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Monday, 20 January 2014

Postscript to "His Last Vow": How things might have turned out.

Previously: Sherlock, "His Last Vow."

In my review of "His Last Vow," I talked about the way Sherlock never seems to suffer any consequences for his actions, and how the quality of the show suffers as a result. It's kind of a balancing act, because ultimately even I don't want Sherlock to face completely realistic consequences. Much of his appeal as a character is down to the fact that he says and does things that no normal person would ever dare to do, so the show wouldn't be the same if he was realistically bound by the legal system, or even by social niceties. But when your protagonist finds himself facing even less pushback than Hugh Laurie in House, MD (who regularly bullied his patients and forced his underlings to commit burglary), then you have a problem.
A couple of readers mentioned to me last week that technically, Sherlock was "punished" for Magnussen's murder, in that his assignment in Eastern Europe was implied to be a death sentence. But the fact is that this potential storyline is erased within minutes. Sherlock may accept Mycroft's legally ambiguous banishment, but it's immediately cut short. The narrative saves him from having to go through any kind of real personal difficulty, which effectively removes most of the power of Magnussen's inevitable demise. It could have been a classic story: Sherlock commits to killing Magnussen because he knows it's the only way to defeat him, but he also knows that by killing Magnussen, he has to make a sacrifice. Specifically, the sacrifice of his freedom and reputation, which he only just got back. The result of removing that sacrifice from the equation is that the act of killing Magnussen comes across as just another example of Sherlock's arrogance.
I've been thinking about the kind of storylines Sherlock could have included this season, if they'd decided to follow events through to their natural end. Obviously these aren't serious suggestions, because Sherlock is never going to disrupt its internal universe to this extent. Like most crime shows, the central characters can perform seemingly world-changing (or at least life-changing) feats, but reality somehow just seems to reset itself afterwards. The inner circle of Sherlock's personal relationships may develop and change as the series progresses, but the world around him basically stays the same, even when he takes on a case that could have a major influence on British politics.

The only major change we see is the gradual evolution of Sherlock's celebrity status, but we still don't see it affect him much in daily life. In fact, by the end of season 3 the celebrity situation has actually become pretty implausible, because he's portrayed as being headline-grabbing tabloid fodder... who is still perfectly able to go about his day-to-day business without any kind of trouble from paparazzi or crime reporters. His supposed fame only surfaces when the writers want to reference fandom, either through Sherlock fangirls or conspiracy theorists like Anderson. His return from the dead is instantly broadcast on BBC news as a breaking story, and yet no one recognises him when he's undercover at a drug den, or breaking into Magnussen's office (which is presumably full of journalists!) or wandering around central London in his trademark coat.

I understand the reasoning behind this. Having the world remain static around your characters means you can still comfortably write the same kind of storylines for multiple seasons, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. While I do think that it's lazy writing for Sherlock to avoid any kind of consequences after shooting someone in the head, it's understandable to want the general scenario of the show to remain within the viewers' comfort zone: ie, John and Sherlock solve crimes in London. However, just think of the possibilities if you really did allow Sherlock's actions to have realistic consequences!

The Empty Hearse
When watching this episode, I began to wonder what it would be like if Lord Moran's plan actually succeeded. Sure, John and Sherlock would have to survive somehow (maybe they were inconveniently arrested for jumping the turnstiles in the Underground?) but the Houses of Parliament would be blown up. Most of the British government would be wiped out in one fell swoop, and the country would suddenly be run by a handful of backbench MPs, local councillors, the House of Lords -- and Mycroft Holmes. Perhaps martial law would be declared. London would certainly be on lockdown. The entire world would change overnight, and all future Sherlock mysteries would take place in a dystopian future AU in which London was ruled by a police state of anti-terrorism paranoia and surveillance. (Well, even more than it is in real life, anyway.)

The Sign of Three
I already mentioned this in my episode review, but I found it HIGHLY unrealistic that no one was filming Sherlock's public meltdown at John and Mary's wedding. In reality, someone would probably have filmed it and put it on YouTube, thus bringing Sherlock to viral fame status and destroying his ability to go undercover without a seriously in-depth disguise. In keeping with the episode's comedic theme, this would be the point at which Sherlock becomes a public laughingstock as opposed to a mysterious cult figure.

His Last Vow
This is the big one. Sherlock shot a man in the head in front of multiple witnesses, so either he needs to face legal consequences or there needs to be a seriously good explanation for how Mycroft prevents this from happening.
  • Cover-up. This is presumably what will happen in canon, since Sherlock's only punishment was Mycroft unofficially shipping him off to Eastern Europe. I assume that Mycroft's footsoldiers are all bound by confidentiality laws and couldn't tell anyone about what they saw, but Magnussen's private guards and household staff are another matter entirely. How did Mycroft explain Magnussen's death, anyway? He's a very public figure, after all. And while many powerful people would almost certainly benefit from Magnussen's death, it would still be a major news story, even if they went the route of faking a plane crash or natural death.
  • Actual jail time. Sherlock killed a guy. He goes to court, explains the situation, and is sent to jail. He gets a lenient sentence because the judge was one of Magnussen's blackmail victims, but he's still gonna be incarcerated for a couple of years. In the meantime, John and Mary have cool adventures with Lestrade, and visit Sherlock regularly in jail so he can get to know the new baby. He assists in their investigations from behind bars, Hannibal-style, and reconstructs crime scenes inside his Mind Palace. They can even include a chase sequence where he "runs" alongside John, predicting where he's going to go while tracking down a criminal! Totally awesome. The season ends with him being release from jail, ready to start afresh in season 5. 
  • Dead man's switch. Sure, Magnussen could store all his blackmail information in his head, but for practical purposes it's stupid to think that he only relied on his Mind Palace. Particularly when keeping hard copies of his blackmail files is perfect insurance against, say, people trying to shoot him in the head. THIS IS BASIC BLACKMAIL SHIT, GUYS. Someone as clever and well-prepared as Magnussen should have kept a bunch of files on hand to be released via automated email, in the event that he was killed or kidnapped. Ideal opening scene for season four: Britain is in disarray after a vast amount of secret government files and shocking personal information about public figures was all simultaneously leaked online following Magnussen's death, like a tabloid scandal version of Wikileaks. Everything is utter chaos, and it's all Sherlock's fault for shooting first and asking questions later. Real, realistic consequences.
When reading an interview with Moffat & Gatiss the other day, I was surprised to discover that the dead man's switch issue does actually have an explanation -- just not within the actual episode. Basically, Magnussen was intended to be a classic supervillain who is brought low by his own hubris. Supposedly, Sherlock was able to kill him because he just didn't even consider the possibility of an assassination attempt. Now, I find this pretty difficult to swallow, considering how many enemies Magnussen must have had. But I might have been inclined to charitably accept it if there had been any significant hint of this character trait in the episode itself. In the Moffat/Gatiss interview, they discussed cutting a scene where Magnussen is swimming in his private pool and ignores John and Sherlock as being beneath his notice -- a scene that was meant to illustrate his aloof nature and lack of concern for other people.
I feel like you can kind of interpret this trait from the scenes where he pees in Sherlock's fireplace or flicks John's face, but those honestly feel more like he's bucking societal convention and acting like an asshole -- much like both Sherlock and Moriarty. This removal of a key character development scene is yet another thing I've noticed Moffat doing before with other characters. Most recently, he talked about deleting a few lines from the most recent Doctor Who Christmas special -- lines that would have explained Clara's tangled backstory and memory issues. But Moffat decided to remove this explanation on the grounds that viewers wouldn't really be "bothered" about it, which inevitably led to her character arc being even more confusing than before. I mean, I understand that not everything can make it into the final cut of an episode, but if you're going to engineer a seemingly undefeatable villain with one fatal, hidden flaw, then you do actually need to hint about what that flaw is. Otherwise, the explanation that he ~just didn't consider the possibility of someone trying to kill him~ kind of sounds like nonsense.

To me, the most serious potential consequence of "His Last Vow" is the dead man's switch. Things like Sherlock becoming a YouTube sensation are only going to happen as a momentary punchline, and he's most likely not going to spend any time in jail for his various crimes. But the fact remains that we never received an adequate in-universe explanation for Magnussen's lack of blackmail insurance against people trying to kill him. It requires us to believe that he had such a gigantic ego that he not only believed that he was undefeatable, but also that he was immortal. Which, in turn, requires us to believe that no one had ever attempted to kill him before. Except... didn't he have his own personal bodyguards, implying that he was very aware that he was in danger of physical attack at all times?

It's a problem. It's a serious problem. So until season four comes out, I'm electing to believe that as soon as Magnussen's death went public, all of his carefully-collected blackmail files began to leak to various news outlets, causing untold chaos among Britain's ruling classes. Sorry, Sherlock. Maybe you didn't win this one after all.

Previous Sherlock posts

3 comments:

  1. Particularly bizarre for Magnussen to consider nobody would try to kill him, as Mary just tried to kill him. That must have been something of a hint, surely?


    It literally doesn't make sense for Gatiss & Moffat to argue that Magnussen never even considered an assassination attempt, since they wrote an assassination attempt into the show prior to Sherlock killing him. Surely after that point at least, he would spend some time developing a failsafe for if he died?



    The more I think about His Last Vow, the less sense it makes.

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  2. Valentine Marvel20 January 2014 at 16:32

    "Actual jail time. Sherlock killed a guy. He goes to court, explains the situation, and is sent to jail. He gets a lenient sentence because the judge was one of Magnussen's blackmail victims, but he's still gonna be incarcerated for a couple of years. In the meantime, John and Mary have cool adventures with Lestrade, and visit Sherlock regularly in jail so he can get to know the new baby. He assists in their investigations from behind bars, Hannibal-style, and reconstructs crime scenes inside his Mind Palace. They can even include a chase sequence where he "runs" alongside John, predicting where he's going to go while tracking down a criminal! Totally awesome. The season ends with him being release from jail, ready to start afresh in season 5. "


    ...Oh my god. I didn't realize that I've been waiting my whole life for this exact plot to happen until just now.

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  3. So no more Teen Wolf stuff...? I found your reviews really funny

    ReplyDelete