Sherlock – Why Mary Watson (probably) isn’t dead

I enjoyed The Six Thatchers, but I didn’t quite love it; while it was in many ways an enjoyable affair, it felt as though it lacked a certain edge that had elevated previous episodes of Sherlock to brilliance. More than that, though, I was quite disappointed by the death of Mary Watson – it was difficult not to view that as a misstep, albeit one which would clearly have significant repercussions for the rest of the series, again establishing a brand-new status quo for Sherlock moving forward.

But then… a few things didn’t quite add up to me.

Certainly, it was surprising to see a female character fridged on Sherlock, given that Moffat had subverted this trope multiple times on both Sherlock and Doctor Who already; indeed, Clara’s departure on Doctor Who was a very conscious rejection of that narrative convention, as was Mary’s arc during Sherlock series 3. You can tell it’s a concept Moffat and Gatiss are aware of – there’s a knowing nod to the idea in The Six Thatchers, with Mycroft looking forlornly into a fridge and then closing it shortly after Mary’s (apparent) death. If nothing else, it’s a choice that’s uncharacteristic for both Moffat and Gatiss.

Something that isn’t uncharacteristic for the pair, however? The idea of the unreliable narrator. The suggestion that the story as presented to us isn’t quite the story as it occurred.

Moffat’s been using it ever since Press Gang, and returned to it several times over the course of his career; Gatiss’ most recent episode of Doctor Who, Sleep No More, is entirely hinged upon an expert reveal of an unreliable narrator. The pair have openly admitted that they do, at times, believe Watson could be considered an unreliable narrator in the original Holmes stories; following His Last Vow, they said that they’d always believed Holmes killed Milverton in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, but that Watson had drawn a veil over the proceedings to protect his friend. Further, both men are writers who are keenly interested in the textuality of television, and the gaps within how it’s presented to the audience – the clever trick of Blink, for example, is that the audience (as represented by the camera) are able to observe and ‘freeze’ the Weeping Angels akin to the characters within the episode. But there’s no need to look that far, of course; ambiguities of perception have always been part of Sherlock, a programme where the direction doesn’t just enhance and present the story, but is part of the story.

With that in mind, then – is there any evidence of an unreliable narrator in this story? A surprising amount, in fact, depending on how you interpret things. Could it be that the aquarium setting was chosen not just for its evocative nature, but the metonymic suggestion that The Six Thatchers is a literal ‘fish story’ – a great big lie? Mary’s death itself is presented in much the same fashion Molly dismissed in His Last Vow, when she shot Sherlock – “It’s not like how it is in the movies. There’s not a great big spurt of blood and you go flying backwards.” Consider also Mary’s final message – “If you’re watching this, I’m probably dead”. Probably, but not necessarily; it’s a fairly innocuous piece of dialogue, but it’s also one of those quirks of language that Moffat and Gatiss love to exploit. Indeed, the message, much like the rest of the episode, is presented in a particularly hyper stylised fashion; exactly the sort of thing one would entrust with Rachel Talalay, the director of The Six Thatchers.

And, interestingly enough, tonight’s episode of Sherlock is called The Lying Detective. The BBC are advertising it with the tagline “Nothing is certain. Nothing is written”. What might that mean?

It’s also worth noting that a recurring theme within the episode is the narrative which rejects death; consider how the episode opens with Moriarty’s reappearance, and Mycroft essentially changing the ending of His Last Vow. Right from the beginning, The Six Thatchers is establishing an inherent ambiguity to that which is true; perhaps most significant of all though is The Merchant of Sumatra, oft referenced throughout the episode, repeatedly emphasising that when confronted with a story that ended in death, Sherlock didn’t like it – and he changed the ending. Both Moffat and Gatiss are far too precise in their writing for that to be simple throwaway dialogue; it’s a clear statement of both theme and intent.

But another recurring theme throughout The Six Thatchers is the idea that Mary is, in many ways, an equal of Sherlock – as he himself put it to John, “she’s better than you at this”. Time and time again, The Six Thatchers presents Sherlock and Mary matching and surpassing one another, establishing Mary Watson as something of a mirror of Sherlock. What is Sherlock’s greatest achievement? What would demonstrate Mary is his equal, above all else? If Mary were, like Sherlock, able to fake her own death. It’s the sort of move that Moffat and Gatiss would delight in – at the same time both loyal to the Doyle canon, but also gleefully subversive of it.

Taking this all together, something of a pattern begins to emerge; I’m very much starting to suspect that rather than the average opener I’d initially perceived it as, The Six Thatchers is in fact a bold step forward, outlining a genuinely exciting new style of storytelling for Sherlock. Admittedly, it’s still not a complete picture – the most notable omission being a reason why Mary would fake her death – and it’s undeniable that it seems more than a little implausible.

But in the words of the great detective himself, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.


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