Written by Prof. Jenn
Information is the centre of Sherlock’s work, and when an agent of chaos like Moriarty throws a wrench in that well-oiled machine, it’s only a matter of time before the “grit in [the] sensitive instrument” gets cleared out. But what if Sherlock’s adversary isn’t a brash chaotic goon for the sake of anarchy, but the brilliant head of a well-oiled machine himself? Such is Magnussen, adapted from the Charles Augustus Milverton of the so-titled original story. Like Moriarty, Magnussen (Milverton) only appears in one short story in the Doyle canon but Mofftiss have decided to expand this villain into more than just a one-off obstacle, and give him a hefty story arc in his own right.
Here are five reasons why I deem Magnussen as the more dangerous, more evil villain over Moriarty. Big words, I know, but hear me out…
5. No Remorse, No Glee
Moriarty’s having a great time, causing havoc and chaos. He’s loving it – you can tell, and he actually admits it. He’s rather like a slightly lighter version of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight: he’s a villain for the fun of it. For Magnussen, it’s all about the profit. And the power.
Magnussen doesn’t delight in what he does, though he arguably gets a little squicky enjoyment out of watching his victims squirm. It’s not for fun with him and it’s not personal, and the last thing he wants is chaos. No, Magnussen is running a business, and his business is information. He runs it very efficiently, and if it means licking an official’s face or urinating in a detective’s fireplace, he’ll do what he deems is the most effective thing in each case, to get him what he wants. Which leads us to:
4. Not Crazy, but Calculating
Magnussen would never have rigged the labyrinthine plot for Sherlock that Moriarty did in The Great Game – he would regard doing so a complete waste of his time. So would the over-elaborate, personal vendetta of ruining Sherlock’s reputation. He wouldn’t have wanted Sherlock to kill himself, rather he would have simply ruined his reputation with a few lines in his newspaper and then used him as the goose who lays golden eggs. Magnussen does not get personally involved, doesn’t take revenge, but rather gathers the information he needs, collects it with precision, and is even (we learn from the original story) willing to sit on a tidbit for years till just the right moment. This is why we don’t hear of him till Series Three – Sherlock and gang don’t concern him at all till Lady Smallwood includes them, but when that happens, Magnussen appears immediately with all his deadly weapons in play.
3. Information is Power
Moriarty kills people. Magnussen owns people. Therein lies the main difference between these two master villains. Moriarty will blow up an apartment complex, killing 12 people, just to make a point/set an example. Magnussen merely squeezes tighter. Oh sure, we learn as a side note that Lady Smallwood’s husband ends up committing suicide, but that has nothing to do with Magnussen – he didn’t kill him, he merely owns her. People are quietly in fear of Magnussen, and there is no real legal recourse that can be done. As Holmes says in the original story: “His victims dare not hit back. If ever he blackmailed an innocent person, then indeed we should have him, but he is as cunning as the Evil One.”
2. That Intricate Mind Palace
In the books and myriad adaptations beyond, Moriarty is presented as Sherlock Holmes’ intellectual equal. In Sherlock, he himself acknowledges this by stating, “You are me.”
But I would aver that Andrew Scott’s Moriarty is not a parallel to Sherlock, but a contrast. The only thing the two share is a determination to do whatever must be done to accomplish their objectives. This series does not portray them as fencing to a draw as equals, but more of (again) a Batman vs Joker type dynamic. This of course makes him highly dangerous but it’s not a matter of intellectual equality, more that Moriarty does the unexpected and throws Sherlock for a loop.
Not so with Magnussen. He is just as emotionally disattached as Sherlock (perhaps more so as by Series Three Sherlock has definitely gained an emotional attachment to John, Mrs. Hudson, Molly et al) and has the same intellectual capacity – for evidence, look no further than his mind palace. I’ll bet you a deerstalker that Moriarty has no mind palace. That one fact about Magnussen is what makes him the deadliest foe Sherlock has yet faced, and of course there’s only one way to vanquish such an enemy. Magnussen’s only mistake was not predicting that bit of Moriarty in Sherlock: that he was “willing to burn,” and that was his downfall.
1. Doyle’s Holmes Nails it
Just read this speech Holmes makes about Charles Augustus Milverton in the Doyle story and you can easily tell how much Mofftiss were influenced by the original when creating Magnussen. Watson remarks while listening to this that “I had seldom heard my friend speak with such intensity of feeling.”:
“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. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.”