Friday, December 19, 2014

Sherlock: His Last Vow Review


Vows Are Made To Be Convoluted...

I honestly don't know where to begin. 

His Last Vow, the final mega-episode of Sherlock, won seven out of eleven Primetime Emmy Awards, including for its two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (Lead Actor), Martin Freeman as John Watson (Supporting Actor), Cinematography, Editing, Music, Sound, and most difficult for me to accept, Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special for Steven Moffat. 

Tom O'Neill, proprietor of Gold Derby (an awards prediction site), a man who in the past was a passionate defender of the Emmys somewhat bizarre choices (read What Were They Thinking? by David Hofstede for a revelatory interview with O'Neill on how the Emmys work), was apoplectic that The Normal Heart, a gay/AIDS-centered television movie, lost to what he considered a particularly bad Sherlock episode*.  He was especially enraged that Larry Kramer, who adapted his own play, lost to of all things His Last Vow (which he thought was inferior to The Sign of Three).

His reasoning for what he considers outrageous victories?  Homophobia.  He apparently wasn't the only one who thought His Final Vow and Moffat benefitted from Hollywood hypocrisy about gays.  I find that hard to believe given Moffat has given us the virtues of same-sex bestiality with Doctor Who's Madame Vastra & Jenny.  I haven't seen The Normal Heart, so I can't share O'Neill's passion for it. 

I have seen His Last Vow, and I have the same question O'Neill has.  THIS won?  You can see his smackdown of his fellow Gold Derby cohorts below.

I found His Last Vow to be sprawling, not terrible, but hardly anything that says, "This is unimpeachably brilliant". 

Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen) is a master blackmailer.  The Rupert Murdock-like figure who controls a vast media empire has valuable and embarrassing information on all figures public and private safely stored away in a vault at his palatial estate, Appledore (which makes me wonder if Moffat was consciously or not ripping off another writer for whom I care little for, one J.K. Rowling and her "Dumbledore", but I digress).  In any case, into this sordid web comes one Sherlock Holmes (Cumberbatch), who has been asked by Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to get letters written by her husband to a teen/pre-teen girl.  In order to get to Magnussen, Holmes has to attract negative media attention.  What better way than to have people think Sherlock has a drugs problem?

However, there is a small hitch to that plan in the form of John Watson (Freeman), who just happens to come across Holmes while searching for a neighbor's son in a drug den (shades of The Man With the Twisted Lip).  John and his wife Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington, Freeman's real-life mistress), are concerned and nonchalant about the whole matter.  Watson, for his part, is thrilled to discover Sherlock's new hobby.  It's in the form of Janine (Yasmine Akram), one of Mary's bridesmaids whom he met at John & Mary's wedding.  Sherlock has a girlfriend.  John is so hung up on this that he continuously keeps missing the point about Magnussen's danger.

Virgin No More...

Magnussen for his part is nonplussed about Holmes, particularly since big brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) is either afraid of Magnussen himself or willing to give him free reign so long as he doesn't cause too much trouble.  Baby Brother Sherlock, for his part, detests Magnussen for preying on the weak and different.  He attempted to negotiate with the only man he openly hates but has to resort to other methods.  Janine, we find, was a pawn in Sherlock's master plan, for Janine just happens to be Magnussen's private secretary.  Holmes and Watson go to his private office when they come across a wounded Janine.  They also smell the scent of Claire de la Lune, a particular perfume.  Watson observes that Mary wears that.

Typical of John Hamish Watson to put things together but still be clueless.  Sherlock comes into the room to find Magnussen being held at MARY MORSTAN WATSON!

Allow me to pause here for a brief point of logic.  Sherlock Holmes in The Empty Hearse can correctly deduce from merely looking at a maitre'd that said maitre'd's wife is about to give birth, but despite being with her for months and months, the great Sherlock Holmes could NEVER see that Mary Morstan was a former CIA assassin!  Let's repeat: this man could figure out a man is about to be a new father just by looking at him, but could not see that the woman his 'best friend' married and who will be the mother of his children had a license to kill.  I personally find the whole thing idiotic and convenient plotwise, but I'd like the reader to chew on that.

In any case, Mary finds herself in a particular dilemma.  She is obviously there to kill Magnussen, but she'd have to kill Holmes, and possibly Watson.  What to do?  Well, in an extended sequence, she shoots Sherlock enough to injure him, and he at one point dies, but in a dream-like state with Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), Holmes' love for John Watson literally brings him back to life.

Well, John and Sherlock are having an issue with Mary, and slowly her story is revealed.   It's a sorry Christmas to say the least, as John comes to grips with both his wife's sordid past and how he's addicted to people who are dangerous.  Eventually he forgives his wife, and good thing too since Sherlock has basically sold out his brother 'Mike': the secrets of Mary and entry to Appledore in exchange for Mycroft's treasure trove of state secrets.  However, Sherlock has been fooled again (not particularly bright for a genius is our cerebral Holmes, is he). 

There is no 'vault'.  It's all in Magnussen's mind, quite literally, as he keeps all his secrets in his own 'mind palace'.  Holmes appears to be trapped: once Big Brother Mycroft wakes up from the sleeping drug Sherlock slipped into the family drink, he and Watson may be charged with high treason.  How to get out of this?

Simple: Sherlock shoots Magnussen in the head.  Problem solved.

Well, Sherlock simply has too many fans to have him executed (his brother Mycroft not caring very much for him in any case).  With that, it's decided it's time for exile, but it turns out to be surprisingly brief one, since who happens to have invaded television screens around Britain but, you guessed it, Jim Moriarty, who asks the nation, "Miss me?"

Masters of Smokes & Mirrors
I found His Last Vow to be an episode that hung on some pretty outlandish elements, which I figure would be typical of a Steven Moffat script (even one that managed to win a writing Emmy to the shock of Emmy watchers who predicted a Normal Heart sweep with an outside chance for Fargo).  To these 'experts',  His Last Vow's various wins is comparable to How Green Was My Valley trouncing Citizen Kane in various categories.  I don't think I would go that far, but I can say some things about His Last Vow were if not flat-out ridiculous, at least rather deranged.

I've already pointed out the entire subplot of having Mary end up being some sort of Jason Bourne/Annie Oakley mix.  That was already pretty wild to begin with, but to undercut the entire idea of Sherlock Holmes, master deductionist, and his brother Mycroft, as being shockingly unable to deduce Mary was a hitwoman makes a total mockery of how amazingly brilliant Sherlock Holmes is suppose to be.  Again, I've yet to hear how it is possible Sherlock Holmes can deduce minutiae about someone by how they breathe but can't figure out that Mary is a master assassin.

We also have the entire "Sherlock comes back from the dead because Moriarty taunts him that Watson is in danger".  Now, it's a familiar plot device with Moffat to always suggest his characters will die but then bring them back to life in pretty insane and idiotic ways, and that Moffat puts the idea that 'love' is capable of all sorts of deus ex machina, but this one brings them together in a bonkers way.   I'm no expert on getting shot, but somehow once you die (complete with a flatline), no power apart from God will bring you back. 

It is also something that Moffat or the Sherlockians/NuWhovians never seem to understand.  If Steven Moffat continuously pulls this trick, it always cuts the tension out because I KNOW as a viewer no one ever dies.  If I KNOW he/she will survive, why should I worry whenever their life is 'in danger' because they never really are 'in danger'? 

We also have the really bad way to get Sherlock and John out of their dilemma: just shoot the bastard.  One wonders why Holmes didn't do that, or Lady Smallwood didn't do that, or really ANYBODY didn't do that.  Magnussen wasn't all that powerful where someone else couldn't hire a hitman to take him out.

Perhaps that is one reason I found His Final Vow less than compelling.  Magnussen never came across as a threat to me.  I thought the same about Scott's very camp & looney Moriarty, but Mikkelsen at least had the plus of not being overtly silly.  Well, not withstanding when he licked Lady Smallwood's face, or when he urinated in Holmes' fireplace with neither him or Watson saying a word against it. 

Going back to Mary for a bit, why couldn't Moffat simply make her another victim who decided to take things into her own hands?  Why give her this patently idiotic backstory of 'she's ex-CIA'?  Can't he ever keep things to a semi-rational level?

Why is Year of the Cat playing in my Mind Palace?

Now, let's move on to other things.  His Last Vow won an Editing Emmy.  I can't figure WHY given that at least once (Sherlock's hallucinatory semi-death and resurrection) I thought the editing went bonkers to the point of incoherence.  Maybe I was suppose to be impressed with how nutty it all was, but I wasn't.  In fact, I was highly irritated by it all.

His Last Vow won an Acting Emmy for Martin Freeman.  I can't figure WHY given he was still the bumbling idiot he's been before, and this time even more so.  Is Freeman's take on Watson to make him perpetually flummoxed and befuddled by everything?  How can anyone think this particular performance was brilliant when his Watson came across as an even bigger (or smaller) idiot than usual?  At least twice I wrote that John Watson kept missing the big picture.  He was so thrilled by the concept of Sherlock Holmes having a girlfriend (or at least getting some) that he kept failing to understand how dangerous Magnussen was.  I genuinely think Watson wasn't even listening to everything Holmes was telling him for he was so myopic about Sherl & Janine, dreaming of having a double date with him and Mary. 

Also, is it me, or is there something almost dumb at reducing John Watson to Sherlock Holmes' 'damsel in distress'? 

Mark Gatiss went being his usual snooty self (I maintain that Gatiss is not acting in Sherlock, merely playing himself as he is in real life) and into being a joke (but then I think that of Gatiss in general, so I won't belabor the point).

His Last Vow won an Acting Emmy for Benedict Cumberbatch.  This one I won't belabor too much, because I think Benny gave a solid performance as he does in almost everything he does.  Now I think he's gunning for an Oscar for The Imitation Game, and he has a chance for it (biopic--check, playing a person with a 'disability', read 'closeted homosexual'--check, British--check), but in this case (unlike The Imitation Game) I think the Academy might have picked the right choice (this of course, is without seeing the other nominees).

Abbington to make came across as comical more than menacing as this ex-CIA agent.  I didn't care for her all that much when she was just Mrs. Watson, but this twist makes me think LESS of her. 

His Last Vow won a Writing Emmy.  Plot holes, nonsensical twists (Mary KNEW Janine worked for Magnussen) that were easy to predict (I predicted Janine would be a mere pawn, though that was staying within Canon), repetitive tricks from his other scripts.  He introduced Mary's past through the A.G.R.A. flashdrive she gives John, but in a thumbing to Chekov's gun, John burns the flashdrive without ever having bothered to read it; yes, it shows he doesn't care about her past, all well and good.  However, why introduce A.G.R.A. if it won't be important...unless we'll be treated to more of this in a future Sherlock episode.  Well, at least he's British the Emmy voters thought (and if dark whispers are to be believed, is a straight white male), which to the American artistic community means he's 'better'. 

That isn't to say there weren't things in His Last Vow that I didn't find to admire.  It was the quiet moments, the ones where the difficulties between the Holmes Brothers, when Sherlock appears to have human (or at least sexual) emotions, when John and Mary are finding the road to reconciliation tough, that the show became more believable.  The scene when Sherlock tells John "William Sherlock Scott Holmes", apparently as a good name for John and Mary's child but I figure giving John his full name, worked better than most.  Not the greatest  "farewell" scene (and sorry Sherlockians, His Last Vow won't rival the end of Casablanca despite your proclamations that Sherlock is 'the greatest show of the Twenty-First Century').

As a side note, I think I found the perfect name for the Watsons baby girl...

How does "JOAN Watson" suit you?

I also admire the effort to at least give Sherlock a 'childhood trauma' as some sort of motivation, though when we see "little Sherlock" as the one being hunted down by Mike I thought it all a bit overblown and silly.  I didn't care for it in Get On Up, and don't care for it here.  Too easy cinematically to use the child version of our character to 'say something'.

His Last Vow wasn't terrible, but I found it a story that was too outlandish and too simplistic at the same time for me to think it was somehow this turning point in television history.  And I speak from my heart, my normal heart if you will...         

There IS Something About Mary...


*Rob Licuria, one of the commentators in the video said that Steven Moffat was 'an openly gay writer'.  This is inaccurate to say the least.  Steven Moffat has been married twice, to women, is married to a woman (Sue Vertue), has two children, and is openly heterosexual.  Steven Moffat loves women sexually.  In terms of how he writes women, he is somewhere between merely sexist to downright misogynistic, but that is another matter.

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