Sherlock: His Last Vow

“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

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

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.

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Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

‘Holmes!’ I cried. ‘Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive?’” – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Adventure of the Empty House

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

It has been, as was noted several times in the script for this episode, just about two years since we last saw an episode of Sherlock (give or take a fortnight). In that time, the stars and writers of the show have hardly been idle. Benedict Cumberbatch has been seemingly everywhere, most notably as the villain in Big Hollywood Movie Star Trek Into Darkness, while Martin Freeman has had two lengthy epics released in which he plays Tolkien’s famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins (with a third due this year). Mark Gatiss has busied himself with MR James adaptations and a series on European horror movies, while Steven Moffat has been busy with something called Doctor Who.

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Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

“You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Final Problem

It’s a well-known story. Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up of the public’s insatiable demand for his creation Sherlock Holmes, wrote a story in which he determinedly killed off his hero. Heroically plunging from Austria’s Reichenbach Falls in a death struggle with his arch nemesis Professor James Moriarty, Holmes was no more. Or so it seemed until, bowing once again to his readership’s demands, Doyle revealed that Holmes had survived his certain death after all, and gone underground to protect his friends.

That’s such a good story, in fact, that it was basically the plot of the entire last season of Doctor Who. But last night’s Sherlock saw Steven Moffat and co returning to the source. I must admit, I had slight misgivings when I saw that scripting duties had fallen to Steve Thompson rather than Gatiss or Moffat himself, as I’d thought his middle contribution to the previous series – The Blind Banker – was a bit of a weak link in an otherwise strong chain. Not that it was in any way bad (although the stereotyping of the Chinese seemed a little 19th century), but it was surrounded by two almost perfect stories from Moffat and Gatiss. Knowing that this year’s season finale was very probably going to feature Sherlock’s apparent death, I wasn’t too sure that Thompson was the right guy to write such an important story.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Reichenbach Fall has its flaws as a story, and I’ll come on to those, but no more so than either of the previous two. It plays with the expectations of Holmes aficionados far less than recent episodes, taking the bare bones of Doyle’s The Final Problem – a duel between Holmes and Moriarty, culminating in their apparent deaths – and dispensing with the rest to come up with a twisty turny tale all of its own. And in the process, it rather cleverly plays with our expectations not of Holmes the 19th century character, but of Sherlock the now established 21st century hero.

Presumably thinking the audience would be aware of the story’s ultimate end, Thompson actually opened with a scene of a tearful John talking to his therapist about the death of his ‘best friend’ Sherlock Holmes. So expectations were set from the very beginning, but in fact this pre-credits revelation was easily forgotten in the tempestuous story that then unfolded.

In a “Three Months Earlier” timeframe, we were shown a montage of Sherlock solving various crimes, including the theft of the painting ‘The Falls at Reichenbach’ (the only nod to the story’s original setting). But as Holmes began to attract more and more press attention (much to John’s concern), it was as ‘The Reichenbach Hero’ that he was labelled. John, much to his annoyance, simply attracted the label “confirmed bachelor” (“What are they trying to say?!”), in yet another reference to the perception that he and Sherlock could be a couple.

Intercut with all this was a sequence of Moriarty setting up, then executing, a fiendish plan to simultaneously break into Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London, where he sat draped in the Crown Jewels until the police turned up to arrest him. Cleverly scored with Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’, this was a well-put together sequence from frequent Doctor Who director Toby Haynes, who kept up the series’ standard of visual excellence extremely well throughout.

From then on, it was a battle of wits between Sherlock and Jim Moriarty, as Jim used Sherlock’s new press fame in an attempt to discredit and utterly destroy him, while Sherlock tried, seemingly in vain, to keep up and finally nail the villain who sat at the middle of his spiderweb of crime. The resemblance to last year’s finale The Great Game was a little bit of a flaw, but this was anything but formulaic. Perhaps as a result of the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic, the idea of a battle of wits between hero and villain is now de rigeur in crime drama, and when done well – as it was here – it never fails to entertain me.

Far more so than The Great Game (where he only appeared for a few minutes at the very end), Moriarty was given centre stage here along with Sherlock, and Andrew Scott again showed how much fun this new version of Sherlock’s nemesis can be. By turns camp, playful, and utterly, dangerously insane, Jim Moriarty was plainly every bit Sherlock’s equal. And again in keeping with the established idea of the hero/nemesis dynamic, he was presented as Sherlock’s dark mirror equivalent. In the splendid scene when Jim visited Sherlock at 221B Baker Street – another pinch from the original  story – Jim even stated this outright: “We’re just alike, you and I.”

That was hammered home by the fact that both viewed their battle as an intellectual game, while John and Lestrade were there, appalled, to remind them that there were real lives at stake here. But you got the impression that Sherlock cared about these just as little as Jim – chillingly demonstrated by Sherlock’s declaration that, “I might be on the side of the angels, but I’m definitely not one of them.”

Jim utilising his tame tabloid hack (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) to demolish Sherlock’s reputation felt oddly timely in the light of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. As Sherlock was suspected of kidnapping, pursued by the police, and finally confronted by Jim in the alias of ‘Richard Brook’, an actor supposedly hired by Sherlock himself to be an arch nemesis, this had the potential to really screw with the audience’s heads as they reflected that everything they’d seen since the show began might be false.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that clever gambit worked as well as it might have. Like John, we never doubted Sherlock for a moment. Still, even if it didn’t hoodwink the audience, it served its purpose in deceiving the characters in the show – except, of course, John, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade. And so, with nowhere left to go, Sherlock turned to his poor admirer Molly at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, only to find himself in a final confrontation with Jim Moriarty atop its windswept roof.

This was an electric scene, brilliantly played by Scott and Cumberbatch, as each tried to gain the intellectual upper hand in their game. Jim revealed that his supposed ‘unlock anything’ phone app never really existed, and that his plan was for the demoralised Sherlock to kill himself. If he didn’t, assassins were primed to shoot his only friends, John, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson. Sherlock countered with the knowledge that Jim must be able to call them off if necessary. Then Jim made the ultimate endgame move – as the only way to ensure Sherlock’s suicide was for him to die too, he promptly shot himself.

That was a bit of a shocker, but the scene had increasingly and convincingly revealed the extent of Jim’s insanity. You really believed that he would go so far as to die just to win his  intellectual pissing contest with Sherlock. And it looked like he had won; with nothing else left to do, Sherlock confessed to John that he really was a fraud before quite graphically throwing himself from the roof and landing in an all too convincing bloody heap on the pavement.

Even more so than in The Final Problem, this made Sherlock’s death seem a certainty. After all, we’d been shown him stepping off the edge, then shown his bloodied body on the pavement, attended by John who surely couldn’t have misidentified him. And yet the final scene, as a tearful John and Mrs Hudson paid their respects at his graveside, showed him to be very much alive, standing silent and unseen nearby. Rule number one – Moffat lies.

I’m still not sure if this was the right way to play it. Surely it would have been a better cliffhanger if, as in the original story, we thought he really was dead, and hoped against hope that there’d be some way out of it. But on the other hand, I can see why the showrunners might not have wanted to end the series on such a down note. What it does do, though, is leave us with an intellectual cliffhanger – how on earth did he do that?

Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen plenty of internet theories already. Some have speculated on the hallucinogenic drugs from last week’s episode, which seems unlikely – Sherlock would presumably have had to drug all the witnesses. Still, with it taking a gaseous form, not impossible. Another theory is that the ‘help’ he wanted from Molly was to procure a lookalike body from the hospital morgue in just this eventuality; or that there was already a Moriarty-created lookalike – remember the little girl kidnap victim who screamed on seeing Sherlock at the hospital?

My theory is that it has something to do with the mannequin we already saw at Sherlock’s flat, as he tried to solve a century-old crime. Holmes fans may remember that, in his ‘return from the grave’ story The Adventure of the Empty House, he tricked would-be assassins with a mannequin replica of himself strategically placed in the window of his flat. Given the show’s frequent nods to the source material, my money’s on some variant of this. As Steven Moffat has now confirmed via Twitter that there will be a third series, we shall find out – let’s hope it takes less than eighteen months this time!

Moffat also used Twitter to indicate that there would be “two nods to the past” in this episode. Not sure exactly what he meant, as the show is always chock full of references to Doyle’s original stories. But my guess would be, firstly, the return of that hat, given as a jokey present by the police to Sherlock.

I love what they’ve done with the convention of the character wearing a deerstalker. Doyle’s stories never reference this kind of hat; it was popularised firstly by some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations, then by Basil Rathbone’s screen version. And yet the popular perception has become that this is the kind of hat that Holmes always wears. As John amusingly puts it, “that’s no longer a deerstalker. That’s a Sherlock Holmes hat” – which, as the owner of several deerstalkers, I can confirm is exactly what people think. That Sherlock actively hates the hat makes this even funnier.

The other major reference to Doyle must be the appearance, finally, of Mycroft’s beloved Diogenes Club, a refuge for “the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town”, where speech is strictly forbidden except in one reserved area. Knowing the rule as I did, it was hugely funny to see John trying exasperatedly to get a response from the increasingly appalled looking club members, until finally some stewards hauled him off to the visitors room to meet Mycroft. Latterday literature has recast the Diogenes Club as the public front for shadowy British intelligence agencies – given Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of Mycroft as having fingers in every government pie, that seems equally believable here. I wonder if we’ll see more of it next series?

But the final word on this gripping finale must belong to the portrayals of the main characters. As Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has been, if anything, even better than he was last year. With the final plot twist that he’ll sacrifice his reputation and even (seemingly) his life to help his friends, this story shows the culmination of an arc of ‘humanisation’ of the Asperger’s-like Sherlock this year. In A Scandal in Belgravia, we saw him exhibit real (if deeply repressed) feelings for Irene Adler, and having to make an awkward, forced apology to poor Molly. By The Hounds of Baskerville, shaken by his experience with the terror-inducing drug, he offers a no less awkward, but voluntary and heartfelt, apology to John. And in The Reichenbach Fall, we see a hero who acknowledges that he loves and needs his few friends – enough to, in effect, destroy himself for them.

And Martin Freeman has stepped up his already likeable performance as John to reflect this. The constant in-jokes about whether he and Sherlock are in a relationship now seem to have a real purpose; because, despite the fact that John is entirely straight, they plainly are. It’s an indication of this series’ fluid approach to love and sexuality that John, while not gay, is genuinely in love with his best friend, to the extent of his heartrending tears in the opening and closing scenes of this episode. A ‘bromance’ indeed, and pretty similar to the highly infrequent displays of emotion from Holmes in the original stories.

This has been a triumphant second series for Sherlock, and any doubts I had about Steve Thompson’s ability to satisfyingly conclude it have been washed away. Each of the stories has been great in its own, uniquely distinct, way, and if anything, the quality has topped the first acclaimed series. Along the way, we’ve seen some thrills, some humour, some brain taxing plots and even some controversy. But I’ve enjoyed it hugely, and if a limit of three episodes per series, produced over a very long period of time, is what it takes to maintain this standard, then so be it. However long it takes, this viewer – and, I suspect, millions of others – will be back.