“I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow. And yet I can’t get out of doing business with him — indeed, he is here at my invitation.” – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
And so, another all too brief season of Sherlock comes to an end, with an episode that should please more of the fans than the previous two (though I’m, sure some will never be satisfied). If you didn’t like the previous two stories’ lurch towards ‘soap opera’ character drama in place of crime plots, the balance of this ep will probably have made you happier – and in retrospect, it has become clear that the previous two were all about building up to this one.
It’s debatable whether that’s a good idea in a show with seasons this short, as it’s arguably more satisfying for each story to be truly standalone – particularly when you might have to wait two years for any more. And yet, I’d argue that the previous two instalments still had plenty to enjoy on their own terms; admittedly the second more than the overly self-indulgent first. Nonetheless, His Last Vow undeniably does provide payoff for some of the frustratingly dangling plot threads left by both The Empty Hearse and The Sign of Three.
Doyle’s original stories were more in evidence in Steven Moffat’s script than they had been any time this season – though for once, the punning title referred to a different story than the one being (mostly) adapted. There was little here referring to the original His Last Bow, a late period Holmes tale set at the outset of World War I. I spotted Janine’s reference to buying a cottage on the Sussex Downs, which came complete with beehives – in the original, Holmes retired to the Downs to take up beekeeping.
There was also the recurrent motif of Mycroft’s boyhood tales of “the east wind” – a reference to the stirringly patriotic speech at the end of the story, memorably recreated by Basil Rathbone for 1940’s WW2-themed update The Voice of Terror:
“There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less and a cleaner, better stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”
Other than that, though, His Last Vow (and what was the “vow”, exactly?) was mostly based on a different story entirely – 1904’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. As with season two’s A Scandal in Belgravia, the first half of the ep was actually a very faithful adaptation (albeit updated), with the story then continuing in new and unanticipated directions. Whatever you may think of Mr Moffat’s ability to write female characters, the way those new directions shed unexpected light on John’s wife Mary was significantly more interesting than Doyle’s diffident killing of her between stories.
So, as with the original, Sherlock was confronted by, and determined to undo, the massively unpleasant master blackmailer here named Charles Augustus Magnussen (presumably so they could cast Borgen’s flavour of the month Lars Mikkelsen in the part). Mikkelsen was actually brilliant; where Doyle’s original paints Milverton as unpleasant purely by dint of his actions, Mikkelsen, aided by Moffat’s script, made him coldly loathsome in almost every way.
It helped that he was reinvented from a simple (albeit very successful) blackmailer to a Murdoch-alike tabloid-sleaze magnate; they’re already villains of the day, courtesy of the Leveson Enquiry. Imagine Murdoch doing that to Lord Leveson…
To reinforce the point, the story opened with just such an Enquiry, with what was presumably a Select Committee quizzing the unbearably smug Magnussen as to his influence over the Prime Minister. His ‘pressure points’ visualised as text onscreen initially led me to the same (mistaken) conclusion as Sherlock later, that his glasses were Spooks-style super-gizmos – the reality, of course, was far more interesting.
So, we got straight on with the blackmailing, as Lindsay Duncan’s Lady Smallwood, Chair of the Committee, suffered Magnussen’s vilely sweaty attentions before rushing straight off to Sherlock. As with the original story, Sherlock invited Magnussen over for negotiation; entirely new to this version was the literal territorial pissing, as the confidently alpha-male Magnussen relieved himself in Sherlock’s fireplace, to John’s astonishment.
At this point, I did wonder whether Moffat’s script was laying the unpleasantness on a bit thick – but it worked. Even Sherlock was visibly discomfited to encounter someone who cared as little for social convention as he did, and Magnussen’s contemptuous speech about the tepid United Kingdom was guaranteed to raise hatred even from him.
If you were surprised to see Janine apparently now sleeping with Sherlock, you shouldn’t have been; in the original story, he woos and proposes to Milverton’s maid to gain access to the house (here, as there, called ‘Appledore’). Mind you, Doyle’s Holmes has the decency to do it in disguise, with a fallback plan to let the maid down gently. It’s typical of ‘our’ Sherlock that he just brazenly does it as himself. In neither case, however, does he have the slightest intention of going through with it – that he would go to such lengths merely reinforces how badly he wants to get Milverton/Magnussen.
In the original story, he needn’t have bothered; as he and Watson break in, they’re met with the sight of one of Milverton’s other victims frenziedly shooting him down, an action Holmes refuses to condemn or investigate. But this was where Moffat’s script cleverly departed from the original, as Magnussen’s assailant turned to reveal none other than Mary Watson. Remember when Sherlock’s onscreen assessment of her included the word ‘liar’?
From then on, we were into uncharted territory, and very gripping it was too. The rest of the story had to resolve who Mary really was, how John would take the news, and how, in the end, our heroes could take down Magnussen. Oh, and there was the small business of how Sherlock would survive being shot…
That last sequence probably summed up precisely why some people love the show and some people hate it. It was undeniably bravura, a stylised, fast-cutting exercise from director Nick Hurran as the wounded Sherlock retreated to his ‘mind palace’ to receive advice from imaginary versions of Molly, Anderson and Mycroft, culminating in being pitched into a padded cell with a wildly overacting Jim Moriarty exhorting him to die. Shades of the Master in Peter Davison’s Doctor Who regeneration, undoubtedly.
I loved it, but you can see the point of people who dismiss such sequences as ‘style over substance’. I respectfully disagree – it’s stylised, to be sure, but there’s plenty of substance there too. And while Andrew Scott’s Moriarty may be too OTT for some, it’s a take on the character I’ve found enjoyable – much like John Simm’s similarly divisive version of the Master.
It was no real surprise that Sherlock survived, but by then we were more intrigued by the truth behind Mary – and how long it would take for John to find out. In the course of this, we were treated to yet more sly Doyle references. The “empty house” façade in Leinster Gardens (which is real, by the way) was a nice callback to the original Adventure of the Empty House.
And so was Mary’s (mistaken) belief that Sherlock had drawn her fire with a shadowed dummy of himself – exactly as he did with Sebastian Moran in the original story. Oh, and that memory stick containing Mary’s true identity, labelled AGRA – in the original Sign of Four, it was the Agra treasure, stolen from the sinister foreign Johnnies of the Raj, that did for Mary’s father. And comic relief smackhead Wiggins (actually quite endearing) was the modern day version of the street urchin who headed up the Baker Street Irregulars in A Study in Scarlet – the forerunner of Sherlock’s ‘homeless network’.
All nicely done, and you can’t complain that plot took a back seat to rom-com antics here. And yet, it was actually John’s reaction that I – and I suspect many others – was breathless with anticipation to see. The script once again delved into the characters’ psyches, with John’s initial smack den expedition serving to underline his ‘addiction’ to danger and thrills, making it perfectly reasonable when Mary (and Sherlock) stated it was inevitable that he should fall for a woman who was actually a retired CIA assassin in disguise. Or something.
We also learned a fair bit more about the Holmes family, as a surprise jump cut took us to Christmas dinner with the boys and their parents before revealing John and Mary’s reconciliation in flashback. Nice to see Mr Cumberbatch’s real parents Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton get a bit more to do than their previous appearance – she in particular was wonderfully dotty. Also keeping it in the family was a nice little turn from one ‘Louis Oliver’ as Little Sherlock – I’m pretty sure that was Louis Oliver Moffat.
We learned that Mycroft (who hates being called “Mike”) has a lot more fondness for his brother than he’d usually admit, and also of young Sherlock’s heartbreak when his dog Redbeard was put down. And there was a glancing reference to “another brother” – Doyle never mentioned one, but Holmes theorists have assumed there was one, since Holmes stated he was from a squire’s family and neither boy stayed at home to run the estate.
The resolution was as convoluted as usual, yet, also as usual, made sense. Providing you didn’t think about it too much. It made sense for Magnussen to house his incriminating documents in a Mind Palace much like Sherlock’s, especially since the writer was trying to replace Moriarty as an equal nemesis for the sleuth. But while I like the cynicism of the sentiment, I’m not sure I buy the idea that he would never be called upon to provide the proof of his blackmail, even if “newspapers don’t need proof”.
And as soon as we learned that little fact, the resolution was never in doubt – particularly since the script emphasised that John had brought his gun. To be fair, though, I think Moffat knew that much was obvious, and the suspense was derived from wondering which of the heroes would actually do the deed. Magnussen’s contemptuous flicking of John’s face made it seem like it would be him till the last minute, with the likely corollary that Sherlock would cover up for him – but I’ll accept that Sherlock would take that last step to end a man he had such revulsion for.
This has felt like a less confident, but paradoxically more self-congratulatory, season of Sherlock than ever before, with a couple of uneven episodes in part balanced out by an enjoyable final one. And yet, in some ways, this final episode is a good example of why the show’s become so divisive. Its distinctive visual style, trademark convoluted plots and l’esprit d’escalier witty dialogue are, as with Moffat’s current turn on Doctor Who, very much a matter of taste. If you like them, you’ll enjoy what’s on display here; if you don’t, you’ll likely hate it. I do find it hard to believe that anyone dislikes Cumberbatch and Freeman as actors in the parts, but plenty do – I remain to be convinced by their rivals in Elementary, though.
Mind you, I’m still not sure about that ending. Obviously nothing could top that cliffhanger from last time – a cliffhanger whose resolution was so anticipated no solution could live up to it. And yet, what was wrong with Sherlock, guilty of murder, packed off in exile to a secret mission from which he’d likely never return? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – when shows start to revisit defeated fan favourite baddies, they’re usually running out of ideas. Let’s hope Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson haven’t. And that we don’t have to wait two more years to find out. Because uneven and not to everyone’s taste it may be, but I’m still enjoying Sherlock very much.