Sherlock: His Last Vow (BBC, 2014)

Interesting reactions to yesterday’s Sherlock finale. Mostly adulation, but some murmurs of discontent at the ending, including from my mother, who if it wasn’t for a lifetime of prudery would be a fully signed up Cumberbitch.

But at the risk of rank presumption, I’m going to suggest that people haven’t quite identified the source of their own discomfort. Obviously there’ll be massive spoilers for His Last Vow after the cut.

The main complaint I’ve seen on message boards (and texts from mum) is that Sherlock shooting Magnussen at the end is either:

a) out of character for Sherlock

b) out of character for the show

c) unsatisfying

d) all of the above.

I can see why people might think that, but scenes in stories don’t occur in a vacuum. While I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that people are wrong about what that scene made them feel, I think they might be wrong to think that the scene itself was the problem. Which may seem confusing and contradictory. Welcome to the wonderful world of editing, where every tiny change sends vast ripples throughout the rest of your story!

The first thing to establish is whether Sherlock shooting a villain is always going to be the wrong choice. I think the answer is clearly no. Sherlock usually solves his problems through reason and intellect. At this stage (episode 9, 13.5 hours of television) it’s been well-established that Sherlock is an expert at solving problems in this way. Characters need to be faced with challenges for stories to be engaging. “Sherlock encounters mystery, Sherlock uses powers to solve mystery” is treading water. To break this cycle, Sherlock needs to be put in a situation where his skills are no use. A problem that can only be solved with brute force seems a good candidate. (Whether they’ve used it too soon is another matter. It’s a one-time thing, and viewers would have been quite happy to tread water for a bit.)

So, yes, it’s out of character, but that’s the point of this kind of arc. You push your characters beyond the limits of what they would normally do and see what happens. This can be positive (a character overcomes a previous weakness) or negative (a character is forced to do something which goes against what they believe in). But both are valid and interesting turning points in a story.

The problem is what you do afterwards. Sherlock resorting to violence isn’t a victory or character development. He’s not overcoming a challenge by using new skills. He’s admitting that he’s run out of options. Not only that, but the ethics of the specific situation are very unclear. Magnussen is horrible, for sure, but nothing we saw him do in the episode was criminal. The same can’t be said for Mary, who has admitted being an assassin and shot Sherlock in the chest. Maybe Mary is worth saving. Maybe Magnussen really had to be stopped and there was no other way. But whichever way you slice it Sherlock found himself in a situation where he had to summarily execute another man. There have to be consequences.

And there were none.

Or rather there were, but then they were instantly invalidated.

Turning the plane round at the end of the episode, especially in a scene played for laughs, completely undermines the idea that Sherlock has just killed another man out of sheer desperation and had to be punished, even if he’d ultimately done a noble thing. And what purpose does the scene where Mycroft calls Sherlock back really serve, other than to get laughs? It’s not relevant to the Moriarty reveal. Why not show Moriarty and then bring Sherlock back at the beginning of the next episode? As I discussed in my post praising The Sign of Three, it’s often vital to put space between the setup and payoff of story elements. My suggestion there was that often it doesn’t matter what scenes you put in between, as long as there’s something. But this shows that even that was too specific. You don’t even need story at all, the empty space between episodes can be enough to let the consequences of a character’s actions take their full effect.

But four minutes of exile isn’t enough. Yes, viewers would have known that Sherlock wouldn’t really die in Eastern Europe. But he still has to be sent there. That’s the shared illusion of storytelling. It would be like saying there’s no point in putting protagonists in danger, because the audience knows they won’t die. You can’t shortcut these things. You have to go through the motions.

An unusual misstep in an otherwise incredibly accomplished piece of television, but unfortunately it came at a crucial point.

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