Why does Sherlock despise Charles Augustus Magnusson so much? Over the course of “His Last Vow,” several characters point out that as far as omnipotent power brokers go, he’s pretty benign. He’s not an agent of chaos like Moriarty, or even a petty attempted murder like last week’s wedding photographer. He is, in his own words, a businessman. Unfortunately, he’s also a businessman on the wrong side of Sherlock Holmes’s “pressure point”: John Watson. And that sets these two formidable intellects on a collision course for this third season’s climax, an intriguing moral crisis that’s wrapped up and dismissed all too quickly.
Sherlock and Magnusson are more alike than different. Formidable intellects aside, both men collect information for a profit; Magnusson’s merely more ambitious, spinning his knowledge into a global news empire where Sherlock’s satisfied with a two-man PI business (or possibly, given his social issues, limited to it). Even Magnusson’s robotic assessment of everyone he meets is a visual perversion of Sherlock’s on-sight deduction technique. In the episode’s big reveal, we even discover the two have the same method for storing all that information. Sherlock’s “mind palace” is merely more humane than Appledoor, filled with intimidating older brothers and departed family dogs rather than reams of blackmail.
Yet Sherlock claims Magnusson turns his stomach more than anyone he’s ever encountered, including previous foil Moriarty. Maybe that’s precisely because Magnusson is such a slight deviation from Sherlock’s own sociopathic tendencies. We were always led to believe Moriarty and Sherlock were two sides of the same coin, but Moriarty’s genius always unfolded itself in the form of clever plans rather than on-the-ground demonstrations of intellect—though as the closing seconds show, that may change. Magnusson is cold and detached, a far closer approximation of the Holmesian worldview than Moriarty’s mania.
It’s ironic, then, that to get to Magnusson, Sherlock pulls a move straight out of Moriarty’s handbook: dating a professional associate to get into his inner sanctum. Jeanine is far more game than Molly, though, buying herself a cottage in Sussex to make up for the revelation her boyfriend’s a manipulative cad. Sherlock throwing the word “whore” around doesn’t make me comfortable, nor does the portrayal of yet another woman on this show as a master manipulator with an inexplicable soft spot for a certain detective. But were I in that situation, I’d go to town on the tabloids (and my ex’s morphine supply) too.
Besides, Jeanine’s story is the far more minor of our two protagonists’ significant others. “The Last Vow” is Mary’s episode, the one that finally gives us insight into her character and cements her place in Sherlock‘s inner circle. I’ve complained a few times before that her role this season has been one of a too-game helper elf, and it’s a relief to see that blandness was an intentional distraction. Lo and behold, Mary’s actually a retired secret agent, one with a false identity and shooting skills to match. It’s Magnusson’s dirt on her that puts Sherlock on the war path, demonstrating that the detective has finally internalized that Mary’s happiness and John’s are one and the same. And as we’re assured in this episode, John’s safety is Sherlock’s number one priority, the one that brings him back from death’s door.
This is the second episode in a row where we get to watch Sherlock’s mind palace work its magic in real time, and it’s a doozy. Molly and Moriarty make an appearance, but the starring role goes to Mycroft, who embodies all of Sherlock’s lingering childhood insecurities about his potential stupidity, of all things. Mark Gatiss has been accused of writing himself into an amount of screen time disproportionate to his actual importance to the show, but I disagree; the dynamic between Mycroft and Sherlock is a fascinatingly complex one, second only to the show’s central partnership.
As we see in both Sherlock’s mind and at the Holmes family Christmas, “Mikey” and “Sherl” have a dynamic that’s closer to the archetypal older brother-younger brother relationship than one might think. They’re equally smart, but Mycroft has always been more together, channeling his talent and ambition into a position of both power and responsibility. Sherlock wants neither of those things, nor could he handle them; he’s erratic, driven to addiction and in need of a guiding hand. John’s provided that lately, but we see in “His Last Vow” that Mycroft’s been protecting his younger brother all his life. Sherlock’s his pressure point.
That’s why I found this season’s resolution so emotionally satisfying. It locks four central characters into an emotional web: John cares about Mary; Sherlock cares about John, and therefore Mary; Mycroft cares about Sherlock, and therefore both Mary and John. So when Sherlock decides to take out the Appledoor Vaults by putting a bullet in them, i.e. Magnusson’s brain, we get the full impact that has not just on John, but also Mycroft. It’s a point that’s made not too subtly as Gatiss looks on helplessly from a helicopter, seeing Sherlock as his younger self, played by co-creator Steven Moffat’s own son.
The choice to murder Magnusson is a shock to viewers, and a reminder that Sherlock’s sociopathic nature isn’t just a running joke. He doesn’t solve crimes out of a sense of morality, but to avoid getting high. And instead of a moral code, he only has one guiding principle: protect John at all costs. Mostly, that imperative fits neatly into a traditional black-and-white vision of what a hero does, but here Sherlock has no qualms about shooting a man in the face for merely threatening to harm his best friend. And Mycroft’s choice to send his little brother into exile isn’t just necessary; it’s probably the right one. Sherlock committed cold-blooded murder, and any man who’s willing to do that at a moment’s notice doesn’t deserve the responsibility of freedom.
Which is all well and good, except this show (as has often been pointed out in the blogosphere) has an endless capacity for absolving its protagonist of all wrongdoing, discarding any chance of Sherlock actually having to live with the consequences of what he’s done or what it says about his character. We’ve barely heard anything about his going AWOL for two years since the premiere, and now he’s shepherded back to England within ten minutes of exile. Why? Turns out he wasn’t the only one who managed to survive his rooftop confrontation with Moriarty. How? Hopefully the answer will be a bit more definitive than the premiere’s hypothetical scenario. Until next year!