Canonical References in “His Last Vow”

Watching Sherlock is often like a scavenger hunt. It’s written by people who are intimately familiar with the Holmes Canon (though I question some of their interpretations of it, such as their opinions on Irene Adler, but that’s a different story), and always manage to add deft little hints and subtle references to the canonical stories in addition to the more glaring references.  Watching for them is always an extra layer of enjoyment to the already enjoyable episodes. And, though I suspect that I’m neither the first nor the last person who’s made this kind of post, I thought I’d make a list of (and short commentary on) what I found to be the most interesting nods to the canon in “His Last Vow”.

Charles Augustus Magnussen

This is the fairly obvious reference, but let’s delve into it a little more.

One of the most interesting stories in the Canon is “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” It’s frequently cited as a favorite, and with good reason. It’s a fascinating story in which Watson and Holmes take the law and justice into their own hands: recognizing that blackmailer Milverton cannot be taken down by traditional means, they resolve to break into his home with the intention of stealing back incriminating documents to preserve a lady’s honor. Breaking and entering isn’t all they do, though; they take the law into their hands even further when they end up finding Milverton, a gun being held to his head by a lady he blackmailed (a scene easily recognizable in “His Last Vow” as the scene with Mary Morstan in Magnussen’s office). Instead of intervening, Holmes and Watson watch calmly as he shoots him point-blank, deciding that his death (and her honor) are for the greater good.

The story raises a lot of fascinating questions about the role Sherlock Holmes plays in finding justice. Does he simply seek knowledge and the truth, or is it his duty, in solving cases, to serve justice rather than truth? It’s a thorny problem that becomes most apparent here, and Sherlockians love to debate the morality involved. It’s a problem that also seems to come up in “His Last Vow,” though less glaringly – Holmes clearly shot Magnussen to protect John, Mary, his brother, and the country at large, and yet he committed a murder. (If you’re looking for shades of grey, you’ve found them. Go forth and discuss!)

What’s most fascinating, though, is that the above makes Milverton one of the scariest, deadliest villains in the canon. He even outclasses Moriarty, because Moriarty was a plot device invented by Doyle to kill off Holmes. Moriarty doesn’t really have a personality in the Canon, and it’s only in show that he acquires one, thanks to Moffat, Gatiss, and co. Milverton, however, holds the entirety of British society in the palms of his hands, and he has no qualms about it – to the point where Holmes must take the law into his hands.

So when Sherlock Holmes says “I’ve dealt with murderers…psychopaths….none of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen,” he’s pretty exactly right. Milverton/Magnussen is about as terrifying as Moriarty, if not more. In the canon, Holmes compares him to the devil himself, and I think it’s actual canonical reference, rather than television melodrama, that makes Sherlock describe Magussen in such terrifying terms. He was one scary villain.

Sherlock’s Engagement to Janine

If you thought that was what one might call a “dick move,” you are correct. Sherlock Holmes pretended to date, and then proposed, to Janine for the sake of getting information and breaking into Magnussen’s office. It’s really, really not a nice thing to do.

It’s also completely canonical; in fact, it’s a rather funny scene from the aforementioned Charles Augustus Milverton story:

“You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?”
“No, indeed!”
“You’ll be interested to hear that I’m engaged.”
“My dear fellow! I congrat-“
“To Milverton’s housemaid.”
“Good heavens, Holmes!”
“I wanted information, Watson.”

While the scene itself is quite amusing, one cannot help but pity the poor housemaid, who is not heard from again in the story. Thankfully, in this particular adaptation, Janine is more than a match for Sherlock, and takes her revenge without being too evil about it. Still, Sherlock Holmes has a canonical reputation for being a very unpleasant person when he needs to solve a case or get information, a point clearly made here. Nevertheless, Sherlock also has a capacity to care very deeply about John Watson, despite his not-so-gentlemanly behavior to Janine- another point the episode clearly makes.

Cottage on the Sussex Downs

“I’m buying a cottage,” Janine informs Sherlock as soon as he wakes up from being shot. After a back-and-forth full of quips and insults, Sherlock inquires “where’s the cottage?”

“Sussex Downs. It’s gorgeous. There’s beehives, but I’m getting rid of those.”

It’s an off-hand reference that’s easy to miss, but it’s actually quite clever. In the canon, Sherlock Holmes retires (a rather sad ending for the great detective. I’d have preferred for him to go out with a bang, but that’s me) to the Sussex Downs, where he spends his time keeping bees. Now, I’m now quite sure why this reference came up in this particular context, and it remains to be seen whether this cottage or Janine will show up again, but even if it’s an off-hand reference that will never be returned to again, it’s an interesting one.

Mary’s Initials

When Mary Morstan hands a flash drive with her “real” (well, that’s questionable but let’s assume they’re real) initials on it, they say A.G.R.A. We don’t find out what they stand for (much as we don’t find out very much about Mary at all), but the initials themselves are a reference, once again, to canon. A simple one this time: “The Great Agra Treasure” is a chapter from The Sign of Four, the Holmes novel in which Mary Morstan is introduced (and in which Watson falls in love with and marries her).

The Empty House

“The Adventure of the Empty House” is the story in which Sherlock Holmes returns from the dead. He dresses up as a bookseller, Watson doesn’t recognize him, he shows up at Watson’s place, Watson faints, and then it’s all good…they team up again, and go after Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right-hand man. They lure him out by putting a silhouette of Holmes in the window of 221b, knowing that sharpshooter Moran would be looking for an opportunity to kill Holmes, and observe the events from an empty house across the street from 221b.

If you’re reading that and raising your eyebrows, you’re correct, because almost none of that showed up in any way in the previous two episodes. There was no empty house, and, even more suspiciously, no Moran. Thankfully, said empty house finally shows up in the episode, in  the form of a façade hiding train tracks (a clever adaptation, I thought). Inside that empty house is a silhouette that looks like Sherlock Holmes, but actually isn’t; this time, it’s meant to lure out Mary Morstan.

Given these similarities to “The Empty House,” though, there’s one thing missing: Moran. Canonically, we know he’s a sharpshooter, and quite deadly – rather like Mary, who manages to toss a coin into the air and shoot it accurately. Coincidence? I think not. My personal theory is that Mary Morstan is indeed Sebastian Moran, but that, like so much other theorizing, is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, this episode finally touches on many of the canonical aspects of Sherlock’s return, and I’m glad of it.

Sherlock’s (lack of a) drug habit

Edit: it’s been brought to my attention that many viewers consider that Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, back to doing drugs in this episode. I must, respectfully, disagree – my interpretation of the episode is precisely that Sherlock Holmes has not returned to his habit, a fact I find significant, and which – given the conflicting interpretations – I think it may be interesting to delve into.

Early on in the episode, we find Sherlock Holmes in a den of druggies, presumably high, though he insists that he’s working on a case. John and Mycroft are both angry but unsurprised- after all, Sherlock’s drug habit is canonical:  in the second Holmes novel, he calmly injects himself with a “seven percent solution” of cocaine while Watson off-handedly asks “what is it today, cocaine or morphine?” That drug habit is something Sherlock also references, most notably with the drugs bust and “three patch problem” of A Study in Pink.

However, there are a few aspects that make me think Sherlock Holmes is not on drugs. There’s the fact that they can’t find any in his apartment (for the big secret he’s hiding in his bedroom is Janine). Most importantly, though, Sherlock has a canonical tendency to do drugs when he’s bored because there’s no case. It’s something Sherlock himself admits to in this very episode: he solves cases “as an alternative to getting high.” Now, in this case, he is on a case. He’s after Magnussen – making it, to me, unlikely he’d be doing much more than smoking a cigarette. Plus, the whole idea was to make project the image of a druggie in order to make Magnussen underestimate him – hence, actually being high and impeding his ability to think seems pretty counterproductive. Of course, there’s also the scene with Molly, which to me seems a little ambiguous – I can’t quite make out the tone in which she says “clean.” Admittedly, she’s angry and slaps him -but Molly also has a history of being in on a lot of Sherlock’s elaborate schemes, and I find it more than plausible that she wanted everyone to believe Sherlock was on drugs (John included, because apparently John can’t be trusted with…well, anything).

Why do I think that’s interesting? Because, canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ drug habit disappears during the Great Hiatus. When Watson first meets Holmes in the canon, Holmes is doing drugs left and right (this was legal back in the Victorian period). It takes Watson a while to catch on, and he sort of informs Holmes off-handedly how harmful it is, but doesn’t really worry about it too much. Then Holmes “dies,” disappears for three years, and comes back completely clean. His drug habit is never mentioned again. It’s just …not there. It’s easy to write that off to Doyle’s absentmindedness, but fans have come up with a number of much more plausible and interesting theories. One of them, detailed in the pastiche “The Seven-Percent Solution,” suggests that Holmes sought help for his drug problem from Freud. Whatever the explanation may be, however, the point remains that Sherlock Holmes’ very famous drug addiction completely (and rather unbelievably) disappears during his “death.” To me, the reference here is that everyone seems to expect Sherlock to be continuing his drug habit – the people closest to him included. But if you look closely (to me, at least) – that drug habit is gone. Sherlock’s different.

The East Wind

In John and Sherlock’s final scene, Sherlock tells John “the east wind takes us all in the end.” It’s a phrase he mentioned earlier in the episode, and he explains that it’s from a story Mycroft used to tell him:

 “The east wind…this terrifying force that lays waste to all in its path…seeks out the unworthy and plucks them from the Earth.”

This sounds like it comes out of nowhere, but, like so many other things in this episode, it’s yet another canonical reference – this time to “His Last Bow,” the story whose title was transformed into the title of this episode. The story in itself is rather lackluster, but it does feature Sherlock Holmes as an undercover agent among the Germans during World War I, and the general theme of the story is that a new age is coming, a new world. Sherlock Holmes is ready to step into that world, to accept the changes that are coming (and WWI was truly a turning point in European history – a war of a magnitude and a brutality unseen before on European soil).

At the end of the story, Holmes asks Watson, “stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” (Quite reminiscent of Sherlock’s statement at the end of this episode that it’s likely the first time he’ll ever see John). In the canonical story, Holmes calls Watson “the one fixed point in a changing age,” before poetically going on about the future:

“There’ s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.”

There’s a number of literary explanations to be derived from this reference that are beyond the scope of this post – after all, I’m not here to theorize about what’ll be happening in season four (at least, not yet. That’s to come). Nevertheless, I think it’s telling. We’ve seen so many changes happen over the past few seasons, including changes to the character of Sherlock himself, and I think we’ll see even more transformations coming. (Incidentally, that’s why I don’t believe Moriarty is actually back, despite what the cliffhanger says. I think what’s coming is some kind of change that we couldn’t even begin to predict, to the story and the characters).

There’s likely a number of other interesting references here and there throughout the episode, but these are both the ones that come to mind and the ones that I find most interesting from a literary point of view.


Posted on January 13, 2014, in BBC Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I was delighted with the flood of canonical references throughout this episode and it’s nice to recall them by going through your article. There are two things however I’m not agreeing with:
    1.) Why do you think that Sherlock was clean ? Molly did test him and it obviously was a positive result. She slaps him again and again, asking him how he could throw away the beautiful gifts he was born with.
    2.) As much as I like the theory of Mary Morstan being Moran, we got “Lord Moran” in the first episode “The Empty Hearse”. He was responsible for the attempted bombing of the Parliament.
    And finally, as much as I loved Andrew Scott as Moriarty, I cannot picture a scenario either, that would justify to bring him back.
    So I guess we just have to wait and see.
    Cheers, Jen

    • Hi Jen,
      Thanks for commenting. In response to your comments –

      1. Having rewatched that scene, I’m a little stumped, but at the same time, still inclined to think that Sherlock was clean. He clearly wants his “drug habit” to hit the news in order to lure out Magnussen, to think that he’s drugged up and not on top of his game to lull Magnussen into a false sense of security. Given that he’s on a case, I think it’d be likely he wouldn’t actually be on drugs, just pretended to, so that he could, you know, stay clear-headed. Also, canonically, Sherlock Holmes smokes to help himself think but only does the hard drugs (cocaine) when he’s bored; in the show, too, we seem him with nicotine patches when he needs to think, but I think the implication is that he only goes for the harder drugs when he doesn’t have a case. He has a case with Magnussen, so I don’t think he’d really need the distraction of drugs.

      I honestly think that perhaps Molly was in on the whole thing – after all, she seems to be in on quite a lot of what Sherlock’s up to lately, and shows up quite a bit in his mind palace –
      – and was perhaps putting on a show, so that everyone, John and co included, could believe in Sherlock’s drug habit, just like Magnussen? I honestly think that John spends this entire episode underestimating Sherlock anyway, so…

      2. I seem to remember a “Lord Moran” from the first episode, but I also don’t really buy it. I honestly don’t think Moffat and Gatiss would throw away one of the most interesting villains of the canon on a sub-par plot like that and barely have him even show up on-screen. I think perhaps the “Moran” we got in the first episode was a false lead of some sort (and goodness knows this show has its fair share of false identities). Also, someone pointed out to me recently that canonically Sebastian Moran’s father was a minister or politician of some sort. There is also the fact that the two of us seem to agree that Moriarty isn’t back, and the most likely candidate to pull off the whole “Moriarty’s back” scheme we saw at the very end is Moran.

      So, those are my two cents. I guess the whole Sherlock and drugs thing is a bit of a current point of contention in the fandom, and I suppose there’s ways to interpret it either way.

  1. Pingback: My Sherlockian Writing Round-Up | Monitoring The Media

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