Lara Pulver as Irene Adler. Credit: BBC
I have written and written on this episode, and I’ve hated everything I’ve written, leading me to start over again. It just wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t get my thoughts together. So, I think the best way (and, sadly, the most tedious way) to write my review and analysis of “A Scandal in Belgravia” is to take the show apart one piece at a time. So this review will have three parts, each part will be long enough for its own post. Before I go into how I’ll break this down, here’s a really important disclaimer:
THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE SO DON’T READ ON!
Okay, now that I’ve given you ample room, here’s how this will break down:
Post 1: The show itself
Post 2: Canon
Post 3: Fanon (how the show addresses the rabid fanbase)
Here we go with Post 1.
All right, so I’m one of the many in the U.S. who watched the season premiere of Sherlock online, and I have to say that it was AMAZING. It was so amazing, that I’m declaring it as the best television I’m bound to see for the entire year.
Where to start with this? Well, first, I’ll quickly get the synopsis out of the way–Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John (Martin Freeman) are charged with getting some incriminating pictures back from Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), a dominatrix who goes by the name of “The Woman.”
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what I loved about it:
The cinematography, Paul McGuigan’s hyper-visualized directing (AMAZING), the script by Steven Moffat (who I thought was completely against the Sherlock/John thing, so the fact that he wrote this S/J-laden episode is pretty astounding to me), and, of course, the acting (which also included Louise Brealey as Molly, co-creator/writer Mark Gatiss as Mycroft, Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson and Rupert Graves as Lestrade) was top tier. Also, this is the only time I’ve ever loved Irene Adler. Generally, I hate her in screen adaptations, so big ups to the writing for making me like her as much as I like Sherlock Holmes. Everything about this episode was, as Victor from Project Runway would say, GLAMAZING.
Some of the best parts, though, come from when Sherlock realizes that he is a human and debilitating being a human can be. For instance, when Sherlock insults Molly at the Christmas party and, after realizing his carelessness, gives a heartfelt apology and kisses her on the cheek. Also, when John tells Mycroft that he doesn’t think Sherlock is capable of feeling love, Mycroft intimates that this is not really the case. Later on, John can see that it’s not the case when Sherlock insists on keeping Irene’s camera phone. This whole case has opened up John’s eyes to the fact that Sherlock, can, in fact, feel a lot more than he lets on. I think Sherlock is also reminded of how much he can feel; I think he must have forgotten he had the capacity to feel after so many years. Due to how much Irene has taught all of them–not just Sherlock–about the depth feelings can have is why she truly is The Woman. Even if there was the scene at the end (which will be discussed later), she still came out on top of Sherlock.
Of course, though, there are a couple of ticks people have with the episode. The three points of contention that seem to be tearing some people up inside:
1) Irene Adler is a lesbian who loves/lusts for Sherlock, a man
2) Irene Adler uses “Sherlocked” as her password.
3) Irene Adler is saved by Sherlock (or is she?)
I wrote a large Twitlonger post about no. 1 due to a quick temper after reading some tweets about Irene liking Sherlock being an impossiblity/pushing the “lesbian-must-be-straight-secretly” agenda. Even though I think what I wrote gets my point across, it was quickly written, and I like to have a while to think about what I just saw, especially if I’m not completely sure how I feel about something. Now, I’m taking my time to explain exactly why I didn’t have such a huge problem with the scene where Irene explains/confronts John about sexuality.
Thanks to livejournal user bizarremain, we have the transcript of what exactly was said during this scene:
Irene: “You jealous?”
John: “We’re not a couple.”
Irene: “Yes, you are.”
John: “Who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes? But, for the record, if anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.”
Irene:”Well, I am. Look at the both of us.”
Some women have taken this to think that the scene was enforcing a tired stereotype of lesbians needing to have the right man come along and “change” them. Sure, an argument can be made for that, I really do think so. If you look at it on the surface, you might not want to have Irene say that she’s attracted to Sherlock after showing her be happily intimate with women. But I think the argument would be much stronger if the scene was written in an entirely different way. For that argument to work in my eyes, Irene would have had to say something like, “I always thought I liked females until Sherlock. Now I’m turned onto men forever!” She didn’t say that at all. She is merely pointing out something that, I thought, was made in a crystal clear fashion.
What she’s saying is that she and John are both two people who aren’t attracted to men. Yet, here they are, attracted to one man, not because he’s a man, because he’s this amazing being. What Irene was getting at is that it doesn’t matter what Sherlock is, it’s that he is who he is what’s so attractive and magnetic. It’s not so much that he’s the magical male that can change Irene into a heterosexual–the episode never says she’s changed to a heterosexual woman; it’s that she’s attracted to him, no matter what he is, and that’s what makes the whole thing interesting. If Sherlock was a woman, she’d be just as attracted, I think. And let’s not forget that there are a lot of lesbian women who do report having feelings for the opposite sex, even though they predominately prefer the same sex. This is in real life, so it would only be fair to portray it in fiction. To me, the whole scene is a lesson in sexual fluidity. Sometimes, labels don’t really account into who you like.
By alluding to this, Irene is also saying that John is in the same boat as she is. John being put into the mix is another area where the lesbian stereotype argument falls apart for me. If John was nowhere in this story, then the argument could be made with force. But, here he is. Irene is saying to John that he needs to analyze what is going on with him and Sherlock and realize that even though he’s attracted to women (just like she is), he’s just as attracted to Sherlock. In fact, Irene is also intimating that Sherlock might be the one for John. Never once does she say that she’d actually like to have a relationship with Sherlock. She’s mostly just got a mixture of intrigue and lust when it comes to him. To me, Irene summed up John’s relationship with Sherlock in just a few words.
To piggy-back off that, John is getting a lot of hints from the universe that he is meant to be with Sherlock, whether as friends or as more-than-friends. Sherlock is naked in a sheet–John takes a look before even asking Sherlock if he’s naked under it. John’s new girlfriend breaks up with him–the umpteenth girlfriend to do so. She says to his face that he’s a better boyfriend to Sherlock than he is to her. The whole Irene scene I just blabbed on about. And, frankly, I think Irene herself is a big clue to John that there’s more to his relationship with Sherlock than he even realizes yet. By Irene constantly asking him if he’s jealous of her and telling him that he’s in a relationship with Sherlock, coupled with his string of bad relationships due to his dependence on Sherlock, John slowly seems to be mulling over how his relationship with his friend is perceived, which is interesting. Livejournal user writer_klmeri hit the idea of John’s dependence right on the head when they wrote that once John realizes he is dependent on Sherlock is when he can finally have a stable relationship with someone. To quote writer_klmeri:
It’s more than best friends solving mysteries together—which is essentially what every girl John dates points out to him. Until John can actually see himself living a life separate of Sherlock and the inherent madness therein, he hasn’t even taken the first step toward independence. But I have my own theory about this… mainly that Sherlock is what John needs after he comes back from Afghanistan, and John is—obviously—the reminder that the rest of humanity matters, a fact which Sherlock likes to so easily forget.
And, hopefully I wasn’t reading too much into this due to swimming in the fandom waters for too long, but it seems like not only did Moffat play with the idea of Irene/Sherock, but they played with the idea of John being jealous just a little. I say this because in some scenes, he seems to act a little strange when it comes to mentioning Irene, like when he says, annoyed, that they should use his middle name if they’re picking out baby names. He’s not saying this in a joking blokey tone. Shouldn’t he be happy to see Sherlock with someone? Why is he so annoyed about it? (however, some of his strange tone throughout the whole episode might be because she’s a threatening type of dangerous woman). I’ll get more into a lot of this John/Sherlock relationship stuff in the fanon post. But I will say that after all of the posturing Moffat did in interviews about John and Sherlock’s relationship in Series 1, I’m surprised how much he pushed the J/S angle.
I need to go back and address nos. 1 and 2. Irene setting her password to “Sherlocked” is probably too much for some people to bear. When you think about it, it’s probably the second-to-worst part of the episode. The idea that Irene is so smitten with Sherlock that she’d use his name as her password is a bit ridonkulous. However, I do think that perhaps Moffat was trying to do a subtle call-forward to when Sherlock keeps Irene’s phone. I think the password is Irene’s way of keeping something of Sherlock’s. In her case, she’s keeping his name; in his, he’s keeping her phone. Irene thought she was going to get away with her scheme, and even though she’d have a lot of outward prizes in the form of protection, money, etc., her private prize would be keeping Sherlock close to her in the form of having his name as her password. She also probably thought no one would get to it since she had so many encryptions on it. One could still get a false sense of security and give themselves a joke password only they know.
But I think the main point isn’t so much the fact that she used his name–the point people get mad about is that “love” is what did her in. It’s almost like in the Star Wars prequels in which love is the true villain. I get why people are irked by this. Part of the reason some folks are irked is because Moffat has gotten a reputation of being sexist, as pointed out by i09, which talks about something he said in an interview with The Scotsman, saying something about women being needy and wanting husbands:
“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”
It’s a crazy quote, but supposedly, Moffat said that the quote was actually supposed to be referencing a character from Coupling said, according to TVTropes user Anathema:
As others have mentioned an article in The Scotsman as evidence of Moffat’s misogyny, I thought I ought to note that someone brought that article up to Moffat on twitter fairly recently. A fan asked Moffat if he had really said what The Scotsman claimed, Moffat responded: “No. Ages ago but I think I was talking about Patrick in Coupling and was selectively quoted to make it about me. Was furious.” Of course, you could argue that Moffat is simply backtracking when called out on saying something stupid. But it only seemed fair that someone point out that Moffat has essentially claimed that he was quote-mined in that article, especially since the statements that The Scotsman attributes to Moffat seem pretty damning.
Bad press sticks around, I suppose, because if it’s true that he didn’t really say this from his own thoughts, then he still hasn’t lived it down yet.
To put Moffat-gate aside, however, I think the show is still playing fair since the script does get at that it’s not only Irene that got struck by thinking with the heart. Almost everyone in this episode gets struck by thinking with their heart. John is always thinking of Sherlock’s safety and well-being to the point of not having a life or a steady relationship; Mrs. Hudson helped Sherlock out because she cares for him; Molly gave Sherlock a gift only to get verbally slapped in the face and kissed for it; Irene got stuck on trying to figure out and one-up Sherlock while being simultaneously turned on by him. Sherlock, of course, gets struck by the power of the heart when he fails to realize one of the biggest security events was right under his nose until he louses it up. So, in short, everyone fails to think clearly. No one is safe.
The only reason Sherlock outright states that love is a horrible weakness isn’t because she’s a woman; it’s because he fell for the same feelings too and he knows how it can make you lose your head. Did he not just lose his head and not realize that his brother was trying to create a corpse plane plot? Mycroft is right in saying it’s something Sherlock should’ve seen coming, but he didn’t because he was too focused on whatever mojo Irene was pulling on him. I’d actually posit that Sherlock is always struggling with love in every episode because he’s trying to deal with his love (friendship or however you want to read it) for John and deal with his love for his work. He can’t balance the two, and throwing Irene into the mix just throws the little balance he had left completely off. So in short, when he states that love is terrible, he’s berating himself as well as her, because he always feels he should have known better than to be a human being.
Lastly, the bit at the end when Irene is saved by Sherlock. At first, I was confused; I actually didn’t think this really happened. To me, it seemed like a bit of narrative that was going on in his head. But I guess it did happen, since he’s not supposed to know that she was killed in Pakistan. And even if it did happen, I’d imagine that he would try to save her; she is THE WOMAN, after all. In terms of similar thinking patterns, she is the first true equal he’s faced aside from Moriarty (John is an equal, too, but in a much different way). I don’t even think he’d kill Moriarty if he didn’t have to simply because he gives him the same thing Irene does–the thrill of the chase and the chance to prove that he is the smartest person alive. So, following this reasoning, of course he’d save her; he’d want her to come back and challenge him again because he lives for the challenge. (Will she be back? I don’t know. Moriarty has been woven through this series, so she might be, too. I seriously doubt it, though.)
I do want to stress again that I do think that even though Irene didn’t best Sherlock in the obvious sense of beating Sherlock in the very last battle of wits, she does best him in the overall game, just as she does in the written story. In this version, she didn’t get the last word despite besting him in all other challenges, but she still got the last word in a figurative sense, and how she wins has much more of an impact than if she had actually beaten him at a puzzle. She reminded Sherlock in a very powerful way how he is still susceptible to allure, lust, love, hurt, and all of the messy feelings that come with being alive. I don’t think the show is saying that Sherlock is straight–I think the allure with Irene was just as confusing for Sherlock just like Sherlock’s allure was confusing for Irene. But I do think this version shows just how powerful of a force Irene was for Sherlock in terms of teaching him about himself. I think her presence is setting us up for something major in the final episode of Series 2. For teaching Sherlock about the messy side of life, she truly is The Woman.
So, with all of that said, I think this episode is the best episode I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the best single piece of television I’ve seen in ages. I get that there are some things that, on the surface, can get under the skin, but I also think the surface things are way more complex than some might give them credit for. Or maybe I’m thinking too much. But, for me, what’s beneath the surface problems is the lesson that everyone–including demi-gods like Sherlock and Irene–have hearts and sometimes they let their feelings get the best of them.
Part two coming up!