Spoilers abound for the third season finale "His Last Vow." You've been warned.
Sherlock is a show that has this season given a lot of service to its fans. But what happens when the bad fan steps in?
Let's look at the case of John Watson's wife Mary Morstan, played by Martin Freeman's real-life partner Amanda Abbington. Less than midway through my first viewing of the final episode, I mentally groaned. In the process of breaking into the office of Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen, competing with his Hannibal-starring brother Mads for creepiest TV character), Sherlock finds Mary, dressed in all black, with a gun pointed at Magnussen. Mary then shoots Sherlock, and suddenly the woman we'd grown to like over the course of two episodes, was a villain. (Observant viewers might have noticed something was up with Mary, who Sherlock determines is a liar in the first episode and who has a, shall we say, interesting reaction to a wedding telegram from a "CAM" in the second.)
Now, of course the episode goes on and—while Mary does have a mysterious, dark past—she is not a bad guy. But what if that wasn't the case?
Abbington, in a recent interview with the Times of London, explained that when she was cast in the role of Mary, she received death threats. "The problem, I think, with Twitter and anything like that, is that it’s very easy to bully people because you’re behind a computer screen," she said. "So I got, ‘She should just die. How dare she play Mary Morstan? How dare she!" When asked why people reacted the way they did, she responded: "I think they take the John and Sherlock storyline so seriously that they wouldn’t want anyone coming between them." If the episode had ended on Mary being a manipulative, possibly dangerous schemer, then the show would have validated the opinion of these death threat-giving fans, the "bad fans" as it were.
The term "bad fan" got a lot of workout as Breaking Bad was ending. As Rebecca Rose pointed out at Jezebel, the treatment of Abbington is not unlike the way some fans miserably treated Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White on that show. Gunn was harassed because her character stood in opposition to Walter White's career as a meth cooker and drug kingpin.
Sherlock and its creator Steven Moffat do not have a history of dealing well with female characters. Take for instance the Sherlock season two episode "A Scandal in Belgravia," which features Conan Doyle's classic character Irene Adler. As Nicole Cliffe wrote at The Toast: "Irene is ultimately outwitted by Sherlock, a decision which is somehow less progressive than that made by Conan Doyle in the 3rd century A.D." (It's worth noting that Cliffe still counts "Scandal" as one of the show's best episodes, and so do we.) You can argue, as some have, that "His Last Vow" doesn't do much better by this. Sites like Jezebel and The Daily Dot picked up on the fact that in the original Conan Doyle story about Charles Augustus Milverton, an unknown woman shoots the villain, whereas here it's the work of Sherlock himself. "What has some fans angry is that Sherlock’s interpretation of Milverton’s death completely removes the agency and power of the female character in the original story," Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote at The Daily Dot. "An unfortunate occurrence that neatly fits in with Moffat’s track record with female characters in both Doctor Who and Sherlock."
For the "bad" Sherlock fan, Mary was already evil because she came between John and Sherlock; if she truly had become their adversary it would have seemed as if the show's creators were justifying their sentiment. But in the show, Mary turns out to be not that bad after all. Yes, she has a troubled secret past, but all characters on this show have one. When Mary shoots Sherlock, she is preserving, and not ending his life. And she truly does love Watson. In a way, the episode ends up being less about Mary's issues and about John's. As both Mary and Sherlock point out to him, John is the person who pretends to be normal, yet he surrounds himself with killers (Mary) and sociopaths (Sherlock) himself. "You were a doctor who went to war, you're a man who couldn't stay in the suburbs for more than a month without storming a crack den and beating up a junkie, your best friend is a sociopath who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high," Sherlock tells his friend. "John, you are addicted to a certain lifestyle, you're abnormally attracted to dangerous situations and people so is it truly such a surprise that the woman you've fallen in love with conforms to that pattern." John asks, why "is she like that," but Sherlock explains its not that Mary has a problem. it's simply a matter of the type of person with whom John surrounds himself.
It is, yes, completely frustrating, as Baker-Whitelaw writes, that Moffat denies Mary the agency of killing Magnussen, handing that job over to Sherlock. On the other hand, it was a big relief that Moffat and co-creator Mark Gatiss didn't give in to the cries of some fans and get rid of Mary so that Sherlock and Watson could be back together, untroubled by a female presence. Sherlock may have even wanted Mary done away with: after she revealed her true self, he did put John's chair back in its usual position.
We'll have to wait and see how Sherlock handles Mary in future seasons. By the way, did we mention that Moriarty's back! Did you miss him?