Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)
The perennial question when coming to view any piece of drama, whether on the screen or stage, is what we expect to see. For those with visual imaginations, printed words are signals we internalise and use to create “pictures” in our minds. If the writer and director are doing their jobs properly, the images they display will approximate what we expect to see. For some this will mean the selection of props, the work of the costume designer, the set-dressing and the lighting combine to give us credible mis-en-scène. Such viewers can be outraged when anachronisms appear. That make and model of car did not roll off the assembly lines until six months after this action is supposed to be set, they rage. Others have a more flexible view so long as the emotional bones of the story are strong enough to carry the flesh of the action through to the end. That’s why, for example, we can accept stage productions of Shakespeare that relocate plays in time and country, or play with format, even converting a play into a musical that stays faithful to the original. In other words, reinterpreting classics gives us a chance to reappraise the worth of the original. If the story can be universalised, it can be just as good whether it’s acted by same-sex casts, or transferred from Rome to a more contemporary dictatorship, or played for laughs when the original might be thought a tragedy.
So we all know about Sherlock Holmes. He’s one of the most universalised of all characters. Indeed, so valuable are the intellectual property rights to the source stories that litigation still rumbles on in America to decide whether royalties continue payable using plot elements and character traits from later published stories. It’s a remarkable tribute to the creativity of Arthur Conan Doyle that people can still be fighting over commercial exploitation rights. Taking this three-episode season as a single story gives us a chance to reconsider who this Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, how he relates to his parents and brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), and what would happen to his relationship with John Watson (Martin Freeman) when he marries and disappears into a life of domestic bliss. Pivotal characters must exist in a context. If there’s no explicit history, one must be invented. We tend to feel more comfortable if there’s some kind of explanation for the development of such traits and skills. So this season has seen us resurrect our hero, watch him reconstitute the bond with Watson, and act as best man in the wedding with Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). Although that’s actually putting the cart before the horse. Watson was devastated and found consolation in a relationship. This is not a woman seeking out Watson as a means of contacting Sherlock, then thought dead. This is a couple in which each decides to marry other as they are. Watson has returned from the war and lived a life of adventure with Sherlock. What kind of woman would he choose to marry? What kind of man would appeal to Mary and why?
It was interesting we got to meet Sherlock’s parents early on, and Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014) not only gives us the chance to see in Christmas chez Holmes, but also to visit scenes from his childhood with pet dog and older brother. It’s a comprehensive package deal to explain both why Watson should be a “pressure point”, a vulnerability a blackmailer or extortionist might be able to exploit, and why Sherlock’s response to the threat should be so clinical.
Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) is running a formal government inquiry into the influence of the press and we begin with our first look at Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), media mogul and blackmailer. Later when they meet in private, he indicates he has letters and photographs implicating her husband in an underage sex scandal. His implied demand to be exonerated in the inquiry is obvious. Unwilling to give into such threats, she goes to see Sherlock.
Watson’s life of domestic bliss is rather nicely caught by Billy Wiggins (Tom Brooke). Despite his sprained arm, he’s able to see Watson folds his shirts in a way suggesting he’s always ready to leave on an adventure at the drop of the proverbial hat and he cycles to work to keep in shape. Sherlock is apparently working undercover or, at least, that’s his excuse for being under the influence of drugs in a squat — the outrage shown by Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) is nicely played. Back at 221B, a young lady called Janine (Yasmine Akram) (there should be a limerick in there somewhere) is ready to help Sherlock wash those parts that are hard to reach (so much for the gay rumours). If there had been a fire in the flat, Magnussen would have extinguished it by the judicious application of a liquid.
Now here comes the plot. Magnussen is the Napoleon of blackmailers. A stop must be put to him but, without some guarantee that the information he has collected will be kept secret, direct action cannot be taken. So Sherlock has cultivated a relationship with Janine, the crook’s PA who can open doors and let him search her boss’s office. Fortunately, she’s as manipulative as he is so, when she discovers the proposal of marriage is a sham, she sells her kiss-and-tell stories of nightly sex romps to the newspapers and buys a cottage on the Sussex Downs. “There’s beehives but I’m getting rid of those!” shows she and Sherlock would be well matched in a slightly non-canonical way should Molly not be available.
As to the resolution of the story, I’m not sure it makes sense. If there really are source documents, photographs and other physical evidence, it’s unlikely they would be destroyed once memorised. The fact Magnussen might not keep it all in one place does not mean it could not be recovered from storage as and when required. So even though there might not be actual evidence affecting Lady Smallwood and Mary, this would not deny the possibility of hundreds of other people finding evidence exposing their criminal or immoral activities suddenly emerging into the public domain. Perhaps that’s an acceptable price to pay to protect the two clients. And I’m still not absolutely sure why Mary has to shoot Sherlock. Despite these problems, this episode is something of a triumph. There’s genuine emotion on display in the performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington with more than adequate support from the usual cast plus the parents. Lars Mikkelsen is suitably creepy as the villain. Assuming Moriarty (Andrew Scott) is still dead, the video resurrection is intriguing and sets up the next season well. With Sherlock: His Last Vow now broadcast, let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite so long for the next slice of action.
For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)