Outside the Government: The Six Thatchers


It’s January 1st, 2017. Did you guess that Rockabye were at number one with “Clean Bandit”? If so, well done. Zara Larsson, Little Mix, Bruno Mars, and Wham also chart, the latter with a post-Christmas surge for “Last Christmas.” In news, US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Obama imposes sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies for interfering with the election, and Nevada’s marijuana legalization goes into effect.

While on television, the puzzling failure of Sherlock Season Four begins with The Six Thatchers. Let’s begin with the obvious, which is that the death of Mary is a terrible idea. There was a bit in comments a few weeks ago about fridging, including a discussion of the fridging of male characters. But it’s worth de-genericiding the term a bit and remembering exactly what it is and why it’s bad. Because fridging is not simply character death in the general case. It is not even character death as a means of motivating other characters, a category that can also include plot beats like the mentor figure dying so that the hero can step up. Fridging was a term created by then comics journalist and now comics superstar Gail Simone in 1999 to describe the specific phenomenon of female comics characters who had been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her” to provide dramatic stakes. 

Since then the term has been widened considerably, sometimes fairly (it’s absolutely worth talking about the tendency to use other less frequently represented groups as cannon fodder), sometimes less so (i.e. the tendency to use the term to refer to any death whatsoever). But the core of it is twofold: a woman or minority character, and a death that exists to add drama or up the stakes for whoever the story views as the real main characters. Indeed, the original Women in Refrigerators page has a secondary essay called “Dead Men Defrosting” that looks at the various male characters that have been killed, depowered, or otherwise tormented and the way in which they routinely bounce back from it, which implicitly highlights a different sort of death characters can go through. (And there’s plenty to talk about in the intersection between fridging and the current “death is reversible” trend across SF/F. 

But no matter how you cut it, the heart of the trope is the gendered dynamic. It’s the fact that in addition to being underrepresented in almost every creative industry, in addition to things like the chart of Best Picture films and the percentage of lines spoken by women and the fucking Bechdel test, in addition to the lack of pay equity, in addition to the fact that it took seventeen years from the start of the superhero film boom to us actually getting Wonder Woman, in addition to all of that monstrous fucking crap, one of the primary roles of women in popular media is to get killed off to add drama. And if you widen the description of the trope to include groups that are not traditionally underrepresented you lose the reason this was interesting and troubling in the first place.

Which brings us to Sherlock, a show that closed out its third season with a pleasantly surprising decision not to fridge a character who would normally be marked for it, then decided to open its fourth season by illustrating why that decision was so laudable by reversing it and killing her after all. Because that is, in the end, the heart of it. Even past the politics of underrepresentation, of gendered violence, and all the rest—and that’s a hell of a lot to pretend to set aside—it’s just boring. We’ve had, at this point, three seasons of a show anchored exclusively by two leads. We’ve had the equivalent of twenty Doctor Who episodes with Sherlock and John, spread out over basically the whole of the Moffat era. That’s a lot, and it’s spread over a long time. This is the range in which shows get stale and need to refresh themselves, needing to bring in new blood and new dynamics.

In this regard, Mary fits the bill perfectly. She adds a new skillset and (as The Six Thatchers shows with its spy story vibe) new genre options for the show, and offers a clear and compelling relationship with each of the existing leads. Her relationship with John is nuanced and fascinating, and pushes him into new places; his emotional affair in this episode is showing aspects of his character that had no real opportunity to exist in prior seasons, and that are at once new and clearly in keeping with who he is. (Certainly they’re more interesting than his subsequent grief.) Sherlock, meanwhile, has always been interesting when presented with someone who is in any way his equal and who he is forced to actually respect. Indeed, for all that there are obvious and significant differences, “making Irene Adler a regular only she’s into John, not Sherlock” is a relatively fair summary of what Mary brings to the show.

But more than any of that, she’s just fun. Television is full of asshole geniuses and good men who go through emotional ringers. Middle-aged women who are crack soldiers and intelligence operatives, however? I’m sure someone will suggest one in comments, but there is no sense in which this is a cliche. Sherlock and John, meanwhile, blatantly are. The show gets away with this because it’s got Moffat anchoring the writer, a-list casting, sumptuous production, and the mythic resonance of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, but at the end of the day they’re still well-executed cliches, while Mary is something entirely different. 

And this is the crux of why fridging her sucks so much. The show makes a conscious decision to trade that originality for letting Martin Freeman engage in capital-a Acting for a bit. And nothing about that feels like a good trade. Certainly Moffat and Gatiss’s defense that they’re reverting to the canon of Watson being a widower is thoroughly vapid. This is a show that delights in fucking with and remixing the canon; deciding to defy the death of Mary and do something different is entirely in bounds for what it could do. And in turn, deciding that the death of Mary is a sacrosanct element of the canon is nothing save for banal cowardice. 

This is the original sin that hangs over the entirety of Sherlock’s fourth and potentially final season. Whatever else the season does, the way in and degree to which it is structured around Mary’s death and its aftermath taints the entire endeavor. There’s only so much you can build upon rotten foundations. And of course The Six Thatchers ends up with the hardest time of it, stuck being the story that is outright about doing the bad thing. 

To be cynical about it, it helps that it’s the Gatiss story. Here, at least, there’s a paucity of expectations. Gatiss has always been expected to turn in the workmanlike, functional episodes of Sherlock, and there’s a certain sense to giving him the dirty job and letting him get on with it. He enjoys doing what’s basically a spy story laden with gothic flourishes (and Rachel Talalay has a lot of fun using shattering Thatcher busts as skulls), and the result is pacy and entertaining, with some good digressions. (The car seat prank/death is one of the better side cases the show has done.) Instead of being an extraordinary episode ruined by a crateringly bad decision it’s, to use classic Doctor Who critical terminology, nothing more than a romp that takes an ugly turn. 

But it’s also worth stressing how unsettling all of this felt at the time. With The Return of Doctor Mysterio looking like a flop rather than the charming oddity it now seems and Moffat, if not behind the specific script, at least clearly on board for a catastrophically ill-advised decision, it was easy to fear the worst about how his remaining tenure might unfold. Especially because this struck as a particularly deep betrayal from Moffat, who had repeatedly and loudly subverted the fridging trope in his earlier work, most spectacularly when a story about fridging Clara turned out to actually be about establishing her as a narrative equal to the Doctor who deserves to anchor her own show. Here, however, Moffat reverts to banality, offering a story that is basically exactly what his most entrenched critics have, previously wrongly, expected from him.

The reality is that little of this actually mattered. Where Series 3 of Sherlock had been a strong omen of where Doctor Who would be going, Series 4 is not particularly indicative of Series 10. Against all predictability and, indeed, all attempts at crafting a meta-narrative of Moffat’s career, it is the show he’s bringing to a designed (if hedged against the possibility of people’s schedules lining up again) end that he finds himself fucking up, while the show he’s stuck on for an extra year turns out basically fine. 

But we’ll get there. For now we have Sherlock, gravely wounded by self-inflicted error and limping, rather meekly, forwards. Its biggest and best hedge is what it always has been: its other writer is Steven Moffat, and there are few writers on television capable of turning an unpromising situation on its ear and making it into something brilliant. And here, with the biggest hit of his career floundering, he faces a salvage job like nothing he’s ever done before.


Sleepyscholar 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Obama imposes sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies for interfering with the election"
Mumble mumble... stable door ... mumble mumble ... horse bolted.

As for this episode and the fridging of Mary, I'm with you 100%. At risk of being banned from the site (and I realise that my excuse that this opinion comes out of respect not disrespect counts for nothing), I will say that what had occurred to me as a more interesting means of making John a 'widower', if that was deemed somehow essential, would be to have Mary transition. Plenty of opportunity for 'capital-A acting' there, and no need to get rid of a character who is, as you point out, fun to be with. Of course, the question of whether Moffatt & Gatiss could pull off such a development is a large one.

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Angus 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Yeah no that's horrible. You're positioning transitioning as the same as death so it ends up being just a different type of fridging. The exact same issues would occur, only the show would now be irredeemably transphobic.

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Sleepyscholar 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Yes, and that was why I expressed anxiety. But my point was precisely that I was not positioning it as death, but as a positive subversion of the original text. Not only does Mary live, but she continues to be rather more than merely a plot motivator for the main characters (which is what fridging is all about, and what made her death particularly egregious).

However, the question of whether the Sherlock team could pull it off in a way that didn't appear transphobic is a big if. I was just thinking that a positive portrayal of transitioning would be a good thing (how often does this happen in a drama that isn't about transitioning? How often does it happen full stop?) but I will concede that like most 'fan ideas' it wouldn't survive contact with reality: especially as to be done properly it would effectively hijack the whole show (but then, given how the series panned out, would that necessarily have been so bad?)

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Devin 8 months, 1 week ago

I think if you're looking to create a "rare, positive portrayal," maybe load the dice so they stay married. Hell, if you want to work in a chance for Martin Freeman to show off his Acting, there you go, right?

I will say this: in that scenario, there is indeed a good opportunity to give Sherlock a line about deadnames and widowers as a wink to Conan Doyle. That'd be a good bit, and well in line with the spirit of BBC Sherlock, yes.

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Emily 8 months, 1 week ago

I'm not quite sure how you read an article pointing out how Mary was interesting because she was a middle-aged woman who was also a spy, and concluded "yeah, but wouldn't it be more interesting if they were a man?"

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Sleepyscholar 8 months, 1 week ago

Me neither.

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Sleepyscholar 8 months, 1 week ago

In all fairness, I was making a rather stupid point, but to be absolutely frank, the idea that it would end up with Mary becoming a man actually wasn't something I had spent any time thinking about.

I've seen Boy Meets Girl, and Sense8, to name just two examples of shows which give representation to trans characters. But I haven't heard of shows which give representation to transitioning, rather than its outcome, and yet which are not about transitioning. I was very happy to have just re-established contact after a number of years with an old friend who transitioned a couple of decades ago. So it was on my mind and I went a bit overboard. I hope I have learned from my mistake.

And thank you for your supportive comment.

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Voord 99 8 months, 1 week ago

Not to be too Sensitivity 101 about this, but trans men are not always happy about having their experience of coming out or transitioning described as a woman “becoming a man,” and it’s best to try to avoid speaking of the gender that trans people were previously assigned as having been their real gender at that time. For the same reason, it’s maybe not the best idea to frame even a hypothetical narrative of a trans man transitioning as erasing a woman from existence.

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Voord 99 8 months, 1 week ago

Reading that, it comes across as harsher and more condemnatory than I intended. It was just one of those “someone should probably mention this, because there’s a risk of falling into something, so it might as well be me who mentions it” moments.

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Sleepyscholar 8 months, 1 week ago

I'm utterly open to being corrected on this, and you don't come over as harsh in the least. As I said, I hadn't actually thought in terms of 'becoming a man'. I chose that wording because it appeared to match what Emily was accusing me of, and which had not occurred to me at all (I should have put 'becoming a man' in quotes in the earlier comment).

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Voord 99 8 months, 1 week ago

Well, what I wrote came across to me as a bit snide and dismissive. Especially since I’m a cis man —I don’t want to go around figuring myself as the voice of authority here.

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Przemek 8 months, 2 weeks ago

You're completely right that the fridging of Mary derailed the whole season and, arguably, the whole show. Narratives focused on white male grief are beyond tired at this point... and yet Moffat and Gatiss go for it. I'm still baffled by that decision. Was there a scheduling conflict? Did Amanda Abbington want out?

Honestly, killing characters off is the most boring thing you can do with them. For all the drama it creates, it destroys so much more.

"Where Series 3 of Sherlock had been a strong omen of where Doctor Who would be going, Series 4 is not particularly indicative of Series 10."

But it's unfortunately very indicative of Series 11. Because Chris fucking Chibnall decided to center his first DW series with the first female Doctor ever around the same tired "white male grief" narrative, complete with fridging the cool female character in the first episode.

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Bedlinog 8 months, 2 weeks ago

It seems that Gatiss and Moffat plotted out Series 3 & 4 at the same time, perhaps in order to get Cumberbatch, Freeman and Scott on board. It's possible Mary was introduced, in the knowledge she'd get a bullet at some point.
MOFFAT (in 2014): We had just got out of the rain and because we don’t have the lovely big trailers that Benedict and Martin have, we had to go sit in the accountancy department and we just talked about what we could do. We just started having what I think are the best set of ideas we’ve ever had. I think they’re just wild. And when I say ideas, it’s what stories we’ll tackle, what big twists there will be, what gut punches there will be, and what surprises there will be, and I think it’s really exciting.

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TomeDeaf 8 months, 2 weeks ago

I believe the story was that it was Series 4 and 5 they plotted out together - and presumably amended later.

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Dan L 8 months, 2 weeks ago

"Did Amanda Abbington want out?"

Even if she did, of all the characters on the show, Mary would have been the easiest to write out without killing. She's an assassin! There are 1001 possible reasons she might have to disappear. And then rather than having Watson grieving, we'd have had him knowing she's out there somewhere, either unable to contacf her or making do with occasional sporadic messages, which would have been much more interesting.

Or how about killing Watson off instead and having Mary take over his unofficial role as Holmes's sidekick? THAT would have shaken up the dynamic! And I bet Mary would have taken a lot less shit from Sherlock than John did. And John seems much more likely to take a bullet for Sherlock than Mary.

Speaking of which, so annoyed at the clichéd way she was bumped off. Literally taking a bullet for Sherlock? Ugh, how unoriginal and probably impossible.

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TomeDeaf 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Re: Przemek's question about whether Amanda Abbington wanted out or not, it sounds as if her marriage with Freeman was breaking up behind the scenes on Season 4 so it may be she was written out at the pair's request because they couldn't stand working together anymore, I don't know. As you say, though, could've been done in a more original way, jeez....

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MattM 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Also worthy of note is that Sherlock does the same 'have cake and eat it' with Mary's death as they do with Moriarty. Both are dead, both keep popping up in every single episode!!

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fourthings 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Small thing (before I forget)--Clean Bandit is the band, "Rockabye" is the track name.

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Leslie L 8 months, 2 weeks ago

I was so upset that they went with this decision.

The cynical part of me had the idea that maybe they just didn't know where to take Mary.

They had a Brillient idea with John emotionally cheating on her, that despite everything they were heading to break up.

I love Moffat, and most of his stuff, and as a fan, in hindsight, they should have waited another year, they really should have.

For goodness sakes, if they were going to kill her, why couldn't it be that she died a good death?

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Douglas Muir 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Abbington's marriage with Freeman was indeed breaking up behind the scenes between Seasons Three and Four. The specific date of the breakup is given as February 2016; "The Six Thatchers" would have filmed just a few months later.

Abbington has given a number of interviews since then. On one hand, she hasn't said that she asked to be written out. On the other hand, she hasn't ruled it out either. She declared herself "very satisfied" with the way things worked out: "It was a good run, and I love the fact that they killed her off... Because she had to die anyway, because they killed her in the books, and I quite liked the dramatic-ness of it. It was good. It was quite Bond-esque, and it felt quite dark and mysterious, and she takes a bullet, she's like a hero."

As with most celebrity couples, the details of the Freeman / Abbington breakup have been very heavily curated. But Moffat and Gatiss must have known about it. Did she ask to be written out? Or, did one of the two offer it, and she took the opportunity? Was Moffat doing a favor for a friend, trying to defuse a difficult situation? Or was Mary's death always going to happen and it's just a weird coincidence?

We may never know for sure, until and unless someone talks. Meanwhile, I suppose the "connected to her breakup with Freeman" theory will seem weaker or stronger depending on how likely you think it is that Moffat and Gatiss would have fridged the Mary character anyway.

Doug M.

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Set Spade 8 months, 2 weeks ago

On the likelihood of them fridging her anyway... there's a relevant bit in the audiocommentary for The Empty Hearse where Moffat points out how it was never actually specified in the original story that she dies and, being Moffat, proceeds to the conclusion that, and I quote, "It could be a divorce; could she have just buggered off?"

Gatiss seemingly agrees with him that her death is not a rock-solid canonical fact.

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Sleepyscholar 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Well, a divorce was much less likely in Victorian times, but now you mention it, that would have been way better for a modern version.

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taiey 8 months, 2 weeks ago

I really liked series 3 of Sherlock, but then I heard Mary had died and decided to not bother watching the fourth. Kinda half wonder if Abbington decided the role wasn't worth the vitriol.

"Television is full of asshole geniuses and good men who go through emotional ringers. Middle-aged women who are crack soldiers and intelligence operatives, however?" Honestly? My first thought was River Song. :)
She's not quite that though, and obviously cheating, so let's go with Elizabeth Jennings, and Melinda May.

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mx_mond 8 months, 2 weeks ago

“Middle-aged women who are crack soldiers and intelligence operatives, however? I’m sure someone will suggest one in comments, but there is no sense in which this is a cliche.”

The closest that comes to my mind is Eve Polastri, and she’s still very different from Mary. Still, I think the comparison is a credit to Moffat and Gatiss.

And incidentally, I feel like “Killing Eve” would make for a perfect Whitaker Eruditorum entry, since it’s a women-focused TV phenomenon that, notably, allows its characters to be imperfect and complex in a way that the Thirteenth Doctor cannot.

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TheWrittenTevs 8 months, 1 week ago

I think the Whitaker era has a lot of potential for "Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For Tea" entries as there's a lot of texts at the moment which could be used as cracked mirror versions of what the Whitaker era could've been, in much the same way that the Saward era is a goldmine of entries going "This isn't quite working, but what were alternatives?"

Imagine a massive entry that discussed "Killing Eve" alongside "The Last Jedi", "Captain Marvel" and "Fleabag", looking at the current trend of mainstream entertainment which (to various extents) foreground female characters and narratives. Maybe an essay on "The Good Place" which takes a lot of the tropes and concerns of the Whitaker era but does it with some of the actual imagination you'd have expected Who to have. Or an essay on "Sorry to Bother You" that comes immediately before "Kerblam!" It'd be a delight.

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TomeDeaf 8 months, 1 week ago

Our host didn't take to The Good Place, sadly.

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Przemek 8 months, 1 week ago

Jodie Whittaker

August 28th, 2019: We're Falling Through Space, You and Me (Star Trek: Discovery)
September 3rd, 2019: I Won't Remember This, Will I? (Chris Chibnall's S11 Episodes)

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Bedlinog 8 months, 1 week ago

I'd be quite happy if the Eruditorum just did the Chibnall era as a cursory pop between the works of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

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Lee Andrews 5 months, 2 weeks ago

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