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On the Exit of Mary Watson

An Image of Abbington as Mary Watson

Abbington as Mary Watson


Let us be clear from the outset, I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes, from the original texts penned by Doyle to the “what the h*ll were you thinking” Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (Google it, I dare you) to the modern incarnations of Elementary, Sherlock and, of course Guy Ritchie’s bombastic cinema spectacles.  So while the originals will always be, to me, the “true” Sherlock Holmes, with all of it’s promise and problems, I do have a very high tolerance for f*cking with the source material.  But to me, the eventual death (implied in the originals) of Mary Watson was a given. Having Mary in the mix took the edge off, made everything just a little too easy.  Having guest geniuses is fine, but Mary was written to approach Sherlock in deductive skill and while the riffing between the two characters was delightful, it changed the nature of the show.  Had this been any other showrunner, I would have expected her to last just long enough to get “fridged”, a single Sherlock-length episode would have been standard, in fact.

But, like most of the women in Sherlock, I feel she went out in a way that was entirely within her own agency. Mary Watson and Irene Adler both prove themselves to be on a par with either Holmes or Watson (and they give Mycroft a bit of trouble as well). They were both dynamic, aggressive women, not given to the satisfaction that comes from serving others, but rather in engagement with themselves and their broader possibilities.

Mary Watson went out in a way that was suited to the character we had come to know. International assassin, spy, mother, she made a split second choice. A choice that in many instances would have been relegated to a male character. Women get sacrificed, they do not sacrifice in the same way men do so often in film and television. There is a distinction there and an important one.  So important, in fact, that the writers feel compelled (or perhaps they thought we would all miss it) to have John Watson repeat it out loud to the camera at the reconciliation in the second episode.

Steven Moffat and the stories he is the caretaker of are often said to have problems with female characters. I cannot say I agree with this assessment.  Can one see the underpinnings of stereotypes in them?  Sure, but that can be said in equal parts of all the characters in the show, including the titular Sherlock. There are problematic moments, to be sure, Ideas that probably seemed awesome in the writer’s room but then when brought into the light turn out to have a poor intersection point with reality, that trigger something unexpected in the audience.  His female characters almost always have agency, they have deeper backstories than you’d think (“You’re not my first smackhead, Sherlock Holmes” will always be a favorite line from now on) and to me that is one of the most important elements.  I’m far less concerned about whether or not a character is wearing short skirts or is prancing around bare*ss naked than I am about the character themselves and how they fit into the broader picture.  I’d go so far as to say Moffatt and Gatiss fairly accurately represent many of the complexities of *being* female (whether you are born with the requisite hardware or not) right now.


Tropes and Time


I’m working on rewrites to my upcoming novel this week, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of noodling on character motivations.  Combine that with the recent online panic about Captain America turning out to be a sleeper-agent for Hydra (in the comics) and I’ve been banging my head against tropes, subversion or tropes and all the different ways you can explain a character to a reader (or a viewer, or a gamer).

I get that these tropes exist for a reason.  They’re a shorthand (not always a good shorthand) that taps into the shared experience of everyone who has been consuming media for the past 20 years.  Notice I only say 20.  We humans have a notoriously short lens.  Take an English class sometime and read through anything written before the turn of the 19th century.  Notice how much time your teacher has to spend on setting the context?  Explaining the cultural canon of that timeframe so that you can appreciate the actual depth of the books you’re reading?  Once you know things like; the term “nose” as a common metaphor for “penis”, your understanding of a works can change on a very fundamental level.

The point is that this body of trope and metaphor, what is often referred to as the “cultural canon” is constantly changing and updating.  The tropes of 50 years ago are, by and large, unintelligible to the incoming audience.

But what this means is that these things that we are railing against, these shorthand pieces of storytelling that tap into the cultural canon to cut out hours of work and exposition, these are temporary.  We have the chance to change and direct where they go and what replaces them if we start putting the extra work in now.  There will be fits and starts, of course, there will be throwbacks and reversions to type, but we are already pushing the canon in a new direction.  The idea of a villain with a sympathetic backstory?  That’s NEW, that entered the canon within the past 30 years.  The idea that hero can fail, then *return* to being a hero again?  That’s also NEW.  So while it’s disappointing to see one-note throwbacks, we need to keep in mind that those are on their way out.  As long as we keep pushing to create the new canon, replacing those older, now negative tropes with an easy to use toolkit of new ones, we can keep this evolution moving forward.