Sherlock Series Three (Be Careful What You Wish For)

There are three episodes in the third series of Sherlock – “The Empty Hearse,” “The Sign of Three,” and “His Last Vow.” The third one is pretty fucking boss once it gets going, and it stacks up really well against anything in the first two series. The other two episodes are kind of lacking in tension and urgency (which they try to make up for with really fast editing), but the series overall feels sort of indulgent, whether that’s self-indulgent, or fan-indulgent, or a little bit of both.

Check it out. On the long list of things that fans really wanted to see, this series includes all of the following:

  • More of Sherlock hanging out with his brother (i.e., more of them being adorably weird together)
  • Sherlock’s parents
  • Sherlock as a child
  • An awkward Holmes family Christmas
  • Sherlock and Watson saying they love each other
  • Sherlock kissing Molly (the morgue girl) in a fantasy sequence that didn’t really happen
  • Sherlock kissing Moriarty in a fantasy sequence that didn’t really happen
  • A literal representation of Sherlock’s mind palace
  • Sherlock getting drunk (and trying to solve a case while drunk)
  • Sherlock having a girlfriend (for about ten minutes)
  • Molly acting as Sherlock’s sidekick instead of Watson (for about ten minutes)
  • Sherlock taking drugs again (for about ten minutes)

The only thing missing is hard-core sex.

Series three, as a whole, is mainly about Watson marrying Mary Morstan (his wife from the books), and how that will affect his relationship with Sherlock. In the story and, you know, as a meta-element of the series, it affects his relationship with Sherlock by making everything about their stupid feelings instead of the crimes they’re trying to solve. I say this as someone who really likes and connects with stories about people’s stupid feelings, but I prefer the balance from the first two series where, mostly, they were solving crimes, and then, in the process of solving the crimes, they had a few moments of touching sincerity with each other.

This time, the crimes are an afterthought, and the focus is on emotions and relationships. This builds to a point, in the third episode, about how, the more interconnected you are, the more vulnerable you are, because you care about the people you’re close to and, by extension, the people they’re close to, and that gives others power over you. The main theme of the series seems to be, “What does it mean to care about another person?” which Sherlock may be discovering for the first time. The “case,” then, is human relationships.

It’s an interesting idea, but I have mixed feelings about the execution.

The Actual Stuff With Mary

The actual stuff with Mary was very well done. If you watch the special features on the DVD, it’s clear that everyone was aware that introducing this character had the potential to ruin the show and to make her the most hated person on television, and so they went about it in a very careful, very strategic way.

The main problem with introducing Mary is that you don’t want her to be an obstacle between the lead characters and their goals. For example, you don’t want her to end up like Skyler White, and always be the heavy standing between her husband and his ability to have the wacky adventures that serve as the basis for the show. You don’t want Mary to be an obstacle to either the Sherlock/Watson bromance, or to their ability to solve crimes.

The solution the writers come up with is to introduce Mary and have her immediately a) take a liking to Sherlock, and b) try to facilitate both the bromance and the crime-solving adventures, by encouraging them to patch things up and to go have fun without her. The writers are also very careful to convey that, while Sherlock feels a bit lonely because Watson has left him for Mary, he doesn’t blame Mary, or display any particular jealousy about it – in fact, he actively wants their relationship to succeed. By making it one of Sherlock’s goals for John and Mary to be happy together, it neutralizes the threat that Mary will be seen as wrecking Sherlock’s life or as seizing things that belong to him.

The happy result of this strategy is that the show displays an unusually mature attitude toward both marriage and friendship, in which it is normal and healthy for a person to have more than one important relationship in his life, and in which the people he’s close to encourage him to form these relationships without feeling threatened by them. As it plays out, Sherlock actually gains a friend through Watson’s marriage rather than losing one, and that’s a very healthy way of seeing things – one that, refreshingly, side-steps a lot of false drama.

Mary also has a bunch of Secrets that are revealed in the final episode and make her seem like less of a doormat, and that’s good, too.

Sherlock Feeling All the Feelings

This was more confusing. A few years have gone by since series two and, during that time, I guess, while he was off killing spies, or getting hit with a pipe in a dungeon or something, Sherlock learned empathy and became an affectionate person.

By the time he returns in series three, he’s gone from being a somewhat believable (and self-described) “sociopath” to being socially awkward but basically kind. In fact, he seems to be converging on the same place as the eleventh Doctor (also created by Steven Moffat) – pompous and self-involved in a goofy-but-loveable way; a bit like an overgrown child. It’s most apparent in “The Sign of Three,” which is literally all about Sherlock being awkward at Watson’s wedding, and frames their relationship in very similar terms to the eleventh Doctor’s relationship with his married companions, Amy and Rory.

Sherlock has warmed up so exponentially that he’s not the man we knew in the first two series. Part of the strength of the show, at the start, was that it didn’t romanticize Sherlock as a character – at least not in the typical way. He was larger than life and capable of doing amazing things, but he was also a total asshole. Just when you wanted to like him or feel affectionately toward him, he’d say something brutally cutting to one of the people closest to him, or he’d do something subtly mean and rejecting without showing any awareness that the feelings of others exist. His meanness was sometimes used for comedy and sometimes for drama (one of the best and most hard-to-watch scenes is him making fun of Molly for trying to look attractive, because he thinks that’s good sport), but it’s always there, and there’s always a palpable sense that, if he were real, he’d be very unpleasant to spend any time with.

It – the meanness – also adds tension to his relationship with Watson, because we see that Watson is forgiving him for an awful lot of things and that there’s a sense in which, though he’s clearly Sherlock’s friend, it’s not entirely certain that Sherlock is his. There’s something touching about the faith Watson has that his care will eventually be returned by someone who (intentionally or not) treats him and others quite badly. At the end of series two, his faith is only partly rewarded. Unbeknownst to him, Sherlock has faked his own death, in part, to save Watson’s life, but he’s also allowed Watson to believe (and to go on believing) that he’s witnessed Sherlock’s suicide – something that’s probably hard to live with. The best kind of love that Sherlock is capable of is still kind of callous and hurtful – that’s the essential tragedy of the character.

Flip to series three and suddenly Sherlock is, not to put too fine a point on it, the man you’d have him be if, watching the first two series, you decided you wanted to date him. All of the really hard edges are missing from his personality. He’s much more emotionally expressive, he is an outstanding friend to Watson – we get a whole episode about that, in the middle – and all of the backstory and character development we get on him suggests that he’s actually very, very sensitive and misunderstood and he feels all the feelings and just forget anything that happened before to suggest that maybe he couldn’t read people that well or that he was kind of a jerk.

The problem with that is not just that it seems to come out of nowhere (for me), but that it disrupts the balance of the story. Sherlock has superhuman powers that allow him to crunch information and solve puzzles. The price he paid for that, in the first two series, was that he was unable to form authentic connections with other human beings – the emotional undercurrent of the show was the question of whether he would somehow grow as a person and form a connection with Watson.

In series three, that’s all sorted. He’s learned Friendship. Problem solved. Now, the price for being a special genius is just that he’s a little weird. That’s an entirely different dynamic. It’s sort of like when a show that’s based on a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship decides midway through that they will. You’re glad for a second and then you’re like, “Wait. That’s what was driving the story, so, now that it’s happened, what is this story about?”

The Gay Stuff

Virtually every incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in the last decade or two has made a big deal about insinuating or hinting or joking that Holmes and Watson are gay together, and Sherlock does it just as energetically as most. The problem is that now it’s weird.

Willa Paskin wrote this article for Slate about whether or not Sherlock would be bisexual in real life, and, without putting words in her mouth, I think what she was getting at is that, in this point in history, it doesn’t make sense to keep saying someone’s gay if you don’t actually intend to portray him that way.

In the Days of Yore, it used to be the case that you literally couldn’t have gay characters in your movies or TV shows. It wasn’t allowed. If you wanted to talk about homosexuality (either to say something mean about it, or, more rarely, something nice) you had to be circumspect and do it through subtext, and allusion, and wordplay, and insinuations. Because the only way gay people showed up in these stories was through this sidelong approach, people learned to read the signs and to understand that, even though the characters literally couldn’t be openly depicted as gay, we were to understand that that’s what their relationship was. (This also opens opportunity to read relationships that are not intended to be gay as being gay, but when there’s no open representation of your people in popular culture, you have to find signs you relate to where you can get them).

A little later on – to continue my history lesson – you still couldn’t have openly gay characters in your movies or TV shows, but you could make jokes about how it totally seemed like people were being gay (because of course they obviously weren’t). This became a new kind of sideways allusion that people used because the literally couldn’t depict someone gay.

In 2014 – hey-la-day-la – we live in a world where, if you want to make a show about gay people, you can fucking well do it, and you don’t have to play stupid games. (Yeah, I know, it’s not that simple, but the point is that it’s possible now and has been for some time. That’s different from when it literally couldn’t be done). Living in that world, there comes a point where you have to say, “Whoa. Why does Sherlock keep drawing our attention to the idea that these characters have a homosexual attraction to each other if there’s never any payoff for that at all?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I ask it more and more as the show goes on. The worst interpretation is that this is queerbaiting, but, even in the absence of that, it’s a decision that doesn’t make sense to me. Why keep harping on something like that if it never becomes important?

This Post is Too Long; Now It’s Finished

In conclusion, things got weird.

I really liked “His Last Vow” but, in the other two episodes, I felt like I was watching a different show. It’s not that I even disliked that show; it was just that it was incongruous with what I was expecting and what I’d gotten used to. And I wish that Sherlock was actually mean, and actually gay (if they’re going to keep on suggesting he is), and that he solved crimes more instead of folding napkins.

Image: Sherlock; BBC | March 28, 2014