THESE TWO PARAGRAPHS CONTAIN NO SPOILERS
In the original and highly unusual story “His Last Bow”, published in 1917 but set in 1914, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson become embroiled in espionage involving a major continental European figure of the time. Their adventure is set just before the outbreak of World War I, and at the end of the story, Holmes makes reference to an “east wind”, a danger unseen but certainly growing, aimed at an England that will have to weather the storm. In this third and final episode of the third season of Sherlock, “His Last Vow”, there is also a reference to an east wind, followed by the revelation of a threat, although it isn’t quite a war. The episode, in fact, leaves it ambiguous as to just what the threat may be and who may be behind it. But it drops enough hints to make us yearn for the next series of Sherlock nonetheless.
Sherlock has consistently been an innovative and challenging show that subverts the expectations of the audience while also delivering completely on all its genre signposts. “His Last Vow” is probably the most complex and story-rich of all the episodes so far (and that’s up against the stiff competition of last season’s finale, “The Reichenbach Fall”). Its 90 minutes are literally filled to the brim with revelations, turnabouts, flash-forwards, flashbacks, flash-sideways; any and every story device is employed here to accommodate the head-spinning events. But here’s the great thing: it mostly all works. Some transitions feel a bit jarring, there are a few points where one wishes the writers and director would have taken more time to let certain plot points sink in (perhaps there will be a better-paced “extended cut”), but for the most part the episode delivers, and doesn’t lose its audience. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes) deserve special mention for exploring the limits of where they can take their characters. It’s a must-watch for fans.
FROM THIS POINT ON, “HERE BE SPOILERS”
One aspect of Sherlock Holmes that I’m glad Sherlock is addressing head-on is his drug addiction. Sherlock comes right out and says it in this episode: he does what he does, “instead of getting high”. In the original stories, Watson was disgusted by the “vile lethargy” of the cocaine needle he often found close to Holmes. Sherlock’s fondness for his “7% solution” of cocaine is legendary, although Ian Culbard, who has drawn several excellent Holmes comics, did the research on that solution and reports that it’s nothing more serious than “a cup of espresso” at that concentration. Something more potent is certainly on John and Mary Watson’s minds when they find him in a slum associating with known addicts in the opening segment to this episode. Molly, the loyal and capable forensic technician, slaps Sherlock repeatedly for wasting his life and his gift in a crack house. Though we never again see Sherlock in such dire circumstances as sleeping on a slum mattress, the subject of his inclination towards chemical comforts runs like a dark river through “His Last Vow”.
The ostensible villain of this piece, Charles Augustus Magnussen (played by the great Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen) is a fairly obvious stand-in for a powerful continental European puppet master, but re-done 2014 style. Meaning, of course, that his powers aren’t based around nuclear launch codes or some other military secret that may have been crucial to the Holmes of 1914. This villain is clearly in the Wikileaks / Snowden mold as his weapon is incriminating information. His power consists of the ability to humiliate, to shame, to incriminate and to embarrass, which in this century appears to be the ultimate weapon. It is a timely update to the mythology, something writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have been very clever about doing all the way through Sherlock. They even work in a Google glass joke, tossing out the misdirection early on that Magnussen “reads” information and analysis about people in the same way Sherlock does, but uses specially designed glasses that display the appropriate info for his eyes only. Even Sherlock himself is taken in by the deception, only to realize when he removes Magnussen’s glasses towards the end of the episode, that his opponent really does share his powers. Moriarity may have been an evil genius with technology and manipulation, but Magnussen is as perceptive and as mentally powerful as Holmes. Sherlock is frightened, and we aren’t used to seeing that. Both Mikkelsen and Cumberbatch spark off of each other’s magnificent intellectual intensity in their scenes together. It’s great acting to watch.
And (hopefully any non-spoiled readers have stopped by this point), we must address the Mary issue. Sherlock, via his affair with Janine, the bridesmaid at John and Mary’s wedding, has obtained entrance to Magnuseen’s London apartment. (On a side note, Martin Freeman (Watson) reacts to seeing Sherlock and Janine together in a sexual context with the kind of “eyes up” double take that made him a star on the original BBC version of The Office from all those years ago. It was a hilarious, deft and welcome touch.) When Sherlock breaks in to the apartment, he finds Magnussen on his knees being held at gunpoint by a black-clad figure he determines to be a noblewoman Magnussen is blackmailing. Only, we soon see, it is in fact Mary Watson, carrying a gun with a silencer and clearly not unfamiliar with its workings. She does shoot Holmes, but in such a way that may not be fatal if he receives immediate medical attention, which he does. Thus begins the tension-filled middle act of the episode, in which Sherlock knows that Mary is in fact an imposter, a “liar” as his personal intuitive radar tells him, but doesn’t quite know who or what she is. In the hospital, and struggling to control his growing love for morphine, Sherlock concocts a scheme to allow Mary to reveal at least some of her secrets to Watson. The wonderful little game of cat and mouse that Sherlock plays with Mary could serve as a quite serviceable short film demonstrating the skill that the creators and producers of this show have accumulated over three seasons. In a very few shots, with few actors and situations, they build and release tension with masterful ease. It certainly brought a sort of smile to my face to see how capable the artists behind this show are.
In any case, Mary’s “outing” does not go exactly as planned, as a deeply hurt Watson demands to hear as much information as there is to hear and even then does not completely eliminate Mary from his life. We next flash to Christmas at the Holmes house, where we learn something of where the Holmes boys get their intellect (their mother) and why their parents have such a good marriage (“She’s hot”, says the elderly Mr. Holmes of his wife). Mark Gatiss shows in these scenes why he and Benedict Cumberbatch make such a wonderful mismatched pair of brothers, clearly squirming under the family obligations but plotting larger things. We learn that Sherlock’s drug use is a well-known problem to the family and part of the reason for Mycroft’s ambivalence towards his brother. The Holmes Family Christmas is also the occasion for John to officially forgive Mary and take her back. As a viewer at the time, my head was still spinning from the revelations about Mary when this moment arose (this was one of the cases where more running time in the show would have helped), but Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington are wonderful as usual. It is a cliché phrase, but the two truly do have that ineffable “chemistry” together that bring even the most “genre” of genre shows back to an emotional reality. Their warmth and humanity nicely balance off the frenetic, unstable emotions of the Holmes boys.
The climax of the episode, in which Sherlock takes the dangerous step of actually killing the villain (Magnussen), sets up yet another twist that twists back upon itself. Sherlock is taken into custody for the murder, but Mycroft sees to it that his skills are put to use in Eastern Europe as part of MI-6. John, Mary and Sherlock say a tearful goodbye and Sherlock boards his private jet to parts unknown… until the splashy return of none other than Moriarity. Or at least Moriarity’s digital image, taking over every screen in England, tackily teasing, “Miss me?” Sherlock is recalled and the episode ends, with Watson, Mary, Mycroft and most of the audience saying, “Huh?” Death, which Moriarity seemingly experienced unequivocally in the finale of last season, appears to be a temporary situation in the Sherlock universe. It will be interesting to see how the writers play out the deception around Moriarity’s survival, and we will probably return yet again to the site of Sherlock’s “fall” at the end of season two and the beginning of season three.
All of this is compelling, fascinating and exciting stuff. I’m looking forward to season four, just like everyone else. But I must toss one bit of stinky moss on the fire briefly and point out that Sherlock might be in danger of going where the Star Trek franchise is going. These exciting, tension-filled, action-oriented episodes are all well and good, but it has been some time since we as an audience have actually seen Holmes being a detective, cracking one difficult case. Even as recently as the previous episode, “The Sign of Three”, there was some sleuthing. In “His Last Vow”, the sleuthing goes by just like everything else in the show: very quickly. It would be nice, even if it was just as a change of pace, to have at least one of the three precious season four episodes take a more relaxed, traditional approach to Holmes. Just one episode would be enough. That’s my wish, but I suspect I’ll still be around to watch whatever Gatiss and Moffat offer up next season.