Television Review: Sherlock (season 3, 2014)
Sherlock, season 3 (BBC, 2014)
Sherlock Holmes: Benedict Cumberbatch
John Watson: Martin Freeman
Note: a modern re-imagining of Canon
After yet another extended hiatus, Sherlock has returned for a much anticipated third season. Unfortunately, all that anticipation seems to have been for naught, for in the interim the creators’ egos have inflated beyond their writing abilities, and it shows. Sherlock’s third season is a resounding disappointment, fraught with plot inconsistencies, characterization missteps, and far more style than substance. It is with great sadness that I award what was once such a promising series a mere two pipes, for this, its third season.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
If Sherlock’s third season has earn two pipes, then surely one of those pipes belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch. He continues to prove himself an exceptionally talented actor and has, I believe, the potential to stand as this generation’s definitive Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this is likely to prove an impossible feat, especially if the show’s writing quality continues its downslide. The problem here is not Benedict Cumberbatch. The problem lies in uneven characterization, tedious dialogue, and the penchant to use this character as a vessel for showboating. It is a shame to see such tremendous talents go to waste.
Martin Freeman as John Watson
I continue to enjoy Freeman in the role of Dr. Watson, and if I’ve awarded one pipe for Cumberbatch’s performance, then perhaps the second belongs to Freeman. Though perhaps not as strong a performance as the first two seasons, Freeman still portrays a conflicted Watson, torn between his grief, his new life, and the return of his old. If there are moments of uncertainty, they exist purely in the writing, and not in Freeman’s performance. All around, a very moving performance.
Amanda Abbington as Mary Morstan
The true gem of this season, and perhaps the reason I suffered through three episodes, is Amanda Abbington in her role as Mary Morstan. Abbington is transcendent as Mary, her performance adding layers of intrigue to perhaps the most important woman to grace the pages of Canon. Her chemistry with Freeman, though perhaps not surprising, is electric, but as a rare and wonderful treat she also plays exceptionally well off Cumberbatch, creating a firm cornerstone in this, the series’ love triangle. But Abbington is not merely a love interest. Steeped in mystery and complexity, Abbington’s Mary is perfectly capable of standing on her own. In fact, I dare say I would gladly tune in to watch an entire series dedicated to her and her adventures. A fine addition to the cast, and decided bright spot in an otherwise convoluted and frustrating season.
I have opted to forgo touching on my quibbles, or highlighting some of the more delightful elements this time around, mostly because the episodes, though tied together, felt entirely too disjointed to group as a whole. As such, I will examine each episode in turn. Rest assured that the more delightful technical elements from the first two season continues here. The show is, if not well written, well produced, with breathtaking cinematography, clever editing and seamless directing.
The Empty Hearse
Perhaps my biggest problem with this season, and it is by far the most evident in Empty Hearse, is that it is becoming increasingly obvious the writers (in this case Gatiss, but it is evident across the board) are nowhere near as clever as their fans. They are certainly not as clever as their lead character. And this is fine, no one expects writers to be smarter than their characters. We do, however, expect writers to convince us their characters are as clever as they say they are.
And perhaps this is a rare talent, possessed only by ACD himself, but part of what makes Sherlock Holmes such a compelling character is his intelligence. We know he is smarter than us. We know we will never attain his levels of brilliance. But we try anyway, because this is part of the fun in being a Sherlock Holmes fan. And this is what fans of Sherlock have done. They have brought Sherlockian scholarship into the twenty-first century. The only problem? They’re smarter than the people writing the show. For the first time ever it is the fans, not the detective, who are owed the spotlight. This changes the dynamic of the series considerably.
I believe this is why we didn’t get a solution to Holmes jumping. Instead we were handed recycled fan theories speculated upon long before the third season aired. I didn’t come away from this episode impressed. I came away from it feeling patronized and let down.
You can’t outsmart Sherlock Holmes, and when you try, it only highlights your inadequacies.
If there is one high point in this episode, it is John Watson, though I expect a good portion of this is Freeman’s performance. He did an exceptional job portraying a man grieving, lost and struggling for a way to move forward and then fighting guilt when he found it. His reaction to Holmes’ return marked a dramatic improvement over the original. Oh how I have longed to witness Watson striking Holmes upon his return. Surely fainting followed by gleeful acceptance is not an acceptable response to discovering you’ve been lied to and dismissed for the better part of three (or in this case two) years.
The rest of the episode was rather hum-drum. It was decidedly lacking in ties to the original Canon (though I did enjoy the nod to Empty House, with the old man selling British Birds.) Unfortunately even this wasn’t enough to save this episode from its plot holes. As a general rule, writing should answer more questions than it asks. This is especially true of a detective series. I’m still at a lost for why they felt the Holmes-torture scene was necessary. I still cannot suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that Mycroft would ever leave his track and embark on an undercover mission to rescue his brother. I’m not sure I even want to theorize why Watson was abducted, the scene seeming to serve no real purpose, not even two episodes later, when we were spoon-fed the answer. I begin to think these episodes could benefit greatly from a reduction in airtime. Far too much filler was needed to meet their ninety minutes.
The abundance of filler material also served to derail the episode’s pacing, leaving it jarring, over-packed and yet sluggish, at times outright boring. I lost count of the number of unnecessary scenes. Was there a reason to introduce Holmes’ parents at this juncture? Do we yet know why Holmes was hallucinating? The Empty Hearse was a jumbled mess of slow, dragging scenes, with nowhere near the cohesion one would come to expect given previous seasons.
Certainly there were a few bright spots, but none of those were characterization. I’m not sure why the writing for Holmes was so far from the mark, but this was not the man I met in the first two seasons. It was certainly not the man sprawled across the pages of Dr. Watson’s stories. This Holmes was boorish. He transcended rude, tipping straight into the obnoxious. There were times, in fact (teasing John on the train for example, harping on John’s mustache being another) when I was completely thrown from the story, Holmes a complete stranger, not at all the detective I and so many others have come to know and love. I know this series has opted to play Holmes as a sociopath/psychopath, but it was my understanding that was a self-given label meant to hide Holmes’ true heart. The Holmes I met in this episode was completely lacking in heart. Certainly he was not a Holmes worthy of forgiveness. It is almost a relief, then, to experience the character inconsistencies that will come over the next two episodes. Under normal circumstances, it would be a point of contention, but here it was a decided improvement.
Though, for the record, Sherlock Holmes had a lovely, impish sense of humour, but he was never, ever cruel, especially not where Watson was concerned.
And so, while there were aspects I thoroughly enjoyed (Mary Morstan’s introduction for one, Anderson and his Empty Hearse society for another) on the whole the episode left me feeling decidedly hollow and immensely bored. Much I suspect, like John Watson before Holmes’ return, wandering aimlessly through London, without purpose. I do not, however, suspect this was intentional, and if it was, it is not a technique I recommend to anyone.
A Sign of Three
The Sign of Three was easily the most frustrating of the three episodes, in that it was also the most promising and yet somehow managed to miss the mark entirely. Rich with Canon references, the episode combined several of Holmes’ actual cases into something that both held together and told a rather complex, coherent story. Far-fetched at times, certainly, but cohesive. In fact, were it not for the filler material, this might have been one of their best episodes to date.
Unfortunately, the at times clever plot was grossly overshadowed by the melodramatic, decidedly soap-opera-like character drama. Yes, Watson got married, and yes, Holmes was forced to confront his loss, but why any of this needed one half of the episode’s running time is beyond me. Part of what made the original Holmes stories so compelling was the warmth and constancy of the characters. We, as Sherlock Holmes fans, looked forward to each little morsel, to watching these characters come alive on the page. I have no idea, then, how The Sign of Three managed to take these moments and stretch them into tedium. The less I say about Holmes’ best man speech the better, and unfortunately this was not the only point where the story bumbled slowly towards its eventual resolution. On more than one occasion the joke ran overlong, the story growing awkward to the point of second hand embarrassment. A marked difference from previous seasons. Season three suffers from many things, not the least of which is its pacing. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Sign of Three.
That is not to say there were not high points in the episode. I quite enjoyed the numerous references to Canon, and as I mentioned above I believe the writers did an admirable job of weaving their cases together. There were enough common threads for a neat and tidy resolution. It is only a shame the plot was so thoroughly buried by unnecessary filler and fluff.
Mary Morstan continued to delight, although I am leery of where her eventual story will lead. There was enough foreshadowing (quite brilliantly done, I should mention) so that the events in His Last Vow were hardly a surprise, but Moffat doesn’t have the best track record where female characters are concerned, so I am hardly one to extend too much of my trust. For now, however, and especially in this take on SIGN, I liked Mary. She was certainly a different take on the Mary Morstan of Canon, but I think it worked for the adaptation. I only wish they hadn’t decided on making her pregnant, but I believe I’ve already touched on the overly dramatic melodrama inherent in this season’s character arcs.
We will not be commenting on drunk Sherlock. I’m still trying to delete the scene from my hard drive. Nor will we be commenting on Holmes and Watson’s relationship in this, or any episode. While it is one thing to examine their relationship using the Text as our source, it is quite another to examine their relationship in the face of an adaptation made with clear authorial intent. Moffat and co. have firmly stated Holmes and Watson will remain heterosexual. Any nods towards their relationship are at best fan-baiting (note I do not use the word queer-baiting as I do not believe anyone involved in the production is interested in attracting queer audiences), and at worse fan-teasing. Sadly, I believe the latter more likely.
In the end, The Sign of the Three still had a lot of potential, and it could have been a brilliant episode. Unfortunately, pacing issues and too much filler made for a lackluster ride. Sorting through the drivel to find something to write about was remarkably challenging. I cannot remember the last time watching an episode felt so much like a chore. A disappointing second in a line of disappointing episodes.
His Last Vow
As The Adventures of Charles Augustus Milverton has long been one of my favourite stories, I was quite excited to see this brought into a modern adaptation. Overall, the episode did not disappoint, at least not insofar as the case. The moments that did disappoint are the same issues that disappoint continually with Moffat’s work.
There is often a fine line between a writer and their audience. A good writer can blur this line enough to disguise their presence, allowing the audience to get lost in the characters, the story. This doesn’t happen with Moffat’s work. Too many of Moffat’s own person issues and presumed kinks make it into his work. He has an unnatural obsession with psychopathy (or sociopathy as he would call it, though I have yet to speak with someone in the field of psychiatry who isn’t vexed by his misuse of the terms).
That is not to say the episode was lacking in delightful elements. The numerous nods to Canon were quite appreciated. I was particularly impressed with their use of The Man with the Twisted Lip. An ingenious case to introduce the story. The opium dens of London may be long gone, but where better to set a case in a modern adaptation than a crack house. BAMF Watson was also a lovely touch, and I will forever be pleased by the introduction of Billy. The twist on Empty House was particularly clever.
The pacing in this episode marked an improvement over the rest of the season, though only just and it did fall apart considerably after the midway point. The “twist” in Mary’s story line was overly dramatic, meant, no doubt, for shock value, though why one would seek shock value when they went out of their way to foreshadow the event is beyond me.
This was, of course, the point where the episode ran off track. Holmes’ extended trip into his “mind palace” lacked the insightful intrigue I suspect Moffat was attempting. The forcibly drawn parallel between Mary as shooter and Mary as bride, both surely destroying Holmes’ heart, was heavy-handed and about as unsubtle as a tanker truck driving into the side of a house. The entire sequence came across as dull, awkward and unnecessary.
Then there was Holmes’ excuse for Mary not killing Magnussen. The suspension of disbelief needed to swallow what was obviously an attempt to drag the plot forward was enough to remove me from the story. I’m not going to comment on why Holmes had Moriarty chained up in a padded room in his mind palace, as by this point I’ve gotten used to Moffat showboating for the sake of satisfying his ego.
If there was a high point in this episode it was Lars Mikkelsen. His portrayal of Charles Augustus Magnussen was both suitably creepy and yet hauntingly unforgettable. Even days later I still feel unclean. This is the sign of a truly great adversary, one I believe fully captured the C.A.M. of Canon. Bravo Mikkelsen, for such a noteworthy performance.
I also continue to enjoy Mary Morstan’s character development, this in spite of knowing Moffat’s track record with female characters. True, she is an entire caricature of Moffat’s dream woman (psychopath adventurer whose life revolves around the central male figure in her life) but I believe there is still enough tempering at this point to afford her her own agency. Certainly, she has a good deal of potential. I only worry this potential will be squandered for the sake of Holmes (or Watson’s) growth.
Overall this episode is a bit of a mixed bag. There were numerous occasions when I fell head-first into the story and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Unfortunately, each of these occasions were followed by disbelief, annoyance and, at times, and outright boredom. I was entirely prepared to forgive the episode its fault and simply enjoy the poignancy of Holmes leaving London, Watson left behind, the final cut of Holmes’ plane gaining air I thought both fitting and conclusive. Unfortunately, all of this was squandered in their setup for the a fourth season. Once again Moffat has overplayed his hand, demonstrating his inability to conjure a unique and non-repetitive storyline. Of the hundreds of cases littered throughout the Canon, why he felt the need to resurrect Moriarty is beyond me. A disappointing end to a disappointing season, and hardly one to leave me excited for future episodes.
Season three stands as an excellent example of what happens when a show grows too big for its talent. While the quality and potential is still there, the writing fails to live up to expectations. This season has been disjointed, insulting, overly-showy and, perhaps most damning of all, boring. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.