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Monday, 13 January 2014

"His Last Vow," Part 3: No consequences, no impact, no regrets.

Previously: Part 2

My eventual reaction to the final scene of this episode was pretty simple:
I love Moriarty, and I'll be psyched to see more of him next season. But his presence is indicative of one of Moffat's worst flaws as a writer: his complete inability to allow serious actions to have serious consequences. Sherlock coming back from the dead is a given, but Moriarty recovering from a gunshot to the mouth? Although, I suppose, he may not actually be "alive" next season. Perhaps he's committing crimes from beyond the grave. Luckily for the purposes of this review, there's another extremely obvious example of the total lack of consequences in this show: Sherlock's near-instant return from "exile" at the end of the episode.
My immediate assumption after Sherlock shot Magnussen was that next season, we'd be in for some kind of Hannibal-style crimesolving scenario where Sherlock is incarcerated but is occasionally sprung from jail to help solve the puzzle of the week. This would be an interesting development both for Sherlock as a character and for the show, because the reason why everything seems like such a hot mess right now is because there are no restrictions on anything. Sherlock has too much freedom, the writers have too much power, and everyone would benefit from cooling their heels in narrative prison for a while.

Of course, then it turned out that instead of going through the normal legal processes, Sherlock would be sent away to die in "Eastern Europe," that well-known bastion of dastardly criminal peril. At this point, one would expect him to fade tastefully off into the sunset, giving us a cooling-off period before he inevitably returns for the next season. Except a) that would be too similar to the gap between seasons two and three, and b) there are no consequences in Sherlock Land. So he's brought back after a mere four minutes, once again learning that he can do whatever he likes, as long as it's for a Good Cause. He doesn't need to feel guilty about Janine, he doesn't need to feel guilty about Magnussen, and he doesn't even need to feel guilty about that whole thing where he faked his own death and lied to his best friend about it for two solid years.

So. Sherlock is right and good and cool and awesome, and lives to play another day. Meanwhile, twenty to thirty people from the British government, Magnussen's personal staff, and Mycroft's team of soldiers, all get to live with the knowledge that Sherlock Holmes shot a man in the head in front of multiple witnesses, but will get away with it because he's famous and has a powerful brother. And that, really, is the true underlying message of this show.
This episode, and a great deal of the basic concept of Sherlock as a show, reads a lot like a story written by a young boy who has only ever been exposed to fantasy-fulfillment male antihero fiction. Sherlock is a stylish, witty, misunderstood genius who doesn't care (doesn't HAVE to care) what anyone thinks, and can be as rude as he likes and get away with it. He doesn't need or want women, but women become obsessed with him anyway, proving his desirability and superiority. He has a loyal best friend who stays with him even when he's acting like a total asshole. The world shapes itself around him. And sure, we know that Sherlock isn't a total Mary Sue because he has a multitude of very obvious personality flaws. The problem is, they just don't  matter. They are window-dressing. Unlike the far less objectionable Sherlock Holmes of Elementary, Sherlock never learns or evolves, because there are never any long-term consequences to his behaviour.
It's pointless to say that Sherlock should be more like Elementary, because that would require the main characters to go through a massive personality shift. But there are certainly things this show could learn from the way Elementary portrays its central characters and relationships. Yes, BBC Sherlock is more extreme than Elementary Sherlock, and that's why we like him. He's a wish-fulfillment fantasy, existing in a heightened reality where everything eventually bows to his power, while Elementary Sherlock lives in the real world. I'm not suggesting that BBC Sherlock should aspire to Elementary's level of realism (or even to its admirable levels of emotional authenticity), but it would be a good idea for them to take a leaf out of Elementary's book when it comes to punishing their lead character when he goes over the line.
In Elementary, when Sherlock is needlessly unpleasant to someone, that unpleasantness has consequences. It has actual impact on his career and his relationships with other human beings. Ditto when he acts outside the law. Not only does he see actual real-world legal and practical consequences to his actions, but there are emotional and social repercussions when he acts without considering the lives and feelings of other people. When he and Joan Watson have an argument, he generally ends up apologising and learning from the conflict. His basic nature doesn't change, but he matures and evolves thanks to his life experiences and growing relationships. Now, I don't think it would be realistic for BBC Sherlock to suddenly develop empathy (or even an ability to treat other people with basic human decency), but the show would actually improve A LOT if his actions had serious consequences. In the Reichenbach Fall, we saw that. But this season? Not so much.
If Sherlock's behaviour doesn't have the potential to negatively impact the world and his own life, then any positive impact feels meaningless. Magnussen's death was inevitable from a narrative standpoint, because much like in the original Holmes story, the ONLY way to defeat him was to kill him. But if Magnussen's death was inevitable, then Sherlock's comeuppance should've been inevitable as well. That's the whole point of this kind of scene. The hero goes to the villain's lair, teeth gritted because he knows he has to make the ultimate sacrifice and do a Bad Thing, and once he's followed through with that Bad Thing, he faces the consequences. Sadly, Sherlock is immortal, undefeatable, and can do whatever he wants without running the risk of serious punishment. I just hope that next season, Sherlock's writers remember that without Kryptonite to make things interesting, Superman is the most boring superhero of the lot.

  • Child Sherlock was a terrible idea. I assume it was meant to humanise him, so we'd feel more sympathetic once we'd seen cute baby Sherlock crying and playing with a dog?? Terrible. (And apparently the child actor was Steven Moffat's son? Good lord.)
  • I loved Mycroft's suit in the Christmas scenes. Very Lord of the Manor. Whereas Sherlock looked convincingly awful in his drug-den outfit.
  • Once again, I am in awe of the number of white men in this show. They introduced this Billy Wiggins guy... for what reason, exactly?? And why on earth is practically everyone in this show white. IT'S SET IN LONDON.
  • Did you guys notice that Magnussen's scrolling info screens for John and Sherlock both included "Porn Preference: Normal." WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?? "Normal" porn preferences?? So many questions, oh my god. Particularly for Sherlock, who is characterised as uninterested in sex and generally dismissive of women.
  • For that matter: did Janine and Sherlock have sex, or not? The shower scene at the beginning suggested yes, but then in the hospital she implied that they'd never slept together. Ugh, I am so sick of Moffat's way of writing Sherlock's sexuality.
  • Appledore House was INCREDIBLE. Although all the way through, I just found myself wondering who the hell would want to live in such an enormous, sterile house. Apparently it is some millionaire's actual house, though.
  • How long has Mary been pregnant, exactly? This episode ended at Christmas. John and Mary got married in the summer. I'm confused. 
  • I'm a little confused about Mary's backstory. Are we meant to believe that she decided to retire from her life as a spy/assassin... and then spent the past five years working as the receptionist at a medical practise, building a social circle of blandly normal British people? Like, of all the things she could've picked, she picked the one job where you have to deal with crying babies, pissed-off methadone addicts, senile old people, and STDs?? And you probably only get paid about £10/hour?? Unless she's working there because of John, in which case: oh, for fuck's sake. It makes sense from the perspective of that's how she fell in love with John, but it does not REMOTELY make sense in the new context of her being a former intelligence agent with a Dark Past.
Previous Sherlock reviews


  1. Maybe she was a spy assassin, quit, got recruited by Moriarty, was sent to take care of John and when Moriarty died, she just kind of stayed?

  2. Don't think I've commented before, so... Hi! I like your blog! I archive binged a while ago because I like your thoughts on fashion! A++ good blog would follow on my rss feed (and do follow, for that matter :p ).

    Now that that's out of the way:

    "The world shapes itself around him. And sure, we know that Sherlock isn't a total Mary Sue"

    See, I would consider the first definition the exact definition of a mary sue. The lack of consequence, the lack of awareness, the lack of ability to see anything as more important than the favored character? The bending of setting and world rules to assist them?That is what I would consider the hallmark of a mary sue, more than any personality traits or lack of flaws.


  4. it's not really "sherlock vs elementary," because i like both shows. both have their good and bad points. elementary is constrained by being an american TV episodic crime show so it's more formulaic and the first ten or so episodes have pretty awful crime storylines. sherlock is better at being super intense and sweeping you away with exciting action and melodrama. but elementary is undeniably better at complex emotional stuff and intelligently-written human interactions. plus, obviously, diversity.

    re: consequences, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY THEY DIDN'T MAKE A BIGGER DEAL OVER MARY SHOOTING SHERLOCK. why was john not more freaked out about this. IT'S LITERALLY PROOF THAT SHE HASN'T "LEFT THAT LIFE BEHIND HER" or whatever. bizarre.

  5. You so brilliantly verbalized many of the problems I had with this episode, and with Moffat's writing in general. It's almost impossible for me to separate the two now. Nothing has consequences in the world of characters written by Moffat, so of course Sherlock doesn't have a problem with Mary shooting him. Of course John takes Mary back. Of course Sherlock doesn't get banished to eastern Europe for shooting a man. I was shocked when it looked like the episode was going to end with him actually getting punished.

    Although, I am surprised that Sherlock shooting Magnussen was as horrific of a crime as everyone thought it to be. This is probably because I'm American, but wasn't this guy known to be a proven dissembler and blackmailer? Wasn't he very close to being charged with something himself? Even if they were having trouble pinning stuff on him (re: the opening scene), Sherlock in a sense did their dirty work and cleanly disposed of a man the British government knew to be dangerous, unstable, and basically an actual psychopath. Yeah, I'm very American, I guess, because the ending beat didn't land with me as intensely as for others.

  6. I wasn't accusing you of anything, just worrying that this review could be taken the wrong way, given how vocal both parts in this dispute are. Personally, I don't like Elementary, which I find a boring, bland CBS procedural by the numbers. I'd say it also overdoes the melodrama but so did Sherlock this season. (It doesn't help that I can always tell who did it in the first 5 minutes.) Even Sherlock is/was an weird kind of show for me to watch; I started to because of Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I like as an actor.

    re: consequences. Setting aside moral and legal issues, their lack doesn't work from a writing POV. Simplifying, consequences are how one writes plot: A leads to B and B to C, which impact the characters in this and that way. It's a general problem this season, which felt a lot like a series of disjointed vignettes rather than a sinuous blend of converging plot-lines. It all culminated in this ep with everyone giving everyone a pass for everything from betrayal and emotional manipulation to serious crimes such as murder.

    And don't get me started on Mary, who seems like a prime candidate for psychopathic personality disorder down to the cold-blooded killer capable of murdering the best friend of a husband she claims to love, knowing how losing Sherlock once devastated John.

  7. Re: the porn reference thing. I found it interesting that basically everyone had "normal" porn references apart from the only woman we saw the information on who had "none". I find that hilariously unlikely. But then again you're right. Who knows whatever Moffat considers "normal" for porn.

  8. Anna Flasza-Szydlik14 January 2014 at 03:34

    I think child Sherlock was justified in Appledore scene, it might be Mycroft's perspective, but that's it. And you make excellent point about the ending.
    And I'm happy they left Mary alive :).

  9. Your hilarious "Good Lord" w/r/t child Sherlock perfectly captures how I felt about the episode as a whole.
    I think the second-worst thing about Moffat shows, after his appalling/baffling treatment of female characters, is their tendency to become caricatures of themselves over time. It's probably because he's left increasingly unchecked and unedited, and he desperately needs for someone to call him on his shit. You touched on this with the River Song thing -- she was fantastic and intriguing in her first (Moffat-written!) two-parter, and then degraded into over-used, not-a-person-but-a-plot-device, literally-only-exists-for-the-male-hero territory when he was full showrunner and had no one to stop him from going all-out.
    I was just thinking -- Moffat is sort of the opposite of Joss, in terms of consequences, no? In a Whedonverse show, you know there will be at least one tragic, out of nowhere death that will tear your heart in two and the characters will have to deal with the fallout. As much as I've complained about that and how it means no one can ever be content, the Moffat "no one is ever dead" strategy is actually much more infuriating, I think.

  10. Because in Moffat's world, the women have no need for porn! Of course they don't, they want to save themselves for that special guy she likes, and in the meantime she maybe falls into a relationship with a guy who kind-of looks/sounds/wears similar clothes to the guy she likes and has sex with him instead. And then, when her super-special-awesome forever crush finally wants her, they can't be together because she's been with someone else and she's *ruined forever*. And everything is a) very tragic and our hero mopes around mooning over his *lost true love* until she comes to her senses and runs away with him the night before her wedding or b) they have an affair anyway and everything goes terribly wrong and the woman's boyfriend/husband/fiancé tries to break them up and realises that no, his feelings aren't important, he'll move aside from the woman he loves and her dickhead new lover. Because they're meant to be together. Until said dickhead finds a new woman, of course, that he's meant to be with even more.

  11. thank goodness I'm not the only one who hated the writing. very useful and to the point.

  12. Joe Riggs here, while I agree with many of your opinions are enjoyed your writing. Upon reading the Mind Palace criticisms in this thread, I decided to respond to those in a full write up on my Blog. You can see my thoughts here:

  13. Cool, I just took a look! I feel like an idiot now because I actually included a paragraph about IRL memory techniques in my original draft of the post, but i deleted it because the post was already so long! Anyway, I had no idea they could be this extensive! Interesting post.

    I took a look at your website, and I guess it must be annoying to have people criticising something you clearly know more about. I'm going to reblog your post on Tumblr so people can read it, but I'd also say that I still don't find this episode very plausible as a storyline, despite the fact that Magnussen's abilities apparently could actually occur in real life.

    From a narrative perspective, I still find it unsatisfying and difficult to accept that both Sherlock and the central villain of the episode both had such similar skills in this regard, because it was too "neat". This is one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" things, I think, where things that are technically real in real life, seem less plausible in the context of a fictional story. When I refer to the mind palace technique being "overused" in Sherlock, I don't mean in the sense that Sherlock overuses it himself (because as in the originaly Holmes stories, it's kind of the whole point of his character), but rather that it's overused within the show. Internal scenes within Sherlock's head were already enough before they started including flashbacks to his childhood dog (LOL), but to have yet more scenes take place in the villain's mind palace means that it's being overused as a WRITING technique by the writers themselves, not overused within the show by fictional characters.

    There's also the lack of internal consistency in Magnussen's character. He's meant to be incredibly clever and also have this fantastically well-trained memory, meaning that he outwits Sherlock -- a character who is supposedly the smartest guy in the show. But by revealing to Sherlock that all of his files are stored in his head, he's basically inviting someone to shoot him, which doesn't really make sense as a self-preservation tactic. Wouldn't he have hard copies of his most important files stored somewhere as insurance, to avoid people trying to solve their blackmail problems by shooting him? So he's simultaneously much smarter than Sherlock (because the only way Sherlock can defeat him is by brute force), but too foolhardy to take the basic precaution of storing hard-copy files with a "dead man's switch" to release if someone kills him.

  14. I also agree with your analysis of this season, all the "Moffat problems" included. Episode was entertaining, but lacked in my mind the ethical depth that season 2 finale had. The Great Game against Moriarty had much more visible moral stakes, like John being rightfully furious and calling Sherlock out on his callousness and willingness to risk lives just for his own amusement. I found it curious that they decided to presumably resurrect Moriarty right after hugely dark choice on Sherlock's part. Mycroft was probably never able to truly penalize his babybrother, but during the whole series, Moriarty has been a visible manifestation of the darker aspect of Sherlock as a character and being too similar has cost to Sherlock. Maybe the consequences are waiting in the next season? Or probably I'm dreaming and series is just sinking on the same habit of recycling villains as Dr Who. For one crazy moment at the end of this episode I truly thought the Daleks were coming...

  15. Valentine Marvel17 January 2014 at 16:42

    To be fair on the whole "no consequences" thing: It was implied (somewhere in the middle of the episode, can't remember) that the trip away to work undercover in Eastern Europe wouldn't just be over in six months.

    Sherlock was only going to LAST six months.

    It was basically a death sentence. The council would get as much usefulness out of Sherlock until there was nothing left, basically. Both Sherlock and Mycroft knew this.

  16. Very well put. It's a shame that the 'blind devotion' (as you put it in relation to critics) of fangirls leaves them oblivious to massive plot holes and faults in the writing. After all, the idea of Sherlock Holmes shooting a man dead is ridiculous, and never would have occurred in the original books, especially considering that Magnusson wasn't even a murderer. However much I agree with what you've written, I did enjoy the visualisation of the mind palace, and thought it was a good insight into Sherlock's character.
    Check out our blog as we will be discussing the recent Sherlock episodes very soon, focusing more on plot devices and how the creators manipulate the minds of the viewers. :)

  17. The otherwise unfitting "just shoot him in the head!" ending makes more sense when the episode is paralleled with Casablanca.