‘Sherlock’ recap: Season 3, Episode 2, ‘The Sign of Three’
This week on “Sherlock,” the world’s only consulting detective, international spy and death-defying stuntman turns his attention to… wedding planning. After last week’s salute to fandom, this week makes good on showrunner Steven Moffat’s statement that “Sherlock” is “not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.”
“The Sign of Three” opens on DCI (congrats on the promotion) Lestrade about to bust a gang of bank robbers Scotland Yard has been chasing for a year and a half. But just before he can triumphantly enter the vault of their latest would-be heist, he receives a text. And then another. And another, desperately urgent in their brevity: Something is wrong at Baker Street.
Lestrade skips out on his moment of glory to rush to the scene, with full backup — to find Sherlock wrestling with the imminent crisis of not having written a best man’s speech for John Watson’s wedding the next day. In Sherlock’s defense, this truly does define “emergency” for the man who’s confessed to knowing little about human nature and disdains traditions. But, for John, he’s going to put on a tux and do his best impression of normal for a day, just as soon as Lestrade helps him with some icebreakers. Maybe the tactical helicopter pilot knows a good limerick?
Mrs. Hudson finds Sherlock the morning of the wedding sublimating his anxiety by practicing the waltz with an invisible partner, because obviously no one could replace his former roommate. Sherlock does the verbal equivalent of rolling his eyes at Mrs. Hudson’s excitement about the impending nuptials: “Two people who currently live together are about to attend church, have a party, go on a short holiday and then carry on living together, what’s so big about that?” That’s good, Sherlock, never let them see you cry.
Mrs. Hudson, utterly missing his ploy to avoid the subject, insists marriage changes people, recounting the sad tale of her own best friend and maid of honor who called the ceremony “the end of an era,” left early and hardly called afterward. This isn’t just foreshadowing, it’s a cue to start passing around the wine now, because by the time Sherlock is giving away John it’ll be too late to blame your tears on anything but feelings about fictional characters.
Just as Sherlock psychs himself up to don his tuxedo with “Into battle,” we cut to an extensively scarred soldier putting on his uniform, a literal battle suit. Next time, warn a girl before shifting gears from “My Best Friend’s Wedding” to “Kill Bill” like that.
But who needs Quentin Tarantino levels of bloodshed when we’ve got Sherlock stepping forward when the photographer specifically asks for the newlyweds to pose in front of the church? (The pain of this scene is presumably why we didn’t witness the actual ceremony). Thankfully, a distraction arrives in the lovely form of Janine, the maid of honor on the prowl – but not for “the famous Mr. Holmes,” despite wedding tradition. She does, however, quickly cotton on to his usefulness in sniffing out an ideal hookup.
This might be down to Sherlock having already done some… sniffing. In the first of many flashbacks over the course of the reception, Sherlock expanded the usual duties of best man to include inviting an old boyfriend of Mary’s to 221B for the purpose of ensuring that he, despite not being nearly as over their two-year relationship as she is, would not make trouble. “High-functioning sociopath – with your number,” Sherlock warns, before grinning like the Grinch who stole Christmas. That hapless man is going to have nightmares about those teeth.
As much as he may scare adults, it turns out that Sherlock makes an excellent minder for children. (Though the initial wisdom of asking him to talk ‘round young Archie the ringbearer could be rightly questioned.) In an exchange very much reminiscent of Mycroft Holmes trying to convince his brother last season that a bedsheet is not proper attire for Buckingham Palace, Archie flatly rejects his role, especially the outfit. “What for?” he asks, echoing Sherlock’s protest, which he concedes with “Grown-ups like that sort of thing.” They eventually find common ground with photos of a maggot-eaten corpse, with promises of a slideshow of beheadings if Archie plays his part. What, bribing your children with candy makes you a much better parent?
Back at the reception, the dressing soldier may have given the wedding a miss but could not resist the siren call of the open bar. Major Sholto is John’s old commanding officer, the “most unsociable man he’s ever met,” according to Mary. Sherlock stammers incredulously at this, as if popularity contests have a Least Friendly category and he’s insulted not to hold that rank in John’s esteem.
Needing a shoulder to cry on, Sherlock calls Mycroft, only to find that he can’t be bothered commandeering a jet to make the party. Not only that, he repeats Mrs. Hudson’s line about an era ending, then does the only thing a brother can always be counted on to do: reminds Sherlock that he’d told him so. “This is what people do, Sherlock, they get married. I warned you: Don’t get involved.” Because loneliness suits Mycroft so well, especially around the midsection he’s trying to work off on that treadmill.
Finally, it’s Sherlock’s big moment, only he can’t seem to get his speech started. He reads aloud some notes from absent friends, and you should find a way to watch this episode just to hear Sherlock say “big squishy cuddles.” The exercise of reading other people’s take on the sentiment called for on the day seems to focus Sherlock, as he launches into the speech properly – or, at least, in Sherlock’s version of proper. He recounts being shocked into silence by John’s request, to the point of drinking from a cup of tea into which he’d dropped the eyeball he was experimenting on at the time. However, because he’s Sherlock Holmes and that won’t change just because he’s wearing a fancy suit, he calls weddings “false and specious and sentimental,” then sums up John’s contributions to his work as the “extraordinary contrast” that allows his own deductive powers to shine.
But wait! He is just describing how, despite Sherlock being a less than exemplary human being, John inspires him to be better. “I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend.” Nothing funny about that, just sniffle like the rest of the wedding party.
But Sherlock is not here to just hear himself talk; he’s going to demonstrate how John has altered his methods by reliving the case of The Bloody Guardsman. This flashback opens with a scene that, once again, likely no fanfiction author had thought to conjure: Sherlock helping Mary with wedding planning, putting his separation anxiety to the tasks of napkin origami and seating arrangements as John rattles off potential cases – which Sherlock has been ignoring. Because there may not be time for cases right now, but at least John is around for picking the color for bridesmaids’ dresses. Mary finds Sherlock’s behavior as alarming as the rest of us, and tells John to take him on a playdate and not come back until they’ve bloody well solved something.
The guardsman, Private Bainbridge, wrote to Sherlock because he suspects he’s being stalked. As they watch him finish his shift tolerating mugging tourists, Sherlock asks why John doesn’t see his allegedly good friend, Major Sholto, presumably to avoid making the same mistake that drove them apart. John reveals that his former commander is a recluse because he “gets more death threats than [Sherlock]” after leading a group of new recruits into an incident that went badly wrong, leaving everyone but him dead. But John reads between the lines and reassures Sherlock that “you know it won’t alter anything, right, me and Mary, getting married?” Of course not, John, why should having a wife who’d prefer normal hours that aren’t spent patching up her husband’s wounds from chasing down a criminal mean you couldn’t still be right-hand man to London’s most notorious genius? Sherlock responds the only way he can to sentimental lies: by abandoning John to commandeer a beefeater hat and march into the barracks.
Bainbridge is found apparently dead in the shower, until John puts on his Captain Watson voice and demands to examine him, upon which he’s found to still be alive after being stabbed with an absent weapon. But it’s not Sherlock’s moment to shine, deducing his third locked-room mystery in two episodes; he readily admits to being flummoxed. Instead, his reason for telling the story is John, who “while I was trying to solve the murder, instead saved a life.”
But praise is only part of his duty – time for embarrassment! Sherlock chooses the night of John’s bachelor party, which consisted of just the two of them drinking their way across London pubs near crime scenes they’d investigated, with their alcohol intake dictated by a strict formula that pathologist and excellent lady bro Molly Hooper helped devise. It makes you wonder whether, if he didn’t think holidays to be a commercial construct, Sherlock wouldn’t be an excellent gift-giver.
All goes to plan until John slips a shot in Sherlock’s graduated cylinder (perfect) and they almost get in a barfight, ending up back in 221B after all of two hours. The party animals forge ahead with a game of Who Am I? that ends just short of a knee grope turning into everything the tabloids speculate about them when a client arrives, claiming she’s been on a date with a ghost.
Faced with either confronting the sexual tension in the room or drunken investigation, we’re treated to Sherlock’s somewhat dulled deductive skills – “deaded” for a mounted animal head, “sitty thing” for a chair (John calls this “clueing for looks”) – after which he pukes all over the ghost date’s carpet.
The next morning finds them waking up hungover in Scotland Yard’s drunk tank to a gleefully loud Lestrade. Sherlock realizes the case actually has some merit: Several women recently claimed to have gone on a date with a charming mystery man who had died shortly before their encounters. Until now the audience has only seen projections of Sherlock’s mind palace, but for this case we’re taken inside, where Sherlock holds court on the floor of a British council chamber. Interrogating the women in a forum for ghost daters, he figures out that The Mayfly Man (the insect lives for a day) takes on the identities of dead men from obituaries, uses their homes for a single night, then vanishes.
The explanation? John points out that seeing a woman once and never calling again is a typical man thing to do, specifically, a bored married man. Bit of a tone deaf story to tell during a best man’s toast, but it was all in the cause of Sherlock’s point – his haltingly, rudely and awkwardly made point – that John made him not just a better man but, in an even higher compliment, a better detective. Sherlock does it for the love of mystery, but without understanding human nature he was only getting half the picture. “I will solve your murder, but it takes John Watson to save your life.”
Alas for the still cakeless wedding party, the real solution occurs to Sherlock just as he’s raising his glass to conclude his speech. Back in his mind palace, with the help of Mycroft, the ultimate voice of reason, and a delicious cameo from Irene Adler, Sherlock realizes that the Mayfly Man was trying to infiltrate the Watson-Morstan wedding. “Let’s play murder,” and just like that the game is on. Sherlock paces the room, slightly manic as he tries to narrow the field of 100 or so guests to the only person who’s been mentioned as getting death threats in the episode: Major Sholto. But who’s the killer?
Among the baffled lot, little Archie has an answer that Sherlock listens to in the way no adult would the young Holmes during the Carl Powers murder case, which likely began Jim Moriarty’s descent into career criminality. “The invisible man could do it. The invisible man with the invisible knife, the one who tried to kill the guardsman!” Just as weddings have rehearsals, the killer practiced his technique on Bainbridge.
Between Sherlock, John and Mary, because three’s company when it comes to crime solving, they figure out that the killer had stabbed the men through the tight belt of their uniforms, the injury only becoming apparent once they undressed. The murderer turns out to be the wedding photographer: the invisible man who doesn’t appear in any of the pictures, whose face is always hidden by the camera. His brother was one of the men who died under Sholto’s command.
Distraction handled, the wedding recommences. Sherlock composed the first dance on his violin, and ends the night with a deduction (and the source of the episode’s title): Mary is pregnant! And then, a vow: “Whatever it takes, whatever happens, from now on, I swear I will always be there, always, for all three of you.” I don’t think this is meant to foreshadow Sherlock doing 3 a.m. feedings, because at that point let’s just break down the fourth wall and build him a guestroom. Considering that last season he faked his death to take out Moriarty, this promise is going to demand something even more spectacular.
But until those fireworks start, Sherlock leaves John and Mary to dance (“We can’t all three dance. There are limits,” John insists, drawing the line at crime solving for their happy little three-way.) Then, just as Mrs. Hudson’s former best friend did, Sherlock gathers his coat to the strains of “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night!)” – specifically, “why’d it take so long to see the light,” in case this episode didn’t make it clear that John had swapped dance partners – and leaves just as the reception kicks into full swing.
Next week: A menacing new villain appears! But will Sherlock be too busy mending his broken heart to notice?
Contact Eva Kis via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.