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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Sherlock blogging: “A Scandal in Belgravia”

Sherlock Lara Pulver Benedict Cumberbatch

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. previous: Series 1)
My god, Sherlock Holmes is an unbelievable bastard, isn’t he? Smug, superior, arrogant, and just plain mean. Mean to absolutely everyone. To Mrs. Hudson (telling her to shut up). To John (deliberately mixing up his girlfriends). To Mycroft (always). To poor, poor Molly (ripping her apart over her attentions to her alleged new boyfriend). It’s utterly unnerving to see him appear to be actually chastened and seemingly genuinely apologetic to her… it’s almost impossible to accept.

God, he’s a horrible horrible person. Yet I love him. There are many many reasons for this that are nothing new and that have been well explored in fannish philosophy — the fantasy appeal of the robotically cold and/or unobtainable man (see also: Spock, Data, the Doctor), for instance — but here’s another one that might be new: Sherlock’s facade of the unemotional, logical, unsentimental machine cracks here. More than once. There’s the bit with Molly and the Christmas present, which is actually shocking. But it sets the stage for the final scene, which cuts some of the power out of Irene Adler but pays off in an all-around satisfying way that Arthur Conan Doyle would probably never have given in to: it brings Sherlock down to human size (if only for a moment, and even if no one else knows about it; not John, not Mycroft). Aha, he is a man after all!

I think that’s why I can forgive the betrayal of Irene as the character we knew: though she beats him initially — leaving him unconscious and making her escape still in possession of the thing he sought to acquire from her — in the end, he has to swoop halfway around the world to save her from her own shenanigans. Except… she still does defeat him, in a far more significant way. If Conan Doyle’s Adler won a victory over Holmes in outsmarting him, Steven Moffat’s Adler wins a victory over Holmes in getting him to admit to emotion, to attraction, to love. (Not that she isn’t an intellectual match for Sherlock: she figured out how the lone hiker was mysteriously killed.) Yes, he comes to her rescue in the end, which by some interpretations could be seen as an unimaginative indulgence of sexist cliché. But she doesn’t ask for his help, and she certainly wasn’t expecting it. His rescue of her is his admission that he does feel something. He is driven only by sentiment, and he must know it. Surely to have smashed Sherlock’s conceptions about himself is a powerful victory for her over him… especially after he gloated so nastily over how she revealed her own feelings for him.

Moriarty did promise to “burn the heart” out of Sherlock. But I don’t imagine that even Moriarty had any idea what putting Irene Adler in Sherlock’s path would do to him.

The rest of how Moffat updates Irene for the 21st century is so much wicked fun — and so much an admission of how society has changed in 130 years — that any temptation to call it sexist only highlights how the narrow depictions of women hurt even the good ones. Yeah, it sucks that so often female characters are sex workers, but in this case, it’s hard to see how this shouldn’t be the case. I mean, Conan Doyle’s Adler was an opera singer, a performing artist — which for a Victorian woman was a pretty disreputable thing to be, while also having a veneer of sophistication and elegance. What professions today carry the same seemingly contradictory qualifications? A high-class dominatrix catering to the wealthy and powerful is a good match. And while Conan Doyle’s Adler had an affair with a king, the photographic evidence of which Holmes was hired to retrieve, merely sleeping with an unmarried royal today is a ticket to tabloid fame and reality-TV fortune — it’s hardly blackmail material.

Moffat’s Adler has evidence of naughty goings-on with a female royal, yet even that isn’t enough to carry on for too long about: his addition of the terrorism and government conspiracy angles doesn’t just pad out a short story to feature length, it truly raises the stakes to something worth caring about in the 21st century, far more so than which rich and famous person is getting off in a kinky way.

It’s astonishing how well all this updating stuff works.

Gotta love, too, how the bromance is right out there in the open, fully acknowledged in ways that few other similar tales bother with. John’s girlfriends all know John will choose Sherlock over them; they all know they’re coming between the two men. Irene sees it, too: When John testily insists that he and Sherlock are “not a couple,” she insists that they are. And they are, in all ways except the sexual one. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I mean, if you can giggle together over the lack of pants at Buckingham Palace, what more do you need in a relationship?

Sherlock Martin Freeman Benedict Cumberbatch

Random thoughts on “A Scandal in Belgravia”:

• John’s blog is real! Well, sort of. Read about the adventures of “The Geek Interpreter” (tee-hee!) and “The Speckled Blonde” and “The Aluminum Crutch.”

• “The Geek Interpreter.” I am still giggling over that. I’m loving how Moffat throws in nods to Conan Doyle and the clichés of Holmes. The deerstalker as an antipaparazzi device!

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

I believe Conan Doyle’s Holmes also disguised himself as a priest in order to bluff his way into Irene Adler’s home:

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

• Nice. Sherlock can read anyone:


But he can’t read Irene:

Sherlock Lara Pulver

• I love that Sherlock has the periodic table of elements on his bedroom wall:

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

What a wonderful geek he is.

• Dr. John H. Watson has a middle name!

Hamish. John Hamish Watson. Just if you were looking for baby names. –John, witnessing the flirtation between Sherlock and Irene

This was invented by Dorothy L. Sayers, actually, and not by Steven Moffat. Just FYI. So Moffat isn’t just looking at Conan Doyle for inspiration, but at what other mystery writers have written about Holmes, too.

• Back in “A Study in Pink,” Mrs. Hudson kept warning the boys that she wasn’t their housekeeper. Looks like she’s given in:

Sherlock Una Stubbs

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch Una Stubbs Martin Freeman

There are rewards, however:

Sherlock Una Stubbs

• Molly may not deserve how thoroughly awful Sherlock is to her at their Christmas party, but I think this:

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

is naively overoptimistic on her part. Poor lovestruck woman.

• Imagine what it must take to startle Mycroft:

Sherlock Mark Gatiss

• Some Sherlock-smoking porn for your enjoyment:

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

• Some Sherlock-naked porn for your enjoyment:

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch

• He texted me, he texted me!

Sherlock Lara Pulver

• Her texts are great:



John’s blog is HILARIOUS. I think he likes you more than I do. Let’s have dinner.

I can see tower bridge and the moon from my room. Work out where I am and join me.

You do know that hat actually suits you, don’t you?

• Me too, dammit:


Me too.

• Great quotes:

“Tell us from the start. Don’t be boring.” –Sherlock, to a prospective client

“Buckingham Palace. I am seriously fighting an urge to steal an ashtray.” –John

“Just once, can you two behave like grownups?” –Mycroft
“We solve crimes, I blog about it, and he forgets his pants. I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.” –John

“You don’t trust your own secret service?” –John
“Naturally not. They all spy on people for money.” –Mycroft

“Sex doesn’t alarm me.” –Sherlock
“How would you know?” –Mycroft

“I always hear ‘Punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking, but it’s usually subtext.” –John, to Sherlock

“Look at those cheekbones. I could cut myself slapping that face.” –Irene, to Sherlock

“Brainy is the new sexy.” –Irene

“You know, Mycroft could just phone me, if he didn’t have this bloody stupid power complex.” –John

“I can put maximum surveillance on her…” –Mycroft, about Irene
“Why bother? You can follow her on Twitter. I believe her username is TheWhipHand.” –Sherlock

“I’m not stupid, you know.” –John
“Where did you get that idea?” –Sherlock

“I would have you right here on this desk until you begged for mercy twice.” –Irene, expressing her appreciation for Sherlock’s brilliance
“I’ve never begged for mercy in my life.” –Sherlock
“Twice.” –Irene

(next: “The Hounds of Baskerville”)

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