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28 October 2014 @ 12:48 pm
META: Mary/Maryam: Mary Morstan in BBC Sherlock and Truth May Vary  
This is a meta both on the third season of Sherlock and the fic I have in progress, Truth May Vary.</em> It contains spoilers through the current chapter (chapter 14) but none past that; it also contains spoilers for series 3 of Sherlock.

I started writing Truth May Vary well before series 3 began to air--and I had it fully plotted before it had an announced airdate. I had figured out that Mary Morstan was going to be in the new series, but I decided I wasn't going to try to predict what she'd be like. Instead, I wrote a Mary Morstan--in my version, Maryam Murstani--of my own.

The figure of Mary Morstan can pose a problem for those who ship John and Sherlock, as do canon female love interests in lots of canons; she comes between the characters we want to see together, and we have to choose how to approach her, how we might get our ship together with her in the picture.  But the bigger issue, for me, is how many fans go about this: by attacking these women, belittling them in fic, and turning them into caricatures. I didn't want to do that, because it's a symptom of a whole bunch of bad trends in media and society, and often leads to misogynistic behavior and speech. At the same time, I did want to write a post-Reichenbach fic where John and Sherlock got together, which included Mary and John's relationship ending.  My goal in writing TMV was, at least in part, to make Mary a sympathetic, well-rounded character who has her own motives and goals, and to portray her as a protagonist in her own right.

What I find particularly interesting, in comparing my Maryam to the Mary of BBC-verse canon, is the ways that they parallel each other, despite being different people in different stories.  In fact, I think they illuminate two very important things: first, that Mary/Maryam serves as a reflection of Sherlock in both texts, and second, that the difference between the two Marys demonstrates the difference between Moffat and Gatiss's John and mine.

To lay this out, let me first talk about Mary as she appears in series three. I think that Mary serves as a reflection of Sherlock from the beginning.  It starts in TEH, with Mrs Hudson talks about John "moving on" to a new partner, with Mary and John bantering in a way reminiscent of Sherlock and John bantering, and with Mary and Sherlock joining forces to save John from the bonfire.  It gets cranked up to eleven in TSOT, where John and Mary both explicitly equate John's relationship with her to his relationship with Sherlock--Mary saying "Neither of us were the first," John saying there are two people who have completely turned his life around, the posing of the three of them in photos, even Sherlock's ridiculous, adorable parallel wedding vows.

And then there's HLV.  Now, there are lots of places I could go here, but let me talk about two. First, Magnussen: both Mary and Sherlock are horrified by what he does, and want to stop him. Mary is willing to shoot him to do this, but it's Sherlock who takes the shot at Appledore.  The second is the terrible, horrible, brilliant scene at 221b after the empty house, where Sherlock explains to John that Mary is dangerous because John wants danger, and that Mary's danger explicitly parallels Sherlock's.  It's what you like, Sherlock says, and both Mary and Sherlock have what John likes.

The tragedy of series three (for me at least) is that John has these two people, frighteningly similar in some ways but very individual, who both adore him, would do anything for him, and who he loves in return...and he acts as if he can only ever have one of them at a time. He steps away from Mary to help Sherlock announce his return; he steps away from Sherlock to dance with Mary at the wedding ("there are limits," he says, and we watch Sherlock's broken heart bleed down his chest); he doesn't talk to Sherlock for a month after his wedding; he takes Sherlock's hand to say goodbye on the tarmac and to start his life with Mary.  John thinks he can't have them both, and so Sherlock loses him, and I collapse in a puddle and weep for a week.

So, how are Maryam and Sherlock parallel in Truth May Vary? It's less clear than in canon, but what is similar about them first is that both of them provided a structure for John's life.  Whereas in BBC canon, Mary provides emotional stability for John after Sherlock's death, while he figures out his life, in TMV, Mary presents him with an alternative life full stop: a new partner, a child, something to organize his life.  Just as becoming Sherlock's blogger gave John's life meaning after the war, becoming Maryam's husband and Naz's father gave him purpose after Sherlock's death.

But here's the second parallel: if the reason John likes both Mary and Sherlock is that they're dangerous, the reason he likes both Maryam and Sherlock is that they're brilliant.  Mary is a fantastically successful person: she's a high ranking public servant (chapter 2), has written and edited books in her field (chapter 12), is able to place her writing in major public forums (chapter 1), is regularly invited to meetings across the UK and abroad to speak on her work (chapter 13, inter alia).  Her career was her priority in her twenties and thirties, and becoming a mother didn't stop her from being highly career driven.  Maryam is a brilliant woman, and doesn't try to obscure it at all.

And John positions himself as her--well, her assistant.  Not at her job--she has minions for that sort of thing--but at home.  John takes on primary childcare duties. He builds a career with flexible hours to facilitate that. He does the necessary housework that someone working a sixty hour week couldn't get to.  He's the underemployed spouse of a highly successful professional, the support team behind the star.

And this is exactly what he was to Sherlock all those years: backup, cleanup, picking up the pieces.  Sherlock didn't need someone to change the sheets or pick up the kid from school, but he needed someone to answer clients' email and be prepared to shoot when necessary.  John Watson likes being surrounded by genius; he likes being instrumental to the work of brilliance.  As a conductor of light, he is superb, and both Sherlock and Maryam benefit from that.

This suggests that my John, the John of TMV, is different from the John of canon.  He can give up danger; he liked it, but he's older now, and settled. What he can't give up is feeling an integral part of something; he needs to be part of something bigger, something he can devote himself to. It can be being a British soldier Sherlock's blogger, or Maryam's husband, just as long as it's worthwhile, as long as he's important to it.

And the tragedy of TMV is not that John makes himself choose between Sherlock and Maryam, rather than accepting his role with both of them. It's that he can't actually have them both. While Mary and Sherlock in canon appear to be willing to share John, to be equal partners in his life (and each other's), Maryam isn't ok with that.  She needs John to pick who his primary partner is, and she's not going to let him try to make it be both of them.  John tries, so hard, for so long, to balance them, to care for them both without actively neglecting either--but Maryam isn't willing to settle for that.  And that's her right; it's fair of her, to expect to be her spouse's primary partner, to not expect this other person to insert himself. The Mary of canon doesn't mind.  Maryam does.

So, Mary and Maryam are different women, making different choices, reflecting different sides of Sherlock and attracting different facets of John.  These are all writerly choices that one makes, and the Moffatt/Gatiss choice is as plausible as mine.  But the only criticism I would make toward them, if we were having a conversation about it, is that my characterization choices are actually compatible with being a parent, whereas theirs are not, not in real life.  How they will resolve this is a mystery to me.

How John, Sherlock, and Maryam will resolve their differences, luckily, is not.

This entry was originally posted at http://amalnahurriyeh.dreamwidth.org/98354.html. You can comment in either location. There are currently comment count unavailable comments at Dreamwidth.
violethuntressviolethuntress on October 28th, 2014 06:45 pm (UTC)
Hello! Leaving a comment here, because I actually do have an LJ account, but not dreamwidth.

I just want to say first how much I love this, how much I love your fic as well. I LOVE the way Maryam is a reflection of Sherlock, and this meta helped me realize much more how and why. I also appreciate what I would consider your generous reading of BBC canon, because in order to make my peace with what's going on on that show, I've basically had to come around to a reading like this as well.

But. Perhaps I dwell on these things too much (I do for Sherlock as well), I think that a crucial difference between Mary and Maryam is the question of betrayal. Because whatever TF happens at the end of HLV, the fact of Mary's pretty serious betrayal of John--her lying to him, for one, but even more, her endangering him because of her ties to organized and violent crime, without his knowledge and without his consent--is to me the pivot around which HLV turns. And we can add to that her shooting of Sherlock. Because whatever her motivations are (and I won't go into that here), it should be clear to her that putting Sherlock's life in such great risk (if not straightforwardly killing him) would surely be very hurtful to John, would put him through turmoil, and can also be seen as (unfortunately) revoking her gestures of being willing to share.

I feel like the incident in your latest chapter is a great analogue to this moment: Maryam decides she's had enough, and she's willing to put Sherlock's life and health in danger in order to protect herself and her family. WILLING TO, but doesn't. Because John is there, and John makes sure that Sherlock was not in danger. And in part it's because I think your Mary wouldn't betray John like that: she wouldn't put her own needs and desires before his. If John hadn't been home, I can't imagine your Mary just sending Sherlock away, to hell with what happens to him, let John find him half dead in a gutter somewhere the next day. That is because your Mary is a good person, one who takes care of her own emotional needs as well.

I guess it's no secret that I hate what they did to Mary's character in HLV, but I guess I bring it up because for me it is perhaps THE main difference between Mary and Maryam. Maryam is a great female character who demonstrates that a woman can be kind, caring, loving, and brilliant while also NOT being self-abnegating, who shows that taking care of oneself can coexist with being good to others. Mary, OTOH, is a character who is shown to care about herself and what's good for her BEFORE all others, including John. (That characteristic in itself doesn't make her a bad character; I won't go into why I don't think she's a good character here because it's not the right forum; but it does make her very different from Maryam, imho.)

Edited at 2014-10-28 06:47 pm (UTC)
Amal Nahurriyeh: sherlock couchamalnahurriyeh on October 29th, 2014 02:48 am (UTC)
You can actually comment on Dreamwidth through LJ--it's one of the key "OpenID" websites. Dreamwidth was coded to be entirely interoperable with LiveJournal, which is definitely one of its charms.

To my mind, the betrayal issue is--an issue, but one that the text handles on its own terms, and I choose to accept those terms. In the read world (let alone the hyperreal world of Sherlock), it's actually not uncommon for intelligence agents to be directed to conceal what they do from spouses, so I can imagine for someone like Mary who burned it all when she left the instinct would be doubled. I also choose to believe that she is genuinely sorry for her deception and its consequences, including her choice to shoot Sherlock, which is, you know, not among her best decisions, even if she wasn't choosing from a bucket of good options. I also choose to believe John's decision to accept her apology and to try again. I don't know if my choices to believe any of this will be held up by the canon of s4, but, well, we have until then to mess around and see what we can come up with. In any case, the lousy and lazy writing of s3 is an issue all in itself.

I am not convinced Maryam would have let Sherlock stay; I think she (quite legitimately! she doesn't know him as we do) believes him to be a threat to her family. I also wonder what would have happened if they had managed to interact more before this point; some of the fact that she hasn't talked to him is on him, because he's being weird (SHOCKING, I KNOW). At least I know where they're going from here, even if I don't know exactly where they've been...that's something right?

Honestly, I think some of the biggest differences between Maryam and Mary is genre: one is living in a work of realistic ficiton, and the other is in a work of melodrama slash action thriller. Tends to alter how people act!
violethuntressviolethuntress on October 30th, 2014 03:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this reply! I do think you're right about the genre issue. I think I have too much trouble suspending my disbelief when it comes to emotional realism in genre shows :P I do think it's why I love the fanfic for this show so much--and your work very much included in that. It makes sense to me on a real level that shooting and nearly killing someone's best friend kinda doesn't.
maybe_amandamaybe_amanda on October 31st, 2014 11:37 pm (UTC)
I just really like TMV. I like that it is well-written, well-plotted, and well-developed. I like that the characters, new and canon, are interesting and engaging. I look forward to each new part. I squeal (a bit - just a teeny bit) when notification of a new chapter pops up in my inbox. I immediately read each and every installment. Then I read it again. Then I look forward to the next part.

Please don't make me think about it any harder than that. ;)