On TV: Sherlock, “His Last Vow”

Without a doubt, the finale was masterful, the best of the series, partly because Sherlock […]

Will McDavid / 2.6.14

HisLastBowWithout a doubt, the finale was masterful, the best of the series, partly because Sherlock wasn’t in control. Indeed, Charles Augustus Magnussen feeds off of control, licking, in the opening scene, an MP leading the investigation against him, merely to prove that he can. He refers to his game not as blackmail but as ownership; his ability to reveal the darker spots of public figures’ pasts places them all within his power.

At the level of public politics, this control is frightening but (mostly) impersonal. Where “His Last Vow” succeeds is in bringing Magnussen down to the level of everyday people, specifically Sherlock. His brother Mycroft is the most powerful man in Britain; almost touchingly, we learn that Sherlock is his weak point; Watson, Sherlock’s; and Mary, Watson’s. And so his hold over Mary sets off a concatenation of ownership, to the point that Sherlock does exactly what Magnussen wants him to – steals Mycroft’s all-important laptop with the goal of freeing Mary from her past.

The show benefits from a tight focus, with emotion weaved right into the action, the lack of which were  problems with episodes 1 and 2, respectively. The show’s slight mistrust of Mary – Sherlock has labeled her ‘liar’ – finally breaks through when she shoots Sherlock in the chest. Soon, we learn she was an assassin/field agent in her past, and she has deceived Watson, utterly (poor guy), about her identity.

So Magnussen’s hold over her ramifies into all sorts of potential for geopolitical disaster, but the sharp focus on Watson’s, Sherlock’s, and Mary’s relationships makes this episode masterful. But it’s the final scenes, and images of sacrifice, which form the episode’s fulcrum, and I dare say the Christian story works unusually well as an lens into the action.

On the surface, it’s pretty easy: Sherlock loves John and Mary, not least because they put up with him (c. best man speech, “The Sign of Three”), but especially because they forgive him after a rather brutal deception following “The Reichenbach Fall”. Mary has a dark past she wishes to be rid of, but she can’t start a new life as long as documents proving her former identity exist. Thus Magnussen – we could call him ‘the Accuser’ – speaks truly when he discusses Mary’s past, and has real, present power to prevent her from moving on. Her past, furthermore, would likely be too much for Watson to bear; Magnussen, too, knows that the real Mary, at least as defined by her past, is unlovable. So Sherlock trades Mary’s guilt for his own; in order to free her, he accepts guilt, condemnation, and exile. In triumphing over Magnussen, he has lost his freedom and, for all intents and purposes, life; but he has gained hers.


All familiar, and the story is rather beautiful when you see it, reminiscent of Gran Torino‘s marvelous take on the theme, among others. But there are a few points of it worth dwelling on:

1. The reason blackmail works so well as a crime for Sherlock is that Watson, as the agent of grace – “love for the loveless shown” – will be plunged into a conflict of whether or not she is lovable, something central to the show overall.

2. Blackmail does imply ownership. Any one of us would be likely to sacrifice, at the drop of a hat, others’ interests to preserve our standing, our reputation. We all have dark truths, and we resist, at the deepest level, their disclosure. Magnussen, precisely as the accuser, maintains ownership and control over people. It can speak, at least somewhat, to the identity within Christian doctrine of Satan as tempter and Satan as accuser – it is our shame and guilt, and response of covering it up and editing our self-images, which is the primary catalyst behind “these our misdoings” (BCP).

3. The only antidote to this is being known as one is, and being loved within it. Thus Mary’s shooting of Sherlock, and his subsequent exposure of her to John, must happen in the sense that John must love the real Mary, for who she is – not the projection of a normal, baggage-free woman she presents.

4. The hold of the past over us can only be broken by being erased. Inasmuch as there is an Accuser who controls us through our sense of shame, which impels us to be dishonest, he must be destroyed. This is one reason the mind-palace reveal, towards the end, works so well: his knowledge is personal, not material.


And finally, the more overtly Christological moment is Sherlock’s self-sacrifice to erase Mary’s past, but it’s more a cap on the story than its climax. Emotionally, the decisive moment comes when Mary offers Watson a USB drive containing her entire past. He tells her that her past isn’t his business; he’s in the position of judgment over her, but he leaves the judgment-seat empty, asking her to stand up, out of the dock, and join him in front of the fireplace. As he throws the record of her shameful past away, she sobs, “but you don’t even know my name!”, resisting such a blanket acceptance of her. “Is Mary Watson good enough for you?”, he asks, confirming that she been given, not earned and only “as through fire”, the new self she wanted. Her false front of a normal person has now been imputed to her and, somehow in that imputation, become reality. This “love that covers a multitude” is perhaps the more Christological moment, though it awaits confirmation by the destruction of the external accuser; the record will soon be cleared forever, but Watson’s willful blindness to her past has already effected the reconciliation.

Thoughts that didn’t fit above:

-This installment really is one of the best-written of the season. It really works that the most prominent scene is John’s reconciliation with her (at Christmas!), which counterbalances Sherlock’s heroism. It’s perhaps the most well-balanced episode, character-wise, in the series thus far, and for that reason. It also didn’t feel too smart and meta- and over-your-head, partly, again, because Watson is our anchor as the audience.

-Moriarty’s back! I think the Net milked Reichenbach theories way too much to spend the next year theorizing on how the archvillain survived. He did shoot himself, after all, and it’s hard to imagine any survival theory, beyond an apprentice, twin, shadowy conglomerate, or computer program. Where was he when Sherlock was supposedly unraveling his network, and why did it take 2+ years? Lots of explaining to do here.

-Sherlock and Mycroft in their home environment, almost reverting to childhood, was charming. The two have gotten much closer this season, and more screentime for Mycroft has been welcome… but it worked, in past seasons, to have a little more of an adversarial vibe. Season 4 could benefit from reviving that, and we got a taste of it in this episode – Sherlock’s more personal focus, more erratic behavior, contrasted with Mycroft’s focus on world security and stability. Putting them at cross-purposes, in only slightly more dramatic form, would be interesting.