[Spoilers for the BBC’s Sherlock TV show]
It’s incredible to see the variety of emotions that people are experiencing after witnessing the final events of the New Years Day episode of Sherlock: The Six Thatchers.
But it’s also a little disturbing to see how many people seem love the fact that Mary was killed because of their hatred of the character. Indeed in looking at the difference responses I came across Katie Welsh’s review of the episode on Indiewire.
Though a very good (and quite funny) review, there was one part that stuck out to me:
(Mary’s) death is a problem, and not just because she was a welcome female face in the homoerotic sausagefest that the show can turn into if left unaccompanied. She has, in feminist pop culture parlance, been “fridged“ — killed off to further a male character’s story arc and fuel him with manpain. It’s yet another reminder that women are not central — not even important — to the story.
A fair point, but I think a little too simplistic when trying to establish why Mary was killed off. In reality the removal of Mary was absolutely necessary to keep the story going, regardless of how her death emotionally affected the male characters.
What do we know about Mary? She’s a bad-ass retired spy. She’s quick-witted and resilient. Incredibly intelligent and loyal. With all her amazing skills and experiences, the only person she’s second to is Sherlock. (And to be fair, I’m pretty sure she could kick the shit out of him.)
The most important thing to take away from this is that she is, for all intents and purposes, better than John in every single measurable way possible. And that causes a story problem. Not because she’s a woman. But because she’s not as dumb as John.
Think carefully about why John exists in the story. He’s there as an audience surrogate. He represents us. When Sherlock needs to explain something to John, he’s actually explaining it to us. That is the whole point of John’s existence in the story.
But with Mary in the picture, one single problem pops up: What does Sherlock need John for?
Mary is superior to John in every way. So why wouldn’t Sherlock just take her on all his cases? The episode itself points this out brilliantly at the 30 minute mark.
John: Mary, what are you doing here?
Sherlock: She’s better at this than you.
Sherlock: So I texted her.
John: Hang on, Mary’s better than me?
Sherlock: Well, she is a retired super-agent with a terrifying skill-set. Of course she’s better.
So the problem we have here is that Mary is the most logical person for Sherlock to take with him, but the audience need someone as dumb as John to go with Sherlock.
So what’s the solution?
Well, the first thing that would pop into most people’s minds would be for Sherlock to just explain everything to Mary. That would be an utter disaster of storytelling though. You would be taking a woman that has already been established as a strong, intelligent character; and dumbing her down so that the male protagonist has someone to explain the situation to. Do any of you think that’s going to fly in 2017?
So John (or someone equally as dumb) has to be the one following Sherlock around. So what’s the next solution? Writing Mary to stay at home with the baby?
Again, that’s another negative storytelling decision. While it wouldn’t be impossible to write a former female super-spy deciding to stay at home with the kids; can you imagine the backlash if she also allowed her husband carte blanche to go on a bunch of dangerous adventures? Especially when she’s clearly more qualified? Not only would it not make much logical sense, but it would look like a strong capable woman is being forced to stay at home so the boys can go on their little adventure.
Put simply: Mary has to be removed from the story for it to continue.
Now, to be fair, Mary didn’t need to specifically die. But there aren’t that many ways to remove her without fundamentally changing the direction or structure of the show.
Let’s say there’s a threat and Mary leaves in order to protect her family (like she does in the episode.) Would John have sat around, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for her to come back? Probably not. And more importantly, even after the threat is neutralised and Mary returns home, the original problem still exists
Okay then, lets say the writers still have Mary leave and just ignore that story thread. From now on its just John and the baby. Do you think audiences would accept that? I guarantee not. Every interview with the writers would have someone asking “When’s Mary coming back?”
And yes, I’ll admit there are a variety of other ways that they could have written her out of the story without killing her. Maybe she becomes disabled. Maybe she falls into a coma. Maybe she’s arrested and imprisoned for her crimes. But there is nothing more “clean” (story wise) than killing her straight out.
I know people are upset that the best female character in the show has been killed off. While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that she was “Fridged”, it’s important for everyone to remember that a lot more thought than you might think went into writing that screenplay you’re criticising.