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Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Sherlock DVD

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?

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Lars Mikkelsen explore

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Lars Mikkelsen explore

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.

Mary (Amanda Abbington) showing off nifty headware

Mary (Amanda Abbington) showing off nifty headware

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)

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)

January 29, 2014 3 comments

SS3

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014) is full of potential significance. If we take the first episode in the season as confirming Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) intentionally betrayed the friendship he had with John Watson (Martin Freeman), then this episode must be seen as an attempt to repair the damage. Agreeing to act as the best man at the wedding is both sides going above and beyond the call of duty. Like Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), I can’t imagine anyone less appropriate to take the best man role. That Watson should ask him has two implications. First it shows some degree of exclusivity in the relationship they share. You would think, after a life spent in the army and then in civilian life, Watson would have made one or two friends. Yet that seems not to be the case. I remind myself he was going through counselling in the first season which suggests a difficulty in making and keeping friends. Trading on this relationship with Sherlock is therefore a cruel and unusual punishment for all involved. That Holmes agrees ought to suggest he also feels he should do something about the loneliness and isolation he experiences — but that would never happen.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

The deductive interlude with Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) and the hat in the last episode was really a parable about loneliness. On that occasion, Holmes presumed to offer advice to Mycroft about the need for the latter to take some action to remedy the absence of social contacts. One interpretation of his decision to act as best man would perhaps be that he’s also evaluating the need to reconstitute the friendship with Watson and not completely alienate everyone else. No matter how maladroit he is, failing to relate to people around him eventually becomes a barrier to getting paid work through networking and word-of-mouth recommendation. Yet Mycroft is adamant in his advice that Sherlock should never get involved with other people. Indeed, this episode sees Mycroft repaying his brother’s advice, asserting that friendship makes Sherlock vulnerable, i.e. opens him to the risk of emotional pain when colleagues desert him to get married. This does leave us wondering what, if anything will happen on the Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) front. We’ve seen Sherlock give her a sample of what life with him would be like and we then have the rather curious physical similarity between her boyfriend and Sherlock. It’s obvious she still has feelings for Sherlock, but is currently expressing them through this replicant. Perhaps both in this series and all the other screen and literary incarnations, Holmes is forever doomed to be on his own — a kind of victim of his own genius — particularly when he shows his frustration at having no current puzzles to occupy his mind.

Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Louise Brealey

Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Louise Brealey

So we start off with Lestrade (Rupert Graves) deeply frustrated that the bank robbing Waters family yet again avoided conviction — this proves simply a time-wasting device to show the potential for Sherlock to produce chaos inadvertently. Having agreed to act as best man and as a high-functioning sociopath, Sherlock takes it on himself to police the people around Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), seeking to filter out those who may still have dreams of a relationship with her or otherwise be a threat. This does not include Major Sholto (Alistair Petrie). Unlike Mycroft who refuses to take the part of the spectre at the feast, preferring solitary running on a machine in his country house, Sholto appears at the wedding with interesting consequences. The best man speech is, of course, embarrassingly hilarious. Yet the whole exercise is mandated because Watson asserted that Sherlock is his best friend. He wanted just two people to be beside him at the wedding feast (no matter what the cost). The pub crawl only lasting two hours should have sounded a warning bell. The nurse with the ghost client is an interesting diversion because it nicely continues the loneliness theme. The five women dated by the invisible man are romanced and left alone. Fortunately, no matter how lonely Major Sholto my be, he’s far too much the gentleman. He would never commit suicide at John’s wedding. So that leaves Holmes standing alone with the chance to be the first to go home after admitting to John and Mary that they have had significant experience in parenting through having to deal with his apparent childishness.

All of which leaves me somewhat frustrated. I think there’s a very good episode buried in there somewhere but, probably because it has to last 90 (or so) minutes, Sherlock: The Sign of Three is overextended and ends up being too knowingly clever for its own good.

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 3. His Last Vow (2014)

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)

January 26, 2014 2 comments

Sherlock Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)

Sherlock: Season 3, episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014) is the resolution of one of television’s greatest cliffhangers — how did Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) avoid death when he jumped off St Barts hospital roof? There are only a limited number of ways in which this could have been arranged. Endless hard copy and online articles, comments,and forum posts have speculated. So now we come to the big reveal as Mark Gatiss, the clever scriptwriter, explains how his version of the magic trick was performed. The opening minutes replay several of the possibilities: that someone took the body of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and dressed it as Sherlock, while Sherlock did a bungee jump and crashed through a window where the testosterone rush could be channelled into constructive activity. The hypnotist arriving to implant suggestions in the mind of John Watson (Martin Freeman) has a fanciful air about it, but it’s all part-and-parcel of the enthusiasm with which fans have taken up the challenge of second-guessing the script and everyone is entitled to see some of the theories tested out on the small screen. Meanwhile, Sherlock remains “dead”, using the time to track down and dismantle Moriarty’s network.

Two years later, the news media are abuzz. The police have confirmed the nature of the set-up to destroy Sherlock’s reputation. This rehabilitation of the Sherlock name empowers Mycroft who, for once, goes undercover to track down his brother. They meet up in Serbia where Sherlock’s somehow having a bad hair day. It seems there’s a need for his skills back in London. You can tell how desperate the times have become because Watson has grown a mustache. Even Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) finds this exuberance of hair distressing. She thinks it makes him look old enough to be a Hobbit. So there’s this chatter: a terrorist cell is planning something spectacular. Only Sherlock can save the day. It’s time for the resurrection. Although I’m not at all clear why he has to come back to life to catch these dangerous people. Surely he could sneak up on them without them noticing?

John Watson (Martin Freeman)  is guided on his choice of wine by  Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

John Watson (Martin Freeman) is guided on his choice of wine by Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

There’s a nice piece of byplay over whether Watson is proposing to marry a woman. It’s so soon after Sherlock died, etc. The whole question of a gay relationship between our dynamic duo has been grist to the mill for fannish speculators, but coming from Mrs Hudson, it seems slightly unsavory. And, to complete the surprise of his return to the land of the living, Sherlock bursts into the restaurant where the oblivious Watson is waiting to propose to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), his intended (and Martin Freeman’s partner in the real world — it keeps all the plum roles in the family, as it were). The face-to-face discussion of why Sherlock never let even a hint of his survival come Watson’s way is meant to be entertaining. Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs Hudson are less confrontational. To get the investigation underway, the Irregulars are triggered — they never really thought he was dead anyway. As is required for a Sherlock Homes episode, we then have a deduction session. It’s padding out a few minutes as Sherlock and Mycroft consider a hat but it ends up revealing in that Sherlock uses the “game” to suggest Mycroft is lonely and should do something about it. Who knew he cared? As a reward for helping him fake his death, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) is drafted in to replace John. Boring clients are intercut with boring patients as John stubbornly refuses to leave the practice.

The introduction of the man who disappears from the last car on the underground train is the first sign of possible terrorist action. The episode then catches fire with John’s elevation to the status of guy-about-town. It’s a nice touch but the date should have been better trailed. The only thing left to fill out a few more minutes is the arrival of Sherlock’s disgustingly normal parents. This is amusing for five seconds and then we’re looking for afoot to get the game in motion.

The task for this episode is to balance three completely different elements. We have to be led over the resurrection hump so Sherlock can get back on to the immediate case. It doesn’t really matter whether any of the explanations tendered are convincing. All they have to do is be vaguely appropriate, make us smile, and give Holmes and Watson a chance to reach some kind of accommodation so they can work together again. Then there’s the terrorism case. This is not so original, rerunning the Guy Fawkes trope through V for Vendetta. But I suspect the intention was to produce a climax to give our two heroes a chance to clear the air even though the bomb is turned into a kind of joke at Watson’s expense.

Amanda Abbington accepts Watson's proposal

Amanda Abbington accepts Watson’s proposal

Although the first element starts well in the restaurant and the A&E department, I think the joke is milked just a little too much. Indeed, the script seeks to draw humour from Watson’s distress and grief during the two year period he believed Holmes to be dead. The current anger is entirely justified since Holmes offers absolutely no explanation of why Watson could not have been trusted with the truth. Indeed, I would go one step further. This seems to be the explanation of the fall. The whole street has to be closed off and the team of well-rehearsed people swing into action with Operation Lazarus (so none of Moriarty’s snipers could possibly have noticed this disruption to traffic in central London). It’s all to do with sight lines and what key people can see from where they are standing. In a way, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter whether this elaborately stage-managed trick could ever have been pulled off in the real world — evacuating all the buildings around the square and inside the hospital so no-one else could have seen it done through a window, stretches credibility. The whole point as a piece of television is to entertain. So does it succeed?

Well, here’s the problem. The only sight lines the script seems to care about are those from Watson’s point of view. This is reinforced by the arrival of the cyclist. Taking one step back, there would seem to be two key people here. We have Watson who should be trusted to keep the secret and the sniper who is about to shoot Watson. The sniper is the one who matters and, no matter how brilliant the mind planning the trick, it would not be possible to predict exactly where the sniper would take up position. If the sniper could see the trick performed from his high vantage point, he would shoot Watson (and Holmes). We’re therefore left with the paradox that Holmes primarily aimed the trick at Watson while Mycroft’s merry men may have intercepted one or more of the assassins.

Then there’s the third strand which is to provide the broader narrative drive for this three episode season. Watson is smitten by Mary but she’s obviously not what she seems, instantly recognising the code used in the SMS. The end of the episode is setting up a new villain who attacks Holmes through Watson (or attacks Mary through Watson). Which only leaves us with the curious incident of the body in the room. This seems to have been staged by Anderson (Jonathan Aris), one of the forensic team at New Scotland Yard, and it doesn’t really fit into the story at all. Or perhaps I misunderstood. . .

Putting all this together, I think the team of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat always had built up expectations to a point when they would disappoint more than they pleased when this episode aired. That said, with worries about the way Holmes and Watson are now relating to each other, I think The Empty Hearse was as entertaining as it could have been or we had any right to expect.

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 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

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