Sherlock "His Last Vow" Review: Human Error

By Kaitlin Thomas

Feb 03, 2014

Sherlock S03E03: "His Last Vow"

Human life is built on and sustained by personal relationships. Our relationships with our family, our friends, our coworkers, our neighbors, our pharmacists, our landlords (or ladies), even our mailman. Life is a confusing, labyrinthine web wherein one event taking place over here could have repercussions over there, several relationships down the line. What's more, relationships are often fragile, broken just as simply as they were forged. Some are stronger than others, some are more complex, but everyone has them—even someone as relationship-challenged as Sherlock Holmes, whether he admits to it or not. And Sherlock's relationships—with Mycroft, Watson, and even Janine—came into play over and over again during "His Last Vow," a rather complicated, and controversial ending to a generally stellar season.

Everyone knows that the easiest way to get to Sherlock Holmes is to get to John Watson. If the near constant focus on their relationship in the first two installments of Season 3 didn't make that clear, it's very obvious now that Charles August Magnussen exploited their relationship for his own benefit. And now that Watson is married, the loyalty and love Sherlock has for Watson includes Mary by extension—meaning, if you mess with Mary, Sherlock is going to pay attention. Of course, because this a web and not just a linear line that begins with Sherlock, that means that Sherlock is someone else's "pressure point," to use the show's term of choice. The people who care about Sherlock include his parents, Watson, and Mary, of course, but also his older brother Mycroft. 

The antagonism that exists between Sherlock and Mycroft is reminiscent of many sibling relationships, although it's definitely not the norm. And even though Mycroft is constantly pissed off at Sherlock and finds his little bro's behavior annoying, it's very clear that he still views Sherlock as the little boy he used to be—and if we're being honest, that he still is, in a way. Intercutting adult Sherlock with young Sherlock after he shot Magnussen was a nice way to show just how much Sherlock actually means to Mycroft; Mycroft still views himself as Sherlock's protector, even though he'd probably turn on him in a heartbeat. It's one of those, "He might be an asshole little brother, but he's my asshole little brother" situations. I can speak to this phenomenon because I'm a little sister, and this sort of thing is real. So the way to get to Mycroft is to get to Sherlock is to get to John is to get to Mary. But Mary also cares about Sherlock, which is why, when Sherlock happened upon her as she was preparing to murder Magnussen, she didn't go for a kill shot, opting instead to inflict a still very serious, but not fatal wound. It's why she phoned the ambulance immediately rather than waiting for Watson to find Sherlock's body. See? Giant web of complicated relationships.

But even knowing all of that, Mary's backstory feels a bit out of place to me. When it was revealed that she wasn't exactly the person we thought she was, I was a bit annoyed. (Though to be fair, who did we think she was? We didn't know much about her outside of her relationship with Watson and Sherlock.) I already loved Mary as a character, and while I'm not against fleshing her out as someone who's more than just Watson's wife, her "former assassin" status just felt a bit silly. I was worried that the rest of the episode would focus heavily on Mary's betrayal, but I was pleasantly surprised when it was settled fairly swiftly and succinctly, with Watson eventually deciding he didn't care about her past because he loves her and blah blah blah. It was a little too sappy for my liking, but I much prefer this outcome to, say, Mary being a backstabbing murder fiend who only married Watson to get close to Sherlock. After all, we'd already seen Sherlock (and Mary, I suppose) fake an entire relationship with Janine in order to get close to Magnussen, since Janine is his personal assistant. We really didn't need another one of those, so the discovery that Mary truthfully loves Watson and only wanted to destroy the evidence Magnussen had against her, was a fine—albeit kind of ridiculous—plot.

As a villain, Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen, older brother to Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen) was weak, especially when compared to the charismatic Jim Moriarty of Season 2. Magnussen was a powerful businessman who frightened (but also excited) Sherlock because of what he thought Magnussen possessed. For nearly 90 minutes, Sherlock was convinced he was fighting a physical enemy. He thought he could outsmart Magnussen into handing over the keys to the vault where Magnussen stored all of the information he used to blackmail important people like Lady Smallwood. Since Sherlock is used to being the smartest person in the room, his relentless pursuit of Magnussen and the vault leads me to believe Sherlock was not only scared of the guy, but impressed with him. 

However, as the episode progressed it became clear that Magnussen didn't actually have a vault below his house, nor did he have magic glasses that allowed him to tap into records relating to the men and women he met. He had what the series called a "mind palace," similar to what Sherlock has in his own brain. It appears that Magnussen was able to retain far more information than Sherlock ever has, if Sherlock's comment from last week about deleting information to make room for new data is to be believed. Magnussen seemingly had an infinite amount of mental storage space, which I truthfully find to be rubbish, and also a very cheap cop-out. 

Are we to assume Magnussen was just playing Sherlock when he pretended to show him the letters he used to blackmail Lady Smallwood? I'm almost certain of it, especially after his ridiculous display of dominance in Sherlock's flat, where he peed in the fireplace. But I still don't believe everything the man has ever read or learned is just stored in his brain. Maybe I've just got super-brain fatigue, but after Mike Ross on Suits, and Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow, I'm kind of over the ol' eidetic memory magic trick in popular culture. Sherlock escapes my judgement on that front because of the aforementioned deleting of information, and because his skill set has always appeared to involve more of a hypersensitivity to detail rather than some form of strict memorization. Magnussen, in contrast, does not escape my judgement, because his mental prowess didn't make him more interesting; if anything, it made him rather flat.

An all-knowing enemy who can't be beat because he has no physical, tangible weapon is boring. Magnussen's arc is of those stories that appears to be clever and complex, but in reality, it's the opposite. Personally, I find it difficult to believe Magnussen has been 100 percent successful in his blackmail attempts, and I also find it difficult to believe he could get away with printing what could essentially amount to libel if he truly doesn't have any physical proof or documentation. But setting personal disbeliefs aside, I like what Sherlock was attempting to do with the Magnussen character. If I didn't know better, I'd think this was the series attempting to hold a mirror up to Sherlock Holmes himself, to illustrate what having a brain that remembers every detail looks like if it's used for evil instead of good. It was the series' attempt to create a villain who could stand on equal ground with our titular consulting detective. Sherlock was, in fact, outsmarted by Magnussen, and even though Magnussen ended up with a bullet in his mind palace—thus destroying the weapon that gave him so much power—Sherlock didn't exactly win. Instead of rotting in jail and causing civil unrest among the people of England, Sherlock was sent to Eastern Europe on what was basically a suicide mission. The fact that Sherlock won, but also lost, made "Hist Law Vow" an interesting experiment, and despite the Magnussen's failings as a Big Bad, the episode was still pretty exciting.

In any story, if the good guys win all the time, there's a risk of the plot growing very stale, very quickly. Although I always find myself cursing Sherlock for only filming three episodes per season, I also think that if we had more, we'd be far less inclined to praise the show. Its success depends on being clever and witty and complex. And making Sherlock feel like a real person who exists in a real world where bad people sometimes win. But the flipside to that is that this is Sherlock, starring Sherlock freaking Holmes, and we want our hero to win. The fact that he didn't quite come out on top in "His Last Vow" is ultimately what has me coming down on the side of declaring this episode, while certainly not the best the series has ever done, still wholly enjoyable and rather surprising. 

It must be said, however, that Sherlock's reprieve due to the apparent reappearance of Moriarty—who's somehow not dead—was a bit of a cheap shot to stir up conversation regarding Season 4 and how Moriarty could have survived. (Is he a Life Model Decoy? Sorry, I'm mixing up my shows.) But I'm not going to complain too much, because it was an easy way to erase the whole suicide mission thing, plus Moriarty is Sherlock's nemesis and he is very charming—way more so than Magnussen ever was. Magnussen fulfilled his purpose in shedding light on Mary's past and once again highlighting the many personal relationships Sherlock does in fact have in his life, and now I'm looking forward to what Season 4 brings.


– I assume this is a rhetorical question. We all missed Moriarty, right?

– Though I didn't find a way to work it into my review, I think the idea of human error is something worth exploring here. This entire episode was an experiment in human error. Trusting the wrong people, not fully understanding someone's intentions... when human beings (and their feelings) are involved, anything can happen. Janine was wrong to trust Sherlock, and Sherlock was wrong to think Magnussen had a magical chamber of secrets (not to be confused with that other magical Chamber of Secrets). Human error, folks. 

– This was an interesting way to work in Sherlock's drug habit. I rather liked this line from Mycroft about it too: "It won't be the first time that your substance abuse has wreaked havoc on their line dancing."

– Also something I didn't find a way to work into my review: John Watson's own addiction to horribly messed-up people and dangerous situations. 

– I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that Sherlock's porn preference is "normal."

– Is Hobo Sherlock better than Drunk Sherlock?

– "Sherlock is actually a girl's name..."

– Sherlock and Watson had some of the best moments this week. I think they were even funnier once the series returned to finding humor in existing situations rather than just adding humor for humor's sake.

Sherlock: "I'm undercover!" Watson: "No, you're not." Sherlock: "Well I'm not NOW."

Watson: "Did you just get engaged to break into an office?"

Watson: "Sherlock, she loves you." Sherlock: "Yes, like I said: human error."

Watson: "We should call the police!" Sherlock: "During our own burglary?"

– Of course, Mrs. Hudson had a great moment herself:

Sherlock: "Even the landlady used to run a drug cartel." Mrs. Hudson: "It was my husband's cartel. I was just typing." Sherlock: "And exotic dancing." Mrs. Hudson: "Sherlock Holmes, if you've been YouTubeing..."

– I can't be the only person to catch the use of the phrase "the doctor's wife," right? I can't be. You sneaky bastard, Moffat.

What'd you think of "His Last Vow"? How about the season overall?

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  • michaelcwiak Apr 04, 2014

    I am fashionably late in discovering Sherlock, spending too much time thinking Elementary's reboot meant Sherlock Holmes was all tapped out. How wrong I was. In fact, now that there are no new episodes, I can't imagine two of my favorite tv shows (Sleepy Hollow and Sherlock) having nothing in the fire for months. Cruel Summer indeed.

    I have to admit, I like the way Watson makes Holmes a better person and Holmes makes Watson come out of his shell and reveal himself to be the adrenaline junkie that he is. I also think with Watson being ex-military, the familiar call of comrade-in-arms was something he missed as well when he left. Therefore, its really not at all surprising how close he has become to Sherlock. To say that Sherlock is grade-A adrenaline for John perfectly explains his withdrawal when Sherlock leaves.

    And that is why, despite her ridiculous past, I'm glad they made Mary who she is. They needed someone who could relate to John intimately while, at the same time, give him the intellectual and physical kick he's going to need to get out of his adrenaline shell. They needed a female equivalent of Sherlock and since they couldn't make her as intelligent, making her a black ops agent is a somewhat understandable choice.

    It was very interesting to see how intense Mycroft and Sherlock's rivalry is. His venom towards Mycroft in his apartment came from a deep place, although I do wonder (since Mycroft is intelligence work himself) who would actually have won that fight. It's no wonder they are so deeply cordial to one another: too much time airing their true feelings would probably lead to one killing the other in rage.

    In some ways, I think Mycroft hates Holmes more. Holmes has Mycroft but he also has a warmth that allows him, however shallowly, to interact with other people and find comfort in them. Mycroft is alone outside of Sherlock, although he probably refuses to acknowledge it, and that sense of being trapped by that relationship undoubtedly fuels some of his hatred (and, occassionally, tenderness) towards his brother.

    If you really want to get metaphorical, Sherlock is to Mycroft what Watson is to Sherlock. It's why Sherlock uses Mycroft in his mind palace so often (in Ep. 2 hunting for the victim, here, trying to mitigate the damage of being shot by Mary.) Love-hate doesn't begin to describe his relationship to his brother.

    And that makes his feelings towards personal relationships very understandable. Being who he is, having the brother he does, facing the laundry list of criminals required for his job, its no wonder his people skills have their own version of human error in them. The thing is, I think Sherlock desires more connection than he allows. It is very doubtful, with his intellectual capabilities, that seducing Janine was actually required to gain access to Magnussen's office. It reminded me of a Vatican censor borrowing some erotic pictures for 'research.' The engagement ring was over the top but there was some definite spark there, beautifully displayed in Sherlock's hospital room. Perhaps the unexpected fevor of accidentally summoning The Woman in Ep. 2 sparked some primal desire in Sherlock, satiating his curiosity without allowing himself to acknowledge it.

    Speaking of Magnussen, for being so super-intelligent, how STUPID do you have to be to store all your information in your mind palace? It doesn't take the intellectual capacity of Sherlock Holmes to deduce that a bullet to the brain ends everything. In fact, even with the strongest blackmail in the world, under enough pressure, a person won't care if it ruins them, they'll still do their best to kill you (ie Mary.) Rule 1: don't pee in someone's fireplace if all your power over them can be taken away by a bullet to your mind palace. It's no wonder they needed to bring Moriarity back. As Watson said "I'm used to a better class of criminals." Writer's, hurry up your brilliant work. Us goldfish need something to help pass the time.

  • ChicN Feb 19, 2014

    I just watched the finale ep (unthinkable!). I actually had all 3 eps when the Brits finished their run, but didn't bother to watch until it aired in the US. After two years, and two so-so eps in the the third series I just wasn't chomping at the bit about the the finale for who knows how long.

    I actually snorted at the Mary reveal. I had hoped and speculated prior to the series airing that Mary would not be Mary, but Moran, so her super secret agent past didn't blow me away. It was kinda terrible actually. How did she come across John anyhow? Was she sent to kill him and decided to shag him instead? John's, "I don't care that you were a serial killer for hire in the not so distant past. What matters is the future." The hell it does. There's a bullet with Mary's or whatever the fuck her name is- name on it . Being oblivious isn't going keep anyone safe.

    I was struck in one of Sherlock's VO that he sounds exactly like Sideshow Bob.

    I'm gonna blame the morphine for Sherlock not catching on immediately that Magnussen had a vast repository of knowledge in his brain after he discovered he wasn't wearing Google Glass. They can use as many fancy camera tricks and time jumps as they want, but they can't cover up the fact that Sherlock is getting slow or that they have a thin storyline and are just padding for time.

    Magnussen was g.r.o.s.s. Completely animalistic in his dominance displays (licking, sniffing, pissing). He was suitably creepy, but I can't believe no one had gone, "fuck it", and shanked him long ago.

    Moriarty. Meh. He's not the fucking Master. It better be his minions following his Last Will and Testament directives or I will be annoyed. I was already annoyed with Janine getting Sherlock's retirement home and bees. It was the cherry on the series 3 "kinda not good" sundae.

  • marymaurene Feb 18, 2014

    What I love about this season is that we get to see whats inside Sherlocks mind palace. How he really enters to another world when he is thinking. I love the scene when he was solving the Mayfly man in his mind palace.

    I also love the irony of love in this season
    -while John is treasuring and valuing love, sherlock is just using, playing and tossing love around.

  • marymaurene Feb 18, 2014

    I think, Janine has something to do with Moriarty's comeback. Remember her conversation with Sherlock in the hospital. She might look okay after getting her revenge on him by publicating their affair on papers but I think she was really, really and super duper hurt. She just didnt show it because she is planning a more painful revenge. Sherlock even asked her wittily, "How much more revenge are you going to need?" Then before leavingthe room she said that she has an interview with the one who show and havent made it up yet. I deduce (sherlock style :))) that she might be referring to Moriarty. She also said he should have not lied, that she knows the kind of person he is and they could have been friends. I deduce that she hates him so much and turns to be his enemy. She took Moriarty's side now.

    She might bean important characted next season. With her too much screen exposure, from the wedding to being his gf, the writers might be preparing her character build up. Every scenes and dialogues are meaningful. They won't give her much scenes if she is nothing..

    what do you think? Just my theories? Do you think Sherlock might praise me for this deduction or just insult me for being idiot and boring.. hahahaha!

  • ChicN Feb 19, 2014

    Janice might be dead or locked up in a dungeon only the dead man knows. Magnussen mentioned "playing" with her in the same escalating manner he was engaging John in that drawn out face flicking scene.

  • marymaurene Feb 18, 2014

    Others might be disappointed with Magnussen as being a lame villian but for me, I dont really cared about him because I know that he is just a "temporary" enemy of Sherlock. Moriarty is always and will always be his mortal enemy. Personally, I was satisfied that there is no Sherlock's new archenemy because that would be boring. If Sherlock can defeat one enemy from the other then the feels/hatred for his enemy will be boring. Do you get my point? It's like, after defeating one enemy , a new one would come and the cycle goes on. That will be boring.

    I think, the central theme of this season is about sentiment, building deep sentimental relationship among the characters. This season is more on the personal issues than criminal issues.
    Season 1-Introducing and building the characters.. Revealing his archenemy.
    Season 2-solving crimes and fighting against Moriarty
    Season 3-Deepening the relationship among characters
    Season 4-The game is still on with new additional players.

  • marymaurene Feb 18, 2014

    I agree with you about the "human error" theme of is episode. We all make errors in life.

    I also think, it's title, "The Last Vow" actually means Sherlock's vow. Remember in The Signs of Three, he said his "first and last vow" after he played the violin. He said that he will always be there for both John and Mary and he fulfilled this vow when he tried to retrieve all info about Mary. But he failed so he just killed Magnussen. Sherlock is not the kind of person who will kill and damage his reputation. The moment he shot Magnussen and asked John to stay away, I was teary because I realized that he is willing to sacrifice himself just for John and Mary to have a better life. With this, he just fulfilled his "Last Vow", being always there for Watsons.

  • SleepyKoalaWisdom Feb 06, 2014

    John could always name her Sherly!

  • Caviezelized Feb 06, 2014

    Thank you for saying it out loud. While I agree that Freeman and his partner-should-be-wife turned in some stellar acting ("Your past is your affair, your future is my privilege" <3), I completely disagreed with this writing choice. Again with the idea that we have to make a woman a gun-toting female bad-ass in order for her not to be flaky and helpless. Mary was a substantial, smart, strong character without the over-the-top background. As for Magnussen, also agreed that his grossness was ridiculous. I wanted him to have gravitas, unlike Moriarty, and granted he was less annoying overall, but still---peeing in the fireplace, seriously? And licking the woman's face, soooo not necessary. Please, guys, let's TRY to do scary and evil without gross, for once.

  • shootingstar609 Feb 05, 2014

    I had mixed emotions about this episode. The reveal of Mary's past surprised me but I thought it could have been handled better. Though the scene where she accidentally tells John everything thinking she's only talking to Sherlock was well played. I am surprised that he chose to not care about her her past and burn the flash drive without reading anything on it. I think he made a copy and will read it, or Sherlock will, at a later time and thought it best to save face now. At one point I thought a portion of this episode was going to be an intervention for John about his love/obsession/addiction for violence and those involved in it, but I was incorrect. That could have been interesting though! On a different note, I think this season has humanized Mycroft a lot. In seasons 1 and 2 he seemed more like an intelligent mysterious robot than a human being, which is ironic since the show has question Sherlock's humanity. However, this season the audience got to see a different side of Mycroft. He actually seems to care about things and people and their effects. And he has parents, he didn't hatch out of an egg (I always assume that about characters with unknown parentage). This change made the end of episode 3 more convincing with Mycroft lobbying to send Sherlock on a mission to Eastern Europe rather than to jail for killing Magnussen. On that subject, as a "Sherlock" villian, I agree that Magnussen was weak. I have mixed feelings about the decision to kill him off right away. The fact that he did not have a real vault full of documents and it was all in his head is an interesting concept. And with only Sherlock and John knowing the truth about this fact, and no hard evidence to prove it, the ensuing scenarios could have been interesting. With that being said, Sherlock always looks for a complex solution to any problem he's faced with, he always thinks the solution has to be something intelligent and something only he could see. In this case, killing Magnussen was the simple way to make sure he never blackmailed anyone ever again, but it took Sherlock a while to get there and to see that that was the best decision to be made in that situation. This fact in itself helped save the ending to this story. As for Moriarty, "charismatic" and "charming" aren't exactly the words I'd use. As a person, he is extremely off-putting but as a villian he is excellent. I hope it's just some Followers of Moriarty making this move on his behalf.

    No way, Drunk Sherlock is much better than Hobo Sherlock!

  • piinaar Feb 06, 2014

    Totally agree about turning Sherlock into a murderer is a weak decision. Magnussen had a key to past not future, keeping him as a prisoner would have been a better option. About Moriarty, its British TV, the end is the beginning is the end :) , its like Doctor to Daleks.

  • bejt10 Feb 05, 2014

    Amazing season
    Benedict is the best!!!!!!!!!!
    Martin is a brilliant actor
    Martin& Amanda a great tv couple :)

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