The Women Of BBC Sherlock

[Spoilers for Sherlock season 3 throughout]

Hello, my name is Kayley and I’m addicted to Sherlock Holmes.

It began when I was about 7, when my mom gave me a children’s adaptation of his most famous cases, which I reread numerous times. My first experience with an onscreen Sherlock Holmes came when I was around six years old, when my father and I caught a bit of the Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes on TV. It genuinely frightened me, in part because my father refused to explain what was happening in the scene below until I was older.

Years later, after I randomly stumbled on the movie, I realized it is because he had no clue what was happening either.

And The Great Mouse Detective, a Disney film based on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, was one of my favorite Disney movies. I absolutely adored Basil of Baker Street. For a while, I wanted to be a detective when I grew up—I thought all detectives got to go around being snarky and clever all day.

But my long history of fascination with the world’s only consulting detective pales in comparison to my obsession with BBC’s Sherlock.

The show follows the titular character and his devoted sidekick, Watson, in modern-day London. Watson is a soldier recently back from Afghanistan and Sherlock is a razor-sharp consulting detective with the London police. Together they form the perfect crimefighting duo.

A summary of the show as told by John Watson:

The mystery storylines themselves put a new twist or spin on the old Conan Doyle stories, devoting sly references to the original stories.

For instance, here’s a reference one of my favorite stories, The Speckled Band:

The newly released third season of the show was a great addition to the previous episodes. There’s some great character development to be had from our two lead characters and there’s a perfectly horrendous new bad guy in town, but I want to talk about the female characters in particular.

Irene Adler – “The Woman”

The first Holmes story was published in 1887, which only served to detract from the female presence in the Holmes canon. The only story that really featured a woman was of course The Woman, Irene Adler–the only woman who ever outsmarted Sherlock Holmes. Although I looked forward to the addition of an updated Irene Adler in the BBC series, it sadly felt as though the writers dropped the ball with the character. In the original, Irene is an opera singer and previous courtesan who outwits Sherlock using her intelligence and beats him at his game, for which Holmes respects her.

We always seem to catch her on laundry day.

How did the writers choose to make this Irene dynamic in a modern version? By making her a dominatrix who gets all of her blackmailing information by sleeping with people. And she does “beat” Sherlock…with her S&M gear.

In the end of the BBC version, Sherlock outsmarts Adler, who it turns out was just acting under orders from bad guy Moriarty because she wouldn’t have known what to do with the information she had collected otherwise.

And that’s not subtext; she literally says that.

Of all the female characters, I have the most problems with how Irene is portrayed. And not just BBC’s Irene…all the recent adaptations of Irene have made her a supersexy love interest for the main character. This just feels like a lazy way to force a romantic subplot in the movies/tv shows. In these adaptions, Irene’s affection for the main character ultimately leads to her downfall, either leading her to her death or the destruction of the plan she was involved in.

Mrs. Hudson

Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock’s landlady (not housekeeper!), often seems like she’s a few cards short of a full deck. Both John and Sherlock view her as a mother-figure, especially since a majority of Mrs. Hudson’s time is spent bringing them tea and food.

Mrs. Hudson is eventually shown as more intelligent than she lets on when she successfully hides a priceless camera phone from some American mercenaries, even after they interrogate her.

While she appears to be just a dottery old woman, Mrs. Hudson has a very checkered past, as she was previously married to a leader of a drug cartel, is a former exotic dancer, and frequently uses marijuana (Or as she refers to it, her “herbal soothers”). For me, these additions to her character seem to be there more for the shock value of an elderly woman being associated with those things, rather than actually advancing her character. However, Mrs. Hudson is actually pretty realistic as a mother/grandmother figure for the main characters.

Molly Hooper

For those of you who have read the Conan Doyle books, this name probably does not look familiar. Molly Hooper is the only regular character on the show not taken from the Sherlock Holmes books. While the writers originally wrote her character into only one episode for the show, they liked actress Louise Brealey’s performance so much that they decided to keep her with the regular cast.

I’ve loved Molly from the very first episode, but was frustrated with her portrayal as a mere lovestruck schoolgirl. There seemed like there was more to her than that: she was intelligent enough to be a pathologist, assertive enough to ask clueless Sherlock on a date, and kind enough to help Sherlock with his cases during her time off on Christmas Day.

The depiction of Molly as starstruck doormat starts to change in the episode The Reichenbach Fall, in which supervillain Moriarty plots to destroy Sherlock’s reputation and force him to commit suicide by threatening his friends. As Sherlock worries about his upcoming showdown with Moriarty, we get some more growth of the Molly character when she is Sherlock’s only friend who sees past his supposedly cool exterior.

The third series gives us additional growth for both of these characters when Sherlock begins acknowledging his feelings for his friends, Molly included.

Molly’s actions always center around Sherlock, but then again ALL of the characters in the show center around him, so it makes sense that Molly’s character would do the same. There’s a certain level of trust and appreciation between the two now that wasn’t there in the first couple seasons.

Their friendship feels very real and heartfelt as the seasons pass, a different sort of friendship than Sherlock has with anyone else, John included. Numerous times throughout the series, it is revealed through little bits of dialogue that Molly and Sherlock often confide in each other about their worries. Molly is also one of the only people who seems to be able to hold Sherlock accountable for his actions. Check out this great clip from the newest season, when Molly discovers Sherlock recently took drugs:


The amazing Amanda Abbington

Despite my love for Molly, the women on the show really take a backseat to all the adventuring the boys do. This is why I think Mary is the best addition of the new direction the third season takes. In the first two episodes, she is definitely likeable; she’s funny, kind, insightful, and clever. But the third episode really drops a bombshell that no one saw coming: Mary’s a former assassin trying to live a normal life and escape her past. Besides that, we don’t know much. Talk about deviation from the books, where her defining characteristic was “wife of Dr. John Watson.”

My favorite part about the Mary character is how well she fits into this already-established world and her potential for growth as a character. The way I see it, she and Sherlock are two sides of the same coin. John “chose” them both because he is addicted to danger and sensed that quality in both of them. Both Mary and Sherlock are incredibly intelligent and rate John’s safety and opinion above anything else. However, Sherlock is better at understanding facts, whereas Mary understands human nature. This should prove for an interesting dynamic between these main characters in the future.

Who is your favorite Sherlock character? What are your thoughts on the way women are portrayed in the show?