015 – Sherlock, “His Last Vow”

sherlock his final vow

It’s just the craziest thing. So, if you remember from yesterday (http://wp.me/p4cEkb-1g), I received a mysterious disc containing the second and third episodes of Sherlock’s third season. Of course I was going to report this crime of piracy to the authorities, but I wanted to confirm the contents before getting the police involved. I watched the two episodes (you gotta watch the whole thing to make sure it’s a crime – that’s the law for you!) and as I’m walking the evidence to my local precinct – well I’ll be damned if a red-tailed hawk didn’t swoop down out of the sky and snatch the DVD right out of my hand. As the expression goes “if a bird steals the evidence of a crime then that crime basically never happened in the first place.” I suppose the most that can be done now is to craft a review of the finale of series three, “His Last Vow.”

This episode is all about power and leverage, a concept that is really driven home in the opening by new Sherlock baddie Charles Augusus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen). Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) spends the rest of the episode trying to take Magnussen down with the ever-present aide of John Watson (Martin Freeman).

Mikkelsen does a fine job with the character of Magnussen, unfortunately there just isn’t a whole lot there for him to play. Magnussen is a barely-veiled fictionalization of media mega-mogul Rupert Murdoch, which is a silly place for a usually-inventive show to go for its big bad. There is also not a whole lot to distinguish Magnussen from Sherlock’s previous nemesis Moriarty, who has continued to be a specter over the season, despite his fate at the end of series two. Magnussen feels like a retread; he just cares more about taking control than causing chaos.

Maybe this comparison is intentional. Perhaps Steven Moffat (the episode’s credited writer) wanted to make the viewer think of Magnussen as a shadow of the more bombastic villain. But this might be giving Moffat more credit than he is due, as Magnussen’s chracterization is not the only weak point of the episode. “His Last Vow” is a real contradiction for Watson. Martin Freeman gets at least one great moment to portray, but this is matched by scenes where the character seems weak-willed and foolish. Moreso than usual. In a way it smacks of the criticisms some have leveled at Moffat’s female characters; John loses much of his agency in deference to stronger characters. It is frustrating, and the experience may color how I view Moffat’s writing down the line.

But this is a finale, isn’t it? And the stakes certainly jump toward the episode’s end. The series appears to wrap up with a very interesting new status quo that could make for cool future stories. Unfortunately Moffat has to do a lot of manipulating of characters and situations to get all of the pieces in place of this endgame – and this re-jiggering really does not do most of the characters justice. And then to add insult to injury, most of the promising developments are undone by the episode’s final twist.

It is hard to say how this final beat will affect series four (which has already been confirmed, along with series five), but I don’t want it to sound like the show is going into another (presumably) long hiatus leaving only a bad taste in the mouth. “His Last Vow” is certainly a darker episode than “The Sign of Three” was, but it still finds some fun moments, particularly in the first third. Then there is a really amazing sequence that kicks off the second third of the episode (another instance of the show taking really innovative looks at the tituar character’s thought process). Overall, Sherlock series three was a very pleasant ride. The quality of the episodes resembles a bell curve, but the lows are never as low as series two’s “The Hounds of Baskerville.” I certainly do not look forward to waiting for the show’s yet-to-be-decided return date. Hopefully that same British criminal will burn those episodes to a disc as well, so that I can finally catch him or her. The game is on.

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