So far, this has been an extraordinary season of Sherlock, in the most literal sense. The ‘case of the week’ format hasn’t been so much moved aside as fired into orbit, or, perhaps, locked at the bottom of a lit bonfire. We’ve had an entire episode dealing with Sherlock fitting back in to London even as he becomes one of its myths and now, an entire episode which sees him completely outside his rigidly established parameters of behaviour. The game is on but he isn’t even on the field where it’s being played, and the result is an episode that’s been embraced by some and run from by others. Appropriately enough, there are three reasons for that. And of course, all of them are massively spoilery so US readers in particular, beware.
The first is that Mary changes everything, at the same time as ensuring it stays exactly the same. Amanda Abbington’s work in the series has been revelatory, giving both Freeman and Cumberbatch someone new to spark off and providing Holmes and Watson alike with an external perspective and the show with a drastic, but still fitting, change in tone.
There are so many moments in this episode that show the impact Mary’s had on both of them that it’s all but impossible to pick any out. She’s a polite, incisive force of nature who smoothes the cracks in Holmes and Watson’s relationship whilst never once being subservient to them. Giving them both the same pep talk to take a case is a definite highlight, as is her role in talking down Major Sholto but the highlight for me is this exchange between her and Watson:
‘If I try and hug him, stop me.’
The script couldn’t make it more overt. Mary is an individual in her own right with no interest in getting between Holmes and Watson because it will lessen all three of them. She’s insightful, clever, devious when called upon to be and easily the most interesting character the show has produced in a long time. So much so, in fact, that people are actively worried about whether she’ll make it out of ‘His Last Vow’ alive.
Secondly, there’s the drastic change of scene and tone that the stag night brings along. The entire ‘Holmes vs the Wedding’ sequence is huge fun and Cumberbatch proves hands down just how good his comic timing is here. It’s the stag night that’s the beating, shambolic, singing off key heart of this sequence though, for, again, three reasons. This is the first time Holmes is fully outside his comfort zone. This is social interaction, with Watson, and other people, none of which involves a dead body. This is far from normal for him.
Springing from that is the unbridled horror of watching two remarkably intelligent, buttoned down men attempt to male bond without ever actually doing so out loud. Cumberbatch and Freeman are one of those double acts that are instantly funny the moment you stand them side by side but here they’re flat out brilliant. Neither of these men are remotely comfortable with their emotions but both are tremendously fond of duty in their own ways. Holmes’ duty as Best Man is to look after his friend. Watson’s duty as Groom is to get as rat arsed as possible. Both succeed. Or fail, depending on how you look at it. The punch line, that the stag night was a whole two two hours long, certainly suggests the latter.
Finally, there’s the moment where the stag night collides with what passes for normal for them. The sight of Holmes and Watson struggling to pull it together, or even stay awake, as they investigate a case is hilarious, especially Holmes’ drunken ‘deductovision’, that renders a chair to a ‘sitty thing’. It’s also indicative of just how far he is from home, once again. Holmes’ devotion to Watson and Mary costs him comfort and security. ‘His Last Vow’ suggests not only that he pays that price gladly, but that there’s more still to pay. The motif of three that runs through the episode certainly suggest that.
Thirdly, there’s the case itself and where, and indeed when, it sits. Moffat has got in, on occasion deserved, trouble for playing fast and loose with time on Doctor Who but here he, Gatiss and Thompson make it work for them. We know that Holmes and Watson have worked several cases since Holmes’ return but we don’t know how many or for how long. Wedding planning is a movable feast, and it could be anything from a couple of weeks to nine months between ‘The Bloody Guardsman’ we see here and the events of ‘The Empty Hearse’ with perhaps another few months between ‘Guardsman’ and the events of the wedding. In other words, this is a story that sits in the middle of an ocean of time and can’t see the shore regardless of what direction it’s looking. That, for a character who thrives on precision like Holmes, is about as far from comfortable as you can possibly get.
That level of uncertainty is carried over into the events we see, again, three times. The first is that the murder victim isn’t actually dead, the second is that Holmes doesn’t solve the case and the third, and most important, one is that this is the first instance we’ve seen Watson take the lead. The entire sequence at the barracks is driven by his knowledge and experience. He’s the one who realizes the guardsman is still alive, he’s the one who saves the guardsman and he’s the one who has all the authority in the room. His reference to Holmes as ‘nurse’ could be seen as both sexist and pejorative but it’s actually complementary. He uses it to mean assistant, not someone who’s useless or to be looked down upon but someone who’s vital to his work. He says it, in other words, in exactly the same way Holmes would say ‘Watson.’
The motifs and ideas inherent in the military, especially command structures and the changing of the guard, run through the whole episode. As well as the lovely conversation about whether or not Holmes is Watson’s ‘Commander’ there’s also the very sweet moment when Major Sholto arrives and Watson greets him. Again, Mary’s line to Sherlock about how ‘we weren’t the first’ could be seen as mean but it’s anything but. This is a woman treating a friend with absolute respect, gently comforting him by pointing out the man they both love is fiercely loyal to all his friends. This is uncertain territory for Holmes but Mary has no problem here and doesn’t see either Holmes or Sholto as a threat, but as equals.
It’s the closing scenes where this is most keenly addressed though. Major Sholto is successfully talked down by not one, but all three, of the leads and the thought of ruining Watson’s wedding day plays a major part in his decision to live. Once again, the command structures of the relationships on screen are played with. The ‘I believe I require medical attention.’/’I believe I am your doctor’, exchange in particular. Sholto’s willingness to ask for help, and how much it costs him is sharply contrasted by Watson doing what he always does; rolling his sleeves up and getting involved. It’s also a neat closing of the circuit; the attempted murder is solved and the life is saved. They are, yet again, on an equal footing. That’s even borne out by the sequences in Holmes’ thought processes. The difficulty he has retrieving the information, played for laughs last week, is revealed to be extremely real here. Plus, in his mind, Holmes is constantly being judged by his brother. He may be offensive to some externally, but internally he’s always literally and metaphorically on the defensive.
As a result, his comfort at the wedding feels as much like an escape as a moment of validation. His heartfelt, eloquent Best Man’s speech, the shyly revealed fondness for dancing and the decision to play the piece he’d composed suggest a man who is outside his comfort zone and completely at home there. As a result, the fact he leaves the wedding early, and the symbolic re-donning of the jacket feel more like a retreat than a call to duty. This isn’t Holmes returning to what he does best, this is Holmes returning to all he thinks he knows, or is allowed to do.
Except he doesn’t quite leave the larger world he finds himself in. His vow to John, Mary and their unborn is as formal as it is heartfelt, and there’s a genuine ring of foreboding to it too. Holmes is a fiercely loyal friend and a frankly terrifying enemy, and his willingness to do whatever needs to be done to protect them reminded me of this line from ‘The Reichenbach Fall’;
‘Oh, I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them.’
Something is coming in ‘His Last Vow’. Whether it’s the death of a character or Holmes committing murder himself will be made clear very shortly. What ‘The Sign of Three’ tells us, however, is obvious; Sherlock Holmes, the character, the idea and the TV show, is evolving. And no growth comes without pain.