His Last Vow

The Title

The title plays with “His Last Bow,” Holmes’s final case in the short stories (though fans have been assured series four will happen). This also nods to his “last vow” in the previous episode – that he will protect John, Mary and their baby, no matter the cost.

Symbolism: Inner Life

Jungian psychology involves facing one’s dream imagery – the “little voices” of praise and criticism one finds deep within. Sherlock of course, encounters all these within his mind palace. There he is a small child again, and Mycroft is larger than life, censuring him about all the ways he’s wrong. Molly is Sherlock’s desperate, emotional need to live. Anderson pokes holes and criticizes. Encouraged to find a happy memory, he is young and carefree with his dog. He faces his fear – himself dead in a morgue – and the pain and shock of being shot.

At last Sherlock sinks into the basement of his palace, the place that reflects the subconscious. There, his greatest enemy Moriarty is chained. He represents the shadow – the raging, suppressed dark side of the personality. While many heroes avoid this facet of their deepest selves and refuse to face it, the shadow offers surprising strengths. Moriarty taunts Sherlock with his forthcoming death, and then finally reminds him that if he dies, John will be in terrible danger. At these words, Sherlock is galvanized. He drags himself up through his mind, stair by painful stair, back into the world of life.

This confrontation generally occurs in fiction in context of the hero’s journey – the hero dies or has a near-death experience and crosses over to a world of thought and imagination: Harry Potter at King’s Cross, Gandalf and the Balrog. Each time, the hero refuses to give up his destiny and returns to the world stronger, with new purpose. Thus Sherlock returns, and finally confronts the vile blackmailer.

Sherlock has more Jungian shadows than ever in this episode – people who observe in the same manner he does. Magnussen is the obvious one, with his mental dossiers much as Sherlock has. But Wiggins, Sherlock’s new assistant, is seen doing the same. Mary too has a similar skillset. Even Janine is using Sherlock the way he used her. With all these geniuses, each using Sherlock’s powers to commit immoral acts, Sherlock must become a hero – a knight who slays dragons, the champion of England … for a great threat is coming with the eastern wind.

The Story

In the original story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” Holmes negotiates with a seedy blackmailer to save a titled lady, Lady Eva Brackwell, in danger of having her marriage ruined by some imprudent letters. As Holmes describes him:

He is the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton. With a smiling face and a heart of marble he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry. The fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more savoury trade. His method is as follows: He allows it to be known that he is prepared to pay very high sums for letters which compromise people of wealth or position. He receives these wares not only from treacherous valets or maids, but frequently from genteel ruffians who have gained the confidence and affection of trusting women.

When Milverton won’t lower his price, Holmes resolves to break into his home and steal the letters, and Watson is determined to go along. They succeed in cracking the safe, but are interrupted when a different highborn lady slips in and murders Milverton for his crimes against her. Holmes and Watson burn all the letters, make a daring escape, and express to Lestrade over breakfast the next morning that Milverton’s murder won’t be solved by them.

In both stories, Watson is truly appalled when he discovers Sherlock has only been pretending to date a young woman and has even proposed, just to gain access to her boss. “Did you just get engaged just to get into an office,” John demands on the show. Sherlock blithely replies that he plans to confess and be dumped, thus everything will work out.

In the short story, the young woman is never seen, but on the show, Janine returns for a delightful revenge. Using the young lady, Sherlock breaks into Magnussen’s stronghold. As in the short story, he discovers he’s planned his burglary the same night the blackmailer’s victim has planned his murder. However, Mary doesn’t shoot Magnussen, but Sherlock. From there, Sherlock must work out a way to free his friends from the blackmailer’s slimy grip. He offers to betray his country to save them, selling state secrets as he does in “The Last Bow.” Both stories, of course, allow him to use this excuse to get close to the villain and end the threat to England in spectacular fashion.

Canon References

  • Sherlock says, “I’ve dealt with murderers, psychopaths. None of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen.” In the original, Holmes calls Milverton “The worst man in London,” and adds that “he is as cunning as the Evil One.”
  • Milverton lives at Appledore Towers in the original, like the security vault’s name. His files and papers, neat little bundles of letters tied with ribbons, have been updated to a more elaborate system of storage.
  • The Jeremy Brett adaptation shows Milverton living in a “fortress” with an iron gate, much like Magnussen’s stronghold. The round glasses appear here, as well as in the original tale, but in Brett’s and the short story, he’s a pleasanter person.
  •  In the Brett version, Watson suggests getting involved in a scandal to drawn the blackmailer out. In the opium den, Sherlock seems to have a similar plan.
  • In the books, he signs his notes C.A.M., like the wedding telegram he sends in “The Sign of Three.”
  • Sherlock calls him the “Napoleon of blackmail,” just as Moriarty is the “Napoleon of crime.” This may also foreshadow the episode’s end.
  • Sherlock adds in the short story that “He will hold a card back for years in order to play it at the moment when the stake is best worth winning.” Certainly, C.A.M. is seen toying with Mary as he sends her a wedding telegram.
  • Magnussen sizes up people, not for their habits, but for their pressure points. Sherlock suggests at one point that the text the audience sees is actual text from the man’s spectacles, not the man’s thoughts as they are Sherlock’s. Both men have mind palaces, and seem to have similar skillsets, just ones they use quite differently.
  • The highborn lady in the original authorizes Holmes to act as her agent and buy back the imprudent letters she wrote to a man. This time, she wants the letters her husband wrote to a woman. These letters are described varyingly as “lively” and “sprightly” in the two versions.
  • John’s flashback war dreams parallel the very first moments of “A Study in Pink.” He also has a flashback to Sherlock’s lines from the first episode asking if he wants to see more action.
  • In the books, Mr. and Mrs. Watson sit happily at home, when there’s a ring at the door.

“Our own door flew open, and a lady, clad in some dark-coloured stuff, with a black veil, entered the room.
“You will excuse my calling so late,” she began, and then, suddenly losing her self-control, she ran forward, threw her arms about my wife’s neck, and sobbed upon her shoulder. “Oh, I’m in such trouble!” she cried; “I do so want a little help.”
“Why,” said my wife, pulling up her veil, “it is Kate Whitney. How you startled me, Kate! I had not an idea who you were when you came in.”
“I didn’t know what to do, so I came straight to you.” That was always the way. Folk who were in grief came to my wife like birds to a light-house.

  • Her husband, Isa Whitney, is at an opium den. Watson goes to retrieve the man, and finds Sherlock prowling there, on a case (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”). This episode contains the same scene, followed by an extensive drug test for Sherlock. This time it’s “early” not late, and John guesses it’s her husband, but it’s her son “Isaac.”
  • Mycroft complains that their parents want to watch Oklahoma (or possibly visit there) and not join Sherlock for an intervention.
  • “It won’t be the first time your habit has interfered with their line dancing.” The parents and the drugs have both been introduced in previous episodes.
  • The Christmas celebration nods back to the one of “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Both times, Mycroft shows a loathing for the holiday.
  • “You were gone. I saw an opportunity,” Sherlock says of moving John’s chair. Both Sherlock and various criminals say this line or a similar one in the stories.
  • Later, Sherlock moves the chair back, possibly hinting that John is welcome to leave his wife and move back in. In the time between Sherlock’s collapse and the Christmas party (it’s unclear how much time has elapsed), Watson may do just that.
  • Sherlock met Janine at the wedding of the previous episode. She mentions she knows him better than anyone, and indeed, he was being very much his true self at the reception.
  • Sherlock notes that John’s gained seven pounds.

“It’s actually four pounds”
“No, I think seven.”

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”
“Seven!” I answered.
“Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)

  • One of Watson’s pressure points is listed as the alcoholic sister (mentioned in several episodes), the other as his wife.
  • Sherlock’s porn preference is stated as “normal” (that seems uncharacteristic). His finances are “unknown” – this is constant with the stories. Though he appears to be an impoverished near-student in need of a roommate for a small three-room apartment in “A Study in Scarlet,” he uses bribery constantly as a tool and takes cabs throughout London. In fact, he shows very little instances of poverty outside of his introduction to Watson. After his fame increases, he mentions he’s become enormously well off and need never work again.
  • Sherlock’s pressure points appear a near-endless list – Irene Adler, Jim Moriarty, Redbeard, Hounds of the Baskerville, Opium, John Watson. Oddly, Mycroft is not listed – perhaps this villain only harms the most vulnerable.
  • Irene Adler does appear to be a pressure point for Sherlock, either because Magnussen knows she’s alive or because he knows Sherlock unwittingly helped her. Moriarty is less clear, unless he is in fact alive as well. Redbeard appears to be a dog and appears to be deceased, based on Mycroft’s previous remarks … could Redbeard be involved in some dark incident, like criminal charges or the mysterious story of the third Holmes sibling? Hounds of the Baskerville is also a puzzle – is this about Sherlock breaking in with government ID? Or keeping the project secret after the case? Or the far deeper secret that Sherlock fears losing his emotional distance more than anything? Sherlock has not been described as taking opium on the show, and in the books he assures Watson he’s not adding the drug to his other vices. This may be the drug he once used to take, and this episode also has a nod to the opium den case, “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” Watson as pressure point will become important by episode end.
  • Sherlock is visibly shaken at the reference to Redbeard. This story will probably emerge in series four.
  • Mycroft enlists Sherlock’s fan club to search for drugs, then threatens them with the British Secret Service … his political power is emphasized here. He appears to be in M.I.6. He does not have this role in the books, but has one like it in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Magnussen may reference the movie briefly when he refuses to offer Sherlock and John an expensive beverage. In the movie, Mycroft pours the two men a very expensive drink, as they so rarely visit. There’s also a very rare wine served in “His Last Bow” – Holmes and Watson share it after tying up their host.
  • Bill Wiggins goes from manager of a drug den to a homeless man who’s actually working for Holmes and calls himself Sherlock’s “protégé.” In the books, Wiggins is the head of the Baker Street Irregulars – a gang of street children, and Billy is Holmes’s pageboy. He may provide a new amusing character in the episodes to come.
  • In the story, Holmes says, “Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.” Sherlock uses many of these words when comparing the updated villain to a shark in a tank.
  • Mrs. Hudson gets the door for their client, something she does constantly in the books and rarely so far on the show.
  • In the short story, Sherlock shops for burglary tools; on the show, he shops for a diamond ring.

JOHN:  We should call the police!
SHERLOCK:  During our own burglary? You’re really not a natural at this, are you?

  • In the short story, instead, Holmes says, “I can see that you have a strong natural turn for this sort of thing.”
  • Sherlock recognizes clare de lune perfume (and misses crucial foreshadowing when John mentions that Mary wears it). His perfume knowledge appears earlier and is referenced in the books: “There are seventy-five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other, and cases have more than once within my own experience depended upon their prompt recognition,” he says in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
  • The white supremacist guard may be a nod to “The Five Orange Pips.”
  • The evil white lights seen in “The Hounds of Baskerville” appear in Sherlock’s mind palace as he goes into shock. He also thinks briefly of Irene Adler and is taunted by Moriarty. There’s a childhood scene with his dog, who appears to be a pleasant memory. Mycroft as his judge returns from the previous episode.
  • Janine gets rid of the beehives in her new cottage, nodding to Sherlock’s retirement hobby.
  •  Mary keeps her background on a drive labeled A.G.R.A. – in the book she meets John because she’s seeking the great Agra treasure. The treasure is lost forever, and thus John feels able to court Mary, who’s no longer an heiress. By burning the A.G.R.A. disk, without reading it, this John feels he can have her back.
  • Sherlock tells John not to bring a gun on a dangerous adventure, then to bring a gun to his parents’ Christmas party. Bringing the gun is Watson’s job in the books.
  • John notes, “Try finding Sherlock in London.” In the books, he has boltholes and hiding places, with an amazing talent for disguises and friends in high and low places.
  • Their mother mentions if she finds the man who “put a bullet” in her boy, she’ll turn “absolutely monstrous.” She’s written the book The Dynamics of Combustion, which suggests explosives. Mr. Holmes mentions her genius directly after this, but Sherlock and Mycroft clearly get more than brains from the woman, who has a well-developed dark side. In the book series, Sherlock will eventually become an author as well.
  • Sherlock relies on Mary being clever. He’s done this with Irene and Moriarty on the show, and with several characters in the books.
  • There are flashbacks to Mary’s cleverness in the previous two episodes, as well as Magnussen’s bonfire trick.
  • “Sorry, I never could resist a touch of drama,” Sherlock tells Mary after posting her face on the side of a building. “My old friend here will tell you that I have an impish habit of practical joking. Also that I can never resist a dramatic situation,” he says in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.”
  • Sherlock stresses the abandoned buildings (seen in “The Empty House,” and appears to use the same strategy he uses in the short story, distracting his assailant with a bust of himself. In fact, the audience have been fooled, and John is the one hidden there.
  • In the books, Holmes burgles Milverton’s house and destroys his files. As he tells Watson, “Since it is morally justifiable I have only to consider the question of personal risk. Surely a gentleman should not lay much stress upon this when a lady is in most desperate need of his help?” This episode emphasizes Sherlock’s chivalry, as a “slayer of dragons” who loathes the bully who preys on the weak. In the original, he was prepared to brave jail for a titled lady who’s a near-stranger – How else then could he act this time with John, Mycroft, and a pregnant Mary is even worse danger?
  • Sherlock’s status as a high-functioning sociopath and the violence he’ll do when someone threatens his friends appear (remember the thugs who roughed up Mrs. Hudson).
  • In the previous episode, Sherlock made, as he calls it, “My first, and last, vow. Mary and John – whatever it takes, whatever happens, from now on, I swear I will always be there. Always.” In the episode, Sherlock is surprisingly kind to Mary, offering his help repeatedly. He makes sure John learns the truth, but counsels him to hear her out fairly, and points out John is less innocent than he had thought. Sherlock also appears to invite John over without telling him Mary’s coming to make them work out their problems. Sherlock appears to understand Mary – a brilliant, amoral person who nonetheless loves John and wants to protect him. As a final step in his vow, Sherlock actually chooses not to be there ever again…in return for saving Mary and John from the blackmailer.
  • “Give my love to Mary,” Sherlock says. “Tell her she’s safe now.” In his goodbye letter of “The Final Problem,” Sherlock writes, “My best to Mrs. Watson.”
  • In both stories, C.A.M. is convinced he’s foolproof and that no one will shoot him. He’s proven wrong.
  • JOHN: The Game is over. SHERLOCK: The game is never over, John. But there may be some new players now. This of course references their constant references to “the game is on.” Mary has the potential to be a fascinating player, as does this newer, harder John Watson.
  • Sherlock’s joke that he’s always wanted to tell John something echoes John’s words by Sherlock’s grave.
  • The spying in Eastern Europe Sherlock is to go on is straight from His Last Bow. Holmes notes in the story, “The Foreign Minister alone I could have withstood, but when the Premier also deigned to visit my humble roof – !” In the episode, the heads of the government send him off as well.
  • Mycroft actually references another brother, noting, “Look how the other one turned out.” The book Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by Baring-Gould creates a third brother, who became the family’s country squire. He’s named Sherrinford after one of Doyle’s rejected names for his hero. The film Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother (1975) is a farce about Siegerson, who blunders about and only thinks he’s a great detective. If there is a third brother, one presumes he will have a more serious story on Sherlock. It would be unsurprising to find he’s a criminal mastermind or died tragically.
  • Mycroft mentions a colleague who uses people as “blunt instruments” – this is M in Casino Royale.
  • Sherlock mentions he’s “William Sherlock Scott Holmes” if John needs a baby name. John says something similar in “A Scandal in Belgravia.” This may nod to Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch.
  • “William Sherlock Scott Holmes” is Sherlock’s name in the Wold Newton family, an experiment that connects fictional characters’ family trees. One of his descendants, for instance, is said to be Spock, on his human mother’s side. It’s also notable that the Holmes parents called their children “Mike” and “William” – only the boys create more complex identities.
  • Sherlock says he has a girl’s name. In fact, The Adventures of Shirley Holmes was a television show in Canada.
  • The line of the scary east wind, repeated several times, is from “His Last Bow,” a story that takes place on the eve of World War I: “There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” This metaphor of trouble from the east means the war, but the promise of a better time to follow is reassuring for fans of Sherlock’s world.
  • Sherlock’s becoming a murderer was actually foreshadowed in the first episode.
  • Targeting lasers brush over Sherlock, as they did at the end of the first series. This time, however, they belong to his brother.
  • The question over last season’s break was “How did Sherlock survive St. Bart’s.” This time it’s “How did Moriarty survive St. Bart’s.”
  • Of course, there’s no evidence Moriarty is alive – this hoax could be put on by any number of villains (like the yet unseen Moran) or allies – Sherlock, Mycroft, Irene, Mary, or Sherlock’s fan club could have perpetuated a hoax to keep Sherlock in the country. The timing seems significant.

Actor Allusions

Young Sherlock in “His Last Vow” is Moffat’s younger son Louis.

British Culture

The Danish criminal seems to be attacking England itself – not just its ministers, but also its manners and rules of decent behavior. “You’re so domesticated. All standing around and apologizing. Keeping your little heads down,” he mocks. Holmes has an answer to this in “His Last Bow” when he tells a German agent, “The Englishman is a patient creature, but at present his temper is a little inflamed, and it would be as well not to try him too far.” In this episode he has an answer as well, as he confronts the bully at last.

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