What does it mean when you title your wedding episode The Sign of Three?
I know I know – the pregnancy deduction at the very end. That one moment that de-subverts the meaning of the title and presses it back into safe heteronormativity. Mama + Papa + Baby = Three.
But what else is that title doing?
Weddings are not generally ruled by a sign of three. Weddings are about twosomes, and traditional wedding imagery is replete with the imagery of the couple: two rings, two sides of the church, twin turtledoves, a pair of wedding bells…
But we all know this wedding is not about a couple.
Subtextual suggestions of a triad are all over this episode, insistently subverting the traditional wedding structure.
Our very first window into the wedding is the moment pictured above. The dialogue that goes with it:
PHOTOGRAPHER: Congratulations! Okay, hold it there – I wanna get this shot of the newlyweds.
Yes, the photographer makes Sherlock move a minute later. But what feels perfectly natural to Sherlock is that he should be there with John and Mary – one of the newlyweds.
Now let’s look at the way the relationships are described throughout this episode.
JOHN: I want to be up there with the two people that I love and care about most in the world.
SHERLOCK: today you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved – in short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.
Both John and Sherlock use the language of equivalence when talking about John’s relationship with Mary and his relationship with Sherlock. It would be easy, and arguably more natural-seeming, to use these opportunities to mark a contrast between the way one feels about one’s bride and one’s best man. It would be simple to describe them as “the woman I love, and the man I depend upon.” or “the woman who loves you, and the man who admires you.” or even, “Mary, who loves you as a wife, and Sherlock, who loves you as a friend.”
But both times the idea of love is brought up in this episode, it is applied equally to John’s relationship with Mary and with Sherlock, and in identical terms.
I also point out that it would be more common for a best man to say that *he* will never let the *couple* down. But here Sherlock says that he and Mary together will never let *John* down. In this way, Sherlock nods toward the third edge of the triangle: this triad is not just about John’s relationship with them both, but Sherlock and Mary’s relationship with each other.
Again, the language of equivalence. As far as Mary is concerned, her relationship to John has the same status as Sherlock’s.
And one more, for good measure:
JOHN: See, the thing about Mary – she has completely turned my life around; changed everything. But, for the record, over the last few years there are two people who have done that … and the other one is …
(He looks round. Sherlock is no longer sitting at his side.)
JOHN: … a complete dickhead.
If you think I’m cherry picking, watch the episode again. Every time an explicit discussion of relationships arises, it is described using the language of equivalence. But of course, that’s not all:
SHERLOCK: More importantly, however, today we saw two people make vows. I’ve never made a vow in my life, and after tonight I never will again. So, here in front of you all, my first and last vow. Mary and John: whatever it takes, whatever happens, from now on I swear I will always be there, always, for all three of you.
I don’t know if you’ve been to a lot of weddings, but it’s not really normal for a best man to make a vow to the bride and groom. Vows are for the people who are getting married — and so it is here. Note also that the structure and content of Sherlock’s vow is pretty similar to the wedding vow in the Book of Common Prayer:
Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?
And then finally:
SHERLOCK: Both of you, now, go dance. We can’t just stand here. People will wonder what we’re talking about.
(Mary reaches out to touch Sherlock’s arm, her voice tearful.)
MARY: And what about you?
JOHN: Well, we can’t all three dance. There are limits!
SHERLOCK: Yes, there are.
People tuning into this show from Venus were able to pick up that there is subtext in these lines. But what exactly is it saying? That a triad relationship is impossible? Or just that it would be unexceptable in *public*? I leave that to your judgment.
So that takes care of TSoT. But what about HLV? Doesn’t that ruin this whole fantasy?
Or maybe it just makes it a whole lot darker.
JOHN: Ohhh. Look at you two.
(Not raising his hands from the arms of his chair, he points his index fingers at each of them.)
JOHN: You should have got married.
They did, John. They married each other, and they married you.
Given this reading of TSoT, what is HLV about? HLV is about what happens when you unleash a couple of so-called sociopaths on the institution of marriage, and when one of them takes that institution to its logical extreme. It’s a horror show. A very romantic horror show.
Sherlock tells us in TSoT that he has never made a vow before, and he never will again. He also told us at the end of TEH that “weddings — not really my thing”. Yet in TSOT we saw him throw himself *utterly* into the wedding planning, the speech writing… he basically hurled himself headlong, against all odds, at the idea of weddings, and therefore of marriage.
Knowing Sherlock as we do, I think we can work out his mental process here. Sherlock thinks to himself, okay, a marriage is a forever promise that you absolutely cannot break. Which… is sort of true, isn’t it? That is the rhetoric of marriage, certainly. But most people don’t think of it as *literally* true — we all know that divorces happen, and estrangements, etc. You hope it won’t happen to you, of course, but even a wedding vow has a number of legal and socially acceptable escape hatches.
But Sherlock, in his slightly pathological way, does not see it like that. For him — a vow is a vow, and if you are going to make one, you sure as hell better stand by it. He takes it deadly serious.
So when he finds out Mary’s real identity in HLV… and when Mary shoots him in the chest, nearly murdering him… to Sherlock, all this is just “a little domestic.” It can’t be the end of their relationship, because nothing can be. And he has to get John to forgive Mary, no matter what she has done, because those are the conditions of their vow.
Does it seem like I’ve gone off the rails here? I invite you to consider the title of this episode. His Last Vow.
No one made a vow in this episode. In the previous episode, however, Sherlock made what he referred to as his “first and last vow”. So why is that phrase the title of *this* episode? Because this is the episode where Sherlock must go to extraordinary lengths to keep that vow – to hold this marriage together…
…no matter what.