"His Last Vow," a revelatory, twist-laden episode about loyalty and the power of information, concludes series three of BBC's "Sherlock."
The most tightly plotted entry this season, "Vow" makes every second count. For anyone who thought the last two episodes were sloppy and self-indulgent, this one has a structure that reveals character and story simultaneously without a dull or unnecessary moment. Any scene here that feels aimless upon first viewing, or seems to be just playing for laughs, is part of a forward momentum ending in an irrevocable act of moral certainty that will challenge the writers to stay true to the characters and the world they've established.
So "Vow" is something of a new beginning - appropriate, as this entire season has been about moving on from the past and looking ahead. Not helping the cause is villain Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), who thrives on dirty secrets from the past for leverage.
Pictured is new “Sherlock”?villain Charles Augustus Magnussen, center, with John Watson at left and Sherlock Holmes at right. Magnussen is portrayed by Lars Mikkelsen.
A slimy and imposing newspaper mogul with a dead-eye stare, Magnussen possesses damaging information about everyone he comes into contact with. He's so powerful that not even the British government can touch him and so unscrupulous that Sherlock fears him more than any other murderer or psychopath he's dealt with.
As a villain whose weapon is knowledge itself, Magnussen provides not so much a puzzle for Sherlock to solve, or a catastrophe for him to avert, but a chiefly moral dilemma. No literal lives are at stake, as Magnussen is a business man. He'd rather destroy someone's reputation for power than kill them.
When he threatens to expose the secrets of Mary's past and destroy John's world, it is out of deliberate malice, unlike the manic joy of Moriarty's evil. Though he's not as fun to watch as Moriarty, Magnussen has a repulsive charisma that makes him a worthy Sherlock Holmes adversary.
In one scene, to prove his power, he urinates in the fireplace at Sherlock's flat while Sherlock and John stand helpless. In another, he licks the face of a powerful government figure whom he threatens to blackmail.
His complete disregard for human beings and their messy private lives is the perfect counterpoint to the Sherlock of this season, who has been humanized to a degree that it now defines the dynamic of the show's drama.
At one point in "Vow," Sherlock, in shock after a bullet to the stomach, navigates the darkest depths of his mind palace to find the will to live. The sequence, surreal and dizzying, turns frightful when he finds none other than Moriarty, straitjacketed in a padded cell, there to remind Sherlock of who he is and whom he cares for, a service all great villains provide to the hero of the story.
The moment informs Sherlock's sacrificial act in the episode's final moments, subverting the conclusion of series two, but reaching a similar dramatic outcome, almost to the point that it feels like the writers are retreading old emotional territory.
Except this time the circumstances are different. The characters have grown and Sherlock's sacrifice is as much a surprise to him as it is to us, in an episode about people finding out who they are, and what they mean to others.