his subconscious’s version of Mycroft, who we’re seeing an awful lot more of this season — is now stalling for time. He continues to ad-lib the speech, pacing back and forth across the room trying to figure out which guest is the criminal. John and Mary know something’s wrong. Sherlock surreptitiously texts Lestrade: “Lock this place down.” But Sherlock keeps rambling, eventually dropping that little phrase that signals John that stuff is about to go down: “Vatican Cameos.”

If there’s to be a murder today, who’s the murderer, and who’s the target? Who could you only kill here, in public? Someone already in danger? Ah…Major Sholto. Sholto, who lives a lonely life out in the country, constantly under death threats, and happens to employ all the ladies who think they’ve been dating a ghost. (That was the women’s big secret.) The gore-loving boy from earlier hits the nail on the head: the invisible man with the invisible knife could do it. Maybe Bainbridge was just a warmup. This is the real show. OH MY GOD, IT’S ALL CONNECTED! (Though, of course it is. Of course it is.)

Sherlock quickly finishes the toast, and he and John run off after the Major, who returns to his room (and the gun in his suitcase) expecting to die like a man. Mary fortunately remembers what room he’s in — quick, this one — and when the two detectives can’t enter without getting shot at, the Major tells Sherlock the only thing he can do is solve the case. Figure it out, Sherlock! Right now!

Naturally, he does. In a flash: no one is coming to kill Sholto, because they’ve already done it. There’s a small blade inside his belt that will make him bleed out when it’s removed. That’s exactly what happened to Bainbridge. (Okay, full disclosure: I called it! I really did!) However, Sholto would rather die anyway. “One should embrace it, like a soldier.” “But not at John’s wedding,” Sherlock argues. “We would never do that to John Watson.” That gets through to him, and he decides to let John in to save his life as well.

Later: the dance. Sherlock — who has legitimate chemistry with Janine, though who knows what his game is — is a much better dancer than her. Actually, he loves dancing! (And there’s your GIF of the week.) Lestrade, meanwhile, brings over the photographer at Sherlock’s request, who is the final piece of the puzzle. His name is Jonathan Small — his brother was killed in that infamous operation of Sholto’s, and he’s your attempted murderer. And your Mayfly Man. “Do you always carry handcuffs?” Janine asks, wide-eyed. “Down, girl.”

John and Mary take their first dance, to Sherlock’s violin composition, and before long the Best Man finally finishes his speech: “Whatever happens, I will always be there…for all three of you–uh, two of you! Two of you!” HAHAHAHA.

As it happens, all the signs are there: “The signs of three.” Mary’s carrying. John: “How did he notice before me? I’m a bloody doctor!” But Sherlock tells them not to worry — they’ve had plenty of practice babysitting him. Everyone laughs charmingly, and to the strains of “Oh, What a Night,” the wedding party gets their boogie on. Except Sherlock, who — after seeing Janine dancing with another dude — slips out. His job is done.

That episode was SO MUCH FUN, and easily my favorite from this third season. There’s definitely a lot of debate in other places about whether these more relationship-driven episodes are good or bad for the show, but I know which side I land on. I’m even willing to overlook Sherlock’s rapid evolution from ice-cold sociopath from making an honest effort to do right by John, but I’ll chalk that up to the abbreviated broadcast schedule and likely great span of “show” time between episodes. Sherlock is, more than anything, effortlessly entertaining, and “The Sign of Three” is a new high point…which can only make one think something truly terrible and depressing is coming in next week’s finale. We’ve still got that mysterious villain to meet, after all. You know Sherlock’s going to have to have that vow of his tested.

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