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Josh Reviews Sherlock Season 3!

I fell in love, last year, with the BBC’s modern-day reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, when I watched the first two seasons on DVD.  Starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, the show is a dynamic, clever spin on the Holmes mythos.  (Click here for my review of season 1, and here for my review of season 2.)  It’s been a long wait for season 3 (even longer for everyone who watched season 2 when it originally aired), and I was thrilled to have this great show back.  (Albeit briefly!  The show’s unique structure is that each season consists of only three hour-and-a-half long episodes.  I love that the show-runners focus on just telling three great stories each season rather than stretching things out.  Still, it’s hard not to wish for more!!)

Here are my thoughts on Sherlock season three:

“The Empty Hearse” — The first episode has the unenviable task, first and foremost, of resolving last season’s cliffhanger satisfactorily.  At the end of “The Reichenback Fall” we saw Sherlock apparently fall to his death.  In the two years since that show aired, fans have speculated endlessly as to how Sherlock could have possibly survived.  I suspect that the show’s ever-growing popularity combined with the unexpectedly long hiatus between seasons (caused primarily by the very busy schedules of stars Cumberbatch and Freeman) caused the fan-focus on that cliffhanger to have grown far more intense than the show-runners intended.  After so long, it’s hard to imagine their spinning a suitably satisfactory resolution without it feeling like a cheat, and, indeed, I don’t think they did.  I am of a mixed mind concerning the approach they took, that of showing us various possible answers without actually revealing which was the real one.  On the one hand, I think it’s a clever way to play with the audience’s expectations, and to deflect too much scrutiny being placed on the one “real” answer to the cliffhanger riddle.  On the other hand, it still feels like something of a cop-out to me.  I will say that Mr. Cumberbatch’s delivery of the line “You know my methods, John” (in response to Watson’s pushing Sherlock for the true answer as to how he survived) is magnificent and goes a long way towards justifying this approach to resolving the cliffhanger.

I also appreciated the episode’s focus, not so much on the mechanics of Sherlock’s survival, but on the emotional impact his feigning death would have had on his friends and allies, particularly Watson.  I was not expecting the show to emulate our real-time two-year wait for more episodes by jumping ahead two years following Sherlock’s apparent death, but I loved that approach and felt it led to some really meaty story-telling.  I was glad that Watson’s sense of betrayal wasn’t immediately resolved five minutes into the episode.  That was a strong emotional through-line for the episode.

I loved Sherlock’s multiple failed attempts at revealing himself to Watson in the restaurant.  I loved Lestrade’s joyous reaction to learning Sherlock is alive (in marked contrast to Watson’s anger).  I loved everything having to do with Watson’s moustache (which sort of reminded me of the opening bit in a late-season Seinfeld episode in which George and Jerry temporarily grew moustaches).  I loved the introduction of Watson’s fiancee, Mary (very well-played by Amanda Abbington, a terrific addition to the ensemble).  Rather than being a third wheel, she seemed to fit smoothly into the characters’ dynamic, and I loved that, in this episode, she seemed to like Sherlock a lot more than Watson did.  (I also loved the scene in which Mrs. Hudson reacts to Watson’s announcement that he is engaged by asking “so what’s his name?”)  I loved Molly’s day with Sherlock as his new side-kick, in Sherlock’s failed attempt to replace Watson.  (I also loved the glimpse of Molly’s new fiancee at the end of the episode, a dead ringer for Holmes.  So funny!)

While all of the character stuff in this episode is great, the actual new mystery plot suffers greatly as this story is left with little screen-time to develop.  The threat of a terrorist plot against London should be a dramatic focus of the episode, but for much of the time it is nearly forgotten (both by Sherlock and the viewers).

“The Sign of Three” — The strongest installment of season 3, I was bowled over by this incredible episode.  This is the show I had been missing, and while this episode can’t top season two’s “A Scandal in Belgravia” (my favorite episode of the series so far), this one comes close.  It’s John and Mary’s wedding, and with Sherlock Holmes as the best man you know there are going to be hi-jinks.  The entire episode takes place at the wedding, and indeed the majority of the episode is focused on Sherlock’s weird, memorable toast to John and Mary.  Within the structure of the toast, Sherlock regales the crowd with the stories of several previous cases that he and John shared, so in addition to the main story of the wedding and the assassination attempt that happens at the end (how could the wedding of John Watson not include at least one attempted murder?), we also get the stories of several other cases.  One of the things I loved most about “A Scandal in Belgravia” (as well as the season one finale, “The Great Game,” also a stand-out episode) was the way that episode took place over a long period of time, so it felt like we got multiple adventures of Holmes & Watson rather than just one.  The same thing works very successfully in this episode — although the episode takes place in a single afternoon, it feels like we get to experience a number of different adventures.  (I was also SO HAPPY to see — albeit SO TANTALIZINGLY BRIEFLY — a return appearance of Irene Adler!!  Another link between this episode and “A Scandal in Belgravia.”)

While I love Sherlock’s unique structure (with each season featuring just three feature-length episodes), the curse of the show is that after just three episodes we won’t see these characters again for a year or more.  (As I mentioned above and as all Sherlock fans know well, there was a two-year wait between the end of season two and the start of season three.)  So they have to really move the stories — and the characters’ arcs — along at a rapid pace.  So while it feels a little weird to see John getting married after we only just met Mary in the previous episode, it feels like the right move for the series, and I was glad to see their stories moving forward.  It helps that I really like the character of Mary, and I love how well she’s been incorporated into the Holmes-Watson dynamic.

Getting into the episode itself, this installment was very, very funny while also very complex, with narratives within narratives and several twisty mysteries.  In short, pretty much everything I could ask for from this show.  They rung every bit as much fun out of the idea of Sherlock as best man at a wedding as I could have hoped for.  I loved the flashbacks to the way he had intimidated some of Mary’s friends and family into behaving.  I loved his flirtatious interactions with Mary’s maid of honor.  And while, yes, it did stretch credulity that there was a murder attempt at John Watson’s wedding, I loved the details of that case and the way the mystery unfolded.

“His Last Vow” — Not quite as strong as “The Sign of Three,” season 3’s final episode, “His Last Vow,” is nevertheless very, very good.  The high quality of these last two episodes re-cast the season’s first episode as a bit of a weak link, even though I enjoyed it as well.  With Moriarty out of the picture as of the end of “The Reichenbach Fall,” the show needed to present us with a new villain who could be the intellectual match of Sherlock Holmes.  They succeed admirably with business magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen.  This creepy man has risen to extraordinary heights of wealth and influence through his amassing of a huge vault of information, information that he uses to blackmail any who might stand in his way.  A high-ranking British official, being blackmailed by Magnussen, hires Sherlock Holmes to get her out from under his thumb, and with that, the game’s afoot.

About half-way through this episode we get one of the show’s very best sequences.  After an attempt to sneak into Magnussen’s highly-secure penthouse office goes terribly wrong, Sherlock gets shot in the chest from point blank range.  We’re then sucked inside Sherlock’s mind, and the mili-seconds that pass between the gun’s being fired and Sherlock’s body hitting the floor unfolds in incredible slow motion, as we follow the fast-racing moves of Sherlock’s brilliant mind as he tries desperately to extricate himself from certain death.  This is a bravura sequence, one of the very best that the show has ever done.  It’s a fascinating and entertaining way to dramatize just how brilliant Sherlock is, and the incredible way in which his incredible mind works.

Had that one sequence been all that the show had to offer, this would have been a great episode.  But there’s lots more great stuff, including the hilarious scenes of Sherlock and his new girlfriend and lots of fascinating info on Mary’s back-story that totally changes our view of the character.  The emotional repercussions that follow those revelations form the backbone of the second-half of the episode.  (Here again, I love how quickly this show moves forward its character story-lines.  Other shows might have stretched out the plot-line of Sherlock knowing Mary’s secret but John’s not for many episodes, but here, to my delight, John finds out almost immediately after Sherlock does.  I love Sherlock’s choice in that moment, by the way, making what I feel is the exact right choice in terms of his friend John.)

I was loving this episode right up until the end, and the confrontation on the steps with Magnussen and the arrival of the police choppers.  Then I sighed and said, oy, another Sherlock-in-peril cliff-hanger.  After all the hullaballoo over the season two cliffhanger, I was sort of annoyed at the prospect of another very-similar sort of ending.  But thankfully, though I thought the show would end there, it continued, and the ending on the airfield a few minutes later felt much more appropriate.  I thought that was the end, and I was satisfied, but then there was the genius-level end-credits fake-out and the much-more delicious cliffhanger, featuring the return of a character I am delighted at the prospect of seeing more of.  Well done, gents.

Over-all, season three of Sherlock was a delight, with an OK episode followed by two very, very strong ones.  I can’t believe how, after two years of anticipation, this third season has come and gone so quickly, but I am thankful for what we got.  This show still has a lot of steam left in it, and I am hoping for many more seasons to come.

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