There’s really nowhere to start here other than with Maisie Williams’ performance. Her work in last week’s “The Girl Who Died” was very good, bringing nuance and humanity to what in lesser hands might just feel like just another random historical character with hints of deeper mystery. But her work in “The Woman Who Lived” is an order of magnitude better, if only because she is asked to do so much more here than she was last week. The Ashildir of “The Girl Who Died” falls into one of my favorite categories of Doctor Who supporting characters, the goodhearted ally who believes in the Doctor even as they never quite see eye to eye. But this week’s Ashildr—to the extent she even accepts that name as her own—is a character very nearly without precedent in Doctor Who history. No, she’s not the first immortal we’ve met, something the Doctor makes explicit with his reference to Captain Jack Harkness, but what sets Ashildr apart from the likes of a Captain Jack or even a River Song is that her extended lifespan is her only special ability. Without infinite memory, infinite life can mean nothing to her but constant loss: of those she cares about, of the knowledge of her own experiences, and ultimately of who she actually is.
That’s perhaps what hurts the most about “The Woman Who Lived,” as Williams layers in almost none of last week’s Ashildr into the woman we meet here. There’s no sign of her love of storytelling or of her insecurities about how her actions, even her thoughts, might hurt others. Her imagination, her gallantry bordering on the headstrong, it’s all gone, and it never really comes back. The only moment we really see Ashildr again comes during the Leonians’ attack on the villagers, as she shows an urgent compassion that feels very much of a kind with what we saw last week. It feels right for the Doctor to grin and welcome back Ashildr in that moment, but it’s fleeting. The woman in the next scene in the tavern is a wiser, kinder individual that the one the Doctor spent most of today’s episode with, but she’s still someone the Norse villager of last week would barely recognize. That’s hardly surprising, given the better part of a millennium does still separate those two individuals.
As the 5th Doctor once observed, people are the sum of their memories, and “The Woman Who Lived” is heartbreaking in how it teases out just what Ashildr has chosen to remember and what she has chosen to forget. At first glance, it might appear odd that she still remembers the Doctor and Clara after all this time yet she has forgotten her own name, family, and birthplace. And yeah, the episode maybe could have addressed little tensions like that head-on, but it’s not hard to understand something like that in the context of what Ashildr tells us. It’s not as simple as she forgets everything that happened to her before a certain point. Rather, she has to choose carefully what few things she will retain through the centuries, and it’s those that she keeps in her mind or her diaries. Even more important than what she chooses to remember, however, is what she cannot bear to hold onto. There likely came a point a long, long time ago at which the memory of her village and her loved ones was nothing but painful for her. The Doctor, on the other hand, is her hero and, as she points out toward the end of the episode, her jailer. He’s still her one hope to set her free, and so it pays to remember him and, in Clara, his weaknesses.
To make all this coherent, the episode asks everything of Maisie Williams, and she delivers. Her first line after she reveals her true identity—the bit she asks the Doctor what took him so long, which was used as the closing sting for one of the season trailers—might suggest that she and the episode are going to present the immortal Ashildr as another playful, quip-heavy character that we’ve seen more than our fair share of in the Steven Moffat era, but the episode fast reveals that this is merely bravado masking brittleness. There are a few ways Williams could have theoretically played her first reaction to the Doctor calling her character Ashildr, and her good-natured lack of any reaction at all might well be the saddest possibility. When she says, “If you say so,” it’s as though she’s happily ceding control of her own past to the Doctor. As the episode continues, it becomes evident just how much that is a defense mechanism, a way of temporarily warding off the hell that is her continued existence.
There’s a question I didn’t think to ask about “The Girl Who Died,” and “The Woman Who Lived” never quite asks this specifically, though it’s just a more concrete version of the Doctor’s own characterization of himself as the man who shows up for the war but runs from the fallout. Why did the Doctor leave immediately after he resurrected Ashildr? What if he had just taken a few days, even a few hours, to prepare Ashildr for what immortality might mean? It feels silly to even ask that, because the Doctor always leaves at the earliest possibility opportunity, and that’s been the case from the very beginning. As such, I just kind of take it as read that, yeah, of course the Doctor is going to abandon Ashildr to her immortality. Last week’s episode points to a couple potential reasons: The Doctor says he always runs away when his pain becomes unbearable, and he may well have already been too ashamed of the mistake he has made in bringing her back to face Ashildr for long.
On that second point, consider when the Doctor mentions the last time he checked in on Ashildr and found her running a leper colony. She takes the Doctor to task for only understanding how she is doing in terms of her doing good, not in terms of how she actually feels about anything. The Doctor judges her by her actions, not by her inner turmoil, hence why he could look at an immortal woman running a leper colony and see nothing but positives in that. This recalls similar instances in which past Doctors have tried to understand why past companions might not understand why they were left behind—think the 10th Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith in “School Reunion,” or, for those looking for a deeper cut, think the 11th Doctor and Jo Grant in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode “The Death Of The Doctor.” (Still the only time Russell T. Davies has written for a Steven Moffat Doctor, if you’re curious what that looks like.)
Through all these instances, there’s a sense that there’s more going on here than the Doctor failing to understand human emotional needs. There’s also an aspect of the Doctor seeking to soothe his own troubled conscience, and knowing Ashildr is helping others is a way for him to redeem his own actions in bringing her back. On some level, he might know Ashildr herself is a lost cause, so he can only look at in her in terms of whether her existence represents a net positive. He might articulate that in warmer, more aspirational terms, but that could well be the core psychology in play there.
As for the other part, about the unbearability of loss and grief across an infinite life, there we see perhaps the most powerful element of “The Woman Who Lived.” As Ashildr says, all those emotions just run out over a long enough timespan, until there’s nothing left but empty thrill-seeking. Robbing and killing at least make her feel something, if only for a moment, and it’s hard for her to take the consequences seriously when she knows those she hurts are going to be dead in what to her is barely more than a blink of an eye. The Doctor needs similarly visceral, immediate experiences to keep himself anchored in the lives of mortals, and his great advantage is that he can always step back into his TARDIS and head somewhere else. It’s easy for the Doctor to say Ashildr she will fly soon enough when he could materialize on the windswept sands of Kitty Hawk whenever he wants—assuming he could fly the TARDIS accurately, which, yeah, best of luck—but he’s still talking about a distance of more than 250 years. The Doctor has the luxury of making vast gulfs of time and space meaningless to him, which in turn makes it all the easier to focus on forging those more immediate connections with people like Clara. Ashildr can’t escape her circumstances so easily. It’s just another way the Doctor unwittingly trapped her.
While we’re vaguely on the subject of Clara, it’s worth pointing out this the first companion-light episode since, what, “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe”? (It kind of depends how you categorize different episodes, but I’m just going to keep this simple and say a companion-light episode in the Moffat era is one in which neither Amy nor Clara is involved in the episode’s main story.) From a really basic storytelling perspective, there’s just no need for Clara here. Like any companion, Clara is there primarily to serve as a bridge between the Doctor and the everyday people, but Ashildr has no such requirements. It’s hard to see what Clara could have added to this episode, and that’s not really a criticism of her character: I’d feel the same way about any other new series companion. Ashildr is entirely capable of asking the Doctor the hard questions here, and the presence of a companion would only lessen the sting of Ashildr’s rebukes.
More than that, Clara’s absence gives “The Woman Who Lived” an actively different feel from a typical Doctor Who episode, as there’s nothing here to cut against the Doctor and Ashildr’s remove from humanity. The core of this episode is the meeting of two lonely, broken immortals, but it’s not just in the drama that “The Woman Who Lived” benefits from mixing things up and keeping Clara on the sidelines. The Doctor is even goofier and more detached than normal, as shown by his opening inability to realize he’s wandered into a robbery, and untethering this Doctor lets the show play around with some different kinds of jokes.
Like Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat’s script for “The Girl Who Died,” Catherine Tregenna’s writing flits between comedy and drama. The first woman to write for the show since Helen Raynor in series 4, Tregenna previously penned some of the best of Torchwood’s pre-Children Of Earth episodes, including episodes like “Out Of Time” and “Captain Jack Harkness” that similarly explored how people might deal with being disconnected from their time and place. This is one of the strongest basic premises for a Doctor Who episode in the show’s history, and Tregenna at every turn finds ways to drill down into precisely what Ashildr’s immortality really means. In this, Maisie Williams is a constant ally: Consider, as one example of many, the scene in which Ashildr talks about how people are like mayflies, always repeating the same mistakes over and over, and how boring it all is. This is a terrific insight into what it would mean to be stuck on Earth for hundreds and hundreds of years, and the predictable—still very good, but predictable—way to play this would be with an edge of contempt. But Williams instead plays the moment with apathetic remove. It’s just a fact, and one of the many that has hardened her to the world at large.
Tregenna’s script doesn’t delve too deeply into what it might mean specifically for a woman to wander through history, though it’s ever present in the subtext: Ashildr having to pretend to be a man both at Agincourt and with the highwaymen, her being drowned as a witch by a town she cured of scarlet fever, and her angrily (and quite justifiably) taking the Doctor to task when he suggests she seeks to become the Leandro queen. Ashildr’s most horrible memory, the one so bad she holds onto for fear she might ever forget and repeat it, is losing her children to the Black Death, though Ashildr’s lost motherhood is but one of many aspects to her character. These all represent still more elements the Doctor might understand intellectually—he knows enough to wonder what could ever hurt more than losing one’s children—but perhaps not feel viscerally, and the episode’s careful recognition of how Ashildr’s gender informs her story without defining it helps add to the general effectiveness of “The Woman Who Lived.”
This episode is all about the interactions between Ashildr and the Doctor, to the extent that the plot feels beside the point. In this regard, the choice of building this story around 17th century highwaymen is clever: This historical era presents a fun backdrop, much like the Viking village did last week, but it doesn’t feel so important or immediate that the show has to treat it as anything more than a background element. Comedian Rufus Hound—last seen profusely apologizing for maybe kind of accidentally but probably just inadvertently tipping that Peter Capaldi was going to be the new Doctor on that endless casting announcement special the BBC did a couple years ago—is a lot of fun as Sam Swift the Quick, and his character is yet another illustration of how this and “The Girl Who Died” move seamlessly from comedy to drama. On the one hand, yeah, he’s a larger-than-life highwayman, always ready with a joke and a smile, but his entire life is defined by the specter of death, something that becomes grimly immediate during his hanging scene. Beyond giving us what might be the first dick size joke in Doctor Who history, that sequence offers the perfect way to illustrate the Doctor’s later point about how people like him and Ashildr need the likes of Swift to keep them grounded, to show them by example how life is something to be lived, no matter how much or how little of it a person might have.
On balance, “The Woman Who Lived” isn’t quite the all-encompassing joy that “The Girl Who Died” was: Leandro is fine, as Tharil knock-offs go, but he isn’t as interesting as the Mire, and his eventual defeat isn’t nearly as inventive as how the Doctor dispatched the fake Odin last week. The climax of this episode feels very much like something of the Russell T. Davies era, in which there’s a quickie alien invasion and all hell breaks loose because, well, it’s about that time in the episode. (Not to say that doesn’t also happen a fair amount in the current era, but my unverified gut feeling is that there tends to be a bit more variety these days in how stories are resolved.) But whatever small deficiencies there might be in the ancillary elements are more than offset by how strong the core of this episode is, as Ashildr comes into her own here in a way that “The Girl Who Died” only hinted at. The conversations between the Doctor and Ashildr represent some of the most sustained exploration of the Time Lord’s actions we’ve yet seen, and the episode’s meditation on the sorrow of immortality is more than enough to vault this into the show’s uppermost echelon.
- So, yeah, Ashildr is probably going to be back. I’m not sure we’ve actually seen much at all from the filming of the season finale, so I wouldn’t totally rule out her being back that soon, but more likely I’d guess she will be the focus of another two-parter next year, assuming Maisie Williams is once again available.
- Is it kind of ridiculously contrived that Ashildr would show up in the very next photo that Clara would show the Doctor? Yeah, probably. But I’d say an episode can earn a logically implausible moment like that if it’s thematically appropriate, and boy is that ever thematically appropriate.
- I’m also now kind of rooting for the continuing adventures of Sam Swift the Quick, immortal highwayman. That feels like a Big Finish spin-off series if ever I heard one. Though let’s be real: Sam Swift is going to get killed in a bar fight in, like, six months.
- Fun shout-out to the solidly fun 5th Doctor historical adventure, “The Visitation,” with the Doctor blaming the Great Fire of London on the Terileptils. Though I’m not entirely sure the Doctor wasn’t just as much responsible for that one, if we’re gbeing honest.
- For this week’s tangentially relevant British comedy video, let’s go for another bit of classic cross-dressing highwayman fun in Blackadder III. (Which is, just to throw a random grenade into the comments section, by far the best of the Blackadders. See ya!)