‘Sherlock’ recap: Season 3, Episode 3, ‘His Last Vow’

John Watson has some tough decisions to make after his wife turns out to be not what she seems. Credit: BBC
John Watson has some tough decisions to make after his wife turns out to be not what she seems.
Credit: BBC

Oh, boy. Their new separate lives seem to suit Sherlock and John equally poorly. Oh, and there’s the small matter of a newspaper magnate blackmailing everyone.

“His Last Vow” begins a formal introduction to Charles Augustus Magnussen, the bespectacled mastermind who put John in a bonfire to expose Sherlock’s priorities, as he testifies before a governmental panel about his influence over the British prime minister. Magnussen is a foreign media mogul, a thinly veiled template of Rupert Murdoch whose media empire was brought down by revelations that journalists had hacked public figures’ phones. That’s just the sort of access he’d need for the lists of his interrogators’ pressure points, financial status and, of course, porn preference that flash up on his glasses.

The piece of information he’ll use to keep himself out of the headlines this time has to do with the panel’s chairwoman, Lady Smallwood, whose husband had (decades ago) written letters to an (unbeknownst to him) underage girl. But the details are unimportant to Magnussen: “Facts are for history books; I work in news.” She calls it blackmail; he calls it ownership, just another hand to tend his field of influence, and stakes his claim by licking her face. This is not, for the record, common practice in journalistic circles; we prefer reciprocal Twitter friendships.

“No one stands up to him; no one dares,” she fumes, before remembering that, in fact, there is one man in London who never hesitates to make trouble.

She’s not the only one with Sherlock Holmes on the brain. A knock at the Watsons’ door wakes John from a dream that began on a battlefield in Afghanistan and resolves into partnering with Sherlock. A neighbor in trouble has arrived, and not a moment too soon. Life in the suburbs hasn’t dulled John’s ken for adventure: A month out of the game and he’s practically giddy when the woman asks him to retrieve her teenage son from a heroin den. John insists he’s just being neighborly, though he’s apparently shown no such inclination until now. So much for that commitment to sobrietynormalcy.

No, John’s idea of an ideal weekend morning is storming a drug house with a tire iron shoved into his waistband, which even Mary stops admonishing him long enough to acknowledge is “a tiny bit sexy.” (John acknowledges this with “Yeah, I know,” like he’s been praised before for carrying concealed weapons.) He efficiently disarms a knife-wielding lookout in a reminder that all the fuzzy sweaters and sarcasm belie the brutal competence of Capt. Dr. John H. Watson, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. He finds the missing boy — and another familiar face. “Oh, hello, John,” greets grimy delinquent Shezza, nee Sherlock, from the adjacent mattress. Codependence isn’t usually a topic on Very Special Episodes, but judging by the poor life choices these two are making after only a month apart, maybe it should be.

John drags Sherlock to St. Bart’s for a drug test, which comes back so positive that pathologist Molly Hooper practically slaps him sober, accusing him of “[throwing] away the beautiful gifts you were born with.” John insists he should’ve called if he was going to start using drugs again (which Sherlock claims was only for a case, mm-hm). Delicious as it would’ve been for Sherlock to point out the hypocrisy in John’s advice, that thunder belongs to Billy Wiggins, the knife-wielding druggie who rats out John for beating him up. He knows a junkie in need of a fix when he sees one.

There’s not much left to do but glare at each other until they get back to 221B, which Mycroft Holmes is having tossed for Sherlock’s stash. “Back on the sauce? How very like Uncle Rudy, though in many ways cross-dressing would’ve been a wiser path for you.” Interesting suggestion, though the etiquette of implying one’s brother makes a pretty lady is dubious.

Sherlock insists he doesn’t have a habit, and that it’s all a ruse to draw out Magnussen, a case “too big and dangerous for any sane individual to get involved in.” John asks rhetorically if that’s supposed to put him off. Of course not, dear.

But before things can get too plotty, maid of honor Janine waltzes out of Sherlock’s bedroom wearing one of his shirts, then joins him for a shower. Given their busy morning, John understandably has questions — all about Sherlock’s improbable new relationship status. Sherlock tries to interest him in Lady Smallwood’s blackmail case against the most repugnant man he’s ever known instead, but John is just nodding along because, seriously, when did his sociopathic virgin former roommate commit to being somebody’s boyfriend, and a seemingly decent one at that given Janine’s sunny smiles? John looks like he’s being pranked, right through their goodbye kiss at the door. “We’re in a good place; it’s very affirming,” Sherlock says, before resuming his explanation of Appledore, Magnussen’s secluded home. No, really, Sherlock, we’re going to have a couples dinner?

John realizes he’s not on candid camera when Magnussen slinks into 221B and sucks all the joy out of the room. He sneers at Sherlock’s attempt to get the Smallwood letters, then pees in the fireplace to prove his point that England is “so domesticated” that no one dares stop him. He’s honing his craft in the United Kingdom before expanding abroad, and would rather keep his blackmail materials than make a deal.

All Sherlock hears, of course, is a challenge to steal the documents from Magnussen’s lair instead. And because he knows John hasn’t taken part in a good high-security break-in since Baskerville, Sherlock invites him along. Just how are they going to break into Magnussen’s penthouse suite though? By proposing to Janine, who happens to be the blackmailer’s personal assistant. “Jesus, Sherlock, she loves you!” John protests. If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it, John.

In the time it takes for their elevator to arrive, someone had broken in. Sherlock leaves John to tend to an unconscious Janine, and finds an assassin has beaten them to Magnussen — but it’s not, as he assumes, Lady Smallwood. Dressed in tactical gear and wielding a silenced gun is Mary Watson, who in a genuinely shocking move shoots Sherlock in the chest.

Immediately, Sherlock plunges into his mind palace, the halls blaring with klaxons, where reality and imagination blur for a truly stunning sequence. Molly coaches him through minimizing further trauma while Mycroft orders him to calm down, which nearly backfires when Sherlock opens a door to what should’ve been John and finds Mary instead. Dressed in her wedding finery, she shoots him all over again, because “subtle” is never the word to describe Sherlock’s emotions.

In another great mind palace cameo, Sherlock winds up in the padded cell where he’s chained up the memory of Jim Moriarty, and begs to know how he never felt pain. Moriarty, grimy and crazy as ever in a straitjacket, says the key is to not fear the pain, then sings Sherlock’s eulogy as a nursery rhyme while his heart slows. Just as the doctors in the real world give up, Moriarty stops trying to lull Sherlock to death by musing what a pity that John Watson will be “definitely in danger” without him. This is precisely the jolt Sherlock needs, and he starts to agonizingly claw his way back to consciousness up the staircase from his first crime scene with John.

During his recovery, Janine stops by to acknowledge that while it’s been fun, he’s gotten what he wanted and so has she, profiting from their liaison by selling fake stories of their sexual exploits (“Shag-a-Lot Holmes!”). Game recognizes game and they part on good enough terms (though “once would’ve been nice,” she admits. Sherlock claimed to be saving himself for marriage.)

He skips out on the hospital shortly afterward and, with Wiggins’ help, lures Mary to an empty house to discuss a few things. First of all, Mary Morstan was a stillborn baby whose name she stole five years ago. Between recognizing the skip code and her keen memory, there’s obviously more than meets the eye, but the last piece of the puzzle is why she shot Sherlock. He asks for a shooting demonstration — Mary obliges by hitting a flipped coin in midair — to prove his theory that she hadn’t intended to kill him: “That wasn’t a miss; that was surgery.” She was just buying time to negotiate his silence (a “mixed message,” Sherlock concedes) since she couldn’t ask for his help earlier because John would find out she’d lied to him. Of course, John overhears their entire exchange.

Back in Baker Street, John wonders if everyone he’s ever met is a psychopath. The short answer is yes (turns out even Mrs. Hudson is a former exotic dancer who ran her husband’s drug cartel in Florida). John is “addicted to a certain kind of lifestyle,” Sherlock says, and as much as he insists that Mary “wasn’t supposed to be like that,” she is, precisely because on some level he chose her for the same qualities he saw in Sherlock. He forces John to take a step back by recasting Mary as a client who needs their help. She gives him a flash drive that documents her former life, but Sherlock already knows the short version: an intelligence agent on the run, started her life over but Magnussen knows her secrets, and she was planning to kill him. Oh, and she agrees that John shouldn’t look so surprised because, on whatever subconscious level, “it’s what you like” (which is, essentially, the way Irene Adler put it, too.)

Before anything is decided, the scene flashes forward six months to Christmas at the Holmes “estate”: a modest country cottage, where Mycroft is Mikey and Mary has been invited, though she’s estranged from John. He forgives her for lying and takes her back — “The problems of your past are you business; the problems of your future are my privilege” — though he did not read the flash drive. Mary Watson, they decide, is a good enough name for them both.

Mycroft and Sherlock, meanwhile, are sneaking cigarettes in the front yard, because you’re never too old to have bad habits in front of your parents. Mycroft wonders why Sherlock persists in his inquiry into Magnussen, whom he calls “a necessary evil, not a dragon for you to slay.” 

Well, this particular fly in the ointment has larger ambitions, as Sherlock knows, and they’ve made a deal. Wiggins drugs everyone in the house with tea so Sherlock can swipe his brother’s laptop and, his price of admission and John in hand, goes to see Magnussen at Appledore about retrieving the evidence he has against Mary.

That computer, and by extension Mycroft, has been Magnussen’s ultimate objective in blackmailing Mary. If he’s got Mary, he’s got John, and in turn Mycroft’s junkie little brother: “Look how you care about John Watson, your damsel in distress.” But he’s wise to Sherlock’s plan: The GPS locator in the laptop will bring the authorities right to Appledore, who will search his vaults and arrest him. But that’s not how things are going to go down, because Sherlock has made one “enormous mistake:” Appledore doesn’t exist. Magnussen’s illicit treasures exist only in his mind palace, and that’s why they’re the perfect blackmail tools. “Proof? I don’t need to prove it, I just have to print it,” and tomorrow’s top story will be Sherlock and John getting arrested for selling state secrets.

Magnussen illustrates his point in an excruciating bullying sequence, flicking John’s face, over and over. “It works like this, John.” Flick. “I know who Mary hurt and killed.” Flick. “I know where to find people who hate her.” Flick, flick. “All in my mind palace. I could find them right now, and tear your whole life down. And I will – unless you let me flick your face.” Flick. “This is what I do to people. This is what I do to whole countries.” Flick. “Just because I know.”

Throughout this, Sherlock’s expression hardens from bewilderment to steel, because this dragon slayer’s had just about enough of this heartless reptile. “Sorry, no chance for you to be a hero this time, Mr. Holmes,” Magnussen crows, except when the cause is John Watson even death has been defied twice. So Sherlock grabs the gun John denied bringing to Christmas dinner from his jacket pocket and fires a bullet straight into Magnussen’s mind palace to fulfill the promise he made to protect John and Mary.

In what little damage control can be done for a man who committed murder in front of a dozen witnesses, Mycroft gets Sherlock assigned to an undercover job in eastern Europe. Given how well things had gone for him in Serbia, it’s an assignment with a life expectancy of about six months.

Sherlock, of course, leaves that part out when he meets John and Mary to say goodbye on the tarmac before his flight. Mary promises to “keep him in trouble.” John, meanwhile, can’t think of a single thing to say. For a moment, Sherlock seems to work up the nerve to tell John something significant, but in the end contents himself with making John laugh one last time by suggesting he name his daughter Sherlock.

“The game is over,” John sighs. “The game is never over,” Sherlock assures him. With that, they shake hands “to the very best of times” and walk toward their respective new adventures.

Wait, you thought they’d leave it at that? A six-month suicide mission and suburban fatherhood? As the credits start to roll television screens all across England turn to static before resolving into — who else — Jim Moriarty, asking “Miss me?” in his lilting creeper way. Not denying that we did, you magnificent bastard, but what a suspiciously convenient moment to re-enter the stage. Mycroft cuts short Sherlock’s exile at four minutes with, “I certainly hope you’ve learned your lesson.” And just like that, the game is back on. But how did Moriarty survive shooting himself in the head? Is someone continuing where he left off? Could Mycroft be behind it?

So ends another season, as ever with more questions than answers. But this time, fans may not be kept waiting for two years. Without any Peter Jackson epics to interfere with filming, rumor has it there could be another “Sherlock” episode as early as Christmas. With a whole slew of new questions to theorize about, not to mention more of the villain fans never stopped clamoring for, we can hardly stand to wait even that long.


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