Cross-posted from Tumblr: a slightly more fleshed out version of last night's yammering on about BBC!Mary and ACD!Elsie. Under a cut because it got a bit long, and because there are minor SHSpesh spoilers and major stories for the Doyle stories in question. Just in case anyone around here likes hearing me talk fandom. :-)
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about that line from The Sign of Three, “my husband is three persons.” The fannish consensus (at least in the corners of fandom where I tend to live) seems to be that John is “married” or tied intimately to three different people: obviously Mary, but also to Sherlock and Sholto, and that you can’t understand John’s character romantically or sexually without looking at how relates to all three of them.
What if that line isn’t about John at all, though? Or rather, what if it’s not just about John, if it’s an accurate description of Mary’s character as well? I’ve been rereading some of the Doyle stories, and I’ve been struck by how thoroughly Mary ties in with at least three Doyle characters, in rather specific ways.
First, the obvious: Mary is (Sebastian) Moran, or rather Moran is Mary. For those not familiar with Doyle’s stories, Sebastian Moran was Moriarty’s second in command, dubbed the second most dangerous man in London, ex-military and famous as a sharp-shooter who then went “freelance,” and who tried to shoot a dummy he mistook for Holmes when Sherlock returned from the “dead” in “The Empty House.” The parallels are obvious even at that level, but if you read the final scenes of “The Empty House” and then watch the Leinster Gardens scenes in “His Last Vow,” it’s quite obvious that Mary is standing in for that role.
But I actually meant what I said when I distinguished between Morstan is Mary and Mary is Moran. My inner logician reminds me that there actually isn’t a difference, that identity is bivalent – essentially, that if “A is B,” B is also A. But language is a bit sloppy sometimes, particularly when we’re speaking informally. When I say Moran is Mary, I mean that ACD!Moran basically maps on to BBC!Mary, that we shouldn’t expect a character with that name or someone else doing what he did in “The Empty House” pop up on the show. much though I rue the lost opportunity that is Andrew Scott and Michael Fassbender sharing a scene. But just because Sebastian Moran’s role is being played out through the Mary Morstan character, that doesn’t mean everything about Mary’s character is bound up in Moran’s canon role. Morstan is Mary, but there can still be parts of Mary that aren’t Moran.
It’s also worth noting that in the Doyle stories, there weren’t assassins hired to kill anyone if Sherlock didn’t really die. Holmes is about to testify against Moriarty. He flees to the continent, but Moriarty catches up with him in Switzerland, and the two men fight physically and fall over a rock face into a waterfall (seemingly). Moran is Moriarty’s second in command, and he fears Moriarty will take vengeance on Holmes if he finds out Holmes killed Moriarty but survived himself. So Moran isn’t just following orders or attacking Holmes to keep an alive Moriarty from coming after him; he really is that pissed that Holmes killed his boss that he’d kill him just for the revenge.
So who else? At least two Doyle characters spring to mind: Bob Carruthers and Elsie Cubitt.
(Minor SHSPesh spoilers to follow, as well as major spoielrs for “The Dancing Men” and “The Solitary Bicyclist.” Seriously, I pretty much give away the ending to both stories.)
Elsie is the client’s wife in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” where Hilton Cubitt – a Norfolk country squire from a very respectable family – marries an American woman he knows almost nothing about; indeed, on the way to their wedding, she makes it a condition that he not ask her about her past, and she seems perfectly content to become Mrs. Hilton Cubitt. Then her husband finds some cryptic messages pointing to her past, and when Elsie tries to meet secretly with the sender to convince him to just go away, her husband Hilton stumbles in on the scene and winds up murdered.
Granted, he’s not dismembered or anything, but once you look past the obvious connection between a country squire and the canon Holmes family (including the other one, the third hypothesized brother who stays behind to manage the estate so Mycroft and Sherlock can go out into the world), Hilton Cubitt as a murdered country squire starts to get very interesting. So does Sherlock’s deduction that she has a hidden tattoo when you realize “The Blind Banker” is also ripe with “Dancing Men” parallels. As does the skill Mary has in code-breaking we see in “The Empty Hearse,” and the fact that she’s not British and is so willing to accept Mary Watson as her new, full identity.
The problem here is that Elsie Cubitt is really, truly boring as a character, at least to me. Even if she didn’t actually have anything to be ashamed of about her past, even if her only connection to Chicago gangsters is through birth, she still refused to tell her husband about it, and that ultimately led to his death. (Hilton Cubitt isn’t blameless here either, for the record.) Elsie Cubitt as written needs reckoning with, and John has at least as much reason to be righteously pissed with Mary for holding back information about her past that put him in Magnussen’s power, as he does with Sherlock holding back information about what he was up to with Moriarty. John has the right to know that Mary worked as an assassin (both for the good guys and free-lance), and that connecting yourself to her basically made you blackmailable by the likes of Magnussen. Sort of like how Hilton Cubitt needed to know about Elsie’s past, not necessarily before they married (he at least knew she had one and chose not to push it) but certainly when it became relevant to his safety after the messages began turning up.
So there’s some powerful thematic work to be done with Mary-as-Elsie Cubitt. Elsie as written is boring and more than a bit sexist, but using Elsie’s character the way I think it has to be used, to be accessible and relevant to today’s audience? A sort of repurposing of her story that gives Elsie more agency and responsibility?That could be really very interesting.
Then there’s Bob Carruthers. He’s one of the criminals in “The Adventure of the Solitary Bicyclist,” but I hesitate to call him the real villain. Obviously he’s wrong and ends up going to jail, but he’s also redeemed (to a point, or at least his villainy is mitigated) and Holmes offers to give testimony on his behalf by the story’s end.
If you’re not familiar (and really, “Bicyclist” is a quick read and a really fun story – please feel free to skip down to the [*] below if you want to avoid spoilers ), “The Adventure of the Solitary Bicyclist” is about a governess who is followed by a mysterious stranger every weekend when she goes home to visit her mother. Bob Carruthers is her pupil’s father and part of a scheme to marry her (by force if necessary) and take control of an inheritance Violet doesn’t know she’s owed. Carruthers falls in love with her and tries to shield her from his partner, a real piece of work who threatens to marry her if Carruthers doesn’t. But he also tries to keep his part in the scheme a secret.
“Why didn’t you tell her of the danger?”
“Because then, again, she would have left me, and I couldn’t bear to face that. Eve if she couldn’t love me it was a great deal to me just to see her dainty form about the house, and to hear the sound of her voice.”
“Well,” said I, “you call that love, Mr. Carruthers, but I should call it selfishness.”
“Maybe the two things go together. Anyhow, I couldn’t let her go. Besides, with this crowd about, it was well that she should have someone near to look after her.”
Sound at all familiar? I see a lot of this mix of possessiveness and protectiveness in how Mary approaches John by the end of “His Last Vow,” and she’ll attack anyone who threatens to take John away from her. It’s a pale copy of true love, and certainly not a good match for someone with trust issues. John has had enough of being kept at arm’s length from the true danger and “protected” out of making his own choices on the full information, in the aftermath of Reichenbach, and he needs someone who will give him the information available and let him make his own choice – just what Sherlock does in their little pow-wow after Leinster Gardens, I think.
But even though Bob Carruthers isn’t a good match for Violet and they’re not fated to end up together, Doyle does draw a pretty strong divide between him and the other conspirators. Holmes’s last words to him? “As to you, Mr. Carrutheers, I think that you have done what you could to make amends for your share in an evil plot. There is my card, sir, and if my evidence can be of help to you in your trial it shall be at your disposal.” He doesn’t get the girl, or even get to keep the girl in his life on any terms, but he also ends up going to jail for a few months rather than the seven and ten year sentences given to the other conspirators.
Where does that leave Mary? Her character seems to have pieces of all three, but not really match any one of the three entirely. Even if she’s one of the assassins in “Reichenbach,” she’s not going after Holmes (or John) out of revenge. But equally she’s not Elsie Cubitt as written, entirely pure and innocent of everything except having the wrong family. And she’s not entirely Bob Carruthers either, [spoilers] essentially absolved of his crime even if she winds up marrying someone else and leaving his life. [/spoilers]
My working theory (or headcanon to some extent, as we don’t have much real evidence about Mary yet) is that she has a bit too much of Moran, Cubitt, and Carruthers in her to fit neatly within any of those roles. I suspect she has a familial connection to either Moriarty or Lord Moran or some other equally villainous character, and I think she escaped being purely criminal (probably has committed serious crimes but more likely as some necessary part of trying to actually do good). I suspect she was raised around criminals and realized killing people was what she was good at, but that she tried to use it first legitimately (as a military sharp-shooter) and then at least morally (killing people who needed to be killed, like Magnussen), but sometimes killing innocents as collateral damage, possibly even committing murders as part of her cover or to get the protection of powerful men like Moriarty or even just in moments of weakness when she was particularly disillusioned and angry. I’m not sure it makes that much difference for the story – she’s still a killer, she still killed innocent people and people she decided needed killing, she still broke the law and left a long line of victims’ families who would love to retaliate, And she still held back information from John that put him at risk and kept him from making his own decision.
To a certain extent a lot of that is what I’d find interesting, what I think sets up a good foil for what Sherlock did to John with the endings of “Reichenbach” and “Great Game.” It’s less about what I have good reason to think Mofftiss will do and what I would do if I were calling the shots. I don’t buy the idea that Mary is straight opposition to Sherlock and John in the same way Moriarty was, just because it seems like such a lost opportunity for interesting work on what it means to be good rather than great, whether there’s such a thing as being willing to risk too much and not holding yourself accountable for unintended consequences, not feeling, not being connected enough. And there’s such an interesting conversation on what John is looking for in a partner or a spouse – what it means to be a good lifemate for an adrenaline junkie with trust issues.
So I honestly don’t believe that Mary is meant to be John’s long-term partner. The doctor’s wife persona cannot hold. Nor do I believe she is purely Moran, Cubitt, or Carruthers – she has too much of all three to fit neatly in any one of their roles. (And even the other Elsie Cubitt we’ve seen, Soo-Lin Yao has more to be ashamed of than being born into the wrong situation.) Exactly where she falls in that messy middle will be fascinating to see unfold, and while I have my hopes, I won’t theorize before evidence on what version the show will actually deliver.
I will say this, though: any version that tries to give us a coherent character building on all three will be much more compelling than any one in isolation.