Mycroft Holmes bears the brunt of a lot of anger, both on our screens and off it. I understand; he’s a difficult character to get along with. We are given no black and white reason to like him. Sherlock, our titular character and protagonist, has an extremely antagonistic relationship with him. And the nature of narrative is that one is usually expected to side with the hero, so we side with Sherlock in their sibling war.
However, we cannot asses them and their fraternal bond in the same way we would ordinary people. The Holmes brothers, through an unpredictable quirk in genetics, have been gifted a strange and special kind of genius. Because of it, they are both difficult, damaged human beings who have trouble communicating on an emotional level. Both are so similar, each the only one really capable of understanding the other perfectly; and yet, I also think that this makes them more liable to misunderstand the other too. And, for the same reasons we sympathise with Sherlock’s anti-social bite and bile, we must pause to reassess Mycroft.
It’s easy to see why Sherlock does not get along with his brother. Mycroft is controlling and secretive and more than a little sinister. He has an enormous amount of wealth, privilege and influence that he exerts to keep tabs on his wayward little brother. He’s undemonstrative, he’s prosaic. Sometimes his behaviour is both morally and emotionally vague.
But are we to interpret these as the actions of a Machiavellian puppet-master, out to control his brother as though he were an asset to utilise or a weapon to be deployed? I’m not convinced; for this to be the case Mycroft’s every action would have to be a manipulation, and this simply doesn’t ring true. Furthermore, this would require Sherlock to continue a willing association with a brother solely out to control him – apart from anything else, this is an interpretation that doesn’t give our ever-perceptive hero much credit. The truth is likely more complex. Because, while Mycroft never allows Sherlock beyond the locus of his control, perhaps there is good reason for that. Their shared past has been left hazy, but what little we do know, such as Sherlock’s past addiction problems, indicate the rationale for Mycroft’s over protectiveness. There have been problems he does not want to see repeated, so uses his resources to help avert them. Sherlock pushes back against this, as well a grown man might, but never hard enough to actually push his brother away - it is in concession to his brother, a reluctant acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, Brother Knows Best.
Ultimately, Mycroft gives a lot more than he takes. Although he says that caring is not an advantage, Mycroft can’t seem to stop. They are brothers; they have grown up and grown apart, and don’t really fit into each other’s worlds very well anymore, but brothers they remain. Maybe sometimes Mycroft takes it too far; he is a Holmes, after all. By virtue of their troubled intellect, their relationship is so much push and pull – a descent into childishness at one moment, an ascent onto a philosophical plane the next. But what permeates every facet of their sibling rivalry is the compassion and concern. The love there is quite real. It’s complicated and painful, as love often is, but never doubt its authenticity.
Although his role in The Reichenbach Fall may still be up for discussion (I’ll send you back here for my theories on that), Mycroft’s every other appearance on screen demonstrates a persistent, attentive and cautiously administered care on the part of the elder Holmes.
Reading Mycroft Holmes is difficult; maybe some of this is conjectural, born of reading between the lines and assuming double-meanings. But we’re Sherlockians, it’s what we do.
I’m afraid I’ve written another enormous thing, so please see under the cut:
1) A Study in Pink, The Warehouse
I wonder if all Holmeses have a flair for the dramatic? Because Mycroft’s kidnapping of John Watson was just that; carefully orchestrated theatrics, designed to intimidate. It’s also hinted that this is not the first time Mycroft has stepped in to assess, and attempt to bribe, Sherlock’s acquaintances. A creepy thing to be doing, certainly, but ultimately a caring one.
When John mentions his encounter to Sherlock, his immediate recognition of the situation - “Did he offer you money to spy on me?” - suggests that this is not the first time this has happened, although perhaps that Sherlock didn’t immediately twig that it was Mycroft who had picked up John, suggests that this is the first time he’s moved in so quickly. Mycroft already knows how swiftly the relationship between John and Sherlock has progressed, quipping, “since yesterday you’ve moved in with him and now you’re solving crimes together. Might we expect a happy announcement by the end of the week?” Perhaps Mycroft doesn’t always move with such expediency when Sherlock makes a new acquaintance, but how many people does Sherlock take into his confidences to quickly? It’s understandable why this behaviour would alarm Mycroft.
As to the bribery, Mycroft does assure John that he doesn’t want anything “indiscreet” or that John would be uncomfortable with. Although a monumentally unsettling action, I think all Mycroft wanted was to ensure someone stayed with his brother, and to pass him information of his well-being. Although sinister and immoral, I cannot read Mycroft’s offer as being in any way malevolent. I just think Holmeses sometimes need to be reminded when they’ve crossed a line. When John turns down his offer, Mycroft does not ask again – his whole expression changes, along with his manner. In many ways the conversation becomes a little more threatening, but Mycroft also becomes more thoughtful, as he begins to reassess John.
I think, perversely, this is the time when we see Mycroft at his most honest. True, John has no idea who he is, but Mycroft has good opportunity to reveal himself as Sherlock’s big brother – John asks directly, twice – and he chooses not to, even if John would be more inclined to help him if he knew his identity. I think the anonymity of the situation prompts Mycroft to be more open than he would be normally. He says that he worries about Sherlock, “constantly,” and I believe him. That he wants his “concern [to] go unmentioned” is, we will later discover, not an unreasonable thing for Mycroft to want. Sherlock pushes back against Mycroft at every opportunity, and I think it is evident that any previous overt attempts at care have failed for this reason.
2) A Study in Pink, The Crime Scene
Minutes after a fatal shooting that Sherlock was involved in, Mycroft’s car pulls up on the crime scene. We know not a lot of time can have passed between the shooting and this moment – John and Sherlock have just reunited, and Sherlock has just escaped the confines of the shock blanket. It’s fairly clear that Mycroft has rushed across London to the scene.
Mycroft doesn’t appear to be there for any other reason than to ensure his brother is well taken care of. The situation appears to be an unusual one, as Sherlock asks, without irony, “What’re you doing here?” Evidently Mycroft doesn’t materialise at Sherlock’s every crime scene. But, presumably, Sherlock isn’t involved in fatal shootings that often and, otherwise, Mycroft normally keeps his distance. I can see why, knowing his brother as well as he does, Mycroft would be alarmed by the turn of events, involving two pills and a gunshot wound, and decide on a personal appearance. For once, I don’t think there’s anything other to the line, “As ever, I was concerned about you.”
Mycroft makes one last comment in this scene, indicating that he keeps Sherlock under surveillance. He ends the episode upgrading his surveillance to “Grade Three. Active.” Who knows how long Mycroft has been monitoring his brother – probably a very long time – but, until now and Sherlock’s sudden and unprecedented shift in behaviour, it wasn’t ‘active’ surveillance. I can see how this can be perceived as Mycroft prying, but I choose to interpret it as Holmesian flawed affection.
By the end of the episode, Mycroft has also reconsidered John – likely making the same deductions as his brother regarding the gunpowder burns on John’s fingers – and decides he may have a positive effect on Sherlock. In this, Mycroft is, as ever, correct.
3) The Great Game, 221b Baker Street
The flat opposite 221b explodes, and John rushes around in a panic as soon as he sees the story on the morning news. Even though this is very early in the morning, Mycroft is already there. In fact, he seems to have been there for a while – he has removed his coat and is well-settled into that chair. I think it is fairly evident that, upon hearing of the explosion, Mycroft rushed round to check on his brother.
The case file, relating to The Bruce Partington Plans, that Mycroft has brought with him is, in some ways, something of a pretence, or a secondary reason for the visit. I suspect that Mycroft had this file ready to give to his brother and, had a bomb not just gone off, would have delivered it at a more sociable hour. The previous scenes, in which we saw Sherlock in his dressing gown, arguing with John and sulking on the sofa, establishes Sherlock as idle, antsy and in need of a case. Mycroft, ever aware of Sherlock’s case load, provides.
4) The Great Game, Mycroft’s Offices
When Mycroft leaves 221b, after Sherlock’s petulant rejection of his case, Mycroft says to John, with characteristic unnerving omniscience, “See you very soon.” John, as predicted, turns up at Mycroft’s offices later that day. Mycroft is incredibly busy at that moment – he had stated earlier in the day that he couldn’t possibly leave the office due to “the Korean elections,” and, when he enters the office he is still reading a file. John had been checking his watch; evidently, Mycroft had kept him waiting. But, in spite of the overload of work his department is presently burdened with, he made the time to see John, to give him the information his brother refused to accept that morning.
5) A Scandal in Belgravia, The Palace
This scene acts as a confirmation of Mycroft’s motives for delivering cases to Sherlock. Mycroft knows exactly which cases his brother has taken and, thus, when Sherlock is unemployed and in need of a distraction. This happened before in The Great Game and it’s happening again now. Their exchange regarding “the hiker and the backfire,” the solution to which Mycroft has deduced from merely glancing at the police reports, is evident of this. Seeing that the resolution to Sherlock’s case is “a bit obvious” – and, indeed, Sherlock has already solved it – Mycroft has him brought to the Palace to attend to something more worthy of his time.
This scene is also a window into their childhood, and, perhaps, the source of Mycroft’s role as his brother’s keeper. Their altercation on the subject of Sherlock’s attire, ending with the very parental “Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on!” is very suggestive. As, indeed, is Sherlock’s response to Mycroft’s “I’ll be mother,” – just why is this a “whole childhood in a nutshell”? We may never learn much about their past, but this bit of dialogue prompts so many questions about their relationship as children.
I’ve discussed this recently, so I’ll leave this section here.
6) A Scandal in Belgravia, 221b Baker Street
Mycroft is round at 221b very early the next morning – the boys are still having breakfast. Although he is discussing the case, he learns nothing from their discussion, I rather do think he’s come to check up on his brother after the shooting at Irene Adler’s house. This is borne out by Mycroft’s reaction to Mrs Hudson’s admonishment, “Family is all we have in the end, Mycroft Holmes.” We have never seen Mycroft’s mask of calm superiority slip for anyone but Sherlock before, but it does here. He snaps at Mrs Hudson for that remark about family, as it’s clearly something he has rather taken to heart. Family is important to Mycroft, and he blames himself for what happens with the CIA assassins that threaten Sherlock and John. Indeed, the final time we see that CIA man, Mycroft has brought him to heel.
Although Sherlock scolds his brother for being rude to Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s rejoinder, “Although do, in fact, shut up,” suggests that he understands what had made Mycroft snap. Sherlock knows how Mycroft feels about family, even if they are both terrible at expressing those feelings, and knows that he doesn’t need any more blame for his missteps.
7) A Scandal in Belgravia, The Holmes Ancestral Home
When Sherlock rings his brother, Mycroft is seen sat in what is identified in the commentary as the Holmes Ancestral Home. The location of this house is unknown, but is certainly outside of London (Sussex is a likely contender, given Sherlock’s choice of location when he retires). Its countryside location is also confirmed by Mycroft’s attire – tweed is country wear, a fabric he would never wear in the city. Mycroft has evidently returned to the country house for the Christmas holiday.
But when Sherlock calls him with the Irene Adler problem, though surprised by the call, he immediately returns to work. Barely hours later (Molly and Lestrade have left 221b, but Mrs Hudson and Jeanette are still there), Mycroft has tracked down a body that could be Irene, had her sent to St. Bart’s, changed into suitable city attire and returned to London to escort Sherlock to the morgue. Not only does he ensure that the body is sent somewhere that Sherlock is familiar with – a “home from home,” – but he also travels sixty miles on Christmas Eve to ensure his brother doesn’t have to face tragedy alone.
8) A Scandal in Belgravia, The Morgue
This is everyone’s favourite scene for good reason. It’s the first and, so far, only time, we see Mycroft and Sherlock talk alone, as brothers. With no one else to impress, a lot of the immaturity, hostility and pettiness has been stripped away. When they’re not performing to anyone else, they speak to each other as equals, Sherlock does not shy away from asking his brother’s opinion, and Mycroft gives it without malice.
Although Mycroft’s declares “Caring is not an advantage,” this cannot be read as Mycroft saying that he doesn’t care. Quite the opposite: he is counselling Sherlock against becoming emotionally invested in Irene’s death, because caring has already been his own undoing. Mycroft also seems to half-deliver this line to himself, pausing significantly between uttering the words and saying Sherlock’s name. Certainly, Mycroft’s life may have been easier if he did not care for his younger brother. His resources wouldn’t be so divided, he wouldn’t have to pause in his affairs to clean up after Sherlock and he wouldn’t have the emotional fall out from when his brother gets in trouble. Without his love for his brother, he would truly be the Ice Man, and would probably run all of Europe by now. As it is, his caring has held him back and, eventually, exposes him to weakness. But he can’t seem to stop.
As if to reinforce that point, moments after that conversation, we see Mycroft contacting John to ensure Sherlock remains safe. We don’t know how long Mycroft has been colluding with John to keep Sherlock safe, but the “sock-index” line and that they obliquely refer to it as a “a danger night” indicates that this is not the first time this has happened. The saddest thing about the exchange between John and Mycroft is that Mycroft admits that he is never sure if a night is going to be a danger night. As omniscient as he is, Sherlock seems to remain a blind-spot for him.
9) A Scandal in Belgravia, Flight 007
Although the scene at the morgue was beautiful, I find this scene more moving, because it speaks volumes about the brothers’ relationship. When Sherlock arrives on the plane, he is his usual self – intrigued by the mystery. When Mycroft reveals his involvement, and Sherlock puts all the pieces into place, his small smile and remark of “Neat” shows that he’s duly impressed by what his brother has been masterminding. Sherlock remains quite indifferent, mocking Mycroft’s perceived failure at screening his MOD people, until Mycroft shouts at him. It is a genuine burst of anger, and the only one we have ever seen. Frustration and irritation, yes, but never anger. It is enough to stop Sherlock in his tracks.
Yet, in spite of this rare burst of anger, Mycroft immediately turn it back in on himself, blaming himself for underestimating Irene, and even apologising to Sherlock. That line, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know” kills me every time.
When Irene threatens to expose the source of the intelligence leak as Mycroft’s “own little brother,” the look on Mycroft’s face speaks volumes. Although I rather suspect Mycroft does not want his weaknesses exposed to his “masters,” I would interpret his expression quite differently. It’s a look of horror, but not one of selfish concern. He was staring her down until she brought up his brother; it’s only when Irene mentions Sherlock that he can no longer meet her gaze. His primary concern is, here, to protect Sherlock from charges of terrorism and, perhaps, treason, from an authority higher than Mycroft himself that he would not be able to circumvent.
(Incidentally, who else was alarmed to find out that Mycroft has masters? I suppose they are meant to be much younger in the BBC series, so Mycroft might not be quite so indispensable yet. I like to imagine Mycroft’s direct superior being played by Christopher Lee.)
10) A Scandal in Belgravia, The Holmes Ancestral Home, again
The negotiations with Irene prove how much he is willing to give away for Queen and Country; we don’t see Irene’s list, but one can assume she wanted millions. Mycroft was prepared to acquiesce to her demands to spare his brother. Had Sherlock not been part of the equation, one assumes Mycroft may have had more options open to him. But, even when faced with a threat like Irene, and asked to sacrifice so much – surely something that will damage his career irrevocably – he is still not prepared to sacrifice Sherlock to his masters.
Sherlock realises his mistakes in this scene, and what his brother does for him. When Sherlock cracks Irene’s code, saving the proverbial day, he hands the phone and its contents to Mycroft and calls him “Brother.” A small acknowledgement, maybe, but one I always find incredibly moving.
11) A Scandal in Belgravia, Speedy’s Café
I find this scene a little confusing, and think it may be one that will have some light shed on it in series three, but, for now, let’s read it straight.
Mycroft has potentially upsetting information regarding Irene Adler and, knowing his brother’s feeling, resolves to hide it behind a nice, fairy-tale resolution, and have John, someone who Sherlock has very fond feelings for, deliver the information. Mycroft treats the situation with all the subtlety and grace that propelled him to the position that he currently occupies.
Additionally, we see here that Mycroft still understands his brother much better than John does. John thinks that the way Sherlock refers to Irene as “The Woman” is indicative of loathing. Mycroft is the one who reads it correctly, as “a salute” – as it is in the canon – to the one woman who matters.
The last thing about this scene is the most haunting. After mentioning that Sherlock initially “wanted to be a pirate,” he enters, what the commentary calls, a little fugue state. Blatantly, the memories of their childhood together still hang very heavily over him.
12) The Hounds of Baskerville, The Diogenes Club
In Mycroft’s brief appearance here, he receives the call about a security breach at Baskerville, and immediately deduces that it must be Sherlock and John. He send two texts in quick succession to Sherlock, both of which Sherlock ignores. Mycroft’s contact alerts Sherlock to the fact that his offices know and, therefore, that the building will soon enter code red, giving Sherlock time to escape. Had Sherlock responded, I think Mycroft may have somehow contrived some way to allow Sherlock continued access – after all, he was able to grant it later – but with no way of knowing for sure that it was his brother, it would have been foolish for Mycroft to override the system.
13) The Reichenbach Fall, The Diogenes Club
Mycroft’s first appearance in this final episode is just one last instance of Mycroft doing what he always does: watching Sherlock, combing for threats, trying to keep him safe. Summoning John, he hands over carefully prepared folders, likely full of all manner of classified information, just to keep his brother informed.
There’s not a lot more I can say about the events of Baskerville and Reichenbach, as it relates so closely to The Fall, and, frankly, has left us with a lot of question marks. I’m certain all will be explained in series three and, as Messrs Moffat and Gatiss have promised us lots more Mycroft next series, I think that will lead to Mycroft either being vindicated or redeemed. His mistakes, if mistakes they were (I’m not buying it), will not have been borne of a selfish desire to manipulate his brother, but to save millions of people from a mad man with a key code that could do untold damage.
I would like to conclude with a recent quote from Mark Gatiss on the subject of the Holmes brothers’ relationship: “What I like best about Sherlock & Mycroft’s relationship (and it’s all inspired by ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’) is the antagonism mixed up with genuine care. It feels like a very real family relationship!”
So, dear friends, if that doesn’t convince you, then I don’t know what will.