The Maternal Future of Mary Watson: Or, Why River Song Gives Me a Sad
Okay, so just to say right off the bat: I quite like the character of Mary. I loved her in TEH and TS0T (more than I thought I would or even could!) and continued to like her even throughout HLV. And Stephen Moffatt has written a significant number of my all-time favorite episodes of television: Empty Child / Doctor Dances, Blink, Girl in the Fireplace (yes, I shipped Ten/Rose, but I liked this episode!), and, of course, ASiP, and ASiB. Does he also write things that I find deeply problematic? Yes. Yes he does. But so do some of my other favorite authors (of literature and television and movies)—so that’s not a dealbreaker for me. I am often a fan of problematic things. This is NOT meant as a Hate-on-Moffatt post. And it’s definitely not a Hate-On-Mary post.
But I am pessimistic about the future of Mary Watson. And here’s why:
Part of what I liked about Mary in TEH is that she wasn’t threatened by Sherlock; she liked Sherlock and told John so. She promised Sherlock she’d bring John round, and she did. She knew how to interpret skip codes and didn’t seem frightened to be tearing around London on the back of a motorbike. I loved her even more in TSoT: she manages both our boys so that they don’t lose track of each other, she’s got Sholto’s room number at the tip of her tongue even under pressure, and she seems utterly unflummoxed by the idea that neither she nor Sherlock were John’s first. She wasn’t clingy and divisive; she was grounded and cohesive. (Also? Amanda Abbington’s comic timing hits every beat perfectly for me: how can I not love her reaction to the wine?)
And what I adored about Mary throughout HLV was the way in which she is revealed to be a total badass. She’s an assassin: apparently she scaled a building that Sherlock had to fake an engagement to get into. She’s determined to keep John: she does so in ways and at costs that I know many people find deeply distasteful, but as many others have said, we might not react so strongly if she were a man and/or she weren’t breaking up the JohnLock ship. Ultimately, for me, it comes down to this: she’s complex and I can’t predict her. I didn’t think she’d shoot Sherlock. After she did, I didn’t think she’d stick around, hoping to not be revealed (and then when she was, hoping be forgiven). And I certainly didn’t think she’d live to see the end of S3. I like it when characters surprise me.
So here’s what makes me sad. The baby. Not because I don’t like babies. And not because I dread the show I know and love morphing into Two Men and a Baby (because I don’t really think that will happen). The baby makes me sad because it makes me draw a big thick red line to the character of River Song, and her arc on Doctor Who has made me terribly, terribly sad. Here’s why:
Things we know about River Song
- When we first meet her in Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead, she’s running rings around the Doctor. He can’t keep up with her, can’t figure out how she knows everything she does. (This reminds me of how Mary puts Sherlock off balance in TEH, surprising him and keeping him on his toes.)
- As the viewer’s chronological time stretches on, we learn more about her past: she was an assassin, engineered to kill the Doctor (a task she ultimately refused to complete). Over her own timeline, she shifted from Doctor River Song (the warrior) to Professor River Song (the academic)—a role that she has taken on as part of “settling down”—or what passes for settling down with a Time Lord (“And what time do you call this?!” AHAHAHAHA)—with the Doctor (who does in fact become her spouse).
- She’s incredibly competent (flying the TARDIS) and not at all threatened by all the Doctor’s other companions (Amy, Rory, Clara, Madame Vastra & Jenny, Donna, etc.).
Basically, she sounds a bit like Mary, doesn’t she? Just to run down the similarities
- They both started out as assassins
- (If you subscribe to the Mary Moran theory, they were both hired to kill men they ended up falling in love with and marrying.)
- They both decided to change their line of work, to live a more quiet life as a nurse / anthropologist.
- Even after this change, they both run rings around the smartest guy in the room, who just can’t get a read on her.
- They both are secure enough to not be threatened by their spouse’s smart / beautiful / smitten companion. In fact, they seem delighted to make it a threesome.
But unlike Mary Watson in S3, River Song dies the very first time we meet her. Except she doesn’t really die, does she? The Doctor gives her a “happy ending” by saving her on a hard drive. And what does she do in this virtual world? Read children bedtime stories.
And that’s why the arc of River Song makes me incredibly sad: she starts as a total BAMF, traveling time and space, kicking ass and taking names. When she decides not to kill the Doctor but love him? Well, she rewrites her destiny and does just that. But then as she transforms, the narrative room she’s given (by the show? by the men around her?) gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until finally she can be contained on a sonic screwdriver jump drive, living out some virtual reality not of her own devising. I always wonder, when I watch that ending, what it will be like for River to take (what in Girl in the Fireplace Moffatt calls) the “slow path”—cut off from all the travels and the adventures, limited to one particular time and place and group of people forever. I’ll say it again: I think we’re meant to see it as a happy ending, but I don’t think you have to be anti-maternal instinct (I’m not; I find raising children incredibly rewarding) to wonder if Moffatt might be selling his own deeply complex character a bit short by cueing us to believe that this will be an uncomplicatedly happy ending.
Why does this reading of River Song’s arc matter so much?
Because that’s the direction Mary’s headed. We see it in the sitting room when Sherlock asks “What is she?” (not “Who is she?” but objectified into “What is she?) and John says: “This is where they sit. The people who come in here with their stories. They’re clients. That’s all you are now, Mary. You’re a client. This is where they sit and talk, and this is where we sit and listen. And we decide if we want you or not.” Mary’s no longer writing her story; her story is determined by John and Sherlock. (Thanks to wingsoutstretched for this reading of that scene.) And apparently that narrative includes a baby—which is River Song’s “happy ending.”
So I don’t think Mary’s going to die, and I don’t think the baby will either. I think they’ll just fade away, shrinking into an increasingly small domestic sphere while
The Doctor and his companions continue to travel though time and space Sherlock and John continue to run pell-mell around London, solving crimes.
I fear that Mary, like River, will end up on a hard drive, reading bedtime stories to phantom children—not because that’s a role she freely chose, but because that’s the narrative someone else (her spouse) wrote for her.
I hope I’m wrong, and I’ll keep loving all the BAMF-y, devoted, and deeply complicated moments of these two characters regardless.