Let’s get this out of the way first: The Sign of Three is hardly Sherlock Holmes canon. For a start, the original story had another number in it.
The Sign of Four concerns the East India Company, stolen treasure and a pact between convicts. The Sign of three does not. All right, it includes a pact, but that’s between the heroes Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), John (Martin Freeman) and Mary (Amanda Abbington).
If you were wanting a mystery-thick episode with complexity-upon-complexity, fast-forward to the two-thirds mark where, in a feat of deductive theatrics, Holmes helps save the life of John’s friend Major Sholto (Alistair Petrie), only survivor of an incident in Afghanistan where a troop of new recruits were lost. Once again for the Sherlock series, clever cutting (and let’s be honest, clever storytelling from this episode’s writer, Steve Thompson) gives us the deductive logic of our favourite consulting detective, with cuts between laptops in Baker street, to a mind-palace in parliament (perhaps a glancing reference to the target of last week’s bomb). Here Sherlock is holding a conversation with five women who have all, apparently, dated a ghost. Among them is Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) pushing Sherlock to cut away the extraneous and get to the core issue. This storyline is weaved underneath the speech of the best man, Sherlock himself, until he has a solution to the case: who is going to be murdered at Watson’s wedding?
The Sign of Three, for the most-part, is a story of character development, with a rather heartfelt, honest speech from Holmes himself where he admits to being a totally self-absorbed sociopath with only one redeeming feature: his friendship to Watson. It has great humour at times, from the emergency SMS to Greg Lestrade (Rupert Graves) who is on the very cusp of arresting masked bank-robbers after years of them getting off on technicalities, to the planning, with the ever-patient Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) of how much alcohol to imbibe on John’s bucks night. This, through some effort, results in two very drunk friends being revealed as total lightweights, not being able even to last until closing-time.
Like I said, for Sherlock afficionado’s, this story is light on deduction and heavy on the internal workings of the characters. It seems everyone in the core cast gets their turn, from Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) revealing her late husband was a drug-runner, Lestrade’s obsession with imprisoning the Waters family, the aforementioned bank robbers, Molly revealing she has lots of sex with her Sherlock-substitute boyfriend (revealed in the previous episode to be tall and wearing a very sherlock-like scarf), Mary who is able to gently manipulate the boys into “saving” each other from the tedium of wedding planning by going off on an adventure, and finally to Sherlock and Watson themselves who are bouncing off each other with style. The Celebrity Heads sequence alone was in my opinion, worth the price of entry.
And just quickly, I should give a big hello to Sergeant Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson) and The Woman, Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in two important cameos during the episode. The former as Lestrade’s offsider (who apparently didn’t go batshit-bonkers like poor Anderson) and the latter, appearing in Sherlock’s mind-palace, as an unwelcome distraction to the case at hand. However, that she still appears in his mind gives further development to his character which was the biggest feature of the episode.
The mystery once solved was clever and yet veering towards the preposterous, but as another commentator has pointed-out, no more-so than one of those in the original Sign of Four. We are left however with two interesting plot points which may be brought to the surface in the concluding episode of the season. The first is how one of Sherlock’s clients knew Watson’s middle-name, only revealed on his wedding invitation to a very select group of people. The second, Sherlock’s deduction that Mary is indeed pregnant, giving us the “sign” of three, that the happy couple are to be parents.
And among the dancing happy guests at the conclusion of the story, the obvious occurred: Sherlock was alone in a crowd. As his brother Mycroft mentioned prior to the speech, and harking back to St. Bartholomew’s hospital in the series 2 episode, A Scandal in Belgravia, getting involved is not an advantage.
I think this episode will polarise fandom, while leaving casual viewers quite happy. It’s not the best episode by a long-shot, yet I think it a valuable contribution to the ongoing adventures of this modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
But don’t take my word for it: you be the judge!