If there is one description for Series 3 of PBS Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock it is must be over the top. The entire season came back with so much gusto and overzealous joy for Sherlock’s return that the stylized bits as well as the action segments of the show that it almost became a sensory overload. And while it didn’t work for the much too busy “The Empty Hearse,” “His Last Vow” was overdone to stunning effect.
The Hans Blofeld-type character was finally revealed in this episode as Magnussen, a fairly creepy individual blackmailing people while licking a side of their face newspaper magnate who had vast amounts of personal information on just about everyone in Britain. He is detestable in every sense of the word. And Sherlock has tasked himself with bringing down the much too powerful Magnussen, despite warnings from Mycroft (or Mike, as his parents call him).
But, like the rest of Series 3, “His Last Vow” is more concerned with the relationship between Sherlock and Watson and Watson and his new wife Mary than with the actual solving of the crime. Luckily the episode masterfully wove the two together without having to use a plot device like last week’s “The Sign of Three.” And because of that storytelling, even though flashing between the past and the present was done a tad too often, made this the most gripping and surprising episode of Sherlock to date. And, maybe just as importantly, all of the stylized portions of the show – no matter how crazy or over the top they became – all fit within the context of the plot.
After having been married for only a month it is clear Watson’s new lifestyle doesn’t fit him as he has dreams of the war. He all too quickly accepts a neighbor’s task to find her heroin addict son and bring him back home. After spraining the arm of a junkie on guard at a flop house named Bill Watson finds not only the son but also Sherlock, who insists that he is undercover on a case he is working and because he relapsed. After being scolded by Watson and slapped multiple times by Molly, Sherlock is intrigued by Bill’s ability for observation before returning home to be further reprimanded. There it is seen that Sherlock has a girlfriend, Jeanine who was the maid of honor for Mary, and that Sherlock is going to take down Magnussen at the request of someone he was trying to blackmail. Sherlock and Watson are back at it again as they try to break into Magnussen’s swanky office – thanks to his personal assistant Jeanine. What Sherlock finds there begins the craziness.
After they find Jeanine laying unconscious with a blow to the head, right after she had buzzed him up, Sherlock stumbles upon Magnussen being held at gun point. By Mary. Sherlock immediately puts the pieces together by showing us scenes that we have already witnessed in previous episodes. And if the shock of Mary isn’t enough, she then shoots Sherlock in the chest, which begins a completely over the top sequence.
Sherlock retreats to his mind palace and quickly gets guidance from Molly, Anderson, and Mycroft on how to best insure that the gunshot wound doesn’t kill him. This takes about five minutes in screen time but is actually only three seconds between Mary shooting him and him falling. He then is reminded to not go in shock so he uses the memory of a childhood dog to calm him. In this sequence Sherlock often switches between adult and child. And finally he visits Moriarity in a padded cell, wearing a straight jacket who helps him deal with the pain of the gunshot since he didn’t go in shock. And as Moriarty tries to convince Sherlock to give up he says something about how Watson still needs him, which causes Sherlock to climb out of death – his heart had stopped in the real world – and revives him. This was the most over the top sequence of the entire season but it worked so well because it came within the context of the story and was incredibly interesting. This wasn’t a map of London’s underground system scrolling across his face, this was Sherlock working through the process of surviving to dramatic effect.
While he recovers he just can’t stay in his hospital bed as he first tries to out Magnussen by taking his glasses, which had been shown to be able to recall information about anyone he looked at. But when Sherlock inspected them he realized they were just normal glasses, which befuddled Sherlock. He then tricks Mary into confessing some of her sordid past to Watson unknowingly. She is revealed to have stolen her name and faked her accent while also being a crack shot. And as Watson is about to lay into her for lying Sherlock mediates the dispute as best he can by telling him that she was the one that saved his life by calling the ambulance before Watson had and that she had shot him in a place that was not fatal but would give her time to negotiate with Magnussen.
All of this leads to Christmas Day where Watson forgives Mary and Sherlock drugs his family and Mary so that he and Watson can go meet Magnussen. Wanting to trade Mycroft’s computer for Mary’s file in Magnussen’s vault of hard copy dossiers it seems Sherlock is beaten. Magnussen knows the laptop has a gps tracker on it and then reveals to both Sherlock and Watson that his vault doesn’t actually exist, that all the information he has discovered about people is tucked away in his mind palace. Sherlock, wanting to make good on his vow that he would always protect Watson and Mary, ends up taking Watson’s gun as Mycroft and some soldiers close in on Sherlock and Watson and shoots Magnussen point blank. Sherlock sacrifices himself for Watson in a very dramatic and extravagant action movie standoff.
Mycroft convinces his bosses to let Sherlock go on a mission in Eastern Europe that would end with his certain death – this was mentioned earlier as was Sherlock telling Watson that Mycroft was “never wrong.” But when Sherlock boards the plane to go on his final mission British TV is taken over by Moriarty saying that he’s back. Mycroft immediately calls the plane back and Sherlock not only gets a stay of execution but just when the audience thought the show Sherlock wouldn’t return, this cliffhanger made it all but impossible for a necessary return.
“His Last Vow” was fast paced and built a considerable amount of serious tension, something that the earlier episodes in the season had yet to do. And while much of the episode felt completely over the top it all fit in with the story of the episode and only enhanced the excitement and thrills of the episode. Sherlock’s season finale only makes you lament the fact that there won’t be anymore for a while, if ever.