If “adventuress” is Victorian code for “courtesan,” I suppose one could argue that dominatrix is a natural update of Adler’s profession – but for me when reading Doyle’s story Adler always epitomized grace and class. I’m sorry but Irene as a modern dominatrix = class? Not so much. There is also the issue of Irene’s motivations for acting as a blackmailer – in the short story, there is no indication that Adler made a widespread practice of dabbling in blackmail practices. The only case we’re presented with, involving the King of Bohemia, is for the Adler of the canon a matter of self-preservation, of security so she can marry her new husband without fear of reprisals. As such she would never associate with the likes of Moriarty, and it is highly troubling to me that in this latest presentation she apparently does so willingly. Moffat’s Adler seems to relish collecting incriminating material from her “clients,” and thinks nothing of attempting to topple governments or the innocents who would be harmed in the process, a radical departure from her origins.
While the issues that trouble me about Moffat’s re-imagination of Adler’s character are no small thing to overcome, there is much that “A Scandal in Belgravia” gets right – oft-times brilliantly so. And thanks to Lara Pulver’s finely-nuanced performance, particularly in the last half of the film, this Adler is unforgettable, in many respects the intellectual match I’ve long imagined Sherlock would require. Without further ado, let's dive into the episode, beginning with the episode summary from PBS:
How Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Last Enemy, War Horse, The Hobbit) manages to survive snipers, explosives, and a poolside face-off with his insane arch-nemesis Moriarty — or end up in Buckingham Palace's inner chambers, clad only in a sheet — are just the initial tantalizing questions answered when Sherlock returns with its gripping second season opener, A Scandal in Belgravia. The central enigma concerns Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, True Blood), a beautiful entrepreneur whose special relationship with the rich, powerful and royal has allowed her to amass coveted information powerful enough to topple the government. A worthy match for the aloof detective, Adler masterfully maneuvers her many assets in a game that Sherlock is ill-prepared to fight: love. Two brilliant minds lock together, producing a heat that brings a blush to John's cheek and a potential change to a celibate, cerebral detective. But who will come out on top? Award-winning series co-creators and producers of Doctor Who Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss reunite favorites Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, The Office UK, The Hobbit) and Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) in an all-new adventure. (One episode; 90 minutes, TV-PG)
This episode picks up right where The Great Game left off (also known as one of the best and cruelest television cliffhangers of all time) -- with Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John (Martin Freeman) in a poolside confrontation with Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Just when it seems as though Sherlock will have no choice but to shoot the discarded, explosives-laden vest, killing them all, Moriarty's phone rings to the tune of the BeeGee's "Staying Alive." Moriarty's attention is immediately wholly absorbed by the mysterious caller, one who apparently has something he wants so badly that he's willing to save his confrontation with Sherlock for another day. Waiting a year and a half for the cliffhanger to end because of a BeeGees song absolutely made me cheer -- the sheer, wonderful absurdity of it all is a distinctly Moffat touch.
Over the subsequent weeks several cases come Sherlock and Watson's way in quick succession, moments that allow the show to make several nods to the canon while showing us how the residents of 221B Baker St. have settled into their friendship and routine. Per Sherlock's norm, he only takes a case if it engages him intellectually -- my favorite is the case of the three geeks and their comics who are christened "The Geek Interpreter" ("The Greek Interpreter" in the original stories). Watson's blog, initially started as a stress outlet per his therapist's instructions, once languished for material -- but since becoming friends with Sherlock, he has no lack of material, much to his roommate's chagrin. John's chronicles of Sherlock's cases -- never failing to include his many, MANY quirks -- has given the pair celebrity status. I loved how Cumberbatch played Sherlock's seeming disdain for "John's scribblings," with always a glint in his eye, a posture that clues us in to the fact that he's invested in how he's portrayed and not above being the teeniest bit flattered by the attention. I love it. :) The filmmakers use this broad investigative montage to give those who love the original stories a sweetly satisfying moment, when in an attempt to elude the press Sherlock dons a deerstalker cap, a lovely nod to the Sidney Paget illustrations. Yes, I squealed. Loudly. :) And how much fun is it having Watson's blog counter stuck at 1895? (You can read the Vincent Starrett poem here.)
While investigating the case of a harried car driver and a mysterious (and very dead) hitchhiker, Sherlock is unceremoniously hauled off to Buckingham Palace wearing only a bedsheet, leaving John temporarily stranded "in the field" courtesy of an introduction from the indefatigable Lestrade (Rupert Graves). (Side note: How much fun was it to see Sherlock draw his conclusions via webcam?!) Sherlock's long-suffering brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) is, no surprise, responsible for the summons to the Palace. Gatiss's portrayal of Mycroft is, as ever, pitch-perfect and his interactions with on-screen brother Benedict are quite simply a joy to watch. Those moments where they needle each other -- oh it had me in stitches! A palace official explains (a nod to the short story "The Illustrious Client") to Sherlock and John that Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), a dominatrix who is known professionally as "The Woman," possesses incriminating photographs of a female member of the royal family. Sherlock isn't interested in the case until he learns that Irene isn't interested in money -- this is a power play, pure and simple.
The "endangered royalty" aspect of this episode is a nod to the original story, but the photographs in question end up having little bearing on the end game of this episode. The opportunity to blackmail a member of the royal family was merely a convenient means for Irene to ensure a meet with Sherlock. The set-up for this meeting is chock-full of nods to Doyle's original tale -- from the hilarious moment when Sherlock asks John to hit him ("I used to kill people for a living!" "You're a doctor!" "I had bad days!") in order to fake a beating, to the moment he impersonates a wounded clergyman (oh the irony!) to gain entry to Irene's house (with John serving as a concerned passerby). Irene, fully aware of the impending visit, opts to greet Sherlock wearing nothing but a pair of heels. While this does stymie Sherlock to some degree, since his default is collecting information about people by observing wear and tear on their clothing, for my part it is unnecessarily crass and exploitative. I'm sorry but I've always thought Irene was better than that.
First of all, how fantastic is the moment when Sherlock realizes his best friend is in mortal danger? Well played, Cumberbatch. Immediately moving out of canonical territory, Adler bests Sherlock by drugging him (an aid she most certainly did not require in the original story) and disappearing with her phone, a.k.a. her "life." Sherlock is understandably a bit rattled by the experience, in his drugged stupor witnessing Adler return his coat (which she'd borrowed earlier) and his phone, which she programs with her own personalized ringtone of a woman's erotic sigh. Mrs. Hudson's and John's responses to Sherlock's most -- *ahem* -- unusual text alert are HILARIOUS, as is Sherlock's ability to act as if the sound is completely normal and fitting with his personality. :P
Months pass and it is now Christmas at 221B, and can I just tell how badly I want to be invited to Sherlock and John's Christmas party? I was a bit bummed to discover that Sarah (Zoe Telford) didn't return as John's girlfriend. But given coroner Molly Hooper's (Loo Brealey) almost painful-to-watch crush on Sherlock, I decided I'm holding out hope that she and John will become an item at some point during the series. Speaking of Molly, I wanted to reach through the screen and smack Sherlock when he (once again) gets carried away with his observational prowess and humiliates her, only to discover that the gift that prompted his spiel was in fact for him. But Sherlock has made some extraordinary progress as evidenced by his apology (including a kiss on the cheek! EEPP!!!) -- a sweet moment that I have to credit as proof that his friendship with John has not been without impact.
During the party Sherlock receives a text from Irene, notifying him of a gift she's left him -- her precious phone. Sherlock immediately calls Mycroft (the latter's comment about "Christmas phone calls" cracked me up) to inform him that Irene will soon be found dead, since she's given up all of her precious leverage with the phone. I love how deeply this idea troubles Sherlock -- Cumberbatch's finely nuanced acting reveals a man wholly unaccustomed feeling this level of concern? -- regret? -- however one defines it, it's an extraordinarily poignant moment, compounded by the identification of Adler's mutilated corpse a short time later. This sends Sherlock into what I think can only be described as a depression where he seeks solace in his violin -- oh how I loved those scenes! Kudos to David Arnold and Michael Price for composing a gorgeous theme for Sherlock to play in Irene's memory.
In short order Watson receives a summons to a meet with who he assumes is Mycroft, but in reality turns out to be Irene, revealing she faked her own death and desperately needs her phone and leverage returned to her. This scene is a beautiful example of the depth of John and Sherlock's friendship. I was immediately reminded of Mycroft's obersvation at the end of "A Study in Pink," that he thought Watson could be the making of Sherlock -- and here we see the converse, just how much the maddening Sherlock has come to mean to John. He's seen just how devasted Sherlock's been over Irene's apparent death, begs her to let Sherlock know he's alive -- and the scene transforms into a delicate dance where two people who care very deeply about someone who has always seemed -- claimed? -- to be emotionally unavailable reveal just how much the enigmatic, frustrating Sherlock matters to them -- and in John's case, the lengths to which he'll go to protect his friend. I love that -- a fantastic scene capped by the glorious reveal that Sherlock has been listening to them the whole time.
What follows when Sherlock returns to his flat is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series to date -- when he discovers that Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) has been taken hostage by the Americans after Adler's phone. I wasn't entirely sure about Mrs. Hudson's portrayal in series one -- I felt her importance to Sherlock and Watson was a bit minimized. But this episode changed everything. Sherlock's barely suppresed anger when he sees how Mrs. Hudons has been roughed up was so brilliantly played it left me giddy. Also, how awesome was it when he calls Lestrade, asking for his least irritating officer to be sent over (which of course turns out to be Lestrade), and then Sherlock promptly tosses the interloper out his window? And when Watson suggests that Mrs. Hudson convalesce with her sister, but Sherlock won't have Baker St. without her (we all know he wants to keep an eye on her himself, right?), and then she reveals that she had Adler's phone hidden the whole time??? AWESOME. This Mrs. Hudson has more game than I'd ever given her credit for and I love that.
Now that she's been "outed," if you will, Adler shows up at Baker St. determined to reclaim her phone, dropping the tantalizing clue that a document she photographed from a Ministry of Defense "client" contains extremely dangerous -- but coded -- intel (again, stealing just for kicks? urgh...). Sherlock quickly cracks the code, which turns out to be seat assignments on an upcoming flight. To make a long story short, this flight (flight #007 -- loved the Bond reference) was a joint British/American operation to foil a terrorist plot by allowing it to happen to a plane full of corpses (a fake-out inspired by allegations regarding the WWII Coventry blitz). Irene "charmed" Sherlock into cracking the code, she alerted Moriarty, the government's plan was foiled, which leads to Irene presenting Mycroft with a laundry list of demands that must be met or she'll topple the government with the contents of her phone -- making all of this somehow Sherlock's fault for getting "involved" with "The Woman."
It's not that I mind an original story woven into Sherlock's modernization of classic tales -- but the execution of this plot point felt a bit messy to me. Perhaps this is an extension of shoe-horning an Adler/Moriarty working relationship into the script? Perhaps it is my bias against this shading of Adler as a villain by her association with Moriarty -- but whatever the case, upon initial viewing this aspect of the episode didn't work for me quite as well as I would've liked. I'll be very curious to see if any scenes were trimmed in the DVD release.
That said, I thought the moments where Irene is almost desperately taunting Sherlock over his lack of romantic and sexual experience was extraordinarily painful to watch but oh-so-well-played. There was the sense, to my mind at any rate, that the exchange was the pair's method of coping, of masking how each has been affected by knowing the other. They shouldn't have connected, perhaps, but they did, and how they fought the acknowledgement of that in front of Mycroft was a brilliant, wrenching bit of cinema. Any time, particularly in the second half of this episode, where Irene and Sherlock engaged intellectually, the sparks that flew during their sparring matches indeed brought to life the whole "brainy is the new sexy" quip. Sherlock's final victory -- revealing that he's fully aware of how he impacted Irene, cracking her phone's passcode ("I am SHERlocked") was a wonderfully powerful, painful moment, because it felt as though Sherlock was shutting down again, that the ways in which his friendship with Watson have revealed little glimpses of his humanity are in danger of vanishing.
But that is the brilliance of how this episode plays the Sherlock/Irene relationship -- they try, and are capable, of deeply wounding each other which is a by-product of just how much they actually mean to each other -- make sense? Some months later, Mycroft approaches John and asks him to lie about Irene's fate, telling Sherlock she entered the Witness Protection Program in the US when she was actually killed by terrorists in Karachi. I love the pair's moment of shared concern over Sherlock's emotional state, though goodness knows I prefer John's methods to Mycroft's. :P The moment when Sherlock asks John "please," so that he can keep Adler's phone broke my heart. But the final scene, where Sherlock re-reads her texts -- is it too much to say he treasures them? -- and then reminsces about how he in fact saved her -- oh that moment.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time must know that I am an unabashed romantic. And while much as been made of Sherlock's extreme intellect, and corresponding lack of a need for emotional connection, I love how this show has slowly revealed how Sherlock's friendship with John has helped change how he views others, the world, and his cases -- humanizing him by slight degrees. And I might as well confess -- I've always harbored the secret dream that if anyone could have a possible romantic connection with Sherlock, it would be a women of Irene Adler's mental faculties. While I'm not fully sold on Moffat's incarnation of Irene as the perfect modernization, by the end of the episode, thanks to Pulver's finely nuance performance, I confess she comes oh-so-close. She's a fierce, smart, yet vulnerable match for Sherlock, and the two succeed in making a connection so powerful, so electric that perhaps it would be fair to say it freaks both of them out a bit. *wink*
So I think that's why the episode's ending works so well for me. Sherlock had to save Irene (the music, the moment -- oh what a romanticized rescue! ha!), but he also had to let her go (I would posit that is in at least some part due to her willing association with villainous types). I feel as though the episode ends with a sense of love and loss and ultimate contentment within Sherlock regarding where he's at -- because the moments the pair did connect, that's something he will always treasure. Brilliantly played, Benedict, very, very well-done.
I'm not entirely positive, but I think this is the longest blog post of all time (around these parts, at any rate). If you made it this far congratulations and my deepest thanks! :) I would love to hear your thoughts on Sherlock's return!