Besides spoilers for the most recent season of Elementary, this article also contains references to potentially triggering topics like rape and assault.
I totally geeked out when I heard Kitty Winter was joining Elementary. A few summers back, I binge-read The Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes, and Kitty Winter was one of the characters that stuck out in my mind. She was fiery, clever, and one of the few women to make a positive impression on Sherlock Holmes.
Irene Adler’s not the only special snowflake.Going into Season 3 of Elementary, of course I had questions. Sherlock and Joan had parted ways in the S2 finale; Joan moved out of the brownstone to find her own space, and Sherlock took up an offer from MI6 to work in London. So how were they going to reunite in New York again? Where was Kitty Winter going to fit in to all this? Frequent readers here know I try to look on the positive side, especially during contentious fandom moments. After her first episode, the general fandom reception to Ophelia Lovibond’s character was dislike. The reasons ran the gamut from from her attitude to being labeled Watson 2.0. But after “The One Who Got Away”, I’m pleased to report Kitty Winter surpassed all expectations.
In the original Arthur Conan Doyle canon, Kitty Winter was the ex-mistress of a murderous and philandering Baron. She eagerly teams up with Holmes and Watson to prove what a scoundrel he is to his fiance, informing them he has a book of conquests. More than once during the story she indulges her rage against him, the most memorable of which is when she scars the Baron’s face with vitriol. Let’s get something straight – ACD!Kitty was not a ‘proper lady’. She freely and unapologetically admits to Holmes and Watson that she loved Baron Gruner and slept with him when no proposal of marriage had occurred. He tossed her aside and left her a ruined woman hell-bent on revenge. Some readers argue she became a prostitute out of necessity or was forced into the sex trade. Regardless, she’s cast in a very sympathetic light in the text. The Granada Holmes adaptation takes this a step further, with Kitty (Kim Thompson) having originally been burned with vitriol at Gruner’s sadistic hands.
In Elementary, the circumstances differ. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) first meets Kitty when she notices the young woman’s been following her. The second time, they engage in a baton battle, and Watson realizes they’ve been trained by the same person – Sherlock. “I’m his partner,” Kitty defensively claims after she’s bested by Watson. “Protege,” Sherlock corrects when he finally reunites with Watson on a case. He crossed paths with Kitty several months back in London and saw her potential as a detective. Living with him in the brownstone and assisting him in his cases with the NYPD is the next part of her training. Kitty has great instincts, but she is impatient with some of her mentor’s methods. Regardless, she flourishes in New York under both Sherlock and Joan’s influences. They provide different perspectives for how she can move on from her traumatic experience.
Two years ago, Kitty was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. She managed to escape, but her attacker was never caught. She changed her name and tried to start a new life. She meets Sherlock while trying to bring a detective’s attention to her theory about a kidnapped child. Working with the consulting detective gives Kitty a sense of purpose, with the eventual goal in her mind being that she will find the man who hurt her and bring him to justice. Joan thinks that Kitty isn’t fully dealing with her trauma and encourages attending a support group. Kitty does so because she values Joan’s opinion, and they gradually become friends. Joan advocates for Kitty when Sherlock gets overprotective, and Kitty advocates for Joan’s right to share her experiences when “The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes” manuscript is found on Watson’s old laptop.
Despite her growth with Holmes and Watson, Kitty does have a recurring character flaw: vengeance, with a tendency of resorting to less-than-legal means when she wants a particular result. When Captain Gregson is in a moral pickle – firing his daughter’s police partner for hitting her and thus airing her personal business to world, or to swallow his pride and shake the man’s hand in a public apology for slugging him – Kitty tells him that “she shouldn’t have to appear weak if she doesn’t want to”. Gregson heeds the advice and shakes the man’s hand, only to find out that said police officer is resigning because Kitty spoke to him.
That character flaw rears its head abundantly in “The Illustrious Client” and “The One Who Got Away”, the two-part conclusion of Kitty’s arc. When evidence turns up suggesting that Kitty’s assailant is in New York, she’s determined to track him down. She goes so far as to intimidate a suspect’s sister in the privacy of her own home so that she will talk to the police. Later, when they determine the real culprit is Del Gruner but can’t prove it, Kitty takes the law into her own hands. She kidnaps Gruner, planning to torment him the way he did her, then kill him and dissolve his body so he’ll never be found. Sherlock finds her, but doesn’t stop her. He admits that he can never understand the way she feels about the situation, but he will stand by her no matter what choice she makes: whether it’s killing Gruner or leaving him to the police.
Kitty takes the middle ground. She frees Gruner, but only after irreparably burning his face. It’s shocking, and Kitty will have to face the consequences if she’s caught, but it’s also the right conclusion for her character. This is a woman whose whole story is about taking back control and being allowed to make her own choices. And I don’t mean just as a sexual assault survivor, I mean as a whole person. The really great thing about Kitty is that her survivor status never defined her. We aren’t subjected to graphic scenes to sensationalize her history or even to glorify her actions against Gruner. What really defines Kitty Winter, and what I can’t fully describe, are all the little things: her friendship with Joan, her friendship and mentorship with Sherlock, the fact that she made friends and was finally having some semblance of a real life again in New York.
I thought about comparing the BBC Sherlock series to Elementary in this article, but it doesn’t seem right. Elementary has done some things better than BBC Sherlock, and vice versa. But the Kitty Winter arc has been done so, so right, it just may have given this American adaptation a leg up on its English cousin.