Sherlock The Sign of Three

BBC1 05/01/14
Written by Stephen Thompson, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss/ Directed by Colm McCarthy

This episode skates very close to the edge of being self-indulgent and may baffle some casual viewers whom you can imagine are sitting there thinking `what’s going on?` The answer is the show’s first full comedy episode and why not? After all Sherlock is, as the character himself suggests, a ridiculous man and suits the comedic riffs of this freewheeling script co-authored by all three of the series’ writers. The results do follow on from the more human Sherlock last week’s episode unveiled and just as that was a platform for Martin Freeman, this week its Benedict Cumberbatch’s show. In a tour de force of a best man speech, interrupted by flashbacks, the great detective gets to the nub of more down to earth mysteries such as marriage and friendship as well as trying to solve a case.

At times you can hear what you sense are the three voices of each writer as the observations and opinions, particularly on the rituals of marriage, bounce around. It’s easy to imagine the trio holed up somewhere with bottles of wine (the humour is too sophisticated for beer and too random for coffee) throwing ideas into the air and seeing where they fall. The central conceit is Sherlock’s worry over his speech, one so manifest that his urgent `Help` text at the start of the episode drags Lestrade and half the London police force to 22B. Lestrade’s exasperated response sets the tone. Rupert Graves incidentally is terrific in this episode as he reacts to all the silliness.
Thus begins a trip through the traditions of the wedding which Sherlock responds to with the same forensic devotion he normally gives to criminal investigations. Some of the gags are priceless- such as his detailed examination of serviette folding, his interrogation of prospective ushers or the fact that John and Mary end up trying to get him interested in a case to divert him from his obsessions. We accompany Sherlock and John on the latter’s stag night during which the latter sabotages the former’s precise pre-planning of alcoholic consumption so the duo end up drunk and incapable and then take on a case! The sight of the inebriated Holmes trying to examine the crime scene is priceless.
The episode is all staged and timed brilliantly with director Colm McCarthy really capturing the feel of things- his swooping frozen wedding photographs are a particular visual highlight. There is an actual case of a murdered guardsman that flits in and out of focus and has a typically ingenious solution but just as enjoyable are snippets of previously unseen cases –including a literal “elephant in the room” and women that claim to have slept with a ghost- some of which link to the main case some of which don’t- as well some surprisingly affectionate tributes to the friendship between groom and best man. 

It looks so normal but this is a bizarre episode...
It is probably as far as they can go lest Sherlock become too normal and it does soften some of the edges of a character who is often hovering towards being gloriously unlikeable. It’s probably best not to imagine you would ever be able to appropriate any of this for a real wedding because it is designed to show how complex Sherlock’s mind is and how it works. As he pads up and down the room trying to focus on the mystery of the murder having concluded one of the guests is next at risk the viewer will be surprised to find themselves reaching the answer before the detective does demonstrating how preoccupied he is with the nuptials. Well at least I did anyway as we’d been shown instances of the guardsman being mysteriously photographed and there’s a wedding photographer whose face is kept obscured. What we hadn’t guessed – and which the great detective lets slip at the end- is Mary’s pregnancy which is alluded to in the episode’s title.
It goes without saying- though it should be said- that Benedict Cumberbatch is on fire in this episode, not literally of course though the way matters unfold it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. It takes a special kind of actor to hold our attention with what in lesser hands might seem rambling and unfocussed and he does so with considerable skill. There are times when you wonder if it is going on too long but each time such thoughts are kicked aside by a killer line or a sudden flashback or a clever moment.
As you’d expect there’s already some talk of whether the series has gone too far. `The Sign of Three` is definitely an audacious, risky episode that could only be done once and which will probably not be to everyone’s taste but shows what you can achieve with a trio of inventive writers, an imaginative director and a lead actor at the peak of his powers.

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