SHERLOCK: “His Last Vow”

In the last episode for God-knows-how-long, Mary has a secret, Sherlock tangles with a dangerous new adversary, and a certain someone returns to haunt your mind palaces.

Lament all you like (and you know I do) about the dearth of Sherlock episodes — three in two years? How cruel! — but I am content to wait an eternity for the next season if it’ll still be this good. The BBC and premium cable model is “quality over quantity,” and it continues to pay huge dividends as this decidedly meta run of episodes builds to a thrilling, entirely satisfying conclusion that does an awful lot in very little time.

As before, I’ll be doing this recap stream-of-conscious-style as it airs. Ready? The game is on…

Charles Augustus Magnussen, we can tell almost immediately, is an oily creep. He’s a media magnate with access to and influence over anyone and everyone (see: Rupert Murdoch), including the prime minister, as is discussed in this opening scene when he is being interrogated by some kind of government investigative council. Magunssen is able to quite literally read people, with his glasses apparently functioning as some kind of Google Glass-type thing that gives him info on whoever he’s looking at, along with any “pressure points” they might have. He has an unsettlingly quiet mode of speaking, and naturally denies any wrongdoing.

But his knowledge and “excellent memory” isn’t enough for you, you say? He drops by the home office of the chief inquisitor, Lady Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan), holds her hand, reminds her of her former husband’s sordid past, identifies her perfume as “Claire de la Lune,” and essentially blackmails her into dropping any investigation because the knowledge he has basically allows him to destroy her life. Then he licks her face. WHAT. ICKY. This guy!

Distraught, Smallwood decides to call up the only man in England who might dare to stand up to Magnussen. She tells her driver to head for Baker Street.

Credits!

John Watson is still having Afghanistan flashbacks, and is awakened in the middle of one when a neighbor knocks on his door. The woman, Kate, is looking for her son — a drug addict — and with Sherlock MIA for the past month, she came to John. Being “neighborly,” John agrees to go, even though it means throwing himself into an uncharted drug den armed with nothing more than a tire lever. But Mary insists on driving him, despite being pregnant. She’s pregnant!

John, bursting with a machismo we’ve never seen before, barges into the ramshackle building and is immediately accosted by a druggie named Wiggins, who he immediately disarms — nearly literally. JOHN WATSON: BAD COP. “You’re mental,” Wiggins whines. “Nope, just used to a better class of criminal.” That is called foreshadowing.

John finds the kid with no further trouble, but gets more than he bargained for: guess who else is there, supposedly undercover? Sherlock. John can’t believe it — or Sherlock’s protests that he’s just “working,” but brings the kid, Shezza–er, Sherlock, and even Wiggins (who has some keen observational skills of his own) straight to the clinic.

Molly (who has broken off her engagement, by the way), is also pretty pissed at Sherlock for using drugs, whether for a case or not, and slaps him around a few times. John is worried that if word gets out about where Sherlock’s been his credibility is shot, but that’s exactly what Sherlock’s going for.

Baker Street. Mycroft is waiting for Sherlock and John when they arrive — along with Anderson and his Empty Hearse fan club, who have been searching his flat, clearing it of any untoward paraphernalia. Mycroft remarks that his bedroom door is shut for no reason, but Sherlock stops him. “This is not what you think — this is for a case.” Mycroft: “What case could possibly justify this?” “Magnussen.”

Mycroft blanches, urges Anderson and the others to scuttle, telling them they did not hear what they just heard. He tells Sherlock that Magnussen is actually under his protection, but Sherlock is having none of it (and has had enough of Mycroft’s patronizing) and nearly breaks him in half. John gets Mycroft out with no further trouble, and Sherlock goes to take a shower, before teasing John with just how dangerous this case is going to be…

As an aside, this is the first episode this season to actually make the case the central thrust of the story, instead of making it just about Sherlock and John’s relationship. Though that approach has worked pretty well to this point (especially last week’s, which might be my all-time favorite episode of Sherlock because it is largely happy and I like things that are largely happy), it’s also nice to see the series get back to basics. We’ve missed the threat of a super-brained villain (that brief glimpse at the end of “The Empty Hearse” doesn’t count), and Magnussen fits the bill.

Anyway — oh, guess what’s in Sherlock’s bedroom? You’ll never guess. It’s JANINE. Oh my. She emerges with everyone gone but John, and acts like everything is completely normal, that there’s nothing at all strange about apparently dating a total sociopath. She goes into the bathroom to visit “Sherl,” and John is deeply unsettled.

Sherlock doesn’t really want to talk about Janine (he describes whatever is going on as “affirming,” but he got that from a book) — when she leaves, Sherlock goes lovey-dovey for a moment (and Martin Freeman’s befuddlement is absolutely perfect), but drops it when she’s safely away. He’d rather talk about Magnussen, who he describes a flat-faced, dead-eyed shark and the most dangerous man he’s ever encountered. He essentially “runs the entire western world” from his mansion, which includes a vast library of information known as Appledore.

Right on cue…Magnussen appears at Baker Street with a group of henchmen. Sherlock introduces himself as an intermediary for Lady Smallwood, and requests Magnussen return the incriminating letters he has in his possession. Magnussen, meanwhile, studies Sherlock for pressure points, and comes up with…an awful lot. For the second time in two episodes, someone drops the name “Redbeard” to unsettle Sherlock. Magnussen doesn’t believe Sherlock is a threat, urinates in his fireplace (THIS GUY) and rejects his offer.

But Sherlock is undaunted — he noticed that Magnussen has the letters in his possession, and is pleased that he wasn’t seen as a threat himself. So what’s the plan? To sneak into Magnussen’s actual office and steal the letters while he’s out. (How does Sherlock know Magnussen’s schedule? “I just do.”)

The only way into the office is through Magnussen’s private lift, which has only one keycard. Sherlock’s nicked a general key card that will get them just to the door, and cleverly devises a scheme to make it simply read as an error, which will prompt a check, via camera, to Magnussen’s personal assistant…who happens to be Janine.

Oh dear.

Sherlock, that rascal, reveals an engagement ring. Oh no. Oh Sherlock, that’s terrible. John is appalled. “Human error,” Sherlock shrugs. Their entire relationship was simply an elaborate ruse to get into Magnussen’s office at this particular moment, and he’s going to have to break the poor girl’s heart…but upon arriving in the office, they find her knocked out. Something else is going on. Magnussen’s still here…as is someone else. Sherlock smells perfume. It’s Claire de la Lune. “Mary wears it,” John remarks, but it couldn’t be her — it must be Lady Smallwood…

Whoever it is has Magnussen on his knees, with a gun to his head. Sherlock addresses them as Smallwood, but he’s wrong. It’s not her.

It’s Mary.

OH NO.

NO WHY WHY DOES MARY HAVE TO BE BAD UGH THIS IS STUPID.

So Magnussen has something over on Mary, too — but before Sherlock can defuse the situation, SHE SHOOTS HIM IN THE CHEST.

SHE SHOOTS HIM. IN THE CHEST.

MARY. NO.

Into Sherlock’s mind palace! Molly is there, and tells Sherlock to focus — if he can put his enormous brain to work in the next three seconds, he can figure out how to save his own life. Which way should he fall? Well, it depends. Is there an exit wound? That depends on the gun. Anderson and Mycroft are here, the latter continuing to taunt him — and Sherlock visualizes himself as a kid (with that familiar shock of messy hair)… Okay, the mirror didn’t shatter. So the gun doesn’t matter. There’s no exit wound. Anderson tells him he needs to fall backwards. Sherlock does.

The next thing that can kill him is shock. Sherlock needs to figure out how to calm himself down, so he goes hunting through his mind palace — REDBEARD. Redbeard is his beloved childhood dog. “They’re putting me down, too,” he tells the dog. Gosh, this is heartbreaking.

The next step: control the pain. Subconscious Sherlock finds himself in a padded cell, with another familiar face for company: MORIARTY, chained to the wall, egging him on like Gollum. “It’s raining, it’s pouring, Sherlock is boring…” he sings. (Even imaginary Moriarty is awesome.) “You’re going to love being dead, Sherlock — nobody ever bothers you…John’s going to cry buckets and buckets. It’s him I worry about the most.”

Sherlock has been transported to a hospital and almost pronounced dead, but — remembering that John is very much still in danger — wills himself back to consciousness. John tells his wife that his first word upon waking up was “Mary.” Uh-oh.

Janine, meanwhile, is going to by a cottage with all the money she made selling her story of heartbreak to the tabloids. She and Sherlock insult each other, but she’s not really that angry. After all, she has a country cottage now. She just wishes he didn’t lie. They could have been really good friends, she says. This is true. We’ve obviously seen Sherlock been a manipulative bastard before, but we were lulled into complacency by the niceness he displayed the past two episodes. Our mistake.

Sherlock bolts from his hospital and goes into hiding. John figures that he must have known who shot him, so he’s either still in danger or is going about hunting down his near-murderer alone. But Mary, meanwhile, has been led to Sherlock’s hole so the two can have a little chat. He shares what he knows: Mary isn’t her real name, which is why she had no friends or family at the wedding; she’s clever enough to figure out a skip code within minutes, and — most importantly — is a good enough shot to only maim Sherlock, not actually kill him. Because she never actually meant to kill him. So why? And who is she? Whatever her history is (secret agent, perhaps?), it’s dark enough to endanger John if Magnussen knows her secrets.

So she really does love John– she just, you know, has been lying to him and everyone since the beginning. But John, as it happens, has overheard this whole conversation. Sherlock brings them to Baker Street to hash it out, or (as they say), “have a domestic.”

“Is everyone I’ve ever met a psychopath?” Watson agonizes. He’s trying to get answers from Mary, but Sherlock keeps interrupting (seriously though, that’s rude — let John handle his own story for once): John chose Mary, even though he thought she was safe and normal, but he has invariably been attracted to people with a dark streak, so it was only a matter of time before the truth about her came to light. And at this moment, Mary is not just Mrs. Watson. She’s a client.

Again, this scene would be a lot more powerful if Sherlock didn’t have to constantly explain everything (even in his weakened state). It’s okay to have him take a step back just for a second. If I’d make one criticism about this show, it’s that everything revolves around Sherlock — even his friends talk about him constantly when he isn’t around. On the one hand, yes, he’s a compelling character and it shows that people care about him (and the show is called Sherlock, after all), but it gives the others short-shrift when they have their own personal problems because Sherlock always, inevitably, gets involved. Martin Freeman is a brilliant enough actor to occasionally be put in a position of power (as the opening sequence showed), and the idea that Sherlock understands the emotional component of the Watsons’ marriage better than John himself rings a little false. But, anyway, we’ve got a lot to do in 90 minutes, so let’s move on.

Mary hands over a flash drive with all her secrets (with “A.G.R.A.” printed on it, which she says are her initials) — the secrets that Mary is convinced will make John no longer love her if he reads them. She’s an assassin, and Magnussen could put her in prison for the rest of her life, and when her chance to put a bullet in Magnussen was blown, she put one in Sherlock to take the heat off of John. She’s even the one that called the ambulance, which ended up saving Sherlock’s life. So John has a lot to think about.

Christmas at the Holmes house (or should I say the Cumberbatch house). A sullen Mycroft has no use for holidays of any sort, but Sherlock insisted that he (and Mary, and John, and Wiggins) be present. The Watsons’ relationship is still frosty, but John finally has something to say: “The problems of your past are your business. The problems of your future…are my privilege.” He throws the flash drive — which he never opened — into the fire. He doesn’t care what her real name is. She’s Mary Watson. SO MANY FEELINGS. They embrace. They cry. I notice that my living room is dusty, or something.

Out on the porch, Mycroft and Sherlock are sneaking a smoke. Mycroft gives Sherlock a heads-up about a a particularly dangerous assignment that MI-6 is about to offer, back undercover in Eastern Europe. Mycroft is pretty sure that it will “prove fatal in about six months.” Sherlock: “Then why don’t you want me to take it?” “It’s tempting, but you have more utility closer to home…Also, your loss would break my heart.” Well, that’s as close as Mycroft gets to brotherly love. Perhaps there’s something in the punch…

Oh — there IS something in the punch. Mary and the rest of Holmes family collapse within minutes — Sherlock has had Wiggins drug them. Nothing dangerous, just something that gives Sherlock (and John) an opening…to get picked up by Magnussen. You see, as we learn in flashback, Sherlock has arranged to go see this mysterious Appledore, this wealth of information powerful enough to rule the world and destroy peoples’ lives. Sherlock has cavalierly offered his brother. He has also already deduced that Magnussen is tapped into this network via his glasses, but — oops — that’s not the case. They’re ordinary glasses. It’s all in Magnussen’s memory. Huh?

Sherlock and John go to Magnussen’s helicopter. Holmes reminds John that what they’re about to do is incredibly dangerous and super illegal. John’s alright with that. To Appledore…

…Where Magnussen reveals that HE is the one who arranged to have Watson kidnapped and stashed in a bonfire back in “The Empty Hearse.” Why? Because Mary is John’s pressure point, who is Sherlock’s, who is Mycroft’s. Sound needlessly complicated? Maybe. But it brought everyone here, just like Sherlock — and Magnussen — have planned. Sherlock demands whatever Magnussen has on Mary, but Magnussen just laughs. It’s all locked deep inside his vaults, he says. And Sherlock has already made “one enormous mistake.” Magnussen’s vaults, the fabled “Appledore,” isn’t real. It’s a construct. It’s his mind palace. He’s got the same kind of photographic memory as Sherlock — all of those scenes with Magnussen looking through dusty files? They’re inside his mind, just like what Sherlock did to cheat death earlier in the hour.

Yikes.

So Magnussen knows everything, even if he doesn’t actually possess physical evidence, because as the head of a media empire, he can print whatever he likes anyway. John doesn’t understand (Magnussen: “You should put that on a t-shirt.”)  Sherlock is dumbstruck, and goes completely silent.

A triumphant Magnussen, just to show how much power he has, makes John let him flick his face over and over again. He knows who Mary has killed, he knows how to get her in trouble, and he’ll do it…unless John lets him needle him mercilessly. “You see, this is what I do to people.” He doesn’t see himself as a real villain. He doesn’t do anything illegal, necessarily. He just uses information to his advantage, and will be a total thorn in your side just for the fun of it.

And at that moment, Mycroft and his team swoop in on helicopters. Mycroft orders Sherlock to step away, but Sherlock, who has been just staring at the ground for several minutes — SHERLOCK PULLS OUT A GUN AND SHOOTS MAGNUSSEN IN THE HEAD. He really did it. He just killed the guy. “Tell Mary she’s safe now,” he says, as he gives himself up to MI-6. John and even Mycroft are horrified, as the latter still sees him as that scared little mop-headed boy, who just made the biggest mistake of his life.

But to incarcerate Sherlock would also be a mistake, given his usefulness, so Mycroft argues to have Sherlock sent on that ill-fated undercover assignment. Everyone — especially Sherlock — knows that he’s probably never going to see John again, but their goodbye is surprisingly tepid. “The game is never over, but there might be some new players now,” Sherlock says. Anything John could say, he already said back when he thought he was actually dead, so they leave it off with a simple handshake. Sherlock’s plane takes off, and it’s a disappointingly downbeat ending as the credits music starts to kick in…

NO! The credits are interrupted by a burst of static. An image appears on screens all over London. “It’s not possible,” Mycroft says. He has no choice but to call Sherlock on the plane. “As it turns out, you’re needed.” What could possibly be so urgent? Only one explanation: there’s an East Wind coming, and his name is…Moriarty.

“Did you miss me?”

WHAT.

This was Sherlock’s most consistent and entertaining season yet, but Moffat and Gatiss couldn’t let it end without pulling another rabbit out of a hat. Aside from getting to completely brush aside Sherlock flat-out murdering a guy in cold blood, they have to explain how Moriarty managed to fake his own death — if, in fact, he’s actually back. (He’s totally back. This was planned out well in advance.) But it’s a blast to watch Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott prance and preen around each other, so this cliffhanger is more of an “Oooh, fun!” than “OMG HOW/WHY?!” That’s actually a bit of a relief. The long wait begins again, but hopefully this one won’t feel quite so long.

Season Grade: A

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