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.
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.
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.
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
Concluded in Part 3