How Sherlock surprised me in season 3

I’ve just finished watching Sherlock season 3… yay for another lengthy wait before the next season. For those who haven’t watched it yet, I won’t be spoiling any major events or revelations, but I will be discussing character dynamics quite a bit. Read at your own risk.

Ever since I heard they’d cast Mary Morstan, I was anxious about how they’d handle a serious love interest for John. All Sherlock stories rest on the love between Holmes and Watson to some extent, but the current BBC series it is the overt and unquestionable core of the show. The clever deductions, the rise and fall of public opinion, the tension between Sherlock’s narcissism (I contend that he is much more a narcissist than a sociopath) and his chosen life of fighting evil… all of these are secondary thematic players to the mutual love and mutual need between John and Sherlock. (I have no stake in the shipping vs. non-shipping game. I don’t care if you want to interpret their love as homoerotic, homoromantic, or just platonic devotion, and everything I’m going to write here works just fine however you like to spin it.)

Because the John/Sherlock relationship is so much more essential to this adaptation than to many others, the presence of a Mary Morstan was much more dangerous to it. I was honestly surprised they included her character… if you’re writing a love story about two characters, why bring a third in? Nobody in the audience would take her seriously as a rival for John’s affections, nor would they tolerate her if she was. I was prepared for, at best, a passive background figure who we’d only see in the corners of John’s life with Sherlock, and at worst, a source of irritating tension who everybody couldn’t wait to get rid of. A Mary who fought Sherlock for her place in John’s life, who complained about his being out late and fretted about the danger he put himself in, would have been a disaster. All of those concerns would be completely justified, but because they interfere with the relationship that we, the audience, really care about, that kind of Mary Morstan could only have been unlikeable.

Instead, the writers did what I didn’t expect: they gave us the nearest thing to a poly relationship I’ve seen on mainstream TV. Within hours of Sherlock’s return, John, Sherlock, and Mary have slid into what is essentially a quite functional polyamorous V. It’s Mary who sets the tone: she gets what Sherlock means to John. It’s clear from her reaction when she realizes who Sherlock is that she’s seen all of John’s grief and all of his love for his dead friend. It would be understandable if she’d become threatened and territorial, but instead she sees an opportunity for the man she loves to be happy, and she goes for it. She positions herself very clearly as an ally to their relationship.

And it’s her doing this that allows Sherlock to do the same. He’s not mature enough to make the same move on his own, and if Mary had positioned herself as a rival in a zero-sum game for John’s affection, he would have fallen to her level. Instead, he rises, and puts as much work into supporting her relationship with John as she does into supporting his. For me, it was an almost unbelievable level of character development, but I’m willing to buy that the Moriarty affair was humbling enough to effect a bit of genuine growth (his behavior toward Mycroft and others in this season bears that out as well.)

For a really good metamour relationship, both people have to truly value the good things the other brings to their mutual love’s life. They have to be willing to step aside at times to let the other relationship flourish, and to advocate for the health of the other relationship whenever necessary. It helps if they like each other, too, as Sherlock and Mary clearly do. So many little dynamics were familiar to me, like the back-channel communication for and about the mutual partner.

Again, you don’t have to put a sexual or romantic interpretation to John/Sherlock for this to work: plenty of stories involve bitter rivalry and jealousy between a best friend and a lover. In today’s culture, it is just assumed that only one person can be The Most Important, and that everyone close to a central character must be vying for the position. I can count on my fingers the number of movies or TV shows where the characters are allowed to rise above that, to go beyond open competition and even beyond silent insecurity, and to actively support the important relationships of those close to them. To act from the position of, “This person makes the person I love happy, and therefore, I want them in our lives as much as possible.” Sherlock, John, and Mary are all deeply damaged people, but they get this one thing stunningly, incredibly right.