Tonight’s episode of Sherlock follows a precedent largely established on Wednesday: it focusses predominantly on the relationship between its leading detective and his best friend at the expense of a more compelling plot.
Like in the third series’ high-profile première, there’s an easily-identifiable point around halfway through the 90-minute episode before which it concerns itself mainly with characterisation, and after which it very rapidly develops and resolves the episode’s would-be ‘villain of the week’ – the case that demands the use of Sherlock’s keen, nigh-supernatural intellect.
But whereas the terrorist plot in An Empty Hearse felt tacked-on through some sense of obligation, The Sign of Three feels more cohesive, expertly laying the foundations for its third act throughout the episode. It also exerts greater control over the audience; the first two-thirds are remarkably light-hearted, but its eventual, dramatic tonal shift takes full advantage of the strength of the audience’s rapport with Cumberbatch and Freeman.
The light-hearted segments are, however, the highlight of the episode; they offer brief reprieve from the show’s trend towards a darker narrative with scenes of drunkenness and joviality, the enjoyment factor of which is driven by the lead characters’ inherent likeability. It’s unfortunate that the opportunity to flesh out the show’s supporting cast is glazed over, but the simple humour makes for easy, inoffensive viewing – none of the challenge of powerful drama, but neither the exhaustion that might otherwise have set in before the crime actually takes place.
And it’s increasingly clear that it is the inter-character drama that is now the definitive element of each episode, rather than the crime that is eventually solved. Whereas the second episode of the second series, The Hounds of Baskerville, was overwhelmingly preoccupied with its beast-based mystery, both episodes of the third series are best described as ‘the one where Sherlock returns’ and ‘the one where John gets married’ respectively.
It’s a far-cry from the show’s early, more structured episodes; Sherlock and John’s typical crime-solving antics find a place here only as a vehicle to move forward a more dynamic story that lets its characters’ personal stories intertwine with that of the case at hand, rather than simply run parallel. It has the hallmark of a show trying to find a new formula – which, given the introduction of Mary Morstan, is perhaps necessary. Unfortunately, it’s beginning to feel that this new formula would better suit a shorter per-episode runtime and a longer series.
It’s still not entirely clear what impact Mary will have on Sherlock’s character dynamic, as she has rarely taken the lime-light so far, but the prospect of looming change is a regular theme throughout the episode; Sherlock is uncharacteristically vulnerable as he considers the impact of marriage on his time together with John, and ‘end of an era’ is thrown around a number of times. Whether this heralds major change for the show itself has yet to be seen – but with the series already two-thirds over, there’s all the more pressure on its last ninety minutes to justify the two years we’ve waited.