“The Sign of Three”, the middle episode in season three of BBC’s Sherlock, is mainly concerned with Sherlock’s relationships with people other than Watson. That might sound odd, considering the central event of this episode is John Watson and Mary Mortsan’s wedding, but I’ve seen it happen at weddings where the bride and groom are too preoccupied with the pageant to really take part in the social drama. Sherlock, like most “best men”, is primarily concerned with keeping the potentially stressful aspects of the event away from his friends John and Mary, which allows the show to highlight how Sherlock copes with the non-Watson world.
And before any of this starts sounding in any way heavy or sentimental, this is also probably the most laugh-filled, overtly humorous, and witty episode of the show thus far. The opening sequence, featuring 18 months in the seemingly star-crossed, crime-fighting career of Detective Lestrade, reminds us of how close he and Holmes have become, particularly since Sherlock’s return from the “dead” in the previous episode. Lestrade is shown “missing” a group of daring bank robbers on several occasions, and when he finally catches up to the criminals, just as he is about to make an arrest, he receives a text from Holmes (“Help Me Now”) and then reluctantly heads to 221B Baker Street with all the backup one would need to take down a major IRA cell, only to find that Holmes simply needed help with his wedding speech. That little incident and sequence gives us a lot of information about the respect Lestrade holds for Holmes, and also Sherlock’s complete social incompetence. It also sets the tone for the rest of the episode, where Sherlock has to function in a socially complex sphere, on display in front of a mixed audience. One gets the feeling, mainly through Benedict Cumberbatch’s Joker smile and nervous eyes, that Sherlock would rather do just about anything than participate in a wedding. (His summary of the modern wedding, “Two people who live together are going to attend church, have a party, go on a short trip, and then go back to living together,” is no more cynical than the attitude of many people I know, but few would have the social “courage” to simply come out and say it.)
Sherlock, on his own in the Baker Street apartment since returning from his extended “faked death”, is encountering many social obligations for the first time. Mrs. Hudson brings him tea in the morning, for example, and when Sherlock expresses confusion, Mrs. Hudson patiently explains that she makes the tea every morning and asks Holmes how else he thinks it appears at his door. (Mrs. Hudson, for the record, is positively beaming at Watson’s wedding with a handsome, middle-aged, nervous-looking Indian man on her arm.) Sherlock has to “screen” the wedding guests, a process that includes him giving a serious interview to the young ring-bearer and showing the child murder and autopsy photos to impress him. With another guest, a former romantic partner of Mary, he threatens retribution for potentially poor behavior by reminding the hapless man that he is a “high-functioning sociopath with your number”.
The plot of the episode, aside from the built-in drama of seeing how Sherlock can possibly negotiate the tangled web of social expectations surrounding a wedding, deals with a series of murders of military personnel, first a seemingly unrelated Palace guard and then a mysterious figure from Watson’s past. The scarred, wounded veteran putting on his uniform and showing up unexpectedly at the wedding would be an obvious clue to the source of any wrongdoing… in a lesser show. Here he is pure misdirection, but it is interesting to see something of Watson’s past. His military history, apart from the broad strokes, is ambiguous both in this production and in the original Sherlock Holmes stories. We know that Watson is a combat veteran (ironically of Afghanistan in both the 1890s and 2010s version of Holmes) and that he was wounded, but we are told little else of his time in combat. Getting to meet any colleague of his from those days, even a scarred and controversial one (this officer was involved in a particularly bloody incident) is useful to us as an audience. Watson’s proper Royal Army salute, and the loving look it draws from Mary, is among the many small but significant character moments for this show.
The original story, “The Sign of Four”, also dealt with strange, seemingly unrelated deaths of men who had shared time together in a military setting. In the case of the original book, the murders were baffling to police because they were in fact committed using exotic poisons and a trained monkey. Here, the ultimate reveal isn’t exactly that (although I was pulling for a monkey-murderer until the very end), but as usual, the “Sign of Three” title is significant in a way that I won’t reveal here. (After all, Sherlock should have some mystery left, shouldn’t it?)
In terms of Sherlock’s actual performance at the wedding, his speech survives a smashed wine glass, locked-down security, flashbacks, and his own hyperactive analytic mind. Typically for his character, after a wonderful and moving passage about his friendship with Watson and his approval of Mary (here was where the wedding tears started to flow, even watching from home), Sherlock instantly and ham-fistedly makes a transition into a joke. The fact that he has his legitimate reasons for not wanting his speech to end (the whole ceremony eventually becomes caught up in his seemingly epic presentation) only highlights how successful Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have been at conveying Sherlock’s almost-autistic lack of social graces, leavened with his brilliant analytic mind. As an audience, we think, “Oh, Holmes, just stop.” But we also think that he’s right, and he must have his reasons.
In the end, “The Sign of Three” is short on mystery but long on character and insight, which is probably why I liked it so much. The next episode, “His Last Vow”, will be the last of the third season of this remarkable show. But even though some of these episodes have yet to air in the US, the producers have already expressed enthusiasm for a fourth and even a fifth “series” (to use the British term), provided the growing fame of the cast and crew doesn’t pull them away from this exceptional and highly enjoyable show.