I am in love with all of this, it’s the kind of engaged and productive discussion that should happen more often.
by Baker Street Babe Amy
Sherlock Holmes is a polarizing figure, no matter when or where he appears. Some, like John Watson and Mrs. Hudson, learn to accept and even love Sherlock for his brilliance and eccentricity and in spite of his frequent…
Great analysis of Donovan. An aspect of her place/role in Sherlock worth magnifying perhaps, that’s nicely consistent with ACD canon, is this:
In the original stories, Holmes, armed as he is with cutting edge forensic skills is not only derisive of Scotland Yard but beats them. In the 21st century, with the intervening development of forensic science, one might presume that Sherlock’s skills are less useful and impressive. But no, Sherlock can still beat the Yard. And he is no less annoying for it. He operates, then and now, in some sense, outside and above the law. Meanwhile Sally (that she is a woman, and one could argue even more pertinently a woman of color, is significant here) has to work within and under and for the law. Where Holmes metes out justice often on his own terms, Sally represents a far different M.O. and a not uncomplex picture of power.
She, like her colleagues, is bound by a system of rules, process and hierarchy. She has, no doubt, had to work to get where she is and fight for recognition and respect. Meanwhile for Sherlock the crime scene is a playground. He gets to be arrogant, derisive and plain rude and is not required to clock in and out or deal with paperwork. It is no surprise he angers her because the rules that exist for Sally - both literal and figurative - don’t seem to apply for Sherlock at all.
Built into the world of Sherlock, just as in the ACD canon with many if not most of its female characters, is a (perhaps intentional, perhaps not) critique of the gendered order. One in which Sherlock gets away with being a complete prick while Sally cannot. To achieve success within the boys’ club Sally has to work by its rules. It is a mark of her capabilities that she dares push back at all. Sherlock works outside the system, flagrantly disregarding convention and procedure. Yet he still comes out on top - the hero. Typical.
When we first met Sally there was some fan criticism that one of our hero’s key antagonists was a woman of color. We might, however, see Sally as embodying realism within the show - a reminder that Sherlock is still an alpha white male despite the changes in the world since 1895. For all his own hard work and natural brilliance that fact still gives him social advantage you can be sure would not be extended to Sally. Sally illuminates from the start that Sherlock Holmes would be a nightmare to know when one is living and working in the real world order with all its frustrating constraints that he so blatantly flounces. A world in which Sherlock is often times an insufferable arse. Which, to be faithful to the ACD canon, is something we should never forget.
Sherlock is great, at his best - good. But he is not, as heroes go, an easy character to like or at times even admire. Which is why we need John Watson - to shine a light on the inner Sherlock, the one he hides from the world. Because in all fairness, without John, we’d all be Sally. And we wouldn’t be wrong. Without the perspective gained by seeing Sherlock in the quieter moments in 221b, we’d only see the man he presents to the world: brilliant but - especially here in his younger days - quite thoroughly irritating in just about every way. Sally is us without our hero worship. Sally is a dose of realism, if not in fact sanity. But she works in this story at yet another level…
As with the comic superheroes that would follow in the 20th century, the fantasy of being able to break the rules in order to save the day is a self-indulgent one: to be an adult and yet live life as a game you always win. With Watson to Holmes, as Robin is to Batman, we get to chase across the rooftops for a moment, free of authority.
But in this Sherlockian world building, those rules and authority actually have teeth - this is not a Scotland Yard of bumbling keystone cops. And what is perhaps most smart about TRF is that Sally’s suspicion that Sherlock was the perpetrators of the crimes he had apparently solved so brilliantly is entirely logical & reasonable. And she operates within a Scotland Yard with real power. Moriarty’s story of Sir Boast-a-lot is a lesson in how in the real world you should be careful how you treat people on the way up because you may meet them on the way down. In his chaos-making, Moriarty exploits a very recognizable reality. For all his social advantage, Sherlock’s arrogance and self-isolation - however much they are defense mechanisms - are weaknesses to be exploited time and again by his enemies. Here he is being all too easily destroyed by the real world order - a world in which Sally can indeed & does exert some power. The self-invented fantasy figure is being undone and our fantasy threatened along with him - not only by chaos in the cartoonish terror of Moriarity but by a far less fantastical enemy. And one that’s no less pressing to our psyche:
Because Sally also reminds us why this (anti-)heroic fantasy exists at all and why this archetypal pairing is so enduringly compelling: like her, we mere mortals have to live with our feet firmly planted on the ground. In that, Sally anchors us. Without her, we wouldn’t believe the world Sherlock presents - it would be an unrecognizable alternate universe devoid of rules and authority. And the threat of this confining order we wish we could escape & transcend, fulfilled through John and Sherlock’s adventures, both in 1895 and in 2014, would seem far less real.
And in the end she, like us, would surely love to be Sherlock Holmes - to have his damn arrogant genius and get away with it. In that, her resentment is the disguise of our desire - not for him but to be him in all his brilliant rebellious bastardness. That doesn’t make her a bad person, let alone a petty or judgmental cow we are meant to dislike - that makes her, like us, utterly human.
And just perhaps Sally is even more honest than we would dare to be - she doesn’t pretend to be be nice to hold her own. As we see in TSoT, with Sally, Lestrade has to earn her true respect. I suspect there may be a part of Sherlock that admires her for that. Not that he’d ever admit it.
In all of this, Sally Donovan is, like her ACD forbears, a vitally important character.