The producers have described this episode as the most “un-Sherlock” episode of Sherlock ever — but then, that’s not quite true. Why? Because this episode is about John and Sherlock. And that’s always been Sherlock at its best, and at its heart and core.
A three-writer effort, delivering at breakneck speed, skirting the farcical
Written by all three head writers — Steven Moffat, Steve Thompson, and Mark Gatiss — together, this episode delivers some of the funniest lines and scenes in all three series together. Yes, it skirts the farcical and the absurd. Yes, it’s very, very different from the usual more serious tone of solving cases and fighting crime. But it’s about one of the greatest relationships fiction has ever given us — and it does contain its fair share of mystery. And it’s Mycroft guiding him through the unravelling of it. Before I delve into the story of Sherlock, John, and Mary, this is my chance to say how much I’ve enjoyed the bond between the brothers this series. Sherlock calls him when he needs help, practically begging him to come to the reception — which Mycroft refuses, but still Sherlock defers to him in his mind when he’s panicking in the face of a puzzle he’s afraid he won’t be able to solve in time.
– Sherlock works ‘vatican cameos’ into his speech –
John, straightening his back: “Battle stations. Someone’s gonna die.”
Woven around Sherlock’s best man speech, there are flashbacks telling the story of the six months that have passed since The Empty Hearse and now. Sherlock, above all else, tells a tale of emotion, of how two friends were returned to each other and figured out what that means. In essence, this is Sherlock Holmes’ love letter to his best friend. After years of John telling Sherlock’s story, for one night, it’s the other way around. This is Sherlock Holmes being John Watson’s Boswell.
The tragedy of The Empty Hearse was that John got to see little of what we saw on Sherlock’s face. We saw Sherlock’s fear, we saw Sherlock’s nervousness, we saw Sherlock’s panic — but John didn’t. Initially, Sherlock hid his feelings from John to protect his friend — by the end of it, he’s hiding them to protect himself, because he truly believed that John wanted nothing more to do with him. But it’s not just that — Sherlock generally never believed himself to be best friend material. He knows he’s a dick, has always known — but John Watson has made him want to be better, has made him want to try to be ‘good.’ That’s what they’ve always said, be ‘good.’ (Like a child — that’s what he means when he tells John and Mary that they don’t need him around now that there’s a real baby on the way. They raised him, or, well John did, for most of the time. He was a child detective when he met John and, under his care, he grew up. Learnt some manners.) Sorry, where was I… right, at the end of The Empty Hearse. So, while Sherlock then knew that John does forgive him, he’d never thought John’s regard for him was so great, so significant, and so deep. He literally freezes. Sherlock Holmes, the man who would outlive God trying to have the last word, was speechless. He’s floored. He thought he was a habit that John just can’t kick — when, in fact, he’s so much more.
The tragedy of miscommunication
Meanwhile — the other tragedy — John was certain of only very little of Sherlock’s true regard for him, and the sincerity of his emotions. John doesn’t pretend to know Sherlock best, doesn’t pretend to know what’s going on in his head. So while, to Sherlock, it’s obvious, John has no idea how much he means to the great unfeeling beast. So now, in this speech, Sherlock tells him the truth, echoing, of all things, John’s words at his grave, the words that mean the most.
When Sherlock came back, he was desperate to be with John again, because he had to spend two years away from him, in hiding — and with each day, it became harder to pick up the phone. I believe Sherlock when he says that he tried, I think he’s got dozens of texts or emails still stored on one of his mobile phones. He didn’t tell John he was alive because he didn’t trust him — he didn’t tell him because he couldn’t afford to endanger him, and because telling John would always be the most difficult. And then, he was finally allowed to come back, after two years of hearing John’s voice only in his head, as if haunting him, the same way John’s been haunted by melodies played on the violin, and the memories of their time together — and perhaps they both sort of expected it would be exactly the same, but it isn’t. It can’t be. To quote John’s blog post right after The Empty Hearse aired:
So, yes. It’s all good. Better than good. It’s bloody brilliant. #sherlocklives means #johnwatsonlives.
Sherlock Holmes, the best man, is not the man we thought we knew
They’ve both changed, especially Sherlock. He’s not the same man we met in A Study in Pink, he’s not the same man who jumped off a roof in The Reichenbach Fall. He’s a man who spent two years living with the fact that he had a best friend, a person he missed so much it drove him nearly mad, and that those feelings would never stop no matter how hard he tried. And not only that: he was tortured. And yet, able to smile at the thought of coming home. John Watson’s changed Sherlock Holmes, and then the thought of him kept Sherlock alive while he was on the run, and now the time when he could just shut the world out is over. Mycroft may find other people as exciting as goldfish, but for Sherlock, his friends aren’t pets, or idiots to be ridiculed anymore. They’re his friends, his family, and they make his life a better one. Yes, he’s different, but that doesn’t isolate him the way it used to anymore. He doesn’t pretend to understand human nature — but he understands John Watson. That’s why he asked Mycroft if he was lonely, because he knows what it’s like to have had it and lost it. And now he’s got it back, and he’s never letting go. Sherlock Holmes isn’t the great unfeeling beast underneath that deerstalker anymore. He’s not entirely sure who he is anymore — but John can put him back together. And so he does.
John and Sherlock are back together, and they both have to figure out what that means. It’s not just the same — it’s better. They both have to come to terms with what it feels like, to be bonded so closely that you’re at your happiest and best when you’re with them, and know they’re with you. This series is almost an interlude in the show’s narrative, because it’s all about John and Sherlock renegotiating and deepening their friendship, it’s about how much they mean to each other. It’s about Sherlock winning back John’s unconditional trust, it’s about John realising that Sherlock being back for him means more and outweighs the hurt left by feeling abandoned and betrayed by the deception, because it happened not out of malice, but to keep him safe by protecting Sherlock’s secret. When it comes to Sherlock, John is the most vulnerable — if there had been one shred of suspicion that Sherlock Holmes was still alive, who would have paid the price? But now, they’re back, peas in a pod, and they feel… alive again. More alive than during the past two years, even more alive than ever before. There’s no doubts anymore, no walls between them like in Baskerville. There’s just them, and that which they are they are, to borrow from Tennyson.
Sherlock is telling the story now — and the hero of that story isn’t Sherlock Holmes. It’s John Watson.
The truth of the matter is — next to John Watson, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t consider himself the hero. To him, John Watson is the only one worthy of that title.
The point I’m trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend. Certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship. But as I am apparently your best friend, I can’t congratulate you on your choice of companion. (beat) Actually, now I can. Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss — so sorry again about that last one — so know this, today you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say, we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.
Do you notice how Sherlock echoes every single thing about love and friendship John has ever said to him, just like he did in Baskerville, when he tried to convince John that he considered him his friend by repeating the very first nice things John ever said to him? That’s because he’s learnt it all from John, because John is his guide and benchmark in being a human being, a good man, a man who loves his friends and is capable of telling them.
And so, this episode is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on the telly, and you know why? Because they know. We’ve always known how they feel about each other — but they didn’t, ’cause they never said it. Remember Ella prompting John after the Fall, trying to get him to say some of the things he’s always wanted to tell Sherlock and never got around to? These things aren’t unspoken anymore now. Two men, one allegedly incapable of feeling anything, and one who finds this sort of thing difficult; and that hug is all you need to know about how John Watson’s state of happiness in that moment. Only topped by the moment when Sherlock deduces that Mary is pregnant — who better to hear it from first, than from Sherlock? To know that he’s with the “two people I love and care about most in this world” in that second — he holds Mary to him and clutches Sherlock’s neck, because this is it. It’s perfect. The stag night, come to think of it, was bloody awful. And that’s why it was perfect, too.
“The game is… something.”
“Yeah, but, am I a pretty lady?”
“Could you whisper?”
It’s a love letter to Mary, too
And Sherlock’s speech is not just a love letter to John, it’s also one to Mary. Mary, who wanted Sherlock back in John’s life — and in her own. The dynamic between the three of them is easy, unguarded, and adorable. Sherlock, who’s always been at odds with John’s girlfriends because he knew none of them (except maybe Sarah) tolerated his influence on John’s life, adores Mary Watson, née Morstan, in his own, small way. She’s clever, cleverer than you lot. and she runs both of them because she knows what’s going on in their heads. It’s clear she loves them both with all her heart. She will not sit down while her husband and his best friend are saving a life together, and she’s the one who gets through to Sherlock to get him to solve it. It’s like they’re a triad — John and Sherlock together are already pretty spectacular, but with Mary, it truly clicks. She sees them both, and she knows where they get stuck.
“I’m not John, I can tell when you’re fibbing!”
Sherlock’s not jealous of Mary, doesn’t try to sabotage a thing — and not just because Mary has shown no indication of wanting to abandon him once they’re married. He wants John to be happy, and although it must hurt him so very badly to think that he’s losing John just after he’s finally got him back… he knows that Mary saved John when he couldn’t, and he adores her for it. Loving Mary is the most unselfish thing Sherlock Holmes has ever done. It’s a huge step, it’s a huge character development, this is the growth that this show has been building towards from the very first moment.
Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to consider this: a murderer who can walk through walls, a weapon that can vanish, but in all of this, there is only one element which can be said to be truly remarkable. […] There was one feature, and only one feature of interest in the whole of this baffling case, and quite frankly, it was the usual. John Watson. Who, while I was trying to solve a murder, instead saved a life. There are mysteries worth solving and stories worth telling — the best and the bravest man I know, and on top of that, he actually knows how to do stuff.
And now, there’s a baby on the way, and Sherlock pledges himself to that unborn child and its parents: he considers John the man who saved him. From death, from boredom, from himself. He holds Mary in the highest possible regard. His last vow is for them.
And that’s why I’m bloody well scared for Sunday.
What do you think? Was it the crowning moment of heartwarming you had hoped for? Did you love the love-fest?
Next: His Last Vow.