Sherlock has always been a show that functions on controlled chaos, but the ninth episode of the series, and the finale of season three, managed to dispense with the “controlled” part. I think.
Let me start with this premise, which I think is pretty basic: A central component of what makes Sherlock so satisfying is the way the eponymous sleuth (Benedict Cumberbatch, it should go without saying) plays rope-a-dope with his adversaries, yet always emerges victorious through some sleight-of-mind that only becomes obvious to mere mortals like John Watson (a stand-in for the clueless viewer) in the moment of triumph. There’s always a point where it feels like Sherlock will lose, and he always wins by virtue of superior brain power. It’s a formula, and it really, really works.
A formula that doesn’t work, on the other hand, is the one by which Sherlock gets outsmarted, and then still manages to win by doing something rash like, say, shooting a man. This particular outcome, which happened near the end of last night’s “His Last Vow,” felt a little dissatisfying. It demoted the usual Sherlock coup de grace from the cerebral realm and transformed it into something physical and impulsive.
However, you might have noticed that I used the words “I think” in that opening paragraph. As we’ve seen, creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are not above season-ending cliffhangers of the kind that hang frustratingly for months and years. And there are certain clues that precede the final confrontation; most notably, Sherlock asking John Watson if he remembered to bring his gun, which hints that he always intended to commit murder in the climactic scene. So there’s almost certainly more here than meets the eye, and before I fly off further into speculation, I suppose there’s some plot ’splainin’ to be done.
“His Final Vow” begins with Watson (Martin Freeman … again, did I really have to do that?) accidentally discovering Sherlock in an abandoned building that functions as a heroin den for a group of rail-thin addicts. He claims to be fostering an addiction in service of a case, and when his brother Mycroft confronts him, Sherlock admits he’s been hired by a higher-up in the government to negotiate with a newspaper magnate named Charles August Magnussen, played by the extremely creepy Lars Mikkelsen. Magnussen is a hoarder of information—the kind of man who knows the pressure point of everyone important in the western world, and who uses that knowledge to accumulate power. He also happens to be a sadist who enjoys licking people’s faces and flicking their eyeballs to prove his dominance. All in all, not a great guy.
The rest of the plot in this episode, more than any other in Sherlock’s history, becomes very scattered. With John’s help, Sherlock attempts to steal back some crucial documents from Magnussen, but there he meets Mary, who is about to murder the man herself. She shoots Sherlock instead, but then calls an ambulance for him, effectively saving his life after she’s nearly taken it. After he recovers, at least somewhat, Sherlock exposes Mary to John (she used to be a CIA agent, and he unconsciously picks strange people to be in his life because he craves danger, and Magnussen had something hanging over her head), and they all turn their attention to the skeevy villain. The confused narrative culminates on Christmas day, when Sherlock offers to betray Mycroft to get a look at Magnussen’s vaults of information, which don’t exist because apparently Magnussen commits everything to a memory palace that he can access at will. Worse, he foils Sherlock’s plan to frame him with Mycroft’s laptop (which includes a GPS), and then begins flicking John’s face for sport. When Mycroft and his cavalry arrive, Sherlock kills Magnussen with John’s pistol (which, remember, he made sure was on John’s person before they left).
Oh, but there’s so much more. We also learn that Sherlock dated Janine, Mary’s maid of honor, to gain access to Magnussen (she was Mary’s friend in the first place for the same reason), even proposing to her via security camera so she’ll let him in the man’s private elevator. (Also, if you’re curious, they never had sex. Does Sherlock have sex? Will we ever know?) Then there’s the revelation that Mrs. Hudson used to be an exotic dancer, and that presumably some the clips are on YouTube. And late in the action, Mycroft proves willing to send his brother to near-certain death in Eastern Europe after he murders Magnussen, but then rescinds the death sentence when Moriarty (yup!) shows up at the end of the episode.
I could go on. The point is, I feel like I’ve watched several 15-minute dramas rather than one 90-minute episode of television. In all, this felt a little frustrating, though it’s not like I can sit here and say I wasn’t entertained in each moment. But the two options that remain—either the resolution was poor, or there was no real resolution at all because Sherlock (and possibly Mycroft) have some master plan working beneath all the surface plot turns—are equally annoying. I don’t want to live in a world where Sherlock gets stumped by some power-hungry fetishist and only wins when he gets so mad that he blows his brains out, but I also don’t want to live in a world where WE HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 2016 TO SEE WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED.
And look, Sherlock is just too smart to settle for the former. Which means those of us who are kinda dying for the truth are in for a long wait.
Fair’s fair, though, and even in its most cluttered episode, Sherlock still delivered its usual gems. Cumberbatch’s sociopathic energy, for one, continues to be a delight; when John learns to his horror that Sherlock is taking advantage of Janine, and exclaims, “she loves you!”, Sherlock’s response is priceless: “Like I said, human error.” The Sherlock-Mycroft dynamic between Cumberbatch and Gatiss remains one of the show’s treasures, and there’s a wonderful little frantic vignette where Sherlock’s friends and enemies unite in his brain to help him survive after getting shot.
In the end, though, this episode was too emotionally stunted and narratively discordant to make much of an impact. It doesn’t matter if, as I believe, Magnusse’s “memory palace” is nonsense and he keeps his information files in his contact lenses, or if he actually bested Sherlock and got his brains blown out for his efforts. It’s cruel and unusual to leave us without resolution for two more years, but even that can be forgiven, if you just give me a second to cool down. The real problem is that in the rush to create trap doors and shoehorn endless new surprises into the story, Sherlock ever-so-briefly lost the thread of its genius. We love the chaos, but finally, we need the control.