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Friday, January 17, 2014

Early Thoughts and a Review of Sherlock Season 3


Kyle takes a quick, and slightly spoilery, look at Season 3 of Sherlock. American readers proceed at your own risk.



Since 2010, Steven Moffat has split his attentions between the mind-boggling Doctor Who run he overseas, and the high octane detective series Sherlock. When one series goes on a brief hiatus, Moffat is often found to be working on the other. Both have reached critical acclaim, but the delivery system in which Sherlock is presented often fascinates because there is so little of it. Three episodes per season at 90 minutes apiece is a formula quite unlike anything I can remember in serialized drama.

The first season of the Sherlock was definitely the more successful of the two inaugural outings, despite having a rather ponderous middle episode (an on-going issue it seems), the overall "Moriarty arc" worked well in developing intrigue and a strong through-line for viewers to glom onto. The second season was a bit more of a patchy affair, with a good if scattered opening episode that introduced Sherlock's female equivalent in Irene Adler, a dreadful second episode (wasting one of the finest of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales), and a third season closer that was tremendous and left viewers wondering: "however will they get out of that one?" As always, stick the landing and people will want more, and the excellence of "The Reichenbach Fall" is what has generally kept Season 2 from being considered a disappointment by and large.

This third season of Sherlock had a good deal to live up to, the expectations of the audience curious how Moffat and Gatiss would resolve last season's cliffhanger, and frankly my own hopes that the team would be able to bounce back into a more confident arc that could carry through all three installments.

I had an opportunity to watch all three before their American airdates, and I can say that in short; Sherlock Season 3 does indeed improve on Season 2 in how carefully crafted its central story is. The season relies less on a central villain, which it lacks due to Moriarty's seeming demise, and more on the friendship between Sherlock and his confidante John Watson, as well as the effect the arrival of a third party has on their brotherly like relationship. This is extremely beneficial to the ongoing growth of the series, as Moffat and Gatiss had been so focused on the "big moments" up to this point that the more intimate character building often felt like an after-thought. Additionally, Mycroft's role within the series has grown a bit bigger, perhaps not so much in screen-time but in impact and as an overseeing presence that drives our title hero in his deductions for each given crime.

There are still issues though, but rather than the messy construction that plagued last season, it has more to do with a few poor choices that undermine the more relevant points the episodes are trying to make. Luckily, that is not the case with the premiere, which is where we begin.

The Empty Hearse, is in a word, fantastic. It's an episode that quickly introduces the changes to Sherlock's world, both personally and within his inner circle. Sherlock, who it's no spoiler to point out, is not dead and is currently working for Mycroft in Serbia trying to dismantle Moriarty's remaining criminal network. Back at home, John has settled down into a moustachioed and engaged existence. The other half of that engagement, Mary, will prove to be an important factor throughout the season's on-going arc.

Sherlock is eventually called home by Mycroft to interrupt a terrorist attack, and when he returns he is exposed the changes caused by his supposed death, most specifically to John and surprisingly to Anderson, the Scotland Yard forensics specialist, who has radically changed into a Sherlock fan-boy, even running a club called "The Empty Hearse" the postulates on how Sherlock faked his own death.

While the emotional beats between John and Sherlock (with Mary as a wonderfully mediating presence, defying the expectations of potential conflict) control the focus and flow of the story here, the real highlights in Gatiss' script are the meta-winks at the audience, with differing reconstructions and theorizing from Anderson and his club about how Sherlock could have possibly survived the fall, each one more ridiculous than the last. When the final explanation comes, if it can be called as such, Anderson scoffs it off as "that's not how I would have done it". It's a beautifully written moment that playfully teases the show's internet fanbase, who spent the two years of the show's hiatus digging into every last detail in Season 2's finale to provide an explanation for how Sherlock survived.

The Empty Hearse is split a bit, as it resolves the hanging plot threads of Season 2, while also setting the table for the on-going plot of Season 3. That sort of mish-mash risks a confused and overstuffed episode, but Gatiss' script is carried by its cleverness, smart humor and energy and may be the finest thing he's ever written for this show or any other (though The Great Game may arguably hold that title instead). The only miss within the story is that the terrorist plot never really comes together towards anything terribly interesting, which has been an on-going criticism of the show's approach to Doyle's characters, with the mysteries often taking a back-seat to character interactions and flashy graphics. This particular mystery serves as nothing more than a plot device to get Sherlock back home and to have he and John put in a life and death situation. All told though, this is a minor quibble, as the overriding cleverness of the The Empty Hearse makes it a winner. Grade: A

The same can't quite be said of The Sign of Three. Sherlock, as a series, has often struggled with its middle episodes as the filler-standalone mysteries that they've contained thus far have never come together as a satisfying whole. Both The Blind Banker and The Hounds of Baskerville represent the nadir of their respective seasons. The Sign of Three does take some measure to improve this flaw a bit, focusing on a story that plays directly into the arc, centering around John and Mary's wedding and Sherlock's role as Best Man. 

This scenario leads to some tonal changes for the program, particularly in regards to humor, and an opportunity to see our sociopathic hero do things that would be considered "ordinary"; like determining who should be invited to John and Mary's nuptials. The major thrust of the story is relayed through Sherlock's speech during these wedding festivities, and throughout the tale that Sherlock is weaving in praise of John. At first during this lengthy, yet also pretty wonderful, speech, we're treated to a stag party that only Sherlock could have thrown (it's only John and Sherlock going to bars) and we get a chance to see Watson at his most heroic as well, with the smaller individual mysteries that Sherlock mentions in said speech creating a picture of scenarios where it's John that comes out as the hero instead of Sherlock. This was incredibly welcome, as throughout much of last season, we lost a good deal of the character momentum that made John such a staggeringly interesting character in the first season. 

The almost sitcom like approach throughout The Sign of Three is a welcome change, but does carry some individual issues that are worthy of mentioning here. The biggest problem being the episode's inability to close on its own merits. Throughout, The Sign of Three is presented as John's story and highlights the essential role that he provides within his partnership with Sherlock. Yet, Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson can't quite help themselves and make an error in judgement that ties the smaller cases that Sherlock makes mention of in his speech as all a part of one larger mystery. It's unfortunate that this occurs, as not only does the revelation disappoint (with a murder method that doesn't make alot of sense), but it also undermines the beautiful message the very same script was relaying about John earlier in the episode. The bad doesn't completely wash away the good here, but it just feels like an attempt to do too much. Sherlock shouldn't always be the hero, and it would have been nice if The Sign of Three could underscore that, particularly as its story was so dramatically different than anything we've borne witness to throughout the series. Still, it's a significant improvement over their previous middle episodes. Grade: B-

With His Last Vow we return to the storytelling module that is typically present in the conclusion of a Sherlock season: high octane storytelling with a central mystery that was introduced in some fashion in the first episode. Interestingly, there's a piece of the second episode that also plays an intrinsic role, which strengthens the season as a complete body of work.

His Last Vow finds Sherlock and John drawn into a case of stolen letters and blackmail that puts them directly at odds with Charles Augustus Magnussen, played chillingly by Lars Mikkelsen, who we learn is known as the "Napoleon of Blackmail", incredibly rich due to this skill, and the only person that Sherlock actively hates. It's a little more tell than show than I'd like, but Magnussen is portrayed in such a repulsive fashion that the performance is able to overcome the slightly unearned antagonism. More stunningly is the opening scenes that have John finding Sherlock in a heroin den, clearly awaking from a high. While Sherlock's addictions have been mentioned in the past, it's impressive that Moffat's script was "willing to go there" in regards to how deep Sherlock's addictive vices run, and it's handled with the appropriate amount of seriousness; again underscoring just how much this season is about Sherlock and John, and to a lesser extent the effect that Sherlock has on others.

Once on the Magnussen case, when Sherlock and John infiltrate Magnussen's office, we get the first major twist of the season and a really neat sequence that displays what occurs in Sherlock's "mind-palace" when under extreme physical duress. The flashes to various scenarios is a thrilling look at Sherlock's inner psychology. Afterwards we get some very clever flash-forward and flash-backs dealing with the ramifications of the twist, its eventual denouement, and what Christmas is like at the Holmes' household (yes, we do get to meet Sherlock and Mycroft's parents this season). I particularly found Moffat's restraint in how to handle the twist, and how it avoided a predictable out for the characters association in which its entangled. I realize I'm sounding incredibly vague here, but much of the episode turns on the twist, and I'd hate to ruin that for someone who has yet to see the episode (the majority of the American viewing public). I'll just say it's a intriguing development for the dual lives of one particular character, and gives us a new dimension on that person.
 

But the key here for my enjoyment was Magnussen, as much is made of Moriarty as Sherlock's opposite number, Magnussen is a bit more in line with that particular definition, displaying all the calm, collected reasoning and deduction that Sherlock himself is famous for. It's as if Magnussen is what Sherlock would have become if he had used his incredible gifts for evil. Their final showdown by episode's end is especially well done, up until its end, which either could be anti-climactic for some, or could be seen as the only option with Sherlock so intellectually out-matched. Needless to say, it will be a controversial decision that I'm sure many will debate in the all too long break we get before Season 4. As for the ending? Well, I'll let you all judge for yourselves, but for the record, I'm not a fan. Though I'm certain it will produce interesting theories to talk about for a couple of years in our wait for the next batch. Grade: A-

Season 3 of Sherlock is an interesting beast, more relationship-driven than being steered by any central mystery or antagonist. It's a marked improvement on Season 2, and Moffat and Gatiss' yearning to stretch into other territory beyond the standard series format is worth admiring. On the whole, I give the Season a B+.


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