Sherlock series 3 episode 2 review: The Sign Of Three

The Sign Of Three is a frenetic comedy outing for Sherlock Holmes, more rom-com than crime fiction…

This review contains spoilers.

1.3 The Sign Of Three

The Sign Of Three proved what Sherlock’s writers have been saying in interviews all year: that theirs isn’t a detective show but a show about a detective.

An extremely funny detective, as it happens. Tot up every big laugh of Sherlock’s seven previous episodes – blanket, Bee Gees, bed sheet, deerstalker, “punch me in the face”, “he fell out of a window”, harpoon, doggers, “bollocks!” – and you’ll barely equal the gag total in this single outing. The Sign Of Three was a broad comedy with a relationship at its heart, or to give it its proper title, a rom-com.

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No strangers to the wedding comedy genre, how might the British viewing public feel about watching one smuggled inside an episode of Sherlock? Fondly, is the hope, if initially disorientated and – depending on your belief in the powers of a tight belt – somewhat incredulous. It was a warm-hearted, frenetic instalment that left you feeling punch drunk and loved-up: Sherlock Actually.

The episode demanded clowning and a good deal more from Benedict Cumberbatch, who was rarely off-screen for the ninety minutes and ran things more or less single-handedly in that time. Being the ringmaster of The Sign Of Three’s particular circus, with its erratic leaps and timeline jiggery-pokery, was no small ask. Lucky then, that the actor held the thing together.

Less solid than Cumberbatch’s performance was the murder plot, which arrived late, left early and didn’t achieve a huge amount in between. Major Sholto and Jonathan Small – Conan Doyle characters in name only – were given a less lurid backstory than their The Sign Of Four counterparts though the method of attempted murder (undetectable delayed-action stabbing) was as far-fetched as anything involving pygmy sidekicks and poison darts. Unlikely murders and locked room mysteries are of course the meat and drink of Sherlock Holmes stories. In that respect then, The Sign Of Three shook up the status quo less than it may have appeared.

Visually, the tricks were working overtime. Holmes played a round of Take Me Out with a courtroom of ghost-dating women, then narrowed down his search for a potential victim in the wedding party eliminating them one by one in a snazzy  game of Guess Who. Pretty as the wedding venue was, we spent more time inside Sherlock’s mind than anywhere else, a place where – surprisingly given their outward frostiness to one another – brother Mycroft holds court.

In terms of supporting cast, Una Stubbs was tremendous this week. Seeing Alice Lowe (Sightseers, Horrible Histories) as the ghost-dating client was a nice surprise, as was a brief appearance from Lara Pulver in her battle dress. There aren’t enough good things in the world to say about Amanda Abbington’s Mary, who, after just two episodes, feels like part of Sherlock’s furniture in the best possible way.

The let-down, if it can be called that, is that threads left hanging in The Empty Hearse weren’t woven in. There was no sign of the spectacle-wearing mastermind glimpsed at the end of the last episode, and no mention of John’s bonfire adventure. Will Lestrade’s bank-robbing Waters family return next week, or was that all an elaborate set-up for a single punch line?

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Once again, the cases weren’t the main attraction, coming second on the bill to the headliner relationship. Fittingly for a wedding episode, much of The Sign Of Three was given over to repeated declarations of love. Perhaps less fittingly, it wasn’t the newlyweds who confessed their affection, but John and Sherlock, who spent a decent proportion of the ninety minutes adding grist to the Tumblr mill by taking it in turns to say ‘I love you’.

The emotional heft came from Sherlock being drawn further into human relationships than this “high-functioning sociopath” ever intended. Realising he was loved by John thawed Sherlock out, which left him, for the first time, vulnerable to loneliness. The Best Man speech (around the point he called marriage a death watch beetle, God a fantasy and the bridesmaids plain) mentioned the necessity of contrast, and so it was the contrast between his intimacy with John and his isolation at the party that led him to answer Mrs Hudson’s prophetic question of “Who leaves a wedding early? So sad”.

(Incidentally, character-wise, Mycroft is important now as a control to the ‘socialising Sherlock’ experiment. He’s the Holmes brother who hasn’t got involved with the ‘goldfish’. A simple but elegantly written exchange between the siblings in The Empty Hearse had Mycroft incredulously telling Sherlock “I’m not lonely”, to which his brother replied sagely, “How would you know?”)

If the soppy stuff’s not your bag, then the jokes may have been. The stag do, despite it performing the odd function of being a Sherlock Holmes pastiche inside a Sherlock Holmes story, was a comic high point, and the wotsit/thingamabob/sitty thing text-on-screen deductions were its crowning moment. There was stiff competition though, from Mrs Hudson’s backstory (“Wossitcalled? A Cartel”), the elephant in the room, Tom’s meat dagger, Sherlock’s latest silly hat and Watson asking Holmes “Am I a pretty lady?”.

The Sign Of Three essentially tested out a series of giggling ‘what ifs’ on the character: what if Sherlock got drunk/gave a Best Man’s speech/played the Rizla game? It’d be very, very funny, came the answers. Funny might not be what everyone wants from the great detective, but it’s hard to complain when you’re laughing this much.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Sign Of Three will likely be down to how far you’re willing to shush your inner Moriarty and not wrinkle your nose at the idea of Sherlock Holmes being “ordinary”. Weddings, best man speeches, stag dos… It’s all very much on the side of the angels. What next, some might say, Sherlock Holmes’ Holiday, squirting sun lotion in his eyes and wrestling Mr Bean-like with a deckchair?

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Doubtful. With just one episode of the series left, the necessity of contrast will likely dim the mood once more. Sherlock after all, has uttered his last vow…

Read our review of the previous episode, The Empty Hearse, here.

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