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.
Sometime 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.