Thoughts on BBC Sherlock’s “The Sign of Three”
Sherlock is finally back, and I must admit, I’m not emotionally prepared for that fact. I thought I had a handle on those feelings with last week’s unimpressive (in my view) episode, but “The Sign of Three” broke the dam and the deluge of feelings poured in.
I am, as Mr. Spock has said, emotionally compromised.
“The Sign of Three” is one of the most spectacularly brilliant Sherlock episodes I have yet encountered, matched, I think, only by “The Reichenbach Fall” (which also came from the pen of Steve Thompson. Can he get an award?) This post is neither a review of it, nor a summary. It is a celebration of it, but also some commentary and thoughts on what this episode is doing with storytelling, with narrative, and with the original canon.
The episode in itself is a feat of storytelling. After a spectacularly funny, albeit predictable, beginning, which sets up the great problem of the episode – Sherlock Holmes must write a best man’s speech – the entirety of the episode is that speech itself. Within that speech, Sherlock describes several cases he and John solved, because no episode would be complete without cases, even if there’s a wedding involved. Intertwined with that case-solving are flashbacks to everything that’s happened between “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three,” showing John and Sherlock’s getting back on its feet and then evolving even further. But there’s also the thread of a larger murder running through the entire episode, with the smaller cases John and Sherlock work on tying into the large murder that he must solve- or, as Sherlock Holmes might put it, “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it.” (A Study in Scarlet)
Sherlock’s life may not be colorless, but the thread of murder is certainly there, and he solves it by delving into his mind palace, which is again cleverly intertwined with both the speech he’s giving and the flashbacks. We first encountered Sherlock’s mind palace in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” and it’s a pleasure I didn’t know I needed to actually see it. It is, after all, the physical, literal manifestation of Sherlock Holmes’ thought processes, portrayed in such a tangible way that we can grasp it while still intertwining with all the other events of the episode. To capture the mind of a man like Sherlock is nigh impossible, but this comes close.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s a brilliant achievement if one has an inkling of the general format of television plots. Usually, each episode is self-contained, containing what one calls “A” and “B” plots, which interact and drive the episode forward, both of which build onto a larger seasonal plot. This episode naturally does so, but it intertwines these three plots very cleverly: with the best man’s speech, the various cases, and the murder all making up the A and B plots and very cleverly interacting, while the progression of John and Sherlock’s relationship contributes to the seasonal plot. At least, that’s my understanding, but the various threads of this episode are so complex that I have a hard time untangling them. In fact, when Sherlock Holmes spoke of a case as being a “tangled skein, and I am looking for a loose end,”(“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”) I think I understand exactly what he means. It’s an intricate knot, and you have to know just where to pull to unravel it.
On to Sherlock’s speech then. The fact that Sherlock Holmes writes such a lengthy piece of text is more than just a storytelling approach, though it is that; it’s also an interesting commentary on the Canon and an interaction with it.
The Sherlock Holmes stories have come down to us as the writings of John Watson – he set down all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, with the exception of four (the four he didn’t write are very badly written). One story is penned by Holmes himself, during his retirement, and the writing of it is pretty terrible. Holmes admits it himself, lamenting that “Ah! Had [Watson] but been with me, how much he might have made of so wonderful a happening and of my eventual triumph against every difficulty!” (The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane). Watson is not there, however, leaving Holmes to tell his story “in [his] own plain way.”
Which just goes to show how important John Watson is, because it is his writing, his talent, and his predilection for romanticizing that makes Sherlock Holmes the hero he is. In the canon, Holmes is constantly criticizing Watson for all the romanticizing he does. “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you had worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” he rather rudely tells Watson in The Sign of Four. And in “The Sign of Three,” it’s no coincidence that Sherlock calls John a “romantic.” He means it in more than one way, and it’s not a derogatory comment, because John being a romantic is precisely what has immortalized Sherlock Holmes. It is his desire to tell vibrant stories, and his abilities to do so, that have brought Sherlock Holmes to life and made him a hero. Even possessing his talent for deduction and observation, Sherlock Holmes would not be the hero we know of today if he was not immortalized by Watson. And this is something that Sherlock acknowledges, bringing the attendees’ attention to Watson’s blog again and again, even raising his phone (upon which that blog is doubtless reachable), as if to thank Watson for the way he has brought them together in his tales.
And, in “The Sign of Three,” in penning his speech, in creating a celebration of John Watson in words, Sherlock Holmes is returning the favor. Just as Watson has celebrated Sherlock through his words and made him the character and the hero we love today, so Sherlock is doing the same for Watson, bringing him into the limelight. Watson has often been relegated to the side – Doyle himself didn’t have an overly high opinion of him, calling him rather “stupid,” many film adaptations cast Watson as a bit of a bumbling idiot, and so often he’s seen as nothing but a vehicle for the telling of stories, because when one’s protagonist is a genius, one requires someone else to write the stories. And yet, here, Watson is treated as a just complement to Sherlock, as important as the detective himself. He’s changed Sherlock, not only celebrated him, and he is essential to our understanding of the great detective. And so we see here Sherlock taking up John’s craft, the craft of words, to give John the respect he is due and create not only a parallel, but also an equality, between the two of them.
And it is a touching and heartbreaking speech. It shows how much John Watson has changed Sherlock Holmes, drawing him out and finding his inner humanity. No matter how many times in the canon Holmes states that he does not love (“my brain has always governed my heart,” he says in “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”, and it’s a sentiment he echoes in the speech itself), no one doubts that Sherlock Holmes cares about John Watson (one might remember Holmes’ frantic desperation when Watson is injured in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” which revealed to Watson his companion’s affection). It shows us not only how necessary Watson is to Holmes, but how much Sherlock himself realizes it.
“There are mysteries worth solving and stories worth telling. The best and bravest man I know…” Sherlock says, and how utterly fitting that he transitions from the concept of telling stories to that epithet for John. It’s an echo of “The Final Problem,” which reads less like a story and more like a eulogy by Watson of his dead friend. That story ends with Watson calling Holmes “the best and wisest man that I have ever known,” a statement that John echoes in “The Reichenbach Fall” with his stuttered, ineloquent “you were the best man and the most human – human being that I’ve ever known.” They come full circle, giving each other these similar-sounding epithets and celebrating the accomplishments of each other, for they’re equals. Sherlock may have the greater mind, but John Watson has, perhaps, the greater heart, and the two are absolutely necessary to each other. They’re equals who need each other and complement each other, and Sherlock’s foray into storytelling tells that.
This episode was everything I’d been expecting from season three, and then more. After the spectacular, deeply emotional “Reichenbach Fall,” there was room for so much emotion and so much characterization. “The Empty Hearse” seems to have skipped over much of the emotional impact of season two’s finale, but this episode fills in that gap. After the emotional development Sherlock went through in the second season, this is the natural development of his character, and it is heartening to see it so brilliantly done. I’m incredibly excited for the ensuing episode, “His Last Vow,” but also slightly terrified at the heartbreak and angst that’s obviously going to result, because Sherlock can’t be this happy for very long.