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.