Revisiting SHERLOCK: Series 3, Episode 2 - The Sign Of Three

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Tony Fyler hates other people’s weddings. 


I mean, who, in what we can only presume is their right mind, would ask Sherlock Holmes to be their Best Man?

Of course, John Watson, that’s who. That’s what makes him Watson.

The Sign of Three is pretty much a comedy episode of Sherlock, dealing with the preparation for, and the day of, Watson’s wedding to Mary Morstan (played by Martin Freeman’s long-term partner in real life, Amanda Abbington). How can you tell it’s a comedy episode? Well, nobody actually dies, for one. And very, very much play is made of Sherlock’s high-functioning sociopathy in this episode, to at least semi-comic, and sometimes distinctly comic effect. Everything from boredom to napkin-folding, from the stag do to the much-dreaded-by-practically-everyone Best Man’s speech is covered in the first episode that took three writers – Gatiss, Moffat and Stephen Thompson. Along the way, Sherlock relates two cases which turn out to be merely preparations for the big day itself. Firstly there are the women who are dating a dead man, a case that Sherlock and Watson undertake while smashed out of their respective brains on the Stag Do (Watson having sabotaged Sherlock’s plan to be just nicely drunk, rather than throwing up in pot plants). Their wild night of debauchery takes them all of about two hours, proving that one of them was never built for this kind of thing, and one is now too old and respectable for it. Sherlock investigating a crime scene when blitzed out of his skull though gives us a fantastically funny scene – the usual on-screen prompts of his brilliant insights are subverted with drunk-thoughts, which are simply genius. Weirdly, but in a developing theme of the series, the case, which seems like just a sad lonely hearts affair, turns out to be rather more interesting and complex than that, as Sherlock uncovers a whole handful of women dating the same dead man, even though he looks entirely different to all of them.

Then, as part of the Best Man’s speech, not least to pull himself out of a hole he’s dug by his relentless honesty, Sherlock relates the case of The Bloody Guardsman – a Buckingham Palace guard who thinks he’s being stalked, does a perfectly healthy shift on guard, goes off duty, hits the showers, and then bleeds almost inexplicably almost to death.

The story illustrates the difference between Holmes and Watson – Holmes solves the crime, but Watson saves the life. It’s a touching story, and wins everybody back, but it lacks a denouement when Sherlock is forced to admit that it’s that most unusual and vexing of things, an unsolved Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Except it isn’t – not by the end of the wedding. It turns out that both the ‘I dated a dead man’ case – which had also, gone annoyingly unsolved despite Sherlock working out what was happening – and the Bloody Guardsman case are actually just preparations for something… if not bigger, then significantly more focused than either case in itself reveals. And it’s a something that can probably only happen at John Watson’s wedding. Driving the Best Man’s speech madly off a cliff as he finally realises what’s about to happen – or indeed what’s already happened, Sherlock whirls and prances, in the moment that probably sees Cumberbatch and Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in their closest characterisation alignment, narrowing down potential victims – yes, it’s a murder attempt where even the victim’s unaware of their status – and then honing in on the would-be killer, all without spooking the attacker into flight.

Beyond the solving of two old cases and a brand spanking new one – that’s three, in case you were wondering about the relevance of the title – there’s solid characterisation here, Sherlock feeling more human than at any other time in the series to date, owning his difficulty, his spikiness, his unpleasantness, and turning it round in tribute to the man who’s been his most unlikely and most stalwart friend, and frequently his saviour. Mary gets more shading in this episode too, clearly able to run not only John Watson, but also Sherlock Holmes too when the need arises, playing them off against each other in order to make them both happy and – perhaps more importantly – get the two adventure-boys out of her hair for a while in the run-up to the wedding. And deliciously, there’s Sherlock being useful to Mary’s bridesmaid, acting pretty much as an ultra-bright friend and shag-assessor when it becomes clear that she and he will not be getting together themselves. Sherlock, doing something nice just because he can – and arguably because it gives him the chance to show off a little.

The episode ends with Sherlock professing in an epilogue to the Best man’s speech to end them all that he will always be there for the three of them, accidentally announcing to the world that Mary’s probably pregnant, as all the signs are there – the signs that they are three, not two. It’s a relatively cute ending, the man who can’t stop deducing, even when he probably should. And the final scene feels all Moffat and Gatiss, riffing on the end of The Green Death in Doctor Who – Sherlock walking away alone from the wedding, leaving the happy couple to their dancing and champagne and their wedding night.

Considering there’s actually not a great deal of plot threaded through The Sign of Three, it delivers an hour of enjoyable, relatively undemanding but character-rich Sherlock, like inviting the great detective to a Richard Curtis movie and letting him take centre stage. The weaving of the two unsolved cases into a brand new and highly current case is skilfully done, though the reason it works is largely dependent on an element of backstory that pretty much turns up expressly for the purposes of tying the cases together, and which has rarely if ever been mentioned previously (a fact subtly acknowledged by moments of surprise from Sherlock throughout the episode). All told though, this will always be the episode where you see the great Sherlock Holmes blind drunk and still deducing, and where his social awkwardness becomes actually something pitiable, rather than just the kind of thing you instinctively want to shake him for. It stands as a relative high-point in Sherlock, Series 3 – go on, stick it in your player today, it’ll make you smile more than you remember.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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