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more thoughts on Mary Morstan

A few days back I posted a bit of an outline for my latest theory on who Mary Morstan/Watson is, where the BBC show is going with her, and the like. Specifically, I'd just reread Doyle's story "The Empty House" and was seeing a lot of parallels between the Sebastian Moran character in that story, and found myself wondering how that would fit into the BBC show other than Mary becoming a kind of Moriarty Lite. I'd like to talk about that in a bit more detail.

First, if you haven't read it (and you should, it's a great story), "The Empty House" is the Doyle short story about Holmes's return to Baker Street. In "The Final Problem," he seemingly dies while trying to (capture? Kill? I haven't actually read the story since I was fourteen so I can't remember exactly) the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty. The point is that Watson (and all of his readers) think Holmes is dead, when in fact he really had escaped (narrowly). And that's where Sebastian Moran enters into it. He was originally a loyal (even heroic) soldier out of India who "without any open scandal he still made India too hot to hold him." Eventually he left the army, returned to London and hooked up with Moriarty, who "used him in one or two very high-class jobs which no ordinary criminal could have undertaken." He'd seen Holmes kill Moriarty but survive himself, and so he'd dogged Holmes, wanting to kill him as revenge. That's why Holmes didn't return to London for three years or even let Watson know he was alive; there wasn't any crime the police had the evidence to arrest him for, and if Holmes shot him then Holmes would almost certainly go to jail since there were no witnesses who could show his life was really in danger.

In the books of course, Mary Morstan is a very different character, and the BBC show even has a separate Moran, the MP behind the bombing in "The Empty Hearse." My theory is that this character will actually turn out to be Sebastian Moran's father, which Holmes's index identifies as "Sir Augustus Moran, C.B., once British Minister to Persia." As to Mary, until I reread the story last week I was a bit skeptical over the fan theories I've come across connecting her and Moran because it just seemed to play into slash fans' tendency to demonize the female obstacle to the pairing. Every instinct I have when watching these shows tells me Mary's past is so suggestive without being solidly evil, that the show-runners seem to be counting on me to hate her or at least think of her as a villain – which make me hesitant to do just that. It's similar to how JK Rowling used Snape, made him seem such a skulking stereotype that he couldn't help but be a death-eater (except he wasn't), and that impression and the natural reaction to him is what allowed her to surprise us as late as Deathly Hallows. I keep thinking about Mary and keep getting that same impression: that I'm supposed to hate him, that the show-runners are counting on me thinking of her as the enemy, and that the genre being what it is, that assumption will be used to fool me. I like being surprised, but I like it even better when I can puzzle out the mystery and not be fooled.

But getting back to "House," when I reread it... well, you can't help but be struck by the parallels between Moran's actions in that story and Mary's showdown with Sherlock in Leinster Gardens. I can't go into all that without spoiling "House" which I don't want to for people who haven't read it (it's a great scene), but I definitely can see why people familiar with the Doyle scene would be struck by the parallel. There's also the similarities between Moran's and Morstan's backgrounds (first a distinguished "legitimate" armed services career followed by going freelance/[seemingly] criminal), and even the way she breaks into Magnussen's office is a bit reminiscent of Moran's role in the murder Holmes finally nails him for in "House." It's not hard to see why people would latch on to the parallels. Reading the story with fresh eyes, I was struck by them myself.

But while I'm now buying that there's a Mary/Moran parallel, I'm not buying this means she was necessarily working with Moriarty, or that she was intentionally gunning for Sherlock, that she actually wanted him dead. This show has a long tradition of taking characters and turning them on their head a bit. I think they did a certain amount of that with Irene's character and Lestrade (making him more of a confidante and even paternal). Mycroft's whole persona is really different from what you see in the Doyle books (though I think there's a tradition in the pastiche they're pulling on, and there's definitely a TPLOSH connection) And of course there's Mary's Doyle-canon characterization as clever and even-witted, but also clean and pure and fresh. The fact we can draw a connection between Mary Morstan and Sebastian Moran at all just shows that with this show, the relation to canon isn't one-to-one. It's not a point-for-point adaptation, though it's definitely using the canon in some original and exciting ways. And just because Mary <==> Moran in this show doesn't mean that because Moran does x in Doyle, Mary will do x on the BBC show.

So, it's possible for Mary to parallel Moran in some meaningful way without this making her Moriarty's lieutenant or avenger. It's also possible River Song will be making a cameo, or that Tom Hiddleston will turn out to be "the other one." As awesome as that would e, I don't think it's all that likely. So why think that she's anything other than a potentially really wonderful villain?

Well, there's the possibility of a double-cross here, this almost gut instinct I have that team Moffat wants me to think just that and is relying on it so they can fool me. There's also the problem of what the heck we're supposed to make of "His Last Vow"'s final act, where Sherlock moves from "John Watson is definitely in danger" to "Give Mary my love." It's very difficult to make sense of Sherlock removing himself from John's and Mary's life (which going to prison for murder and treason would definitely do) unless he thought Mary was trustworthy or at least good for John. But there's another aspect I think a lot of fans overlook. I certainly did until I reread "House" and started thinking about the Sebastian Moran angle. Specifically: there are two (at least two) main conflicts on this show, the external struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty but also the internal struggle Sherlock has going on with himself as he tries to grow from a great man to a good one. And there, I think Mary can be quite interesting.

Every story needs a good old-fashioned villain, but this particular story had one in Andrew Scott's Moriarty. I'll even say a great one. No, if there were practical reasons why he couldn't come back, other time commitments or he just didn't like the work, that's fine. The thing is, he's probably had just as much screen-time this last series as he did in the first two, and he's set up where a Moriarty return to the living could be plausible. We don't actually need Mary to fill this role that I can see, and even if she did I can't imagine her being an improvement. Not because I don’t respect Amanda Abbington (she's wonderful) but because Andrew Scott was just such a fascinating nemesis. He and Benedict had really good chemistry, the characterization was fresh, and the like. I'm also not seeing room for another competing villain, a faithful Moriarty lieutenant that could help further the external conflict.

The internal conflict, though. From the beginning, this show has been really oriented around the question, should we care. Is caring an advantage for its own sake, even if it doesn't lead to better results? In ASIP we cheered for John Watson because, while Sherlock risked his life to prove he was clever and tortured a dying man for information, John saved the life to save someone he'd only just met, even someone who stupidly put himself in harm's way. With TBB he's the one preaching sympathy and passion for the victims, and of course TGG asks the question explicitly. And on throughout the series. John certainly thinks caring is good for its own sake even when it doesn't lead to better outcomes (it's intrinsically valuable and not just pragmatically, caring is part of what it means to be good), and to truly be a good friend (or whatever else) for John, Sherlock has to grow into this kind of caring as well. He's making progress, really, though he's not there yet. You see it in HLV, in that lovely Christmas conversation between him and Mycroft when he asks why Mycroft isn't bothered by Magnussen's terrorizing of "little" people. Their suffering may not add up to any great consequence on the larger scale, but caring about them and being moved to defend them seems to matter.

So where does Mary come into this? I'm actually prepared to take her seriously in Magnussen's office when she seems to regret Sherlock barging in on her. I'll run with the idea that she never meant to involve him in this and even when she shot him, she meant it as surgery, giving him the best chance of surviving possible without risking the operation's success. (Which in my mind isn't to kill Magnussen so much as to scare him off... whatever she's after, whether it's her own liberty or some other operation.) But still, she shot him. Through the chest at close range. I've heard the explanations that Sherlock's life was in danger if Magnussen thought they were working together, that if he left the room she'd lose control of the situation or at least look weak. I've made a few of those arguments myself, even been convinced by them. (Some days.) But even if all that's true, even if we put Mary's actions in the best light possible here, one thing at least is obvious; she's willing to shoot (risk death if not intend it) innocent bystanders when it's necessary to accomplish her objective. And she's not even going to feel guilty about it.

This doesn't require her to be in league with Moriarty. There actually is a need for people who can be cold and calculating, who can take decisive action when necessary and see the big picture. I'm willing to accept that caring may not always be an advantage, that it's possible to care too much, and that there may actually be a need for snipers and assassins – even those working outside the law (though that scares me, of course). I mean, if Ferguson has taught us anything (and so many of the original Doyle stories teach this same lesson – "Devil's Foot" and "Solitary Cyclist" spring to mind), it's that the law doesn't always provide justice for everyone in every situation. But if the virtue Sherlock's being driven to is to care more thoroughly, to care even when it doesn't serve some larger goal, then Mary is the opposite ideal: to treat caring as a tool but also a liability that can make her less able to do what she needs to do. Like a good little Aristotelian I think the proper state will lie somewhere in the middle and that what's virtuous will depend on the situation (a consulting detective may need more empathy than a professional killer, and Sherlock may need to veer toward one extreme for a while to correct his natural deficiency). So I'm not saying Mary's lack of caring makes her a bad person, it may actually make her a better person (assume it's possible to be good as an assassin) than if she cared. But it's not good for Sherlock, and that sets her up as a foil to him quite nicely, I think.

Now, in a lot of ways we already have this kind of character, someone who chooses not to care because he thinks it interferes with his ability to manage what he needs to manage (perhaps correctly). I'm talking about Mycroft here. But, as much as I love him, I don't think there's any danger of Sherlock really seeing him as a good role model. For that we need someone he hasn't described as his arch enemy from Day #1. We need cute Mary Morstan, who presented herself (and was accepted as such!) as an ally to Sherlock, as a friend. Mary's real value to developing the story in an interesting way, I think, will be by showing Sherlock that caring really is important, that even if she had a really, really good reason for going after Magnussen (whether it's her own self-preservation or something else), it was still wrong to be prepared to kill or even risk killing a bystander and not care about that. Maybe it's okay to overcome that caring in some situations, if the justification is good enough, but the caring matters.

I meant to go into how exactly I think this fits into series three, particularly The Empty Hearse and the Guy Fawkes kidnapping, and what Mycroft was really up to w.r.t. Magnussen in His Last Vow. Also where I think this kind of understanding of Mary would take her (and the show) in series four and beyond. But (*checks clock*) I have an interview in Manhattan in two hours so I really must brush brush wash and get on the train. I'll get to that in another post, I hope. But I think for me at least this possibility that Mary might be a challenge to Sherlock as something other than the new Moriarty or someone working with him is important. It opens up possibilities beyond "she's evil and wants to hurt him because she's on Moriarty's side" that I think are much more interesting, make for a much more compelling show and a character. This doesn't mean that I want John and her to end up happily ever after with a baby in the suburbs, or even that I expect her to survive long-term. But I'm also not sure I see her as a villain or a likely villain. Morally grey, sure, but more in the sense that Mycroft is morally ambiguous and not entirely on Sherlock's side. Actually, the more I think about Mary's character, the more likely I think she's connected to him rather than Moriarty – and that could be just fascinating as a window into just what's going on with him. Then again, I always do want everything to be about him. More on all that when I'm able.

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