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How Did Sherlock’s Season Three Finale “His Last Vow” Measure Up?

By on February 4, 2014

Sherlock Holmes (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) - (C) Hartswood Films - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

By Anastasia Klimchynskaya

And just like that, Sherlock is over … when it seemed it had just begun.

“His Last Vow” is the third and final instalment in Sherlock’s all-too-short third season, and, though it’s an exciting one, it by no means measures up to the last finale – then again, could anything?

This episode gets right down to business, very quickly throwing the viewers into a confrontation with its villain in the first scene. That villain is Charles Augustus Magnussen,  a blackmailer and all-around dastardly plotter. The first scene reveals him as devilishly knowledgeable, absolutely meticulous, and yet at the same time both slimy and sleazy. He not so much marches as slithers into the episode, threatening a Lady Smallwood with revealing secrets before leaving his dastardly presence in the air as he moves aside.

We then discover John Watson, living in the exact opposite of the thrilling world of criminals and blackmail that Magnussen belongs to (or so he thinks, at least): a respectable British suburb. It must still be noted, though, that he’s still having nightmares about war, a la “A Study in Pink,” and reminiscing about the crime-solving world of Sherlock Holmes that he hasn’t quite left behind. There’s something incredibly saddening about Sherlock’s partner and companion settling down to the comfortable, boring life he’s rejected for so long – and yet something incredibly heartening at the suggestion that he doesn’t quite fit into that life.

(LINDSAY DUNCAN), Magnussen ( LARS MIKKELSEN) - (C) Hartswood Films - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

(LINDSAY DUNCAN), Magnussen ( LARS MIKKELSEN) – (C) Hartswood Films – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

While John soldiers on in his quest for marital bliss, however, Sherlock soldiers on in the world of crime-fighting, solving cases and pursuing villains. The two seem to have left behind the beautiful feelings of warmth and friendship we reveled in last episode and become estranged yet again; they haven’t spoken for a month, and one wonders why. Still, it wouldn’t be a Sherlock episode if any kind of domestic bliss lasted for more than several minutes, so, one way or another, John gets dragged back into Sherlock’s world, this time just as Sherlock’s taking on Charles Augustus Magnussen.

Magnussen is, in theory a perfect villain. He’s an antithesis to Holmes, and yet a reflection of him: just like Holmes, he looks at people and knows things. Sherlock, of course, deduces those things, while Magnussen simply remembers them, but the effect of text on the screen as both men look at the people they’re confronting is the same. They’re antagonists both possessed of a special kind of knowledge, making Magnussen almost as perfect a mirror of Holmes as Moriarty was. Still, we could do without the contrived exaggerations from Sherlock about how this guy’s the next scariest thing after Moriarty, because it sounds way too much like it was written specifically for the trailer.

(MARTIN FREEMAN) - (C) Hartswood Films - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

(MARTIN FREEMAN) – (C) Hartswood Films – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Without John at his side, it turns out that Sherlock’s been resorting to a few unorthodox methods of investigation, among them getting engaged (to the wonderful Janine, who reprises her role from last episode). There’s something spectacularly hilarious (and yet almost endearing) about watching Sherlock pretend to be the dutiful boyfriend, even if it’s just to get information (and for those worried about Sherlock’s ungentlemanly methods, it must be noted that the fake engagement ploy comes straight from the pages of a Holmes story). The engagement itself serves as a means to break into Magnussen’s office, and that’s where the plot starts to get convoluted, and not in a good way.

It turns out that among the many that Magnussen is blackmailing is Mary Morstan, née….well, we have no idea. Magnussen’s got something on her, she breaks in to murder him, and the result of the whole encounter is that she decides the most logical action would be to shoot Sherlock Holmes. I’m still working out the convoluted thinking behind that one (and debating whether to shrug this off as another patently Steven Moffat plot).

The revelation that Mary Morstan’s not all she seems is one that the show’s been hinting at all along – for example, Sherlock deduced that Mary’s a “liar” in the first episode, and the bigger surprise is how Sherlock hasn’t figured more of this out earlier. (Another question that arises: wouldn’t a professional killer be, well, professional enough to not give herself away by her perfume?) Still, the revelation of Mary’s past is the sort of good twist that’s both surprising and believable, and, more than that, still keeps her as a compelling character. Her past may be her past, but it’s more than evident that she cares deeply about John Watson, and there’s something so …well, refreshing … about a reformed killer and not a dastardly criminal who had something up her sleeve all along.


Poor John Watson, though – in an empty house, with a façade as deceptive as that of his wife, he learns the truth. “Is everyone I’ve ever met a psychopath?” he demands, and it appears the answer is yes. There’s something to be said for the fact that John Watson is the kind of man who never really married and settled down, never really got out of living a life among criminals and killers. With his thirst for danger, it’s all too fitting that his wife is, perhaps, as high-functioning a sociopath as Sherlock Holmes himself. It gives Watson a bit of … flavor.

Still, the resolution to this is far from satisfying. Though Mary offers John and Sherlock the truth about her past, we never learn it, and neither does John. He may be addicted to danger, but blindly marrying (and raising a child) with a (seemingly reformed) killer is still eyebrow-raising. Love, unfortunately, doesn’t conquer all, least of all a big huge dark past, and it doesn’t bode too well for married life – or for the believability of relationships on this show.

Still, John choses Mary, Magnussen knows her past, and that means John and Sherlock have a big fat problem, which they confront both blindly and head-on, breaking into Magnussen’s very stronghold to destroy the evidence.

But – as another big revelation of the episode occurs – it turns out that Magnussen doesn’t actually have any evidence. Instead of blackmail materials, the only thing he has is information, because blackmailers don’t need proof and the media does their job for them. It’s a pretty terrible explanation and a worse plot twist, especially considering the last few real villains on this show: Moriarty spent months orchestrating Sherlock’s defamation by planting actual evidence, before manipulating Sherlock into faking his death, in order to make the plot succeed. If Magnussen’s really the next Moriarty, one would think he’d step up his game a bit, because right now he’s even falling behind Irene Adler, who stored all her blackmail material on her phone, with her life depending on that information.

Long story short: despite Mikkelson’s phenomenal acting, Magnussen’s terrifying stature is all words and no substance.

 ( LARS MIKKELSEN) - (C) Hartswood Films - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

( LARS MIKKELSEN) – (C) Hartswood Films – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Still, if one were to put the logistical details aside and pretend Magnussen makes sense as a villain and is actually a threat, then the climax falls neatly into place. This one, just like that of last season, proves that Sherlock Holmes has a heart. In a scene both beautifully acted and heartbreaking, Sherlock Holmes once again throws everything away, committing murder to protect the people he loves and keep John Watson happy (well, and maybe keep England safe, but that’s second thought). There’s a kind of shattering poignancy to Sherlock pulling the trigger before John’s eyes, only to surrender himself; one just wishes John were a little more grateful about it somewhere in this episode.

But, of course our protagonist going on trial for murder is too mundane, so through the magic of plot twists and Mycroft’s connections, Sherlock Holmes gets away with it. He’s shipped off to do some spy work abroad – though with the implication that he won’t survive. It’s a fact Sherlock keeps from John as the two say their goodbyes, in a scene that had my eyes jumping out of my head, because surely the finale of a Sherlock season couldn’t be this mundane? Sherlock and John dance around the facts that have been evident all seasons – that they mean something to each other. Sherlock’s spent a season making sacrifices for John, John’s spent a whole season having a difficult time acknowledging that, and I can’t quite decide whether their emotional constipation on the subject is in-character or needs to end already for the sake of character development.

Still, I needn’t have worried about the climactic cliffhanger bit, because Steven Moffat has a reputation to upkeep. In two deft plot twists, he accomplishes two things that are both “climactic” and absolutely pointless: he brings Moriarty back, and it surgically removes any kind of emotional significance from anything that’s happened this episode. Moriarty’s return necessitates that of Sherlock, and Sherlock’s return means that the choices he’s made this episode (reminder: he murdered someone) and the obvious repercussions for it evaporate into thin air along with any emotional significance they carried for, well, the protagonist of the show. Said repercussions politely stand aside to make way for probably the most overused villain of the Sherlockian canon; much as I love Moriarty, he’s like the Sherlock Holmes brand-name villain, and his supposed return from the dead is pretty weak as far as cliffhangers go.

Though, for the record, I don’t admit for one second that Moriarty’s actually back, because as fast and loose as Sherlock plays with the laws of reality, I’m pretty sure people don’t come back from the dead on this particular show, and the one intriguing part of the cliffhanger is who else could be behind this dastardly plot. It’s not the kind of tantalizing question we ended last season with, and one certainly wishes we had more clues, but I suppose it’ll tide us over until series four.

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