A riveting finale that's full of surprises at last gives Sherlock fans everything they want in one episode.

By James Hibberd
February 03, 2014 at 05:20 AM EST
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How does Sherlock do it? How does this show keep topping itself? How does this series keep racketing up your emotions and increasing the stakes?

Sunday’s “His Last Vow” was a thrilling 90-minute ride that flung fans from laughter to terror to heartache and back again. The episode represented a return to form after the season’s previous two episodes veered from the show’s format — hilariously and movingly veered, but veered.

There was plenty of backlash on the EW board about my analytical take on last week’s rom-com episode, though interestingly the comment boards on the UK sites were more divided, with a Guardian critic noting that “there were a few hundred comments saying the show had lost its way – it was too knowing, too comedic and had strayed too far from the formula.” Whether you found the previous two weeks entertaining examples of storytelling eclecticism or tangential and off-target, I suspect all fans will agree tonight’s closer was on balance a winner.

We finally got to know Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a character who always seems to be called by his full name. The publishing mogul was certainly a scatological and tactile fellow, wasn’t he? Peeing in the fireplace, licking a blackmail victim’s face, flicking Watson’s eye. Urbane, sterile and gross all at the same time. “The whole world is wet to my touch,” he says, oozing ooziness.

Early in the episode we get re-introduced to John Watson — nightmares (or dreams?) of his time in Afghanistan and lunging at the opportunity to stroll into a dangerous heroin den. “I’m a doctor, I know how to sprain people,” he says to one junkie who attempts to attack him. “[I’m] just used to a better class of criminal.”

There he finds schlubby=sweatpants Sherlock, doing “undercover” work. Despite being high (or because of it) he deftly shows off some parkour moves on the way out of the building. John takes him to get tested by Molly, who slaps his sharp cheekbones three times for toxifying his beautiful mind with drugs. “Sorry your engagement’s over and I’m fairly grateful for a lack of a ring,” he says — did you see that? Classic Sherlock, stuffing a wait-a-second reveal and a funny quip into the same throwaway line that flies by in an instant.

Another gem was in the car on the ride home, where Sherlock realizes others were dropped off along the trip while he was spacing out. “People were talking, none of them me, I must have filtered … I can filter out a lot of witless blather. I have Mrs. Hudson on semi-permanent mute.”

Back at 221B Baker, Mycroft is pissed at Sherlock for lapsing back into his old habits. We’ve never really understood this clearly before that he is, in fact, a drug addict. Sherlock insists he was only there for a case, but even later it’s not entirely clear that was his only reason — it certainly wasn’t an effective ploy against Magnussen.

Sherlock also manhandles his brother and says a great line, one that’s sure to be seen on T-shirts at music festivals: “Don’t appall me when I’m high.”

NEXT: What happens when Sherlock gets shot

Next we have a beat that’s totally unexpected. What could be in Sherlock’s bedroom that he doesn’t want anybody to see? If he were a normal bachelor, a lover would be the first thing that comes to mind. Since he’s Sherlock, it’s the last. Jeannie — the bridesmaid who flirted with Sherlock last week — comes strolling out. She’s tossing around nicknames (Sherl, Mike…) for the Holmes brothers and John is just stunned. So are we. Though we quickly suspect there must be an ulterior motive.

Sherlock tries to get John to focus on the Magnussen case, but he wants details about Jeannie. It’s like the show is trying to switch focus and tone from last week’s rom-com to this week’s thriller, with John still stuck in the previous mode and Sherlock wanting to get back to a regular episode.

Another visitor: Magnussen himself. He strolls in wearing (we think) his version of Google Glass with a blackmail app. It gives him pop-up reminders of his adversaries’ pressure points. Mrs. Hudson’s is “marijuana,” which puts an entirely new twist on her perpetually chirpy blather. While Sherlock’s are listed as “John Watson, Jim Moriarty, Irene Adler, The Hounds of the Bakerville and Redbeard.”

Sherlock crafts a plan to break into Magnussen’s impenetrable office to steal letters being used to blackmail Lady Smallwood. The only way into his office is for Magnussen’s aide to give him access and we discover that person is, of course, Janine. When Sherlock pops out a ring to show her on the video camera suggesting he intends to propose — a hugely lousy way to do it, by and by — we’re mortified for her.

Thankfully everything moves too fast to really think about how implausible it is that Sherlock’s plan is to carry on a relationship with Janine when she merely guards the place Magnussen normally does not keep his blackmail materials on the off chance Sherlock will one day those know those materials will be there and that Magnussen will not be there so that he can try to break in. Sorry, but I have to call some of this stuff out.

Sherlock finds Magnussen held at gun point — by Mary! We had a hint that Mary had a connection to “CAM” as the telegram in the wedding episode indicated. But we didn’t expect her here. And we definitely did not expect her to shoot Sherlock in the chest.

What happens next is fantastic. Just fantastic. We go into Sherlock’s mind palace as he scrambles to intellectually process his own shooting and how to survive it. There’s really not a whole lot he can actually do, but he tries his best. We see Young Sherlock Holmes, with Mycroft berating him for being stupid. We see him with his dog — so that’s Redbeard! And we get the return of Moriarty representing death trying to drag him under. “You’re going to love being dead, Sherlock. No one ever bothers you.” But the thought of Mary endangering John brings him back. It’s a bit like The 5 People You Meet in Your Memory Palace.

When he comes to in the hospital, we learn Janine sold stories of their affair as revenge to the tabloids (“Shag-A-Lot Holmes”!). Sherlock leaves the hospital, and it doesn’t take John long to figure out what happened. Sherlock lures Mary into a confession in front of John. We learn she’s a former intelligence agent who’s done some bad things, changed her identity and is being blackmailed by Magnussen.

So here’s the rundown of what happened, best I can tell: John and Mary’s relationship was real and wasn’t part of any scheme. Magnussen was targeting Mycroft, whose weak spot is Holmes, and Holmes weak spot is John, and John’s weak spot is Mary — thus he went after Mary to entrap the whole chain. Magnussen stuck Watson in the bonfire to test his theory. Okay? Okay.

NEXT: Why isn’t Sherlock more popular?

Watson is furious at Mary’s betrayal. Sherlock explains she only shot to wound, but that doesn’t help matters. It’s a strong, uncharacteristically raw scene for this show as Sherlock explains that John sensed the danger in Mary and was drawn to it — just like he’s drawn to his friendship with Sherlock and chasing criminals. “Why is everything always my fault!” John yells. “She wasn’t supposed to be like that!”

Also, got to call out this great joke. Sherlock demands Mrs. Hudson get him some morphine from her kitchen; she bewilderingly explains she doesn’t have any. “What exactly is the point of you?!” he barks.

So then we jump ahead to Christmas with the Holmes family. Why not? It’s free-wheeling Sherlock. We get a re-appearance by Sherlock’s / Cumberbatch’s parents and Sherlock and Mycroft taking a smoke break. Mycroft tells his brother he was considering him for a dangerous assignment but admits, “your loss would break my heart,” which is by far the nicest thing he’s ever said to anyone. “What the hell am I supposed to say to that?” Sherlock replies.

Inside, a very pregnant Mary reunites with John. She had given him a flash drive with all her sins on it. He reveals he never read it and that he’s decided to forgive her. “The problems of your past are your business,” he says. “The problems of your future are my privilege.” Awwwww damn this show!

This would normally be the end of an episode of most shows, but we’re not done. We learn Sherlock drugged the tea and now everybody at the party is passed out except John. Sherlock swipes his brother’s laptop and they take off to Magnussen’s Bond-villain estate to make a trade — Mycroft’s secrets for Mary’s.

Once they arrive and find Magnussen sitting on a very expensive-looking couch, he guesses Sherlock’s intention — set up him for accepting stolen government secrets. Fulfilling the Bond-villain tradition, Magnussen monologues and reveals his secret. There’s no vault of blackmail items, there’s no Google Glass app, it’s all his his mind — his own memory palace — where he keeps everybody’s secrets. (I’m with Sherlock, however, this is not plausible since he would need hard proof to blackmail people to the extent that he does. Photos, documents, etc. Magnussen says he doesn’t need evidence because he’s a newspaper publisher, but you especially need it if you’re a publisher, otherwise you’d get sued into oblivion. Anyway. That couch is awesome.)

They go outside and wait for the authorities and Magnussen declares his intention to ruin all of them. He spends time flicking John’s face. “This is what I do to people. This is what I do to whole countries.”

Sherlock does what he calculates as his only remaining option. He grabs John’s gun — which was not confiscated from him for some reason, despite making a show of Magnussen’s guards searching Watson earlier in the episode. Sherlock shoots and kills Magnussen, fulfilling the “last vow” he made at John’s wedding to always be there for him and his wife.

Sherlock is taken into custody. We then see Mycroft trying to figure out what to do with him, reassuring other government colleagues he’s not being soft on his brother. “I’m not given to outbursts of brotherly compassion. You know what happened to the other one.”

Whoa-whoa-whoa.

Other one? There … is … another … That’s interesting. There’s a vague reference to another older Holmes brother in the canon, but it’s slight. It couldn’t be … Moriarty, could it?

Speaking of which, Holmes’ trip to go undercover as punishment is interrupted when a Joker-like Moriarty image pops up on UK television screens. “Did you miss me?” Yes. Yes, we did. But I hope the show’s explanation for how he’s coming back is better than one we got for Sherlock in “Empty Hearse.”

And we’re set up for season 4. This season was divisive, to be sure, but it’s tough to argue with how consistently entertaining each episode was. In the first two seasons, we had relatively weak middle episodes bracketed by stronger openers and closers. This season had the show’s humor and emotion cranked up throughout, though there were times I felt the show veered too far into sentimentality, especially for Holmes — edging him toward humanity is a fine thing, but this season was a bit too much of a lovefest.

A question: Why does Sherlock get such lousy ratings in the U.S.? Sorry, the numbers are weak compared to just how excellent the show is — just 2.9 million viewers last week compared to Downton‘s 8.8 million. I know, I know, there’s a lot of illegal downloading, but those engaged in downloading tend to overestimate how much of an impact they have when chatting in the Internet echo chamber compared to the broader television audience. Look at HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s the most downloaded TV show, yet is only downloaded about 5 million times per episode, while HBO’s average cross-platform viewership of Thrones is around 14 million. So even factoring a reasonable percentage of downloading — say it’s 50 percent of the PBS viewership — the numbers on Sherlock are still lower than you would think they would be. It’s tempting to believe, in a self-congratulatory way, that Sherlock is simply “too smart” for most viewers, but I suspect the show is still finding its audience. As I noted in the “Empty Hearse” recap, it’s a crime show for people who don’t like crime shows. So it’s targeting an audience outside the genre it actually occupies, which makes the show a tough sell (one of my editors has refused to watch Sherlock for this very reason, going, “He solves crimes, right?” then I say, “Yes, but…” and try to explain).

There’s one more thing. I’m avoiding an examination of Sherlock breaking canon by Holmes pulling the trigger tonight. Instead I direct you to Jeff Jensen’s essay on this very subject, where he talks about Sherlock and Man of Steel, and the risk of taking nonviolent heroes and turning them into murderers (yes, yes, I realize Sherlock isn’t strictly nonviolent compared to, say a total pacifist, but he is compared to most man-of-action leads chasing bad guys).

Thanks for reading. Now the long wait begins again. Hopefully not as long as last time.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the celebrated U.K. series
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