‘Sherlock’ and the Case of the Changing, Challenging Identities

The third season of Sherlock becomes much more meta and challenges the very concept of who Sherlock Holmes is, and suggests change is indeed in the (east) wind.

When audiences last saw Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the end of Sherlock’s second season, he was skulking in a cemetery, watching his best friend, John Watson (Martin Freeman), grieve at his grave. Two years later, in our time and the story’s, the Great Detective has returned — to a world with different expectations of him and greater global audience awareness of Sherlock.

This season is notable not only for the arrival of new character Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), but also for insights into the way Sherlock’s mind works. Mrs. Hudson’s boys express their emotions (and quite a wide range of them) more frequently and more openly embrace (or at least admit they have) friends and family, who often are played by real-life relatives. Showrunner Steven Moffat’s son, Cumberbatch’s parents, and, most spectacularly, Freeman’s partner all take turns before the camera.

When Sherlock re-enters John’s life after a sometimes horrific journey to destroy Moriarty’s criminal web, he expects that the two will immediately pick up their friendship and crime-solving partnership. Trust, Sherlock learns, is fragile — and whom to trust becomes one of many themes running through this season’s series of three movie-length episodes. “The Empty Hearse”, “The Sign of Three”, and “His Last Vow” play on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s titles “The Empty House” (in which Holmes reveals himself to Watson long after his supposed death), “The Sign of Four” (introducing Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan), and “His Last Bow” (reuniting Holmes and Watson on the cusp of world war).

Although John eventually seems to forgive nearly anything from those he loves, he still requires some time — and a few life-or-death dangers — before he can find forgiveness. Once more, “the game is on”, but its rules seem to have changed. As Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss explained during a PBS behind-the-scenes segment, a series needs to go in a different direction during its third season. Perhaps “different direction” is a bit of an understatement.

The tone of the returned Sherlock is greatly more self aware (or “meta”). The scripts nod to the series’ knowledgeable worldwide fan base. When Mrs. Hudson sternly tells Sherlock that she needs to have a word with his mother, fans read into that line not only Sherlock’s landlady’s/ surrogate mother’s admonishment but the likelihood that actors Una Stubbs (Mrs. Hudson) and Wanda Ventham (aka Cumberbatch’s mum, playing Sherlock’s) really will chat on set.

“The Empty Hearse” illustrates several theories, some far more plausible than others, hypothesized by Sherlock’s London fan club, named The Empty Hearse by former New Scotland Yard forensics specialist Anderson (Jonathan Aris), who does not believe Sherlock is dead. The theories not only reflect online discussions of how Sherlock faked his death, but the on-screen enactments include some moments designed for fans — a lingering kiss for one favorite character, an aborted romantic rooftop liplock between Sherlock and another. Such references indicate that Sherlock’s showrunners know what has been going on with #SherlockLives.

Oddly enough, just as Sherlock becomes more self aware, its lead characters suffer identity crises. Although Conan Doyle (in “His Last Bow”) had Holmes define Watson as the “one fixed point in a changing age”, season three John seems so determinedly “fixed” in his desire to be “normal” that he has difficulty dealing with change as he tries to define himself by his closest relationships. Once more he loudly asserts that he is “not gay” and, with his marriage (the focus of “The Sign of Three”), struggles to balance his love of danger with his need for normalcy. How does (or should) he continue to love someone who deceives him? That question fuels John’s identity crisis and forges his future relationships.

Even Sherlock seems to be searching for his true identity versus his public persona. Upon donning the deerstalker before facing the press (“The Empty Hearse”), John gets Sherlock to admit that he enjoys being “Sherlock Holmes”. As John implies, the public persona and the private man are divergent creatures, even more so in these episodes. Season three Sherlock also strives to be his version of “the new normal” — more obviously human but also less genius than expected. Sherlock strays from The Work as he investigates his emotions.

During “The Empty Hearse”, Sherlock eats chips right from the wrapping, needs a shave and haircut, laughs and cries, misreads data both personal and professional, and plays board and mind games with older (and smarter) brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss). As John’s best man in the following episode, Sherlock assists Mary with wedding plans and engineers a strangely enlightening stag night. Throughout this season, Sherlock professes his love and confesses his weaknesses.

He also bleeds, whether at the hands of the Serbians who capture him during his criminal crackdown or at the fists (and a spectacular head butt) of a friend. For whom Sherlock will sacrifice his blood also becomes an important theme in this series, as well as a way to make the mercurial character more human and heroic.

The allusion to a Christ-like figure willing to sacrifice himself is especially made in the first episode: a stripped and bleeding Sherlock is chained, arms wide, to endure his captors’ torment; his faked death is code named Lazarus; the public “Sherlock Holmes” is “resurrected” after death. Later, the sacrificial Sherlock ascends to the heavens, albeit in a private jet.

With so much going on — a reunion, a wedding, another cliffhanger — perhaps Moffat and Gatiss should be forgiven if Sherlock’s cases often seem to be afterthoughts. Although Sherlock quickly and humorously deals with small individual cases, the bigger ones that require John’s assistance often are solved perfunctorily in order to service the greater good, which, in season three, is not so much about saving London as saving Sherlock-and-John.

Multiple viewings of the DVD/Blu-ray set show that the showrunners did have a master plot in mind with some spectacular connecting elements that may have seemed extraneous upon a first viewing. Why, for example, does Sherlock’s initial deduction of Mary include the word “liar” as well as, say, “cat lover” or “size 12”? Why does a wedding message from an absent well-wisher lead to John’s confusion and Mary’s concern? Why does the “last vow” seem particularly ominous instead of heartwarming? By rewatching episodes, audiences realize that they saw, but did not observe, the main plot unfolding from the moment Sherlock returns.

Although the three episodes do, as with previous seasons, form an emotional arc and illustrate new developments leading to changes within the Great Friendship, the development of a Big Bad (Charles Augustus Magnussen, played by Lars Mikkelsen) worthy to be taken down by Sherlock only serves as a backstory during season three. Unfortunately, the DVD set (US or UK) offers featurettes instead of episode commentaries by the cast or showrunners, but they allow fans to learn what goes on behind the scenes and hear the actors discuss their roles and the ways scenes were filmed.

Highlights of this season include the continuing excellence of Cumberbatch and Freeman as Sherlock and John, whether playing scenes light or dark; the funny, all-knowing, acerbic Mary, as portrayed with wit and grace by Abbington; and the brilliance of an ensemble cast that makes the antics of the Holmes boys not only believable but crucial to England’s survival.

The visual effects are often stunning. Perhaps the best scenes of the entire season provide an insider’s view of Sherlock’s mind palace and the way the detective’s thoughts — even during his greatest personal crisis — precisely guide his actions. Allowing viewers to see Sherlock from the inside out is entertaining and, more important, new territory for the series.

The cliffhanger, however, takes a more controversial direction. Audiences have come to expect a lack of seasonal closure from cruel showrunners who seem to enjoy teasing audiences and tempting fate with long hiatuses between seasons. The term “shark” was whispered on fan sites after the finalé was broadcast in the UK. Have Moffat and Gatiss taken Sherlock too far, turning him into what Sally Donovan predicted during the series’ first episode? Is the connecting thread among those dearest to Sherlock, including himself, the ability to decide who lives and who dies, whose lies should be forgiven, and whose truths should lead to condemnation or death?

Sherlock may be more Christ-like in some respects in this season’s episodes, but he also increasingly seems to play God while relying more on the “high-functioning sociopath” label as a predictor and excuse for his behavior. Current television heroes may be fundamentally dark or flawed, although mesmerizing to watch, and Sherlock seems to buy into this trend. Throughout this season, Sherlock increasingly is portrayed as a savior figure for his friends and homeland.

When, at the end of “His Final Bow”, Conan Doyle wrote of the east wind, he described it as “such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.” In “His Final Vow”, Sherlock himself is invoked as the “east wind” coming to save England.

Among the many questions that season three raises for season four is the title character’s role not only in Sherlock but in popular culture. Has the Great Detective become a “modern” hero, as well as a modernized one, by illustrating that a brilliant mind cannot always find nonviolent solutions to either global or personal problems?

RATING 8 / 10