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This whole post is pretty much one giant spoiler for the tail end of “His Last Vow” and everything leading up to it. If you haven’t seen it and are avoiding spoilers, you should probably stop reading now.

Still with me? You’re sure you don’t want to stay spoiler-free? Good.

Setting aside certain not-dead-after-all (perhaps) consulting criminals, the very last scene in “His Last Vow” gives us Sherlock, John, and Mary saying goodbye at an airstrip. Sherlock has shot an unarmed Charles Augustus Magnussen in front of dozens of MI6 types. The audience expects him to go to jail. I’m sure Sherlock expects a life sentence somewhere thoroughly boring; his last words to John outside Magnussen’s house certainly gives that impression. Instead, he’s being sent on what Sherlock and the audience knows is a suicide mission in eastern Europe. John doesn’t know that aspect of things, but Shelrock does tell him, quite plainly, that this will be the last time they’ll ever meet. The game, in Sherlock’s words, is over.

It should be a gut-wrenching scene on par with John’s eulogy at the end of “Reichenbach.” But it isn’t, at least on first glance. I’ve seen lots of fans of the show get quite frustrated, because to them it simply doesn’t seem like John cares about Sherlock any more. This is the man who he bawled for two years over losing, who just sacrificed himself again for John’s future, and he’s… discussing baby names? Really?

Hold on to that fantasy, if you can. When the truth (or what I think is true) hit me, the only thing keeping me from screaming was that I was in public. I’m not exaggerating on that none.


sherlock-graveSometime between the second and third season, the Tumblr user bennylegs made what struck me as a fascinating observation. If you remember, at the end of John’s eulogy for Sherlock, how John gives a curt nod and a half-turn away from Sherlock’s grave: that’s how a lower-ranking officer would leave when dismissed by his commanding officer. At that point, John thinks of himself as a lieutenant in Sherlock’s army and, while he’s clearly torn up, he pulls himself together and soldiers on just like he almost certainly did in Afghanistan. This time, though, Sherlock tells him before leaving that the game –their game– is over. John is no longer a soldier on a new battlefield. Sherlock’s going to fight a different war, but this time it’s one John Watson can’t fight him in.

And once again, he responds in kind. Imagine you’re a man, particularly one from a military background (a vet yourself, or just a family member who’s used to deployments). Also suppose a good friend is going off to a combat situation but you’re not allowed to go with him. How do you react? Well, if you have anything left to say you damn well say it that minute. No question. But aside from that, you don’t say goodbye; you say so long for now. Sherlock seems confident that they’re not going to meet again, but if I were in John Watson’s shoes without access to Sherlock’s reasoning, I’m not sure I’d accept that at face value. I’d probably read it as nerves, and I’d want Sherlock’s last memory to be a strong friend he could trust would still be there waiting for him. If nothing else, I’d want him to have the comforting thought that home was secure while he was away, even if (perhaps particularly if) he was away for forever.

This is almost certainly not the first time John has been through this moment. At a minimum he has years of watching any old army buddies be re-deployed. If he was an army doctor from his seemingly working-class background, he may well be from an army family. He’s certainly seen news of Afghanistan and faced the pit in his stomach that that’s no longer who he is. He knows how to be left behind, to keep calm and carry on. And, this time, he has absolutely nothing left to say. Why? Because he’s said it all already, and because Sherlock already knows it. There’s nothing his soldier needs to know before he goes off to war, maybe to his death or permanent separation. There’s just the carrying on to do, and the show of strength so Sherlock will know he can focus on where he’s headed and not where he’s been.

There’s just nothing that has to be said.

That right there is when my heart fractured just a bit. Still held on to its shape, but barely. Perhaps mercifully, the next blow came quickly: Sherlock wanted to discuss baby names of all things. Remember how before the wedding, he tried to make small talk. He said he wasn’t going to do that again, but now that’s precisely what he’s doing, with what he knows to be his last conversation with John. You might as well stamp Ne allons’y! across a certain Doctor’s forehead, for how obvious and potent that moment is.

And just what does Sherlock reveal to John? His name. William Sherlock Scott Holmes. What Sherlock reveals to John in this moment is his banality: that his odd name is sandwiched between something so thoroughly ordinary. This is almost exactly the opposite of John trying to hide his middle name because it’s so odd and Sherlock dragging it out of him; Sherlock is offering up the very fact that he picked the oddest of his names and made that how he presented himself, but offering up the other things to John. And what does John do? He refuses to accept it. He tells Sherlock that they will not be memorializing him because this is not the end. He is giving a firm farewell to a fellow soldier headed off to war, and Sherlock in turn is behaving every inch the civilian, desperate to stay or at least offer all that he is, no holds barred, to John.

This is not the man who turns up his coat collar to be all dramatic, who hides in his superman-cloak. This is the man who doesn’t want to go.

But Sherlock doesn’t really have a choice in the matter, I don’t think. I can see him wishing he was strong enough to stay in jail where John could at least be a part of his life. The problem is that jail is built on boredom. For Sherlock of all people, a quick execution, even without the final adventure, would be kinder than a life in that institutionalized boredom. I can see him wanting that kind of an existence if it meant a life with John, but after several weeks in it, knowing that he really couldn’t stand it. He knows what he’s going into… and he chooses death. He knew he was committing a kind of suicide when he shot Magnussen, but this time, John knew (and Sherlock knew he knew) that it was a martyrdom for John’s future. Sherlock, I think, desperately wants to be part of that future but doesn’t have it in him to make it if his part is in a jail cell. That would kill him as quickly as eastern Europe, and much less mercifully.

So Sherlock does what needs to be done, and then he embraces the price. But he doesn’t have to like it; he can drag his feet a bit, indulge in a smidge of domesticity. And John is probably torn up inside at yet another friend going off to war, at his and Sherlock’s “game” (not really a game for John; his lifeblood, the fix for his addiction that he needs like he needs oxygen) coming to an end. But he doesn’t say anything because Sherlock is a soldier, and if John isn’t anymore, he still knows how to send a good man off to war. This isn’t about John, from his perspective. His response is quite literally the only one left for him.

Because John has a psychosomatic limp and a traumatic injury that makes him a liability on the battlefield.

Because he has a wife and a child on the way.

Because where Sherlock’s going, that’s his war but not John’s this time.

And because there’s not one thing left to say between them. Because they said it all two years ago. John can’t even salute any more, but has to stand there and endure the long wait. Granted, four minutes long, but John is facing what he thinks is at least months of his best friend in the world going where he can’t follow.

Sherlock Holmes, finally a good man.

And that was the moment my heart broke in two. Just in case you were wondering.

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 50 comments — Leave a comment )
acciochocolate
Jan. 15th, 2014 08:33 am (UTC)
thanks
Coming from a family where almost all the menfolk have served in the military, this interpretation makes sense and so makes the scene read so much better.
marta_bee
Jan. 15th, 2014 05:20 pm (UTC)
Re: thanks
Thanks. I'm very glad I was able to add to your enjoyment of the scene. :-)
Re: thanks - acciochocolate - Jan. 15th, 2014 11:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: thanks - marta_bee - Jan. 15th, 2014 11:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: thanks - acciochocolate - Jan. 16th, 2014 12:01 am (UTC) - Expand
swissmarg
Jan. 15th, 2014 09:03 am (UTC)
This is a good perspective. I like the idea of John wanting to give Sherlock the impression of everything being secure and good at home, so that he can take that with him.

I also thought, though, that John probably didn't really think that Sherlock was never coming back. Sherlock is a drama queen. Of course he's making some huge 'we'll never see each other again' scene. Probably hoping to wring some heartfelt declaration out of John again, a la the train scene. John knows that Mycroft is sending Sherlock on this mission, and that Mycroft made sure that Sherlock came back from the last one. He even has a time frame: six months. That's nothing. So it really didn't bug me at all that the scene wasn't some huge teary goodbye with hugs and confessions.
laurtew
Jan. 15th, 2014 02:17 pm (UTC)
Exactly! You know Sherlock and Mycroft didn't tell John this was a one way mission. Sherlock was being dramatic, yes, but he was also joking around and telling John his name was a girl's name. Sherlock always comes back. Hell, he came back from the dead, so you know John is thinking in 6 months, Sherlock will be home again.

I think John was just freaking grateful that Sherlock isn't going to spend the rest of his life in jail. He knows what that would do to him. This looks so much better. A few secret missions for the government and Sherlock is home again.

As to declarations or even hugs, There are security guys and Mycroft right there. John might want to hug Sherlock, but he won't embarrass him in front of his brother with that weakness, so no, the hugging would have actually been out of character. He was likely thinking he'd save any hugs for when Sherlock gets back.
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alicambs
Jan. 15th, 2014 09:26 am (UTC)
It makes sense to me, but it also makes sense to me that John and Sherlock are very secure in their knowledge of how much they mean to each other. To be blunt, what more could they say?
certainetymolo
Jan. 15th, 2014 09:42 am (UTC)
You make the very important point - one that bears repeating as we discuss John in this series - that John doesn't know what we and Sherlock know. We are so used to seeing things through John's eyes in this show that it's easy to forget: John hasn't seen Sherlock's mind palace, he hasn't seen his interactions with Mycroft, he doesn't know that Sherlock thinks this is the last conversation their ever going to have.

And yes, considering that from his POV this is him seeing someone off on a dangerous, but finite (six months) journey, not a suiside mission, his reaction becomes perfectly understandable.
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certainetymolo
Jan. 15th, 2014 09:56 am (UTC)
Also, to underscore your point that John used to be a soldier but has now retired to a civilian life, The Sign of Three deals with this explicitly:

SHERLOCK: So why don’t you see him any more?
JOHN: Who?
SHERLOCK: Your previous commander, Sholto.
JOHN: “Previous commander”.
SHERLOCK (briefly closing his eyes awkwardly): I meant “ex”.
JOHN: “Previous” suggests that I currently have a commander.
SHERLOCK: Which you don’t.
JOHN: Which I don’t.


--> Direct reference to your idea of Sherlock as a superior officer.

JOHN: I’m here on a legitimate enquiry.
REED: Press? Digging for some bloody Royal story or something?
JOHN (pointing at his ID card): No, sir, I’m Captain John Watson, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.
REED: Retired. You could be a used car salesman now, for all I know.


(Cited from the transcript of the brilliant Arianedevere)
marta_bee
Jan. 15th, 2014 05:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for those quotes. I've only seen TSOT once and while sock, so I knew those quotes but hadn't quite put them together with this moment. I really like the way that supports this read of John's character.
(no subject) - kres - Jan. 16th, 2014 08:10 am (UTC) - Expand
haldane
Jan. 15th, 2014 10:27 am (UTC)
I have lost the reference, but I did see a post on Tumblr that said the reason for the discussion about baby names (particularly the line "Sherlock is a girl's name") was that Sherlock wanted to see John's real smile one more time before he left.

I though that rather lovely.
marta_bee
Jan. 16th, 2014 12:21 am (UTC)
I kind of wish I could read that post. (I'm not active on Tumblr for various reasons, though I do have an account.) In any event, I quite agree: that thought is simply lovely. I really quite like it. I remember a similar point being made about some of Sherlock's comments during that last phone call from the roof at St. Bart's, and I think you're right - seeing John's faith in him, or better yet seeing Jon smile, is a big part of what motivates Sherlock.
fanbot
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:24 pm (UTC)
Very good.

I just wonder why Sherlock did not shoot the bastard inside. ... unless he wanted no possible blame on John. Hummmm
vinib
Jan. 15th, 2014 02:23 pm (UTC)
For the same reason Mary kept him alive, I think.
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ascendant_angel
Jan. 15th, 2014 02:22 pm (UTC)
That was a wonderful explanation, though personally to me I never had issue with this scene being unemotional or what ever; it honestly hadn't occurred to me that people would.

I thought the emotions in this were beautifully understated and spot on. There was no need for grand emotional discussions they had both said their I love you's long before, and there was no ambiguity in those, they both knew how they felt about each other; it simply did not need saying.

And while I think John wasn't really completely aware that Sherlock wasn't ever coming back, it wouldn't really have made a difference. It may have been the end of Sherlock and John but it wasn't yet Sherlock's end. John was being strong for Sherlock's sake, you don't want you're loved one's last image of you to be one of tears , you don't want them to have to worry about you.

Also I don't think Sherlock had a choice, even if he'd asked Mycroft to send him to prison, I don't think he would consider it he say it was out of his hands because its what he felt was best for Sherlock.
laurtew
Jan. 15th, 2014 02:49 pm (UTC)
You make a great point here:

There was no need for grand emotional discussions they had both said their I love you's long before, and there was no ambiguity in those, they both knew how they felt about each other; it simply did not need saying.

The writers made a huge point in Sign of Three of having both men explicitly tell each other how much they cared.

John: I want the two people I love and care about the most beside me. Mary and you.

Sherlock: 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.

John also made a giant point in telling him what he thought of him in The Empty Hearse: You were the best and the wisest man that I have ever known.

And Sherlock returns that sentiment at the wedding: Certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.

We also got the "You've made my life better" thing from both of them.

John: See, the thing about Mary – she has completely turned my life around; changed everything. But, for the record, over the last few years there are two people who have done that ... and the other one is ...
(He looks round. Sherlock is no longer sitting at his side.)... a complete dickhead.

Sherlock: John, I am a ridiculous man ...redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

(Am I the only one who sees how John keeps putting Sherlock on par with Mary? The two people he loves in the world, the two people who have saved him, the two people he is building his life around.)

Anyway...

So all the "I love you"s and the sentiment have been said. These are two men who are so close that they have killed for each other and they live for each other. Now each is going to stay strong for the other as well. John is going to let Sherlock know that he'll be fine and stand strong until Sherlock gets home and Sherlock isn't going to tell John he is going off to die. (Though he did make a point of assuring WE would know by saying "Mycroft estimates 6 months and he's rarely wrong." He's accepted that he'll die and he wants the audience to know it's that mission.)

And really, how much louder can they both be saying they love each other than by saying, "I'll be strong for you, I'll be exactly what you need from me."?
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kalypso_v
Jan. 15th, 2014 03:10 pm (UTC)
The game, in Sherlock’s words, is over.

Not quite what I've got in my jotted transcript, which is all I have until Ariane delivers:

JOHN: The game is over.
SHERLOCK: The game is never over, John, but there may be some new players now. It's OK, the east wind takes us all in the end.
laurtew
Jan. 15th, 2014 03:54 pm (UTC)
You are right. That is what they said. Right before Sherlock tells him why Mycroft was a rubbish big brother.

So, no, Sherlock was not the one who dismissed John from service. But he did tell him the players were different, essentially saying John has to sit this one out.

I've just went and watched that part over. After Sherlock explains the East Wind, John asks where he's going and how long it will take. So, he's not been told anything about this. He then asks, rather hopefully, what happens after that. So, again, no clue.

It also bears note that Sherlock goes very serious, impresses that this will be the last time they speak and he needs to tell John something. Then he goes on to say Sherlock is a girl's name. No wonder John isn't worried!

Sidenote about Ariane: She's working insanely hard on this. She was up until past two working on the mind palace scene. Amazing woman, that one is!
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internetname
Jan. 15th, 2014 04:20 pm (UTC)
Excellent points, all. I confess I just don't see any "lack of emotion" during the runway scene at all, especially considering this is two grown British men standing out in public. What exactly do people want John to do? Bawl his eyes out? Throw himself on the plane? Act like two teenaged girls and declare they're BFFs? I'd never believe that.

John knows what Sherlock has done for him. Sherlock knows what he means to John. The whole scene is repressed grief and denial. John's seen Sherlock come back from the dead twice now. There's no way he's resigned himself to the idea Sherlock is going to be out of his life for good. (I also hold with the view that Mycroft has no actual intention of allowing Sherlock to die out there, and will be keeping an eye on him until England inevitably needs Sherlock Holmes again.) Moreover, I find it telling that Sherlock keeps saying this "might" be the last time they speak. This could be seen as lying to John, but I think there's a determination there to come back if he possibly can.

And the handshake. Heartbreaking. Sherlock steels himself up for it, John has to take death breaths, hands fisting, before he can reciprocate. And they hold it for as long as they can without getting weird. Then what can an ex-brother-in-arms do but watch his best friend go into battle without him?
laurtew
Jan. 15th, 2014 06:57 pm (UTC)
That is actually something I glossed over. There was as much emotion in that handshake as any hug. Thanks for pointing it out.
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dkwilliams
Jan. 15th, 2014 04:44 pm (UTC)
Good point. I grew up in a military family (U.S. Air Force) and when we watched my dad fly off to Vietnam, we had to do exactly that. We were told in no uncertain terms by the Military Liaison staff that we were not to cry, we were to act as if he was just going on a milk run and would be back that night, we were not to take mementos to remember them by, or in any way insinuate that we didn't expect them to return. We were supposed to make small talk about household or school stuff, just as if it was an ordinary event, so that his morale wouldn't be weakened and he wouldn't worry about us at home. John would definitely know that. Add in the typical British reserve, and that scene makes sense.
marta_bee
Jan. 16th, 2014 05:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for confirming that I had aspects of the military family psyche correct. I have several cousins who served in Afghanistan, but this is something I've always seen from a slight distance, so I wasn't completely sure.

I think the reserve customary of the British, and also a bit for men generally, also goes a long way toward explaining this dynamic.
mjartrod
Jan. 15th, 2014 09:31 pm (UTC)
Nice interpretation, given John's history in military service.

Tbh, I was a bit puzzled with people's reactions about this scene. Isn't it obvious John had no idea how dangerous the mission actually is? Why would Sherlock even tell him? Can you imagine how guilty he'd make John feel? He may have an inkling that they're not exactly sending Sherlock on a holiday but there is no way he'd been told they didn't expect Sherlock to return.

I think John's more saying goodbye to the good old times with Sherlock. Everything points to a huge change in their lives and that is why "the game is over". New chapter.

I thought it was a nice ending :-)
marta_bee
Jan. 15th, 2014 11:41 pm (UTC)
I think we are so used to assuming John knows everything we know. That's the voice of the Doyle stories (we only know what John tells us, in all the ones I can remember offhand), and until this last series John has been pretty much everywhere Sherlock is, if you set aside the mind palace scenes in Baskerville and the roof scenes at the end of Reichenbach. So it's easy to get in the habit of thinking John knows what we know and that he would react in the way we ourselves would react, or at least as someone who has his experiences but knows what we know would react.

Which in this case isn't true at all. Part of the purpose of this post (which perhaps didn't come across as clearly as I would have liked) was to tease out what both John and Sherlock knew in this moment and how it would affect the situation they thought they were reacting to.

Which may not be an issue for some viewers, which is a good thing IMO - you are experiencing the scene as I think it was meant to be experienced. I think some people who had been worked up to expect a soul-crushing cliffhanger that even Moffat felt the need to apologize for beforehand were expecting a last meeting that really pulled at the heart strings. And while the episode was truly moving (right in the feels, as we fans are prone to say), it was moving at different points and in different ways than you might expect otherwise. Maybe that explains a little of the reaction?
marta_bee
Jan. 16th, 2014 05:59 am (UTC)
I wanted to thank acciochocolate, alicambs, ascendant_angel, certainetymolo, dkwilliams, fanbot, haldane, internetname, kalypso_v, laurtew, mjartrod, rhapsody11, and swissmarg for the very enjoyable discussion. (And anyone else who comments later, or that I missed. It was a lot of fun, hearing all of your thoughts, and I'm honored that you paid so much attention to my piece.

Edited at 2014-01-16 06:01 am (UTC)
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