'Sherlock' Season 3: The Game Is Back On!

But can you still keep up with all the players?

This piece goes out to all the Sherlock fans Stateside who resisted the urge to sneak a peek at the new season's episodes as they aired in the UK – and, just as importantly, managed to avoid spoilers online for the past several weeks.

When last we saw our titular hero, he was many things – framed, scheming, dead, alive… The last shot of season two, with John walking away from the gravestone and Sherlock looking on from a distance, proved the man had survived his seemingly unsurvivable fall. All of Sherlock fandom exploded at the end of that season two years ago, and they spent the majority of the intervening time trying to rip apart every possible theory for The Fall – egged on, of course, by showrunners Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who kept teasing that we'd all missed something, some clue.

What was he looking for when he first stepped onto that ledge? What did he need from Molly? What did he accomplish with that moment of privacy? What was with all that "I'm you"/"You're me" nonsense on the rooftop with Moriarty? Why so insistent upon John staying put? What was with the bicyclist running into John?

But really, all we needed to hear had already been said: "It's a trick – just a magic trick," Sherlock said to John over the phone. So it's fitting that season three begins with those words once more, and picks up on the fandom's elaborate theories in a very real way. [Warning: Season three premiere spoilers, naturally, follow.] We manage a full 90 seconds of recap and flashback before things go all sideways again – the elaborate transformation of moriarty's corpse into sherlock, a bungee-jumping hero, a passionate kiss with molly, a hypnotist … We're 3:45 into the episode before Lestrade calls bollocks. "Two years and the theories keep getting more stupid" – he says to a barely recognizable Anderson, who's apparently feeling a bit guilty for every calling Sherlock's name into question.

Cut to our dear friend John, now sporting a truly horrific moustache and a ladyfriend. Cut to a night-vision helicopter manhunt in Serbia, where Sherlock has just put the finishing touches on his destruction of Moriarty's network and where Mycroft swoops in to extract his brother for more fun back home. Cut to John returning to 221B to have a chat with Mrs. Hudson about his pending engagement. Meanwhile, Sherlock gets cleaned up in brother Mycroft's lair office.

With 90-minute episodes, a full play-by-play would take twice as long to read as it would to just watch the full episode, but suffice it to say that the rest of the episode continues at this breakneck speed: It's just scene after scene and case after case in a show that's developed, it would seem, a bit of a sense of humor about itself, presumably playing off the fans' excitability and overeagerness. From Sherlock's fun little plan to reintroduce himself to John going horribly awry and Mrs. Hudson refusing to believe John could possibly be engaged to a woman, to Mycroft and Sherlock playing Operation together and the clever editing back and forth of Sherlock and John's days at work, there's an undeniable playfulness that pervades this premiere. But in the process, has the show become almost too self-aware?

Furthermore, its usually frenetic pace has gone almost haphazard in this episode. Instead of focusing on one case for a 90-minute run, Sherlock's attentions are divided across smaller sub-mysteries: the empty train car, the Jack the Ripper setup, John's kidnapping… Granted, they all seem to come together in one way or another, but you start to miss the continuity of the older vintage -- one neatly wrapped mystery, one well-spotted solution, one general arc. It's all presumably a setup for a bigger problem ahead, as Sherlock concedes in the closing scene:

"I don't know. I don't like not knowing. Unlike the nicely embellished fictions on your blog, John, real life is rarely so neat. I don't know who was behind all this, but I will find out, I promise you."

It's a nice sentiment, but that's part of the problem: It's a sentiment, which isn't – or at least wasn't – exactly Sherlock's forte. Throughout this homecoming, Sherlock doubts himself in ways previously uncharacteristic – you'd think two years dismantling Moriarty's network would only have strengthened his ego. Instead, he's apologizing every other scene and offering his sincere thanks to Molly for making it all possible. His mind palace even needs a little renovating, it would seem.

We'll find out soon enough if there's a reason behind all this comparative weakness. The last shot before the credits teases our season's villain and his next move. Who's the man in the glasses, and what's his fascination with the bonfire footage? 'Til next week, let these odds and ends from this week's episode hold you over.

Molly Hooper: While she may have gotten her passionate thank-you kiss in one of the many fake fall stories (and a peck on the cheek after a hard day's work), in actuality, she's engaged to a doppelgänger of Sherlock. So much for showing a little spine this season.

Mary Morstan: Ooh, she's good. Almost too good. But knowing that she's portrayed by Martin Freeman real-life partner, Amanda Abbington, makes her that much sweeter.

Sherlock's parents: Here's another fun cameo. Mr. and Mrs. Holmes were played by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch's real parents. Don't you want to just give them a hug?

John's moustache: Thank god it didn't last the full episode, but we counted seven separate exchanges about the critter in the script. "It ages you," Mrs. Hudson said. "Does yours rub off too?" chirped Sherlock. "I prefer my doctors clean-shaven."

John Watson: Moustache aside, John takes a lot of abuse this episode. Martin Freeman is spectacular, showing particular depth in scenes of tense emotion, and John's impossibly lovable; you hate to see him kicked around like a football. But we suppose after two seasons, it was high time to get into a bit more of a character study than years past.

The Final Problem: Sherlock said there were 13 different possibilities up on that roof last season, but we've only seen three possibilities, and two of them are patently absurd. Will we ever know for sure how Sherlock stayed alive? The fangirl in us wants the Moriarty/Sherlock would-be kiss to be the answer, but sigh.

The set: The set-pieces are incredible as always, from the faux station where John and Sherlock go exploring to the apartment John and Mary share. Pay particular note to the wallpapers in everyone's apartments; they're pretty flawless.

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