In the Holmes canon, “His Last Bow” is the last case, chronologically speaking—set in 1914, with the looming World War so close that Sherlock warns of an east wind “as never blew on England yet.” It’s also one of very few stories that break the narrative mold that made Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective famous, in which Watson narrates with Holmes as his subject. Instead, “His Last Bow” is in third person, saving the (expected) reveal that informer Altamont is Holmes himself, and his chauffeur is, of course, Watson. It’s their last-ever case together, with both of them comparing how age has affected them, chatting blithely as they march a man down to Scotland Yard. But Conan Doyle plays this one at some distance: We don’t enter Watson’s thoughts about this brief reunion, we hear nothing of his feelings, and we don’t linger on the inevitable parting. It’s a narrative remove, at the very last.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to fan fiction. Specifically to “fix-it fic,” in which canonical inconsistencies, poor or hamstrung characterization, missing emotional beats, and thematic loopholes are filled in, explained, and addressed—an audience attempting to shore up the missing frames in a text.
So, let’s talk about “His Last Vow,” in which Steven Moffat attempts fix-it fic for a series for which he was also responsible for the text. It’s the cap to a particularly meta miniseries, and it’s about as disconcerting as it sounds.
One of most striking scenes is the opener, in which Watson wakes from long-absent nightmares, and a neighbor asks him to find her son. An edgy, stony Watson drives up to the drug den in question, implacably sprains the arm of the guy who opens the door, and frightens him into giving up the information John needs to go get the kid and bring him home. Martin Freeman nails the scene; it’s a Watson who, in the absence of Sherlock, takes on the dirty work, driven to intercede by whatever means he has.
It’s a Watson who would have belonged perfectly at the opening of the season, when he was despondent because he thought Sherlock Holmes was dead. He’s not the John we left last episode, having done good service to a friend, been praised by his soulmate, and been happily married—there’s no real thread to be drawn between the two. More importantly, it’s not a thread that the episode itself draws through—John’s role through the rest of “His Last Vow” is a reactive, supporting player. This scene stands alone, a Watson vignette from a series-three fix-it fic.
When seen through this lens, the hyper-meta thematic and characterization soup takes on a certain forensic appeal. Sherlock and Mycroft home with the meta-Cumberbatches for Christmas? Check. A heroin-habit Sherlock that winks at another recent addict from 221b? Yup. Enormous mind-palace set piece featuring every cast member the show could find, and also a dog? A reveal that a woman’s a gun-toting badass that still preserves the big finale as a Holmes-and-Watson-only affair? And Sherlock smack in the middle of everything, no matter what? You bet.
For though this episode seems structured around John, and features him heavily (giving him more to do than the episode about his wedding), he’s hardly the hero of the hour. That is, and always will be, Sherlock, even when it pushes against the natural rhythm of the story. A powerful woman has a problem? Enter Sherlock. Mary’s got a vendetta against Magnussen? The honor of revenge is reserved for Holmes. And is there a more telling scene in “His Last Vow” than John trying to get the truth from Mary after her big reveal, only to have Sherlock interrupt with a monologue about how Watson is “abnormally drawn” to dangerous situations and people, robbing Watson of his answers and his moment and bringing Sherlock back front and center?
The reveal itself references “The Empty House,” is tensely acted all around, and neatly sets up a promising showdown between Mary and an anguished Watson. But here as in “The Empty Hearse,” John’s beats are cut off at the knees in favor of a racing plot and Sherlock’s narrative dominance, so it’s buildup that never gives John a payoff. Instead, it parses like missing scenes from a longer cut that’s lost to us. (It doesn’t help that the Christmas fanfic plays out as a halfhearted frame-story that interrupts the big confrontation—bleeding tension even more—and ends with a truncated, uneasy reconciliation never addressed again.) Even the reveal, where Mary’s suggested as a snake-in-the-grass villain, sidelines her almost as soon as she’s unmasked, never really touching on her guilt or the crimes that got her there. Instead, we get a mind-palace showdown and Holmes family bliss. As the show has become increasingly about the coolness of Sherlock, it feels as if Moffat’s nervous about leaving him out of the spotlight for even a scene.
Strange, since it’s something Sherlock seems hardly in danger of losing—in fact, this is Cumberbatch’s most quietly emotive episode of the season. Charles Augustus Magnussen confounds Sherlock at every turn and drives him to a desperation that feels more organic than when he was up against Moriarty, who at least always had a weak spot: Sherlock. Magnussen has no weak spots at all.
Which is interesting. Though no through-villain is necessary in a series so short, “His Last Vow” seemed self-conscious about lacking an archenemy. Moffat’s script even assures us Magnussen is “the Napoleon of blackmail,” as if missing Moriarty and determined to raise the stakes on being bad. Then again, there has to be a certain unselfconsciousness in writing a villain over-the-top enough to lick a woman’s face, yet quaint enough to think a powerful man would be ruined if Magnussen were to reveal some sexy letters he’d written to a young woman just underage. (That’s sadly something that would be more believably held over the young woman in question—a nasty dynamic that’s remained unchanged since it appeared in the original story.) However, when allowed to be simply slithery rather than relieving himself in people’s fireplaces to make sure we know he’s evil, Lars Mikkelsen’s a beautifully smooth baddie; his scene with Lindsay Duncan crackled with particular energy, and suggests an untouchable baddie who could have easily carried more screen time.
Though the bones of the Milverton blackmail case are everywhere this episode, the season’s drawn heavily on The Sign Of Four across the board. (This episode even introduced Wiggins, head Baker Street Irregular.) It’s a smart thematic unifier, in theory, especially to integrate Mary. And pairing it with another story season-wide is a smart play, but there’s an odd fit between the plotty adventure of The Sign Of Four and the necessarily heavier “Empty House” post-Reichenbach character dynamics; it’s a recipe for thematic disconnect.
And unfortunately, with this season, it feels as though that disconnect is everywhere. The show’s become its own worst enemy, an excellent cast and a wealth of knowledge floundering in the hands of a creative team committed to making Sherlock inescapably flashy and cool while passing over the well-crafted characters that made it initially so appealing, offering more plot to the detriment of the detectives. (And often it stumbles on both fronts: Watson nearly being damsel-roasted in episode one is brought up and discarded so halfheartedly here—it was Magnussen’s test of proof Sherlock cares about Watson, apparently—that the episode itself seems embarrassed to bring it up.)
Occasionally, flash pays off: Of the upgraded mind-palace bits of the season, this episode has the standout. Sherlock desperately deduces the best way to not bleed out after being gut-shot, while Molly and Mycroft bark rhetorical questions at him to narrow his options. But even then, there’s a bit too much of a good thing, as it begins to feel a little crowded by the time Anderson and Sherlock’s childhood dog have shown up and Moriarty is Golluming pain-management techniques and begging him to think of Watson and live again. (That’s some pre-slash, for the ficcers.)
The final moments of “His Last Vow” are a a particularly revealing example of the way this series has run. The east wind reference gets made and made again during Sherlock’s farewell to Watson, which leans successfully on all the rapport Freeman and Cumberbatch have to offer. They set up the ache of another long goodbye—only to be curtailed minutes later, as Moriarty appears on every screen in London and Sherlock’s summoned home. It’s attempted meta-cleverness that feels as if it’s pandering to assumptions rather than constructing an arc, wedging both the final “gaspworthy” tease and Sherlock’s triumphant return up against the maudlin-goodbye moments Moffat assumes the audience wants: surely the best of both worlds.
But it’s not; it ultimately comes off as calculated, and more pleased with itself than invested in the characters it supposedly follows – a narrative remove, at the very last.
- Putting a pretty fine point on your meta by actually calling Watson the “damsel in distress,” guys.
- Speaking of meta, at this point, I can only be surprised that episode two didn’t feature someone telling Watson to put something on a T-shirt.
- Not that all meta is too much. The reveal that Magnussen has only his own memory and not bad-guy Google glasses was a great beat of Sherlock underestimating his opponent and missing the simplest explanation; no wonder it hits Sherlock like a physical blow.
- Molly seems to have gotten short shrift this season even for Molly; her engagement falls apart offscreen between episodes, and her lonely talking-head was not quite redeemed by her getting to repeatedly slap Sherlock in the face. Bet it felt good, though.
- Lindsay Duncan, always a welcome presence, brings steely determination to a role that didn’t allow time for much else, though it’s all one can really ask of her when someone’s licking her face. Hopefully she’ll be returning next season.
- “I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge. No, it’s no use arguing. I have made up my mind. My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will not handle this case.”—“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” The Return of Sherlock Holmes