[No, you did not miss the US premiere of the BBC’s Sherlock Season 2. Some of us watched the UK feed and were anxious to discuss it. Believe me, we’ll be doing so again on May 6, when it premieres on this side of the pond! But if you don’t mind a few spoilers, dive on in!]
In the year 1891, when publishing a short story in the Strand Magazine no one realized would change the world of fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made a brave storytelling decision. Yes, it was also ballsy to take his eccentric, but not very lucratively received, “independent consulting detective” from A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four and turn him into a serial hero—a man who solved crimes not in novella form, which is difficult, but in jewel boxes of perfectly constructed short stories. Which is impossible. Read a tale lifted from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and try to write something as audacious and delightful and efficient.
I dare you.
As I say, the mere notion of creating a supersleuth and then presenting him in a series of articles was an innovative enough notion—yes, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin also appeared in magazine short stories, and Edgar Allan Poe created the detective genre. But Poe died poor, and Doyle had no intention of doing likewise. No, what I consider to be the unprecedented move for pure talent, wit, and stones in the Adventures is as follows:
Why don’t I create a protagonist, argued Doyle, who is irresistible and eccentric and very nearly omnipotent?
And then, while I’m still building his resume and talking him up in his first short form adventure, why not have him beaten by a girl?
“A Scandal in Bohemia” is a touchstone for Sherlockians. We love the story, and we love Irene Adler to the point of folly (I don’t have a watch chain—but I’ve an 1887 gold sovereign ready for such time as I do acquire one). “To Sherlock Holmes, she was always the woman,” Watson writes. “I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”
Ours, too. At least as far as the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are concerned. Despite the fact that Watson next explicitly states that Holmes never felt any emotion “akin to love” for Irene Adler, she is revered far beyond every other female canonical badass.** She is toasted at every Sherlockian gathering. She is present in adaptations from Baker Street, the Broadway musical, to Sherlock Holmes the Hollywood blockbuster. All this, despite being mentioned in exactly two tales out of sixty and appearing in one.
Why? Because Holmes deemed her special? Sherlock Holmes is our observational idol, after all. We can trust him to tell us the facts.
But screw that. She was special, in her own right and on her own dime.
And once again, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in BBC’s Sherlock have handed us a modern version of the original who—in the person of the voracious Lara Pulver—manages to fiddle with our perceptions of The Woman while delighting us with the return of a beloved character.
First, a general overview of Sherlock’s triumphant (8.7 million viewers on the night of airing, according to broadcastnow.uk) return to the small screen. We are talking successful television-making of Alexander the Great proportions when it comes to “A Scandal in Belgravia.” The lush cinematography of the original series is now a pageantry of light and color; when Pulver’s Adler muses she could cut herself on his cheekbones slapping Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexily asexual Sherlock Holmes, by God, you believe her. The costumes are essential to character, the score wonderfully apt. Locations from Battersea Power Station to Baker Street at Christmas, fairy lights strung from the mantel and Martin Freeman’s John Watson decked in a holiday sweater Bill Cosby would have deemed overreaching, are shot with ardent attention to detail. (Sherlock has a judo master certificate framed on his bedroom wall.)
The visual motifs of the series are expanding apace. Sherlock’s blindingly fast deductions are again rendered in floating white letters, and now John’s case blog hovers more often above his laptop as he types—simultaneously a look at the inside of John’s head, of Sherlock’s perspective peering over his shoulder, and of the view of their presumed web readers. When Sherlock deciphers code, the letters and numbers hover before him, seeming real enough for him to touch. The inner-monologue white sans serif is a preppie mash-up of The Matrix and Minority Report, and it contributes admirably to both plot advancement and overall style.
As to character, we have moved firmly away from first-season territory. The relationship between Sherlock and John is no longer that of a battered ex-army doctor wondering why his alien roommate has elected to keep a human head in the crisper. They are partners, as is efficiently shown in a montage of cheekily altered canonical cases (“The Speckled Blonde” is a nice touch) that John is writing up for his now-popular blog. Like the Watson of Doyle’s tales, John has dropped his medical career by the roadside like gnawed apple core, having recognized his true calling as the biographer of the lanky bloke down the hall. Like the Holmes of Doyle’s tales, Sherlock’s appreciation of being chronicled is expressed through bafflement and criticism. “People want to know you’re human,” John explains when asked why he blogs an unsolved case, “Cause they’re interested.”
“No, they’re not. Why are they?” Sherlock answers, as if humanity escapes him entirely.
Enter Irene Adler. Opera singing is no longer a salacious and exotic profession; but it was during Doyle’s time, and Moffat’s screenplay updates Adler to a lesbian dominatrix whose blackmail ammo is making royal families itchy in the pants. What follows is a deadly waltz between her brilliant machinations and Sherlock’s electric wit.
The dynamic between Pulver and Cumberbatch, playing a high-stakes match in which terrorism, Jim Moriarty, brutish CIA agents, and other such evils are manipulated between them like so many game pieces, is thrilling on a spiritual level as well as a chemical one. She’s not into men. He’s not into sex. But they’re both into power and control and riding crops, and they’re obsessively fascinated. This flirtation purrs along like a Lamborghini, despite the fact that 99.99% of the previous romantic adaptations between Holmes and Adler have had all the grace of a six-year-old child mashing Ken and Barbie’s plastic faces together chanting, “Now they KISS.”
That isn’t what this is about; this is about a genius on a mountaintop, spying another hermit on a distant cliff. In the world of Doyle, Adler was in love with Godfrey Norton, with whom she eloped after beating Holmes at his own game. Likewise, “Brainy,” says Moffat’s Adler, “is the new sexy.” Touché, team Sherlock. You have delicious Kool-Aid. Let me live here, where though the world explode, Sherlock and John survive, and John’s blog count is always stuck at 1895.
What’s surprising about A Scandal in Belgravia isn’t the fact that Holmes vs. Adler is richly satisfying—it’s that the peripheral characters from the first season return with such emotional impact. An excruciating moment in which Sherlock’s lovelorn lab cohort Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey) is publically eviscerated by the detective takes a 180 degree-turn when the self-professed sociopath, looking stricken, apologizes. (Sherlock seemingly would benefit from a PSA declaring his trousers will not be dropping for anyone, thanks awfully for the thought.) Sherlock and John’s reaction to Mrs. Hudson being terrorized by a vicious American operative takes affectionate chivalry to new levels of violence—messing with 221’s landlady (played to motherly perfection by Una Stubbs) will buy you a ticket to a world of pain.
Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft Holmes, once an enigma with an umbrella, is now an anxious Big Brother trying to keep the world intact with balsa wood and Elmer’s glue. And John, less a second fiddle than a right arm, is given many of the most surprising scenes in the episode. Who could guess that the “very loyal, very quickly” new flatmate who refused to spy on Sherlock would now be on his mobile with the elder Holmes to learn if he’s in for a “danger night?” Moreover, that he’d be rifling through Sherlock’s favorite drug nooks when the recovering addict fails Mycroft’s cigarette test.
John’s desire to watch over his friend at the cost of his personal life is here definitively established; he knows himself the one fixed point in the tempests Sherlock suffers. Sherlock talks to John when John isn’t even there. It is a testament to the creators that the woman who has unbalanced Sherlock and the doctor who protects him should have their own lengthy heart-to-heart chat, a scene that would surely be excised from any callow girl-meets-sleuth romance. John and Irene are here wounded, brave, conflicted people who happened to be entranced by the same man. “We’re not actually a couple,” John informs her. “Yes, you are,” she replies. Freeman’s John is a biddable but fiery presence. Watching him remind Sherlock that staging impromptu fistfights with Afghan war heroes will not go well for a civilian underlines his badassery, but there are many other such moments—John is indispensable, and he is most arresting onscreen when he doesn’t know what to do with that fact.
It should be mentioned that not every plot thread is as tightly woven in “A Scandal in Belgravia” as Sherlock’s last season proved possible in “The Great Game.” Andrew Scott’s shrill but terrifying Moriarty does little other than slither into the background, presumably so as to save his snarls and cackles for “The Reichenbach Fall.” A moment involving a boomerang left my brow raised. The final five minutes of narrative will either leave you throwing your hands up or throwing your hands up and clapping. There are, shall we say, issues of probability. It doesn’t ultimately matter much—the episode is such a complicated and superbly acted romp through Sherlockiana that fans of the series will be acting in perfect concert for the next several days.
Gnawing on our fingernails, waiting for Sunday’s “The Hounds of Baskerville.”
**including, but absolutely not limited to:
Mary Morstan, Violet Smith, Violet Hunter, Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope, Lady Brackenstall, Anna Coram, Kitty Winter, That Amazing Woman Who So Totally Shot Charles Augustus Milverton Like the Low, Dirty Varmint He Was and Killed Him Dead
Read all Lyndsay Faye’s posts on Criminal Element.