Sherlock: series 3, episode 3 – Uncollected Thoughts


A monster

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!).

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4 thoughts on “Sherlock: series 3, episode 3 – Uncollected Thoughts

  1. I can’t say that I was too happy with this episode, and was actually quite disappointed. This series would’ve been cemented as being as good as the others (if not better) had Moffat pulled another classic out the bag. Unfortunately this one just didn’t sit right, and as the finale it should really have been a lot tighter. Instead there were many twists and turns, but nothing that felt solid. A list of my criticisms would begin with the point which you raised: “John Watson, you are to blame for your wife turning out to be an assassin because you seek adventure.” No, Watson thought he was marrying a down to earth ordinary lady, not a sociopath hit woman. Had it been the intention to use that as an explanation and move on point, then there should have been more of an inkling that she was in fact a sociopath. There was none… But she had a good memory. So?
    Second would be the unnecessary flash forward every so often to Christmas at the Holmes’. It felt messily injected into the plot, and if it really was needed then it could have just been featured when it was called for, rather than taking us to an alien destination randomly every so often. To me it felt a little forced with the parents this time as well, who didn’t even seem to have the same characters as they did in the first episode. Less is more. As with Mycroft, I don’t think we should know everything about them, and it’s much more intriguing to leave us guessing about certain things surrounding Sherlock’s family and upbringing rather than spelling it out.
    I also felt it was too similar to the last finale as well, and it would’ve been better in my opinion to leave the archenemy of this episode brain dead rather than shot dead. And if Sherlock’s answer was to kill him, which was a simple enough task to carry out considering what a bastard he was, then surely Sherlock would’ve thought of a slicker way to do it. Hasn’t he ever watched Columbo?Possibly there will be a reason behind his decision to do it in such a way, but it hummed of trying to repeat the shock factor of Moriarty’s “demise”.
    Then there was the return of Moriarty, which could or could not be a reality. Either way, I don’t think that was a particularly intriguing cliffhanger to leave us with for the next year or so.
    Other than that there was yet more sentimentality which had been exhausted in the last two, I don’t like the way they’ve changed Anderson from being the guy that Sherlock hated into being his pathetic stalker (Why is he even there now? He’s not even in the police force.), and there were various other bits I wasn’t keen on.
    Having said all of that, it was still much better than the majority of dramas I see on British TV, and I was only disappointed because Sherlock has already set a very high standard, especially with the episodes that Moffat writes.

  2. With one exception, I accept every point you’ve raised, the exceptioon being the ‘flash forward’ to Xmas. I don’t remember a series of these myself, just the arrival at Xmas with Mary’s pregnancy having obviously advanced substantially. Though you’re spot on about the sentimentality aspect: at that point, several months have elapsed since the big revelation about Mary, she and John are still together but haven’t been speaking and it’s only at Xmas that he decides he doesn’t want to know the details and burns the flash-drive (can you really burn a flash-drive in a parlour fire? Do they get hot enough?)

    Of course the biggie is Mary. I’m not actualy a Sherlock Holmes fan, but I’m probably on safe ground in thinking of her as being the most radical departure from the original. And as I said, that was the point at which it nearly lost me. But the quality of what surrounded it – and there were too many lovely ‘bits’ to even mention – brought me back in.

    As for the ending, it wasn’t just a literary contrivance to say that the padded cell scene with Moriarty made me miss him: it simply did. So I’m happy just to have him back, in some way, and to keep an open mind as to his resurrection until we find out how. Though it’s a massive hostage to fortune, even greater than Sherlock’s ‘death’. Blow this one and series 4 very probably will be dead.

    1. Yes, it flashed forward once when Watson had overheard his wife’s conversation to Holmes in the alleyway, and the couple were walking towards each other. Then it flashed forward for a second time, I think with the unneeded dialogue from the parents, and then it finally became that scene in the present towards the end. But the whole thing felt messy, and a shame because it’s rare that I see a British TV show that leaves me so enthralled, but this episode hasn’t left me anticipating what will happen next season at all. Obviously I will look forward to seeing more, but that’s only going by the quality of what the writers can do at their best. There were a few nice bits in there, and the twists may possibly have worked had they been more natural, yet the dialogue and fun factor wasn’t even in it for me in this one. I’m very surprised too, because I was really expecting Moffat to be the one to pull out the best episode again, where as this was one of my least favourites. So far each of the writers have written the three worst ones in my opinion. The banker one, The Hound of the Baskervilles and this one, each written by a different one of the three. In a series that consists of many more episodes in a season, these ones wouldn’t really matter quite so much, but when there’s only three, it becomes more important. If I had been them, I would’ve planned each series as six hour long episodes, two episodes each. There could have been continuing subplots and arcs etc. and I think that some of the stories need longer and some of them don’t warrant an hour and a half.

  3. Sorry, only just got home.
    If I could change one thing, it would be Mary’s background. It’s one thing for her to be not what she appears to be, and be vulnerable to Magnusson’s blackmail, but I’d rather it were something much less extreme, but still enough to have prompted her towards killing the bastard.
    Apart from that, though, and the spurious psychology lesson about John that was an inevitable consequence, I can only say that I liked it despite its flaws, and for me it does redeem the series. I think it was Lucy Mangan, in today’s Guardian TV review, who suggests seeing series 3 as one mega story, broken into three parts (a la Lord of the Rings when published), and that works for me.
    I’d be interested to see a six-part series of one hour episodes as an experiment: I’d need to see it like that before deciding, because I’ve seen too many instances of something that worked perfectly at one length being wrong at another length. Sherlock may be at its best in 90 minute bursts.
    But I’m pissed off on one level about series 4 – I was so looking forward to the Complete Sherlock Box Set. What are they asking on eBay for individual series sets?

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