Sara Howard is loosely based on Isabella Goodwin, who was the first female police detective in New York City. Similarly, Sara Howard works as a secretary for the police commissioner of New York City, Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Theodore Roosevelt!) but she has ambitions of rising above her station and her gender. Her intelligence and competence are readily apparent as soon as she becomes embroiled in the race to catch a serial killer, working alongside German-American psychologist Laszlo Kreizler, society illustrator John Moore, and Jewish-American twins and detective sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson.
Sara gives the impression of being very cold, reserved, and tightly-wound. There is certainly a toughness to her, a sort of efficient, no-nonsense pragmatism that might be a result of her difficult past or her position as the only woman in a police bureau full of sexist men. She is tough and strait-laced by necessity; she can give these men no reason to doubt her or call her silly or hysterical. Having grown up on her own for most of her life, she is steady and responsible, dependent and emotionally mature. As such, she comes across as being far older than she actually is.
As for her being cold and emotionless, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Sara is full of riotous emotions that are very carefully and tenuously kept under a lid. She feels things so fiercely, whether it is her sympathy for children or her anger at being held back because of her gender. But she is given no space to express these emotions in a way that wouldn’t be detrimental to her or her career, and so she holds everything back, putting forth instead a cool, stoic, slightly sardonic veneer.
And yet, Sara is not a traditionally likable female character. She is prickly and stubborn, blunt and straightforward, can even be harsh and cruel. She rarely smiles or laughs (which makes it so much more meaningful when she does, and my shipper heart loves that it’s usually John Moore who elicits this). In many ways she belies traditional femininity and propriety, but she is still very much a woman of her time: she fights back with what few weapons are available to her. She is intrepid, determined, and fiercely intelligent, with an astonishing ability to follow patterns and piece together a whole from disparate parts (no wonder the second season has her opening up her own private detective agency!).
(And oh, woe betide the version of me from two weeks ago before I had watched this show, who for some unfathomable reason despised Dakota Fanning. In actuality, she is a brilliant actress, playing Sara with so much depth and simmering emotion. The way she can convey so much just with her eyes or a subtle twitch of her face is astonishing.)