Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sherlock: "His Last Vow"

"Thought I'd get a head start on the next two years of hibernation."
After watching the previous episode of this show I was in desperate need of relief from Moffat and Gatiss' smug-o-rama so I started rewatching the Granada Sherlock Holmes TV series which began in 1984 starring Jeremy Brett in the role of the Great Detective. It was astonishing how refreshing it was to watch proper adaptations of Holmes stories where the focus was genuinely on the mysteries and where the source material was reflected in dialogue and composition, not just the repurposing of vague references for the supposed titillation of Holmes anoraks like myself. These days Jeremy Brett is generally considered to be the definitive screen Holmes, at least as far as adaptations are concerned, and seeing his performance and those episodes really reinforced to me the difference between an adaptation of Holmes and a show that's just playing at being Holmes. This sense of unease with the current show was rather encapsulated in "His Last Vow", an episode the title of which is a pun upon the 1917 story "His Last Bow", set upon the eve of the First World War, but takes its plot almost entirely from 1904's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", a more conventional tale set in 1899. Why these two were thrown together I can't guess, but it does eventuate in a now predictable Moffat case of a meandering narrative far more obsessed with twists and trying to trick the audience than actually providing any kind of substantial detective case.
"And that's for 'The Idiot's Lantern'!"
Villain du jour is Charles Augustus "Magnussen", an evil media mogul who has blackmail material on everyone in Britain, apparently, and likes to urinate in fireplaces. I've already observed this series' fetish for the glory days of British imperialism which are exemplified in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing and evident in his political beliefs if one reads his correspondence, and it is compounded further here. Instead of a British Milverton whose entire career is blackmail, "Magnussen" is a European of evidently some manner of Scandinavian descent full of contempt for Britain and the British, considering them to be pliable, docile and weak. So poor old Britain is at the mercy of the evil Johnny Foreigner trying to compromise its secrets, and it's up to Sherlock Holmes to save the day. Magnussen is displayed as having powers of scrutiny over people evocative of something like the Terminator, scrawls of text manifesting across his vision. I was immediately exasperated with the apparent ridiculous cod-spy element - if I want to watch Inspector Gadget, I'll put on the DVD. But of course it's a big twist - Magnussen has no gadget glasses, nor does he possess a vault of compromising information. Rather, it's all in his head, and he trusts the public's capacity for believing anything they read in the papers to manufacture his proof for him. So are we honestly expected to believe that Magnussen, for all intents and purposes, sees text across his vision? At least with Holmes the words appear here and there where relevant to indicate to the viewer what he is noticing, not like some kind of computer readout. And of course this is an excuse for some tiresome Moffat cheekiness, as Magnussen's data-scroll reveals the subject's preference, among other things, for adult material. Of course he only performs this "scan" once upon a female character, indicating no preference, embellishing Moffat's insane gender perception. He seems to buy into some kind of Madonna dichotomy where women are either completely sexless or the reverse without being capable of a balanced portrayal of human sexuality.
A fitting label for whoever said that beanies look good on anyone.
Speaking of which, the other big revelation in this episode is that Mary Watson née Morstan is a former CIA killer whose name is taken from a deceased child and who has a dark past of covert deeds, all known to Magnussen. Watson is understandably exasperated, wondering if everyone he knows is a "psychopath." Much like in New Who, I don't think "psychopath" means what Moffat thinks it means. A "psychopath" is a person with a psychological disorder who is manipulative and has no capacity for empathy. Psychopaths are incapable of loving or even liking people, only seeing them as objects to use for their personal advantage. Mary cannot be a "psychopath" any more than Holmes can be a "high functioning sociopath", not only a scientifically meaningless term according to modern understandings of the concept but one not borne out by his own behaviour. Despite their own agreement, they are not "psychopaths" any more than Moffat's Doctor or River Song are. Holmes could not be Watson's friend, nor "Mary" his loving wife if they genuinely had those disorders. And of course we discover that Mary shoots Holmes in front of Magnussen to put Magnussen off the trail, and that in spite of uncertainty she genuinely loves Watson and that marrying him was not part of any kind of gambit, so the entire section of arguing that Watson has some kind of fetish for these sorts of personalities barely makes sense, at least not in the terms used in the episode. Holmes' constant self-reference as a "high functioning sociopath" just reeks of script-based branding as well, characters putting labels on themselves for the convenience of the writers.
Where every tumblr fangirl wants to be.
In the end there's no mystery or tension at all. Holmes sells Mycroft out to Magnussen in order to get the information he has on Mary, only to discover that everything is in Magnussen's head. Magnussen is going to attempt to make Holmes and Watson look like traitors and the cavalry arrives, Mark Gatiss barking orders from a helicopter as if he believes that his brother would have arbitrarily gone rogue. With no other choice to destroy the compromising information and spare Mary and Watson, Holmes kills Magnussen and is arrested. I honestly thought it was going to turn out that Mycroft was telling Holmes to move away from Magnussen so that they could kill the latter, but no, apparently this was a twist that didn't cross Moffat's mind, Mycroft arbitrarily becoming completely stupid at the end of the story for no obvious reason. Holmes' only hope of a reprieve is to go on a suicide mission to Eastern Europe, but before he can do so Moriarty hijacks the TV, Holmes' plane is turned around and, apparently, everything's back to business for the next series. What's the point? It's entirely manipulative, a big emotional farewell between Holmes and Watson set up just to be instantly subverted. This is, in my opinion, the worst kind of forced drama intended to trick the audience into ignoring the insubstantiality of the plot. It boggles my mind that after two years this was all they could come up with. How hard would it have been to just write a decent detective story?
"Tell me when to stop contracting my fingers."
There are, surprisingly, some decent nods to "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", including Holmes' fake proposal to gain access to him and the notion of Milverton getting murdered by his victim, although that isn't followed through with here. We also get a reference to "The Man with the Twisted Lip" when Watson discovers Holmes on a case in a drug den. On the other hand there's a bunch of random crap, like Mary's real initials being A.G.R.A., a reference to the Agra fort in India which is the location of some of the back story in "The Sign of the Four." Magnussen also I failed to find very interesting, being depicted as a typical enemy pervert who licks people and, as I've said, relieves himself beneath the mantle, as well as having a passion for classic 1982 arcade game Joust if the ostrich lancer statue in his house is anything to go by. Was "a better class of criminal" another reference to The Dark Knight? Molly slaps Sherlock repeatedly and we are reminded of how in Moffat's world, as we already knew, women have to resort to physical violence to make a point to men, because god forbid they're ever allowed to explain their frustrations or anything. No, they apparently just lash out. This is not egalitarian. It's condescending and crude. Holmes gets Mycroft in an arm lock for little reason, suggesting he's more like modern Mr Spock repressing his violent urges than operating on a different level. He also has an extended, utterly bizarre imaginary sequence much like last week where people he knows embody elements of his thought process and talk him through being shot, including a hallucinatory strait-jacketed Moriarty in a padded cell whose presence at this point totally undermines the surprise of seeing him at the end. Another Moffat cliché gets trotted out when imaginary Moriarty starts rhyming. The revelation of Mary's fake identity has no impact - oh, she was a spy, like every other character in this show - and nothing really happens for any particularly valid reason. Holmes' parents, a one off joke in an earlier episode, are now brought in as supporting cast, Moffat not understanding that less is more. For all Mary's secrecy, we hear more than enough to draw our own conclusions.
"No Steven, I won't play the Master opposite Capaldi."
Sherlock often gets described as "slick", which is really a nice way of saying "style over substance." There's so little to grasp in this episode, just a bunch of set pieces and jumps forward in time which apparently are what Moffat does when he's in a rush. I'm sick of all this crap with "mind palaces" and smug characters going on about how clever they are and then never really doing much at all besides stand around looking intense while dramatic music crashes in the background. I don't even know what I'm watching. Not only is this very far removed from anything really approaching Sherlock Holmes apart from a few character and place names and narrative devices, it's certainly not any kind of detective show anymore, more like an airport-bookstore thriller with loads of soap layered on. I'm hoping that Moriarty isn't really back but that he staged some kind of revenge act after his own death, because their interpretation is arse and Moriarty isn't meant to come back anyway, but who knows when a fourth series will even be made. As it stands I can't help but look at the third series of Sherlock as a terrific waste of time and money which has completely run its course. I don't care about the characters or the plots at all. Of course Holmes wasn't going to die on the operating table. Of course he wasn't going to fly off to his death in (scare quotes) "Eastern Europe" - one of those nasty uncivilised parts of the world where bad people live, apparently - and of course, I suppose, Moriarty wouldn't be gone forever. This is a show that cares more about titillation than earning its dramatic points. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the episodes of series four is eighty minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman yelling at each other in a room followed by ten minutes of Holmes running up and down a corridor yelling things like "mind palace" and discovering that in the end poor old Britain actually is safe from all the evil foreign people who hate the Western way of life, interrupted briefly by Mark Gatiss slinking in, drawling and sneering while Moriarty takes up flashing old ladies as his latest dastardly scheme. Yeah, I didn't like "His Last Vow" much but pardon me if I'd prefer if Sherlock Holmes of all people actually solved crimes more than once per series.

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