When Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Mary Watson, Dr. John Watson’s wife, in 1903, it was in such perfunctory fashion that he didn’t even mention her by name. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Watson is astonished to discover that Sherlock Holmes is alive, having thought him dead for more than three years. Holmes briefly details to Watson how he survived his fight with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and Watson muses on his friend’s return, and his reaction to Watson’s own state. “In some manner he had learned of my own sad bereavement, and his sympathy was shown in his manner rather than his words,” Watson writes. Thus was Mary dispatched: briefly, nonspecifically, and in a way that focused on Holmes, acknowledging his humanity while emphasizing his unshakable professionalism.
Conan Doyle’s axing of Mary was primarily utilitarian. He’d intended to retire Holmes and Watson as characters in 1893’s “The Final Problem,” killing off the esteemed detective, but fan outcry had obliged him to revive them. Possibly intuiting that the pair functioned best as roommates, without the distraction of Watson’s domestic life, Conan Doyle reunited them, which meant Mary had to go. The same reasoning seems to have been involved in the newest episode of Sherlock, “The Six Thatchers,” in which (major spoiler) Mary Watson died after pushing Sherlock out of the path of a bullet intended for him. “The reality of this, of course, is that Sherlock Holmes is about Sherlock and Dr. Watson and it’s always going to come back to that—always always always,” the show’s creator, Steven Moffat, told Entertainment Weekly. “They had fun making it a trio but it doesn’t work long term. Mary was always going to go and we were always going to get back to the two blokes. That’s the format.”