Outside the Government: His Last Vow
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.
March 12, 2018 @ 10:45 am
“It doesn’t, of course, or at least not in Series Three”
It’s very interesting that in Sherlock Moffat ultimately failed with narrative substition. Almost as if The Canon proved to be a black hole, warping space and exerting its pull, so that escape was ultimately impossible. I wonder why that happened. Was Moffat just too tired after series 9 of Doctor Who? Or was it a fanboyish impulse to “be faithful”?
The Oncoming Hurricane
March 12, 2018 @ 11:28 am
I would look at the credited writer, and suggest that fetishisation of canon feels much more Gatiss’ thing. Moffat does bear some of the blame, but most of the crime would be being unable to say no to his writing partner. It doesn’t feel like an aesthetic choice he’d make if left to his own devices. The tiredness possibly comes in with finding another way of subverting a fridging.
March 12, 2018 @ 12:12 pm
Good points. In attributing the decision-making power to Moffat alone, I’m being unfair to both him and Gatiss. And you’re right in that the adherence to canon seems much more of a Gatiss thing.
March 12, 2018 @ 6:45 pm
I am comfortable assigning full responsibility to each of them, but I’m inclined to focus on Moffat as he’s the one running the show I’m actually writing about.
March 12, 2018 @ 7:35 pm
Also fair. In any case, I’m really looking forward to The Six Thatchers essay.
March 12, 2018 @ 11:33 am
Especially interesting in light of the fact that Moffat seemingly wrote a get-out clause right there, in His Last Vow.
“Mary Morstan was stillborn in October 1972. Her gravestone is in Chiswick Cemetery where – five years ago – you acquired her name and date of birth and thereafter her identity.”
It’s like the episode is deliberately trying to make a sacrifice required by the bloodthirsty Canon. The person called Mary Morstan did die, but our Mary isn’t actually her, so we’re in the clear.
March 13, 2018 @ 9:24 am
Damn. Now I wish they used that.
March 14, 2018 @ 11:50 am
I’m pretty sure the taking-name-from-grave thing was a nod to The Day of the Jackal, given Mary’s occupation and all.
March 12, 2018 @ 5:54 pm
On not quite the subject of the Eruditorum,
how is it that Phil Sandifer is not planning to cover Doctor Twelfth and the other Dr Men books?
I was in a small independent bookshop earlier this week and they had a rack of them by the counter.
Maybe if the Mr Men aren’t on his radar as an American he doesn’t get the full ramifications of the joke. (I don’t know what the nearest US equivalent would be. Dr Seuss?)
March 12, 2018 @ 5:55 pm
Gotta leave something for the book version.
March 12, 2018 @ 6:24 pm
The obvious Pop Between Realities not mentioned is
March 12, 2018 @ 6:41 pm
Just don’t see it as that exciting a lens on the Capaldi era.
March 27, 2018 @ 1:57 pm
Could it be an companion side piece to the Tenth Doctor era, and how it shadows it in various ways?
March 14, 2018 @ 9:25 am
You reminded me of the excellent “You’re not ten anymore” meta-joke. Good times.
March 12, 2018 @ 9:48 pm
Hooray, more Eruditorum soon! But I mostly read the site on mobile, and there are some weird layout problems on there that have been plaguing me since I started reading. Is there any way this can be looked into?
March 16, 2018 @ 1:13 am
There’s a full site redesign coming down the pike that will, God willing, address this.
March 17, 2018 @ 2:02 am
Thanks El! Give me a shout if you’d like any help 🙂
March 13, 2018 @ 7:33 pm
Regarding the “unguessable” twists; I guessed one of them.
Well. That’s not exactly true. I completely overshot one of them, taking for granted that we were meant to understand the text overlayed on Magnusson’s field of vision the same way as we understood Sherlock’s. And therefore, I thought, there was probably a twist there — like maybe he had smart glasses and these things were actually appearing in front of him.
So when it was revealed that this wasn’t what was happening, it struck me as a particularly audacious double bluff.
March 14, 2018 @ 11:52 am
Even now, I think shooting Magnusson was a lame move. I could do that! What’s the point of being Sherlock Holmes if you can’t come up with a better solution?
March 14, 2018 @ 3:33 pm
…but Steven Moffat is saying that, where it comes to Rupert Murdoch, there is no better solution.
Even if you’re Sherlock Holmes.
March 14, 2018 @ 5:46 pm
I know Murdoch is a stain on humanity, but any character ever could do what Sherlock did. The point of pitting Murdoch against Sherlock is so Sherlock can best him in a uniquely Sherlockian way.
It’s like Columbo: we expect him to get the bad guy in an ingenius, watertight way. If the murderer had just left fingerprints, we’d feel cheated.
Fictionalising real life people is a way to bring them into the orbit of characters who can confront them in a way which is consistent with their fictional world.
March 15, 2018 @ 10:17 am
I see your point, but I think in this case even Conan Doyle admitted that murder is pretty much the only option on the table.
I think that Sherlock did actually confront Magnussen “in-character”. It’s just that Magnussen pushes this character to his limits. That’s his modus operandi: he identifies other people’s breaking points and threatens to apply pressure. Lady Smallwood breaks if she loses her reputation. Mary breaks if John finds out who she is and leaves her. John breaks if he loses Mary. Magnussen rightly assumes that Sherlock breaks if he stops being a hero. But Sherlock is willing to break himself, to become a villain – and that’s how he wins. By being willing to do something that’s “out of character” for him.
What’s interesting is that shooting Magnussen doesn’t really break Sherlock. If the Doctor just shot a villain dead in cold blood, that would definitely break him. He can kill billions as a last resort but never like that. He needs to be kind to function as a character, he needs to always look for another way. But Sherlock isn’t about being kind, or being just, or, apparently, even being a hero. He’s about thinking outside of the box until he solves a given problem. And so when presented with a Gordian knot, he just cuts it.
March 15, 2018 @ 10:38 am
The essence of it is consistent with the original story the episode is based on (though Moffat did change the specifics of how it resolves, rejecting Doyle’s moral cop-out). Of course, anything can be changed when your general approach to the material is as freewheeling as Sherlock‘s, but still, the resort to naked force is a key part of what’s being adapted rather than a new creation. It’s supposed to be a story where the character steps outside his normal pattern of behaviour, and if you change that you rather lose the point of adapting that story at all.
And I don’t really see the point of fictionalising a real-life villain just to say “but a superhero could beat him with his superpowers”. So what?
March 16, 2018 @ 6:45 pm
To prarphrase Dirk Gently, the phrase “I could do that!” is a misleading one, because the fact is, you didn’t.
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t shoot Murdoch. The fact Murdoch remains unshot suggests to me that probably most people couldn’t shoot Murdoch. It looks to me like it would probably take a very specific kind of person; perhaps someone who felt a moral obligation to help others, but at the same time was also the sort of person who others kind of expected would probably kill someone eventually.
“One day we’ll be standing round a body, and Sherlock Holmes will be the one that put it there.”
March 14, 2018 @ 9:53 pm
Wondering how you feel this tracks with Press Gang, from Spike’s “I’d kill a dragon for you” through the suggestion, brought to a head in There Are Crocodiles, that Lynda herself may be the monster. Kids’ show or not, I have the feeling it assembles most of the key pieces of the Moffat toolkit.
March 15, 2018 @ 12:25 pm
If the map briefly shown behind Mycroft in this episode is to be believed, the dangerous Eastern European country that Sherlock is exiled to to do some important undercover work is apparently Poland.
As a Polish viewer I find it exceedingly hilarious.