After two good-but-not-brilliant episodes to begin its long-awaited third season, Sherlock returned to peak form for its finale and reminded us why we’ll sorely miss the show during what will presumably be a substantial hiatus. So, what was the magic ingredient that put the show back on the scent? In the end, it turned out to be something as elementary as a decent case.
Like the show’s titular detective, fans had grown restless without a substantial piece of sleuthing this year. Fortunately, this week’s installment, “His Last Vow,” served up a genuine “three pipe” problem that, at points, flummoxed even the great Sherlock Holmes. At the episode’s center was a fiendish villain, in the form of Charles Augustus Magnussen, played with delicious precision by Lars Mikkelsen. A master blackmailer who specializes in finding and exploiting people’s “pressure point,” he’s a character plucked straight from Conan Doyle’s original tomes (although he goes by the name of Milverton in the books). But just like everything else in Sherlock, the character has been reimagined for the show’s modern-day setting; here, he takes the form of a powerful newspaper baron with heavy-handed parallels to media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
While Sherlock describes him as the “Napoleon of Blackmail,” the Terminator of Extortion might prove to be a more fitting epitaph, given Magnussen’s habit of coldly scanning the room, and people’s weaknesses flashing before him like a heads-up display in James Cameron’s cyborg series. It’s a skill not too dissimilar to Sherlock’s own deductive process, an observation that will prove crucial by the case’s conclusion.
The overall tone of the episode is far more sinister, but there’s still a smattering of laughs sprinkled throughout “His Last Vow,” almost all of them coming at the outset, when John rebels against his newfound suburban humdrum to raid a drug den in search of his neighbor’s wayward son. It’s an act that’s perhaps out of character for the typically mild-mannered doctor, who’s seemingly craving something of an adrenaline rush after a month without contact from his partner in crime (solving). Not that he has to wait long for a reunion; John quickly uncovers Shezza, as Holmes is apparently now known, searching for a fix of his own among the building’s drug-addled dwellers.
The laughs don’t last long. With Sherlock in curiously cruel form at the start of this week’s installment — showing insensitivity towards Molly, physically assaulting Mycroft, and continually berating poor Mrs. Hudson — our hero is back to something close to his belligerent best. By far his most cold-blooded action of the episode comes with his faux engagement to Janine, the bridesmaid from John’s wedding in “The Sign of Three.” I noted the duo’s chemistry last time out, but this week their dalliance turned into a full bout of domesticity, with Sherlock displaying a rare streak of puppy-eyed soppiness. It’s a sequence that will no doubt have dismayed some fans, but it’s one that is, in fact, firmly rooted in the original canon and, just as in Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock’s romanticism is merely a calculated move to get closer to Magnussen.
Thanks to Janine’s “human error,” Sherlock is able to breach Magnussen’s inner sanctum, where he finds much more than he bargained for, in the form of a gun-toting Mary Watson. Yes, those of you who spotted something sinister about Mary back in week one were proved right in the most spectacular fashion, as Mrs, Watson unloaded a round into Sherlock’s chest at point-blank range. It was a shocking moment. Not just for us, but for our hero, too, who had mere seconds to save his own life. He does so, thanks to his mind palace, which springs into action in another impressive sequence.
I mentioned last week that Sherlock is rarely better than when it visualizes the detective’s deductive process, and this sequence was a prime example. When we were first introduced to the mind palace back in “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” it was a clunky, almost corny, mechanism. Fast-forward to this season, however, and it has been transformed into something far more sophisticated: a dynamic means through which everything, from cold reason (last week’s courtroom scene) to panic-stricken evasive action, can be represented. And here, it was used stunningly, and like the rest of this week’s episode, was expertly scored to boot.
While his superpowers might not quite be up to dodging a speeding bullet, Sherlock can at least, it seems, deduce his way out of death. He saves his own life thanks to some quick thinking — and, as it turns out, some merciful targeting on the part of Mary. Upon his recovery, he seeks out his attacker, exposing her to John and setting up a confrontation in the living room of Baker Street. It’s a sequence fraught with emotion, yet one that once again seeks to cement the bond between the three, all of whom, it seems, are going to be vital to the show moving forward.
It’s a shame we don’t get more of it. The show momentarily slips back into sitcom, flashing forwards to a sort of “Christmas With the Cumberbatches,” complete with dodgy sweaters and the sort of cloying sentimentality that had muddied the previous two episodes. It’s a frustrating detour in what is an otherwise excellently paced episode. Although it does furnish us with a disarmingly emotional moment from Mycroft, which itself is quickly swept under the carpet after the detective drugs his sibling and swipes his laptop crammed to the brim with state secrets.
As it turns out, Sherlock has decided to do a “deal with the devil” in order to release Mary from Magnussen’s influence. But just as it seems the day is saved, we’re treated to a rare spectacle: Sherlock has missed something. You see, like the great detective, the fireplace-defiling media baron uses a mind palace to retain every bit of leverage he holds over people. In fact, it turns out that Magnussen has been playing our hero from the start, all in a bid to gain control over his older brother. It’s not the first time we’ve seen Sherlock bested, of course, but this one is still shocking, especially given the stakes.
In the books, the master blackmailer met his demise at the hands of a murderer whom Holmes opted not to stop. It was a game-changing moment for the literary figure. His British-television counterpart goes one further, however, blowing Magnussen’s brains out himself in order to keep his vow of protection for Mary and John. His actions mean Sherlock is forced into exile and sent to Serbia on a mission with mortal consequences. It sets up an altogether less-charged final good-bye than we were treated to at the conclusion of “The Recihenbach Falls,” one that aptly contains the infamous “east wind rising” sentiment with which Sherlock Holmes stepped away from Conan Doyle’s stories.
And yet, just as we’re starting to wonder if this might actually be his final good-bye, if the stars had really got too big for the show and all that talk about a fourth season had been false, there’s still time for one last sting in the tail with the apparent resurrection of Jim Moriarty. It’s a fitting finale. After all, Andrew Scott’s spectre has loomed large over the entire run, as Sherlock has repeatedly failed to live up to the high-water mark its previous trilogy of episodes had established. There’s no doubt that the show has undergone something of an evolution. But if “His Last Vow” has proved anything, it’s that Sherlock is at its best when our hero has a villain to face off against, a failing that appears won’t be a problem in season four. “Did you miss me?” Moriarty’s animated face repeatedly asks, as the credits finally roll. Yes, Jim, we most certainly did.
Bill Wiggins — Wiggy, the comic drug addict turned protégé from this week’s episode, is a reference to the character of Bill Wiggins, one of Holmes’s brigade of Baker Street irregulars. In fact, the whole story line involving the drug den is plucked straight from the pages of “The Man With the Twisted Lip.”
Sussex Cottage — We get to see Janine getting her revenge on Sherlock by selling her story to the tabloids in exchange for a cottage in Sussex. This is a reference to Holmes’s retirement plans in his final adventure, “His Last Bow,” in which the detective retreats to the country to keep bees.
AGRA — These are supposedly Mary’s true initials; it’s also a reference to the Agra treasure central to “The Sign of Four,” which marked Mary’s first appearance in print.
Empty House — Sherlock lures Mary to an empty house in order to expose her identity using a dummy, a plot referencing Conan Doyle’s 1903 story, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” set directly following the events at Reichenbach Falls.
Pressure points — For those of you who weren’t nerdy enough to pause the action, Sherlock’s pressure points included Redbeard, Irene Adler, John, and Baskervilles, while Mrs. Hudson’s pressure point was marijuana. John’s “porn reference” was “normal,” in case you were wondering.
Who’s the other brother? Near the end of the episode, Mycroft disparagingly refers to another brother. Who is this third sibling? Was he a victim of the East Wing? Is he as special as Sherlock? Is he perhaps Moriarty himself?
Is Moriarty back from the dead? We should have seen it coming. After all, his ring tone was “Staying Alive.” But is Jim Moriarty really back from the dead? Or is this just another one of his tricks?
Just what did Mrs. Hudson get up to in her youth? This week we’re told she has a weakness for marijuana, and that there’s a YouTube video doing some exotic dancing. What other curious secrets are lurking in Mrs. Hudson's past?