“Elementary” Flipped The Script On The Standard Rape Story
Ophelia Lovibond, Lucy Liu, and showrunner Rob Doherty talked to BuzzFeed News about how Kitty Winter "does not wish to be defined by her victimhood." Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for the Jan. 29 episode.
When vengeful detective Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond) first appears in the third season premiere of Elementary, she is a mysterious live wire who quickly engages in a baton fight with Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu); it is not until the following episode that it's revealed euphemistically that she was "the victim of a horrific crime," as Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) puts it. He continues, "She was taken. By a man." It's Joan who is the first to say the r-word, in the third episode: "She's a rape victim."
The initial sketch of Kitty Winter, portrayed by Lovibond in a 12-episode arc that ended Jan. 29, dances at the edge of sexist caricature. It begins with a catfight, Kitty battling Liu's Joan on the street, two women pitted against one another over Sherlock — a man. In the next episode, the stereotype threatens to compound: Kitty Winter is a rape victim. But instead of falling into easy clichés of inimical women and fragile victims, Elementary proceeded to create not only an authentic representation of female friendship, but also a deeply empathetic, empowered story of rape survival. The crime is named. The woman does not "overcome," but rather takes charge of her recovery. She is surrounded by a network of support. Her story is never disbelieved. And, ultimately, Kitty shreds her rapist's cloak of respectability.
"She's not a victim. She has not allowed this to take over her life," Lovibond told BuzzFeed News. And still, throughout her episodes, Lovibond took great care to make the trauma a central part of the character. "Rape isn't a one-time thing: It is something that will change your wiring a little bit," she said. And this is what's so striking about Kitty Winter: She is indeed not defined by her victimhood, but she is inflected by it. It's never an afterthought, as gender-based violence so often is on television.
Small choices brought Kitty to life; Lovibond mentioned a scene in the Nov. 20 episode where one of Sherlock's eccentric consultants — Harlan, a doughy mathematician played by Rich Sommer — is alone in a room with her, shirtless.
"I said, 'I don't want to be too close to him, because even though he's clearly nonthreatening, Kitty's not comfortable being in a room with a naked man,'" Lovibond said. "It's not appropriate; it makes her uncomfortable."
That was a new notion to Elementary's showrunner, Rob Doherty. "That hadn't occurred to me," he said. "Harlan is this lovable goofball we introduced last year. I worked with the writer on that scene, and it never occurred to me. … When Ophelia pointed it out, it made all the sense in the world."
Kitty Winter is a minor character from an original Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client," so — SPOILER ALERT for a plot point that's going on a century old — Doherty always knew her arc would end with Kitty throwing acid in the face of her attacker. What was unclear to Doherty was just how she would get there. And there isn't much hint as to how she gets there in the story itself: The original Kitty Winter is more a collection of characteristics than a character. But, Doherty said, "Kitty Winter jumped out at me because she was one of the most active female characters I'd ever come across in the canon" — unlike the Kitty in Elementary, this earlier Kitty simultaneously punishes her attacker and saves Sherlock Holmes, making her a hero. In Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, "women come across a certain way, for the most part, and Kitty was this really fascinating exception." She's violent, full of anger, and self-determining.
As Kitty became more violent in the Jan. 22 episode — torturing someone for information — Lovibond played Kitty "doing it very reluctantly, and that wasn't how I was seeing it," Doherty said. Once Kitty finds out that her rapist is in New York City, Doherty began imagining "someone who is rage-filled and coiled and ready to snap," he said, but Lovibond took a different tack.
"Kitty's not an evil person," Lovibond said. "When she does do the wrong thing as a means to an end, it's very reluctantly."
This part of her story — this burning off the face of a sadistic serial rapist-murderer — is, of course, not without its doubts.
"He gets what he deserves, and Kitty gets some of what she needs," Doherty said, noting that Gruner (Stuart Townsend) is in police custody by the episode's end. Lovibond's moral interpretation was a little less certain: "There are so many variables to what he did to her; who's to say that [her revenge] is not right? Objectively, that is a bad thing to do: Bad equals wrong. But then when you factor in everything that happened, how much less wrong does it become? There isn't an objective categorical there."
Certainly, Sherlock doesn't think there's an objective answer: He knows Kitty intends to torture and murder Gruner, and intervenes only to tell her that it might not be worth it to murder the man; still, he leaves it in her hands. And this is the kind of agency Kitty Winter is granted throughout her 12 episodes: She is radically trusted and supported by Sherlock and Joan. Sherlock is "the first person in a long time — man — that she has allowed herself to trust, to be vulnerable around," Lovibond said. It's partly because, moments after meeting her, he recognizes her trauma, but doesn't classify her as weakened by it; in fact, the rape, and her dedication to crime-solving, is largely what draws him to her. Likewise, Joan is drawn to her because she wants to help her.
"I think it's a very positive portrayal of how women group together in reality," Liu said, contrasting this on-screen friendship with the "more dramatic" — and fraught — female relationships often depicted on television.
It's Sherlock to whom Kitty says "I love you" in the end, but it's Joan who receives a file containing the details of Kitty's rape and doesn't read the file until Kitty, unprompted, tells her to do so. It's Joan who gets Kitty into group therapy. "I always wrote that [relationship] from a place of parenthood," Doherty said.
"Just because she's a little bit older than her and a woman, she has to become this kind of maternal figure to her? No. She could be something else," Lovibond said.
Liu agreed. "She wanted to relate to her on a more peer-to-peer level."
Indeed, there is a scene in the season's third episode in which Sherlock tells Joan he imagines himself as a father figure: "It's commonly believed that a child benefits mostly from the presence of two parents. He, or she in this case, can absorb certain qualities from the father: clear-eyed view of the world, capacity for rational thought, etc. He can also absorb certain qualities from the mother."
"Excuse me, but I am not Kitty's mother," Joan says, interrupting his somewhat infantilizing idea. "And she sure as hell is not our child."
And Kitty, later in the season, steps up to defend Joan. When Sherlock finds Joan's memoirs of their time together on a laptop, Kitty is quick to say that Joan has a right to tell her own stories. And in the Nov. 27 episode, she advises Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) to respect his daughter's right to keep her own story of partner abuse a secret. Kitty "does not wish to be defined by her victimhood," Sherlock tells Joan early on, and, granted this control over her story, Kitty attempts to give other women control over theirs.
Systems of communal support thread throughout the 12-episode Kitty Winter arc. The thing that's so rarely represented on TV — or in any narrative medium — fits with the ethos of the series: "We tell stories about characters who spend lots of time in [support] meetings," said Doherty. Characters — first Sherlock with his addiction, and here, Kitty — take an active role in their recovery while relying on a network of others for support, flouting the more traditional narrative of the rugged individual pulling himself up by the bootstraps. What we see here is more nuanced, more authentic, and more respectful to real human beings: The show doesn't reinforce the notion of internalizing struggle. "We're a show," said Doherty, "that absolutely believes in talk as help."