Let us begin by acknowledging that, whatever issues i am beginning to have with the third series of Sherlock, the concluding episode, ‘His Last Vow’, redeems everything. Well, almost everything. It is a comprehensive, complex, intricate thriller that, in contrast to ‘The Sign of Three’, contains about twice as much story as can comfortably be contained in ninety minutes and still finds time for sequences that are stretched out beyond their proper length. It features the greatest monster the entire series has to offer, it foreshadows the underlying theme of the fourth series, and it breaks with the credibility of the series by taking two monstrous and unjustifiable steps that, even as I watched them the first time, I rejected as unworthy and ridiculous.
But this is still a brilliant episode, and quite probably the best of the entire run, with a cliffhsnger ending to die for.
The villain, the monster, is newspaper proprietor Charles Augustus Magnussen, played with chilling calmness by Lars Mikkelsen, otherwise best known as Troels Hartmann in the first series of Forbrydelssen/The Killing. He is the moden day equivalent of Conan Doyle’s Charles Augustus Milverton, ‘the Napoleon of Blackmail’. Magnussen is a newspaper proprietor who holds secrets, thousands, millions of secrets, about everything and everyone, stored in vaults beneath his futuristic home, Appledore. Magnussen – Moffat could hardly call him Murdoch, could he, the parallel would be too blatant – knows the secret to everyone, their pressure point(s), the things they will do anything to keep secret.
Despite the warning of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock has set himself to bring Magnussen down, and boy does he need it! Magnussen is preternaturally unemotional. He is incapable of surprise. How can he be surprised when he controls everything, because no-one dare deny him. He licks Lady Smallwood’s cheek to taste her perfume. He pees in Sherlock’s fireplace. He can do anything he wants.
To draw Magnussen’s attention, Sherlock goes undercover in a crack den. It’s all a fake, for the case, or is it? With Mycroft’s hints… He’s also taken a girlfriend, Janine, who he met and John and Mary’s wedding. Creating a pressure point for Magnussen to use against him, though the gag is that when Magnussen reviews all of Sherlock’s pressure points, the list streams past forever, far too fast for anyone to follow. Sherlock wants to get in. Lady Smallwood has engaged him to obtain certain letters concerning her husband (who later commits suicide so that didn’t work). Sherlock, with John Watson in tow, gets into Magnussen’s private offices. Just behind someone who is holding a gun to Magnussen’s head and who, when he recognises her, shoots him in the chest.
I suppose this is where I ought to insert SPOILER ALERT! for anyone who has not already seen this episode because this is where we fall down the rabbit-hole into a different plane of reality, never to return. Sherlock thinks it’s Lady Smallwood (Lyndsey Duncan, who I remember first as an unknown, playing the girl in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre more than forty years ago, when they had to take extraordinary precautions for her not to be seen naked once she stripped off, this being theatre-in-the-round: but I digress) because of her claire-de-la-lune perfume. It’s not. It’s another claire-de-la-lune wearer. Mary Watson.
It was hinted at in both previous episodes, passing moments suggesting she’s not an ordinary woman, a doctor’s recptionist, but something more. What that is has to be postponed, first for an hallucinatory sequence inside Sherlock’s head, as he uses his mind-palace (hint hint) to draw down, in the three seconds of consciousness remaining to him, the only right way to possible survive, part of which involves a cameo from Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty, just to remind us how much we miss him. Impressive as this bit is, it offers too much scope for Moffat to go OTT, and if there’s one thing we know about Steven Moffat as a writer, it is that he cannot resist going OTT.
Then Sherlock sets out to discover the secret of Mary Morstan Watson, such as the real Mary Morstan being a still-birth. Mary warns him that John must never know a word of the truth about her because, and this is where Amanda Abbington takes Moffat’s words and brands them into our minds, because she loves John, and knowing who or what she really is will kill that love and she will not allow that to happen. At which point, Sherlock switches on the light and she and we realise she’s been speaking in frnt of John anyway.
I’m going to blunt. No matter how well it’s done, I disagree in my very bones with what Moffat is doing/has done here. Mary Watson is not an ordinary woman, a bright, sharp, intelligent, understanding, loving woman. She is a psychopath. A former Intelligence Agent with a long list of kills to her name, which isn’t Mary (her real initials are A A, one of those infuriating little in-jokes that you wish people could resist). She is not a nice woman. And what, John Watson wonders, has he done to deserve a wife like this? It’s all his own fault, Sherlock diagnoses: he’s an adrenaline-junkie, he has the hots for psychopaths. No. just, no.
At this point the story goes on hiatus until Xmas Day at the Holmes’, senior, their guests including two of their three children unable to conceal their enmity and rivalry, plus the Watsons, who haven’t been speaking for months whilst Mary gets pregnanter and pregnanter. Until John chooses today to tell her that no, he hasn’t read the memory stick with her whole story on it, and he’s not going to, her past is her business, her future his privilege (that’s the problem, there are so many brilliant lines like that being put to service on a plot-twist I hate), and her drops the memory-stick in the fire (like that’s going to melt it: has he not watch The Lord of the Rings?)
Then Sherlock drugs everyone and steals Mycroft’s laptop, the most secure and confidential laptop in the Kingdom. He’s taking a massive risk, not to mention taking John with him. He’s done a deal with Magnussen, a trade, the laptop in return for every bit of evidence Magnussen has got on Mary. It’s High Treason, but it’s also a Cunning Plan. There’s GPS tracking in the laptop, to draw Mycroft and forces: he would just love to get Magnussen.
But Sherlock has made a colossal mistake, a blunder of immense magnitude, that will destroy evreything and everyone around him. The clues have been there if we were bright enough to spot them. Knowing the answer now, I did. But it’s so very simple. There are no vaults below Appledore, no papers, no evidence. What does Magnussen need of evidence? He owns newspapers. Everything he knows, every secret, is in his head. In his mind palace.
I saw it coming, or rather I thought I did. Magnussen, triumphant, cracks his grave monotone. He can do whatever he wants to. he doesn’t like John’s stupid face, he decides he’ll punch it. No, more humiliating still, echoing the schoolyard bully he has never grown out of being, because what is more petty than carrying out any fleeting whim you have, he flicks John’s face. John stands still and takes it. Martin Freeman takes it, impassive, submitting to try to save his Mary, who he loves, yet you can see his stoicism eroding at every flick, at every gleeful giggle from Magnussen. No man can endure forever, and John has his gun in his jacket pocket. He’ll pull it out and kill Magnussen: there is literally no other way to stop him.
But the name of the series is not John or Watson. Sherlock has made a catastrophic blunder but so too has Magnussen. Sherlock is a high-functioning sociopath. He reminds the Napoleon of Blackmail of that, just before shooting him through the forehead.
So Sherlock is now a murderer. There are too many implications in the whole business for him to be tried. Instead, he is to be exiled: an undercover job in Eastern Europe that Mycroft can now no longer shield him from. He will be dead within six months, and that will break Mycroft’s heart. He has always been the protective older brother, even when he told his little brother stories of the fury and devastation caused by the East Wind. Or Euros.
We end on goodbyes, as Sherlock is flown off on his final, redemptive mission. Which lasts four minutes before he’s summoned back. Someone has broken through onto every screen in the entire country, asking the question, ‘Miss Me?’ That’s the cliffhanger. How the hell can he still be alive? ‘Miss Me?’ John Watson gets it right: here comes the East Wind.