Aug 24, 2015

Writerly Dissection of Sherlock Episode "His Last Vow"

I've been re-watching Sherlock, and I got to this episode last night. It's the one where Sherlock goes against the blackmailer Magnussen, if you don't remember. Sherlock is a fantastic show, and this episode was penned by Moffat. I'm a big fan of his writing, especially the early Doctor Who episodes he did. I was fascinated by the structure and thematic layers of this episode, so I thought I'd try to analyze it a bit, see what I could learn from the master.

The whole episode is about the dangers of information/knowledge. Magnussen uses his knowledge to blackmail people. He has the power to ruin lives, and he doesn't hesitate. We also have Sherlock's pretend relationship with Mary's bridesmaid Janine, whom he uses to gain access to Magnussen (she's his secretary). Then there's the big one: Mary's not who she seems. She's been lying to John all this time. Soon we find out that Mycroft is on the wrong side; he sees Magnussen as useful, and has dealt with him before. He doesn't believe Magnussen would go after anyone truly important (like him, for example). A third relationship where trust is broken is between Mycroft and Sherlock, when he drugs Mycroft and steals his secrets.

The Janine/Sherlock thing acts as foreshadowing to the Mary/John revelation, and maybe as a bit of mirroring, too. Janine's relationship with Sherlock ends, of course, and I think most of us feel that Sherlock was wrong to use her and lie to her like that, but it was for the greater good. Does that justify what he did? She loved him, but he didn't love her. What about Mary then? Her reasons for lying are quite different. She loves John and doesn't want to lose him. Does that make her lying more acceptable? And then there's Mycroft. Does he deserve to get drugged because he's on the wrong side? Now Mary and John's lives are on the line (metaphorically speaking). Is Sherlock justified in what he does?

The characterization of Magnussen is also wonderful. I love that he acts inappropriate and doesn't respect anyone's boundaries (peeing in the fireplace, picking out the olive from Sherlock's pasta and wshing his hands in Sherlock's water glass.). This makes him all the more fun to hate and fits with the blackmailer thing. He's physically disgusting as well as on a mental level, and he does it knowingly, to hurt people, because he can. It reveals what kind of man he is.

The Mary shooting Sherlock thing felt weird to me the first time around, but I see that Moffat needed to get Sherlock into his mind palace, both to foreshadow Magnussen's files being only in his mind palace and Moriarty's return. I do like the twist of Sherlock saying that Mary saved his life by shooting him. It's that weird way  of thinking that makes him such an interesting character.

We expect Sherlock to come up with a brilliant way to save the day, and he does, only to be foiled by Magnussen. Then he ends up shooting Magnussen. That was unexpected, at least for me, but it does show how much he cares about John and Mary, so it is in character in the end.

I also liked the subtle touch of Mycroft mentioning the assignment in Eastern Europe and how it would get Sherlock killed, and then the ending of his sending Sherlock to die. They both know it, but John and Mary don't. Great use of dramatic irony.

Then there's the dialogue of the east wind rising, a reference to  Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story "His Last Bow," I think. Holmes is referring to the First World War in that one.

In addition to all this structural sophistication and inventive use of "writer tricks," we also get those touching character moments, like Mycroft and Sherlock smoking together, and the hilarious scene with Janine, Sherlock, and John in the beginning.

This is a truly great show. I can't wait to see what happens next!      

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