Initial Thoughts on Sherlock: Series Three

Sherlock Series Three Publicity photo from the BBC

Sherlock Series Three Publicity photo from the BBC

While I’m going to need to watch all three episodes again, I feel that, on first viewing at least, this has been the best series of Sherlock thus far. It’s been so consistent with its approach and so playful as regards the material and the audience. A real joy to watch!

Yes these episodes have been a bit unconventional in how they fragment their narratives (and I know that this has turned the occasional viewer off), but it’s a deliberate choice on the part of the writers and one which, I think, allows us to read Series Three as a kind of meta-commentary on the way Holmes is constantly re-imagined by popular culture; not just the case of Sherlock by itself, but the use of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation more generally and, in particular, the changing manner in which we as readers and viewers relate to him. Series Three is about Sherlock Holmes and the kind of stories which can be told with him, absolutely, but it is also about the audience, the viewers’ expectations and preconceptions. It is, ultimately, about us. 

Now, obviously these are just some initial thoughts on the subject but they have managed to coalesce into a coherent enough reading of this year’s three episodes. Maybe someday I’ll write this up properly for a journal article or for an essay if somebody is putting together an edited collection about Sherlock. Until then…

SPOILERS from here on.

‘The Empty Hearse’, 03×01

So, the big mystery which ended Series Two, the question of how Sherlock faked his death, is something which stoked a lot of excitement for the show’s return throughout its long hiatus. The kind of obsessive interest it generated is parodied by the club of Sherlock groupies (you might even call them “Truthers”) who we meet in this episode, let alone in their endless theorizing of how he might have survived his fall. It’s an obvious place for ‘The Empty Hearse’ to go but it’s effective, and it transforms this from an episode about how Sherlock faked his death into a story about how we the audience festered in our obsession with solving the mystery until it threatened to drive us (like the character of Anderson here) mad.

As such, ‘The Empty Hearse’ is less concerned with fully resolving the particulars of Holmes’s “death” than it is with exploring the variety of styles with which the character’s stories have and can be told through, from the action-adventure genre of the episode’s cold open (evoking something between Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the Bourne films) to the Sherlock/Moriarty slash-fiction proposed by one of the fan club’s “explanations”. Such variety is a wise decision, of course, as no single explanation of the faked fall/death could have satisfied everyone. What’s more, it plants in our heads one of the key features of Series Three: the fact that Holmes can and will be depicted in different ways, some of which are perhaps antithetical to the expectations of the audience (and that, specifically, foreshadows some of the reaction to what Sherlock does at the conclusion of ‘His Last Vow’).

What then of the idea, held by a few people I’ve been talking to, that, in its overt inclusion of Sherlock fanboys and fangirls, as well as its protracted teasing out of the explanation behind the fall/death at the expense of what is ostensibly the episode’s own mystery, ‘The Empty Hearse’ is evidence of showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss allowing the public too much say over the course of the series? I think it’s an unjust criticism for two reasons: One, bowing to public pressure is exactly what Doyle himself did. Let’s not forget that he too “killed off” the character once (in his case because he was tired of being defined by him) only to “resurrect” him in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ after public outcry. There is precedent then, but, more than that, by lulling the audience into the pretense of authority or influence, Moffat and Gatiss cleverly set us up for a violent rejoinder to that sense of control, that sense of ownership over the character and the stories which eventually arrives at the end of ‘His Last Vow’. After all, the appearance of that episodes villain, Charles Augustus Magnussen, in ‘The Empty Hearse’ serves as more than just a teaser for his role in the finale. He is, as we see in ‘His Last Vow’, an antagonist who believes he ‘owns’ people (read ‘characters’) in the Sherlock universe, a figure who seeks to bend these characters to his will.

Again, this is something only really apparent when Series Three is viewed as a single story. Which, arguably, it should be. Oftentimes there is a tendency to see episodes like these as standing alone with just a few threads running between them but, in Series Three more than ever, the viewer’s experience of the show is enriched by conceiving of it as a whole. The relationship between Watson and Mary (engaged here, married in ‘The Sign of Three’, and expecting a child – as well as dealing with some extraordinary revelations – in ‘His Last Vow’) provides an obvious through-line for the series, true, but beneath it, lurking in Sherlock’s thematic depths, stirs strong evidence of this year’s overarching metafictional intentions.

The Sign of Three’, 03×02

I would not have believed you, if you had told me before I watched it, that the wedding episode of Sherlock would be my favourite of anything this show has ever done. But, yes, it’s true. This is a hilarious and intricate ninety minutes overflowing with Doyle references and a genuine love of the material. Moreover, as the central episode of the series, ‘The Sign of Three’ functions as a touchstone for the most carefully mapped-out year of Sherlock yet. Beyond the title’s reference to the fact that Watson and Mary are expecting a child (and its homage to Mary’s first appearance in Doyle’s ‘The Sign of Four’), the episode is very literally the ‘sign’ of Series ‘Three’: a good-natured engagement with the fact that Holmes is a fiction, a series of stories which, as mentioned, are re-told over and over in different ways (something which will again be apparent in the tabloid headlines of episode three; “Shag-a-lot Holmes”, etc., a radically different spin on the character again!).

Yet the means by which the episode acknowledges its own status as fiction – Sherlock’s regaling of the wedding party with tales of recent cases – does seem to have struck some people as too in-jokey. One friend who I have been talking to thought that it “pandered too much to the fanboys, and for that fact it was very, very irritating”. Which of course is fair (as I always say, the world would be a very boring place if everyone only liked the same things). Nevertheless I myself see the wedding party functioning as a kind of deliberate proxy for the TV audience (above and beyond the audience surrogate which Watson typically provides for the individual reader). They’re sitting down, watching Sherlock and John, and even firing off questions as to how certain cases were resolved and discussing things among themselves. They might as well be planted in front of their television sets. They might as well be us.

‘His Last Vow’, 03×03

Right then, if ‘The Empty Hearse’ and ‘The Sign of Three” are, in metafictional fashion, “about” different aspects of Sherlock Holmes as a series of stories, what function does ‘His Last Vow’ serve? Does it even fit with the schema as suggested by the earlier episodes? I think that it does, though it functions more as a rebuke to Sherlock fan-culture than the nod-and-wink of the two prior installments. There is an appreciable degree to which this episode is an answer to the question posed by ‘The Empty Hearse’ as regards the show being beholden to fandom’s concept of it and its direction (as well as the “pandering” of ‘The Sign of Three”). In Sherlock’s callous dispatching of Magnussen, ‘His Last Vow’ is saying to its audience, “You think you have a version of this world and these characters in your head but *BLAM* we’re after putting a bullet through it because we’re running this show, not you”.

The reaction of some viewers to this is, if you’ll allow me to speculate, maybe exactly what Moffat and Gatiss might well have been hoping for: an emotional response, a rejection, a declaration of, “That wouldn’t happen!”. And yet it did happen, with Sherlock, a self-identifying sociopath (though that, it sometimes seems, is a problematic definition), shooting Magnussen through the head in cold blood. The reason? Magnussen, like Sherlock (and, perhaps, like many committed fans), possesses a Mind-Palace, a highly organised memory to which he – as “the Napoleon of blackmail” – has committed the secret workings of the world. This gives him control; control over Watson and Mary (here revealed as a former assassin), control over Sherlock, and, therefore, control over every aspect of their lives and futures. He is also, tellingly, the embodiment of the media; the newspapers which, over the hiatus, ran endless stories about how Sherlock might come back, even the online fan-culture of discussion, speculation, and nitpicking (as close as you can get to blackmailing a TV show, I suppose!) hinted at by the quasi-digitality of Magnussen’s recollection (the scrolling text, for example).

Despite all this, the episode seems to have generated a slow-burn of audience disengagement from some quarters. Another friend of mine, a Holmes aficionado if ever there was one, mentioned to me this week that “I don’t think Watson would get past his wife being a murderer, nor would Sherlock kill somebody in cold blood”. Watson getting over Mary’s confession is, I suppose, something which occurred mostly off-screen over the months of Sherlock’s recovery from a gunshot wound of his own here. But perhaps that’s not the point. As my friend put it, “The whole thing with Watson is that he is meant to be a paragon of British virtue and all that sort of claptrap, but you need that to play off of Sherlock’s moral ambiguity. I think that is part of why it works so well. The contrast challenges Watson and the reader/viewer. If Watson can get past the fact that his wife is a multiple murderer without even bothering to look into/care about the people she killed then that compromises him. it compromised him so much that he didn’t seem to have any real issue with Sherlock killing Magnusson like that (beyond the initial shock of it). [Moffat and Gatiss] have sacrificed the moral positions of the characters that I consider to be the bedrock of who they are.”

It’s a fair point, however I think that it inadvertently strengthens the argument about the show attempting to wrong-foot an audience which has grown cosy with it, to force them to question not just their expectations about the show and its characters but also their fundamental understanding of them: Haw-haw, Sherlock is a sociopath; it’s all fun and games until someone gets shot in the head. Indeed, from the perspective of watching a show-about-the-show, Sherlock’s actions are an entirely appropriate development: “What you imagine we’re doing is not what we’re doing,” ‘His Last Vow’ is saying to us; “You spent the last two years constructing your own Mind Palace of theories and guesses about this show but we need to keep things fresh; you have a version of Sherlock in your head but we’ve just blown it away.”

It’s entirely possible (though unlikely? Difficult to tell) that Moffat and Gatiss will in fact freshen things up by opening these characters to the murkier moral implications of their actions next series. I’m thinking of something similar to the way we’re all waiting for the Man of Steel follow-up to address the way in which the first film “challenged” our perceptions of its protagonist. If anything like this occurs in Sherlock’s case, it will most likely be via the teased return of Moriarty who, as the above friend of mine (the aficionado one) suggested, is back as a “punishment” for Sherlock and Watson. Certainly it would be a much better use of the character rather than reducing him to a clever fake-out at the end of this episode, a glorified YouTube clip which will be dismissed in the first few minutes of Series Four.

As always with Sherlock, I guess we just have to wait and find out.


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