Friday 7 February 2014

Sherlock - His Last Vow

I rarely come away from watching something without a decent idea of what I think of it. I’m often unwilling to voice my opinion immediately, as I’m often thinking about a number of small details in my mind, but nonetheless I have a clear overall opinion. Subsequent viewings may modify that opinion a little (as I notice things I may have missed the first time), but that doesn’t mean I was confused about my original opinion. On rare occasions, however, when the end credits of a programme roll, I have little to no idea what to think of what I’ve watched. The finale of Series 3 of Sherlock, “His Last Vow” by Steven Moffat, is one such time.

In my review of the previous episode, “The Sign of Three”, I commented on the fact that the middle episodes of each series tend to be the weakest. I pondered whether this would be true of “The Sign of Three” as well. I considered it weaker than the series opener, even though overall I liked the episode. If the drawn-out jokes were cut down (making the episode somewhat shorter), it could have been a brilliant episode, so there was still the possibility that it might buck the trend and not be the weakest episode of the series. Having now seen “His Last Vow”, I suppose I can say that this series has indeed bucked the trend—if only because “His Last Vow” has completely muddled things.

After a couple viewings of “His Last Vow”, I can say that I do enjoy it—more or less. In fact, there’s a lot that’s brilliant about it. There’s so much in this episode trying to burst out and be seen and heard, so many interesting plot turns and story ideas. But that is the major problem with the episode as well: so many. Too many in fact. Like a lot of Steven Moffat’s writing, “His Last Vow” tries to do too much. The story jumps around all over the place, with plot twists, flash-forwards, and flashbacks. By the end, you no longer seem to be watching the same show you started watching at the beginning. Major revelations are dropped in virtually out of nowhere—including a totally out-of-the-blue cliff-hanger.

So I now realize the source of my confliction after my first viewing. I do enjoy the episode. It’s fun and exciting. But it’s not satisfying. All those fun and exciting things fail to develop sufficiently because each one has to be quickly shoved aside to make way for the next exciting twist. The story lacks the heart that both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” have in spades. “His Last Vow” just sort of is. It comes along, you have some fun, and then it’s gone. And afterwards you’re left wondering, what exactly was the point?


The opening of the episode has a number of scenes of Sherlock acting completely out of character—but in a good way, because that’s the entire point. Sherlock, himself, is putting on an act to draw the attention of Charles Augustus Magnussen (played wonderfully by Lars Mikkelsen) and to make him believe he has pressure points over Sherlock when they negotiate for the letters of Lady Smallwood’s husband. However, after establishing this, things don’t quite play out this way. By fortune’s chance, Magnussen has brought the actual letters with him, so Sherlock decides to break into Magnussen’s office to steal them—a possibility he has already arranged for through his “girlfriend” Janine, who happens to work for Magnussen.

This marks the first of many changes of direction in “His Last Vow”. All things considered, this is a pretty small one, and the narrative moves into this change quite naturally. But that’s barely started when it changes direction again. Someone else has broken into Magnussen’s office as well and is trying to kill Magnussen. This person is none other than John’s new wife Mary. The story then becomes about Mary—sort of—and the revelation that she used to be an assassin or spy or something. The story’s focus is on her attempting to stop Sherlock from telling John—until, of course, he does, and the story then splits its focus between John and Mary making up, and returning to Magnussen and the revelation that his entire plan has been to get at Sherlock’s brother Mycroft!

And that little summary still leaves out a whole lot.

It’s not a bad or even unusual thing for a story to become something different than it appears to be at first. Some of the best stories follow this route. However, “His Last Vow” can’t quite decide what it’s about. Is it about Holmes’s addiction? Is it about Magnussen? Is it about Mary’s past? Is it about John Watson being drawn to violence and adventure? A story can certainly be about multiple things and there’s no doubt “His Last Vow” wants to be about all these things and more. Unfortunately, there just isn’t space for all of them, and the story refuses to choose any over the others.

His Last Vow” also tries desperately to be a character story, but doesn’t quite succeed. One of the things I like most about “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” is that they’re both great character stories. Through those stories, the characters (principally Sherlock, John, and Mary) develop and grow as people, and the viewers learn about them and grow with them. “His Last Vow” seems to want to do the same thing, except that these people who were once characters have become more caricatures. We’re not really offered any new insights into them. The implications of Sherlock’s drug addiction are pretty much abandoned and forgotten after the opening third of the story. His callous use of Janine is resolved in a quick scene where she reveals she’s gotten her revenge on him by selling their story to the tabloids before heading off contentedly. On the one hand, I like that she doesn’t just let him get away with using her, but this quick resolution also completely avoids Sherlock having to suffer any lasting consequences for his actions. The effect of Mary’s secret past on her and John’s marriage is similarly quickly dealt with by a time-jump to when John makes up with her and then they’re back to the same relationship they had before, completely sidestepping any consequences.

And speaking of Mary... I really, really liked Mary when she wasn’t an assassin. She was intelligent and observant, but not unusually so (despite this episode’s flashbacks attempting to make her seem so). She could hold her own in a conversation with Sherlock without letting him run her down (the way Molly does), and she was a perfect contrast to John while also being a completely believable partner for John. Yet now she also has a secret past.

The revelation that a character has a secret past can have one of three effects on the audience. When done well, the revelation is a complete surprise but also leaves the viewer thinking, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense.” In these cases, the revelation has been subtly signposted in advance, with just enough information provided to make the viewer’s subconscious partly aware of the truth. The second kind comes about when the signposting is too obvious. In this case, the revelation does not come across as a surprise at all. It makes sense, but the viewer has been expecting it all along. The final kind leaves the viewer completely surprised and thinking, “Huh?” It’s this final kind that I found myself experiencing when Mary’s secret was revealed in this episode.

As I said above, the episode uses flashbacks to show all the “hints” that have been laid to point towards Mary’s secret—except they’re really not all that exceptional. The skip code is the one that points most towards Mary being some sort of intelligence operative, but by itself doesn’t really point to much. Having a good memory and being an orphan? Not exceptional at all. I certainly see that having a good memory is a useful thing for being a spy or assassin. Perhaps combined with enough other things that are good qualities for assassins, this could work as a pointer, but those other things aren’t there. But the biggest problem is that there is nothing about her character that points to this secret. She has never behaved in any way that would give any indication that she was any kind of killer.

And I have to wonder why making her one is even necessary. It comes across as an attempt to prove that she is a “strong female character”. She needs to be able kick ass in a fight, so let’s put a gun in her hand and make her an expert markswoman. But that’s not what makes a character “strong” (unless you’re talking about physical strength). Good, strong characters have personality and motivations. They develop and grow naturally. Good characters absolutely can have secrets and those secrets can sometimes turn out to be past lives as assassins—but only if it makes sense for the individual character. “Strong” characters don’t have to be able to kick ass in a fight. They don’t have to possess perfect marksmanship. They just have to be people. This is true whether they’re male, female, or anything else. Mary, as we’ve come to know her in “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” (and even in this episode, honestly), does not make sense as an assassin. Making her one does not make her a “strong female character”. In fact, it actually does the opposite here, as it reduces her to a plot device. But I guess that answers my question of why it’s necessary. She is completely a plot device in this episode; her “story” is really John’s story, how he chose her, how he must come to terms with her. Mary ends up losing those things that made her great in the previous episodes—particularly her agency (everything she does in this story she does because circumstances force her to).

One character who is handled reasonably well in “His Last Vow” is Charles Augustus Magnussen. He is established as suitably creepy and intelligent, and the fact that he also has a “mind palace” like Sherlock is a nice way to establish that Sherlock and his brother are perhaps not as unique in the world as they like to think they are.

That said, the series is starting to take Sherlock’s mind palace a little too far. I commented in my review of “The Sign of Three” that I felt the point-of-view scenes of Sherlock working things out were too drawn out. The same problem rears its head even more so in one particular scene in “His Last Vow”: when Mary shoots Sherlock. The fight for life inside Sherlock’s head goes on way too long. It loses all tension. As viewers, we know that it’s extremely unlikely that Sherlock will die. But even though we know this, it’s still possible to create tension surrounding his possible death. The heat of the moment can make us “forget” this fact and actually start to believe that maybe—just maybe—this time he’s had it. However, the scene inside Sherlock’s head allows far too much time for viewers to realize they’re being duped. The sequence lasts a full seven minutes! Viewers only need a fraction of that time to remember that Sherlock will survive. The tension can be maintained for a little while after that point with the question, How?, but even that can’t keep it going for seven minutes. To make matters worse, the entire point of this scene is subsequently undone with the revelation that Mary purposely shot to injure, not to kill. She wanted him to live. So the whole mind-over-matter survival is not how Sherlock actually survives. He survives because it isn’t a fatal wound so long as he gets quick medical attention, which Mary makes sure he gets. So the whole sequence in Sherlock’s head becomes nothing more than filler.

That said, I do like the use of Moriarty during this sequence. The way Sherlock chooses to remember him works beautifully, and I love the line, “You’re going to love being dead, Sherlock. No one ever bothers you.” This is a much better “return” for Moriarty than what we’re treated to in the cliffhanger.

Even after my first viewing, when I still wasn’t sure of my overall view of the episode, I knew I didn’t like that cliffhanger. Moriarty was a great villain, and I really like what Sherlock did with him in the first two series. But he died. He should stay dead. I am so, so tired of Steven Moffat pulling out the reset button. “Did you miss me?” No. No, I didn’t.

There were a number of little things that stood out to me. Towards the end, at Sherlock and Mycroft’s parents’ home, Sherlock can be seen reading a newspaper. The headline says, “Lord Smallwood suicide”. Lord Smallwood is, presumably, the husband of Lady Smallwood, the woman who hires Sherlock at the very beginning. The headline is very easy to miss and I only noticed it by chance on my second viewing and had to go back to double-check that I had read it correctly. Lady Smallwood is mostly forgotten about after the opening portion of this episode, but she does feature in several government intelligence scenes with Mycroft towards the end, in which she seems completely unaffected by her husband’s death. Why include a detail like this if it doesn’t affect the story in any way? It certainly doesn’t add any resolution to Lady Smallwood’s story (even if it were more noticeable, it wouldn’t) so just seems like a bit of pointless morbidity.

I was also a little bothered by Sherlock’s mother having given up a career in mathematics to have a family. It’s possible for a woman to both have a career and be a mother, but it’s a choice that is woefully under-represented in media. It would have been a nice touch for her to be a successful mathematician who also happens to have a family. But Sherlock’s parents are supposed to be “normal” and I guess that wouldn’t make them normal enough. So why include it at all?

Finally, is it really that easy to adjust morphine doses? Can patients in hospitals really just lean over and turn a dial the way Sherlock does multiple times (and Janine claims to have done as well)? If so, it seems incredibly negligent on the part of the hospital. Yes, it makes for some humorous scenes and is thus a pretty minor nitpick, but I couldn’t help but wonder.

All that said, I do enjoy “His Last Vow”. Despite its problems, most of the individual moments are actually quite fun to watch. Even though the narrative jumps around all over the place, the episode is very well paced and the tension doesn’t let up (apart from in the overly long near-death experience). Having Sherlock kill Magnussen (rather than one of his former victims like in the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, upon which this story is loosely based) is a bold move. I don’t really expect Steven Moffat to have this affect Sherlock in any meaningful way (it’s that whole no consequences thing), but it opens the door for the possibility and I would love for Moffat to prove me wrong.

So now, at the end of Series Three of Sherlock, I find the elation I experienced at the beginning of the series mostly drained away. It had a great start, but an unsatisfying ending. “His Last Vow” is a story with such wonderful potential. It could have been so much better than it is if it had just focused itself a little more and followed through on some of its ideas. The ending leaves me with doubts about Series Four. I’ll definitely still be watching because doubts can easily be wiped away with a good story. But I’m really not looking forward to Moriarty’s return and that’s going to leave me rather cautious.



    1. Interesting. So the patients have some limited control, but can't adjust the settings themselves. Thanks for that!