Sherlock review – Episode 3 Series 3: ‘His Last Vow’

Sherlock His Last VowThis episode was certainly a lot better than the first two, exciting and fun throughout. It wasn’t a return to form though, and the episode followed the series as a whole in containing major flaws that seriously hurt the quality of the show. The first problem is that the writing contains lots of fragile artifice that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. The second is that the writers consistently undermine any emotional or climactic scenes in a desire to provide excitement and plot twists. Combined, they damage the integrity and, for anyone interested in something more than a brief rollercoaster ride, the value of the show.

His Last Vow introduced a new villain in media mogul and professional blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen. Sherlock was hired by a government official to obtain incriminating letters Magnussen was using to control her. A labyrinth episode followed, with John’s wife revealed to be a former CIA asset and assassin. Sherlock later killed Magnussen, and with it his memory of incriminating information, before relying on his brother to get him off a murder charge.

The episode rectified some of the major flaws from the first two parts of the series. Sherlock began as inconsistent in character as in episodes one and two – complaining to John like a stroppy teenager when his undercover disguise was disrupted – but he was broadly a lot colder and inconsiderate. He was no longer dancing around making jokes like a sitcom character. The episode also toned down the whacky comedy and added a frightening and dark threat with its new villain.

Lars Mikkelsen was great as Magnussen, with all his creepy and disgusting behaviour. The Sherlock writers seem to have made him as different from Moriarty as possible, and despite my fears that he wouldn’t work, this new villain made an impact and avoided simply being a rehash of the last one.

The major flaw in the episode, as with all of series three, is the extent it pushed believability. This is a huge problem for Sherlock because the show is built on its cleverness. We all fell in love with the show because it was so smart, constantly fooling the audience; ducking and weaving and twisting and turning. The main character was so incredibly intelligent, so much smarter than the rest of us. But when the show starts taking massive leaps of logic, asking the viewer to turn off their brain, or to not think about things too much, it undermines this central premise. With this episode, the writers built a massively complex structure, but one which falls apart with the slightest pressure.

So take the ending. It turned out that Magnussen had no stockpile of incriminating evidence – it was all memorised in his head. Such a twist. But hold on; all it would take is for one of his victims to challenge him on this. ‘Show me the evidence you have. Nope? Okay, fuck off then.’ In most fiction that deals with blackmail, there’s a point where the victim threatens the blackmailer. ‘Ah, ah,’ says the blackmailer. ‘Kill me and everything will be revealed.’ There is always a dead man’s switch, because without it there’s no dilemma. But Sherlock doesn’t have that, because it wants its twist ending. So we’re left with the most feared man in the UK having a huge exploitable flaw at the heart of his scheming, and the intellectual Sherlock solving a big case by shooting a guy in the head.

Sherlock His Last Vow BBCThere were problems like this all through the episode: The massive coincidence of John marrying someone who Magnussen is blackmailing; Mary trying to kill Magnussen on the exact same night Sherlock breaks into his office; Sherlock being allowed to bring a gun into Magnussen’s home despite being frisked when Magnussen visited Baker Street; Sherlock doing a background search on a guest at John’s wedding but not doing one on the woman his best, indeed only, friend was marrying.

We also got an explanation for John’s entrapment in a burning bonfire. ‘I’d never have let you burn,’ Magnussen said. Look, I don’t care how competent you are, you cannot bury someone in a bonfire and set it on fire and be sure they won’t die. You cannot control all those variables. Wasn’t there a more straightforward way to test Sherlock’s concern for John?

The writers are clearly aware that there needs to be credible explanations for events in the show. Did you notice that John was acting different this episode? Barging into crack-dens and picking fights with knife-wielding drug addicts? That was to make John look reckless, in an attempt to explain the ridiculous coincidence of John choosing, from all the women in London, a former assassin and CIA agent as his wife. He’s just drawn to reckless people and situations, the show argued. But John isn’t reckless. He never acted reckless in previous series. He was always the first to call the police, to rein in Sherlock; always the voice of reason. His actions this episode were out of character. And that’s not even touching on the ludicrous notion that John unconsciously somehow knew that Mary was a secret spy.

The same half-assed explanations were used for Magnussen’s memory bank. The justification the writers gave for the blackmailer having no evidence is that he didn’t need it: ‘I’m in news you moron; I don’t have to prove it. I just have to print it.’ But that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. Magnussen’s attitude might give him a Rupert Murdoch, tabloid power but it’s not going to make him ‘the most dangerous man [Sherlock’s] ever encountered,’ so important in fact that he’s protected by Mycroft and the intelligence services. You need actual incriminating material to do that.

The writers are clearly aware then that credible explanations are needed; they just no longer care to make them that credible. And this all started in minute one of episode one in the series, when the writers decided they could have Sherlock fake his death and then not give a credible explanation for how he did it. In a show in which cleverness is at the heart, stupid writing is a major flaw.

The other big problem is that the show keeps undermining itself. At the end of this episode there was an emotionally charged scene between Sherlock and John. This was the end. Final goodbyes. ‘The last conversation I’ll likely have with John Watson.’ Oh, Wait! He’s back 20 seconds later! Ha Ha!

Nothing in this show carries any weight anymore. Sherlock gives an emotional speech on top of a building. John gets all choked up. Heart-strings are pulled. But he’s not really dead and the explanation is just a big joke involving fanfiction and internet shout-outs. Or Sherlock and John are about to be blown up on a train, and Sherlock sincerely apologises, and John gives a heart-felt speech. But, oh wait, it’s another joke. Or we get a 10 minute long scene of Sherlock using his intelligence to fight desperately against a serious injury, but it turns out that the person who shot him did so in such a way as to injure but not kill him, so he wouldn’t have died anyway.

They did a similar thing with Moriarty’s death. In a live Q&A on the BBC website, Mark Gatiss said this about Sherlock’s ‘suicide’: ‘In The Empty Hearse, Sherlock presents a perfectly acceptable and rational theory as to how he faked his death. Anderson, quite rightly, has some questions about the method but there’s no reason why it didn’t happen like that.’ So, let’s assume that theory is true, and that Sherlock knew all along about Moriarty’s scheming, faked his death in order to fool Moriarty’s criminal network into thinking he was dead, and had Mycroft take care of the assassins waiting to kill Sherlock’s friends.

First of all: that isn’t ‘perfectly acceptable and rational.’ If that is the case, why was Sherlock prancing and preening on the rooftop, getting ready to kill himself, then jumping down because he realised he could get Moriarty to call off the assassins? Why all the drama? Why the big, emotional scene with John? Why even kill himself in such an ostentatious manner at all? Why not just arrest Moriarty 30 minutes into the episode and then fake his death in an easier manner?

In a desire for a twist – Sherlock’s fake suicide cliffhanger – the writers have invalidated an entire episode’s worth of character actions, motivations and emotions. It turns out Moriarty wasn’t an intelligent mastermind, but an easily outwitted criminal. To quote a comment from a Reddit discussion on the show: ‘Without the fear of Moriarty being actually beyond [Sherlock’s] capabilities, the drama completely disappears. The episodes in season three are not only poor, they’re retroactively degrading the prior episodes.’

Moriarty Sherlock His Last VowAnd now Moriarty is back from the dead, making the big emotional goodbye between Sherlock and John a waste of time. Moriarty presumably set up some sort of network and video recordings before his death to allow himself to keep manipulating Sherlock. There are two problems with this. The first is that I’m not sure how they can do this without it becoming ludicrous. This is, after all, what was done in the increasingly awful Saw films. How much of a credible threat can a dead Moriarty really be?

Secondly, we don’t know if Moriarty really is dead, as idiotic as that would be. I no longer trust these writers. Maybe Moriarty had a hollowed-out tunnel in his head for the bullet to go through. Maybe he will come back as a zombie next series. Maybe, as with Sherlock’s fake death, they just won’t bother giving us a credible explanation at all.

Sherlock is like a comic book now. It’s a world populated by superheroes and supervillains with fantastical abilities, a world where a main character’s wife turns out to be a secret CIA assassin, where people die emotional deaths and come back from them no problem without credible explanation. It is no longer smart. And for a show about the world’s greatest detective, whose core attributes are his intelligence, reason and logic, that is a major problem.

Random notes:

  • A fourth series of Sherlock has already been commissioned, and ideas for a fifth mapped out. I genuinely, sincerely look forward to it with the hope that they can make some major changes and return to the quality of the first two seasons.
  • The acting throughout the series, from Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in particular, was as impeccable as always.
  • Character inconsistencies were a problem in all three episodes. In this one, the meek Molly started slapping Sherlock, the man she is supposed to be intimidated by.
  • From where did Magnussen get his very detailed info on Sherlock, including knowledge of Redbeard – his pet dog who was put down? My guess is that, as utterly unbelievable as it sounds, the writers won’t bother ever telling us.
  • Mycroft made some cryptic reference to an ‘other’ brother. This should be really interesting, but, again, I no longer trust the writers. Who knows what they’ll do with this, if anything.
  • How did Mary get into Magnussen’s office? It took a proposal from Sherlock to get in. Oh, that’s right: Mary is a super assassin. It all makes sense.
  • I liked the part where Sherlock had to manage his gunshot wound but they took it too far. I can understand him being able to make decisions on which way to fall, but he can hardly manage shock while unconscious, or restart his heart through sheer force of will.
  • ‘You’re working for Sherlock now?’ ‘Keeps me of the streets, doesn’t it?’ ‘Well, no.’
  • The fake building with the vent for old steam trains behind it is real. You can find some photos here.
  • Sherlock’s parents are played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s real-life parents, actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, info I got from the BBC Q&A.
  • ‘He’s not a dragon for you to slay.’ ‘A dragon-slayer. Is that what you think of me?’ ‘No. It’s what you think of yourself…’
  • ‘You have more utility closer to home.’ ‘Utility. How do I have utility?’ ‘Here be dragons.’
  • This was doing the rounds on Twitter last night. Something to bear in mind the next time Steven Moffat speaks publicly about Sherlock.
  • There was a nice line at the start of the show from Magnusson, in reply to a question from the Parliamentary committee: ‘I have an excellent memory.’ If only the rest of the episode, and of series three, was as smart as that.

Sherlock Reviews: Episode One, Episode Two

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22 thoughts on “Sherlock review – Episode 3 Series 3: ‘His Last Vow’

  1. My thoughts exactly… Thank you for formulating almost everything I felt on watching this season. Let’s hope the writers will also listen to this type of comments and not only lend an ear to the raving reviews I have read so far – in utter disbelief – for the next season. I’m so disappointed with what they’ve turned my favourite show into.

    • Cheers. Most British TV reviews in general are really forgiving; a show as ambitious and popular as Sherlock was never going to get negative reviews over here. There was a negative one in The Independent, and some slight rumblings over the first two episodes but that was about it. Perfect was the general critical consensus.

      I hope the writers do react to the fan criticism though, because I used to really love this show.

  2. Totally agree!
    Despite their failure to explain Sherlock’s death in the first episode, I was sort of hoping they’d somehow explain it in this one, but nope.
    Also, the show isn’t even clever anymore, the first line “I have an excellent memory” had me thinking that Magnussen probably had a mind palace. And if /I/ can think that, then Sherlock should have guessed it ages ago. When Sherlock checked Magnussen’s glasses and they were just normal specs, at least he should have guessed it then. Because I did. And I’m not even 1/10th as intelligent as Sherlock is supposed to be. So disappointed in this series.

  3. Thank you for the review. There were only parts of the 3 episodes that I have liked.I am so upset by this series – I won’t be buying the DVD. I do not like this Mary -I do not like that there is going to be a baby (yes there will be a baby – John could care less about Mary’s past & the pregnancy is too far along to hand-wave away) – I do not want to watch the adventures of john watson & his toddler solving the crimes his wife commits. The only thing missing from HLV was a cut away of Mary scaling the outside of the building because how else to explain how she got to Magnussen’s (sp) guarded -private office. Did she come from some unguarded back way or drop in through the roof a la Tom Cruise -Mission Impossible style? Please remember that Mary is pregnant at this time – lucky her not to be suffering with nausea. It’s also so sad that the only POC were a single black mum whose son is a crack addict. When people talk about strong competent credible female characters I do not think of Mary & Molly – I think of Sally Donovan and Ella (John’s Psychiatrist) but of course they couldn’t get a look in this last episode. I couldn’t believe the dismissive hand-wave from Mycroft to Lestrade- where did that come from?? Greg is a DCI with NSYard…he’s not some lackey. He probably saved your little brother’s life by keeping him out of prison for drugs or helped to get him clean once upon a time ago and Mycroft, who I used to love, just waved him away like he was some low-level goon. I love the stories from canon and was very hopeful to actually see them re-worked in a new way – not rushed through in a best man’s speech and as asides. Oh well, it was very sweet for me while it lasted.

    • It’s always good to hear the view of someone who read the original stories. I’ve not read them myself so, writing these reviews, I wasn’t sure if I was on the same wavelength as people who have. I know the writers went a long way in the past to make the show enjoyable for fans of the Conan Doyle stories so if even you guys are getting frustrated they must be fucking up. Thanks for the comment.

    • The one suggestion I might offer is about how Mary infiltrated the office – I imagine it was the same way as Sherlock, leveraging her friendship with the p.a to talk her way in. I guess the inference is that Mary too befriended and sustained the friendship with this woman simply because she had access to Magnusson’s office. Another huge gap in logic that a p.a would be able to bypass all the security measures for a mastermind with powerful enemies and just buzz them both in like it was an apartment block, but hey, while we’re watching season 3 with all the gaping plot holes why not.

  4. Lots of great points well made.

    Overall I have been much easier on this season of Sherlock despite some flaws; I just feel so much goodwill towards the show that I’m not letting myself notice the missed beats.

    However, what would be fatal to my enjoyment would be a continuation of the constant undermining of dramatic moments which you point out above. Some of the editing contributes to this in my opinion. There have been moments the show has been reminiscent of a Simon Pegg effort with super quick jump cuts being used to excess.

    The one thing which already has detracted from my enjoyment is Watson’s inexplicable nonchalance regarding his lying wife’s apparently murderous past. He doesn’t even want to know? Why not!?

    I’m pretty sure that the ending made Julian Assange take down his Benedict Cumberbatch poster too.

    • Cheers man. The more I think about that ending the more it annoys me. A character whose main trait is his super intelligence shouldn’t be solving the case by shooting a guy in the head and hoping his brother can click his fingers and get him off a murder charge.

      I never noticed the editing problems but apparently the directer from previous series was busy this season and couldn’t do any episodes. Might explain the drop in quality you noticed.

      • I agree, the gun shot to the head was more of a Rambo ending than a Sherlock Holmes one. I was thinking that Sherlock would deduce a pressure point for Magnusson, and leverage that to force him to abandon his blackmailing ways. it would be far more satisfying and true to c. o’doyles Sherlock.

        I mean, if he was going to kill anyone, why would he choose Magnusson who merely manipulated powerful people over, say, Moriarty who blew up an old lady and a dozen bystanders just for fun?

  5. LOL I have guessed that Sherlock would shoot Magnussen when he confirmed with Mag that there is no any proofs. This is too disappointing…

  6. Sherlock has always been unrealistic (in a good way), but usually the various elements of the show balanced in a way that made you forgive the implausible crimes and convenient plot holes. Sherlock and John would investigate a weird, complex mystery, there’d be some banter or some hard-hitting emotional stuff when appropriate, and everything would pay off nicely at the end, and you’d forget that an acrobat broke into a freaking skyscraper window just to spray an inexplicably public death threat on the walls.

    This series, though, the mysteries seemed like sloppy afterthoughts, so flimsy and cartoonish that couldn’t hope to balance out the melodrama, coincidences and self-indulgent comedy bits cluttering 75% of each episode. For the plots to function at all, the bad guys had to be complete idiots. Why did Lord Moran use a timer if he was activating the bomb remotely? Why didn’t the photographer realize Sherlock was in the process of solving the case, and at least run away from the wedding if he’d already stabbed his victim? (For that matter, why did he try to kill an innocent soldier to rehearse getting his revenge on a guy who killed innocent soldiers?) Why did Magnussen — supposedly a genius and a master of manipulation — commit the ultimate villain cliché and gloat his way to defeat? Combine these and other blunders with Sherlock being decidedly off his game, as pointed out in these reviews, and the result is a pretty unrewarding set of episodes.

    I won’t deny that there was some good stuff buried in there. The acting was great, as you mention. It was fun to see Sherlock and Mycroft’s parents, even if they weren’t relevant to the story. While Sherlock near-death sequence went on too long and got pretty cheesy (especially when he was pulling himself up the stairs), I did like the idea of different people helping him, even Moriarty (“You always feel it, Sherlock. But you don’t have to FEAR IT!”). The confrontation in the empty house was well done, and although it was ridiculous for Sherlock to risk John’s life in the dark like that, I have to admit I didn’t see the reveal coming. Finally, while I definitely think it could have been significantly reined in or even saved for a Comic Relief short, a lot the humour did work for me in the moment, so I can’t complain about it too much. Mycroft suffering through Les Misérables… heh.

    • ‘For that matter, why did he try to kill an innocent soldier to rehearse getting his revenge on a guy who killed innocent soldiers?’
      excellently put, that one hadn’t occurred to me! I would also add that the entire complex murder plot was dependant on the commander wearing his military outfit with that particular type of belt to the wedding.. I mean, what if wore a tux like everyone else? *sigh*

  7. Well, I suppose I agree with the most part of your review. The lack of explanations to Sherlocks fake death annoys me so much, along with this sort of twist in the characters personality and everything (John beeing this crazy psycho-atracted-men does not suit him at all!) But somehow, it all seems to me like the third season was just a season between second and fourth, and all those explanations will come along when Moriarty’s return will be explained. I like to think, for the sake of the qualite of the series, that all is part of a bigger plot. And for sure I think Sherlock knew about the Magnussen’s mind palace, I guess this was sort of a plan ahead.

    In other hand, this season was great for the Mycroft/Sherlock relationship and I look forward to have as many interactions between they as possible. I liked how this season was lighter, cheerfull, but only if it mean a bigger greater season 4 is coming to blow our minds. 😉

    • I’m scared about what the writers will do with season 4. I can just imagine Moriarty and Magnusson both turning up alive and joining forces, and Sherlock finding out his dog Redbeard is also still alive and taking him on as a extra sidekick like Scooby doo haha

      • And perhaps Sherlock’s protege, Wiggins, can help Uncle Sherlock with the soiled nappies as the two of them babysit while mum and dad Watson embark on their own dangerous, but oh so romantically charming adventures. Much family friendly hilarity is sure to ensue. I can hardly wait.

  8. Excellent review, very much agree! It was indeed painful to see how the whole intricate structure built up by the writers in Series 1 and 2 was torn down bit by bit in Series 3. Extremely disappointing. One thing that also annoyed me no end was the ‘cosy family fun’ aspect (see also Oliver’s comment above). I mean, Christmas at Sherlock’s parents’ house….? Of course, it must have been great fun for the actors to bring in their loved ones: John’s real life wife/girlfriend, Sherlock’s real-life parents…. Next to arrive will no doubt be John’s kids, in Series 4. It all seems so self-indulgent – fun for the actors, yes, less so for the audience. And frankly, if I wanted to watch a romantic family sitcom, I’d be watching the Bold and the Beautiful or My Family or something.

  9. First of all thank you for this great review. I actually enjoyed parts 1 and 2 of this season quite okay, but that’s most likely because I have read the major part of ACD’s Holmes stories (some of them a couple of times actually) and seen quite some adaptation (including the Russian series from 1970s-1980s) and like to see the authors of this show to bring something new to the Holmes universe (not just adapting the old stuff in the modern way which might be a bit boring when you remember who the murders, burglars, etc. are by name). Believe it or not I also liked Mary in parts 1 and 2 and couldn’t stop laughing at the replay of the scene from the original The Empty House (the old man offering the porn DVDs) or the crack den scene which again copies a scene from one of the original stories.

    But, the big BUT of this season is indeed the inconsistency. ACD’s Sherlock Holmes does indeed date (Magnussen)/Milverton’s servant girl in the original books and gains the access to his house through her information. But the house can be broken in quite easily – so the second visitor of the night is not surprising (not Mary, mind you, Mrs. Watson is dead by this point, ironically – by the estimation of the fans – most likely due to a childbirth). Also, when the other person shoots Milverton, they have a very validate reason and the woman is one of the very few criminals Holmes and Watson let to get away unpunished.

    One of my big, BIG problems with part 3 of season 3 is WHY THE HELL DID MARY NOT KILL MAGNUSSEN AT THIS POINT? Shooting already happened there, so there must have been some investigation for sure – and, honestly, both Magnussen and Sherlock were so very sure the other would keep quiet concerning the identity of the shooter that they never told the name to anyone??? And Mycroft would not guess and would be willing to spend Christmas with a person who almost killed his brother? And even bring her to the house of his parents? No, sorry, this doesn’t make a sense at all.

    Thanks for pointing out the other things and sharing with us!

    • Cheers, thanks for the comment. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts of people who read the books. I don’t know why Mary didn’t just shoot Magnussen – I’m sure they stuck some reason in there and I’m equally sure that reason would fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. A lot of these three episodes didn’t make enough sense.

  10. Oh god, yes (my best Watson impersonation!) Thank you very much for that review. Season 3 of that tv show (which i was really fully captivated by) was really a bit of a let down. And it seems wherever i turn, wherever i read, people are still fully head over heels and entirely convinced that it must be some great story-telling arc and their immense trust into the writing capilities of Moffat and Gattis stands unwavering. It is a bit frustrating, really. In my case there is that bit of disappointment and i cannot just shake it off.
    The writers had made quite an effort to present us a character who is super-smart, clever, not easily fooled, who sees and deduces things which others never really glimpsed. Fine, that is Sherlock for me. I am also fine with character development but the Sherlock we see in season 3 is just a far cry from how they portrayed him in the past 2 seasons. So character development is fine but character quantum jumps? My fear is that they are influenced by the fandom out there. Again, people try to convince me that is not the case but this is what i see.
    I personally can live with the fact that they didn’t give us a real solution as how Sherlock faked his death. Not that much of an issue for me. Even though they have made those claims there is that one hint that no one caught upon. Btw, which hint was it? Guess puff is part of the trade.
    So in season 1 and 2 Sherlock is that super sleuth, he figures everything and everyone out. In season 3 he seems lost, he seems to be the one who is never understanding a thing. He is outsmarted by Mary, he is outsmarted by CAM. His solution? Shoot him, no biggie. Really?
    So many things i was not happy with. Molly hitting him in the face, not once, not twice, but three times? As in really? I could understand her loosing her temper and hit him once, in the heat of the moment cause he is not clean of drugs. But this is the man she loves (and still does, i am sure) so the normal reaction would be to stop cold and maybe fall around his neck and apologise but not repeating that 2 more times. Fully utterly unrealistic!
    Sherlock drugging his parents, his brother and the heavily pregnant Mary?? Really? And John only showing a little moment of concern? It is all no problem? Her being an assassin and it is no problem (ooooookay, he was sulking for a moment but then? oh, no big deal)
    Magnussen not having any real material to blackmail someone for real and it is all just in his head? If anything Sherlock should have had laughing fits when he found out.
    I was also wondering how Mary got into that highly secured office (Alcatraz pales in comparison!) and i was also told by others that maybe it was also Janine who let her in. Wait, what? She just lets anyone in? It surely got a bit crowded in there and i was asking myself (not really!) who would sit butt-naked on the copy machine first during this office party (sorry, to ridicule it a bit is my way to somehow cope!)
    This show is pretty much in danger to go downhill which is a real shame! I actually don’t know what the problem is? the writers being too self-assured? (i cannot even believe it because they come across really intelligent and really cool!) The pressure? (which they say isn’t there) The immense fandom? I just don’t know.
    I can’t say i wait as eagerly for season 4 as i have waited for season 3. My prediction for season 4? I don’t have any other that they won’t be able to re-create the immense viewer amount which they got for S3/1

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