Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Amanda Abbington, Rupert Graves, Lars Mikkelson
Written by: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Stephen Thompson, based on stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by: Colm McCarthy, Nick Hurran
Two years. Two years since Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss left us reeling with Moriarty’s suicide and Sherlock faking his death. Conspiracy theories flew thick and fast, some of them plausible, many of them ridiculous. It would be fair to say that the third series of ‘Sherlock’ was, at least in some quarters, the most eagerly anticipated televisual event of 2014 – which will presumably leave some people feeling pretty bereft for the rest of the year. More or less everyone who had seen it wanted to know how it had been done.
Episode one, ‘The Empty Hearse’, kicked off in dramatic style with a recreation of Sherlock’s suicide – the detective bungeeing off the roof of of St. Barts Hospital, only to crash back through a window to walk off into the night while Moriarty’s corpse is disguised and put in his place. Thrilling, mostly logical if a little outlandish (although once Derren Brown appeared, eyebrows were raised), it was also a complete lie, an in-universe example of some of the fan speculation. However, it wasn’t long before Sherlock was back for real, his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) retrieving him from two years spent undercover bringing down Moriarty’s network. There was a terrorist plot centring on London, and only the Great Detective could possibly sort it out.
However, there was no rush to get to the plot; the real interest was in how John Watson was going to react to the news, and initially at least, the answer was ‘not well’. To be fair, having your dead best friend show up in a bad disguise to interrupt an attempted proposal is bound to inspire some heated feelings. What followed was frankly an acting masterclass from all concerned; Freeman has perfected the portrayal of anguished confusion and quietly incandescent rage, while Cumberbatch was surprisingly touching as a self-confessed sociopath slowly realising that other people might not see his actions in quite the positive light that he did, and that he had hurt his friend immensely. Raising it beyond a well-executed but in many ways standard scene of bitter reunion though was a streak of comedy that bordered on slapstick, as John’s reaction became ever more physically aggressive. It culminated in Sherlock sitting in a bus-stop, clutching a bloody nose courtesy of Watson’s best headbutt. The scene also served as a fine introduction to Amanda Abbington’s Mary Morstan, the future Mrs Watson; she acquitted herself admirably, her easy chemistry with both actors a pleasure to watch.
This was fortunate, as character interaction formed the bulk of the episode, the actual mystery being very much a secondary concern. There were some individual thrills and chills – a stunningly realised explosion at the Houses of Parliament and John’s near-death experience beneath a bonfire were standout scenes – but the core of the episode was the rejuvenated partnership, and a fine core it is. It wasn’t an instant return to the normal run of things, John being understandably aggrieved, and Sherlock spending some quality time with the downtrodden Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey, continuing a string of understated, affecting appearances in the show). Nonetheless, it was a funny, engaging, and despite the distance of the actual plot, often dramatic start to the series.
The second episode, ‘The Sign of Three’, was a complete surprise. In keeping with its predecessor, the mystery was very much a background affair for the bulk of the episode, and even when brought to the fore it was to emphasise and expand the Sherlock/John bromance. On reflection, this was perhaps a good thing; I remain to be convinced that even the tightest belt would both stop you noticing someone stabbing you and keep the would compressed to such an extent that you aren’t affected until disrobing. Questions of logic and medical realities aside though, the case was actually a far more interesting one than in ‘The Empty Hearse’, and also gave one of the best showcases yet for Sherlock’s brand of deductive reasoning.
But of course, given the theme of the episode – the wedding of John and Mary – characterisation and interaction was once again very much the order of the day. All fine and dandy; the real surprise in this episode was that it was hilarious. Take a self-described high functioning sociopath and give him best man duties, and hilarity was always going to ensue. The sight of Sherlock Holmes reduced to a deer in the headlights by a crowd expecting a knockout best man’s speech was glorious; only slightly less amusing was the sight of him three sheets to the wind after a couple of hours on the town for John’s stag night, allegedly meticulously organised by Sherlock down to the last drop of alcohol. Despite the merriment and sentiment though, the episode ended on a bittersweet note; John and Mary celebrating their pregnancy while Sherlock left the wedding early and alone.
And then came episode three, ‘His Last Vow’. Riffing on ‘His Last Bow’, the canonical final Holmes story, which sees the detective retiring to Somerset to keep bees, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a rather more sombre offering, particularly given that it came primarily from the pen of Steven Moffat, that well known scribe of all things designed to horrify and traumatise (see: ‘Jekyll’, most of his writing for ‘Doctor Who’, and selected episodes of ‘Coupling’). Sure enough, this was the most plot heavy episode since the second series, and certainly the most serious. Detailing Sherlock’s efforts to bring down Charles Augustus Magnussen (Mikkelson), a media baron and blackmailer, it started with Sherlock in a squalid drugs den, took us through his brutal manipulation of an innocent woman – played for laughs, and she seemed ok with it in the end, but nonetheless appalling behaviour – revealed the lovely Mary as a former assassin perfectly willing to shoot Sherlock if necessary, and finished with Sherlock taking matters into his own hands and killing Magnussen to put a stop to him. That seemed to be that for shocking twists, but the episode finished with a viral meme broadcast across the entire country; Jim Moriaty, asking if we’d missed him. Which given that the last time we saw him, he’d stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, was unexpected to say the least…
The highlight of the episode was a bravura sequence in the middle which showed Sherlock’s infamous mind palace in greater detail than ever before, as he worked out the best way to survive a bullet wound, but there was a lot else to admire too. Abbington brought new depth to Mary with such skill that the fairly outlandish disclosure of her past made perfect sense (and the scene in which the truth came out was a wonderful piece of television too). That plot thread also gave room for Freeman’s best performance of the series, perfectly executing the contradictory feelings he spent much of the episode riddled with. In addition, Mikkelson’s Magnussen was a truly outstanding creation; Moffat and Gatiss had to go to great lengths to create a villain who would match up to their take on Moriaty, and while Magnussen wasn’t a charismatic, scenery chewing criminal mastermind, he was a thoroughly repellent individual, who within two scenes had inspired more loathing than Moriarty managed in six episodes of mass-murder and mind games.
However, as much praise as the series deserves, there were downsides. The major one is the lack of a coherent plot thread. While there’s plenty of scope with the character for simply adapting the stories while putting modern spins on them, Moffat and Gatiss have taken the understandable if somewhat brave decision to expand a great deal; backstory, character development and the like. That was reflected in the plots of the first two series. Moriarty turned out to have had a hand in all three of the cases in series one, while he became a much more explicit force in series two. Series three…hasn’t really had anything to replace it. Magnussun had a brief appearance in ‘The Empty Hearse’, albeit only his eyes, but beyond that the overall theme of the series has been the relationship between John and Sherlock. And while that’s fine, and there needed to be some time spent on that due to the way series two finished, we have already had nine hours of the two of them together. We don’t need much more evidence of their undying friendship, even if it is done really, really well. The only significant development there was that we now know Sherlock is perfectly willing to kill someone if it comes to protecting John, and even that could have been deduced by now.
On the one hand, it’s a bold decision to consciously side-line the mysteries and deductions in a detective show in favour of the characters, and supports their claim that ‘Sherlock’ is “a show about a detective, not a detective show”. Equally, if you want a show about character interaction, you could do worse than leave those characters in the hands of Moffat and Gatiss. Moffat’s skill with witty but meaningful dialogue is more or less his trademark, and Gatiss is certainly his equal with this particular show. Cumberbatch and Freeman are an outstanding central duo, to boot, and they have risen to the different challenges this series has provided admirably. On the other hand though, making a show about Sherlock Holmes and putting the puzzles to the background would be rather like adapting Harry Potter without magic, and for all the excellent performances, for all the sparkling dialogue and individually brilliant scenes, the first two series managed to do all of that while at the same time having compelling plots. Cutting the plots back doesn’t seem to have left room for major improvement in any other area, although in fairness you could argue there wasn’t an awful lot of room for improvement.
In the end, as good as the series was, I am left with the feeling that it was simply marking time, getting Sherlock back in the game and ready to drop the Moriarty bombshell. We can assume that the planned fourth and fifth series will be a marked improvement on that score, assuming the explanation for that cliffhanger is in any way satisfactory. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another two years to find out.