Honoring the Heroine: Mary Morstan

Poor Mary Morstan. Talk about a character, who has been treated as an inconvenience from the get go. Arthur Conan Doyle created her apparently mostly to make a point about how Sherlock Holmes is fated to be always apart of society to a certain degree. While there is a perfect match for John Watson, Sherlock Holmes only love is for his work. It seems, though, as if Arthur Conan Doyle got tired very fast of having to call back Doctor Watson back to Baker Street instead of simply having him conveniently be present when a client turns up. So when he resurrected Sherlock Holmes, he also pushed Mary Morstan out of the picture without further ado – only to have Doctor Watson being married again whenever it suited him.

It is a downright mess, and therefore it might be not too surprising that most adaptations don’t even bother with Mary Morstan. After all, if she never turns up, Doctor Watson can stay at Baker street forever, right? Some adaptations do have the character, but skip the part of her marrying Watson, making her just another client and thus missing the whole point of the story (yep, that includes the Granada version I praised in my last article).

I always thought that it was a little bit lazy to take that approach. But the sad truth is that Mary Morstan has been treated like a nuisance instead of the writing opportunity she truly is. I can only think of two versions which at the very least explore the impact she has on Sherlock Holmes: The Sowjet version and, surprisingly, the version with Robert Downey Jr. I rarely have anything good to say about the latter one, but at least it does spend a whole movie on what it means for Sherlock Holmes that Doctor Watson moves forward.

In both of those versions, though, Mary Morstan is still more a plot device than a character. Sherlock is the only take on her which does tap in the potential her character has. No matter how controversial the result is, the show does deserve a lot of credit for expanding on the character. (And if you don’t know what I am talking about, you should stop reading here. There will be major spoilers for season 3 of Sherlock).


The key to this version of Mary Morstan is the question, which kind of woman would actually be able to life with Dr. John Watson. Who would accept him being friends with an overly rude genius, who would be able to stand him running into danger all the time? Let’s put it this way: There is a reason why the divorce rate for police officers and soldiers is that high. It is always hard to deal with the idea that your beloved one might die in the line of duty.

Some fans might prefer that Mary Morstan had never turned up in the show to disturb the eternal bromance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Others might have wanted Mary to stay the character we saw in the first two episodes she turned up in, a shipper-on-deck, supportive of John and Sherlock and preferably dead by the end of the season so that the show can go back to the status quo. Thankfully neither happened. As always, the show moved forward, determined to actually explore the new dynamic which Mary’s presence created. And I for my part enjoyed every second of it.

Yes, that is right, I enjoyed it when Mary shot Sherlock because I truly didn’t see that coming. I also enjoyed the explanation for it, even though that one wasn’t really a surprise. It was the only solution which made sense to me (I would have been really p… off if Sherlock miraculously survived getting shot point blank by a professional assassin without some sort of explanation).  Above all, though, I enjoy the fact that this Mary is finally more than just a plot device.

Mary is basically a female version of Sherlock, John and Mycroft. Those are all characters who don’t follow the law or social rules but their own moral standards. Sure, Mycroft is able to pretend well enough that he can blend into society without drawing the negative attention Sherlock does. But he doesn’t really care. After all, the world is full of goldfishes. With the notable exception of Sherlock, the world is mostly a giant chess board to him, and humans are just pawns which can be sacrificed at will for the greater good.

Sherlock actually does have feelings, even though Mycroft keeps warning him that caring is not an advantage. In a way, he acts more morally than Mycroft does, because beneath his often terrible behaviour he cares. But like Mycroft he is very ready to cause a smaller suffering, like terrifying a witness under shock for fast information or leaving an old woman attached to a bomb for hours, in order to prevent a greater one. Consequently he would straight up murder someone if he sees no other solution – and so would Mary. She straight up says that people like her exist to kill people like Magnussen.

John is not quite as ruthless, but he is not above shooting someone in self-defence without a shred of remorse either. Shooting a serial killer? Well, he wasn’t a nice guy either way. And an awful cabbie. In a way, John is a ticking time-bomb, with his short temper. I can imagine that a lot of women would actually be afraid of him when he starts one of his rants. But not Mary. Not just because she can handle herself, but because she understands that John is not a violent man in the sense that he would hurt someone innocent.

When Mary shoots Sherlock, the true brilliance in the act lies in the writer turning the behaviour the audience has come to accept as reasonable against a character they love. Sure, we can question Mary’s motivation, calling her selfish for wanting to hide her past from John, no matter the cost. But it is still the same basic reasoning Sherlock and John use regularly. The idea is that the law is flawed, social niceties are useless, and both can be ignored for the greater good. And the ones determining what is the greater good are Sherlock and John themselves.

As far as we know, neither Sherlock or John have ever crossed the line. Where ever the line is. But Mary has, or at least she has done something she is deeply ashamed of doing. It is not even important what exactly that was. The important part is that she, unlike Sherlock and John, went full circle. Which might explain why Sherlock is so eager to forgive her. Not only does he return the favour Mary did him by encouraging John to forgive Sherlock, I think at some level he wants the knowledge that there is a way back for him, too, should he ever step over the line.

In any case, I think the dynamic between those three characters is fascinating. And I can’t wait to see what the writers will do next, especially since the baby is about to bring yet another element into the equation. Who knows, perhaps Mary will die in one of the upcoming episodes. And when it happens, I will be quite broken up about it, because I will really miss her. And I can’t say that for any of the other Mary Morstans.

Now that I mentioned the RDJ Movies here are my thoughts: They are fine. But I don’t think that they really work as Sherlock Holmes adaptations. They remind me more of a Victorian James Bond than a more action oriented Sherlock Holmes. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t enjoyable, if you are into that kind of thing.

2 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Mary Morstan

  1. Pingback: Honoring the Heroine: Mary Morstan | Blog of a College Writer

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