In Series 2 of Sherlock, Moriarty appears threaded throughout the first story, A Scandal in Belgravia, disappears entirely from Sherlock’s consciousness for the whole of The Hounds of Baskerville, and then comes roaring back with a festival of mayhem and menace for The Final Problem.
For Series 3, the Production Team tried the same trick again with Charles Augustus Magnussen (a European twist on the Milverton of the Conan Doyle original) but the effect is significantly less successful because, perhaps unfairly, everyone thinks of Holmes and Moriarty as the ultimate antagonists, and, more fairly, because Moriarty had been built up throughout the whole of Series 1, leading to his reveal at the end of the first series, whereas by the time we meet him openly in His Last Vow, all we know about Magnussen is that he’s sadistic and powerful, and was responsible for putting Watson in the bonfire in Series 3, Episode 1, The Empty Hearse. We haven’t even heard his name whispered until he appears in this episode, so in terms of Big Bad pacing, His Last Vow has a lot to do.
Fortunately then, it does an almost ridiculous amount, covering a vast amount of ground. Lars Mikkelsen is genuinely frightening and personally revolting as Magnussen, calmly assessing everyone he needs to pressurize for their weaknesses, and taking personal liberties because he knows he can – licking the face of Lindsey Duncan’s Lady Elizabeth Smallwood when she dares stand up to him at a committee hearing, peeing calmly in Sherlock and Watson’s fireplace while insulting Britain when he invites himself round to Baker Street, and ultimately, demanding that Watson let him flick his face, simply because he enjoys inflicting pain and humiliation and because he knows that both Watson and Holmes are powerless in opposition. If Andrew Scott as Moriarty gave a masterclass in unpredictable instability, Mikkelsen’s Magnussen is exactly the opposite kind of danger, always restrained, always controlled, always in charge of every situation by virtue of knowing where everyone’s weak spots are. In essence, he’s a different kind of anti-Sherlock – where we’re familiar with Holmes’ deductions appearing on screen as he makes them about every aspect of a person, Magnussen sees weaknesses, cross-referenced with every aspect of their lives in almost exactly the same way. There’s a lesson there that we should learn earlier than we do, but to be fair, we don’t learn it earlier because there is a whole heck of a lot of ground to cover.
Watson going into a crack den to rescue a neighbour’s son and exorcising some of the demons of suburban boredom is proof of what’s missing from his life of married bliss. Finding Sherlock there, cultivating a drugs habit again, seems to prove that the great detective’s not doing so well on his own either, but the whole assumption is wrong-footed when it turns out that Sherlock is dating. Sherlock Holmes, high-functioning sociopath, is dating Janine, Mary Watson’s bridesmaid! Nothing adds up until Magnussen pops round for a pee and a spot of casual threatening, and Mycroft announces himself in stark opposition to Sherlock’s intention to go after the great manipulator, who runs almost a double life as a media mogul and the man who knows everyone’s secrets and pressurizes them to do his bidding. Again, there’s the duality – where Moriarty was the great villain who stayed hidden (despite apparently appearing on children’s TV), Magnussen is the man who’s made his career in public, in business, building his ‘legitimate’ empire by the simple act of knowing things about everyone.
In fact, duality’s everywhere we look in this episode, as the little inconsistencies in Mary’s life and behaviour add up to a shocking and frankly insane reality – Mary Watson is basically Black Widow! Operative for hire around the world, doer of shocking deeds and no mean manipulator herself, she’s ahead of Sherlock’s game and almost manages to kill Magnussen, till Sherlock (and by association, John) show up and her choices rapidly narrow.
Of all the people who’ve fantasised about shooting Sherlock in the chest, Mary seems the least likely to actually do it – but with practically no option left, it’s what she does here. Sherlock’s mind palace (and a technique that writer Steven Moffat would eventually recycle for one of the best episodes of Series 9 of Doctor Who, the slowing down of real time while the mind works really fast), saves him from actual death, and a reckoning is forced between the Watsons and their pasts.
Meanwhile, now knowing that Magnussen knows Mary’s secrets as well as everyone else’s, Sherlock’s focus shifts to Appledore.
Appledore, the legendary vault of secrets underneath Magnussen’s home, the repository of all his knowledge, and therefore all his power. Whispered about by everyone in the know, destroying Appledore appears to be the only way to break Magnussen’s hold on Mary, and therefore deliver a secure life for his friends.
You should never underestimate a high-functioning sociopath – they have an unerring ability to see in straight lines when necessary. If only x will achieve y, and y is a desirable outcome, then x must be achieved, whatever the risk and whatever the cost. Sherlock sets a plan in motion to achieve Appledore.
Bringing an oddly festive note to the whole affair, we join the Holmes boys – at home, for Christmas, suffering the unfaltering tedium of family, and with the Watsons not speaking, but keeping up appearances in a frightfully British way, a brulee-brittle civility covering secrets they don’t want to know and a heartache they can’t talk about. The breaking of the brulee, when it comes, is beautiful, a moment of faith that proves that the love the Watsons feel for each other is real on both sides, whatever secrets there may have been in the past.
And then of course, Sherlock drugs them all, except John, and steals a laptop full of national security goodies to trade with Magnussen for access to Appledore. Merry Christmas, Sherlock-fans.
That’s the point of the title, of course – Sherlock’s ‘last vow’ is also his first vow – to always be there for the three Watsons. While there’s undoubtedly a rabid curiosity about how Magnussen accesses all the information in his vaults, it’s actually for John and Mary that he does all this.
Oh, except – there are no Appledore vaults. Not in the conventional sense, and that similarity between Magnussen and Sherlock starts to really bite us. And when Mycroft and the army arrive mob-handed, we feel the same sense of panic as we did at the end of Series 2 when Moriarty shot himself. The plan’s gone wrong. What happens now? As Mary’s options narrowed in a misjudged instant earlier in the episode, so Sherlock’s narrow now, and his solution is logical, heartless and effective, but there has to be a price paid for John and Mary’s freedom. He’s prepared to pay it to keep his last vow, and Mycroft – while not especially given to pleas for clemency on behalf of his brother, arranges something more imaginative than a trial and life imprisonment for Sherlock : a mission in Eastern Europe with (even for him) a life expectancy of just six months. Sherlock Holmes will die serving his country, like many have before him, and like many will after.
The ending though is a glorious surprise, and an answer to the niggle that has dogged the whole of Series 3: if Sherlock and Moriarty are supposed to be such monumental equals, and Sherlock found a way to survive their encounter on the rooftop of Bart’s, then surely, surely Moriarty can’t be entirely dead either. What we actually saw of his death left room for doubt. And the end of Series 3 brings back if not Moriarty himself, then the possibility of Moriarty, and certainly the knowledge that is he is back, then there’s only really one man fully equipped to deal with him – and that man is Sherlock Holmes.
As this is written and posted, there are just days left before the 2015/16 Sherlock New Year Special, and given that the whole premise of Sherlock is that the detective’s adventures have been updated for the modern world, it feels a little odd to see Cumberbatch, Freeman and the gang in more traditional Victorian dress for the Special. But then, after a series that was notably lighter than either of its predecessors, ending on such a cliff-hanger, continuing the story directly in a one-off Special would feel not only wrong and slight, but also phenomenally difficult to pull off, unless the Special was at least movie-length. So bring on The Abominable Bride and then let’s get back to the Series 3 cliff-hanger for Series 4. ‘Did you miss me?’ Moriarty asks, simultaneously, on every screen in London at the end of the series. And while Series 3 was great and inventive, and Magnussen became a worthy adversary in episode 3, the truth is that yes, we really did.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk