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SHERLOCK Review – His Last Vow (SPOILERS)

And just like that, it’s over again. Sherlock series always fly by, but this one especially seemed to cruise, I think in no small part because of how long we had to wait between series. There’s really no getting around that fact, and it’s caused me to feel initially like it was a slight or thin year for the show. However, stepping back a moment as writing these reviews makes necessary, I see all the chances and up-shaking the creators were doing, especially in changing the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson with the addition of John’s now-pregnant bride Mary. The storytelling, too, changed quite a bit in the first two episodes, being much more segmented and episodic than previous episodes. With the finale of Series 3, “His Last Vow,” we get a lot closer to the single-thread mysteries of the past while still keeping the character arcs rich and interesting. It’s a very good episode, with a sort of baffling ending.

But, first things first.

Once again, we’ve jumped ahead from the wedding. Lady Smallwood, a high-ranking British official (played by Lindsay Duncan), is on a board of investigation inquiring against Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a foreign news media tycoon who also, through a massive vault at his home, called Appledore, has sensitive information on just about every person of power in the U.K. He uses this knowledge to extort favors from people, and he threatens to expose Smallwood’s husband’s affair with an underage girl if she continues her investigation. So confident is he that she won’t do anything, he licks her face. Lady Smallwood wants someone to get Magnussen, and hires Sherlock Holmes to do it.

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However, in order for that to happen, Sherlock has to be thought of as a drug addict. I mean, he is anyway, but a USING drug addict. It’s been awhile since Watson has seen Sherlock, and the newlyweds are living “blissfully” in the suburbs when they are approached by a weeping neighbor whose son has taken up with some smackheads. John decides to go get the kid back and Mary insists on coming along. After roughing up a druggie, John finds the neighbor’s son and, surprisingly, Sherlock, who’s been shooting up. He then takes all of them back to the car and they go to see Molly to run some tests on Sherlock’s blood. She’s pretty unhappy about the findings.

But, aha, this was all part of Sherlock’s ingenious plan. You see, Magnussen has a list of emotional or mental pressure points for each of his adversaries or people in power, and Sherlock is therefore assured that, with the media coverage, Magnussen will count drug addiction as his. Mycroft is very displeased that Sherlock is trying to take down Magnussen, given that he’s got information the elder Holmes would love to get his hands on. But, Sherlock’s a stubborn sort. John is also very surprised to learn that Sherlock has been seeing Mary’s friend Janine (from the wedding) and that things seem to be going well.

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The beginning of this episode really puts the audience in John’s shoes in terms of confusion. He really doesn’t understand Sherlock’s intentions, or his motives, or whether or not he really is back on the drugs. When Sherlock takes him to Magnussen’s office, with his plan to get up the private elevator contingent on Janine being the bad man’s personal assistant, things start to fall into place, though Watson is still kept in the dark about the full depth of the problems at hand when they find that Janine has been knocked unconscious, which begins my favorite portion of the episode.

Magnussen is being held at gunpoint by a woman who wears a specific perfume. Sherlock assumes it to be Lady Smallwood, but in actuality it’s Mary, who hasn’t been who she says she is. When Sherlock calls her bluff, she actually shoots him in the chest and his mind begins to race, determining all the things he should do in order to not die. This sequence is amazing; we see Molly, Anderson, Mycroft, and even Moriarty at various points either helping or hindering Sherlock as he attempts to cling to life long enough to be taken to the hospital. This episode was directed by Nick Hurran and this sequence really exemplifies what’s great about his visual style. And it goes on quite a while, too. The beauty of the length of these episodes is that they can linger in moments and have an entire 10 minute sequence take place within Sherlock’s brain in probably 15 seconds of real time.

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The next section deals with the truth about Mary, and it turns out she’s a former assassin, a surgeon with a pistol. Magnussen was using her past as leverage against her, and John, and by extension Sherlock. John, when he finds out, is understandably angry and feels betrayed, though Sherlock seems to immediately know that she didn’t actually want to kill him, and could have if she wanted. It was she who called the ambulance that saved him, and so he realizes this means she’s trustworthy. He also tells John that it made sense that he would fall for someone “dangerous,” given his proclivities toward that kind of exciting lifestyle and his restless ennui when he was just living at home. This also doesn’t make John happy. Eventually, they take on Mary as a client and she gives John a thumb drive with all of her information on it and knows that when he reads it, he will want nothing to do with her.

Now, it might be easy to get irritated by this turn of events and say that Steven Moffat is just yet again writing a badass chick character like he loves to do so much. However, in this instance, it seems to make really good, logical sense. Mary, or whatever her real name is, WOULD be the kind of woman for John. John went out with “regular” women before and it never worked out because they couldn’t take Sherlock or his lifestyle. Mary liked Sherlock right away, because she’s weird too. And by weird, of course, I mean “a former murderer.” But, it says a lot about Watson as a man, which I think is more important than simply having a character who suddenly is a murderer. In the books, Mary is kind of a nothing character, so this gives her a huuuuuge bit of business and something for John to deal with. That they reconciled at Christmas feels earned and totally within character.

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As much as I’d like to talk about all the great stuff at Christmas, I really need to get to the end of the episode and why I still don’t understand part of it. Okay, so Sherlock drugs everybody in order to take Mycroft’s classified laptop to Magnussen in the hopes of trading it for the information about Mary that he has in his Appledore vaults. Magnussen realizes immediately that the laptop has a tracking thing on it so he’d be caught with it right away. This was all part of his plan; get to Mary to get to John to get to Sherlock to get to Mycroft. Sherlock and John want to see the vault, except there isn’t one. It’s all Magnussen’s “Mind Palace.” There’s no evidence at the ready, he just knows everything and can access it any time he wants. So, he basically, apparently, has them over a barrel because he can do whatever he wants. The two of them will go to prison for trying to sell State secrets and he’ll still have all the information on Mary to keep them in his pocket.

He starts flicking Watson’s face because he can and Sherlock tells him he has to let him… okay… Mycroft and the authorities arrive in a helicopter and Magnussen laughs, having succeeded yet again. Sherlock then takes out Watson’s pistol and shoots Magnussen in the head, leading to his arrest and Mycroft essentially sending him on a suicide mission. My question is this: Why is this such a big deal? Other than the fact that murder is a crime (which I’m not disputing in the least), why is Sherlock killing Magnussen so terrible? Magnussen had NOTHING except what was in his mind. He was blackmailing dozens of people in high positions in the UK and abroad and, I would think, him not actually having any documents and admitting to them only being in his brain would be like welcoming someone to kill him. Let me reiterate: he had NOTHING and yet was flicking John in the face because he was “untouchable.”

Why would Mycroft care? I could see if Lestrade had witnessed it; he’s an upstanding policeman and everything, but Mycroft is like the head of spies in Britain, he can make anything go away. He didn’t even have to report about it. Was he really so upset about losing information he thought Magnussen had? The man had been blackmailing people for years, and basically doing anything he wanted, including threatening people within the British government and, it’s believed at the beginning, the Prime Minister. I don’t know if I’ve said this already, but he had NOTHING.

Anyway, it just didn’t make sense and was kind of dumb, especially given that after a touching farewell, Sherlock is no more than 4 minutes away when he’s called back because *shocker* Moriarty is back. Is he, though? I kind of hope this is just one of Moffat and Gatiss’ patented red herrings and it’s Moriarty’s network or something. I liked the way he died, and it’s not like he hasn’t been around enough in Sherlock’s brain since then. But, we’ll have to wait a year or so for that to be answered.

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Despite my complete bafflement about the final act, I really liked “His Last Vow.” It was a good mystery with some excellent twists, some great character moments, and a really effective and despicable villain who, let’s face it, sort of deserved to get shot in the head. Is that bad of me to say?

Sherlock’s done for another year. Sigh. I guess I’ll just have to watch the whole thing again. Again.

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34 comments

    • So, some of you think it’s okay to kill someone because he is irritating? This guy could write stories from his head, but he could not print photos from his head. The “facts” could not be verified. He’d be sued for libel, and then he’d be powerless.
      I liked the “Watson chooses weird people part”, but the rest was trying too hard to be edgy. More time should have been spent proving what a bad guy Magnussen was instead of showing Sherlock deciding which direction to fall.

  • Thank you for nailing on the head what was the problem with this episode. It has been nagging me for weeks. Everything up until the flicking of the face was great (I wanted more Lindsey Duncan though). Then it all went a little sideways. Mycroft had just said he didn’t want Sherlock to take the suicide mission…why not put Sherlock in prison instead of sending him away until you need him again (4 minutes later) or as you say, just make it all go away. I mean in Season 2, he makes a whole plane full of dead people go away. I thought Magnusseum was creepy but too much of Sherlock saying he’s the worst thing ever instead of showing why he’s the worst ever. Unlike Moriarty, there was no real development of the character for the audience to really fear him.

  • First of all, I have an issue with anyone who would think this:

    “Now, it might be easy to get irritated by this turn of events and say that Steven Moffat is just yet again writing a badass chick character like he loves to do so much.”

    There are not near enough “badass chick” characters in the world to be irritated with a writer for making one.

    Secondly, Mycroft made it very clear that Magnussen was an important tool for the British gov’t. It was not only that he had people blackmailed, but he also had a wealth of information and connections that Mycroft could use. It has nothing to do with shooting Mags being “wrong,” and more to do with punishing his brother for taking away something he valued. When it turned out the need for Sherlock was greater than his desire to punish him and legal requirement to put him away, he made the cost/benefit calculation quite easily.

  • I don’t think Moriarty is Moriarty. The man we knew as Jim Moriarty was part of the network, like Red John. Is it him, is it not? Either way, the wait for next season will be excruciating.

  • great write up as always sir!

    I loved this episode…and this series…its all felt very different than the previous seasons. I think a big part of that is that you almost have to take all 3 episodes as one over-all-episode to really get into the big picture.

    My primary critques are that Magnussen was given more develoment time..they could have written him into ep1 and 2 moreso and the resolution with Sherlock shooting him. It just seemed so brute force and obvious…two things that Sherlock doesnt do. Also, Magnussen has really not done anything wrong…yes yes i know blackmail is ‘bad’ or ‘illegal’ but his crime was only using FACTS which he had over people to influence them. Does such acts really balance out Sherlock killing him in cold blood? In front of countless witnesses? Meh. There is, of course, the soap opera element that he could be still alive. (Helllllo Moriarity).

    Anyhoo..i dont mean to overly critique…this show, its characters, its writing, its storylines, its direction, and everything else about it, is unmatched. Its wonderful. The best gift of all is knowing they’ll make more!!!!! I thought for SURE that this would be the final season, given Benedict and Martin’s growing fame and the fact that Moffatt is still helming the wonderful Doctor Who (does this guy sleep? aparently not. He just writes awesome stuff 24/7).

    Peace .n. Deductions

    3ToF

  • The lack of evidence really isn’t an issue. He knew about all their trespasses AND ran the media. At any moment, all he had to do was leak a story to his paper/TV/etc and it would ruin people. Since his claims were based on facts, there should be no evidence to the contrary and people would be ruined. That’s the power he had. Not having documents stored anywhere, it all being in his “Mind Palace” made him even more dangerous. He could instantly recall names, places, and dates which could ruin someone, and even if you burned his house to the ground, he’d still have the information on you to leak.

    He didn’t need physical evidence because the story would force proper authorities to act and find evidence that corroborated the story (assuming everything he has is based on facts).

  • author

    @drew – My favorite of the three was hands down “The Sign of Three.” Loved it.

    @Anna – I certainly don’t think there are too many badass chicks, but that’s some of the complaints I’ve heard about Moffat as a writer, that he overcompensates his not writing good women characters by making them badasses. Personally, I think Molly Hooper is a really brilliant female character who doesn’t have to be “badass,” though she is in her own way.

    I still just think, regardless of how important Magnussen might have been to the British government, his death was more of an “oh well” situation than a grievous national disaster. But maybe that’s just me.

  • I think Mycroft was protecting Sherlock rather than punishing him by sending him away. Seems like his hands were tied and that’s all he could do, was to send him away somewhere until things blew over. Moriarity — hard to say, but they may come up with a sound reasoning how he also faked his own death. I saw that coming.

  • I’ve wondered if Mycroft’s statement, “You have more utility closer to home. Here there be dragons,” was a sign that he had changed his mind regarding Sherlock taking on Magnussen. He may have seen Magnussen as too much of a liability at that point.

  • Intersting that the view has been that Sherlock shooting Magnusson is no big deal. Granted, the man was a cruel and calculated destroyer of lives, and the world is better off without him. Sherlock, for all that he claims to be a high functioning sociopath has just taken a human life. A line has been crossed, and Mycroft knows it, hence the “what have you done” line. Mycroft fears for his brother and what he could become, for all his protestations of disinterest.

  • The problem I had with the episode was they didn’t really show Magnusson doing anything. Yes, he’s a blackmailer, but if they had shown one clear example of how him blackmailing someone in power led to something terrible, then the murder would have been more justified. It’d be like if Star Wars just talked about how evil Darth Vader was. They didn’t do that, they showed him choke a general for disobeying him and then he blew an entire planet. Hell, even the terrible prequels show him murdering children (sorry, younglings–terrible word).

    If the show runners had demonstrated one evil act, then I would have been more on board with Sherlock shooting him. Or, if they had done one of those scenes that is typical with this show where Sherlock thought of everything. He sort of did, he made sure that John brought his pistol. Why? The only reason to bring it is to kill Magnusson if it needed to be done.

    I do like that fact that they made the villain very modern, but also scary. The very exaggerated portrayal of Rupert Murdoch, an foreign newspaper magnate who steals secrets, I thoroughly enjoyed. It would have been nice if they had made a few more digs at the state of modern journalism and news. The fact that national stories get bumped to cover anything Bieber related should be made fun more often. It’s ridiculous.

    On a side note, I’m totally digging the Batman Reanimated series. Please keep them coming–that show was amazing.

  • Actually, knotadoctor, there was a reference during the course of the episode showing a man with allegations of misconduct that committed suicide. The story was told via newspaper headlines and easily missed.

  • There was a quick scene in the kitchen at Christmas where Sherlock briefly looks at a newspaper where the headline is Lady commits suicide. Nobody mentions it, but it seems the woman that he threathened, his client, actually took her own life. I think that might have motivated him more.

  • I disliked both episodes this season where Sherlock was talking to himself, in his own head, like he had done in previous seasons, but suddenly it was Mycroft, or other people, who Sherlock was talking to and interacting with. It reminds me of Dexter, where he actually remembers things his dad said in the first two or three seasons, but then later seasons have him talking to himself, except that they have him interacting with his dead dad.

  • It is not accurate that he had nothing. They mentioned when he need documents or proof he could send out for it. Part of the info he has is where the proof can be located. He seemed to have the letters for example. Although they could have been fakes. Sherlock calls him the Napoleon of blackmail, so he is effective. I wonder if Napoleon is the title for the best in each field. The Napoleon of car theft, forgers, etc.

  • I don’t think Moriarty is really back. Dooesn’t Moriarty have a sidekick? Or like another comment said, it could be someone from his network.
    Either way, it left me exactly like the other episodes have. Baffled and intrigued.

    On hindsight, I would have loved to see more action from Magnussen.

    Well, we have to wait another year or so to find out more…

  • I need to watch this again – I don’t understand why Mary, who is an assassin, didn’t just continue with her Magnussen execution and then “pretend”-kill Sherlock to get out of there. She could have shot Magnussen, turned around and then clipped Sherlock.

  • @Lee They told you John was in the building and would be investigated and maybe turning attentions on his wife’s past.

    @Kyle – Mycroft! Mycroft! Mycroft! He is the world’s best chess player! He set this all up in order to give Sherlock a reason to murder someone that needed to be dealt with anyway. Have this newly minted piece in his pocket for the future.(a Sherlock Homes that will kill someone when pushed) Maybe this is not the intention of the writers, but I really enjoy Mycroft and I think this is what happened :) It also makes this show fall into place for me.. otherwise I would agree with your assessment. As for Jim returning… I will await what the writers have decided. I would love to have his image used by another organization or the ‘real’ Moriarty … and MORE Irene Adler.

  • Just so long as bringing in more Irene Adler doesn’t lead to the reveal that she’s the real Moriarty…which Elementary already did :P

    I think it was Lord Smallwood who committed suicide, not Lady Smallwood; Lord Smallwood was the one with incriminating evidence of an intimate correspondence with an underage girl. The threat of scandal probably took its toll…unless I missed a headline showing that Magnussen had released the info. I’ll have to watch it again to try to pay attention to the papers.

    I love the idea that Mycroft intended for Sherlock to take care of Magnussen one way or another, but I’m not sure that’s how it’ll play out later on.

  • I know it’s fiction and one must suspend belief, but how does “the most dangerous man on the planet” allow someone to walk into his lair with a loaded weapon? He doesn’t have them frisked? He doesn’t have some sort of metal detector? What about his security personnel? Seemed a little stupid for such a brilliant man with a mind castle to not check them for weapons.

  • The one thing I can’t figure out: did they ever indicate where Magnussen was getting his information. I got that Appledore was not an underground vault but his own mind palace…but they never explained…

    …where did he get the information regarding Lady Smallwood’s husband’s affair?…

    …where did he get all of the information on Mary?…

    How does all of this damning information get into his mind palace??? What did I miss? Do I need to watch the episode again?

  • I think there is more going on here than we know (or the writing is simply degenerating). Sherlock seems uncharacteristically off his game in this episode, bested at every turn by Magnussen and finally reduced from a role as super sleuth to one of impulsive assassin.

    But…I don’t buy the idea of Sherlock making a bumbling deduction about Magnussen sporting informative high-tech spectacles. Seriously? Did anyone notice Sherlock hitting the morphine in full view of Magnussen at the beginning of this sequence? I think Sherlock was playing him all along.

    Do we know Magnussen is even dead…there was no clear visual confirmation. Could all this be staged to draw out Moriarty?

    Or maybe the writing is just lacking creativity, and Sherlock was simply bested by his adversary who he impulsively murdered.

  • I think Holmes didn’t want Mary to take down Magnusson because Watson was in the building and would be implicated for the murder, but I could be wrong. We only had Magnusson’s word that all the information was stored in his brain…. There could have been files somewhere. I enjoyed the episode and the script did make the villain really disgusting, but it did bother me somewhat that now Sherlock is a murderer of sorts.

  • i was so let down by “his last vow.” the entire story was fantastic until the end. the disappointment comes in sherlock being outwitted by someone who self-admittedly is “not a murderer.” magnusson was was a teller of secrets, a teller of the truth, albeit a bully. i don’t recall anything in the episode that indicated he physically harmed anyone by deceit, but rather by sharing the truths about people which they had themselves perpetrated. yes, he used that information for his gain, but the perpetrators hid the information for their gain. unable to outwit magnusson, sherlock sinks to the level applauded in every hollywood thriller — the gun is mightier than the mind. his brilliance frustrated, he reaches for a gun. the writers in effect had the brilliant sherlock holmes commit suicide with the shot to his challenger’s head, becoming a low-thinking, bully rather than the super sleuth i’d come to love.

  • The talk about Mary being an assassin because John chose her and the subsequent Christmas resolution scene made me so mad I couldn’t even talk about it afterwards and if everything ignoring this wasn’t so good I would be seriously considering erasing Sherlock from my watch list. 
    I know people who have been in a physically abusive relationship, and many more who’ve been in a relationship with other forms of abuse (myself included) and I know the struggle to develop relationships of any kind when you find yourself attracting other abusers. To have this kind of victim blaming going on and the empathy we’re expected to feel for Mary is NOT ON. Did anyone even think before having people support John forgiving Mary with so little concern for John himself that this is reality for most of us? That when you reveal abuse to relatives they often come down on the side of the abuser, that some will mess with your mind until you think the abuse is normal and to be expected? That you are wrong for not wanting to suffer or trying to end/get away from the suffering? That when you try to escape others will INVITE THEM TO CHRISTMAS in hopes of a reconciliation (this is EXACTLY how it happens.)
    Mary might not have beat John, but she did manipulate him. Why? Because she wanted him. What about what John wants? Didn’t matter. Still doesn’t. The relationship ticks none of the boxes. It is with this one revelation not safe, sane or consensual. I’m going away now because I’m starting to get that sick feeling and need to find something happy making.

  • There’s NO WAY that Sherlock actually killed that man.  there are contradictions WITHIN the episode between what Sherlock knows and what hes doing.  Every time that’s happened in this series so far; it’s because Sherlock is presumably a staggeringly smart man.
    He knows the vaults have no computerized documents… followed by him asking to see the glasses because he “thinks” that they display the documents?  
    The gun used may be Watson’s, but it was handled and placed by Sherlock… i doubt that the plot is this straight forward in a cliff-hanger episode where there are behaviors that outright DO NOT FIT.  Sherlock, after firing, shouts at Watson to stand well back… keeping him away from examining things closely.  
    Additionally; i would wager we’ll see a pretty striking parallel in this “death” when similar themes appear in how Moriarty seemed to have ended himself; wherein a gun that was produced by Moriarty appeared to kill Moriarty, because there was no other way to guarantee Sherlock’s compulsory suicide. 
    If Moriarty is back… and he is not dead (again… made possible by him being a clever clever man; and Sherlock, and presumably everyone else, having been fooled… as there is a visual disconnect between when Moriarty kills himself and would have likely have been recovered for the autopsy examination… enough of a disconnect for a body to be placed.).  
    THIS EPISODE allows the writers to create a bridge back to Moriarty by permitting the possibility of faking a death, even if it seems to be a bullet through the skull.
    These writers have done very well so far… and seem to understand that there is a real game of chess going on here between these characters.  This killing, if in fact faked, is another move… just as Moriarty’s now, apparently, not-so-permanent state of dead-ness is.  There MUST exist a connection between the newly and formerly dead men; and the removal of Magnussen from the board is yet another move.
    “The game is never over”.
    If what i said above turns out to be entirely wrong… and he really did just kill that man… and make that many mistakes… This was the worst episode.

    • THANK YOU. I have suspected this myself, but have never really been able to find anyone that believes the same.

      If he did in fact kill Magnussen, it would be an extremely weak episode indeed. Sure we’d catch a glimpse of the side of Sherlock that we don’t often see. A side that exposes his inability to cope or defeat with his intellect an immovable force. Yet I feel if we’re going to see this, we would see it with an adversary that has continued to elude Sherlock’s grasp, an intellectual equal- not a character we’ve just met (and just “defeated”).

      If this was their angel, they would do it with Moriarty. I see the strengths and weaknesses of Sherlock actually being confronted with a puzzle he cannot solve, however I do not believe there to be a man other than Moriarty that could outsmart Sherlock. What would be the point in having more than one foe outwitting him? It makes for a loose story, concept, and character.