TV Review: Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia


S2, E1: ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’

Are you really so obvious, Sherlock (and Sherlock)?

Grade: D-


Sherlock was something of a sleeper hit when it premiered. The quirky adventure story with its cult pedigree became an internet sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Its second season was eagerly awaited, not least because Moffat and Gatiss were going after the big ones: The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Reichenbach Falls.

First, though, we have Sherlock’s take on A Scandal in Bohemia. Irene Adler, like Moriarty, is a bit-player who has taken on a reputation out of all proportion to her actual presence or significance in the canon. In the original story, Irene Adler wants to escape her royal stalker and marry the man of her choice, and she is holding on to information as insurance to help her to get away. Bourgeois, if you like, but completely cogent. She legitimately beats Holmes at his own game (including his facility with disguise) and is aided by Holmes’s own blinkers. So we have a competent female character with clearly identified motivations as well as an implicit indictment of Holmes’s sexism.

But if you think that a hundred-year-old story is just too feminist for you, step this way. Moffat’s got you sorted.

‘Wrong day to die.’

We open with Holmes, Watson and Moriarty in the very compromising position in which we last left them. Holmes and Watson have snipers trained on them, and Holmes has a gun pointed at a bomb-laden jacket. It’s all very tense, and then Moriarty gets a call with a jaunty ‘Stayin’ Alive’ ringtone. He hangs up telling our heroes that they live for another day, and saunters away saying that the caller had better have what they promise, otherwise he’ll make them ‘into shoes’. We see a blood-red fingernail disconnecting the call, and a ritual threat called out to ‘Your Highness’, who has apparently been ‘wicked’.

‘I know what he likes.’

A dominatrix called Irene Adler (professional name ‘The Woman’) has pictures of A Certain Royal in a somewhat compromising position. The Royal Family has been notified that the lady has the pictures, but has no intention of selling them or in any way profiting from them. It’s fairly obvious that the pictures’ potential for blackmail is the point at issue, rather than any imminent blackmail itself. Which doesn’t prevent Sherlock from plotzing over what a Very Fascinating Power Play it is, like an amateur.

Also like an amateur? Sherlock’s gambit to recover the compromising photos from Adler’s safe. He gets John to punch him in the face and shows up at Adler’s Belgravia pad with a bruise, a padre’s dog-collar and a sob-story. The dog-collar, BTW, is there only for Adler to rip it off him and purr ‘There. Now we’re both defrocked.’

‘The trouble with a disguise? In some ways, it’s always a self-portrait.’

Oh, yes, I should mention: Adler (Lara Pulver) is naked in the scene. This is foreshadowed earlier when she and Sherlock are both picking out ‘battle-dress’ for their meeting. Sherlock shows up dressed as a parson, and Irene steps out with war-paint (i.e. maquillage) on her face and high heels on her feet, but nothing on in between. The moment has two purposes: to stymie Sherlock with the lack of information from her clothes, and to give him the information he needs to crack the safe. Oh, come on – of course the combination was Irene’s vital statistics. Have you learned nothing about the show’s writers in the 270 minutes you’ve spent with them so far?

But the show makes an extremely astute point when it has Irene observe that a disguise is always a self-portrait. However inadvertently, Moffat’s choice of outfit for both Holmes and Adler reveals quite a lot about his priorities for both characters.

Let’s take Sherlock first. The disguise of a priest suggests that Sherlock looks on his work as a calling, not just a job. It indicates that he is, as he points out in A Study in Pink, ‘married to [his] work’. And, yes, if you think he’s a Jesuit priest, it suggests specifically sexual celibacy. Boringly, the episode frequently has people snigger about Sherlock’s lack of sexual experience. Creepily, Mycroft starts us off by saying Sherlock wouldn’t know anything about sex (ewwwwww, why are you even-? That’s your brother, man!). And then Adler says that Mycroft and Sherlock are known, respectively, as ‘the Iceman and the Virgin’. And look here, show: I am interested in Sherlock’s mind first. I can muster up some tepid concern for his immortal soul, and I can sit still for five seconds while you wonder about his heart, but I am bottomlessly indifferent to the state of his private parts, all right? And I am especially, and emphatically, not interested in whatever half-baked clichéd drivel you’re going to lob at my screen and expect me to mop up.

Ugh. All right, Adler next. Irene is naked save for flawless makeup and heels. Sherlock does his scan on her and turns up nothing but question marks. And really? Sherlock seriously gets no information from Adler’s makeup? Her high heels? Her musculature? Her career of Sexy Whip-Cracking leaves no physiognomic imprint? Really? None? The man who studies corpses in mortuaries can get no information from a naked body? Sure. Right. So you know what that tells me? Moffat could not be bothered to give us any information at this point. Nothing relating to Adler’s occupation, nothing relating to her personality, nothing relating to her motivations. Nothing.


And let’s be clear: we will get nothing from Adler as her own actor, with her own story, at any point in this story. Everything Adler does in this entire episode is squarely and exclusively as an object, or in some service to a point about Sherlock. Look at her first scene with Sherlock. Strip (ahem) away the tedious gnomic innuendo and posturing, and what are you left with? A naked woman who wants to talk about Sherlock, and wants him to look at her.

It never really gets any better. Adler wants ‘insurance’, she says. She wants to be safe. Fantastic. So why is she doing a thing that puts her in danger in the first place? Hmmm? Anyone? Any ideas at all? And before anyone suggests that there hasn’t been time to establish motivation, I would like to remind you that the show tells us what makes John Watson tick within the first half hour of A Study in Pink. By the time sixty minutes have elapsed, we have a very fair idea of what drives Sherlock. At the end of ninety minutes, Irene Adler remains a free-floating collection of tedious femme fatale clichés who is ultimately just as in thrall to Sherlock as poor limp dishrag Molly Hooper. Oh, it’s even more of a coup, actually: she fancies Sherlock and she’s gay! Result! #SherlockConversionTherapy.

‘In the end, are you really so obvious?’

One of the worst parts is how pathetic this episode makes Sherlock look. The episode needs Sherlock to be thrown by Adler, and cannot be bothered to punch up Adler’s guile or brain in any meaningful way. So it resorts to the cheapest trick in the book: sex. Or no – not even sex. To talk about sex, you’d have to be at least a little bit comfortable with the subject. And nothing about this episode suggests a mature attitude to sex. It’s all arch innuendo and orgasm ringtones and ‘virgin’ used as an insult. The attitude of someone who thinks sex is fascinating but repellent and weird. The attitude of someone who would blush as he pawed at Victorian woodcuts of spanking pictures. The attitude of a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, in fact.

So Sherlock is flustered by Irene Adler, and the show behaves as though it’s because she’s something remarkable. As though a moderately self-possessed woman with a nice body is some sort of unicorn. When really all that has happened is that tits, clump-footed flirtation and a suggestive ringtone are all that were ever needed to throw Sherlock Holmes for a loop. Are you really so obvious, Sherlock?

Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods

  • The references to stories in the blog titles include The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, The Adventure of the Speckled Band and the Adventure of the Naval Treaty.
  • ‘Any ideas?’ ‘Eight so far.’ Dammit, I know this is a reference to something, but what?
  • Sherlock at one point wears the deerstalker hat made famous from Paget’s illustrations in the Strand.
  • Adler’s professional name of ‘The Woman’ is of course a nod to Holmes’s respectful moniker for her in A Scandal in Bohemia.
  • From the same story: Sherlock uses the fire alarm gambit to find out where Adler keeps the safe.
  • ‘You see, but you do not observe.’ Tut tut, show, you’re repeating yourself again. Evidence of staleness?
  • Holmes also disguises himself as an old priest in the original story.
  • ‘That’s the knighthood in the bag’. Oy. From The Three Garridebs, and it’s been used before.
  • Sherlock enumerates 240-odd different types of tobacco ash on his blog, echoing his monographs on the subject.
  • John’s blog’s counter is stuck at 1895, the year of publication of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle made his first attempt to kill off Holmes, and then had to bring him back when screeching fans pestered him. Is this a look forward to the Reichenbach-themed season finale episode? An acknowledgement that Sherlock as a show should really have ended with the first season? You decide.
  • John gives his middle name as Hamish, in reference to Dorothy Sayers’s hypothesis about why Mary Morstan once called Watson James even though his middle initial is H. Is it telling that so many of the episode’s in-jokes are actually fandom nods, rather than original source references?

Odds and sods

  • The episode plays with the idea of internet fame. Just after the credits roll, we find out that John’s blog is attracting clients to Sherlock, and there’s a fair few references to much-discussed aspects of the show online (especially tumblr): Sherlock’s cheekbones, the height difference between John and Sherlock, and Sherlock’s coat.
  • Molly (Ugh, Molly) still has a thing for Sherlock. Sherlock is still a tool to her. Yay.
  • Also, Sherlock is a dick to John’s date. John says nothing in the date’s defence. And she calls him Sherlock’s boyfriend. Also, what happened to Sarah?
  • The plot is even slighter and less essential than usual this week, so let’s summarise here: The British and American governments are working to foil a terrorist plot (this bit ties quite neatly to other cases that Sherlock dismissed as dull). However, Adler in concert with Moriarty (eesh) – and with the help of Sherlock showing off for her – gets the information and threatens to sell it to the terrorists. Sherlock cracks her mobile phone’s passcode (his name because she fancies him), destroying her ‘protection’.
  • Even the music lets me down this episode. Plinky-plunk piano while Sherlock mourns Adler’s apparent death, soaring strings as Sherlock triumphs over Adler?
  • Oh, how I groaned when a friend first told me that Irene Adler was a dominatrix. How hard I prayed that she would be a retired professional now in her sunset years, played by Maggie Smith or Judi Dench. How completely unsurprised I was when the lissom and youthful Lara Pulver sashayed onto screen instead.

5 thoughts on “TV Review: Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

  1. Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler always had an interesting relationship and he was always a bit thrown by her. However, he admired and respected her intellect and if I’m recalling correctly, she did pull the wool over his eyes occasionally.

    I almost groaned when Irene Adler’s profession was announced as that of a dominatrix. I’m trying to be generous here…maybe the writers thought that Mr. Asexual Genius was likely to be thrown by overt sexuality? So let’s make her use sex as a weapon? The problem is that this is a very tired theme (Woman seducing Man) for such a clever, modern show.

    And for her to have to be rescued in the end, from some bizarre dungeon by Whatzisface posing as a monk…in a brief, Hollywood-esque cameo…facepalm. Oh, well. Judging by the Robert Downey Jr. movie and this show, it seems impossible to depict Irene as pistol-sharp first and as sex-bomb second. Gotta have the audience notice her more tangible assets first.

    This show is fast losing me…

    Liked by 1 person

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