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?

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 1/12/2014

Season 3 : Episode 3

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