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Jan 20 2014

A study in reset buttons: the trouble with ‘His Last Vow’ and Sherlock series three

Sherlock had a good first series and great second one. The recently aired third helping fell somewhere in between, but its final part, the glossily directed ‘His Last Vow’, was deeply flawed. (Spoilers to follow.)

There was much to like, even to laud, about it. The story’s opening showed more promise than either of its predecessors’, Lindsay Duncan was on form in guest star mode and Lars Mikkelsen, playing Charles Augustus Milverton via Rupert Murdoch, served the icy creepiness his family has cornered. There was far more plot, too, than in either of the prior episodes, and fans seem to have welcomed it. Unfortunately, it falls to bits under the lightest scrutiny.

The denouement came as Magnussen tricked Sherlock, accepting Mycroft’s state-secret-filled laptop in return for showing him his vaults of blackmail material, then revealing they were only in his mind. Mycroft and his snipers thus caught John and Sherlock selling secrets, yes, but they also caught Magnussen buying them. Surely even sans faults, there’s an arrest in that?

‘I don’t have to prove it, I just have to print it’, he says when John points out his lack of hard evidence. If so, why does he need to know these things at all? If things he threatens to print don’t need to be true (or proved to be), why bother memorising endless, unverifiable details? Why not print just anything?

And if he’s only printing libel without proof, why is the secret service (Mycroft’s lot, at any rate) so scared of him? If all he publishes is deniable, why would they even be that worried? Magnussen is meant, of course, to resemble endless press barons – Maxwell, Murdoch, Dacre – raising the awkward point that the gutter press prints unsubstantiated gossip all the time. Harrowing for private individuals, certainly, but nothing for security forces to fear.

Given that Mycroft and his people, who seemed to want rid of him anyway, were apparently the only witnesses besides John to Magnussen’s death, why did shooting him even put Sherlock at risk? Given how shadowy Mycroft’s department seems, having seemingly tortured Moriarty during series two, hadn’t any of them thought of just assassinating Magnussen? And why didn’t Mary, who had, just do so anyway when Sherlock arrived? Sherlock would surely have covered for her, as he has for John – yes, she’d have a witness whose secrecy she relied on, but that’s what happened anyway.

Speaking of Mary… I’ve said it before, but Steven Moffat can’t write women. liked her in Mark Gatiss’ episode as a bread-baking part time nurse and disillusioned Lib Dem. I liked her lying about liking John’s moustache and their interplay in ‘The Sign of Three’ – I liked there being a normal person who took Sherlock’s side, and I liked how likeable Mary was made, a departure from her typical portrayal. I didn’t want another sex-crazed femme fatale – another Irene Adler, River Song or Tasha Lem. You can bet come series four, her gun-toting secret agent background will turn up again and she’ll be just one more of Moffat’s female tr(oll)opes. She was more interesting as she was.

Speaking of women and how Moffat fails at writing them: it wasn’t just Mary’s character that got retconned. Look what happened to Janine, the bridesmaid-on-the-lookout from episode two – here rewritten as a scrounging predator, by turns stupid and unscrupulous, combining sexuality and treachery as Moffat’s women (Song? Adler?) often do. Sherlock even calls her a whore. Then look at Lady Smallwood, the battleaxe and damsel in distress; Sherlock’s mother, ‘monstrous’, oblivious, fawning and a ‘flake’; Mrs Hudson, funny because she used to be a stripper, daft and treated with contempt by everyone around, heroes included. This must have been the most women in any Sherlock episode – and when the best-presented one is Molly Hooper, pathetically in love as ever, things aren’t going well. Yes, there’s a problem.

In the end though, ‘His Last Vow’ was a study in resets – retcons, reversions and suddenly-dropped ideas. Mary became a villain, then wasn’t after all. Sherlock shot up so Magnussen would think he was an addict, then Magnussen didn’t believe him anyway – despite him testing positive. Magnussen seethed and basked in villainy… then arbitrarily got shot. Sherlock was flown to probable Eastern European death, then flown back minutes later. This was a plot that didn’t know what to do or be. And then… that ending.

Look.

I love Moriarty. I love Andrew Scott as Moriarty. I loved his storyline in series two. But part of it was shooting himself in the head.

When Moriarty aimed his gun inside his grinning mouth and pulled the trigger, it wasn’t just a way to write him out, but a character moment – perhaps the ultimate one. This man was so unhinged, so desperate to spite Sherlock, that he’d kill himself to cut off his escape route. Reversing or negating that doesn’t just wind the story back – it undermines a powerfully crucial aspect of who Moriarty is.

That episode of series two, in case you hadn’t noticed? January 2012. Two years ago. Three years at the very least before we tune in for Sherlock series four. It speaks to a stagnating story if two to three years later, we’re still hung up about what happened on Bart’s Hospital roof. Series three’s sole contribution to long-continuity appears to be John’s marriage, and that’s not much sustenance for a one or two year wait till we see Baker Street again. (Compared, at least, with ‘How did Sherlock survive?’) I didn’t want another Moriarty arc – I’d have much preferred a longer, fuller look at Magnussen.

All in all? A muddled episode and rather wasted, if entertaining, third series.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    4ozofreason

    My take was that printing those secrets wasn’t really important to Magnusson; he wasn’t after stories for his paper. He collected the information to be used as blackmail, with the threat of publishing it. Since he’s dealing with people who are used to nasty things being said about them in the press, he needed to be able to prove he definitely knew something they didn’t want getting out. Needlessly complicated? Definitely, but again, this Moffat we’re talking about (not to mention, if anyone had ever called his bluff, it would have turned out that all he really had were unsubstantiated accusations, the same as any other trash rag). Totally agree with super-ninja-assassin-Mary being disappointing. Not near as intereating as she was in the first episode.

  2. 2
    thetalkingstove

    I really disliked what they did with the Janine character. In the book, Holmes romances a woman (a maid I believe?) to get information, and it’s just left at that, an example of Holmes’ harsh coldness towards women and extreme dedication to his cases.

    Why couldn’t they have followed that? Why the suggestion that it doesn’t matter that Sherlock behaved horribly towards a woman because actually she was a golddigger? If nothing else, it’s staggeringly unoriginal.

  3. 3
    Alex

    Oh, the third season… what a mess the first two episodes were. What happened to good story telling, exploiting the strengths of the genre and the characters?
    Was it sequelitis that made Moffat feel the need to push the (client-o-the-week) sherlock holmes mystery solving scheme so far in the background in lieu of a hot mess of myth arcs? I really liked the retelling of the various versions of the sherlock survival story, but felt it was cut short way too abruptly as well. A hundred good ideas, none of them really carried to the end. For example,
    what was left of the mystery solving was in my book only half-heartetly executed and hasted. A friggin gunpowder plot! And it felt like a prop to get some intense Watson-Holmes interaction out of it.

    Was he afraid that he couldn’t pull off a simple but good telling of a sherlock holmes story and still be interesting? Or that people would expect something radically innovative after all the waiting? Bringing back Moriarty (though I secretly hoped in some moments that this brilliant character-actor combination would return), is a bit of a capitulation, an apparent lack of trust in the ability to generate a great new villain. I agree that having the great moriarty character moment should have been the end point there.

    I do disagree though that the system Magnussen was so illogical. Of course the stuff he used to blackmail had to be true in order for the blackmailing to be really effective. Even if he prints it, it makes a huge difference whether it is true or not – if he prints a true accusation which he cannot prove, it will probably prove itself, e.g., all the investigative journalists in the world worth their salt will do this work for him subsequently.

  4. 4
    kapitano

    I think Moffat is one of those writers who can turn out one brilliant story per year. And he’s stretching his abilities too thin, even writing only three Sherlock stories per series.

    His inability to write women is a separate problem, and to be fair an extremely common one, even among women writers. The women in Dr Who, under Moffat and RTD, all seemed to be “feisty”. Feisty is to Strong as Screeching is to Singing.

  5. 5
    Alex Gabriel

    @katpiano (#4)

    Moffat only writes on Sherlock episode per series (though presumably supervises other scripts), but I agree he’s overstretched. And I don’t know if I agree with your equivalence – I think the female companions under RTD were far better fleshed out and realised than Moffat’s.

  6. 6
    Shatterface

    Moffat writes great characters with a broad spectrum of neurotypes: Sherlock is autistic, John has PTSD and Mary is a psychopath. Even Moriarty has charisma and agency

    For all the praise heaped on RTD for his ‘diversity’ the best he could come up with was the two least eccentric Doctor Who’s and John Simm as a wife-beating loonie toon. He couldn’t have been more offensive if he’d done the whole thing in blackface.

    You know, if Mary had a physical disability people wouldn’t be complaining that she was a ‘bad’ character but because her mind works differently than most people critics start whinging.

    Maybe you should stick to watching the 99% of TV programmes aimed at telling you how wonderful you and your empathy are.

  7. 7
    Alex Gabriel

    @Shatterface (#6)

    Assuming you’re talking to me, I don’t know why you seem to think I’m saying being neuroatypical makes Mary a bad character (if indeed she is portrayed as psychopathic in the series’ terms, which I think is debatable). What I find about Moffat’s (re)characterisation of her is that it’s inconsistent, uninteresting and confirms to a very narrow repertoire of ways he writes women, often based on misogynistic tropes (femme fatale, shrewish wife, etc).

  8. 8
    scenario

    Magnusson said, “Oh sometimes I send out for something if I really need it, but mostly I just remember it all.” He doesn’t actually have the proof in hand but he knows where to get it. The victim knows that the proof exists and that Magnusson knows where it is.

    Magnusson never bought anything from Sherlock. Sherlock’s brother arrests Magnusson for buying a laptop that Sherlock stole from him. A good lawyer would have that thrown out in a second. A clear setup. (A cop gives his brother drugs to sell to the bad guy. The bad guy doesn’t give the brother any money or accept the drugs and then the cop arrests him. The John DeLorean case anyone. )

    I also agree that the women characters are way too narrowly written. A few stereotypes are fine, but when all women are the same basic stereotypes, over and over again, it gets boring and insulting.

    I don’t think that Sherlocks treatment of Janine was a cop out. Sherlock knew what type of person Janine was from as soon as he met her. He knew that she would use him if she could. At the wedding she used him to pick out a potential boyfriend. She was a user who wouldn’t mind being used herself if she got something out of it. She didn’t appear to be really all that angry at him. She wasn’t stupid. She knew he was using her for something. She didn’t really care that he was using her as long as she got a story she could sell for a lot of money. The character of Janine was just another stereotypical woman character, the user.

  9. 9
    Nick Gotts

    Hmm, not sure I’ll even bother with episode 3. My wife and I gave up on episode 2 (Watson”s marriage), specifically during the “stag night” stuff, which was just plain boring, as indeed watching drunk people make fools of themselves while you are sober, generally is. All that sickly bromance stuff was presumably meant to show us Sherlock’s “human side”, but series 1 and 2 already established a character for him that made it completely implausible. The point of the original stories, carried into the first two series, was primarily to show him solving cases. That’s what I wanted to see, and if the writers really couldn’t think of any more (there’s ample material to adapt in the originals), they should have quit while ahead.

  10. 10
    scenario

    If the series was only about solving cases and nothing else, it would be just another procedural. I like character development. Without character development, you’ve got a bunch of cardboard characters who never change. The third series swung too far to the character development and didn’t show enough solving cases. Good writers can weave character development into the show while still having a good who done it.

    At first Sherlock looked at John as a useful servant. After a while he realized that while John isn’t anywhere near as smart as he is he is not a fool. He understands and learns quickly, and is a useful as a sounding board and with dealing with ordinary people.

    I like to see Sherlock slowly and deliberately smooth the rough edges of his character with his friends (People who are useful to him, that want to help him), while still the same old A-hole to people he has no practical reason to give a damn about. He slowly learns that he does care about a few people even if most of the people in the world are fools.

  11. 11
    brucegee1962

    We’ve only seen the first episode of season 3 where I live, so I tried to skim over the spoilery bits here.

    But I’d just say that I have long given up expecting coherent plots from Sherlock. They all fall to pieces when you look at them critically. There are three things that make the show worth watching:

    1) the character development mentioned in the previous comment, and the acting that goes along with that
    2) the clever ways in which the original stories have parallels found in the modern times
    3) some of the cinematography tricks (though those can get wearing after awhile) and occasional clever flashes (like Sherlock being unable to “read” anything on Irene when she is nude).

    But not the plots. The plots are bollocks.

  12. 12
    Shatterface

    I like to see Sherlock slowly and deliberately smooth the rough edges of his character with his friends (People who are useful to him, that want to help him), while still the same old A-hole to people he has no practical reason to give a damn about. He slowly learns that he does care about a few people even if most of the people in the world are fools.

    Why should he be the one to change?

  13. 13
    scenario

    I just like character development. A character that never changes is boring.

    Also, Sherlock is driven to solve crimes. He’s totally bored otherwise. At least being able to pretend to be nice to people he doesn’t care about and not being totally rotten to people that are useful to him would be a useful skill to learn. He doesn’t need to be sweet, just not a total a-hole to people who let him use equipment that costs $100,000+. Getting cut off from all the good toys won’t help him solve crimes. It would be pragmatically useful to learn the skill.

    All the other characters should also change over time as well of course. Just not too much, too fast.

  1. 14

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