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Monday, 13 January 2014

"His Last Vow," Part 2: Women, eh?

Previously: Part 1

The role of female characters in this episode was, well... holy shit. To break it down, we have six women: Mary, Molly, Janine, Mrs Hudson, Sherlock's mother, and Lady Smallwood. Lady Smallwood's role was essentially that of a typical crime show guest actor, and Mrs Hudson and Sherlock's mother both had pleasant, relatively unimportant maternal roles. The three recurring female characters who were actually important to the plot were all linked by two traits. Firstly, they're all romantically linked to one of the two male leads, and secondly, the events of this episode transformed each of them from being independent humans to acting like orbiting satellites, helpless to the gravitational pull of Sherlock's personal storyline.
Tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of words have been written by Sherlock and Doctor Who fans, attempting to decode Steven Moffat's unsettling attitude to women. Considering the kinds of things he's said during official publicity interviews, it's difficult to argue that he isn't something of a misogynist. And this regularly shines through in his writing, partly thanks to his repeated use of a very specific fantasy formula when it comes to writing central female characters. This season of Sherlock provided some very interesting examples in this regard, because while Moffat and Gatiss certainly collaborate on their scripts, His Last Vow was the only episode that had Moffat as the primary writer. In other words, the main plot points and characterisation details in the first two episodes were not governed by Moffat's headcanon. Gatiss and Thompson's job was to set up Mary and Janine as characters we would find engaging and likeable, in preparation for Moffat's plan to tear them down and ~reveal their true natures~ in episode three.

Now, obviously this was all planned from the beginning, but I still find it telling that the series overview basically boiled down to this: "We need to introduce two new awesome female characters and then utterly screw them over and make sure their existence revolves around John and Sherlock."
One of the most common criticisms regarding Moffat Women is that he creates female characters who seem to exist purely to support a male hero. Or, more accurately, he creates interesting female characters who are later proven to exist only to support a male hero. In Doctor Who: River Song, Clara Oswald, and The Girl in the Fireplace. In Sherlock: Irene Adler, Mary, Janine, and to a certain extent, Molly, who in this episode saw her engagement broken off (offscreen!) and her role in the episode reduced to that of a helpful assistant inside Sherlock's Mind Palace.
On an individual basis, none the female characters in His Last Vow are enormously problematic. You can rationalise them. Sherlock's mother gave up a career in mathematics to have children? Fine. Lots of people give up their careers to have kids. Mary used to be an assassin, and will do anything to keep her past a secret so John won't leave her? Well, that's kind of fucked up, but romantic in its own way. Janine is surprisingly unbothered by the fact that her boyfriend was using her to get into her boss's office, and faked their entire relationship? Admirably pragmatic. The problem only arises when you combine all of these together, especially when you have any awareness of the kind of things Steven Moffat has said about women and female characters in the past. Let's look at Mary and Janine, the two women who went from being normal people to being cogs in the John-and-Sherlock storyline machine:
  • Janine: I said in last week's review that I liked Janine, but found it very odd that Sherlock would be so pleasant to her. Well, now we have a satisfying explanation for Sherlock's uncharacteristically friendly attitude! However, her reaction to Sherlock's betrayal is pure fantasy. Rather than reacting in the way that 99% of humans would have done, her personality was specially constructed to absolve Sherlock of his sins and allow the audience to forgive him for acting like a colossal douchebag. It's OK! She's a "whore" who got even by selling her story to the tabloids! So it's totally OK that Sherlock lied to her and used her throughout their entire relationship.
  • Mary: Were it not for the John/Mary/Sherlock scene at Baker Street, I might have accepted the revelation that Mary is a former CIA assassin. It's hardly the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened in this show, after all. But during that scene, I found myself viewing the characters with a strange kind of double vision: they were no longer just people, but also mouthpieces for the writer. As one of my friends put it: This episode says so much about Moffat's views on women that it's actually shocking. John's first reaction to Mary's betrayal is to say, "What have I ever done to deserve you?" and then "You weren't supposed to be like this!" which starts off a whole conversation about how of course John was attracted to Mary, because she is not a Normal Woman, she is Special and Exciting.
Everything is about John. Mary's presence in the show is the result of John's life up until this point, and it's really just as well that we got a nice, neat scene where Sherlock helpfully explains John's own personality traits to him, so we all know that John and Mary are Made For Each Other. Or, more accurately, that Mary is Made For Him, what with her conveniently being Very Exciting on top of her original appealing traits of being Feisty and shockingly tolerant of Sherlock's nightmarish behaviour.
If you think I'm overreacting a little here, please allow me to digress for a moment on the topic of Moffat Women. Do you guys watch Doctor Who? I assume many of you do, but if you don't, let tell you the story of River Song.

River Song was introduced as a guest character in Steven Moffat's excellent double episode, Silence In The Library, back when Russel T. Davies was still showrunner. She's a smart, sexually liberated, confident, middle-aged archaeologist/adventurer -- who, it turns out, is married to the Doctor. They seem to have a really cool relationship where she lives her own life as a kind of intergalactic Indiana Jones, and occasionally meets up with the Doctor whenever he's having an adventure in her corner of the galaxy.
But as the series progressed and Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, the truth of River's backstory was gradually "revealed." Rather than being an independent entity who fell in love with the Doctor, it turned out that she was secretly the daughter of two of his companions. On top of this, she was "programmed" to hunt down the Doctor and assassinate him. When she meets him for the first time in her timeline, she decides not to kill him, and instead gives him a ton of her own life-force in order to save his life, which effectively downgrades her from near immortality to a normal human lifespan. Then, she becomes an "archaeologist" in order to research the history of the Doctor, because she knows their lives are intertwined, and it's the only way she can learn more about him while he's free to travel around space and time without her. Eventually she is imprisoned for "killing" him, and they only spend time together he arrives at her prison to pick her up for a fun adventure in space, and then delivers her back to be locked up again. When she dies, the Doctor has her consciousness stored in a computer so she can "live forever," trapped in a utopian (but extremely dull) CGI garden with various other stored consciousnesses.

Mary and Janine's character development was a microcosm of this evolution from independent character to obsessive follower. I still like Mary a lot, but it's annoying to learn that instead of just being, you know, a person, she has to be this Very Special And Important superspy who is willing to shoot Sherlock in the chest to protect her relationship with John. She's a near-perfect example of the Steven Moffat formula for central female characters: feisty and powerful and "fun" until we discover that her entire role in the show is hopelessly tied up in the male hero's existence, and has been since before she even appeared onscreen. A far more emotionally authentic character journey would've been if she was just an ordinary person who is in love with John, rather than an infamous assassin with a Dark Past who is hopelessly embroiled in a conflict with Sherlock's latest arch-nemesis
Which brings me on to the weirdest aspect of Mary's revelation: the fact that she doesn't seem to care if Sherlock lives or dies. She evidently likes him, but I'm of the opinion that no matter what Sherlock said about her ability to shoot, she was completely willing to kill him in Magnusson's office. I think it's reasonably likely that if Sherlock hadn't set up that scene in that corridor behind the facade, she might have made another attempt to kill him, just to avoid John discovering her secret. But as soon as John knew, she no longer had any reason to silence Sherlock, so she could go back to her original position of finding him likable and entertaining on a personal level. John, inexplicably, is perfectly OK with staying married to a woman who shot his best friend in the chest, but I genuinely can't tell if this was intentional or if it was just another example of the extremely uneven characterisation this season.

Concluded in Part 3


  1. I think the main thing with Mary is that we just need more of her. Like you say, everything potentially problematic about her could be rationalized away, if only we just knew more about her. I don't necessarily need or want to know about her assassin life, but why did she retire? How did she and John meet? We know why John was attracted to her, but why does she love him so much that she'd murder to keep him from getting hurt? I'd frankly be satisfied on the "later proven to exist only for a man" front if it turned out that they met and fell in love in completely innocuous circumstances, and Mary never expected her past life to ever be relevant again. From the viewer's perspective, Mary would still appear as this "shocking!!" plot device, but from a narrative one, she'd be a more independent/separately realized character.

  2. Anna Flasza-Szydlik14 January 2014 at 03:38

    To me, Mary seems like a female version of Sherlock (she is obviously socipath or even psycopath). They are both broken emotionaly, they both think end justifies the means and both would kill one another if necessary. And they both care for John who is a good person, but still tainted enough to accept them.

  3. Velmi dobře řečeno. Tyto tipy jsou opravdu úžasné. Vážím si ho pro jejich sdílení.
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  4. i love Janine! and she's living in the house that canon Sherlock retires to! i don't understand all this hate for her, i really think it's just jealousy...