His Last Vow

(36 comments)

There is, I think, a real case to be made that this is Moffat's best-ever script, although to be fair there are ways in which it's difficult to tell. Certainly this is elevated tremendously by the work of everyone else involved. It is ridiculous to pretend that this episode can be praised without acknowledging the toweringly good work turned in by Nick Hurran, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Amanda Abbington, and really, stopping there does plenty of people discredit. All the same, the script is a work of stunning genius.

It seems impossible to begin anywhere other than the ending. As I have noted before, this is a script that blatantly advocates for the extra-judicial murder of Rupert Murdoch. Sure, yes, Magnussen is only a transparent metaphor for Murdoch and not Murdoch himself, but all the same, and especially given how willing Moffat has been in interviews to double down and say that he thinks killing Magnusson was the right thing to do, it's hard to overemphasize the moment, especially given the glorious bluntness with which Mary puts it: "People like Magnussen should be killed. That’s why there are people like me."

And indeed, this quote gets at one of the central questions of His Last Vow, namely "what exactly sort of person is Mary Watson?" Actually, this is in some ways the only central question of His Last Vow. Certainly a central question is not the superficial issue of "how far ahead of the game is Sherlock," although this is possibly worth unpacking. We have, by this point, been trained by two consecutive episodes to realize that this is not actually a question upon which Sherlock is inclined to put much weight. The nature of the game is deliberately constructed to twist and wriggle around. Much of the episode is structured around a pair of contrived editing tricks, and while there are occasional clues ("I have an excellent memory') and the episode does technically play fair, it's still blatantly changing the rules of the episode in arbitrary and essentially unguessable ways.

Whether you think this is clever or not is largely a personal decision. But in what we might call the normal order f things, the point of these fair but unguessable twists would be to find ways of putting the hero in considerable danger. And yet in His Last Vow, the two times in which Sherlock is disastrously wrong (as opposed to when he's just blindsided by Mary) are not actually particular problems for him. When he's wrong about the glasses in the restaurant it's essentially irrelevant - he moves calmly on to his Christmas plan barely skipping a beat. Being wrong about Appledore's physical existence is at least more of a problem, but it's clear he always had "shoot the fucker in the head" as a fallback plan, what with telling John to bring his gun.

Which makes sense. Sherlock, after all, is an ontological character, defined as the one who is always ahead of everybody else in the game. And so the question in His Last Vow is never really whether Sherlock is going to win. The question is what winning is going to end up meaning - a question that's foregrounded from the moment we learn that the case requires him to give into his addictions, which is to say, from the first time we see him in the episode.

It is in this context that the episode's real question, the nature of Mary Watson, must be understood. Even though it's not really even raised as a question until the halfway point (Mary drops out of the story after the scene at the hospital, and doesn't resurface until she shoots Sherlock), the entire episode is about her. And we know this from the title, which is set up explicitly in the previous episode. But the title further emphasizes that this is a story about the consequences and nature of victory. This isn't a story about who Mary is - and to be fair, the answer to that is neither terribly interesting nor terribly surprising. Sure, her shooting Sherlock is surprising, but once that happens, the revelation that the person who shot Sherlock is an assassin is not. Nor is it a story about who Magnussen is. It's a story about a vow, and about the meaning and consequences thereof.

This puts us in familiar territory with Moffat, not least because of the fate of Mary's textual equivalent. The entirety of Sherlock Season Three is built around the way in which Mary is a narrative time bomb. In a standard narrative, the nature of the bomb's explosion would be Mary's death, so that John can take blood-stained and suitably grim revenge. Especially since she's pregnant, which is worth, like, double points when fridging a character. And so the constant tension in this story - which is, of course, just Moffat's standard "what sort of story are we telling here" tension - becomes a constant threat that something is going to go terribly wrong for Mary.

It doesn't, of course. And that is in many ways the point. Sherlock's last vow could never really go unfulfilled. It would go against the nature of him as a hero, at least in Moffat's conception of what that means. This isn't about being perfect, clearly - indeed, Sherlock gets almost every single call wrong in this story. It's about something altogether subtler - something that goes back to Mary's line, and also to Mycroft's observation that Sherlock fancies himself a dragonslayer. Heroes exist, for Moffat, for the purposes of going to extremes that we cannot.

This is, ultimately, the real content of the ending. Sherlock is tragically wrong when he proclaims himself to not be a hero. Because what are our heroes for if not to save us from bullying monstrosities like Magnussen? Does this in its own way make Sherlock monstrous? Of course it does, to an extent that genuinely terrifies him, hence the shot in which we see him as a child in the face of the SWAT team and helicopters. But nevertheless, it is heroic. Sherlock saves not just John and Mary's marriage, but everyone Magnussen owned.

But His Last Vow is not some grim meditation on the monstrosity of heroes. This is an aspect of it, certainly, but the idea that heroes are just the monsters we like is a premise, not the point of the exercise. For all the sense that Sherlock has crossed some sort of line by putting a bullet in Magnussen, he gets off scot free at the end of the story, if only via a timely intervention by Moriarty. This is not a story about the angst of the hero. Nor does it ever seem like one, or else the addiction plot thread would have played out very differently.

Because, of course, the dramatic heart of the episode is the scene among Sherlock, John, Mary, and Mrs. Hudson. It's an astonishing scene in which everybody puts in a jaw-dropping performance. (Really, watch it and look at how much Amanda Abbington contributes to the scene despite getting exactly one word of dialogue - a word she delivers with astonishing nuance.) It's a scene in which line after line is stellar, and almost every subsequent scene exists entirely to unpick the consequences of it.

Of course it's great, though. There is perhaps no plot more Moffaty than "Sherlock resolves a marital dispute that erupts when John's wife turns out to be a top class assassin." But this is because it addresses the theme that's been consuming Moffat for nearly a decade now: how do you make a "realistic" psychology for a hero that doesn't devolve into a deconstructionist rejection of the basic idea of heroism. And so we have John and Mary, desperately trying to balance the fact that they are heroes, with all the madness that entails, and people, and Sherlock killing dragons just to keep them together.

Holding it all together is Nick Hurran, upping his game once again. As ever, his willingness to embrace the artifice of television serves Moffat's script well. Hurran never lets go of the fact that this is a story, adding beautiful touches of sheer artificiality. (My favorite is the plant that moves across the room as Sherlock falls, which happens for no reason but to make it look like the room is actually tilting, despite the fact that the story is in no way trying to suggest that it is, although the use of Christmas lights to smooth a transition from Baker Street to Sherlocks' parents is also gorgeously bonkers.) Obviously the "Sherlock figures out how not to die" sequence is particularly good in his hands, and it is in hindsight something of a wonder that it took until Hurran's sixth episode under Moffat for anyone to give him a proper, honest to god dream sequence. But he's also very, very sharp in the small character moments, with an impeccable sense of how to use closeups and reaction shots.

The result is an episode that is as experimental and postmodern as anything that Moffat has done, but that nevertheless feels oddly grounded and straightforward. Moffat has a growing sense of when to just hand solid drama to skilled actors and get out of their way. After a year of Doctor Who where he seemed intent on accelerating the pace more and more, here he really starts to explore the benefits of slamming on the brakes and lingering on a scene. Having learned how much he can get away with trimming, here is where he really starts to show how to balance that, starting with as breakneck a pace as he's ever managed, and ending with a methodical resolution that takes vast and deserved amounts of time to focus on the Watsons. The result is simply one of the best ninety minutes of television ever produced - an unabashed masterpiece made all the better once you realize that this isn't just a good day at the office, but the triumphant debut of a new style for Moffat, and the point where he goes from an innovative and experimental writer to one who has learned a tremendous amount from his experiments and has moved on to learning exactly when to deploy those tricks.

Comments

Jarl 2 years, 2 months ago

Hey Phil, here's a thought experiment: Who do you support the extra-judicial killing of? Or, indeed, the expanded-judicial killing, if you prefer?

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5tephe 2 years, 2 months ago

Much though I wanted to, I couldn't love this one. While the direction and performances were, you're right, absolutely excellent, and I am personally 100% fine with the idea that Murdoch and people like him are a stain on our society that ought to be expunged - I don't think that's a point which is that profound. It's frankly self evident.

And perhaps I'm too much of an old fashioned Sherlock Holmes fan to sanction the violence they did to his character. Sherlock realises that someone has a better mind palace than his, but that he uses it for personal gain by destroying the lives of others. Now - Sherlock has always (and in this incarnation) been a bit of a borderline character. Again - the idea that a genius hero is not that different to a genius villain isn't exactly revelatory, especially not in a Sherlock/Moriarty dominated story like this Moffat/Gatiss version.

So what does Sherlock do? Shoot him in the head. The equivalent of taking his bat and his ball and going home. Boo hoo.

Now, like I said, I'm fine with the Murdoch stand in getting shot in the head. But surely the more revelatory, and honest character moment would have been for him to realise that there is a reason he chooses to define himself as a hero. He actually does have a moral compass, and finds Magnussen's behaviour repugnant. He is NOT just like all the other geniuses, and so decides on a different way to defeat Magnussen.

Instead, he just caves, and the only message left for us to take is the one where we realise that all heroes are, in fact, "just monsters who we like". That's exactly what they left us with.

Not, in my book, a triumph. But then I said some time ago that this would be the episode where we differed in our opinion, Phil.

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Kit Power 2 years, 2 months ago

I find the parallels between this reading and V for Vendetta absolutely fascinating.

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Anglocat 2 years, 2 months ago

I loved the ep myself, although I expected John to do the shooting--not because of the husband-saves/avenges-wife trope, but because in ACD's writings, Watson often cuts through situatiions where Holmes's approach is too clever by half. Moffat has used that well, e.g., Study in Pink. So here we have an episode where Sherlock adopts a John-style solution, but does it himself tto spare John the sacrifice. His Last Vow--to honor his friendship with John, and protect him. The high-functioning sociopath self-description has never been more wrong. Ironically, this is Lestrade's prediction coming true--Sherlock is becoming a good man.

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Sca Punk 2 years, 2 months ago

Ha, and I was half-hoping you wouldn't say anything about the narrative pace being slowed down so that I could chime in with it. Well, who cares, it's true. I was really tripped up by the pacing of Deep Breath at first, but it really makes more sense coming after His Last Vow. What's even remarkable about Moffat's new style is that he must have written it around The Time of the Doctor, which is, in my mind, the epitome of his old style in the way it skillfully and precisely controls the narrative velocity.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 2 months ago

I thought this was great, although I remain unsure about the ending - my heroes just don't kill.

Well. My heroes don't kill if they can possibly avoid it. As Dangerous Beans put it "Then you have to. But you still shouldn't." And what almost saved the ending for me is that Sherlock accepts that. He committed a terrible act and is prepared to be punished for it. (Although, in the event, he isn't. So I'm still not sure.)

But while I remain unsure about the ending, I felt it was inevitable from the moment it turned out Magnussen had a mind palace. Because what's Holmes's plan in the original? Destroy the vault. What's his plan here? Destroy the vault. And when it turns out the vault is, in fact, Magnussen's mind, what does that plan become?

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David Faggiani 2 years, 2 months ago

I think that 'His Last Vow' is huuuuuugely influenced by the David Fincher movie 'Seven'. Even down to the pregnant wife character (who is, as Philip says, worth emotional 'double-points' in that film) and the circling helicopters during the resolution. It was a remarkable stylistic and thematic resemblance on first viewing.

I once read that there was an alternate, slightly less bleak ending to 'Seven', where Morgan Freeman's character 'resolves the situation' before an anguished Pitt can. I think that 'His Last Vow' practically functions as a remake of that alternate version of 'Seven'.

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Sean Dillon 2 years, 2 months ago

I actually read ChildLock in that scene being a parallel to a previous scene in the episode where Mycroft looks at Sherlock as a child in the Mind Palace because Sherlock thinks Mycroft thinks Sherlock is a little child. In the end though, it's revealed that Mycroft views Sherlock as a baby brother in the "Big Brother Instinct" way rather than (or in addition to depending on your Point of View) "Stupid Little Brother".

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Allyn Gibson 2 years, 2 months ago

I have never been convinced that anything after Mary shoots Sherlock happens anywhere except inside Sherlock's head and that Moffat was stealing from the second season finale of House (itself a "Sherlock Holmes in the modern day" series). And just as House's imagined scenario goes to ever-increasing absurdities there, Sherlock's goes off the rails here, from shooting Magnusson in the head to the shock reveal that Moriarty still lives.

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thetvgenie 2 years, 2 months ago

You can see a lot of Moffat’s formula for Doctor Who Series Eight here, but, heck, Sherlock does it all so much better. Each of the shocks are perfectly timed, even the simple twist of Redbeard being Sherlock’s dog, which is perchance the most poignant scene of the entire series. And then there’s the real centre-point of the episode: the truth about Mary Watson. A truth that seems to epitomise the psychological perspective of Sherlock – that the person you fall in love with says everything about who you are. And, I daresay, the character who we all fell in love with says something about the show we’re watching. Sherlock knows what it is here, and it knows what it isn’t. It isn’t a show about ordinary people. It’s a show about psychopaths and addicts who do insane things to circumvent boredom. And the fact that Moffat is able to declare that and be praised for it at this point says how much we’ve all grown to love and trust Sherlock, and how it’s become far more than just television.

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5tephe 2 years, 2 months ago

Oh yeah? How so Kit Power? I'm not so familiar with V, nor so attached to the character, but have been very much enjoying learning more about him through the War posts.

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5tephe 2 years, 2 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Ombund 2 years, 2 months ago

I have to say that on a first viewing I was slightly disappointed with this one. There wasn't anything wrong with it - far from it, it was truly thrilling and the performances were uniformly great - but after the formal acrobatics of the two previous episodes, His Last Vow just seemed rather conventional. We were back to having a big bad and watching Sherlock solve mysteries again. My reaction was definitely coloured by my not wanting the show to give in to those who'd been vociferously criticising the show online over the last week and a bit, and my feelings weren't helped by the general reaction from them of "finally, an actual proper episode of Sherlock" that duly followed.

So it took a second viewing to see just how weird this apparently conventional episode is and to really appreciate what a bravura piece of writing it is. I still prefer The Sign of Three though, but now only just (and only because I view The Sign of Three as one of the single best TV episodes ever, up there with Two Cathedrals and, well, A Study in Pink).

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Ombund 2 years, 2 months ago

Separate to my comment above, what are people expecting from the Sherlock special that's currently filming? SPOILER ALERT I suppose, although only spoilers in the form of speculation based on set photos (and good luck avoiding them from now until Christmas): to me it's looking like it's going to be an out-of-continuity Victorian-era reimagining of the Moffat/Gatiss modern-day reimagining. Either that or an extremely elaborate dream sequence. The people who were moaning that series 3 was a bit too meta aren't going to know when they were well off.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 2 years, 2 months ago

I guess we'll find out at Christmas...

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TheSmilingStallionInn 2 years, 2 months ago

I looked around for that. The mustache...hehe.

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BatmanAoD 2 years, 2 months ago

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BatmanAoD 2 years, 2 months ago

Well, due to a variety of factors my original comment has been eaten by the etherwebs,so here's the short version: why is Magnussen even a dangerous opponent? I'm not disputing that he's vile; he simply doesn't seem that threatening, and Sherlock doesn't seem like the sort of character for whom the sort of "pressure points" Magnussen generally uses would actually be very effective. Even in the case of the opening blackmail scene, I don't understand why the affair couldn't just be preemptively publicly announced (with a positive spin) to effectively defang Magnussen. I also don't really understand how Magnussen's power could be so extensive that not a single police officer would be willing to simply arrest him for multiple counts of blackmail.

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Alan 2 years, 2 months ago

I thought this was great, although I remain unsure about the ending - my heroes just don't kill.

In a fictional universe, I don't have a problem with heroes killing to prevent evil from triumphing, and I'm somewhat pleased that Moffatt seems to agree with me. I mentioned just a few weeks back that the best part of "Death In Heaven," IMO, was when Clara rather coldly noted what I've been saying since "Last of the Time Lords" -- that the Tenth Doctor's desire to "redeem" the Master only served to make him complicit in the Master's future killings.

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Alan 2 years, 2 months ago

Personally, what I find most entertaining is that the villain, whose death the audience cheered, is a stand-in for Rupert Murdoch, who already has a place in history for being the only living person to be reimagined as a Bond villain (Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies). When Murdoch finally kicks it, I wonder how long the celebrations will last.

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Jarl 2 years, 2 months ago

I'd never heard of that. That's... oddly safe, I suppose, hence why they chose the more brutal variation for the ending.

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Jarl 2 years, 2 months ago

Sherlock's only real, valid pressure point, as Magnussen fatally discovers, is Watson. Magnussen's ploy required two facts which are ambiguous in their truth: That Sherlock could be controlled by controlling Watson (he does indeed care enough for Watson for Magnussen's plan to have worked, but he's unfettered by an overabundance of morality when it comes to extra-judicial slayings) and that Mycroft can be controlled by controlling Sherlock (I still don't feel like we actually know this for sure). That it worked so well for him up to this point is mostly down to this being fiction, because the number of people who see an assassination as being the ideal cure for blackmail is actually much higher in reality than it is in the Land of Fiction.

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Jarl 2 years, 2 months ago

Not only that, but Mycroft makes implicit mention of M in this very episode.

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Anton B 2 years, 2 months ago

And confirmed, at least as a trope Moffat might consider, by Last Christmas

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phuzz 2 years, 2 months ago

In real life or fiction?

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Daibhid C 2 years, 2 months ago

Since the Master did, in fact, die in Last of the Time Lords, I'm not really sure how that works.

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Nyq Only 2 years, 2 months ago

Why is he a dangerous opponent? Well, that takes us back to the Murdoch comparisons. Look at the phone tapping scandals. The Guardian was pursuing that story for years and while they did so they were pilloried by very senior politicians and the issues raised were poo-pooed by senior police officers. When the wall of protection finally started to unravel (and then only because of public revulsion over the revelations of murdered persons phone being hacked) the extent to which Murdoch's employees had effectively corrupted police officers and powerful politicians (to the extent that the Prime Minister and past Prime Ministers were directly embroiled).
Sherlock's superpower is to identify the truth - he wins by revealing the truth. In the case of the Murdoch press phone tapping scandals the truth is revealed relatively early in the story - investigative journalists reveal that the News of the World was systematically hacking peoples phones and bribing police officers. To get from the revelation to something actually being done about it then involves years of people saying 'no, but really THAT is what they have been doing and that is bad thing' over and over.
Even at the end of it Murdoch gets away scot free.

Magnussen isn't Murdoch. He is a supervillain that borrows aspects of Murdoch. Sherlock could spend years deducing that X is being blackmailed by Magnussen in some subtle or not so subtle way. Getting people to take notice of that is the problem.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 2 months ago

Given M's suggestion that Elliot Carver's death will be explained as falling off his yacht, I thought he was meant to be the other one.

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David Anderson 2 years, 2 months ago

At the time I thought that Charles Augustus Milverton was a canny choice for arc villain and foil to Holmes who isn't Moriarty. Holmes doesn't overcome him by legitimate detective work in the original story either.
The textual divergences between His Last Vow and Charles Augustus Milverton would be worth exploring. The reveal of Mary with a gun in Magnusson's apartment is the kind of reveal that in hindsight one feels one should have expected, knowing the original story and the way Moffat storytelling works.

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David Anderson 2 years, 2 months ago

I assume Moffat's read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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BatmanAoD 2 years, 2 months ago

Jarl, my original comment talked a bit about Watson as Sherlock's pressure point, actually. There are even more assumptions required than those you list; in particular, Mary at first seems to care primarily that her past not be revealed for the sake of her relationship with John, but once Sherlock forces them to confront each other, it would seem this should no longer be such an advantage for Magnussen.

But even if the pressure via John works, the scene in which Magnussen repeatedly "sees" the same five or so pressure points, most of which are actually fairly trivial and unlikely to actually provide much leverage (for instance, drugs are still on the list, even though the episode basically opens with a demonstration of how little Sherlock cares about being known as an addict, and it's never clear how Magnussen's knowledge of Redbeard gives him any advantage), hopelessly ridiculous.

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Alan 2 years, 2 months ago

Only because of the unexpected intervention of a third party (Lucy Saxon) who killed the Master herself, thus freeing the Doctor from any moral obligation to do so as well as protecting him from the foreseeable consequences of his ludicrous plan to keep the Master under house arrest in the TARDIS, presumably for the rest of their lives.

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