7 Canonical References in His Last Vow

Spoilers ahead; you know the drill. Continue at your own risk.


This episode was as canon-heavy as “Hearse” and “Sign,” so I’m simply hitting the high points here as I did with those.

1. The Drug Den

The place John finds Sherlock at the beginning of the episode is a direct nod to “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” in which Watson goes in search of a man named Isa Whitney at an opium den and finds not only him, but his friend and colleague, Sherlock Holmes, who is disguised and working on a case. In addition, John’s mistake of thinking the woman who comes to visit him and Mary is looking for her husband instead of her son is a sly reference to the fact that Isa is the woman’s husband in the story.

2. Watson Name Issues

This may be slightly debatable, but I find it too interesting not to include. “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” referenced above, is the story in which Mary Watson inexplicably calls her husband “James” instead of “John.” That the writers chose to reference that particular story in the same episode in which the viewers learn that Watson’s wife has a real name other than “Mary” is a delightful confluence of ideas.

3. Magnussen

Lars Mikkelsen’s Magnussen is an obvious parallel to Charles Augustus Milverton, Doyle’s master blackmailer, described by Holmes as, “the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton! With a smiling face and a heart of marble, he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.” Doyle, in turn, based his creation off real-life blackmailer Charles Augustus Howell, who was found mysteriously murdered with a ten-shilling coin in his mouth.

Several of Magnussen’s specific traits come straight from Doyle, in particular his glasses and his disturbingly affable manner. There’s an overall skeeviness to Milverton that jumps off the pages of the canon, and Sherlock managed to capture it more perfectly than I’d hoped.

To learn more about Milverton, a villain well worth your time, have a look at this post and read “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” here.

4. Billy Wiggins

At the sound of his name, I heard millions of canon lovers shrieking in glee, through the haze of my own euphoria.

In canon, Billy is the name of Sherlock Holmes’s young page, and he’s featured in the novel The Valley of Fear and two stories, “The Problem of Thor Bridge” and “The Mazarin Stone.” He’s also featured in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes plays.

Wiggins is the name of another young character, the intelligent child leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s street-prowling network of urchins. He appears in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.

Cleverly, Moffat chose to unite two young associates of Holmes–one known for only his first name, the other only his last–into one single character of young but not childish age, smart enough to have the potential to carry on Holmes’s legacy, but also retaining Wiggins’s trademark cheeky personality.

5. Unreliable Narration

Throughout the canon, there are numerous times when Holmes and Watson say things about themselves that, through their actions, are shown to be untrue. It would take ages to pinpoint them all, but generally, Watson thinks he’s much less clever and more foolish than his actions display, and Watson and Holmes speak of Holmes as being much colder and devoid of human feeling than his behavior reveals him to be.

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the Sherlock writers’ continual insistence on having Sherlock describe himself as a high-functioning sociopath fits squarely in this category. In this series, particularly, the viewers have seen Sherlock repeatedly act in ways that are the opposite of sociopathic, and the lengths he’s willing to go in “His Last Vow” to protect the people he obviously loves go completely against the idea that he lacks empathy or is unable to form attachments. Even his obvious feelings for his brother go against the idea.

“His Last Vow” also included Mary in the assessment, having her agree that she, too, is a sociopath, which is clearly untrue, based on her genuine love for John and Sherlock, expressed in extremely unusual ways though it may be. This post is not long enough to do intricate psychological assessment, nor am I qualified to do so, but many of the actions of both Mary and Sherlock go against any definition of sociopathy, not just in the area of attachment, but in other areas as well.

Canon lovers tend to value the unreliability of Doyle’s narrative voice, recognizing the subtlety it took to craft characters who, like real human beings, often fail to understand or accurately characterize themselves. Sherlock, intentionally or not, has chosen a similar path.

6. Sherlock’s Personal Justice

Many people have done extensive analyses of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward justice in the canon. The Norwood Builder on Tumblr produced an excellent and easy-to-understand one here. The point is that Holmes often (according to TNB about 25% of the time) takes things into his own hands when the law cannot address them adequately.

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is notable because it contains one of the most striking examples of this. For those who are unfamiliar with it, in the original, Holmes looks on as Milverton is killed. He does not pull the trigger himself, but he does nothing to stop or turn in the woman who does, because he considers her act to be justified.

In “His Last Vow,” Moffat chose to have Holmes himself carry out the execution, but the spirit is very much the same. Magnussen is an unspeakably vile man whose power places him outside the reach of normal retribution. Holmes’s strong internal view of justice cannot let him go unpunished, particularly as Magnussen endangers the lives of his friends and loved ones. As he does many times in Doyle’s stories, he chooses to carry out justice himself.

7. Sherlock as a Spy

The idea of Sherlock Holmes going undercover as a government operative comes from “His Last Bow,” a story from the latter part of the Doyle canon, in which Holmes goes undercover to aid the English war effort on the eve of World War I.

BONUS: Janine

In the canon, Sherlock Holmes gets engaged one time, to Charles Augustus Milverton’s housemaid. When he tells Watson, his friend is first delighted and then horrified to learn that the relationship is completely for the benefit of the case. As in “His Last Vow,” however, Agatha the housemaid doesn’t end up caring any more than Janine does.

In an episode heavy with action and emotion, it was great to get this nod to one of the funniest things (in my opinion) that Doyle ever wrote. Seeing poor John try to understand the idea of Sherlock in a romantic relationship is a mental picture that will live with me for years to come.

And One Non-Canonical Reference: William Sherlock Scott Holmes

The writers of Sherlock have made it very clear that they are fans not only of the Doyle stories, but of other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. When they gave Holmes’s full name as William Sherlock Scott Holmes, they were not channeling Doyle, but rather a reference to the Wold Newton family, a massive fan creation that connects many fictional characters, including Holmes. Learn about it here.


The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

8 thoughts on “7 Canonical References in His Last Vow

  1. Another canonical reference: Sherlock describes Magnuson to John and it is lifted directly from canon: “Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me.”

  2. Janine bought a house in Sussex with a bee problem and of course at one point Holmes retires to a place in sussex and becomes a beekeeper. That’s a definite nod to that there, and I think her saying they could have been friends and getting rid of the bees, means that he’s probably not going to be donning a beekeeping suit in Sussex in this particular incarnation.

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