Sherlock: Was Murder Justified?
By David Selby
The one indisputable fact of Sherlock is that the protagonist is a genius. His character has been defined by his intelligence – often coupled with arrogance and inhumanity – since he was originally conceived by Arthur Conan Doyle. Over time he has progressed into a man who is distinguished – and in part, weakened – by his friends. His compassion, whilst veiled by a façade of cunning and egotism, is a prominent aspect of the character.
Yet as he states himself in the Series Two finale, his moral beliefs (“on the side of the angels”) do not have a bearing over his conduct or sense of justice. In some measure, his benevolence towards those he does hold dear can lead to unconventional responses – i.e. revenge. This was the dénouement at the end of His Last Vow. Sherlock had spent the entire episode in conflict with the despicable antagonist Charles Augustus Magnussen, a man with influence over the British government and a plethora of information about everyone through which he exploits their vulnerabilities to carry out his abhorrent deeds. When the climax was reached and Magnussen was to be found innocent – and thus able to continue with his schemes – Sherlock murdered him by pumping a single bullet into his head. The question which has plagued forums and debates since airing: was he justified?
Firstly we must look at motive. Magnussen had a power-plan to gain control over the most potent man in the country: Mycroft Holmes (“he’s what I’m getting for Christmas”). Magnussen’s only weakness – and thus Sherlock’s only way of defeating him – was his information. Like Sherlock (and me), Magnussen’s way of storing information was via the Mind Palace technique – a theory that, if you can visualise a room (or an entire palace for that matter), you can place memories and data where you can later return to them. As the knowledge is abstract, the only way of eliminating the material – and, consequently, stopping Magnussen – was to kill him. Logically, Sherlock’s decision makes sense. He was protecting the general public.
The second motive is an emotional one. Sherlock has transgressed from a narcissistic loner to someone who lives for his friends. His decisions were drastically influenced by Magnussen’s taunting of John. ‘CAM’ was a character with the potential to push anyone to their limits; he lacked respect and common decency and didn’t need to be charismatic (unlike Moriarty) because he already had what he wanted. When it comes to the moment, Sherlock doesn’t have the time to contemplate pulling the trigger. He knows Magnussen will go with impunity, and he has been psychologically pushed by the twisted man’s endeavours to ruin his life. To Sherlock, the idea is merely a form of justice. His religious beliefs are clarified in The Sign of Three; he thinks religion is a fantasy – his moral beliefs in The Reichenbach Fall; he strives for good but achieves it by any means. He sees a danger to society over personal consequence; justice over sin, if you will – it is his one and only chance to defeat Magnussen and he takes it.
Sherlock Holmes isn’t a hero. Do your research. He is a high-functioning sociopath. There is a reason for the classic stories being told through the eyes of John Watson and that is because Sherlock himself is “the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet”. He is redeemed by his friends and esteemed from his work in the crime industry and his exceptional intellect. Yet, in short, he is human in the loosest sense of the word. The fact is that, whether you do or do not think that Sherlock’s actions are justified, it’s not about always about relating to him – just understanding him. The fact that he did something on behalf of a friend, in my eyes, shows that he is slowly opening up about his emotions.
The fundamental complaint that I wish to address is that Sherlock should have found a ‘clever’ or resourceful alternate solution. Yet that seems to completely miss the point of the ending. On that one occasion, there was none. It turned out that it was Magnussen who had made the mistake, and he was condemned to death from the moment he opened the vault and compromised his greatest secret in front of his most formidable enemy.