Tuesday 14 January 2014

REVIEW: Sherlock 3-3 - His Last Vow


Now that's a season finale. The Empty Hearse and The Sign of Three might have been lacking in the mystery and jeopardy stakes to some extent, but His Last Vow more than made up for it, hitting a perfect balance between the emotional focus of the preceding two episodes and the Holmesian adventure of the previous two seasons. His Last Vow is a tour-de-force... up until the last minute or so, when things took a turn for the groanworthy.

After the very loose adaptations of the first two episodes, it was a pleasant surprise that His Last Vow stuck so closely to its source material. Having little in common with “His Last Bow” beyond the title, the odd quote about “an east wind coming,” and a cheeky reference to beekeeping. No, this episode was based on “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” sticking closely to the plot of the story, albeit updated in Sherlock's signature style, up until the point at which we meet the blackmailer's assassin. Following that, it moves onto a riff on “The Adventure of the Empty House” and some wholly unexpected revelations.

Playing up Sherlock Holmes's legendary substance abuse – only hinted at in the series, but a well-explored facet of his character in most modern adaptations – the opening sequence is one of the series' best. Martin Freeman is better than ever in this episode, and that's saying something. It's great to see John being an awesome character on his own, proving that, although he may be a normal person, he is by no means an ordinary one. It's a fascinating exploration of John's character, his need for danger to fulfil his post-military life, that we haven't really seen since A Study in Pink.

Then, of course, there's Mary. We knew, of course, that something was up with her. Aside from the fact she was receiving telegrams from “CAM,” it was inevitable that a major character in this series would have something untoward in her past. Even Mrs Hudson has a shady background; Molly seems to be the only one who is exactly who she seems (not that the fanfictioneers haven't been theorising). It's a testament to Amanda Abbington's skill as an actor that she is entirely convincing both as the Mary we've come to know and the ex-agent and assassin who would shoot a friend in the chest. Whil we're kept guessing as to her real motives, there's never any doubt that she truly loves John and would do anything to protect him. It's an exceptional performance.

The star turn of the episode, though, is by Lars Mikkelson as Charles Augustus Magnussen. (Why the writers saw fit to change his name from Milverton to Magnussen I don't know, unless it's a nod to how Doyle originally changed the name of real-life villain Charles Augustus Howell to use him in fiction.) Mikkelson brings a reptilian coldness to his performance, breaking through to a seedy, malignant glee at his actions, that is truly unpleasant to watch. Magnussen is a truly horrible character, and it's easy to see why he would turn Sherlock's stomach. Making him a Murdoch-like newspaper magnate is a good, satirical touch, too. I confess I much prefer him as villain to Moriarty. His cold-hearted, untouchable arrogance makes him truly hate-worthy, and Mikkelson's subtle yet powerful performance is truly brilliant.

Amusingly, the one point that has had some fans up in arms in Sherlock's relationship with Janine, former bridesmaid. Anyone who knows the original story will know that this is perfectly in keeping with Holmes's plan, in which he became engaged to Milverton's housemaid in order to infiltrate his life. Just like in the Milverton story, Sherlock uses his new girlfriend as a means to an end, but this time, his victim gives just as good as she gets. It's a brilliant, and believable, turn to have Janine using Sherlock to make money from the tabloids, fitting her rather cunning personality that we got glimpses of in The Sign of Three. Sherlock is an absolute bastard in this episode, but he sure suffers for it. Seemingly the sexuality he displayed was all an act, but given the chemistry displayed between him and Janine, I'd say there was more than a little genuine attraction there. To be honest, I could watch and listen to Yasmin Akram all day; I hope we see more of her in the fourth series, in her Sussex country home.

I could spend an hour praising the cast of this episode. Another chance to see the Holmes family, with the senior Cumberbatches playing the senior Holmeses, is a treat. Gatiss is as good as ever as Mycroft, particularly in the electrifying confrontation between the two brothers at 221B. A terrific addition to the cast is Tom Brooke as Bill Wiggins. This junior Sherlock manages to be even more bizarre than his mentor. A mix of Holmes's page Billy and Wiggins, the eldest member of the Baker Street Irregulars, this new sidekick is a fine addition to the growing ensemble.

Things go badly wrong for Sherlock when he catches Mary in the act of assassinating Magnussen. This is where the story diverges most from its inspiration. In the original, Holmes does not stop the killing. Here, his presence alone alters events, and Magnussen lives, necessitating Sherlock's eventual act of murder. Mary's shooting of Sherlock leads to an effective sequence in his broken down mind palace, which is all the better for its later reflection in Magnussen's perfectly ordered memory vault. There's never any chance that Sherlock will die, of course, and the fun lies in seeing how he will avert his death. (There's a lot of that going on in Moffat's work. Sherlock has gotten so Who-y this year, I half expected him to regenerate on the floor.) Sherlock has worked distinctly below his extraordinary high standards this series, and here he makes two huge mistakes. He fails to realise who is holding the gun to Magnussen's head, and underestimates the extent of the blackmailer's abilities. His grand plan goes horribly wrong.

The climactic final act brings everything together, although there is less satisfaction in the reveal of Mary's identity than there could have been. A little more build-up, some more foreshadowing, a chance to actually work out what she was hiding, and this could have been even more powerful. As it is, the success of this strand is down to the performances of Cumberbatch, Abbington and Freeman. The final confrontation between Sherlock, John and Magnussen is a powerful scene, but having been diverted from the Magnussen plot, it's less affecting than it might have been. Sherlock's murder of Magnussen is shocking, but not surprising. There is not other way he could be dealt with, and the possibility that Sherlock was capable of murder was always likely. Perhaps more alarming is that Mycroft can pull some strings and prevent his arrest and sentencing, revealing just how powerful a man he is.

Finally, it appears that Sherlock will be sent on a dangerous mission to eastern Europe, paralleling his actions during his two year sabbatical and engendering some genuine concern over whether he could survive. Then, there's a bit of spam with Moriarty's face on it, and he's called back. Not only does this rob us of what looked to be an interesting change in direction, it simply doesn't work as a twist. It's frankly just one rug-pull too many. While it's not impossible that Moriarty might have survived – if Sherlock can fake his death, then so can Jimmy M. – it robs the conclusion to season two of its impact. Frankly, this version of Moriarty has been done to death. I wish that had literally true, not just figuratively. The one solace is that no characters actually see Moriarty, merely a mock-up of his image. Only the viewers get his final words to the camera. He may really be dead. We'll have to see.

His Last Vow was a thrilling, funny, sexy, powerful ninety minutes of television. However, that last twist does not give me very high hopes for season four.

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