Sherlock - His Last Vow

BBC1 12/01/14
Written by Steven Moffat / Directed by Nick Hurran

The reason people liked Sherlock from the start was because it didn’t conform to our expectations. Now it’s established and is not conforming to our new expectations some people are critical as if they have forgotten why they liked the show in the first place. So perhaps after the previous two episodes these critics will feel on safer ground with `His Last Vow`. That is at least until it spins around once, twice and at the very end a third time to once again confirm this is not a series to easily be pinned down. 

"And wait till you see the wallpaper in this room..."
In some ways this is the most conventional of the third season yet once more the focus is more on the relationships between the main characters than a particular crime to be solved. So during the course of a twisting plot we learn that Mary Watson is not who she seems to be- the clues have been there as a brief series of clips demonstrates. When you think about it she has been altogether too accepting of John’s bizarre crime solving life and of Sherlock so why would she be average? In fact it turns out she is a former assassin and probably not even English! Amazing! That’s something you don’t expect but it’s the way Steven Moffatt wrangles this outlandish idea to focus on the personal ramifications for both Sherlock and John that makes the episode satisfying. Again we’re misled when she shoots Sherlock because of course her former life would make it unlikely the shot would not be fatal from such proximity. Watch John’s reactions when this is all revealed. Martin Freeman again uses stillness to so many different purposes. In a series that- Irene Adler aside - has been dominated by male characters, Mary adds a perfect balance. Amanda Abbington has always been one of those actors who do great but unrecognised work but this episode shows her to full advantage. The scenes after John finds out about her are particularly strong as the viewer’s sympathies are tested.
Mary decided to assassinate the chef after a particulalry unpleasant rissole.

He also uses a ruthless all powerful business magnate called Charles Augustus Magnussen, a worthy preening adversary for Sherlock as a pivot to bring these revelations into the open. With his pale complexion and stare he might have stepped out of the Victorian fog of the original novels and certainly has the sense of a James Bond villain’s relish about him. Played by Lars Mikkelsen  what makes him such a persuasive villain is the feeling that there probably really are people like him about. His use of surveillance and other tricks to gather weaknesses of business and personal rivals as well as the influential mirrors the increasingly encompassing information profiles companies build on all of us. It’s not too far a leap to imagine how some might use that for blackmail rather than retail purposes. Feeding into such contemporary concerns adds an extra chill to Mikkelsen’s controlled performance. Moffatt’s name for the character’s Grand Designs style dwelling is unlikely to be coincidence either. As for his eyewear, well it’s Google Glass one step on. 
The writer is on top form here, this being one of the best things he’s written. I often find his other series distracting and annoying but there is something so beautifully calibrated about Sherlock which allows it to be as clever as you like but also full of excitement, intrigue and real heart. It’s so rare to find such ingredients running alongside each other so well. Even what we might call the lesser or linking scenes are packed with great things such as an amusing sub plot involving a perceptive homeless dropout, the Holmes’ family Xmas sequence and the always enjoyable Una Stubbs’ increasingly flustered Mrs Hudson. There is also a strong prologue as Lindsey Duncan’s minister is seen to be calmly but chillingly intimidated by Magnusson.
If the key words for last week’s episode may have been `love and bromance`, this week it’s `home truths`. The revelation as to Mary’s past is ultimately used as much to comment on John as it is her, as Sherlock points out his friend’s attraction to dangerous people. Holmes himself has cause to dwell on his own behaviour, not so much in the dialogue but in moments when others point it out and Benedict Cumberbatch does one of those knowing looks. Moffatt draws apt parallels between detective and villain’s methods which is there for us to see as Holmes’ unlikely girlfriend turns out to work for Magnusson.
This episode does have a more conventional structure (at least in the context of this series) leading to what we imagine will be a big confrontation but this is almost the opposite of last season’s rooftop bravado. Magnusson’s teasing seems to confuse Sherlock but then he uncharacteristically ends it in a moment. The season then appears to conclude with Holmes again disappearing at the behest of Mycroft (but this time with John’s knowledge) on a mission we are led to believe will be short lived. Then, even after the end credits have started, an extra surprise to stun us again!
What a series! In just three episodes there is more here than you get in other 6 or 10 or 13 or even 24 part series. More wit, more tension, more cleverness, more drama, more great acting and more fun than should by rights fit into the running time. This third season has divided the critics by taking exactly the sort of chances that helped the first two thrive and long may it continue to do so. Exactly how the team can follow it up with the confirmed fourth season is thankfully not our problem! For now we have three more jewels to add to our collection of a series that no British series – and very, very few US ones- can come close to matching. Over 3,000 IMDB reviewers have accumulated this episode a virtually unkwown score of 9.7 out of 10 while The Guardian reviewer says it might be faultless. I think he might be right.

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