At the end of “The Sign of Three,” Sherlock tells John and Mary after their first dance as husband and wife that he will always be there for them. It was the first and final vow he would ever utter, which showed just how much he cared about John Waston’s happiness. In the Sherlock series 3 finale, Sherlock gets his opportunity to follow through on his word. He must make sure the Watsons’ are safe, even if that means making a deal with the devil.
The episode opens with our new series villain, Mr. Charles Augustus Magnussen—a professional blackmailer who knows everyone’s secrets and pressure points. Knowledge, in the words of Magnussen, is owning.
Sherlock Holmes sees Magnussen as a repulsive individual, and far more dangerous than any serial killer or terrorist he’s ever encountered. Unlike Jim Moriarty, the manic psychopath whose unpredictability became predictable, Magnussen carefully calculates and calmly discusses how he can ruin a person with one little phone call.
And that’s how knowledge owns people. Magnussen shows his ownership through sexual assault (grabbing Lady Smallwood’s hands and licking her cheek), marking his territory (peeing in Baker Street’s fireplace after claiming everywhere he goes is his office), and violating boundaries to demonstrate power (digging through Sherlock’s plate and washing his finger in the drinking glass). The man glides through every open door with a smirk on his face, inviting himself to anything he likes. The simple flicking at John’s cheek is less violent than a punch to the face, but the act itself is a reminder, “If you try to stop me, your whole world will fall apart.” It’s a different kind of evil, and it’s absolutely disgusting.
The reveal of Mary’s true character isn’t much of a reveal as it is a red herring. The moment we see her in the black outfit with a gun in her hand, we react the same way Sherlock does, “What the heck is happening??” She shoots Sherlock in his lower torso, a calculated move to buy herself more time. Her fading smile at the hospital is meant to have us wondering, “Wait, is this an act and we didn’t see it coming? Does she love John at all?”
Yeah, she does. Her life with John from the beginning was Mary’s attempt at making a clean start with her life. Never mind her real name and past life; she’s running away from all that. The love for John, the wedding, her affection for Sherlock, the baby—it’s all real.
But Martin Freeman’s performance in that confrontation scene at Baker Street is devastating. John Watson, a man who still has nightmares of his war days and a fascination with all things dangerous, is overwhelmed with grief that the woman he married is not the stability he has hoped for. Say what you want about John the adrenaline junkie, but he genuinely believed it was Mary who would keep him grounded. He loved her for the normalcy that she brought into his life, for the care and affection she provided after Sherlock’s fall in Reichenbach. Sherlock tells John that he’s addicted to a certain lifestyle, and John cries, “But she wasn’t supposed to be like that.”
The show tried to overcomplicate Mary’s story by making her a woman with a secret past. It tries to write her character, prior to her secret being revealed, by leaning heavily on the “She isn’t what she seems” trope and almost stops giving her agency (in the scene where John confronts her, but instead talks to Sherlock with Mary standing in the corner).
Plus, she isn’t a psychopath and I don’t know why Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss play around with those terms so loosely. Jim Moriarty is a psychopath; Mary Morstan is not. Her dealings with Magnussen was simply to ensure that her secret past never comes out in the open again. Magnussen doesn’t even care about Mary. He’s using what he knows about her to get to John Watson. If he hurts John Watson, Magnussen in turn hurts Sherlock Holmes. And if he hurts Sherlock Holmes, he destroys the older brother, Mycroft Holmes. It is a map of pressure points to one ultimate goal: get Mycroft Holmes, get the secrets of Britain.
Less red herring, but more of clever directing is the concept of mind palaces. First introduced to us in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” we’ve seen Sherlock enter his memory for every strand of information he’s collected over the years. In this episode, we get a beautiful glimpse into what actually must occur in mere seconds of Sherlock gathering his extensive knowledge in surviving a gun shot wound that is definitely fatal. From the appearance of Molly as his doctor and voice of reason to the abandoned grand staircase Sherlock descends to find his calming memory, we get flashbacks to the Sherlock’s insecurities as a child opposite to Mycroft and the emotional childhood loss of losing his dog, Red Beard. But Sherlock often underestimates his foes and therefore does not realize, until it is too late, that they may be as intelligent and gifted as he is.
The vaults of knowledge Magnussen keeps secret are not a physical underground lair. Whenever the audience sees him enter, Magnussen goes down an long, spiral staircase, much like the one Sherlock has in his own mind palace. There are no hard copies or proof of incriminating or scandalous information on the most powerful people in the world. It is all in Magnussen’s brain, in his mind palace.
There’s a bitterness in Sherlock’s countenance when Magnussen reveals the myth of the vaults. Magnussen still has dirt on Mary that threatens the happiness of the Watsons’ lives together. Even without proof, he could find the people who wanted her dead.
Where there is Sherlock, Mycroft is never far behind but this time it’s mostly because Sherlock stole his laptop of vital information and gave it to Magnussen. The tracking device on the laptop ensured that Mycroft made it in time to see Sherlock deduce that if incriminating information about Mary exists only in Magnussen’s memory, there can be only one solution.
If John’s pressure point is Mary, then Sherlock’s is John Watson. Sherlock made a vow to always be there, to keep his friend safe. So, in a declaration very much to series 2’s “side of the angels,” Sherlock Holmes assures Magnussen he is no hero and shoots him dead.
In a manner less life-threatening as the previous series finale cliffhangers, we see Sherlock board a plane for Eastern Europe where he will be incarcerated for six months but not before Holmes and Watson say their goodbyes. They are absolutely rubbish at sentimental moments, especially Sherlock who always uses humor to break the tension. It’s a tender, sincere farewell and at least they know each other are alive and well. That is, until Mycroft calls the plane back after four minutes of flying. England needs Sherlock once more.
An incredible amount of things happened, and just bristly mentioning them wouldn’t do justice. But here are a few other highlights & observations from “His Last Vow”:
- Sherlock wanted to be a pirate when he grew up, said Mycroft in “A Scandal in Belgravia.” It’s very sweet that he named his dear pet after a Mediterranean pirate and naval commander.
- The Woman was mentioned twice in this episode, but only once out loud in Sherlock’s mind palace. Magnussen sees her as one of Sherlock’s pressure points, along with his drug habit and Red Beard. Hopefully this means Lara Pulver will return for series 4, as Irene Adler is clearly not out of Sherlock Holmes’ head.
- The only characters of color, Kate and Isaac, get a few minutes of screen time each & it revolves around the son’s drug problem. But random Billy from that same drug house gets to visit the Holmes’ for Christmas dinner.
- But Christmas at the Homes’ is sweet, especially with John’s prepared speech to Mary: “The problems of your past is your business. The problems of your future are my privilege.” Wow, that is good.
- We get a glimpse of Sherlock indulging in drug use, claiming it’s for a case. No one buys it.
- I wondered why we never saw Mary interact with Janine, despite being the maid of honor at the wedding. I guess Sherlock and Mary are far more alike than they thought. Sherlock getting an engaged was a wonderful adaptation to canon, but Janine’s beautiful revenge made it even better.
- Jim Moriarty is locked up in the basement of Sherlock’s mind palace, buried deep and out of sight but always there. Sherlock Holmes feared Moriarty and still fears him after his death on the roof of Bart’s.
- Or…what death? The East wind is coming.