Monday, February 03, 2014

His Last Vow

In the moments after "His Last Vow" ended, I felt that this final episode of the third series of Sherlock was my favorite of the batch. But given a little time to reflect, I became less sure of it.

Certainly, this was the most plot driven episode of the lot. Where "The Empty Hearse" and "The Sign of Three" only carved out a handful of minutes for a traditional mystery, "His Last Vow" was predominately about the emergence of Sherlock's new heir apparent to the supervillain role, Charles Augustus Magnussen. Much of his introduction worked. He was oily, unlikeable, and as played by actor Lars Mikkelsen, took command of the screen whenever he appeared.

But that said, the character's actual villainy was less clear. While his threat to control people was clear enough, the fact that we never actually saw an example of him exploiting his information by actually carrying out any threat against someone made him feel all bark and no bite. You had to reach back into "The Empty Hearse" for an example of him actually doing anything, when he was responsible for almost burning Watson alive -- and yet his confession here that he never would have actually let Watson die seemed to undermine that. It simply fell to Sherlock to tell us all how much we should hate Magnussen, and the choice of words he used in doing so illustrated another reason why Magnussen wasn't quite a satisfying villain. Sherlock called him "the Napoleon of blackmail," which certainly seems like a downgrade from "the Napoleon of crime" -- all crime -- that was Moriarty.

I was alarmed at first at the plot twist regarding Watson's new wife Mary. I'd enjoyed so much how the character had fit into the show in the previous two episodes that the revelation here that she was some sort of "bad guy" made me feel like the writers had made a misstep. Fortunately, there was more to this change-up than met the eye. It wasn't about making Mary a new villain for Holmes and Watson, but about serving up another devastating emotional blow to Watson -- and brilliantly showing him rise above it. (Stellar work by Martin Freeman, by the way.)

Of course, an even bigger character moment was in store for Sherlock. The whole episode -- and really, this whole batch of three episodes -- was leading up to this. Sherlock had encountered a problem that had no resolution in cleverness or deduction. He'd spoken of thinking about murder before, as a mental exercise. And now he committed one in reality, gunning down Magnussen in cold blood. It was a shame to lose the new supervillain before he'd even really gotten started, but in service of such a game-changing moment for Holmes? Probably the right choice.

As they were shipping Holmes off to eastern Europe at the end of the episode, it felt false to me. The show had done cliffhangers -- and damn good ones -- at the ends of both previous series. It seemed like the writers were reaching here to try to do the same thing. But then came the twist to save it, as Moriarty literally broke in right as the credits were about to roll to offer us the real cliffhanger. And perhaps it was his final question that exposed the real shortcoming of this episode, this season: "Did you miss me?" Yes. Yes, we did. Although the show was great before Moriarty showed up, it had been merely "pretty good" in this batch of episodes, after he was gone. (How telling was it that his cameo appearances during the first and last episodes were highlights of those episodes?)

The big character moments for Holmes and Watson's made "His Last Vow" enjoyable. But the misfire with Magnussen did make it a bit of a disappointment. In all, I'd say the episode was about average for this third series, which is to say I'd give it a B+. Though still very good in the grand scheme of television, this group clearly fell short of the sky-high standards set by series one and two.

But that doesn't mean I won't be looking forward to series four.

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