I want to say that this is the episode that answers all the critics of series 3, that was all that we hope for and expect from Sherlock, and there is so much of this story that would make it absolutely right to begin by crowing that, and shaking a fist at those who have expressed their disgust at the series so far. Yet I’d be dishonest, guilty of simplification, if I were to do so. For, what, forty five minutes approximately, His Last Vow was on course for just such an outcome but then there was…
Was something I can’t define, even to myself, not yet. It seemed as if the programme lost focus, became detached from its narrative thrust, and for a long period it seemed to float, removed entirely from any motivating force. It ceased to move, as if caught in an eddy, away from the downstream flow, and we became trapped in that eddy, for much too long.
Yes, I think that’s the appropriate metaphor for what I felt. What we were treated to during this eddy was, frequently, brilliant of itself. But it was a stall, and not until the decision was taken, by John Watson, to forgive and accept his mystery of a wife,could the episode begin to move forward again. And as soon as it did, the episode once again took on the mark of genius that had sustained it for its first half.
First thing to say is that all my dire expectations about Mary Watson and her death were confounded entirely. Two people died in this episode, and two people came back to life – and one character cropped up in both lists and he’s the one with his name above the door, which wasn’t what we expected – but Mary Watson was not one of the dead. Nor was she the character I suddenly flashed on her being, during the bit where Sherlock was tricking her into spilling the beans to John, a flash of intuition that had me saying “oh, fuck” whilst I was revealing that I was being a bit too obvious about such things.
So, how do we describe this story? The first thing to say was that it depicted a monster, a true, unalloyedly evil monster, a creature of power and venality, of control, brilliantly incarnated by guest star Lars Mikkelsen. I know Lars from his role as the charismatic Troels Hartman in the first series of The Killing, a seeming good man, a hero, and yet self-centred, self-obsessed, unable to see beyond his own advantage and ultimately a monster.
But not such a monster as here, as Charles Arthur Magnussen, newspaper proprietor, Napoleon of Blackmail and a character who does whatever he wishes in the knowledge that he owns everyone. Mikkelsen was not just cold and precise, using only the faintest hint of a Danish accent, but he was creepy as hell. The early scene when he licks Lindsay Duncan’s face, just because no-one can stop him, established him as something not human. After that, his pissing in Sherlock’s fireplace as he and John stand by was comic with a very sharp edge, and his game with John’s face at the end, in which he let slip the callousness enough to show that he was enjoying himself, was icing on the cake.
This came on top of his revelation that his ‘Vaults’, into which he would disappear to search for material, making curiously precise yet stylised hand-movements, was a Mind Palace equivalent to Sherlock’s. The revelation that there never were, and never had been, physical documents to retrieve did set up the obvious conclusion, yet even there I got it wrong as I expected John to put a bullet through Magnussen’s head, instead of Sherlock: mentally outwitted but taking the curiously obvious step.
Magnusson was the river. We rode its currents from the improbable start of finding Sherlock in a drug’s den, the hugely comic spectacle of everyone homing in on him to protect him from exposure, in the face of his weary claims that he was undercover, working a case: creating a Pressure Point for Magnussen to ‘use’ against him. The big laugh was that Magnussen, the kind of guy who, Sherlock-fashion, analyses everyone he meets for what he’s got on them before identifying said Pressure Point, had a torrent of red lines for Sherlock, zipping by too fast to be seen or even counted!
So the clues were there for us, if not Sherlock, to see all along, that there were no Vaults, not real ones. Sherlock pursues the retrieval of certain documents, going so far as to acquire a girl-friend (Magnussen’s PA) in order to get inside his flat (another lovely comic improbability, though by the end we do learn he hadn’t actually gone so far as to shag her). Inside, he finds Magnusson with a gun to his head, pointed by a black-clad figure wearing Claire-de-Lune perfume. The sleazy Magnussen had already impressed upon us that Lady Smallwood (Duncan’s character) wears Claire-de-Lune, but it’s also dropped in, in passing, that so does Mary Watson. And though Sherlock calls on Lady Smallwood to stop, when she turns it is Mary.
And she shoots him.
Now, of necessity, the storyline stops here, for a bravura sequence in which Sherlock, in the three seconds he has before collapsing, manages with the aid of Mycroft and Molly Hooper – not to mention the late Jim Moriarty, played to manic perfection by Andrew Scott – oh how I miss him – to self-diagnose how best to keep himself from dying. Yet die he does, his heart stopping on the operating table, until he’s spurred on by the desire not to be Moriarty into returning to life.
Now all this creates a situation that then takes precedence, forcing the story for a long period, into an essentially static eddy. John’s wife – who Sherlock has already categorised as a liar, who can recognise skip codes and has a bloody good memory of her own, is being black-mailed by Magnussen and has come close to killing our hero. Who is she? What is she? Why?
We never do get those answers, and we’re better for it, as these are all questions that are better put in the past tense: was, not is. What little we are allowed to share sounds grim, yet to Sherlock his Vow takes precedence. She loves John, and John needs her: she saved his life (by a shot so precise that it did not kill, and by calling the ambulance before John found him).
This is the sequence that basically pulls me up short from praising the episode unceasingly: that and the moment where I threatened to disconnect entirely, when John demands to know why it always seems to be his fault, and Sherlock explains that it is, because John is addicted to danger, which his why his best friend is a highly-functioning sociopath and he’s fallen in love with a psychopath. Oh well, if you put it that way…
Nevertheless, the episode gets itself back on track with its ending, with Sherlock’s desperately risky plan to bring Magnussen down, that leads to the revelation of the Mind Palace and the tormenting of John Watson (who has his gun on him and who knows that a bullet to the brain will destroy Magnussen’s hold over his wife). But again we are confounded, for it is Sherlock who takes the necessary, and not necessarily regrettable step.
His lot is exile, to an undercover role that Mycroft predicts will kill him in six months time. There’s a few parting words with John, in which the two have almost nothing to say, having done all this before, a private flight into exile and the closing credits begin without the slightest suggestion of an end-of-series cliffhanger…
Except that the credits turn into a pub TV showing football but experiencing interference. The same interference everyone is seeing, all over Britain, at the same time, which causes an awful lot of reactions and which is directly responsible for Sherlock’s exile being cut short after a record-breaking four minutes. It’s a face and a voice: it’s Andrew Scott, it’s Jim Moriarty.”Miss Me?” he asks. And oh but I did.
All I ask now is that somehow Messrs Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Watson, not to mention Ms Abbington, get their act together to let us see this in 2015 because I seriously do not want to wait two years to see how they got out of that (although I suppose there’s a certain irony to it: this year’s cliffhanger is almost identical to 2012’s, and look what consternation that caused!).