Monday, September 21, 2015

Sherlock: “His Last Vow” (Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, Masterpiece Theatre/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s program was an episode of Sherlock, the sometimes interesting, sometimes overwrought British TV update of the Sherlock Holmes stories with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes (the role that made him a star) and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson — oddly referred to through most of the shows by his first name, “John,” even though in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes never called him anything other than “Watson.” The appeal of Sherlock lies mainly in Cumberbatch’s performance (even though writers Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss made him considerably more antisocial than Conan Doyle did, to the point of having Holmes refer to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” with Asperger’s syndrome, and as I’ve often paraphrased the opening of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” to me Basil Rathbone will always be the Sherlock Holmes) and the creative rescensions Moffatt and Gatiss have done with the canon, mixing, matching, slicing and dicing the Conan Doyle originals in sometimes intriguing and sometimes exasperating ways. The current episode, “His Last Vow” (dedicated Holmes fans will recognize the title as a riff on Conan Doyle’s “His Last Bow,” in which Holmes supposedly retires to keep bees on a farm in Sussex but really goes undercover to infiltrate a German espionage ring during the run-up to World War I), draws on that story as well as “The Case of Charles Augustus Milverton,” and the opening scene was so creative and audacious I thought we were in for a quite exciting and beautiful episode.

Charles Augustus Milverton becomes Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), not just a blackmailer but a worldwide media mogul obviously patterned on Rupert Murdoch, who in the opening scene is being grilled by an investigating committee of Parliament over his use of his newspapers to destroy public figures whenever he wants. Needless to say, Magnussen is almost literally above the law — even Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft (played by series co-creator Mark Gatiss as a tall, thin, balding super-bureaucrat — I’d always imagined him from the stories as large and corpulent, and if he’d been included in one of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies I would have expected Robert Morley to have played him; as I’ve joked to Charles before, the Nero Wolfe stories are what the Holmes stories would have been if Conan Doyle had made Mycroft Holmes his central character) pleads with Sherlock to leave Magnussen alone because he’s so important to the national security of Great Britain that if a few innocent (or not-so-innocent but basically decent) people have their lives ruined by Magnussen’s tabloids, so what, that’s just collateral damage, the system must go on. Had Moffatt and Gatiss been willing to stop there, they could have created a quite chilling drama that would have fulfilled their series’ overall purpose of bringing the Holmes character into the 21st century while still remaining true to the values of Conan Doyle. They could also have made some interesting comments on the global power of the 0.001 percent, especially someone like Murdoch for whom everything, including his nationality (remember that he renounced his Australian citizenship and became a U.S. citizen so he could buy TV stations in this country, a privilege then still reserved for American citizens), becomes a tool to build his empire, fatten its profits and increase its influence. (In his original notes on Citizen Kane Orson Welles wrote that, with only rare exceptions, a man who has already made all the money he could ever need or want generally uses that money to acquire power; Citizen Murdoch has thoroughly proven that point over and over again.)

Alas, Moffatt and Gatiss couldn’t or wouldn’t stop there; instead they drag Sherlock Holmes into a drug den and have him arrested (and there’s a deliciously humiliating scene in which he has to pee in a cup for his drug test; he’s clean, but he was hanging out in a drug den to give Magnussen and his agents the appearance of something against him they could use), and they have young, innocent Mary Morstan from Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (the only Holmes story in which Conan Doyle referenced Holmes’ drug use) turn out to be a hired killer for the CIA, who in a preposterous scene remixed (badly) from the burglary Holmes and Watson commit at the end of “Charles Augustus Milverton,” comes into Magnussen’s office with a silencer-equipped gun, posing as Magnussen’s latest blackmail victim Lady Smallwood, and shoots Holmes but aims precisely so she merely incapacitates him and doesn’t kill him. There are a few leaden flashbacks to Holmes’ childhood — as well as a ponderous family-reunion sequence later in the show — in both of which Holmes’ parents are played by Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents. There’s also a preposterous scene in which Mary tells Holmes that if he wants to survive her shooting him, he has to fall on his back, which will expel the bullet or something (I was losing track around this time). At the end Mycroft offers Sherlock a six-month undercover assignment in Eastern Europe; Sherlock shoots Magnussen dead and then takes the job even though Mycroft has warned him it will almost certainly result in his death — but then he’s now a murderer and would end up in prison anyway (the U.K., being a civilized country, has long since abolished the death penalty). All this is obviously setting up Season Four (which has already been shown in Britain — we get Sherlock a year later than the home country does) of a series which, in the words of a Monty Python sketch, used to be great but now has just got silly.