Sherlock Review: His Last Vow
His Last Vow is the third and sadly final episode of Sherlock season three and sees a return to the single writer formula after last week’s co-credited episode. Directed by Nick Hurran, who was also responsible for the amazing Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special The Day of the Doctor, and penned by Steven Moffat, His Last Vow is an action packed adventure in storytelling full of elaborate twists and turns.
The amazing Lars Mikkelsen hits the screen as Charles Augustus Magnussen, the pitch perfect modern adaptation of Sherlockian nemesis Charles Augustus Milverton, and believe me when I say, and this is purely a compliment, he will make your skin crawl. From the moment he licks Lady Smallwood’s perfume from her neck it is obvious that Magnussen truly delivers on the promise of his being a villain that turns Sherlock’s stomach. However, despite the fact that I could literally write for days about the amazing portrayal of the character, there is much more to this episode than a spine tingling villain. Not only is there a lot going on but there are more canon references than you could ever hope for. Without endeavoring to simply recap the entire episode I shall do my best to hit on some of the key references and analysis some of the juicier moments.
The episode opens with a wonderful slice of Sherlockian canon lifted straight from “The Man with the Twisted Lip” in the form of John visiting a crackhouse in order to bring home a neighbor’s son and encountering Sherlock there. An opening sequence which, as confirmed by the drug test John forces upon Sherlock, seems to point to trouble for the detective who has turned back to narcotics following John’s wedding. There is also another lovely canon reference in the introduction of the character Wiggins, who in the original canon is the head of Sherlock’s army of street urchins the Baker Street Irregulars. In this series however Wiggins is seemingly one of the drug addicts whom Sherlock has been recruited as a protege. One of the shining moments is Molly slapping Sherlock not once, but three times, chastising him for risking “his beautiful mind.” Atta girl. Sadly, we also learn her engagement is off, but looking back at The Sign Of Three, all the signs were there. Poor Molly? Probably more likely, poor Tom.
As we progress into the episode, John returns Sherlock to 221b prepared to hunt out any narcotics he may have stashed in the flat. Turns out Mycroft is already there and waiting and has Anderson and his wife (maybe?) searching the flat for drugs. What follows is a glimpse into the person Sherlock was before he cleaned up: he’s volatile and angry and frankly, violent. After attacking Mycroft, he tells John not to go into his bedroom. As to why… well… It seems that in his time away Sherlock has become involved in a relationship with Janine, the Maid of Honor from Sign of Three. A fact that John may have a hard time wrapping his head around may not be that surprising to folks who are familiar with the Milverton story in which Holmes forms a relationship with Milverton’s house maid. All suspicions to this parallel with the original story are quickly paid off as it is revealed that Janine is Milverton’s PA, and that Sherlock is simply using her as a way to access Milverton’s office.
All of this leads us to the first real twist of the episode — the revelation that, while John and Sherlock are busy playing on Janine’s emotions to gain entry to the penthouse, someone else is already there. That someone is, shockingly, Mary Watson nee Morstan. In a mind boggling few minutes we witness Mary’s threatening of Magnussen, reveal to Sherlock, and, worst of all, shooting of our hero. This leads to what I think may be, both visually and emotionally, the most complex sequence we have ever seen as a part of the show. In an attempt to save himself from dying as a result of the shooting, Sherlock retreats to his mind palace and, as has been our pleasure throughout the season of narratives focused on Sherlock’s point of view, we follow him on the terrifying journey of realization and struggle to survive from within his own mind. I think it important to note that, whereas our previous glimpses of Sherlock’s mind palace have shown it as being rather devoid of people, instead acting as a catalogue of information, suddenly we discover that it is populated with people who are important to him. It is a subtle and wonderful piece of character development that, whereas he once may have thought things through wholly on his own, Sherlock works through the logistics of the bullet wound with the help of Molly and Anderson.
Following the gorgeous mind palace sequence, which I am once again restraining myself from dwelling on too much, we get the big reveal in the form of Mary and Sherlock’s confrontation. The whole scene is a reference to The Empty House which plays with idea of facades and what can be found behind them, contrasting the literal empty house which hides the train tracks behind it with the creation of the character Mary Morstan, which we discover is hiding Mary’s past work as an assassin CIA agent. The scene solidifies the concept that Mary was not actually trying to kill Sherlock in the earlier shooting by demonstrating that she is a crack shot who would have been more than capable of taking him out had she wished to. This harkens back to one of the more dismissed episodes of seasons past, the Blind Banker, in which General Shan asks “What does it tell you when an assassin cannot shoot straight? It tells you that they’re not really trying.”. Of course Mary makes her entire reveal facing the shadow outline of Sherlock, or at least what we assume to be Sherlock. As Sherlock steps from the shadows behind her there is a moment in which canon fans will find themselves commending the use of a dummy as in the original story only to have their hearts shattered as it become apparent that the shadow is actually John. As always Martin Freeman is pitch perfect in his portrayal of the grief and anger caused by the revelation, someone should give him a BAFTA. Oh, wait…
As our trio of heroes adjourns back to Baker Street, we witness a psychoanalyzing of John Watson’s character by not only Sherlock, but Mary as well. We find that Mary is now simply a client to John and Sherlock, and as such, she offers up a flash drive with information on her past to John, asking him to read it when she is not there. In a wonderful canon nod to The Sign Of Four, we learn that Mary’s real name contains the initials A.G.R.A, and that Mary Morstan was a name she usurped from a still born baby upon trying to make a new life for herself. This whole sequence is rather downplayed, though this could be readily excused as being totally in character. While John is emotional, and I personally would have like to see a bit more fleshing out of the couple’s standing, it only makes sense that John and Sherlock would continue on under the rush of adrenaline and a new case. But that’ll have to wait, because, thanks to previously escaping the hospital in order to get to Mary, Sherlock collapses and is taken away in an ambulance.
Suddenly we are plunged into Holmes family cottage at Christmas dinner where we are presented a series of strongly emotional character vignettes. While I feel the scenes are brilliantly done and do add to the story immensely, I personally am bothered by the fact that there is no context for how much time has passed since the 221b discussion of Mary’s past. We can make guesses based on Mary’s comments regarding her and John not really speaking for months and the fact that she is now visibly pregnant, but it still feels somewhat disjointed. We are however given the closure the story line needs as John admits that he has not read the flash drive and never will, but loves Mary and will stay with her. Even though he’s still really pissed off.
When it seems that many things are wrapping up into their neat little packages we finally come round to the business of finishing off the case. As it turns out Sherlock has taken the entire family out of action via the use of drugged drinks, a trick we’ve seen him pull before, leaving Sherlock and John the only conscious members of the party. Through the use of a handy flashback scene we are treated to yet another jaw dropping moment as we discover that Sherlock has made a deal with Magnussen in which he will surrender his brother’s laptop in exchange for Mary’s freedom. It quickly becomes obvious however that there is more to this than meets the eye, and that Sherlock is using the laptop as a ruse to gain access to Magnussen’s vaults. Upon reaching Magnussen’s our villain lays out the whole of Sherlock’s plan which unfortunately includes one major flaw in that Magnussen’s ‘vaults’ aren’t real but are contained within his mind palace. This leaves John and Sherlock in a compromising position when a government task force arrives to collect the laptop. It is at this moment that we are treated to what I consider to be one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever encountered on television. Magnussen flaunts his victory and power in this penultimate scene by flicking John Watson in the face. There is truly no way to explain the magnitude of this gesture or if John’s constant acceptance of such treatment; it is something that must be watched no matter how uncomfortable it is to see. Of course it is just as uncomfortable and enraging, if not more, for Sherlock to witness and, knowing full well that he is already facing arrest on charges of high treason. In the canon, Holmes doesn’t let Watson stop Milverton being murdered and in His Last Vow we see a similar treatment. Sherlock snaps and uses John’s gun to shoot Magnussen in the skull, cementing his new reputation as a murder.
Of course Mycroft bargains for Sherlock’s release from lifetime imprisonment but sadly this deal sends Sherlock into exile on a mission which he is not expected to survive, and we are seemingly left with another forced parting of John and Sherlock as the final emotional kicker of the episode. We are treated to a heart wrenching farewell scene between the two in which Sherlock nearly confesses his feelings for John (though if you have another theory on what he was about to say, please comment and share) before chickening out at the last moment and finally boarding the plane to what he knows is essentially guaranteed death. An exile that last of all of 4 minutes before Mycroft is calling Sherlock back to protect the country as a new threat appears on the horizon, seemingly in the form of the return of Jim Moriarty. It’s an ending which leaves viewers immediately excited for a next episode which sadly does not come immediately.
But is it really Moriarty? Don’t think so. We think the big baddie for Series 4 may just be the real Colonel Moran, using Moriarty’s image to attract attention… but, only time will tell. When is Series 4?
Moffat does often try to do a bit too much when it comes to major finales, layering twists on top of each other that sometimes don’t allow for a total fleshing out of things. I am dreading the Moriarty follow up because I am scared that if he returns, we will be once again forced to accept there are no permanent consequences to anything that happens, a situation that cheapens the death of characters. Though, it may all be a rouse to get us talking. Is someone using Moriarty’s image to attract attention? Is it the real Moran? Is it a new baddie?
I can’t help but feel that none of this matters as much as the fact that the episode enthralls, you can’t look away and are emotionally invested from start to finish. Despite any problems it may have, His Last Vow delivers an incredible emotional impact, a satisfying easter egg hunt of canon references, and a cliffhanger ending that, while not emotional devastating, leaves the viewer keyed up for more and excited to see where we go from here.
Taylor is a Baker Street Babe and a founding member of 221B Con in Atlanta, GA.
She enjoys working fan conferences. Along with establishing a Sherlock Holmes one, she works for the British Media Track at Dragon*Con (www.brittrack.org) and previously worked as the merchandise manager for the Harry Potter music festival Wrockstock from its second year in 2008 to its final year in 2011.