This 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.
There 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.’
And 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.
- 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.