Sherlock has always shown a keen but loving disregard for its source material. Despite serving up a bevy of classical crime-solving tropes, its fluid aesthetic and modern-day realism eschew the stuffy reverence of countless other re-toolings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated series. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have allowed Benedict Cumberbatch to chart his own course as a character who’s become a landmark of fiction. The actor effortlessly owns the role with his ice-cold stares and burly voice, and yet what makes the series such a distinct interpretation is how it envisions the complicated relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose everyman humanity serves as a spiritual contrast to the impenetrable title character’s isolated genius.
Following the gradually revealed deeper shades to the pair’s relationship in the first two seasons, Sherlock’s emotional canvas fully materializes here. No longer is the crime-solving element the plot’s driving force. This season’s arc fully hinges on the emotional rather than just philosophical distance between Holmes and Watson. After last season’s conclusion saw Watson weeping over his partner’s grave, he’s forced to come to terms, albeit grudgingly, with the fact that Holmes’s presumed death was an elaborately staged fakery. Holmes, however, ostensibly faces an even greater struggle in accepting that Watson has moved on.
Historically, Watson’s intellectual shortcomings and seething frustration with Holmes’s emotional resistance has been the show’s main crux. But in resurrecting both the man and the legend of Holmes, Moffat and Gatiss (who also plays Holmes’s older brother, Mycroft) quietly alter the narrative trajectory and force us to identify with his attempts to reconnect with his old friend. As the season progresses, Holmes’s ever-cocksure expressions begin to convey hints of an inexpressible desire to connect, and perhaps also a touch of acknowledgement that the world has left him behind. He and Watson still find time to solve crimes, giving the series new opportunities to showcase its deft visualization of Holmes’s meteoric thought processes and deductions, but never have its surface-level storytelling and subtext been more in sync.
Moffat and Gatiss couch the reticence between Watson and Holmes as a means for tension, poignancy, and also comedy, oftentimes delirously mixing all three. In fact, while these episodes, particularly the first two, are tonally erratic, there’s an air of comfort between the actors that makes the show’s arguable indifference toward its foundation in procedural crime-solving a welcome change of direction. The heightened atmosphere of idiosyncrasy can at least partly be attributed to the show’s long-form format, with each episode running upward of 90 minutes, which not only allows various thematic and narrative threads to linger before eventually coalescing, but also gives the actors greater flexibility to inject more nuance into their characters’ interactions.
Amid the usual excursions and banter, as well as an ever-growing number of twists and bombshells, is a growing pathos to the central duo’s relationship—expressed with subtlety by Freeman and Cumberbatch. And whereas the series previously relied on Freeman’s expressiveness to convey more accessible feelings, its new emphasis on Holmes’s own longing allows Cumberbatch to articulate his character’s inner torment, to an especially bittersweet effect. This also comes through in several virtuoso sequences that take us into the depths of Holmes’s mind, enmeshing reality with fantasy and memory—with one in particular that sees him come closer to death than he’s ever been. But the best expression of his inner state and relationship with Watson comes in the middle episode, “The Sign of Three,” wherein he delivers a best-man speech at Watson’s wedding. The wandering, long-winded tribute traverses the serious and the absurd, mixing in heartbreak and failed understanding, as Holmes recounts his own course from smug genius to humbled friend. It’s a rather perfect encapsulation of Sherlock’s third season, which at last settles into its own assured rhythm, simultaneously honoring the swift escapist roots of Doyle’s writing while also mounting a heady meditation on friendship and brotherhood.