It’s January 12th, 2014. Pharrell Williams is happily at number one, with Beyonce, Eminem, Ellie Goulding, and Pitbull also charting. In news, a cold snap in the US has all fifty states with at least somewhere below freezing, and a chemical leak in West Virginia leaves 300,000 without clean water. In the UK, the death of Mark Duggan, which kicked off riots in the summer of 2011, is ruled to have been lawful, while Keith Wallis pleads guilty for falsely claiming to have heard Andrew Mitchell call some police officers “plebs.”
On television, meanwhile, the shooting star that is Sherlock Series Three finishes its arc across the firmament with the Moffat script. His Last Vow is an odd thing. There are days on which I think it might be Moffat’s greatest ever script. But I mean “great” in its most complexly troubled sense. Moffat has been open about the fact that Series Seven of Doctor Who and The Day of the Doctor were miserable experiences. If the latter was him hauling himself back into fighting shape, then, this is the script with which he means to take back the mantle of being one of the most essential voices on television. But that means that this story lacks the runaway sense of triumph the fiftieth anniversary had. This is the long, hard title fight in which Moffat goes the distance with a set of ideas that are right on the edge of his capabilities. The result is harder, spikier, and far less approachable. It’s also the far greater accomplishment. Chris O’Leary, writing about “Station to Station,” describes the song thusly: “One of the many lies we tell children is that there’s no limit to the imagination. Of course there is. Even the most consuming and perceptive of minds reaches its borders and retreats. Expanding the mind is dog’s work, as grueling as it’s often fruitless; few attempt it, fewer succeed in it, and those who do often come out twisted and torn. In 1975, binging on cocaine, living in paranoid isolation and making a rock record, David Bowie succeeded.” One doubts Moffat’s version of this involved quite so much cocaine, but there is a similar sense of an artist clawing his way, bloodied and stunned, to a peak he knows even as he reaches it that he will never surpass.
But while Moffat’s script is the element that’s pushing to new heights, it comes off because he’s backed by an absolutely staggering array of talent. Cumberbatch, Freeman, and especially Abbington rise to the ambition of the material, while Nick Hurran shows why he’s become one of Moffat’s most trusted collaborators. With Moffat at the frayed ends of his powers, he needs everyone to show up. They do, and the effect is an entire show determined to see just how far it can push things. In answering that question, then, we basically have to start at the ending, in which Moffat comes down firmly on the side of shooting Rupert Murdoch in the face. 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?” 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 manifestly not playing a “can you guess where we’re going” game with the audience.
Whether you think this is clever or not is largely a personal decision. But in what we might call the normal order of 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, given the emphasis on getting 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. “How far ahead is he” is a question with only one possible answer. 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 quietly 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. To hone our description of the story a bit, the story is about what Sherlock’s vow becomes in the face of who Mary really is.
This puts us in familiar territory with Moffat, not least because of the fate of Mary’s textual equivalent. The entirety of Sherlock Series 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, or at least not in Series Three. 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, in order to go 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? Mary understands that. 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, and it’s no surprise when The Six Thatchers ends up having no real interest in further probing the morality of his actions. 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 craft a nuanced and interesting 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.
But this is also where things begin to fray. Getting these balls in the air and maintaining their balance and pacing is an extraordinary trick. Marrying that to the genuinely surprising fury and contempt with which Moffat presents Magnussen pushes it to a volume and scale that Moffat has never quite managed before. But there’s nowhere to go from here. The sheer size of it means it doesn’t even quite resolve so much as it exhausts itself, essentially just collapsing when its work is done. This threatens to be an unsatisfying resolution, and in a sense it is, at least inasmuch as it leads into the remainder of Sherlock.
What holds it together, ultimately, 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. For all its ostentation, Moffat shows a nuanced understanding 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 putting on the brakes and lingering on a scene. The episode opens as breakneck a pace as he’s ever managed, then ends with a methodical resolution that takes vast and deserved amounts of time to focus on the Watsons. It’s a deft and subtle balance, and one that gives clear signs of how Moffat is going to approach things going forward. Put another way, the expansion of Moffat’s abilities this episode represents leaves a significant territory for him to explore. Which is on the whole good, given the scope of the challenges that faced him on his other show.
TARDIS Eruditorum returns with new entries on March 19th.