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Sunday, 19 January 2014

Sherlock Series Three

Sherlock: Series Three.

This time, I said to myself, we're going for three out of three. A series of Sherlock in which there isn't a single episode that I hate.

'Hate' isn't an overstatement. With each series of Steven Moffat's modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories, I have found at least one episode utterly repulsive. In Series One, it was the second episode, The Blind Banker, an exercise in mediocre writing and directing turned all the more sour by an ongoing theme of mild racism. In Series Two, it was the first, A Scandal in Belgravia, in which Irene Adler – known in the original stories as a fiendishly clever but ultimately noble con-woman who forever earns Holmes' admiration by outwitting him with extraordinary ease – is ultimately turned into a dominatrix, falls in love with Sherlock, is revealed to be working for another man, is outwitted by Sherlock Holmes instead of vice versa, and ends the episode as a damsel-in-distress. It's a sad day when your modern adaptation is more misogynistic than the Victorian story you based it on.

But this series of Sherlock had a strong opening, one that gave me hope that good things were to come. While in the past, Sherlock has seemed like an amalgamation of Moffat's fantasies than anything (something that seems to be a running theme in his shows), in The Empty Hearse, the long-awaited first episode of Series Three, we see a Sherlock who is more prone to failure, who comes across less as a kind of pornographic aide for Steven Moffat and more like a brilliantly intelligent but deeply flawed character.

The story itself, a tale about an evil MP attempting to bomb Parliament, is standard Sherlock fare – fun but not particularly coherent, sufficient for purpose but far from the most memorable thing about the episode. As ever, more interesting are the details surrounding it, whether that's the interplay between Sherlock, Watson and Mary Morstan, or the various imagination spots depicting ways in which Sherlock could have survived his (non-)fatal fall at the end of the last series.

(A little The Killing Joke, I won't lie, but the similarity is no doubt wholly coincidental.)

Overall, I enjoyed the first episode, possibly more than I've enjoyed any previous Sherlock offerings. But I was wary still – this first episode was written by Mark Gatiss, by far the most talented of Sherlock's writing team, and could very easily just have been a fluke.

Mere days later came the second episode, The Signs of Three. While it was one that divided opinion, I admit that I enjoyed it nearly as much as The Empty Hearse. The episode was a departure from the series' standard fare, replacing the adventure and crime-fighting with a slightly saccharine and often awkward series of slice of life scenarios, as we listen to Sherlock give a wedding speech, with flashbacks dispersed amongst it.

A lot of people were understandably annoyed that their mystery drama had been replaced with something that would not have been at all out of place in How I Met Your Mother. Since I've never found the mystery plots in Sherlock particularly compelling, I was not one of those people – instead, I relished watching, again, a Sherlock who seemed more deeply and more overtly flawed than the Sherlock of previous series as he interacted with Watson and Mary, who seemed to have taken the role of surrogate parents for him.

We did get a brief hint of a mystery plot towards the end. Like most of Sherlock's mysteries, it strained suspension of disbelief nearly to breaking point, but it was fairly inoffensive.

So, we were doing well! Two episodes in, and I had enjoyed both. I had loathed neither. All that remained was our series finale, a Moffat-penned story about Sherlock tangling with professional blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnusson.

As some of you may have guessed by now, this story doesn't end well.

With Moffat at the helm, Sherlock returns full force to all of the bad habits of its first two series. The plot is stylishly pulled off, but nevertheless a sprawling, stumbling, incoherent mess just barely held together by characters behaving in the most absurd ways possible – why, I asked as Magnusson gloated gleefully over having no physical evidence, would a master blackmailer reveal to a 'high-functioning sociopath' (that still isn't a thing that actually exists, by the way) and an ex-soldier that all their problems could be solved by killing him, thus painting a gigantic target on his own forehead? Why, if he is so eager to blackmail Mycroft, does he not take advantage of John Watson being in his house after a shooting and accuse him, thus giving him prime blackmailing material? Why does Sherlock wait until he's surrounded by witnesses to shoot Magnusson?

But as I've said before, I have never thought much of Sherlock's plots, and my enjoyment of it (when I do enjoy it) is not dependent on a story that withstands even the lightest prod at its foundations. But the episode hinges on the twist that Mary Morstan, John Watson's wife and general all-round awesome character, is actually a sociopathic assassin who worked for the CIA. This should have been the kind of shocking plot twist that rocked me, especially since I like Morstan a lot as a character. Instead, it left me cold: Whether because we didn't know get to know her well enough beforehand or because I simply found it impossible to sympathise with John and Sherlock as they sat her down and proceeded with a sneeringly judgemental mini-trial – a frankly bizarre exercise in hypocrisy when one of the two was, earlier in the episode, revealed to have been cultivating a long-term relationship so that he could gain access to an office.

Without either an intriguing and well-crafted plot or emotional weight, what does the episode have left? Well, misogyny, as Molly is implied to be angry and emotional at Sherlock primarily due to her relationship collapsing (what was the point of that relationship crumbling off-screen again? Did it add anything to the plot? Was it, as I am increasingly starting to suspect, just to imply that Molly can never move on from Sherlock and is, proverbially, 'ruined for other men'?), while Janine is shown selling stories to the tabloid press and fiddling with someone's pain relief.

It also has a mind palace sequence, which was the high point of the episode. It was creepy, it was well-shot, it had Andrew Scott back as Jim Moriarty – it didn't really do anything, except demonstrate the imagery of the mind palace, but it was impressively stylish. So that was good. Can't fault the mind palace sequence.

Series Four is likely not far off, and with the (possible) return of Moriarty, it's set to get off to a good start. But I'm not holding out hope that I'll like more than two episodes of Series Four, either. After all, the third time wasn't the charm, so why should the fourth? 

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