[CONTAINS SPOILERS] This episode has already been a point of contention among the frenzied mass of Sherlock fans who waited two years for a new series. I’m not sure any of us can even process new information fully after so much time disassembling and reassembling every iota of S1 and S2. But I’ll say at the start that I’m taking up the middle ground – I like it, AND it’s a bit incoherent and fragmented. For the sake of argument I’d rather focus on some of the negatives, since I’ve seen more of the positive.
The biggest problem may be this episode following after The Empty Hearse. Even in such a short series, audiences are willing to be forgiving of a weak story if it’s bookended by two strong ones (I think most fans would agree that The Blind Banker and The Hounds of Baskerville are the slightly awkward middle children of their series). But because we’ve just come off of a frenetically paced (and filmed) episode with a weak case and some self-indulgent comedy, it’s much harder to hand out a free pass on criticism.
Speaking of frenetic, the main sequence of Sherlock’s deducing (have we got a term for that?) is a new take. The present, the past, the imagined, and the even-further-in-the past are happening all at once, like an explosion in a matroyshka doll factory. Is it an interesting experiment? Yes. Does it make for coherent storytelling? Maybe not. As a whole, the episode feels like a ride on the Teacups; spinning in circles within circles, a whole lot of color and motion and laughing but in the end… have you actually gone anywhere at all?
There used to be much discussion on how the “sound byte” changed journalism. I’ve been wondering whether, unconsciously, seeing life in such short snippets (140 Twitter characters, 6 seconds for a Vine, the GIF set) has begun to affect our mode of storytelling as well. I was watching a new show last fall (I’ve forgotten which it was, quite the commentary on it I guess) and remember remarking that it felt less like a story and more like a series of GIFsets on Tumblr. Little bite-size moments, each entertaining on its own, but not able to flow together into a unified whole. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a specific moment in a story getting more focus than others; but it’s important that most of the “GIFset moments” be relevant to the plot. If we look at the things that were GIFed from the Series 2 finale “The Reichenbach Fall”, we’re primarily looking at plot-critical moments; the shift between Rich Brook and Moriarty and back again. The conversation on the roof of St. Barts. While I don’t know that I’d argue this as a good way to assess story, it is somewhat telling. If the audience is zeroing in on only silly moments in a given episode, it may mean that the serious ones were somehow unsatisfying.
That said, I think a great deal of assessing the quality of Series 3 may depend on its final “chapter” yet to come. It is not at all impossible to hide important character development or even story development amidst ostensibly “silly” episodes (I would cite Supernatural as having done both before). Sometimes it can be a fantastic way to come at truths that might otherwise feel forced or heavy-handed. Both Moffat and Gatiss love to bury subtle hints that don’t come into context until later, so it can be unfair to fully judge an episode in isolation. The extraneous is sometimes relevant. For instance, Mary is disturbed by a seemingly innocuous telegram from “Cam” – which must really be from “Charles Augustus Magnusson”, our new villain glimpsed at the end of E1 who comes into focus for E3.
There is a lot to love in some of the isolated moments, too. What fan could fail to be entertained by two such talented actors as Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch out on a tear and attempting to solve a case while they can barely stand? It’s COMEDY GOLD.
But since I’ve just been studying narrative structure, it’s also a very easy sequence to question. Content that doesn’t serve the story purpose isn’t always unjustified, but is frequently self-indulgent; and I have yet to come up with a way in which the sequence is functional – instead of merely funny. Certainly the easy intimacy in the “parlor game” segment speaks to John and Sherlock’s relationship (and, I believe, to that of Freeman and Cumberbatch), but so does almost the entire rest of the episode. And much of the previous one. Given that, is it really a critical part of their character development? If it is, should something else have gone? Certainly the John/Sherlock bond is the backbone of the entire concept, but aren’t we a bit spoiled in our bounty? We’re being fed well on candy, but nutrition is lacking.
To borrow from the series itself, I suspect that if the writers have been feeding us so much candy the papers are likely painted with mercury; and we’re bound to die in episode 3. “Murder by remote!” So I will reconsider both The Empty Hearse and The Sign of Three in light of His Last Vow. Once I drag myself out of my inevitable despair.
As a final note, I didn’t hate this episode. If anything, I’m hard on this series in analysis because it IS so good. There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot of layers to peel apart. I just felt it was chaotic on both watches, and warrants evaluation from a more detached perspective (because there WAS a lot of squeeing. So much.). After such a long hiatus, it’s hard to even parse so much new information at once. Sherlock is the kind of show that needs air to “open up”.
An aside: wow we went really Doctor Who (11 specifically) for a couple of minutes in the wedding “stalling” sequence, didn’t we? That’s the first time I’ve felt that writing mode slip. The pirouette as well, perhaps. The fangirl in me squealed at that scene; the critic might’ve cut it.