This review contains spoilers.
I know I bang on about sexism a lot, and sometimes I do wonder if I’m being truthful in my criticism: truthful to my personal experience of the text, rather than received opinion about it garnered from my pretty universally left-leaning Internet lurking-places.
I mention this here because I loved the first two series of Sherlock with a fervent devotion: it was my Favourite Ever Show for at least a couple of years.
Having watched the first episode of series 4, though, marred by the debacle that was last year’s Abominable Bride and by seven years of Moffat’s writing for Doctor Who and by his general faint air of contempt for women, QUILTBAG folks and fans, I’m struggling to remember just what I liked about it. Does this mean I’m privileging my distaste for the creator’s politics over my actual experience of the text?
The Six Thatchers sees Sherlock, restored to 221b Baker Street after the bizarrities of His Last Vow, investigating a bizarre pattern of crimes across London: at each crime scene, a bust of Margaret Thatcher has been smashed. Sherlock is convinced it’s a posthumous game of Moriarty’s: “It’s too baroque,” Sherlock says, not inaccurately. About halfway through, though, he has a revelation:
“This is about Mary [John Watson’s ex-spy wife]!”
You can almost hear Moffat going, “This is an episode about a woman! Nobody will ever spot that!”
A couple of scenes later:
“I was so convinced it was Moriarty I couldn’t see what was right under my nose.”
Conveniently (and ironically, given Moffat’s evident love of self-referentiality) these three quotes pretty much sum up what I think annoyed me about the episode.
We’ll take the thorny sexism issue first.
This Is (Not) About Mary!
This is what pisses me off about Moffat’s writing of women, a problem that also manifests itself in his writing for Doctor Who: the stories he writes for women are not actually about them. I am sure Moffat thinks that Mary, an ex-killer with an intelligence almost to match Sherlock’s own, is a strong female character. But look closely: though The Six Thatchers delves into Mary’s secret past, though it sees her face-to-face with an old friend who was once dearer than family, though it looks at her marriage and watches her sob out her last words, it is not about her.
It’s about Ajay, the PTSD sufferer wrenched by betrayal who tries to kill her.
It’s about her husband John and his boredom in their marriage.
It’s about Sherlock and his vow to protect the Watsons, Come What May.
Do we get to see Mary’s feelings about the friends she lost? No; Mary’s past only affects her insomuch as it’s plot-convenient. Do we get to see her being friends with Sherlock? No, not really, because she’s at home minding the baby more often than not.
The only glimpses we get into her actual inner life are two sickening monologues in which she rambles on and on and on about how much she loves John. One is a letter, left behind as she flees her family to save them from the shadow of the past; we see not her face as she writes it but John’s as he reads it. The second is her death-speech (like in a bad melodrama, nobody can die in a Moffat production without reading out a manifesto about their life): “You gave me everything I could have ever wanted,” she coughs out bravely, “Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.”
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.
This fiercely independent, intelligent woman can’t even be granted a death of her own (Clara Oswald much?); it’s all about her husband, who, I might add, seems pretty bloody grumpy about her efforts to save her family – “Lies, all lies!” – for someone who’s also an ex-soldier and presumably has some skeletons in the closet of his own.
HOW DARE SHE HAVE A PAST THAT DOES NOT INVOLVE HIM.
Just a thought before I move on: what would Mary be doing if she hadn’t met John?
“It’s too baroque”
To return to my questions about whether I’m being fair to the text, I think the reason I didn’t enjoy the episode – as opposed to the reasons why it’s a sexist episode – is a structural one. The first two series of Sherlock are explicitly mystery stories (apart from perhaps The Reichenbach Fall), fast-paced, snappy, and importantly following a really familiar structure, viz., the detective story, that allows us to keep up when Sherlock talks too fast and/or pulls solutions out of his ass (which I suspect happens more often than I cared to notice). The latter ones have tried to be character stories first and foremost, and for me it’s becoming abundantly clear that this isn’t a show set up to talk successfully about character. It wants to be twisty and fast-paced and surprising and reveal shocking bits of backstory, with the result that the plots are ever more far-fetched and, yes, baroque, and ever less able to pay off on that far-fetched-ness; and the characterisation is ever less consistent and believable, and ever more offensive.
In other words: it’s because this episode is (Not) About Mary that I was bored by it. The early episodes have more than their fair share of sexism, racism and homophobia; it’s just that they’re also quite exciting. The latter doesn’t make the former OK, of course, but it does make it possible for me to enjoy watching them. Whereas things like The Six Thatchers just make me want to fling my laptop out the window.