“…don’t waste your time and ours hooting at crap! Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone.”
— Daniel C. Dennet, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, “Sturgeon’s Law”
Because Sherlock is not (was not?) “crap,” I am compelled to share this review, even though I know it won’t make any difference in what is going to happen in Series 4 and 5. I feel in all fairness, though, I must warn you, that, in the words of the divine Miss Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
First, before I go any further, let me say that even though my comments on episodes 1 and 2 are brief, it’s not due to lack of appreciation. I have not had television reception for 13 years, but purchased both a wide-screen plasma TV and installed minimal cable just to watch the episodes, and then held rather elaborate Sherlock Series/Season 3 parties for the event. I do not regret a penny spent. Sherlock Series/Season 3 Episodes 1 and 2 were incomparably wonderful, nonpareil storytelling in an expanding Sahara of television.
We’ll get to episode 3.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO DON’T REALIZE A REVIEW WILL HAVE SPOILERS
“The Empty Hearse”
I thought “The Empty Hearse” was a brilliant send up of all the post-Reichenbach Fall hysteria, in the original meaning of the word, which was very reminiscent of the reaction of the reading public when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem.” (By the way, Holmes first fans had to wait 10 years for his return.) It was witty, thought provoking, and gave fans some much needed catharsis, as well as poking a bit of biting fun at the excesses it skewers. There was plenty of angst, but there was a great deal of good natured fun with the characters, and just enough mystery and deduction to make it an actual Sherlock Holmes story, and not simply an homage to fan fiction. (People forget that “The Empty House” also focused more on Holmes’ return then on the mystery.) Hearse, however, is not necessarily comfortable viewing for those who don’t like facing a bit of self-examination or non-traditional television. And not particularly satisfying, or undertandable, for “mundanes,” i.e., non-fans. But then freshness and originality is what made Sherlock such a success!
“Somebody loves you! If I had to punch that face, I’d avoid the nose and teeth too.”
—Irene Adler, Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia”
Fans of the series got John not just punching Sherlock in the face, but fans of the Canon got a nod to the John Watson originally fainting, when Sherlock reveals himself, in Freeman’s masterful performance of a man willing himself to stay standing and conscious. The acting was, if anything, even better than the previous episodes, and I was struggling for some decorum while inwardly bubbling at Benedict Cumberbatch getting to show off his comedic chops (little did I know then what was to come).
I was fascinated with how beautifully the writers achieved a linear story that didn’t feel linear because of the jumps to the different solutions and perceptions, and misperceptions, of various characters. It was a subtle tour de force that I think many people missed, especially those used to the banal of standard television. And I was delighted more than I can express that the writers was able to plug so many of the plot holes and repair so much of character continuity torn up in “The Reichenbach Fall.” The few small anomalies remaining reflected the imperfections of life and highlighted the show’s beauties.
My only real quibble was the over-use of Benedict Cumberbatch thinking very hard as Sherlock sifted through what he’d seen and heard to piece together the puzzle. The director could have been a bit more original to better effect, because by the third close-up of Sherlock pinching and twitching the effect was not only diminished, but distracting. The director might have relied a bit less on technical wizardry and more on an alternative to the close-up.
But again, these are small quibbles.
I had honestly thought that there was no way Sherlock Series/Season 3 could top “The Empty Hearse.”
“Sign of Three”
Then came “Sign of Three” and we got some nicely done mystery gift wrapped in some delightful Sherlockian comedy, and with plenty of emotional triggers for the Romanticists among the fans who waited. It was a deluxe assortment of the finest hand-crafted confections. It was so good, in fact, that I’m not going to spend much time on it. Why waste the breath (or the bandwidth as it were)?
I do want to thank the writers for finally giving us John Watson acting in the character of a retired trained, and experienced, combat doctor. (We’ll get to the unfortunate habit of having Dr. Watson standing around dithering in a “man down” situation later.)
I’ve read and heard some quibbling on flustered Sherlock the Wedding Planner, however, it fulfilled my long desired wish to see Benedict Cumberbatch do more comedy, and it was perfectly in character with the manic-depressive, obsessive Sherlock the series has presented, a Sherlock who leaps in glee at being asked to consult on a serial killer (“Four killings and now a serial killer. Ah, it’s Christmas!”), indexes his socks, and who does blog posts on 140 different types of ash (“143.”). Sherlock’s response to John asking him to be best man had me flashing on Harrison Ford telling Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid: “I ain’t never been nobody’s best friend before.”
I provided champagne for the party for this episode, some of which ended up spewed across the carpet during the Stag Do (including Drunk Sherlock belligerently declaring, “I know ash!”). While some critics have objected to Drunk Sherlock, it seemed remarkably in character to me since John tampered with Sherlock’s carefully calculated alcohol consumption by spiking their drinks. It was definitely John’s fault Sherlock had trouble “cluing for looks.”
I’ve gone on far longer then I intended, and I could easily go further, but let’s leave it at “Sign of Three” being probably the most popular episode among the fans, and one of the most popular in the entire series.
So between Moffat’s hints and this build up, I was ready to be blown away with terror and suspense by “His Las Vow.” Perhaps I was — but I think not in the manner intended.
“His Last Vow”
First, let me say that I think Mark Gatiss, Stephen Thompson, and Steven Moffat are all enormously talented and gifted writers. One of my best friends became a complete Dr. Who fan, so to share her interests I asked for a recommended episode to watch. She suggested “Blink,” despite the lack of David Tennant screen time. I was astounded by the deft writing, character development, and storyline. It was not what I’d come to expect from Dr. Who, a series in which the humans rarely solve their own problems, and on the strength of it, I purchased several seasons.
It was then I discovered that, while Mr. Moffat is indeed skillful, without constraints (like having his Doctor busy elsewhere), the series succumbs to using stale emotional gimmicks and hasty plot devices, and often has little regard for character consistency or established back story in his desire for a bigger punchline. It’s a writing technique where the writer usually asks himself “what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character at this time,” as opposed to “in this situation, and with what has come before, what is THIS character’s most likely action, and what is the most likely — and logical — consequence.”
The technique is often touted in books on plot-driven genres. It can make each individual scene and act powerful, but often the result doesn’t fit into the previous information and characterization given, sometimes appearing to come from a completely different story entirely. The plot-driven story is entirely dependent upon the audience never getting to think long enough to scratch our collective heads and ask, “But didn’t we just see/hear…?” The parts might be individually fantastic (in all meanings of the word), but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up, or even belong, to the whole. It’s the school of Wilkie Collins, Sir H. Rider Haggard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs — not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The dependence upon a plot-driven story is why the second Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes disappointed so many; the novelty of Downey’s smart-arse, steampunk Holmes was gone, and the screenwriters and director didn’t have anything else to offer but more action, faster cuts, and bigger explosions.
The standard Dr. Who formula is a running series of emotional and story complexities in which the characters are driven into a corner, only to be rescued by some timey-wimey deus ex machina rabbit pulled from The Doctor’s hat. It is a contrivance. This is fine for a space-time adventure series, but a poor fit for Sherlock Holmes and a detective series. Mr. Moffat has been quoted as saying that Sherlock Holmes is not a mystery series, but the adventures of two men. This is wrong. Sherlock Holmes is not Allan Quatermain or Sir Percy Blackeney or Raffles or James Bond; he’s a Consulting Detective.
As Doyle himself states on film, Sherlock Holmes, a detective character who solved crimes through science, logic, observation, and deduction, was created as a counter to the other detective stories of the time which solved mysteries by coincidence or luck. At the core of every Sherlock Holmes story is a mystery solved by ratiocination. Doyle’s best stories introduce the science of deduction, and address larger intellectual, moral, and ethical issues. Granted, some of the mysteries, especially those written after the start WWI, are weak, but they are still at heart mysteries — and Sherlock Holmes is a Consulting Detective.
After the molecular gastronomy of “The Empty Hearse” and the multi-tiered, perfectly sweetened confection of “Sign of Three,” “His Last Vow” was an insipid beyond-Best-By-Date, microwaved meal deal, ending with the saccharin mawkishness of a cheap tinned pudding. It sent me looking for my bicarbonate of soda. “His Last Vow” was as if someone had challenged the writers to use as many of the hackneyed, trite emotional trigger gimmicks of formulaic television in one episode as possible, like watching our favourite characters forced into a Nicholas Sparks-James Patterson mashup marathon, and with just as much coherence.
Yes, yes. I hear the screams. I can feel the flecks of foam flying from the mouths of the True Believers. Heretic! Witch! (Or something rather similar.) Before you tie me to the stake and light the Guy Fawkes bonfire, let me touch on just a few problems I — and others — had with “His Last Vow.”
I told a friend, with a rather linear turn of mind, that I would write a bullet point, blow-by-blow of all that was wrong in the episode. Sorry. After compiling 34 pages of notes while re-watching the episode, and burning through an entire pack of Post-it notes for additional points, I simply have neither the time, the space, or the patience to note them all. I’m going to focus on just three key sections, and include an alternate ending that would have worked and gotten the writers just as much, if not more, shock value, while maintaining the integrity of the characters and the show to date.
The “His Last Vow” Perp Walk
The episode started well with an updated version of “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” In that story by Doyle, John Watson is pulled out of comfortable evening at home with his wife by the frantic request from the wife of an old friend who has gone missing. He tracks the man strung out in an opium den where he also finds Sherlock Holmes. So far so good, you say. I agree.
The writers switched the wife to a mother desperately seeking help getting her son out of a crack house because today a mother with an addicted child has more emotional impact, but at this point I was still willing to suspend my disbelief. Tying it to John Watson’s need for danger and action was a nice bit of character continuity (at that point). I also loved the way the writers brought in Billy from the Canon. Billy becomes Sherlock’s assistant when Watson is off enjoying domestic bliss, and I’d wondered if he was going to be worked into the series.
Unfortunately, the willing suspension of disbelief begins falling away soon after. When Sherlock, after shocking his friend by turning around and greeting him, begins to berate John for blowing his cover, one of the party attendees blurted out, “But he didn’t blow your cover, you did by turning around and talking to him.” Any time a viewer begins questioning the scene she is viewing, it indicates a serious plot or character problem, and “His Last Vow” was filled with them. And the part that drives me to mad distraction is that all of them are unnecessary.
For example, in the smack house scene, some minor changes could have made it all work. If Isaac Whitney, the young drug addict, had said something to Sherlock or asked John Watson to also help “his friend,” directing John’s attention to Sherlock, and the shocked John then caused a scene, Sherlock could understandably be peeved about a “blown cover.” But the writers’ only concern was the “cute meet” of John and Sherlock in the smack house, an excuse, albeit lame, for what comes next.
Next, we have Dr. John Watson assuming his friend has a serious drug problem and is presently high — despite Sherlock’s insistence that he is merely under cover on a case, a perfectly rational explanation given what Sherlock does and how he does it. John, the doctor, seeks no physical evidence of drug use. On the contrary, Sherlock’s eyes appear normal, he has excellent coordination and motor control leaping out of the smack house, his speech is cogent, and his behaviour is no more irascible than usual. Yet, Dr. John Watson, who must have learned to identify drug use among troops in Afghanistan, a major poppy growing source, simply assumes Sherlock is taking heroin for recreational purposes because John is no longer around to babysit him. (Kudos to Benedict Cumberbatch, by the way, for the wonderful performance ending in the delightfully childish, overdramatic body slump and wail, “It is no-oow!” It is a sign of the fearsome talent of this cast that “His Last Vow” could make any pretense of holding it together.)
Again this could have been easily fixed by something as simple as John grabbing Sherlock’s arm, pushing up the sleeve, and displaying a series of needle marks which Sherlock tries to explain as a self-inflicted necessary part of his disguise. Then John’s insistence on a drug test would have been logical and carried us through to the Bart’s scene.
An Alternative Point of View
After publishing the first version, I’m been slammed by folks who insist that Molly’s angry tone of voice should be read that Sherlock’s urine does test positive for narcotics, and therefore, he is actually high. On re-viewing the scene, I can see that interpretation now, but that sets up and entirely different set of plot and character problems, while some in my original reading of the scene remain. So here are two interpretations, rather like the Japanese classic film Rashomon, you may choose your point of view.
Rashomon POV # 1: Sherlock Tests Positive for Heroin Use and Is High, Has Had Serious Episodes Before That We’ve Known Nothing About
This would explain Molly’s sudden Tough Love assault (and given Sherlock’s response to the Woman Who Beat Him, maybe he like’s it and The writers are setting us up for a whole new relationship between the two in Series 4). If we buy that Sherlock is high at Bart’s, the problem comes that as soon as Mycroft leaves, we have old Sherlock back in control, playacting perfectly to con Janine, staying focused on explaining his plan to get the blackmail materials from Appledore, retaining his poise during the meeting with Magnussen. If Sherlock was high, and has an actual drug problem, how is he able to turn it on and off in an instant? Especially since we’re given to understand that Janine is shacking up with him, at least part of the time, and doesn’t know of any drug problem; and apparently, until John finds Sherlock in the smack house, Mycroft has no clue of his activities either, despite being under at least level 3 security surveillance.
This is whole problem with this act. We don’t know if Sherlock is actually high or pretending to be high because there’s no character consistency from scene-to-scene, even from the beginning where he shows absolutely no symptoms or signs of drug use, except being dirty and in raggedy clothes. I’d have figured at least someone would have watched Trainspotting, even if they didn’t do any research among people who have or had drug problems or lived with junkies at some time.
Rashomon POV #2: Sherlock is Clean, Not High, and Was Simply Undercover at the Smack House
The alternative idea, that Sherlock is simply undercover pretending to be using drugs, brings up a whole slew of other issues.
Moments after arriving at Bart’s, Molly Hooper announces that Sherlock is “clean.” Sherlock, checking his phone, expresses satisfaction that his “drug addiction” made the papers, to which my teenage guest asked, “So you did want your cover blown?” Meanwhile, Molly has come over and slapped the heck out of Sherlock — but for what?! She’s a trained pathologist who just ran the tests and pronounced him “clean” — as in having proved he has not been taking, let alone abusing, drugs and is not high — therefore she should be pleased with Sherlock. Is she planning to smack him for not smoking, too?
Of course, the answer is that the writers were simply reaching desperately for an artificial emotional trigger for the scene, so Molly Hooper behaves out of character as the compassionate, albeit social ill at ease, medical scientist we’ve come to know (because, after all, we know women behave irrationally…especially when their engagement has been broken, right?)
But the bathos continues when John takes Sherlock back to Baker Street to find Mycroft having Anderson and two other Sherlock “fans” searching his flat for drugs. Let us skip for the sake of brevity the question of why Mycroft hasn’t asked if Sherlock is clean or not. Let us also skip the fact that we’ve been given no indication in any of the previous episodes of Sherlock having a drug addiction beyond nicotine. We’ve had only two brief allusions to possible recreational drug use, which I point out in another post is not the same as a drug problem or addiction. Assuming that a casual recreational use of a drug automatically makes a person a junkie is like saying everyone who has a pint at the pub is an alcoholic. It is extraordinarily clear, not only in the rest of the series, but in this episode itself, that Sherlock is obviously not a junkie — except possibly for nicotine.
“Seriously. This guy, a junkie? Have you met him?”
—John Watson, Sherlock, “A Study in Pink”
And yet, we are now given to understand that not only has Sherlock Holmes been literally pulled out of the gutter in the past, and at a time after meeting John Watson apparently, but his alleged-drug addiction is readily accepted as fact by his “fans,” including a former forensic scientist who also doesn’t look for any supporting medical evidence of a current problem.
But wait, there’s more.
Suddenly, in complete contrasts to the lassitude of the character throughout the scene, Sherlock assaults his brother, threatening to commit grievous bodily harm because he’s “high” — despite the fact that Molly Hooper pronounced him “clean,” and he’s been in John Watson’s company ever since! What did he do? Shoot up in the taxi while John watched? If Sherlock is merely using that as an excuse to get rid of Mycroft (yes, I waste my brain trying to make the scenes make sense in some fashion), why does John act like Sherlock is high? Why doesn’t he just tell Mycroft to go and he’ll call him later?
Again, these incongruities are there simply as an attempt to artificially stimulant emotional triggers, but coming from no established logical — or even emotional — base, they erode our willing suspension of disbelief. The emotion they trigger is a growing distrust of our storyteller and his story.
They also destroy the pace of the story, emotionally as well as sequentially. The story keeps halting like a bad performer who over-emotes and then stops to await applause from the audience each time. Or a rimshot after a comic’s not-terribly-funny punchline. It’s a sign the writers know the script has problems, which drives them to more desperate measures to try and win back their audience.
I was delighted that the writers managed to work in so much of the actual Charles August Milverton story, including Holme’s faux romance and engagement, as well as a mysterious woman interrupting Holmes and Watson’s burglary attempt to murder her blackmailer. (Just as a side note, and because I have no place else to fit it in before I have to go all dark, did everyone catch the data stream CAM sees when he’s looking at Sherlock in the flat? “Porn Preferences: Normal.” I’m wondering where that came from. Sherlock views porn? Or is it from Sherlock commandeering John’s laptop?) I sent mental congratulations to the writers for their cleverness, and I was expecting Mary Watson nee Morstan with the not-very-subtle foreshadowing we’d been given, however…
“Killing me is so two years ago.”
— Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, “The Empty Hearse”
The entire shooting and killing Sherlock gimmick is simply a worn-out plot device to illicit a strong emotional reaction. The point the writers missed is that to actually achieve a true emotional connection, the viewer must believe that the character can die. Or the storytelling must be so strong and the audience so strongly engaged they forget what they know. There was never any doubt that Sherlock would survive because we already knew a) there was a Series 4 and 5 for which everyone was contractually obligated and b) we’d seen this all before… in Dr. Who. Or as one Who friend began calling the Pond seasons, “How do we kill Rory this week?” The response from the people at my party was more horror that the writers had dragged out this hoary trick.
And the writers “kill” Sherlock 3 times in this episode, diluting the effect more with each outing: Sherlock having to be resuscitated in hospital; Sherlock having to be resuscitated in the ambulance after the confrontation with Mary in Baker Street; Sherlock being sent undercover to Eastern Europe to die within 6 months.Yes, I, and everyone else at the party, liked seeing in Sherlock’s mind as he decided which way to fall to prevent bleed out and delay shock (and didn’t Andrew Scott look like he was having a blast chew up the scenery and literally spitting his lines out), but the entire sequence launching that little gem makes absolutely no sense for so many reasons.
The break-in at CAM’s offices and the shooting of Sherlock is the first major shark jumped in this episode. At this point, it’s doubtful that the show can be resuscitated, but not impossible. Not yet. But it is a critical injury.
Also, if anyone can explain to me why Sherlock and John were breaking into CAM’s London offices when Sherlock has gone to great lengths to explain that the evidence he wants are in the vaults at Appledore, please let me know. Somehow I missed it in both viewings.
Sherlock’s entire plan — and this entire act —depends upon CAM Not Being In His Office when Sherlock uses his corrupted key card and scams Janine into letting him up. (And what exactly is he planning to do with Janine once he’s up there? Because it isn’t likely she, or the security guard (which we will get to in a moment), is going to let Sherlock and John simply roam around CAM’s office opening probably locked doors and drawers without asking a few questions, are they? (see bad planning and “bumbling fool” comment below)).
Sherlock explains to Watson that his entire plan rests on the half-dozen security guards failing to show up in case the corrupted card actually belongs to CAM, however, IF CAM is in his office, the security guards will know that the card doesn’t belong to CAM; the elevator security would have already signaled that CAM has used his card to go to his office — and the security monitors would show that CAM hasn’t left! So when Sherlock attempts to gain access to the elevator with a corrupted card, that should have produced a frenzy of security guards asking questions. Yet Sherlock doesn’t ascertain that CAM has indeed left, not by using his homeless network or calling Janine (and what if Janine had taken the opportunity of the boss’s absence to skip out early?) or any other method.
(And, by the way, explain to me again, Sherlock, why at least one or two guards wouldn’t have shown up, even if CAM had left the building? If I were as security-minded as CAM, traveling and living with 2-3 body guards, I would expect security to come running when a corrupted card is used on the only access to my private offices. They could simply explain that my key card has been corrupted, they will get me a new one delivered immediately, and here’s your elevator, sorry for the inconvenience, sir. And I would go about my business feeling much better about the security of my private office.)
While we are on the subject of security, elevators, and offices… There would have been a recording security camera in that elevator, as well as in the “public” areas of the building and office, such as reception, and yet no one was apparently watching the monitors, nor was there any security video for the police to review after the assaults and shooting. And even if you were to be willing to suspend your disbelief at a high-security building with elevators and corridors with no security monitors and video, why is Sherlock telling John not to call the police to avoid questions about their own “break in” when they were obviously recorded in the public area of the building and on the elevator security camera proposing to Janine, and therefore they were invited in! Not to mention, if Janine isn’t dead, she most certainly will tell the police that she was proposed to by Sherlock and let him come up in the elevator! Sherlock and John can simply tell the police that Sherlock was proposing to his girlfriend. Neither Sherlock nor John did anything to prevent leaving fingerprints, either, so the police would know they had been there.
Golly, maybe Sherlock was using a few too many recreational drugs. He certainly wasn’t thinking straight!
Also, there is obviously an alternate method for quickly breaking into — and out of — CAM’s office that’s used by Mary Watson; one that is not monitored or viewed on any CCTV camera in the area(?!). Why didn’t Sherlock and John use this much more secretive, safe, and effective method of entry to actually break-in? For that matter, why didn’t Mary use it at a time when she knew CAM, Janine, and everyone else, except the lone security guard, were out of the offices?
Obviously the answer is that the writers wanted to create the emotional titter of Sherlock proposing to Janine through the elevator security screen, a comedic trick to recall the plot device used successfully by Moffat in “Scandal in Belgravia,” which was a recall of the device first used in “Blind Banker” to gain access to the first victim’s flat. The Dr. Who motto: If a gimmick works once, use it again… and again…and again. (Well, get to “The Law of Diminishing Pleasure” later.) Yes, the proposal was cute, and it pulled in a detail from Canon, but unfortunately the writers didn’t bother to make the rest of the scene plausible.
The character of Sherlock Holmes has become a bumbling fool in this episode. Not a single one of Sherlock’s plans this episode works, almost all of his data is wrong or faulty, and his reasoning is slipshod and specious at best. In fact, the episode is exactly the kind of coincidence and happenstance detective story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “A Study in Scarlet” to discredit!
We will skip all the obvious questions and problems on how, in the 35 seconds it takes Sherlock and John to get into the elevator and enter the reception area to find Janine knocked out, Mary Watson sneaks in through an obviously better method of access, knocks out Janine, knocks out (or kills) the lone security guard (the only one of CAM’s guards conveniently dressed like a security guard, as opposed to wearing the suit of the other guards, so we’ll recognize what he is in case we don’t follow the dialog), and forces CAM (who doesn’t have time to activate any security alarms that you’d expect to be around his desk, given how many people would like him dead) upstairs (for reasons never clarified), instead of simply shooting him (and the guard and Janine) when she enters. We’ll leap ahead to the question of “Why doesn’t Mary kill CAM after she shoots Sherlock?”
There is absolutely no logical reason for Mary to NOT kill CAM with a shot to the head right then and there — except one.
— Greg Lestrade, Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia”
Supposedly, our genuinely drug-addled, critically-injured, post-resuscitation Sherlock reasons Mary doesn’t want to cast suspicion for CAM’s murder onto John when the police arrive. Seriously? I can’t imagine John even being under suspicion for more than a few moments. Here are just a few ways John would avoid arrest, let alone a murder charge:
- As we saw in “The Bloody Guardsman,” if Mary Watson takes her gun away with her — which she did — there’s no weapon, and therefore there would have to have been someone else in the offices who did the murder. Even Anderson would figure that one out.
- The security logs on the computer and the elevator electronics would show that at the time Janine and the guard were knocked out (or killed), and CAM forced upstairs and assaulted or murdered, Sherlock and John were in the elevator and couldn’t have been the culprits (besides, there’s no weapon on the scene).
- John could have explained that he found Janine and the guard knocked out, was administering to Janine — for which there would be physical evidence that “even you lot couldn’t miss” — and came upstairs to find the two men shot, which would be born out because there’s physical evidence from the security system logs and no weapon on the scene. (And why exactly would John shoot Sherlock while they confronted CAM anyway?)
- Shortly after the murder and while John is still with the police, Mary could have the gun found sufficiently far away to show that John couldn’t have been the shooter — because there was no weapon on the scene and John wouldn’t have time to leave, return (without an elevator security card or those completely worthless security guards noticing), and be back before the ambulance and police arrive whom he called (apparently, beating those high-priced security guards who missed everything).
The only reason Mary would NOT kill CAM would be if he told her that the evidence was in his vaults at Appledore, and that there were instructions to open the vaults and publish the materials found in the event of his death. But we don’t hear him say this to her. She is on the point of shooting him when Sherlock steps into the room and stops her, so he apparently didn’t tell her that. And she obviously intends to kill him, because she’s walking around with her face uncovered!
But even if the writers did have CAM give her a reason to delay shooting him, there’s absolutely no way she can NOT kill Sherlock to prevent him getting to the information ahead of her or from telling John she’s an assassin. The idea that she didn’t intend to kill Sherlock is bollocks!
First, she is prepared to kill another man, and shoot Sherlock, to prevent John from discovering the secret of her real background. She cannot possibly be certain that Sherlock will NOT tell John, especially after she shoots him! In addition, Mary didn’t shoot him in a decidedly non-fatal area, such as a shoulder or arm; she shot him only inches from instantaneous death, knowing he would go into shock and probably bleed out before help arrived. And, in fact, Sherlock does die and almost fails to be resuscitated. And exactly why hadn’t John called for an ambulance for Janine and the guard before Mary shoots Sherlock? He’s a doctor, right? (I am not going to go into the whole resuscitation and hospital issues (but what kind of ICU doesn’t have alarms on the monitors attached to the patients in their private rooms?), or the fact that it is unlikely Sherlock would respond to a second resuscitation after the confrontation in Baker Street, or live long afterwards if he did. There’s a reason most doctors have a DNR order for themselves.) Then Mary threatens to kill Sherlock again in the false flats on Leicester to protect her identity — but carries all the details around on an apparently unencrypted thumbdrive in her coat pocket! (She doesn’t give John an encryption key when she hands it over to him in Baker Street, and asks that he not look at it with her there, so apparently the thumbdrive is readable.)
My friend, AZ, believes the episode should have ended with the Mary Morstan Watson reveal and her shooting CAM and — for those willing to pretend that Sherlock dying isn’t a now formulaic plot device — Sherlock. But it didn’t. (I’ll be giving my ending at the end of this review.) Mary leaves (and what’s to stop CAM from saying that John shot Sherlock to try and smoke Mary out, or at least hurt her, now that he knows her pressure point and owes her payback for pistol-whipping him?).
And John Watson goes completely out of character — again.
In the previous episode, “Sign of Three,” Dr. John Watson, of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, immediately begins assessing the condition of the downed Bloody Guard, discovering not only the injury but a retinal response, breath, and pulse, and immediately begins taking steps to keep the man alive by ordering people to take action. In “His Last Vow,” despite being a trained combat medic, in a dangerous situation with a known hostile in the vicinity, instead of checking immediately for vital signs — pulse (which will be erratic as a sign of shock), eyes (which will not respond to the light properly due to the shock) — and evidence of injury (open clothing, looking and feeling for blood or ruptures — like the wound we saw with Sherlock’s jacket buttoned before the blood spread increased…), Dr. John Watson kneels there patting Sherlock on the cheek, calling his name, until CAM groggily tells John that Sherlock has beens shot — THEN John starts looking for injuries.
This is a repeat of the out-of-character abuse heaped on Watson in “Scandal in Belgravia” where, among other things, Watson stands dithering with his best friend and colleague lying semi-conscious on the floor, apparently given some unknown, possibly-lethal, drug or poison, as the assailant banters on the window ledge with the item that they risked their lives to acquire in her hand. Watson isn’t checking Sherlock’s vitals, he isn’t looking for the source of the drug or poison (he only has Adler’s word it was a recreational drug) to try and determine what exactly Sherlock was poisoned with, he isn’t calling for an ambulance, he isn’t attempting to capture and restrain Adler to extract information (and the phone)— he simply stands befuddled as she taunts him coyly and escapes. Shades of Nigel Bruce!
Rather than beat a dead Sherlock, I’ll stop here on the problems with much of the subsequent nonsense in “His Las Vow.” I will, however, bring up the jumbo elephant in the room — and no I don’t mean the one from “Sign of Three.”
Despite Mycroft’s having upgraded the surveillance on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson to Level 3, no one in the secret service, or the police, or the military, bothered to check out John Watson’s fiancee before the wedding. (They apparently still haven’t.) Not even Sherlock Holmes, who hacked the electronic records of one of her former boyfriends as part of his duties as best man, bothered to do any research into Mary’s background until he was shot. Then, while doped on morphine to control his pain, on the run, without access to his usual resources, Sherlock quickly uncovers that the woman they called “Mary” was using a false, stolen identity, and was a former CIA wet work agent who went rogue and freelance at some point before disappearing, and apparently killing people to cover her tracks — and Mycroft’s still doesn’t have a clue despite being “the British government and MI6 and the CIA part-time.” Mycroft had John Watson’s therapist’s notes within hours of Watson coming near Sherlock, but he doesn’t even bother to check Mary’s fingerprints, have a facial recognition check run on her (which would have spotted her in the CIA records among other places), notice — again despite always winning the Deduction game — any signs that she’s anything except a middle-aged nurse who tolerates his brother, and loves his brother’s best friend. The writers throw character consistency, and backstory, out the window to effect contrived emotional climaxes — which makes the characters about as real as blow-up dolls, and equally as cheap and unsatisfying.
Let’s jump now to the ending.
Oops. I meant the five endings, because that’s what we have.
- The Happily-Ever-After Ending
Christmas at the Holmes House where Sherlock is on the road to recovery, John forgives Mary for lying about her past and reconciles with the mother of his soon-to-be-born child, and Mycroft, quite out of character, tells Sherlock it would kill him to lose his baby brother.Oh, wait. That can’t be the end. We still have time. But, golly, didn’t we have lots of big squishy cuddly feels during this bit and wouldn’t it have made a feel-good ending with everything, except CAM’s blackmail, worked out? And did you see how cleverly we made Mrs. Holmes a “normal” womanly-woman by having her, despite being “hot” and a genius, marry a self-proclaimed moron, but it’s okay if she’s smarter than he is because she sacrificed all of her intellectual talents and work (and, I gather, underwent a lobotomy) to have two children, and raise them in an atmosphere of unconditional love and banality in middle-class suburbia, where they were hated by the other children because somehow they inherited Mummy’s brains and overcame their cultural surroundings. “God bless us every one!”
- The Angsty Action-Adventure Life-As-We-Know-It-Is-Over Ending
Sherlock has a plan to trap CAM into trading all of the files on Mary by trading him Mycroft’s laptop with the government’s deepest, darkest, most top secret information on it, destroying CAM in the bargain. To launch this dubious plan, Sherlock has his minion Billy drug everyone, except John. (Thank goodness, John, apparently doesn’t like Christmas punch! I, alas, could not “drink the Kool-Aid” either.)Once again the character of Dr. John Watson goes out the window (or under the bus). Upon discovering that Billy, a former junkie who threatened to stab him on first meeting, has drugged John’s at least 8-months pregnant wife, John does not punch anyone in the face, nor does he demand to be told the exactly what drug and dose was used; he doesn’t examine his wife or begin monitoring her vital signs; he doesn’t check for signs of fetal distress by his unborn child; he doesn’t call for an ambulance to take her to hospital where she can be thoroughly tested for any potential side effects to mother or child. Nope. On Christmas Day, moments after telling her he loves her so much he doesn’t even want to know about her criminal, murderous and sordid past, Doctor John Watson just accepts the word of a self-proclaimed high functioning sociopath that everyone will be fine. Then he dashes off to sell top government secrets to the man possessing evidence that could imprison his wife for life and whom his wife has previously attempted to kill, knowing that, if anything goes wrong, his wife would be in danger and he might be imprisoned for life himself — all just a few weeks before his daughter is due to be born. Oh, and did I mention he left his minimum 8-month pregnant wife, who happens to be a former assassin and CIA agent, slumped, unconscious in a chair in the care of a former junkie who has drugged her? Frankly, if I were John I might be hoping I DON’T make it back from CAM’s to face my wife, the assassin, to explain my behaviour.Sherlock’s plan, of course, doesn’t work. And we won’t explore the question of why CAM’s security guards, who search John and Sherlock thoroughly in the Baker Street flat, don’t bother to frisk John and Sherlock at any point, or have a metal detector at the house, thus allowing John to bring a loaded gun in his coat pocket. (If I ever need security guards, I am NOT getting British ones.)Nor will we ask ugly and embarrassing questions about the fact that CAM knows that Mycroft has been looking to “surgically remove” him as a threat for some time. Is this suppose to indicate that this absolutely stupid and awful plan is really Mycroft’s, and he’s in on it (which would at least explain leaving the laptop lying around, without so much as a Kensington lock, in the first place and drinking the Christmas punch)? I can think of a few dozen better plans for “surgically removing” the threat of CAM then risking highly sensitive government secrets, beginning with a certain freelance wet work agent who’d like to stay out of jail married to my brother’s best friend. Or perhaps a few no-questions-asked covert operatives of MI6 or the CIA. Not to mention a few crackers and hackers who could plant top secret information on the computers of CAM’s newspapers — or his own — bringing down the whole house of cards. All of which brings us back to security guards who do not frisk known hostiles coming to a face-to-face meeting with a man many people want to see dead.But, alas, Sherlock’s plan, dependent upon more unsubstantiated data and highly unsound reasoning, blows up. Although, in all fairness, CAM has to be lying about not having any physical files or evidence for his blackmailing and keep everything in his head alone. We’ve seen physical evidence, the photos he shows Lady Smallwood, the letters he reads in front of Sherlock in Baker Street. Those were real, physical objects, so CAM must keep something somewhere!But Sherlock believes CAM’s assurance that everything is stored in his mind palace, so he shoots CAM in cold-blood, and in front of witnesses, as Mycroft looks on from his helicopter envisioning Sherlock as a child, and knowing Sherlock will be convicted of murder.But wait! We have more time, so take heart. It’s still not the end.
- Mycroft-As-The-Sonic-Screwdriver-Tardis-Deus-Ex-Machina Ending
We have Mycroft fixing it so Sherlock is NOT put on trial and convicted of murder, despite witnesses who could make a lot of money selling their stories to the very papers the murdered man owned, but Sherlock will be suborned and indentured to the British government who will put him to work as a spy. Hurray! Hurray! We’ve incorporated the Sherlock-as-spy from Doyle’s “His Last Bow,” and yet it doesn’t have to be the end of the series because we have Mycroft, who can fix anything! (Well, except Lady Smallwood’s husband committing suicide and his “old friend” Elizabeth’s dwindling finances and leaky palace plumbing.)
- The Warm-Fuzzy “Final Farewell” Ending
This is it! John and Sherlock are talking to each other for The Last Time. Sherlock’s boarding the plane. It’s taking off. Oh, no-ooooo! We know, from the Mycroft’s confession at Christmas, that Sherlock is going off to his certain doom in Eastern Europe! Sherlock knows this because “Mycroft is never wrong.”
Really? Because, we have a LOT of evidence to the contrary. Wasn’t Mycroft the one who introduced you to The Woman? And later apologized for the mistake. And Mycroft believes she’s dead, when in fact his own little brother, who is supposedly under Level 3 surveillance, saved her life from a militant Islamic execution and successfully faked her death? Not to mention Mycroft drinking the punch after you told him to, and leaving the secrets of at least one nation lying around in an unsecured laptop in an unsecured house with a homeless, former junkie around in a tenuous situation at best. I won’t even ask how Billy past Mycroft’s security with the drug(s), let alone the security that we should assume is on his parents, brother, and a known rogue wet wear agent whose false identity he still hasn’t realized even though you, Sherlock, figured it out while on morphine recovering from a shooting, surgery, and resuscitation. He’s even wrong about how dangerous a threat CAM is to his own security and the security of the world. So it seems to me, Sherlock, that Mycroft is wrong about a lot of things. He can’t even smoke the right kind of cigarettes!Oh, and look at the time. What the…? It’s still not over?
- The Watch-Me-Pull-A-Rabbit-Out-of-My-
But wait! The plane is turning back around! Sherlock is saved! Huzzah! And there is much rejoicing! But why is the plane turning around? What could possibly have saved Sherlock from his certain doom in Eastern Europe? Oh, dear. We’re all aquiver. Someone has commandeered all the networked — and apparently non-networked — electronic broadcast, internet, and direct video feeds in Britain. Who could possibly do that?…
- The Bet-You-Didn’t-See-This-Coming Pandering Ending
He’s baa-aaack! “Miss me?” Who will save us? Who can the defeat the Arch-SuperVillain
Blofeld— er, Moriarty! Only one man in all of Britain, in all the world. Bond, -er, I mean, Holmes, Sherlock Holmes.
Thus taking Moriarty from a brilliant reinterpretation of a classic literary character and making him a contrived, formulaic plot device.
The character of Moriarty appeared in one, and only one, original Sherlock Holmes story, but because it was such a memorable appearance in such a memorable story, Moriarty became an icon for the master criminal. Alas, Moriarty may not rest in peace. The fans like Andrew Scott’s interpretation of the character, it won awards, so Moriarty must now be become a clichéd plot device like Daleks and Weeping Angels. Moriarty becomes Freddie Kruger in Westwood, Fu Manchu with hipster fuzz instead of the mustache, Blofeld with a cat of a different kind. Because unlike the original Sherlock Holmes, this Sherlock can’t possible return to being just a Consulting Detective dazzling us with his brilliant mind, and charming us with Bohemian personality. He must become The Doctor, who saves the World from vastly superior baddies that ordinary humans cannot defeat — over and over again.
But at least the episode finally ended, the whole out of character, inchoate, indulgent, sloppy contrivance.
This is called an idiot plot; the characters act like idiots, every decision they make is the most idiotic one they could make at that moment, and it helps to disengage your brain and become an idiot to buy it. It’s disrespectful to the Sherlock Holmes stories, to the actors, to the viewers.
But the real problem with dishonest shows is that after awhile the audience walks away, even when you present the honest masterpiece, because the audience doesn’t believe you anymore. We get tired of tricking ourselves, it’s hard work on our part to shut up the critic, to close a blind eye (or both eyes in this case), to look away during the poorly executed slight of hand, to pretend we believes the lies, the pick-up lines, the view through the beer-goggles.
“Jumping the shark” is a phrase used to signify that moment when a show begins its decline in quality, when it starts depending on obvious gimmicks and tricks to keep the viewers’ attention, rather than putting in the work to honestly engage and transport the audience. (The more recent term is “nuking the fridge” from the scene where Indiana Jones survives a nuclear blast by climbing into a lead-lined refrigerator.) “His Last Vow” jumped an entire school of sharks.
I’ll watch Sherlock Series/Season 4, but I won’t trust it until it proves itself. And, to be honest, like any damaged relationship, it will be hard go to restore the level of commitment.
As behavioural economics and science teach us, for something to remain a treat, it needs to remain special, it needs to be not ordinary, and to really make the pleasure centers of our brain get maximum response, it needs to be anticipated. Some call this “The Law of Diminishing Pleasure.” The more often we indulge in something we enjoy, the less we enjoy it. Want that latte to keep tasting extra special? Don’t buy one every day, save it for T.G.I.F. Or better yet, use it as a reward for doing that deadly budget report. In other words, to make us weep with John’s pain, don’t give us John constantly in pain; make it something we (and John) haven’t experienced for awhile, and then build slowly to it so that we know it’s coming, we anticipate the moment, and we can remain awash in the endorphins and dopamine that flood our minds. Want us to laugh out loud at a brilliant comedic turn by Mr. Cumberbatch, then don’t give us a variation on “Sign of Three” each episode — or each act — make it out of the blue (comedy is funnier when it’s unexpected, that’s what makes it comedy) with possibly just enough foreshadowing that we know something is coming, but we have no idea what.
“What if John makes Sherlock his best man?”
— Molly Hooper, Sherlock, “Sign of Three”
What I’d like to see in Series 4 is for the writers to challenge themselves, and their audience, to tell the story so honestly, so true, so strong that no one tweets or texts or posts, but remains mesmerized, swept along with the Pied Piper of a believable whole.
What I’d settle for is a good story that holds together, no tricks, no spiking the drinks with some trash-filled synthetic Ecstasy plot device or save-the-cat moment; just a coherent, solid plot and characterization that leads to a logical and emotionally satisfying conclusion. I don’t expect another “A Study in Pink” or “Sign of Three.” (Wouldn’t want another “Sign of Three” at least until Series/Season 5.) I watch Sherlock because it was/is fresh, intelligent, intellectually stimulating, and challenging in an ocean of clichéd, tired bromides that are driving me to cancel my cable subscription after only a month.
Honest emotional engagement is always possible, just a bit harder. We all knew the final outcome for films like Apollo 13, The King’s Speech, Chariot’s of Fire, Lawrence of Arabia, and An Adventure in Space and Time, but it didn’t prevent us from becoming emotionally engaged throughout the films, to living the moment with the characters, to forgetting we were voyeurs and it was, at least in part, fiction.
Could the sharks have been avoided? Definitely. And the worst of them came in the feeding frenzy contrivance at the end.
So for my friend who asked me for a better ending “His Last Vow,” I offer the following.
“His Last Vow” Showdown at Appledore, Version 1
(apologies for not putting this in proper script format)
INT: MAGNUSSEN’S WHITE ROOM AT APPLEDORE
Instead of taking John and Sherlock back outside on the deck, Charles Augustus Magnussen has remained in the small, all white room with just one chair that bears a striking resemblance to Sherlock’s in Baker Street. He has broken it that Sherlock’s plan is a failure. He has taunted and abused John by flicking him on the cheek and eye. We have heard the approach of a helicopter. John Watson still stands between Sherlock and CAM in the mind palace. Sherlock has John’s gun pointed at CAM’s head. Mycroft walks in with an assault squad and CAM’s security guards. Guns are now pointed at Sherlock and Watson. The lasers of the assault team weapons line up on Sherlock for the kill shot. Watson immediately places his hands up and on his head.
MYCROFT: “Don’t be stupid, Sherlock.”
Sherlock and Mycroft exchange a stare of unspoken debate for a moment, then slowly Sherlock lowers his arm.
MYCROFT, to the assault team leader: “Take these men (indicating CAM’s guards) outside, disarm them, and start the search.”
The troops lead the security guards away.
Tight shot on CAM smiling calmly, deadly: You won’t find anything. Except what your brother brought me.
MYCROFT: “What do you want?”
CAM, reaching over and wiping his hands on Mycroft’s tie: “As a sign of good faith I’ll give you a present. (glancing at John Watson) Mrs. Watson is a rogue CIA wet work agent.”
MYCROFT, without any change in expression: “Old news.”
(Cut to John and Sherlock eyes widening in surprise)
MYCROFT: “What do you want?”
CAM, looking a bit nonplussed: “Everything. (pause) And since I now have your baby brother, which means I have you, I’ve got it.”
Here CAM smiles at Mycroft.
MYCROFT: “Be careful what you wish for.”
As the camera begins to pull in tighter and tighter on John, we see Sherlock start to raise his gun arm. Mycroft, glancing toward Sherlock, pulls a gun from his pocket and begins raising it. The camera continues to pull to a very tight closeup of John’s face. There’s a very loud bang. Red spatters spray across John’s face; he looks stunned. The camera shifts focus to behind John’s head and the red spatter across the white expanse of wall.
Cut to black.
Theme music swells. Credits roll.
That is just one way Moffatt could have kept his “cliffhanger” with people saying “OMG! They can’t end it there!” while maintaining the spirit and integrity of the characters and the series.
(And yes, I do have a way to tidy up all the OMG! in the opening of S4.