After two innovative but not entirely successful episodes, Sherlock pulled off a terrific end to its third series that deserves to be up there with the show’s best episodes. This was largely due to a memorably creepy villain. Since the shock killing-off of Moriarty at the end of series two, Sherlock Holmes has been lacking an opponent worthy of him, until last night. As he said, of all the villains he’s faced “None of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen”. Lars Mikkelsen played him as a Bond villain to rival his brother Mads Mikkelsen’s character in Casino Royale, but also with some pointed topical references, as the episode began with a parliamentary inquiry into the newspaper proprietor’s secretive influence on British public affairs. We soon learned that Magnussen has his own, sinister version of the Sherlock scan – an uncanny ability, not just to read people, but to remember what blackmail material he has on them over his files. This gives him a power so extreme that, as he says “Of course it isn’t blackmail. It’s ownership”. Mikkelsen’s performance was as controlled and softly-spoken as Andrew Scott’s Moriarty was flamboyant, but the mildness hid a great deal of menace and a similar edge of twisted sexuality – “The whole world is wet to my touch”.
Sherlock’s confrontation with him was a thrillingly tense battle of wits that delivered the stakes and sense of urgency the mystery of the week in the other two episodes has been lacking. This was helped tremendously by a major revelation which I won’t spoil here, but which used several of the new features of this series, such as the sequences of flashbacks and the scenes set in Sherlock’s head, to nail-biting effect in laying out the complex plot. But among the thrills, the story also found time to delve into the characters’ emotional lives, exploring Watson’s thrill-seeking side, Sherlock’s struggle with addiction, and, in a tender and funny scene, showing us the Holmes family Christmas, with Sherlock’s parents played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s real-life parents Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton. The running theme of Sherlock’s relationship with Mycroft also reached a touching conclusion, as Mycroft reluctantly admitted that he admires his brother’s need to be “a dragon-slayer”.
This episode showed us Steven Moffat’s writing on full throttle, with a mind-bendingly complex plot, a twist every few minutes, and a brilliant mix of humour and emotional impact. The only problem with this episode was that it was the concluding part of one of Sherlock’s tantalisingly small series, so we won’t get any more. At least a fourth series has been announced, but we’ll have to wait at least another two years. After a series finale like that, it seems like an unbearably long time to wait.