S3, E3: ‘His Last Vow’
Just as Sherlock produces a decent villain, it brings back its worst one.
***SPOILERS FOR ALL EPISODES OF SHERLOCK UP TO S3, E3.*****
You know, I’ve figured out why I find it so hard to write this review. Normally, I can pick out at least the delusion of a throughline for the episode and hang my hat on it. A Study in Pink? How a show-off unlocked a new battlefield for a wounded warrior. The Reichenbach Fall? Every fairy tale needs a villain. The Empty Hearse? Fuck you, fandom. I may not like the theme or the execution, but once you have the kernel there’s something to write.
This episode? Dear Lord, this one stumps me. There are a kajillion themes, eight billion character ideas and umpteen plot threads half-chewed and left dangling. Like a magpie with a sugar rush. I like – even love – many individual scenes, but I haven’t a hope in hell of making a story of them. Why should I, when Moffat and Gatiss haven’t bothered themselves? They just seem to careen from setpiece to setpiece and trust to histrionic ability to do the job for them. And it…mostly works? What follows is more of a straightforward recap than usual, because for the life of me I can’t group what happens by anything other than scene.
‘Just an addict looking for a fix.’
John is in bed with his new life, dreaming of his old life. Domestic bliss has gone to his waistline and his new interest in cycling is just not cutting it for him. So when the opportunity comes for a little vigilante heroism (fetching a neighbour’s kid from a heroin den), he jumps at it with both hands and a tyre lever tucked into his waistband. And look, I don’t care how worrying it is and what signals it sends about toxic masculinity. I have so missed you, Badass John Watson. And I’ll tell you something else, Moffat and Gatiss: you know those ridiculous chest-beating lines you insist on giving Sherlock? The ones that make me curl up into a foetal position while giggling hysterically? Try giving them to John Watson sometime. Benevolent Cummerbund does the best he can, but there’s something about Martin Freeman’s steady gaze, that little tilt of the head and that pleasant half-smile. He’s genuinely terrifying, and more than a tiny bit sexy.
Well, anyway, John storms into the den and brings back the neighbour’s kid, the smackhead whose wrist he sprained…and Sherlock. Everyone’s furious with him for using again (Molly slaps him and everything!), but Sherlock protests that he’s doing it for a case – a case for which he’d like to recruit his own favourite addict.
‘I’ve met murderers, psychopaths, serial killers. None of them turned my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnusson.’
And what might that case be? Well, Charles Augustus Magnusson (Lars Mikkelsen) is a newspaper tycoon who owns newspapers John doesn’t read. He is cosy with many of the great and good in the land, and it’s not a good idea to probe too closely why. He has an encyclopaedic memory of the ‘pressure points’ of all he comes into contact with, and a particular relish in his ‘ownership’ of other people. I cannot adequately emphasise how fabulous Mikkelsen is in the role. It ought to be ridiculous to watch a man lick a woman’s face, or urinate in a fireplace just because. It ought to be impossible to live up to Sherlock’s shuddering dread of him. But somehow it really isn’t. Mikkelsen endows Magnusson with a reptilian menace that poor shrieking Moriarty could never manage in a thousand years. And Magnussen’s heft is not lessened by us knowing that he’s got Mycroft and the British Secret Service on side as well.
‘We’re in a good place, it’s very affirming.’
Not that John can concentrate, because Sherlock has himself a lady friend. Not like Irene Addled with her sodding orgasm ringtone. But Janine (Yasmine Akram), Mary’s maid of honour. Dammit, girl, I thought you’d escaped the gravitational pull of the cheekbones and ego! I thought Sherlock had found you a nice comic book geek with his Wingman Skillz! What happened? That’s what John is asking himself as well, wearing the same expression of fascinated horror as I assume I do, as he watches Janine and ‘Sherl’ giggle and flirt and what I can only describe as ‘canoodle’. It’s the funniest fucking thing the show’s pulled off in a while, if your stomach can stand it. Then the door closes on lovely Janine, and Sherl’s soft, fond expression is wiped off his face like breath off a windshield. Because Janine, you see, is Magnusson’s PA, and Sherlock has been dating her – has in fact, to John’s horror, gotten engaged to her – so that he can bypass Magnusson’s security and break into his office.
‘Sherlock, we’re losing you’
And then they reach Magnusson’s office without Janine to welcome them (Sherlock is rather amusingly piqued at her rudeness) – because she’s face down on the carpet. Sherlock finds Magnusson being menaced at point-blank range by a woman…who turns out to be Mary Watson. Sherlock tries to get her to put down the gun, but she puts a bullet through him instead. And now follows one of the most unabashedly ridiculous sequences in the history of this show, and possibly all of TV. Between the impact of the bullet and Sherlock hitting the floor, his Mind Palace counsels Sherlock on the direction in which to fall to maximise his chances of safety. The spirits of Molly Hooper, Anderson and Mycroft cajole and patronise him into avoiding shock, finding something to calm him (an honest-to-God Adorable Doggie called – you guessed it – Redbeard) and something to ‘hold on to’, in some mystical way. This turns out to be Moriarty, chained in some sort of padded kennel. Sherlock goes into arrest to escape Moriarty’s gurning boggle-eyed face, and I’m sure I don’t blame him. But you know what keeps him from going into the light? You’ll never guess. Oh, you’ve already guessed? Well, anyway, the Rejected Lord of the Rings Soundtrack music goes apeshit as Sherlock symbolically claws his way up wrought-iron staircases, gasping ‘Mary’ as he wakes.
‘We could have been friends.’
Sherlock surfaces to the sight of front page upon front page of tabloid spreads detailing the tawdry goings-on between him and Janine. She’s decided not to get mad, you see, but even. Good girl! She evenly lays out what a backstabbing, heartless piece of shit he is, he points out that she’s an opportunistic tabloid whore, and they kiss and make up. With evident respect and affection. She tells him matter-of-factly, and with a touch of sadness, that they could have been friends, and it is sweeter, more respectful, and more genuinely egalitarian than any dealings Sherlock has had with any female character on the show to date. I like Janine very much. And thus I hope this is the last we’ll ever see of her on the show.
‘You’re abnormally attracted to dangerous situations and people.’
Sherlock has a showdown with the other woman he more or less respects. He goes on the lam, she finds him (because of Secret Awesomeness), he confronts her about shooting him to miss (she shows off her marksmanship because of more Secret Awesomeness) and he says he’ll take her case. The secret she was willing to kill Magnusson for, rather than give up John Watson. Except that John’s intuited that something is rotten in the state of Denmark – or at least he’s intuited that Sherlock’s intuited it. The Rejected Wartime Romance Movie Soundtrack music swells, as John and Mary stare at each other.
And I guess this is about as close to a theme as this episode gets: of course Mary is an International Assassin, because John’s an addict, just like his best friend. And let me register my sadness here, by the bye: John misses the battlefield, yes. But he isn’t meant to be some Evil Knievel daredevil. The point about fighting for Queen and Country – and then fighting crime with Sherlock – is that he risks his neck for the sake of some nebulous good. However much I roll my eyes at the sentimentality, it’s there in his perennial insistence that Sherlock is good, and that he try to be better. And that moral core is a very satisfying centre to John’s character. It is a deeply disappointing dilution to convert John into some sort of subconscious thrillseeker surrounding himself with sociopaths and demons. Moffat, Gatiss, you may think that the darkness makes John more interesting. But you’re mistaken. Your show is filled with darkness. Empty, flashy, self-satisfied darkness. John’s moral rigour was a desperately-needed antidote. Darker isn’t deeper.
Sigh. Be that as it may, Mary is now a client – as John, with barely-suppressed fury, points out. And once again, Martin Freeman breaks my heart with John’s confusion and rage, thinly papered-over with civility. Cumbers, too, manifests a rare and welcome stillness and watchfulness as Sherlock plays marital counsellor. But he generously cedes the floor to Freeman. And, yes, the music wails and rends its clothing and I try to ignore it.
Mary gives John a data-file with a side of Organic Free-Range Manipulation: ‘If you love me, don’t read it in front of me.’ Not to be outdone in the drama-queen stakes, a visibly weakening Sherlock outlines what he knows about Mary (assassin, loves John, is fond of Sherlock, Magnusson has her info) before collapsing into the arms of a paramedic. And John isn’t even allowed the feeble satisfaction of restarting Sherlock’s heart, as he stares meaningfully at his wife over the labouring EMTs.
‘I’m not a hero, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Merry Christmas!’
And it is at this point that the episode falls apart. To be clear, it was already campy and wildly incoherent, but at this point even style and dramatic ability cannot distract me from the patent absurdity of the story. Sherlock is trading Mycroft’s Laptop O’State Secrets to Magnusson in return for Mary’s data-file. And even though I think Magnusson is flesh-crawlingly awful, I have to ask: er – why? Looking past Mikkelsen’s malign charisma, we haven’t actually seen Magnusson do anything except lick a noblewoman, piss in 221B and say Britain isn’t a proper country. And at least one of those things I have a lot of sympathy with. I know you love John and John loves Mary, Sherlock, but a little perspective here. Especially when Magnusson points out Mary’s ‘a bad one. So many dead people’, and I find myself thinking ‘er – maybe she should be in jail?’ Consider this: Magnusson doesn’t seem to be a liar. He might be a power-hungry creep, a blackmailer and ruthless about his methods…and guess about whom the last might also truthfully be said?
Apart from the extremely dodgy ethics of the thing, can we also accept the patent absurdity of the resolution? Magnusson’s vault of secrets is his own Mind Palace. He can’t prove anything, but he doesn’t have to because he’s in news. And the supposedly Most Powerfullest Man in the Kingdom, Mycroft Holmes, is suddenly and arbitrarily impotent regarding unsubstantiated rumours in the gutter press? Come on, man – plant some drugs on him! Ply him with sodium pentothal or whatever phlebotinum you’re not above inventing for the purposes of this ridiculous show!
It has to be better than Sherlock’s solution, which is to haul off and shoot Magnusson in the head as the music goes berserk and Mycroft tearily blinks at his baby brother – in that moment played by an actual I-shit-you-not Adorable Curly-Headed Li’l Sherlock – being arrested for murder.
In return for his liberty Sherlock will be shipped off on a kamikaze mission to Eastern Europe. He and John have a briskly tender leavetaking that brought an actual lump to my throat. It’s been so long since the show remembered the pair’s prickly bond. And of course the show wheels it out at the time of parting. The violins rise and saw meaningfully, and I haven’t even the heart to roll my eyes. It’s goodbye, dammit!
Or not. At the eleventh hour, screens fritz and we’re treated to an all-too-familiar rictus grin. Oh Lord. No, I did not miss you, Moriarty. Or should that be Boreiarty? I guess I have a chance to workshop it now.
Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods
- Charles Augustus Magnusson is of course Charles Augustus Milverton from the story that bears his name.
- From the same story is taken Sherlock’s engagement to a member of the blackmailer’s staff. There – as in the original story – it strikes one as extraordinarily heartless.
- Sherlock calls Magnusson ‘the Napoleon of blackmail’. A portmanteau of ‘the Napoleon of crime’ and ‘the king of blackmail’?
- His Last Vow is a nod to the story of Holmes’s wartime years, His Last Bow.
- From A Scandal in Bohemia, a Sherlock favourite: ‘you’ve put on seven pounds’.
Odds and sods
- Sherlock’s name while undercover in that smackhouse is ‘Shezza’. Appropriately, John and Mary give him shit for it.
- Molly slaps Sherlock multiple times when he tests positive for heroin. I know this is supposed to be her Big Girl Pants moment, but she is such a useless dishrag of a character that it falls flat for me. Not least because her Big Moment basically consists of telling Sherlock that he is awesome and shouldn’t take that awesomeness lightly. Shut up, Molly Hooper. Shut up forever. (Sorry, Louise Breeley. I look forward to seeing you in other roles).
- Sherlock’s parents line dance in Oklahoma. I assume someone thinks this detail is adorable.
- Also the Holmes family Christmas. Who thinks that the audience needs to see this? Who? I want names.
- Mrs Hudson apparently used to be an exotic dancer. I beg you, Mofftiss, step away from fandom memes on tumblr. I beg
- Has…Sherlock secretly been a superhero all this time and nobody thought to mention it?
- Oh, of course John doesn’t read the file. Moffat and Gatiss haven’t decided what’s on it yet He loves Mary too much.
- Magnusson calls John Sherlock’s ‘damsel in distress’. I think back to A Study in Pink and sigh ‘sic transit gloria mundi’.
- The extended sequence of Magnusson flicking John’s face, though – look at how ridiculous it looks on paper. But the gleeful malignity Mikkelsen imbues it with…
- Mycroft makes portentous reference to ‘the other one’ when asked about brotherly sentiment.
- Two mentions of ‘the east wind’ in this episode. Hmmm.