“Sherlock” Series 3 Review
Sherlock Holmes is perhaps one of literature’s most flexible characters. Not because he is malleable, but because he is intransigent. The makeup of Sherlock is genetically permanent. His personality is beyond loud, and his foibles are as deep as they are varied. His abilities will never cease to astound and his core arc as a character will never fail to resonate emotionally.
Holmes was introduced in 1887 with the story “A Study In Scarlet” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s safe to say that Holmes has been a permanent fixture in the public consciousness ever since.
It is his permanence that invites reinvention. As long as one operates with an understanding of what makes Holmes Holmes, then Sherlock can thrive despite the trappings of the story at hand.
That is why the BBC’s Sherlock is the most successful reinvention of Doyle’s work yet. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss genuinely love and get the character. So no matter how cheeky they get with the characters or the source material, they are able to ground the program in their love of the stories. This allows them to remix, repurpose, and deviate from Doyle’s original tales. It allows them to inject vigor and surprise into stories that many of us already know. In short, it allows them to reinvent Sherlock by letting him stay the same.
Sherlock concluded (in America at least) its third series this past weekend, and it was the best yet.
The most interesting thing about this series of episodes (three 90 minute ‘movies’) is that they mark a serious deviation from the formula Moffat & Gatiss had previously employed. They all but chuck the ‘case of the week’ format out the window. Series 3’s “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” were case-light and character heavy. What has always been a detective show transformed into something all but completely character driven. Neither of these episodes were propulsive because of their plots, but because of the relationships between the characters. That is saying something because “The Empty Hearse” deals with a shadowy terrorist plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster, and yet the episode is framed around rebuilding John and Sherlock’s friendship.
We know Sherlock can save the day (he always does), but can John forgive him for faking his death two years prior? That’s the more important and more dramatic question. “The Sign of Three” pushed the plot even deeper under layers of dramatic characterization, using what little case beats it has as avenues to explore the depth of John and Sherlock’s friendship. It also serves as an example of how this show could easily become a comedy. I’m not sure I’ve seen actors play black-out drunk better than Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch – at least not while examining a crime scene. The drama of the episode is built around Sherlock’s feared inability to write a best man speech, and his expected inability to accept how life will change now that John has been married. Again, these are the more important dramatic questions. The case becomes almost an afterthought but remains the conduit through which the writers explore Sherlock’s devotion to his friend and his acceptance of John’s wife, Mary. It’s a delicate balancing act that Moffat & Gatiss pull off remarkably well, out done only by Freeman & Cumberbatch.
If these deviations from standard procedure seem capricious or indulgent to you, they should come into focus by the climax of the series finale: “His Last Vow”. Whereas the prior two series were three stories with thin connective tissue, Series 3 might as well have been a single four-and-a-half-hour long movie.
“His Last Vow” starts out as business as usual with Sherlock on a case and John letting himself be swept up in the excitement. Where it goes from there pushes the characters to their limits. If Moffat & Gatiss had a long term plan (which, let’s face it, Moffat probably has been dreaming up these stories since he was ten years old) it was to take the cold Sherlock and give him a heart – or better put – a reason to listen to his heart. “His Last Vow” shows just how far Sherlock has come, and how far he’s willing to go to keep a promise he makes in “The Sign of Three”. Moffat & Gatiss took a man only interested in mystery and his own brilliance, and they gave him a reason to put others before himself.
The ending of “His Last Vow” may feel – in terms of the stakes – similar to the climax of Series 2’s “The Reichenbach Fall” – and surely this is purposeful. The key difference here is that Sherlock has no opportunity to cheat his way out of the consequences of his actions, and he knows it. He acts anyway, because he decides that John’s wellbeing is worth more than his own. It is a powerful and shocking moment that caps a stellar episode.
Gushing praise aside, I have a complaint or two: Moffat & Gatiss (and I suspect Moffat is more to blame here) too frequently rely on cutaways, flash forwards, and flashbacks in an effort to obfuscate the story and make it feel clever. They occasionally use these tools at the expense of dramatic tension. If they let the scenes breathe rather than cut them up and shuffle them around the stories might have been even stronger.
Secondly “The Empty Hearse” gives us three answers to the question ‘how did Sherlock survive the fall’?
The first is played as almost a Michael Bay level sequence of posturing and coolness (and it succeeds in that endeavor in spades). The second pokes (good natured) fun of the show’s devoted fan base and the ‘shippers’ among them. The third, and true, answer becomes a overly strong meta moment with Sherlock literally speaking into a camera as he explains how he did survive. Steven Moffat might as well have poked his head into frame and shouted ‘It wasn’t that complicated!’ This is due to the tremendous anticipation built up by the two years between series, “The Empty Hearse” had a lot to live up to, but that doesn’t make it any less indulgent.
Despite its flaws Sherlock is full of energy and emotion that give it propulsion, even when things don’t always make apparent sense. Series 3 marks a sense of growth in terms of writing, characters, and stylization. Sherlock’s Mind Palace is transformed from gimmick to dramatic tool in order to examine both his cognitive abilities as well as his psyche. There is a flat out brilliant sequence in “His Last Vow” that takes place entirely in his mind. If this indicates anything, it is that Moffat & Gatiss are learning, experimenting, and pushing their reinvention to new heights. That, my friends, is a wonderful thing.
Sherlock was a great show, and now it is an utterly remarkable one. If Moffat & Gatiss maintain a fearlessness in their writing, they will be able to keep Sherlock fresh and engaging for years to come.
Now we wait for Series 4.