[caution: some spoilers]
Sherlock’s middle episodes have not historically been as good as the premiere (episode one) and the finale (episode three) bookends. When you have a three-episode season, usually something has to give. In this case, it’s usually the bridge episode.
I point this trend out precisely because that the middle episode of Sherlock’s third season “The Sign Of Three” bucks the trend. Not only is it the best of the middle episodes of Sherlock, but it may also be the very best episode that the show has ever made.
“The Sign Of Three” focuses on the wedding of John Watson and Mary Morstan. More specifically the focus is on Sherlock’s long-winded best man toast. Steven Moffat, in a special aired after the episode on PBS, described the formulation of the toast as simultaneously “the best” and “the worst” toast ever. That pretty much describes what happened when you have a character like Sherlock attempt to deliver a traditionally humorous, sentimental speech.
The toast frames the episode. It shows the months leading up to the wedding as Sherlock starts to fit into a new dynamic with John and Mary. Meanwhile, there is also a sense that after the wedding things will be very different. Despite the fact that John and Sherlock truly believe that nothing is going to really change between them.
In the end, however, things do change between them with another dynamic thrown into the mix.
“The Sign Of Three” takes a risk by being the most comedic episode of Sherlock. The episode has laughs all over the place mixed liberally with sentimental feelings and a small pinch of a dramatic moment. This is a clear departure for the normally dramatic show.
The best moments of comedy come, naturally, from Sherlock and John getting totally drunk at John’s stag night and trying to solve a case. While drunk. I am convinced that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman did a couple of shots before filming. Their drunk bit was brilliant and hilarious. It’s really interesting to see Benedict Cumberbatch do comedic acting based on his more serious role choices.
Zeroing in on comedy and heartwarming moment is a risk for Sherlock. Now shows do this sometimes by taking a departure from the normal formula and doing some out there. Examples of the success of this include “Hush” from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, “The Odyssey” from Arrow, and “Blink” from Doctor Who. The episodes take out key show trademarks: Buffy-speak from Buffy, the Starling-focused narrative from Arrow, and the Doctor from Who to make a bold story that ends up sticking with fans.
So by taking out the drama that is usually focused on in Sherlock, what makes this episode stick out in such a huge way?
Simple: emotion. The episode has Sherlock, in his awkward and stilted way, showing his emotions. He gets protective of Mary. He expresses his admiration of John multiple times. His brain even shuts down in a sweet way when John tells him he’s his best friend. He gets a little crazy trying to solve a case in the midst of the reception. He even seems to develop a flirty repartee with bridesmaid Janine.
For someone who claims to not have emotions, Sherlock’s seem to run deep. At the end, when confronted with losing a place in John’s life more permanently, we see a quiet sort of devastation. “Sign of Three” shows that John is Sherlock’s rock. John is perhaps the only person that Sherlock loves. By losing him to a bride and a baby on the way, Sherlock is losing the man who has been the moral center and support system he relies on.
As Sherlock says about John in his best man speech, John is “the bravest and kindest and the wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.”
With the loss of that moral center, episode three should be interesting.