A garbled mess that has no idea where it’s going or why, His Last Vow is the last nail in Sherlock’s coffin; a fall from grace so precipitous and a crying shame so heartrending that the very idea of reviewing it is almost unbearable to me. Her Ladyship has, however, done appalling things for the good of her readers in the past – watching the first episode of School of Thrones and finishing that ghastly intellectual nonentity Labyrinth being among them – so she shall therefore endeavour to write her review without keeling over, screaming or dying. If the latter does occur, however: ‘To God [her] soul. To Rafe Sadler [her] books.’
His Last Vow gets off to a very promising start as we are introduced to our villain of the piece, news giant and serial blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has been called before a committee to explain why Number 10 has been blessed with his presence more times this year than has been deemed appropriate. Played by an excellent Lars Mikkelsen, he loves to play on what he calls people’s ‘pressure points,’ and has an icy, creepy, unblinking and utterly revolting charisma about him that reminds you somewhat of Tørk Hviid in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. We’re soon apprised of the fact that he has a similar lack in scruples as he blackmails committee chairman Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to rule in his favour, using some explicit letters that her husband once wrote to a fifteen-year-old girl as leverage. This leads Lady Smallwood to call at Baker Street and ask Sherlock to act as intermediary between them. A fatal mistake, it seems, as this is where the entire episode starts to collapse around our ears; a string of ridiculous coincidences involving Sherlock’s feigned relapse into his drug habits and his seduction of one of Mary’s bridesmaids leading to another string of ridiculous coincidences involving breaking into Magnussen’s office, discovering that Magnussen is still in his office at the time of the break-in, smelling Lady Smallwood’s perfume on the air, assuming she’s there to kill him, and discovering that the lady with the gun is in fact Mary, who isn’t an adorable nurse, but an ex-CIA assassin who wants Magnussen dead because he’s threatening to blow the whistle. From then on out, the episode is plot point after ridiculous plot point, piled one on top of the other with all the grace of a university student’s laundry pile (or lack thereof); mercifully interspersed with one or two beautiful scenes and unmercifully overdosed with a huge pile of poorly-written, unrealistic, tiresome and pointless ones. Further pandemonium is then brought about by the fact that this is all held together by the spit and prayers of a line of liaison so fixed on where it wants to end up that it doesn’t care which convoluted, nonsensical and utterly stupid routes it has to adopt in order to get there…or at what cost.
One of the best things about the first two seasons of Sherlock was the scrupulous, almost medical cleanliness of the way each episode was presented: beautifully stark; impeccably precise; complex, yet minimalistic; an indestructible glass house with a baroque darkness about the people living in it; modern London as much a living, breathing predator to Sherlock as Victorian London is to Holmes. The first two seasons embodied everything that is best in British crime drama: heavy on plot, heavy on character, heavy in an inexplicably addictive and redemptive way. They also embodied everything that was best about the Sherlock-John relationship: the infectious camaraderie; the old-married-couple bickering; the almost-always-unspoken symbiosis of it, delivered with minimal words and much action. All of this complexity was kept so perfectly balanced that it probably wouldn’t have collapsed if plonked down on the end of a pin and left to fend for itself.
The problem with His Last Vow is that this characteristic sense of control and balance, indeed all sense of control and balance, seems to have disappeared across the board. The episode and its characters are allowed to run riot, and to create scenes of such havoc that one is often left wondering whether one is watching a TV series, or a particularly tedious piece of contemporary art with the aim of demonstrating the chaos that populates a writer’s head prior to a story’s actually beginning to take logical shape. Everything that this episode tries to bring to the fore – the depth of Sherlock’s affection for John, and for Mary; the depth of John’s love for Mary; Mycroft’s true feelings about his embarrassing little brother; Sherlock’s penchant for self-sacrifice and the limitlessness of his brilliant brain – all of it is done in a painfully obvious, lamentably unsubtle, sometimes out-of-character and incredibly over-the-top way that suggests that the script of this episode was not ready to be written, let alone filmed. The whole miserable business is still at the stage where it belongs nowhere but the inside of Stephen Moffatt’s head, or at the very limit, in a heavily-password-protected file in the depths of his computer where it can embarrass no one but him. All writers have one, so why not use it?
It’s all very well to sit here on high complaining about The Last Vow, but it isn’t entirely fair to do so without suggesting possible solutions. How, then, could the mess have been rectified? By a process of intense de-cluttering.
Step 1: Get rid of Lady Elizabeth Smallwood and her husband’s creepy letters. It’s a way of linking Magnussen to Sherlock that is just too round-about, wastes too much time and disappears so quickly into the general confusion that by the time we meet Lady Smallwood again at the end of the episode, we’ve almost forgotten who she is. Doing this would mean compromising on her excellent blackmail scene with Magnussen, and depriving us of the joy of seeing two fine actors like Mikkelsen and Duncan in the same scene, but you can’t have everything, and everything is something this episode already has too much of. So instead of introducing Magnussen through Lady Smallwood and then moving on, make his blackmail of Mary the premise from the start. Do a scene with him and her in which we don’t know who he is (or why he’s blackmailing her), only that she’s there to kill him. Ensure that she is prevented in some way: do an ‘emails get sent to the press if I die’ thing if absolutely necessary – though with a man of Magnussen’s reputation it would probably take a lifetime for his henchmen to work out which one of the ten thousand ruinous emails he has waiting should be sent in the first place. Anyway, an opening scene of this kind gives Magnussen a chance to show off his initial creepiness, and Mary a chance to show off her new-found mysteriousness.
Step 2: Get Mary to ask Sherlock for help. Not only will this be an interesting investigation into their relationship (particularly if she blackmails him to keep him quiet; which seems more in character than simply begging him not to tell); but is also a good way to educate the audience about Magnussen without all that pointless mucking about with drug dens; Janine; breaking into Magnussen’s office, and Sherlock getting shot and hospitalised. Also, if you want to be really smart, don’t let the audience in immediately on what Mary’s being blackmailed for. All we need to know is that she considers it momentous enough to end her and John’s marriage, and that the evidence for whatever it is is being held in the vaults beneath Magnussen’s house.
Step 3: So Sherlock tells John, of course; or, as in the episode, finds a way for Mary to unwittingly reveal herself. He does this regardless of anything that he’s been threatened with, and John justifiably freaks out. Don’t switch locations halfway through these two occurrences: if anything, it cuts the tension in half instead of augmenting it. The build up to the conclusion that John’s attracted to psychopaths needs to be re-written completely: Sherlock asking him a bunch of questions and making his conclusions for him just doesn’t really cut it, and neither do John’s responses to him. Actually, since our present state of things doesn’t have Sherlock injured, or clueless as to Mary’s past, leave him out of the scene altogether. Make it a matter between John and Mary, and let them draw conclusions together. A bust-up between them would also be more evocative of character than the somewhat heartless ‘we decide if we want you’ scene. The idea of the flash disk key to Mary’s past is good: keep it.
Step 4: Find some other way of getting Sherlock and John to Magnussen’s house. That entire Christmas scene, smoking scene, drugging the entire bloody Holmes family+Mary and taking a helicopter ride with Mycroft’s laptop in tow is both too much and too far-fetched for words. Of course this poses the problem of how to get their hands on Mycroft’s laptop without his noticing its absence, and how to barter it with Magnussen without Mary finding out about it (one assumes she would want to know something about how her salvation is being brought about, since in our version of events, she’s asked Sherlock for help). Since drugs clearly have to be in this episode somewhere, use them on Mycroft only and preferably at night, so that the contents of his laptop can be copied onto some mega flash disk à la the missile plans in The Great Game; otherwise onto an external hard drive. Totter off to Magnussen’s place; do the big reveal about his vaults being a mind palace, and hold on to the episode’s present ending if we absolutely have to see Sherlock commit another self-sacrifice. Otherwise, get Sherlock and John into the sort of trouble that usually befalls people who walk into psychopaths’ houses (preferably post-mind palace conversation) and do an ‘unknown shooter’ thing (as in A Study in Pink). Police are called, Sherlock and John go home happy, unknown shooter turns out to be Mary, to whom shooting through the bastard’s window had apparently never before occurred.
Step 5: End off with John saying he’s not going to read the flash disk about Mary’s past. Fin.
This version of events does deprive us of another chance to see Sherlock giving up everything for his friends, but after The Reichenbach Fall, even more self-sacrifice seems a bit excessive.
The Last Vow is not entirely shitty. It has some lovely moments, and a couple of truly brilliant ideas (i.e. Magnussen’s non-existent vaults beneath his home). Unfortunately, the way it’s all executed is so tangled, sloppy and headache-inducing that the good doesn’t even come close to redeeming the bad, and this season of Sherlock suffers for it; ending with a whimper rather than a bang.