He’s back! Two years after the BBC’s twenty-first century Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) shocked Sherlock’s millions of fans by apparently jumping to his death, he’s finally returned. And the first question to address is – why is he still alive?
Writers Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss cleverly integrate the internet-fuelled rise of ‘fandom’, with its fervid embrace of the minutiae of the favourite series, into the opening episode of Sherlock’s third season. The pre-credit sequence tantalised the viewer by seeming to show the explanation – to the point where I screamed in frustration when a message from the Freeview Plus box blocked the picture – only to reveal that this is all a wild fantasy from an onscreen-version of Sherlock’s online fans. “Two years”, Rupert Graves’ Inspector Lestrade snapped, heightening the meta-fiction further, “and the theories keep getting more stupid.”
This episode was less concerned with looking back than looking forward. Sherlock and his long-suffering sidekick Watson (Martin Freeman) soon got caught up in another enthralling investigation, following Sherlock’s secret service agent brother Mycroft’s (also played by Mark Gatiss) discovery of a mysterious organisation plotting a terror attack on London. Not that Sherlock’s initially impressed – “That’s what secret terrorist organisations do, isn’t it?” he observes. “It’s their version of golf.”
As usual, every aspect of Sherlock’s production is in a different level of skill and innovation to most British TV. The double-act between Cumberbatch’s dynamic Sherlock and Freeman’s good-naturedly baffled Watson continues to be a prime example of enthralling acting, while the supporting cast are equally strong. Moffatt and Gatiss’ writing is full of flair and originality – a brilliant new variation on the ‘Sherlock introduces himself by deducing a lot of private details about a stranger’ routine involving a Russian terror cell, a quietly emotional scene between Watson and Mrs Hudson as they struggle to come to terms with their loss and discuss Watson’s awful new moustache, Sherlock re-introducing himself to Watson by pretending to be a waiter on his date with new love interest Mary (played by Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington). The visuals are crisp, beautiful and a lot more interestingly filmed than in the majority of TV programmes. But the famous mystery of Sherlock’s fall was never conclusively solved – two more solutions were presented as fantasy rather than concrete fact. Maybe we’ll find out in a later episode, but it still feels unsatisfying to have not got the concrete explanation fans have been going round the bend looking for over the past two years.
Overall, this episode of Sherlock was exactly like the man himself – stunningly clever, exhilarating and infuriating. For all the joy both watching Sherlock and being around Sherlock bring, disappearing for two years and letting your best friend grieve for you isn’t acceptable behaviour, and neither is supplying a disappointing resolution for an important and long-running plot thread. Watching Sherlock was like walking through a fairground hall of mirrors – a lot of fun, but ultimately more confusing than fully satisfying.