Sherlock and the Trouble of Source Material

Well, Sherlock series four has officially started with a tension-filled premiere. The episode promised to be the beginning of resolution to the long running cliffhangers from the third series; but that didn’t really happen. Instead, the episode chose to create its own mystery, leading to a very complicated set of final moments-moments that I find troubling for various reasons. Truly, we need to have a talk about what happened and what it means for Sherlock.

The following contains massive spoilers for the Series 4 premiere of Sherlock, “The Six Thatchers,” as well as previous seasons. Don’t go past Toby the bloodhound if you don’t want anything ruined for you.


Straight to the point: toward the end of “The Six Thatchers,” Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington) takes a bullet at point blank range meant for Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch). The scene is filled with emotion proper, and is a great reminder that Martin Freeman is a damn good actor. I also hate this scene. Mind you, not because a character died. Characters die all the time in fiction, often for good reasons that propel stories forward. Mary’s death, however, doesn’t feel that way. Instead, it feels like Mary was “fridged.”

“Fridging” is a term originating in comics culture. It is a shorthand for a female character, who is usually the male protagonist’s significant other, dying to serve as emotional motivation for said male character. The term was coined in the 90’s after an issue of Green Lantern featured then Lantern Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt being killed and stuffed in a fridge for Rayner to find. This incident led burgeoning comics writer Gail Simone to compiling a list of other female characters in comics who suffer similar fates. While the list is not expanded to include other mediums, I do believe that Mary Watson would fit the bill.

In order to explain, a brief recap is necessary: “The Six Thatchers” focuses on a series of break-ins in which the assailant is only breaking in to smash special busts of Margaret Thatcher. The assailant is revealed to be a former colleague of Mary’s in her previous life named Ajay. Ajay is breaking the rare Thatcher busts to try and find his missing flash drive, which is identical to the one Mary possessed and was destroyed by Watson last season. During their last mission together, Mary, Ajay, and the rest of their group was set up during an extraction mission and they are all captured – save for Mary. Ajay has been led to believe this is because Mary had betrayed them. However, it turns out that a stenographer for a member of the British government named Norbury had been selling secrets for years, and outed Mary’s group to cover herself. Sherlock confronts Norbury at an aquarium, calling Mary and Watson as well. Now, she reveals the whole game, but that’s not good enough for Sherlock; who antagonizes the woman into firing a gun she had hidden at him. Mary jumps in front of the bullet. She dies in Watson’s arms, with Sherlock looking on. The episode ends with Watson cutting Sherlock out of his life (because he broke his vow of protection) and Sherlock receives a previously recorded message of Mary asking him to “save John Watson,” presumably from himself.

Clearly, the point of Mary’s death was to give Watson a new sort of drama. By itself, this probably wouldn’t be so bad-the idea of Watson balancing single fatherhood with working with Sherlock would at least lends itself to some new dynamics. However, Sherlock is the one that ends up bearing most of the actual weight from the incident. First of all, Mary takes the bullet for Sherlock, not Watson. Second, we don’t see her funeral. Finally, Watson’s final message to Sherlock doesn’t even come from his own mouth. Instead we see Sherlock go to therapy and mourn. Mary’s last words aren’t to Watson, but to Sherlock.

In short, fridged.

Following the episode’s airing in the US, showrunner Steven Moffat gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly explaining the motivations from these actions. Moffat said:

“The truth is it’s never established that she died in the stories. We just assume she died because Watson refers to his “sad loss” which is probably a death but not necessarily. The reality of this, of course, is that Sherlock Holmes is about Sherlock and Dr. Watson and it’s always going to come back to that — always always always. They had fun making it a trio but it doesn’t work long term. Mary was always going to go and we were always going to get back to the two blokes. That’s the format. [Sherlock writer-producer-actor] Mark Gatiss and I do not have the delusion that we know better than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s how the show works and always will. We reset to the most traditional and famous version of the format.”

To a degree, I can respect what was attempted here. Moffat is a notorious lover of legacy, anyone who has ever watched his run of Doctor Who knows that. However, this is one of those times where source material directly clashes with the adaptation being set forth. While it is true that Mary Watson passed away in the original stories, she does so off screen-admitted by Moffat in the quote above. As for her place in the narrative, that is significantly different. Mary appears in one story as a full character (The Sign of Four), in which she is not married to Watson yet. Afterword, she only appears in reference from both Sherlock and Watson, usually about how she doesn’t approve of their adventures. In fact, her death is mentioned in retrospect, not in the moment. Compare this to Mary on Sherlock. She’s set up as core member of the cast. Ever since her first appearance, she has existed as a foil for both Sherlock and Watson in different ways. The backstory for Mary is significantly expanded in ways that are far different than what was even conceivable in Doyle’s time. All of these are heavy deviations from the source material and were acceptable; at least until Watson and Sherlock needed some new drama.

This is hardly the only example of fridging of characters. Last year, The 100 came under fire for killing off a fan favorite character immediately being killed after solidifying a relationship with the lead character; and managed to squeeze in the “bury your gays” trope on top of it. Two seasons ago, Game of Thrones caught fire for various depictions of violence against women. In the case of 100, the character killed doesn’t even appear as a major character in the books. Many defend Game of Thrones due to the show’s commitment to sticking to the source material the best it can. As genre fiction becomes ripe for television adaptation, expect to see this more often. It all leads to a question: at what point does is source material become unnecessary to adapt? Or rather, what happens when an adaptation outgrows its own material?

We do see this happen from time to time. Game of Thrones actually ran out of strict material to follow in the most recent season. Instead, guided on only notes from the George R.R. Martin, the showrunners had to craft their own interpretation. Surprisingly, this season seemed intent to help right the ship of the season before, with many major plays being made by the female characters, while sexual violence was decreased in spades. Again, Sherlock itself has taken liabilities where necessary; not just with Mary, but with entirely different characters and events. Believe it or not, the death of Mary was actually meant to be a reinterpretation of an entirely different Doyle tale, which itself was different from the story used as inspiration for the episode’s mystery.

I contend that it’s time to stop having a religious reliance on source material. Imagine if a future Avengers film included a side plot where Captain Marvel gives birth to her own rapist and runs off to another dimension with him via mind control. Yes, that happened in the comics, but there is no way this would actually fly in the films; much less the audience. Yet, if that story could be included, this could be waved away with the same argument: “Well, that’s how it happened in the comics…” Ironically, we can look to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for how this can be done. Consider Iron Man 3, which is the most loosely adapted of the three films, and is oftentimes accepted to be the strongest. The team sought out to adapt The Mandarin in a way that would avoid the racist stereotype that informed the original comic character. As a result, the plot found itself reworked around playing with fan’s expectations of the character and the reveal that The Mandarin never existed played like a genuine shock.

That’s the example of the power adaptation actually can have, presenting similar themes and characters in different lights. Admittedly that doesn’t always work, but it’s a small trade-off in exchange of source overwriting innovation. Returning to Sherlock, Moffat and team created a new version of Mary Watson that could match wits with Sherlock, give Watson a place to focus his attention, and most importantly didn’t serve as an off-screen annoyance. All of these were positive changes, changes that could only be done in a modern Sherlock Holmes story. In spite of that, Mary was still stuffed in the proverbial fridge.

We can’t keep seeing this happen. Comics were able to let this and other tropes go, and it is about time other mediums decided to stick to that source material.

Travis began a life obsessed with technology with his cousin's classic Game Boy and a copy of Tetris. He was horrible at it, but has yet to forget that experience. These days, Travis looks to explore the intersection of culture and technology that has come to define our world. When not preparing a project, you can find him catching up on the latest comic books or playing an arrangement of different video games-particularly honing his Super Smash Bros. skills. He is still terrible at Tetris.
  • discobaba

    Great read Travis. You’re absolutely right that fridging is a too-commonly-used trope that needs to stop. I would like to suggest, however, that this actually did NOT happen to Mary.

    I agree with everything you’ve said about Mary’s character in BBC Sherlock. She’s absolutely “set up as core member of the cast.” However, I think this is all for a reason greater than fridging. I believe Gatiss and Moffat have thoughtfully chosen to develop her character because she still IS a core member, and her death in “The Six Thatchers” is not the end.

    Mark my words, Mary will be making a re-appearance in either “The Lying Detective,” “The Final Problem,” or both.

    • Travis Hymas

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece!

      You definitely have a point about the possibility of a fake-out; Moffat is known for blatantly lying to preserve a plot twist. Though, in this case, there’s enough evidence in the episode that points to things being as they seem. Primarily: there’s not really any point to faking Mary’s death at the same time as the real traitor is revealed. Additionally, I didn’t include this, but Norbury’s name is a reference to “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” in which Sherlock says the same lines about arrogance, but not to Mrs. Hudson. Moffat loves legacy even more than lying, so I’ll hold my expectations for resurrections.

      That said, if you’re right, I’ll be back here to give that to you.

    • discobaba

      Well, I take back nearly everything I said. Mary certainly made a re-appearance in the rest of the series, but not in a way that I expected nor felt was excusable for her character and her death.

      In the end, Mary was indeed another victim of fridging, and disappointingly so. Add that to the multitude of other issues with Series Four of Sherlock, and it looks like I’ve been giving too much credit to Gatiss and Moffat’s writing skills for far too long.

      • Tried to reply to you before, but it didn’t work and I just noticed!

        Anyway, glad you liked the piece, and I’m actually kind of bummed you ended up being wrong. I’ve been a long time defender of Moffat over on team Doctor Who, but after this I lost the energy to watch the night of, or even a few days later.