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let's talk about Sherlock's morality

I'm preparing a an essay on Bill Wiggins, the lookout at the drug den in His Last Vow, and as part of that I was rewatching His Last Vow. I was struck by a scene that should be upsetting but to my knowledge hasn't been very often remarked on at all.

It's set during the break-in to Magnussen's office, where Sherlock and John are trying to steal the blackmail material Magnussen has on Lady Smallwood. Sherlock has just fake-proposed to Janine in order to get him and John into the inner office and they come across a deserted office. Janine's been knocked out with a blow to the head, but the way John deals with her, she seems pretty stable, medically. And then we get this lovely gem, which I'm quoting from arianedevere's transcripts:

SHERLOCK (walking across the office): Another in here.
(John looks over to him but doesn’t leave his patient. In the next room Sherlock looks at the suited man lying face down on the floor, then does a full-circle turn to look around the rest of the room.)
SHERLOCK: Security.
JOHN: Does he need help?
(Sherlock walks to the man’s side and looks down at him. Behind his left ear, which has an earpiece in it, is a small tattoo of the number “14”.)
(He zooms in on another tattoo on the man’s right hand between his thumb and index finger. The tattoo is five small dots, four of them in a square shape and the fifth in the middle of the square.)
SHERLOCK: White supremacist, by the tattoo, so who cares? (He points back towards John.) Stick with Janine.

Any decent doctor, when faced with two injured patients, one stable and the other of unknown conditions, would ask that question. (Actually, any decent doctor would probably get up and investigate himself, if Janine is as stable as she seems to be.) But Sherlock doesn't say he has strong vitals, he can wait; he says this man isn't worth saving because he's basically a hired goon.

This isn't the first time we've heard a justification like this. It's basically what John says after he shot the cabbie in A Study in Pink, and I'm fairly sure it's what's going through Sherlock's head at the end of His Last Vow. And it's precisely the justification Mary gives after Leinster Gardens: that people like Magnussen should be shot.

It breaks my heart to hear Sherlock give it because it's the cold assessment given by someone who's used to people dying around him. (Good God, what did he see and do in those two years away?) And I get that Sherlock didn't actually assault this man, but still, it leaves me feeling very, very cold that this is the kind of justification we get out of him. It's not the kind of justification I think adds up to being worth anything here. It's just not up to Sherlock to make those kinds of justifications, and the fact that he leans that way now should make us all rather uncomfortable about his moral compass, if he ever had one.

What really struck me, though, was how these kinds of incidents are talked about, or not talked about, by people drawn to this show. I mean, take the incident with the cabbie in ASIP. It's always bothered me that everyone I've heard talking about it discusses it at the level of John saving Sherlock's life. At some level that is what's going on here, but the reason Sherlock needs saving is because he allowed himself to get painted into a corner. In at least the broadcast version, there's nothing keeping Sherlock from walking away from that situation. Instead, he's so desperate to get a thrill and prove he's clever than he very nearly kills himself and basically forces John's hand. The cabbie wasn't an innocent person, but he was ultimately shot and tortured rather than being arrested because Sherlock allowed himself to get in a situation where John thought it was the only way to save Sherlock's life. Or look at the American who attacked Mrs Hudson in A Scandal in Belgravia; it seemed okay - laugh-worthy, even - that Sherlock would throw him out a window. Repeatedly.

I keep playing incidents like this in my head and comparing it against the absolute backlash against Mary shooting Sherlock. Yes, there are differences, but I think that a lot of the reason people are so upset with Mary (not the only, but a major one) is that she didn't shoot Magnussen - she shot Sherlock. If it turns out that Mary's past really is as dark as Magnussen implies, I can deal with that making her a first-class villain. I can even deal with the fact that she lied and manipulated John and shot his best friend and then went right on lying until she was caught, and that made her not a good spouse for our noble army-doctor. I'm a Johnlock shipper, I don't want Mary and John to end up together in the longrun. But I'll be honest, the thought that Mary's getting slammed for more or less what Sherlock and John and Irene (I'm thinking of the way her gun killed the American agent in the attack on her house) get a free pass for? That does bother me.

The bigger problem, of course, is this idea that there are good people who deserve saving and bad people who don't, and that Sherlock is okay being the one to make those kinds of distinctions This isn't the first time that kind of reasoning has been used. It's not just that the cabbie would have gone on to kill more people if he hadn't been stopped, it's that it was literally okay to kill him because he wasn't a very nice man. And on down the line.

And that's just not what I think of as a great man trying to be a good one. The fact that even I, pacifist though I am, only noticed this little detail tonight is a bit unnerving.



Apr. 14th, 2014 07:53 pm (UTC)
That aspect of his morality - BBC Sherlock is definitely more callous than his original canon counterpart, but there several cases of ACD Holmes letting murderers off the hook because he judges that their motives were worthwhile or forgivable, and that the world is better off without the victim. I don't think he lost much sleep over killing Moriarty- in fact, he seems pretty pleased with himself. And there are also examples where he flat-out states he'd have no trouble wreaking vengeance on anyone who harmed someone he cared about. Holmes is basically good, but he's certainly not Lawful Good. I think the show plays up and highlights that aspect, but they certainly didn't make it up. Those shades of grey have always been there.

One way in which even BBC Sherlock is very human is that he proritizes people he cares about on some level, like we all do. He wants John to stay with Janine because he cares about her, at least a little. He doesn't give two shits about the other guy.

That's why the audience reaction to Mary's act is so much more hostile, IMO. On an emotional level, on an individual basis, all human lives are not equal. It's a FAR worse betrayal to shoot a friend than an enemy. Especially since Mary knows,probably better than anyone else, how much it destroyed John to lose Sherlock the first time - I think it's perfectly reasonable to wonder what kind of "love" it is, if she was willing to risk putting John through that again, just to keep her secrets and therefore keep him. I don't blame the people who just can't get past that. Even when I was writing my fluffy poly family smut, it still really stuck in my craw. Still does.

In terms of audience emotional response, shooting a villain and shooting a hero are never, ever going to be morally comparable. The audience will never react with a detached analysis. It's more emotional and visceral. Harm done to people we care about will always resonate more than harm done to people we don't. Pretty much everyone on earth would act to save a loved one ahead of a stranger if given a choice. The fact that Mary chose to shoot her friend instead of her enemy is deeply shocking on a level that none of John or Sherlock's actions have been.

I don't hate Mary as a character - I enjoy writing her - but I do think it's a giant plot-hole if we're supposed to believe she really is "reformed." She's already shown the audience in a very spectacular manner that she isn't. And if the wound was really supposed to be "surgery," then why the very dramatic sequence of Sherlock actually dying from it and then clawing himself back to life? (Other than to give BCumb that long-deserved BAFTA, of course). There's really nothing in here to make Mary all that sympathetic except verbal declarations that she is - and in film and TV, that's rarely as convincing as visual cues and the scenes that are weighted most heavily.
Apr. 14th, 2014 11:07 pm (UTC)
You know, the longer I sit with HLV and think about it, the more messed up it seems, and on different days I find myself thinking of it in vastly different ways. Mary's characterization is just a mess, because however I interpret her, there are sizeable chunks of the show that simply don't make sense.

I mean, there are some days when I tend to think of her as more or less reformed partially because I want to but also because it's the only way that I can really make sense of Sherlock's apparent comfort leaving John with her. But then there are other days I'm convinced she's a flat-out villain because it's the only way I can make sense of Mary's willingness to shoot him like she did. And let's not even get started on the whole surgery idea versus the death sequence, and the "Mary's a danger to John" thought pulling him back from the dead in opposition to all the steps he takes to facilitate their getting back together. It doesn't make much sense on the available evidence, and on top of that I'm having a hard time imagining details we haven't been told that would make much sense of everything going on in HLV with Mary

Here's the thing I keep bumping my head against: if once he got in the room there wasn't any way for Mary to just let Sherlock walk out again (which seems to be what Sherlock tries to convince John of, even though dramatically it makes no sense with the elaborate almost-death or dead-and-back-again or whatever, as you said), then her shooting Sherlock seems to rest on whether she was justified in killing (or intimidating, or whatever) Magnussen. If Mary was justified in going after Magnussen knowing that someone might walk in on her like that, that seems to impact whether she was justified in killing Sherlock. It bothers me that Sherlock and John seem allowed to decide who gets to live and who dies in situations like this, but the same basic justification they've relied on just doesn't seem worth considering in her case.

This is part of what I find so frustrating, I think. We just don't have the evidence to come up with a consistent reading of her actions here. I get why the Mary-shot-Sherlock-to-keep-her-secret-from-John reading makes emotional sense, why it's so appealing. There are days when I'm drawn to it myself, until I remember Sherlock seems happy to leave John with a woman like that, and my mind just runs as hard as it can the other direction. I definitely get why having Mary shoot her husband's best friend is harder to swallow than her shooting a stranger, and why as an audience anyone who shoots Sherlock gets a one-way ticket to Villaintown.

But really, I think what bothers me here is something a bit more basic. Having Sherlock decide someone isn't worthy of medical attention because he's a bad person seems very wrong to me. While it's good to remember that Doyle's Sherlock sometimes let people escape, I think there's a difference between letting someone die and letting a killer escape justice. And I suppose I would be less bothered if casework where people are turned over to the authorities was more a part of the show. These kinds of evalutations make him seem more like an unappropachable god than a man concerned with justice, I guess.

That said, I'm just now rereading the Doyle stories and finding the way you read Doyle at fifteen is much different from how you read him at thirty. Maybe this is a case of me misremembering the Doyle original and holding him to an unfair standard.
Apr. 14th, 2014 11:34 pm (UTC)
Well, one of the cases where Holmes and Watson did decide to let a killer go (and were asked to solve the killing by Scotland Yard and flat out refused) was "Charles Augustus Milverton," so I had thought that something similar might play out here. And I think that's what the scriptwriters wanted us to expect too - when Sherlock thought it was Lady Smallwood who was pointing a gun at Magnussen, that would have mirrored the original story exactly. If Mary had been the one to shoot him, that could have led to a lot of interesting drama there as Sherlock and John had to make exactly that choice, of whether to protect her from prosecution or not. In that story, the noblewoman who kills Milverton had already been wronged by him and her life ruined, so her motive was revenge, not prevention. But Holmes took into account the bigger picture too - all the lives Milverton had ruined in the past and all the ones he would in the future.

I don't think Sherlock will ever become the kind of hero who always turns to the law in the end. ACD!Holmes never was.

Would she have been justified in shooting him? Not really, but her motive would have been a lot more sympathetic, I think. Certainly to me. I can make room in my heart for a conflicted anti-heroine who kills someone who was a serious threat to her well-being, especially since he's a threat to many people's well-being.

The way I read the security guard thing wasn't that he let someone die - I figured he assessed that neither one of them was in real danger. They hadn't been shot, just knocked unconscious. (which also raises the question of why Mary didn't just knock Sherlock out too - because she didn't have the element of surprise in her favor then, I suppose.)

Edited at 2014-04-14 11:41 pm (UTC)



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