Mary vs. Soo Lin Yao (a.k.a. they knew how to make Mary sympathetic, but they didn’t)
Okay, so I was actually just drafting a different post (about how TST focuses on Mary) when I came to a realization: they knew how to make Mary’s story sympathetic. And I’m not just saying that they hypothetically could have told her story better, I’m saying that we know they are capable of this because they’ve done it before, in the form of Soo Lin’s story from TBB.
The recurring mentions of tattoos in TST was what caught my eye at first: Sherlock tells DI Dimmock that he can identify a limbless corpse based on its tattoos, for “the Circus Torso” case; later, he deduces a client’s feelings towards his Japanese ex-girlfriend based on how much effort the man had put into removing a tattoo of her name. The biggest instance of tattoos on the show was in TBB, where they were used to identify (often deceased) members of the Black Lotus.
…but hang on, wasn’t there also a secret tattoo included in Sherlock’s initial deduction of Mary?
(I’m cracking up at the lucky cat/cat lover connection, but that’s probably irrelevant. The ordering of words also suggests that Mary is “secretly clever,” or maybe has a “secret lover,” *cough*David - but anyway, the “secret tattoo” part is pretty clear.)
Beyond the tattoos, Mary and Soo Lin have quite a few things in common. Both are mysterious women with a shady past, who have managed to blend in and are currently trying to live normal lives in London:
But unfortunately, neither one can escape her past. Interestingly, although they have similar backgrounds, they are painted in different lights: Soo Lin is more of a victim than Mary is; and Mary doesn’t hesitate to leave Sherlock and John out of her plans, while Soo Lin is pretty solitary already, so it’s not really a surprise that she doesn’t confide in Andy.
Both are orphans, involved in an international criminal group (smugglers, assassins) which includes a “family” member. This brother figure comes after them, and ultimately tries to kill them.
The big difference, though, is that Soo Lin and Mary don’t fill their roles in quite the same way. Soo Lin is a Sherlock mirror (dedicated to her work, socially isolated, trying to overcome the negatives of her past), while the Sherlock mirror in TST is Ajay, not Mary. Ajay was betrayed by Mary (remember, Mary deceived Sherlock and then shot him dead), and then brutally tortured (bonus connection: he was tortured by “amo,” or love, which is the same concept that tortured Sherlock/pushed Sherlock through his own torture in Serbia).
Now, I can’t really say whether the viewer is supposed to sympathize with Ajay or Mary (I’ll admit I’m a little biased; weigh in if you’d like), but we’re definitely meant to view Soo Lin as the innocent victim. Mary is a little more ambiguous.
Judging from how the backstory was told, I got the feeling that Mary had screwed Ajay over more than vice versa; he wasn’t coming after her to pressure into rejoining the dark side or whatever, but rather to get revenge for what he perceived as her betrayal. And this, I think, it why we get the divergence in storyline:
Zhi Zhu killed Soo Lin, but Ajay didn’t kill Mary. Instead, she jumped in front of Vivian Norbury’s bullet. (This is probably because she’s a major character, and so her death had to be big, not like Soo Lin’s; it also included a very active element of self-sacrifice, while Soo Lin’s was more passive.) Ajay is killed by a minor character, and Zhi Zhu dies when John kicks the crossbow out of Sarah’s way. Interestingly, both conflicts arise from a case of mistaken identity: John is mistaken for Sherlock, setting off the whole crossbow hostage incident; Ajay mistakes “the Englishwoman” for Mary, propelling him on his mission to track her down. If you look at these two scenes, the pattern is a little more clear: Ajay and Soo Lin (the two Sherlock mirrors) become casualties earlier in the episode, in a mini-climax scene that isn’t the big confrontation; Mary and Zhi Zhu are both killed in the big climax of the episode, by a weapon that was meant to kill someone else. The roles are reversed.
TL;DR: Even though some details are different, the general outline is still the same: Sherlock
and John investigates a case that turns out to be linked to an international crime group, and we hear the story from a normal-seeming woman who had managed to escape that life, but who still ends up dead due to her past involvement.
I think that this mirroring was at least partially intentional, since series 4 is full of recycled material (TLD has explicit flashbacks to ASIP; TFP feels inspired by TGG; THOB seems to be echoed in both TST and TLD), but what I find most interesting about it is that it proves that if Mofftiss wanted to show Mary in a sympathetic light, they could have easily done that. TBB shows that they know how to tell that kind of narrative. But instead, they chose to make Mary’s actions more ambiguous, and so many viewers were left feeling slightly uneasy about her character.
(a few more random connections under the cut)