In the first episode of the second series of Sherlock, there’s so much sexual frustration onscreen that I became sexual frustrated in the process. Oh, it’s a pretty good story, but I was also distracted and disappointed by other things? BASICALLY I HAVE A LOT OF FEELS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Sherlock.
I’m glad I’ve sat on writing this review in one sense, as it’s allowed me to collect all the thoughts and feelings I had about what I witnessed over the course of ninety minutes. I’m used to instantaneous reactions, and I’ve gotten used to writing them. Hell, I like them, and I like the very constant and present nature of what I do around here. I guess I’m starting to understand how on earth tens of thousands of people come ’round here every day because it’s fun to write with this kind of immediacy.
Yet taking time to think about “A Scandal in Belgravia” really hasn’t helped me sort out much. In truth, the only way I can summarize how I felt about the series two premiere was that I was conflicted.
It would have been easier for me to dislike this episode had it been written like “The Blind Baker.” It’s not. It would have been easier for me to obsessively deem this the greatest ninety minutes of my life had Irene Adler ultimately not been treated so poorly. But she was. Instead, my brain and my heart are at war. I am deeply in love with Sherlock and John. (And now Mycroft, too? HELP ME I HAVE SO MANY FEELS.) I am so obsessed with Irene Adler and Lara Pulver’s brilliance that I think I need help???? And at the same time, I feel like my brain is shouting at my feelings and saying, “NO STOP IT. STOP LIKING THIS. YOU CAN’T LIKE THIS BECAUSE HOW DARE MOFFAT DO THIS THING. JUST STOP IT.”
I’d rather err on the side of caution, though, and not be reductionist about “A Scandal in Belgravia.” It’s not a simple episode, and it does not deserve simple thoughts. So, allow me to start at the very beginning:
OH MY GOD I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES FOREVER UNTIL THE END OF TIME. Look, the beauty of Moriarty’s ring tone being “Stayin’ Alive” will never not be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. But right off the bat, I was just so nervous. That cliffhanger was just so disgusting, and I loved that we were taken back to that horrific moment so completely, despite that it’s been so long since “The Great Game” aired. (To be fair, I did watch it like seven times since the first time I saw it. WHOOPS I AM OBSESSED.) That is a feat of brilliance to me, and the seamless nature of the premiere is one of many things that “A Scandal in Belgravia” has in its favor.
I suppose I didn’t comment much on it during my initial run of series one, but it’s never more clear how modern this update is, and that’s not a criticism. Given that any sort of use of the Internet on television generally falls flat of reality (or is, at the very least, an embarrassing display of a complete misunderstanding of Internet culture), I absolutely adore just how much Sherlock embraces the digital age in a way that’s realistic and believable. Of course, John’s blog was a huge part of series one, so I don’t want to make it seem like Moffat and company never addressed this. Without John’s blog being used before, we could never have what occurs in this episode.
It was inevitable, then, that John’s blog would become popular, and because of this, a deluge of people would funnel into the lives of Sherlock and John, bringing with them their mediocre tales and crimes. (OR SO WE THOUGHT HOLY GOD THE ANSWER WAS RIGHT IN THE FIRST TEN MINUTES.) Unsurprisingly, I knew that Sherlock wouldn’t get involved unless something was interesting. (Did this remind anyone of the first few seasons of House? I remember when Dr. House also refused to get involved with any case that didn’t interest him on an intellectual level.) That case? Well, I mistakenly believed that the “death” of the man in that field and the backfiring car would be the one that this story focused on, especially since it was so interesting. How could a man be murdered in a field in a matter of seconds without the culprit being spotted? Like most things, I fell for it. I totally thought that this is where we’d spend most of the episode, but then we’re in Buckingham Palace and Sherlock is only wearing a sheet and I had the biggest smile on my face and then John is staring at Sherlock’s sheet and I can’t handle any of it and all of my feelings are happening at the exact same goddamn moment. Look, there are problems with this episode–and I am going to talk about them, goddamn it!–but it’s as if Moffat knew we all loved the relationship between these two, so he just made it even more spectacular.
But even that aside, I just love that there’s no pretentious attitude to the love that Sherlock and Watson have for one another, even if that love is silly, written with a ton of sexual subtext, written with no sexual subtext, and written so that Sherlock can be wearing only a sheet inside Buckingham Palace and John wholeheartedly approves of it. It’s interesting to watch this episode after “A Study In Pink” because there’s virtually none of the irritated resistance on the part of John. Sure, there are times when he’s frustrated with Sherlock’s behavior, though Martin Freeman is able to convey a new sense of longing and sadness for such things instead of marked anger or fury. John now knows how to tolerate Sherlock’s actions, even sometimes enabling them in the case of the ashtray stolen from Buckingham Palace.
Right, and Sherlock stole an ashtray from Buckingham Palace. Bless.
The other thing that I want to hug in this episode is the furthering of the relationship between Mycroft and Sherlock, so much so that I am willing to believe that they’re actually closer by the end of this. It’s certainly unexpected for me. I did like the dynamic between the two brothers in series one, and I thought that would just be expanded a bit further. But in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” the usual bickering between Sherlock and Mycroft turns into something completely different. A silent acceptance? A quiet gesture of respect? I’m not sure how to quantify it, but it’s clear that Mycroft comes to feel differently about his brother over the course of ninety minutes. Of course, the conversation on Christmas regarding Irene Adler has this fascinating subtext to me, that something in their upbringing made them the way they are. I guess I’d never stopped to think how similar those brothers were until that point because they’re at-odds with one another so often.
But let’s back things up a bit to talk about Buckingham Palace. I generally avoided any sort of spoilers about guest appearances or what series two would be about, so as soon as Mycroft begins to pitch a case to Sherlock about someone who took compromising photos with a member of the Royal family, all I could think was IRENE ADLER. PLEASE LET THIS BE HER. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. And as it’s revealed that The Woman is indeed her, I nearly passed out from joy. The character who bested Sherlock WAS ABOUT TO BE ON HER SCREENS. And there’s really a whole lot that Moffat includes from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the original story from Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s the request from royalty to keep it out of the papers; there’s the clergy disguise, the “fake” fight, there’s Watson setting off a fire so that Sherlock can trick Adler into looking at where the photos are hidden, and then…well, thinks depart from the original a bit.
And I’m fine with that. It doesn’t need to be the same. Everything that happens when Sherlock arrives at Adler’s residence that first time is nearly perfect. (I mean, I did side-eye the idea that a woman can only be powerful by being sexual, but I need to save this for a bit later for now.) It’s frightening and thrilling to see Sherlock unable to read a single thing of Adler, to know that he’s met someone who might very well eclipse his own abilities. In fact, the entire sequence, which feels like it lasts A LIFETIME, is just brilliantly filmed and acted by all parties. Every other minute, someone else is ahead of the other one. Irene has the upper hand; then Sherlock; then Irene injects Sherlock with some sort of drug and one of the greatest things ever happens. He is to remember her as the woman who beat him, and she stands over him, whip in hand, and everything hurts and is beautiful and this is everything I could ever want from Irene Adler on television.
Well, it was for a while.
Here’s the thing: the Internet does not need a dude telling y’all about how immensely problematic Irene’s portrayal ends up being in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and the world certainly doesn’t need my approval on this sort of shit. At this point, it’s best for you to read the numerous articles and posts written by women because all I’d be doing is repeating what they said. So allow me to instead just make one big, large, Very Important Point about how Irene Adler falls apart by the final minute of this episode:
She does not beat Sherlock Holmes.
Yes, she “beats” him in her own house, but the entire reason that “A Scandal in Bohemia” is so fantastic is because this woman comes out of nowhere, bests Sherlock Holmes, and then disappears, making it so that Sherlock can’t one-up her. It’s something he just has to live with. And for the most part, I genuinely thought that this is where this premiere was headed. Hell, that entire scene at the end with Mycroft, Sherlock, and Irene suggested that the very first episode of series two would have Sherlock losing.
But that’s not the case, and Moffat does two things that kind of bug me a whole lot with her character. First of all, while it does provide the impetus for Moriarty sparing the life of Watson and Holmes in the pool during the cold open, I just don’t understand why Irene Adler has anything to do with Moriarty. How do they even know one another? Was this all just one giant set-up to try and shame Sherlock? If so…..what???? Why? I mean, I get that Moriarty would want to do that, but why even bring Irene Adler into this mess if that’s the case?
Additionally, I just really hate that Irene Adler loses in the end. There’s enough commentary out there about how fucked up it is that Irene’s emotions are the cause of her downfall. Plus…again, I know others have said it, but she said she was a lesbian? Like, I don’t imagine that Moffat was trying to make some brilliant, clever statement about sexual fluidity here. There could have been a way to execute that, but what is this weird I AM TOTALLY GAY EXCEPT FOR YOU SHERLOCK thing here? Look, some of us are just gay and no matter how much we like someone, it doesn’t work! Sooooooooooo.
But really, Irene Adler should have beat Sherlock. The MoD scheme should have been exposed as it was, she should have gotten her requests from Mycroft and the British/American governments, and it would have been unbelievably fascinating to see how Sherlock dealt with the conflicting feelings of defeat and respect. Because let’s not kid ourselves: Even if Sherlock is not attracted to Irene Adler in any sexual way (I spy you, metaphor for sex. I SEE YOU. Going to dinner? It’s “The Doctor Dances” all over again!), he most certainly holds her in high regard. She does not bore him. She excites him because she is the first mind he has encountered that is so genuinely brilliant to him. That is what I want to see more of.
On the one hand, I am glad she is still alive. I want her back in the story, and I have just the slightest bit of hope that there is still a great tale to tell between her and Sherlock, that perhaps she really does beat him in the end. But seriously, y’all: a fucking scimitar. WHO THE FUCK HAS ONE OF THOSE IN A SITUATION LIKE THAT. Like, Moffat wasn’t even trying not to avoid the stereotype, and I’m pretty sure he still didn’t even get it right? But it is just so disturbing to me how much she feels shamed by the story in the end.
It’s disappointing to me because holy shit I still liked this a whole lot. And that’s a difficult thing to parse in the grand scheme of “A Scandal in Belgravia.” I know that Adler’s portrayal is riddled with problems; I know that I despised how Molly’s rejection was handled; I know that this could have been so much better. But this is not “The Blind Baker.” I don’t feel like this episode was a waste. The performances are just simply incredible from the six actors and actresses who are on screen the most. I love that Mrs. Hudson plays such a large part in the story, and I love that Sherlock scolds Mycroft for insulting her. I love that Lestrade’s least irritating cop is himself. I love how damning the end feels, when Sherlock first steps onto that 747 and we realize we have all been fooled. It’s so horrifically disturbing to me. And, of course, seeing Cumberbatch and Freeman play off one another is just another sign that these are the right people for these roles.
Sherlock has so much potential, and it’s precisely why I want to be harsh on it. There’s so much to love here, almost exactly the same amount I disliked. I don’t expect a perfect show because HELLO HAVE Y’ALL SEEN DOCTOR WHO. But I also don’t want to avoid talking about these things, you know? Irene Adler is such an important character to the Sherlock canon, and I just feel that she’s not given what she should be given here. I’m still painfully excited for the next two episodes, and Benedict Cumberbatch how is your face real, and this shit was super entertaining to watch. I just want to make sure I’m still critically engaging with what I see instead of just rolling over and all-caps raging over how beautiful Martin Freeman is.
Which, for the record, is not a bad thing. We must have a GIF-off about this episode immediately.