The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 3

Continuing from a previous post is Sherlock Series 3. One of the more notable aspects of the show is Sherlock’s depiction of mental illness, as according to the Health Guidance article, “A Psychological Assessment of Sherlock Holmes“:

‘It’s true what they say about you: you’re a psychopath!’

‘High-functioning sociopath. With your address.’

That’s a quote from a recent episode of ‘Sherlock’ which sheds some light on why the central protagonist acts the way he does. Sherlock Holmes is a cool character for sure, but he lacks some basic faculties that the rest of us consider part of a healthy functioning brain. While Sherlock can remember hundreds of facts in his incredible ‘memory palace’ and can spot things in seconds that the rest of us would miss; he at the same time has no idea how to handle people, has little interest in general knowledge that doesn’t relate directly to the case he’s working on, and shows serious signs of obsessive behaviour.

Clearly Sherlock Holmes is not typical in his behaviour, which is what prompts him to suggest in the new series that he must be a ‘high functioning sociopath’.

According to psychologists that probably isn’t what’s going on with him and there’s a good chance he might have misdiagnosed himself. Let’s take a closer look at the evidence. The game is on!

Is Sherlock Holmes a Sociopath?

So if Sherlock Holmes himself is right and he really is a sociopath, what would that entail?

The distinction between sociopath and psychopath is one that’s very slight and that many people disagree on. Though the official line is that sociopaths are not all psychopaths, often the terms are used interchangeably and considered synonymous.

If Sherlock was either a sociopath or a psychopath, that would mean that he didn’t feel any empathy towards others, that he largely didn’t feel emotions himself, and that he was willing to use his charm and his intelligence in order to manipulate others and get his way. Both the sociopath and psychopath enjoy positions of power and are attracted to high salaries and the opportunity to be ‘in charge’.

Generally when we call someone a psychopath we are implying that their behaviour is criminal though this isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for someone to fit the diagnosis. Psychopaths do tend to be more likely to break the law, and generally have more difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Officially then there is very little difference, but people tend to use psychopathy to describe the slightly more dangerous and unhinged individual.

Either way then, if Sherlock was a sociopath that would mean he had a poor moral compass, that he struggled to understand human emotions, that he was willing to manipulate others to get what he wanted, that he was superficially charming and that he didn’t really form attachments. He would also be more impulsive (prone to gambling or suddenly breaking off social engagements), he would enjoy manipulating others for the sake of it, and he would be prone to aggression.

However if you look at Holmes in any adaptation you will find that he actually has quite a strong understanding of human emotions and that he often uses this understanding in his deductions. Likewise, he might not have many social attachments, but he nevertheless has a few people who are very close to him including Watson, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. He clearly is capable of being emotionally distressed, and while he tends to be cold in his presentation, there is more evidence to suggest that he simply suppresses his emotions in order to aid in his crime solving abilities.

Is Sherlock Holmes Aspergic?

More likely is that Sherlock Holmes is Aspergic. Asperger’s syndrome is a condition on the autistic spectrum – essentially it is ‘mild autism’. The symptoms include obsessive behaviour, lack of social understanding/emotional IQ, attachment to particular routines, apparent lack of empathy, formal style of speaking, narrow range of obsessive interests.

In many ways this fits with what we know about Sherlock Holmes. This could explain dislike of socialising and his small circle of contacts, it would explain why he was so obsessed with crime-solving and other particular subjects, and it would even give us a reason for his formal speech patterns.

Furthermore, while those with Asperger’s don’t tend to fully grasp emotions in the way that others do, they tend to compensate for this missing innate ability by creating complex models of behaviour which they then use to better understand the motivations of others. This is exactly in keeping with Sherlock’s behaviour and could even provide a believable origin for his ‘Science of Deduction’. Could it just be an Aspergic attempt to understand what motivates people and what they might be thinking?

Unlike sociopaths, Aspergic patients are capable of forming strong bonds with those closest to them and can become very dependent on those relationships. This could also explain some of Sherlock’s abilities in terms of observation and memory too – many people who suffer with conditions on the autistic spectrum will also exhibit various ‘savant abilities’ which typically will include things such as feats of memory or observation. They are also often very good at drawing or playing musical instruments, one more talent which Sherlock shares.

High IQ

Of course Sherlock Holmes also has a particularly high IQ which allows him to pull off many of his feats of ingenuity and which gives him his thirst for knowledge and experimentation. Often highly intelligent individuals can feel easily bored by everyday life. Sherlock Holmes may use crime solving as a way to cope with his boredom, and this may also be one of the motivations that drives him to experiment with narcotics.

Another highly intelligent fictional character with signs of Asperger’s syndrome is Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’. When you compare the two you might notice a number of surprising similarities.

Case closed!

Finally, according to the Business Insider article, “We asked a neuroscientist if Sherlock Holmes is actually a sociopath and his answer surprised us“:

A new “Sherlock” special premiered Jan. 1 on PBS and in special theatrical screenings.

At one point in the MASTERPIECE/PBS TV series, which is based on the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, policeman Philip Anderson derogatorily calls Sherlock a psychopath.

His dry response — “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research” — is now one of the hallmarks of the show.

But what’s the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath, and which would Sherlock really be?

We posed this question to James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the UC Irvine School of Medicine who specializes in studying psychopaths and just so happens to be one (but that’s another story). Fallon in turn asked his friend Michael Felong, a doctor who specializes in internal medicine in Temecula, California, who has an interest in Sherlock Holmes. The verdict?

Sherlock Holmes, as written by Doyle, is probably what he calls a “primary psychopath,” not a sociopath, he said.

Psychopaths vs. sociopaths

The term “psychopath” doesn’t appear in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the medical handbook used by psychiatrists. The closest entry is antisocial personality disorder, which is defined by “impairments in personality,” such as egocentrism or lack of empathy, and “pathological personality traits,” such as manipulativeness or impulsivity.

Psychopaths and sociopaths are sometimes considered the same thing, but there are some key differences between them, Fallon told Business Insider.

According to him, psychopaths can be divided into two categories: primary psychopaths and secondary psychopaths, or sociopaths.

  • A primary psychopath usually gets his or her defining characteristics as a result of a combination of genes, brain connections, and environment, said Fallon. This type of person doesn’t typically respond to punishment, fear, stress, or disapproval, and often lacks empathy. Most primary psychopaths, Fallon added, mimic emotions and understand them cognitively, but do not feel them.
  • A secondary psychopath (sociopath) gets to be this way mostly as a result of his or her environment. Severe abuse at a young age can play a particularly strong role in the development of a sociopath, said Fallon. Unlike a primary psychopath, a secondary psychopath or sociopath can feel stress or guilt, said Fallon, and is generally capable of empathy. He or she may also be prone to anxiety, Fallon added.

Both primary and secondary psychopaths can further be divided into “distempered” and “charismatic” psychopaths, Fallon explained:

  • A distempered psychopath tends to fly into rages that can resemble epileptic fits. These people may also often have an extremely strong sex drive.
  • A charismatic psychopath is often a charming liar and fast talker who can manipulate others to part with anything — including their lives.

Now that we know the difference, let’s take a look at Sherlock.

Why Sherlock is a psychopath

Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant but antisocial detective. He doesn’t seem to show emotion or care about other people’s feelings — even those of his trusted sidekick Dr. Watson — and he’s not driven by the fear of offending others. By all appearances, he is a primary psychopath.

What’s more, he never loses his cool and seems to have very little interest in women (with the possible exception of his femme fatale Irene Adler), and yet he wins the admiration of Watson and his many fans, which probably makes him a charismatic psychopath.

That said, the Sherlock played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the MASTERPIECE/PBS series is perhaps a tiny bit more humane than Doyle’s original character. He occasionally shows acts of kindness toward Watson, and despite his tough veneer, he betrays the tiniest glimpses that he cares about others.

But these changes were probably necessary to make him more likeable to audiences, Fallon said. After all, “real psychopaths are terrible characters.”

 

The Best:

The Empty Hearse, and His Last Vow

The Empty Hearse picks up where The Reichenbach Fall left off, Sherlock faking his own death.

How Sherlock faked his death was, of course, finally explained.

That shares a common thread with Doctor Who. Much like Doctor Who

Sherlock, too, also received a prequel in Many Happy Returns. Notably, this episode also deals with an impending terrorist attack on Parliament, which according to the later episode, The Final Problem, may have been predicted by Eurus.


While The Empty Hearse was quite fun, His Last Vow was actually much better. I was quite surprised. I had misgivings following the death of Moriarty, but this finale turned out quite alright.

Notably, after Mary shoots Sherlock during this episode, he goes into his Mind Palace and we, for the first time, get to see Redbeard. Or so we think.

The ending where Sherlock kills Magnussen of course delves into mental illness territory (see above).

According to The A.V. Club review of The Empty Hearse:

Steven Moffat’s Sherlock has always labored under some imposing shadows. As the most-adapted character of all time, Sherlock Holmes has plenty of competition: Vasily Livanov, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing, Jonny Lee Miller. And Moffat’s also up against Arthur Conan Doyle, who got so sick of of Holmes he literally threw him off a cliff, only to bring him back because he was desperate for cash and wanted fans to stop chasing him in the street screaming for more.

Nearly every incarnation of Holmes that’s run long enough has had to tackle one of the most awkward scenes in canon, in which a returned Sherlock announces himself to Watson. The scene itself is pure Victorian fan service, with a disguised Sherlock casing Watson’s crime scene and then sneaking into 221B for his reveal, followed by apologies and a loving welcome home. Depending on the script and the leads, it can be a joyful moment or a poignant one. (I still pine for a revival of the TV-movie series from the early 2000s, with Ian Hart as an incomparable Watson, just to see how he’d tackle it.)

So how does this Sherlock handle it? At a restaurant, with Holmes as a high-snot waiter interrupting Watson’s proposal to Mary Morstan. John, understandably, can’t process the deception and attacks him; cut to a less-posh place, where the conversation picks up directly until John attacks him; cut to a deli, where the conversation picks up directly. Sherlock assures John sotto voce that John’s missed this, insults Watson’s moustache (again), and bids goodnight to Mary, who murmurs, “I like him,” to John when they’re alone.

And that’s Moffat’s return to Sherlock this episode in a nutshell: Some clever edits tipping into overdone while burying character beats, Watson’s internal conflict dismissed, another woman who just can’t help but enjoy the sociopathic little scamp, and a healthy spoonful of fan service to make the medicine go down.

Maybe a more-than-healthy dollop. Moffat has a very direct and sometimes antagonistic relationship with his shows’ fans, whose attention he seems to equally crave and hold in contempt. One of the most off-putting threads in “The Empty Hearse” is its attempts to illustrate how Sherlock survived the Fall, for which Moffat assured viewers the answer was forthcoming. Spoilers: nope. Instead, we get a collection of fan scenarios that could have been lifted from Tumblr. Anderson’s involves a kiss with Molly; in another, Sherlock and giggly co-conspirator Moriarty lean in for a rooftop snog (doesn’t happen, of course), thanks to the imagination of a dreamy Sherlock fangirl. Sherlock later outlines a solution of his own, but the show winkingly determines that, too, is a lie.

The thing is, it’s not actually necessary to explain the particulars. The importance is its effect on a grieving Watson, and the show would have fallen flat on that alone, since Sherlock never apologizes. It takes a near-death experience for John to reconcile with him—one of the more broken Holmes and Watson partnerships to appear on-screen. Moffat made much of having the answer—only to come back and suggest that anyone interested in particulars was not only wrong but laughable. So what begins as a thin gimmick quickly gets exhausted.

As with Doctor Who, Moffat has become his show’s biggest problem—this episode is primarily concerned with being as cool and implacable as the Sherlock it’s created. (We’re saving man-child stuff for later, I assume.) Much ado about the Belstaff coat? Cumberbatch’s parents in a cameo as Sherlock’s parents? Tearful declarations of feeling at the climax of the action? Sufficient declarations of No Homo beforehand? Occasional, often dismissive nods to the canon? Moffat has it all; it’s going to be a meta season.

It would be a shame if the season spins out this way. When the show can get off its hamster wheel, it’s possessed of an engaging supporting cast who make great work of their material, and who could use a little more to do. A scene of John visiting a stung Mrs. Hudson to make halting apologies for his absence brings back their lovely rapport in just a few sentences, and in the moments he’s allowed to react to Sherlock’s return, Martin Freeman’s mingled relief and fury collapse him like a stomach punch. Amanda Abbington (Freeman’s real-life partner) makes a low-key Mary, though the “liar” that appeared in Sherlock’s assessment of her is probably going to bite John in the ass. Mark Gatiss, when he can remember to act, has his usual easy chemistry with Cumberbatch, and an interesting beat about enforced loneliness that hopefully might lead somewhere. And Rupert Graves, who’s beautifully milks every moment of his time here, gives Lestrade the line delivery of the night after Sherlock announces himself—growling “Oh, you bastard” from around a cigarette. (Then he hugs him, of course; everyone on this show is mandated to forgive Sherlock anything.)

But the standout this episode is Louise Brealey, whose Molly serves as a barometer of Sherlock’s devastating friendly fire. (Even this is meta; we’re assured Molly was instrumental in the Reichenbach ruse, but Sherlock never cares enough to give specifics.) Brought in for a day of Watsoning as Sherlock tries to get back into the swing of things, Molly provides enough forensic knowledge to make Sherlock jealous—a telling detail that would have been interesting to deconstruct. But when she asks him what’s really going on and is told the day was her thank-you for services rendered, Molly flinches back against the gesture, so tightly coiled that her very intensity silently calls Sherlock to task.

As always, he needs it. Cumberbatch, a capable actor whose Holmes ranges from serviceable to very good depending on the material, finds himself with a thankless task this episode. He’s in fine form as a callous narcissist, but for now, introspection takes a backseat to re-establishing his flash with a public that’s missed him (both with the show and the audience at home–told you we were in for a meta season).

His Holmesian muscles aren’t particularly flexed, given a standard procedural in which Sherlock’s called on to discover a terrorist cell intent on blowing up Parliament on Guy Fawkes Day, which seems like the sort of thing British Intelligence might be looking out for on an annual basis. But the procedural this time is an afterthought (Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered after a while, either), and it’s in his relationship with Watson that this episode rightly hangs its hopes. The plot exists to get the pair of them in an exploding subway car for a heart-to-heart. Unfortunately, the episode’s attempt to balance Watson’s palpable grief with determined slyness undermines both approaches.

For two years, John’s been grappling with a loss that left him feeling helpless, guilty, and alone, and in an episode that has plenty of time for cameos by Sherlock’s parents, we get mere moments of his grief. (In canon, Watson takes up the investigative mantle, but this Watson’s sworn it off. It’s an interesting character beat that fits this John—whose devotion to Sherlock has always had less to do with enjoying his methods than becoming personally closer—but it slips by unaddressed.) Sherlock did himself no favors with his reintroduction, and by letting others in on the ruse—duplicities John discovers by degrees—there’s a breach of trust the show would have to make real effort to address. Yet it largely refuses to engage Watson’s grievances, even sticking him in a bonfire for Sherlock to rescue as a reason to swiftly return to the fold. Even in the weaponized subway car, Sherlock wrings tearful forgiveness from John by convincing him they’re moments from death, and then flicks the bomb’s off-switch and mocks John for doubting him. It doesn’t so much re-establish a snarky equilibrium so much as it re-establishes that Moffat’s Sherlock is a total dick.

The season will hopefully earn its lightheartedness by making Sherlock atone for the manner of his return, in which he comes closer than ever to mirroring Moriarty (though given the tone issues, I’m not sure the show still sees the parallel, even if it really should). As such, the final few minutes introduce a sinister Bond villain alongside some wedding shenanigans, promising intrigue, and whimsy. And their last scene gives us a perfunctory reconciliation between Holmes and Watson before Sherlock presents himself for his adoring public, apparently marking John’s grievances handled.

We’ll see what this season does for the rest of us.

According to The A.V. Club review of His Last Vow:

In the Holmes canon, “His Last Bow” is the last case, chronologically speaking—set in 1914, with the looming World War so close that Sherlock warns of an east wind “as never blew on England yet.” It’s also one of very few stories that break the narrative mold that made Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective famous, in which Watson narrates with Holmes as his subject. Instead, “His Last Bow” is in third person, saving the (expected) reveal that informer Altamont is Holmes himself, and his chauffeur is, of course, Watson. It’s their last-ever case together, with both of them comparing how age has affected them, chatting blithely as they march a man down to Scotland Yard. But Conan Doyle plays this one at some distance: We don’t enter Watson’s thoughts about this brief reunion, we hear nothing of his feelings, and we don’t linger on the inevitable parting. It’s a narrative remove, at the very last.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to fan fiction. Specifically to “fix-it fic,” in which canonical inconsistencies, poor or hamstrung characterization, missing emotional beats, and thematic loopholes are filled in, explained, and addressed—an audience attempting to shore up the missing frames in a text.

So, let’s talk about “His Last Vow,” in which Steven Moffat attempts fix-it fic for a series for which he was also responsible for the text. It’s the cap to a particularly meta miniseries, and it’s about as disconcerting as it sounds.

One of most striking scenes is the opener, in which Watson wakes from long-absent nightmares, and a neighbor asks him to find her son. An edgy, stony Watson drives up to the drug den in question, implacably sprains the arm of the guy who opens the door, and frightens him into giving up the information John needs to go get the kid and bring him home. Martin Freeman nails the scene; it’s a Watson who, in the absence of Sherlock, takes on the dirty work, driven to intercede by whatever means he has.

It’s a Watson who would have belonged perfectly at the opening of the season, when he was despondent because he thought Sherlock Holmes was dead. He’s not the John we left last episode, having done good service to a friend, been praised by his soulmate, and been happily married—there’s no real thread to be drawn between the two. More importantly, it’s not a thread that the episode itself draws through—John’s role through the rest of “His Last Vow” is a reactive, supporting player. This scene stands alone, a Watson vignette from a series-three fix-it fic.

When seen through this lens, the hyper-meta thematic and characterization soup takes on a certain forensic appeal. Sherlock and Mycroft home with the meta-Cumberbatches for Christmas? Check. A heroin-habit Sherlock that winks at another recent addict from 221b? Yup. Enormous mind-palace set piece featuring every cast member the show could find, and also a dog? A reveal that a woman’s a gun-toting badass that still preserves the big finale as a Holmes-and-Watson-only affair? And Sherlock smack in the middle of everything, no matter what? You bet.

For though this episode seems structured around John, and features him heavily (giving him more to do than the episode about his wedding), he’s hardly the hero of the hour. That is, and always will be, Sherlock, even when it pushes against the natural rhythm of the story. A powerful woman has a problem? Enter Sherlock. Mary’s got a vendetta against Magnussen? The honor of revenge is reserved for Holmes. And is there a more telling scene in “His Last Vow” than John trying to get the truth from Mary after her big reveal, only to have Sherlock interrupt with a monologue about how Watson is “abnormally drawn” to dangerous situations and people, robbing Watson of his answers and his moment and bringing Sherlock back front and center?

The reveal itself references “The Empty House,” is tensely acted all around, and neatly sets up a promising showdown between Mary and an anguished Watson. But here as in “The Empty Hearse,” John’s beats are cut off at the knees in favor of a racing plot and Sherlock’s narrative dominance, so it’s buildup that never gives John a payoff. Instead, it parses like missing scenes from a longer cut that’s lost to us. (It doesn’t help that the Christmas fanfic plays out as a halfhearted frame-story that interrupts the big confrontation—bleeding tension even more—and ends with a truncated, uneasy reconciliation never addressed again.) Even the reveal, where Mary’s suggested as a snake-in-the-grass villain, sidelines her almost as soon as she’s unmasked, never really touching on her guilt or the crimes that got her there. Instead, we get a mind-palace showdown and Holmes family bliss. As the show has become increasingly about the coolness of Sherlock, it feels as if Moffat’s nervous about leaving him out of the spotlight for even a scene.

Strange, since it’s something Sherlock seems hardly in danger of losing—in fact, this is Cumberbatch’s most quietly emotive episode of the season. Charles Augustus Magnussen confounds Sherlock at every turn and drives him to a desperation that feels more organic than when he was up against Moriarty, who at least always had a weak spot: Sherlock. Magnussen has no weak spots at all.

Which is interesting. Though no through-villain is necessary in a series so short, “His Last Vow” seemed self-conscious about lacking an archenemy. Moffat’s script even assures us Magnussen is “the Napoleon of blackmail,” as if missing Moriarty and determined to raise the stakes on being bad. Then again, there has to be a certain unselfconsciousness in writing a villain over-the-top enough to lick a woman’s face, yet quaint enough to think a powerful man would be ruined if Magnussen were to reveal some sexy letters he’d written to a young woman just underage. (That’s sadly something that would be more believably held over the young woman in question—a nasty dynamic that’s remained unchanged since it appeared in the original story.) However, when allowed to be simply slithery rather than relieving himself in people’s fireplaces to make sure we know he’s evil, Lars Mikkelsen’s a beautifully smooth baddie; his scene with Lindsay Duncan crackled with particular energy, and suggests an untouchable baddie who could have easily carried more screen time.

Though the bones of the Milverton blackmail case are everywhere this episode, the season’s drawn heavily on The Sign Of Four across the board. (This episode even introduced Wiggins, head Baker Street Irregular.) It’s a smart thematic unifier, in theory, especially to integrate Mary. And pairing it with another story season-wide is a smart play, but there’s an odd fit between the plotty adventure of The Sign Of Four and the necessarily heavier “Empty House” post-Reichenbach character dynamics; it’s a recipe for thematic disconnect.

And unfortunately, with this season, it feels as though that disconnect is everywhere. The show’s become its own worst enemy, an excellent cast and a wealth of knowledge floundering in the hands of a creative team committed to making Sherlock inescapably flashy and cool while passing over the well-crafted characters that made it initially so appealing, offering more plot to the detriment of the detectives. (And often it stumbles on both fronts: Watson nearly being damsel-roasted in episode one is brought up and discarded so halfheartedly here—it was Magnussen’s test of proof Sherlock cares about Watson, apparently—that the episode itself seems embarrassed to bring it up.)

Occasionally, flash pays off: Of the upgraded mind-palace bits of the season, this episode has the standout. Sherlock desperately deduces the best way to not bleed out after being gut-shot, while Molly and Mycroft bark rhetorical questions at him to narrow his options. But even then, there’s a bit too much of a good thing, as it begins to feel a little crowded by the time Anderson and Sherlock’s childhood dog have shown up and Moriarty is Golluming pain-management techniques and begging him to think of Watson and live again. (That’s some pre-slash, for the ficcers.)

The final moments of “His Last Vow” are a a particularly revealing example of the way this series has run. The east wind reference gets made and made again during Sherlock’s farewell to Watson, which leans successfully on all the rapport Freeman and Cumberbatch have to offer. They set up the ache of another long goodbye—only to be curtailed minutes later, as Moriarty appears on every screen in London and Sherlock’s summoned home. It’s attempted meta-cleverness that feels as if it’s pandering to assumptions rather than constructing an arc, wedging both the final “gaspworthy” tease and Sherlock’s triumphant return up against the maudlin-goodbye moments Moffat assumes the audience wants: surely the best of both worlds.

But it’s not; it ultimately comes off as calculated, and more pleased with itself than invested in the characters it supposedly follows – a narrative remove, at the very last.

 

The Worst:

The Sign of Three

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I suppose I’m not a fan of weddings. Maybe it’s because I have been to more funerals, and vigils, than I can count. In fairness, the only wedding I ever went to was of someone I literally just met, so that was awkward. Also suppose that even though getting married personally, would be utterly fantastic, it’s not yet.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Sign of Three:

Watson’s getting married! And we’re all invited to celebrate the charming couple, solve a highly coincidental murder, sit through an overly long best man’s speech, and get amazingly drunk. After a particularly rocky opener in the disconnected and emotionally-throttled “The Empty Hearse,” “The Sign of Three” settles in as the squishy middle of the third season. And while it solidifies this series’ increasingly-meta tone (there’s plenty of fan service here), it also provides breathing room for some welcome beats with its lead characters.

The majority of the episode takes place at the wedding itself, with liberal flashbacks to the pair of seemingly-unrelated cases that, because this is TV, come together at the very height of the festivities. But its best moments are the rare, quiet moments between Sherlock and Watson slipped in among the set pieces and memory callbacks. In particular, this episode gives Watson a moment to step beyond the often-subsumed damsel this iteration of Sherlock has made him: asking Sherlock to be his best man. Quietly confident, stopping short of indulgence but still undoubtedly fond, this is the Watson of Conan Doyle’s stories, who does much better without his best friend than his best friend ever does without him. (At the end of The Sign of Four, the Holmes adventure from which this story takes its title, Sherlock calmly announces that in Watson’s absence, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.”) Freeman, who shines throughout this episode, is at his best in this little scene at the kitchen table.

He also, as it turns out, plays a pretty great drunk. Their stag-night montage leads to two-man parlor games at 221b in which Freeman is note-perfect, and watching Sherlock slosh his way through an impromptu investigation is more clever meta than anything we got last episode. (Best one’s a toss-up between “I know aaaaash” and “sitty thing.”) The always marvelous Alice Lowe, as a nurse convinced she dated a ghost, gives a hilarious intensity to her plot-device part; you almost wish she’d come to the wedding.

And oh, the wedding. Amanda Abbington continues to enjoy herself immensely as Mary, though her screen time is relegated to tossing out clichés (she lost a lot of weight to fit into her dress, in case we were burning to know that) and matchmaking between this show’s real couple. She gets one intriguing beat—shooting down Sherlock with “I’m not John, I can tell when you’re fibbing”—but it goes without comment. That’s a shame, because it says a lot about her that merits exploring, and it also says a lot about John, none of it super great.

But naturally, the main event in this episode is Sherlock: his reaction to his date (a game Yasmine Akram), his ability to solve a crime in real time in a room of tipsy revelers, and his speech. Cumberbatch does a yeoman’s work, though the speech itself outstays its welcome, and unfortunately, once again, we’re offered Sherlock as an uneasy balance of arch superhuman and floundering man-child.

Not that he’s without his moments—his sincerity with suicidal Major Sholto about sparing Watson any pain on his wedding day almost eclipses the ruin Sherlock’s already made of Watson’s wedding day. But this Sherlock, as written, tends to traffic in aggressive coolness and rudeness, interrupted by bouts of petulant melancholy—an approach that works against any nuances brought up in the interim. While it works as shorthand in a series as limited as this one, it still often misses the mark on his potential complexity and ultimately leaves him feeling slightly static.

Stylewise, we get some admirable flourishes in the flashbacks: Watson’s superbly fleshy blink on waking from his stag-night blackout is great. But its flair is sometimes stylized to the episode’s detriment. Sherlock’s mind-palace interrogation of victims of the Mayfly Man is sharply done (Vicky needs her own show), but coming in the third act of an episode rife with trick cuts, it feels like overkill when it shouldn’t. Less-frenetic editing of Sherlock and Mycroft’s phone call could have gone a long way here. In fact, less of that could have gone a long way, full stop: Mark Gatiss has leveraged himself into significantly more screen time, but being the ever-present taskmaster of Sherlock’s subconscious and his mid-treadmill confidential bestie feels like a bit too much of a character who’s at his best in small, antisocial doses.

Still, the crimes (which dovetail so nicely it’s nearly comic) provide a solid backdrop for the wedding, the whole ensemble comes together in a single scene, and there’s enough real feeling between Sherlock and John to carry the day. Besides, the closing reveal that Mary’s pregnant, and Sherlock’s promise not to make any more vows, can only mean total disaster awaits everyone next episode, so you might as well enjoy this dance party while you can.

 

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Next in the best and worst is Series 2.

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2 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 3

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Sherlock: Series 1 | The Progressive Democrat

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