Sherlock is fast becoming one of my favorite shows. Between the smart plots, the attention to detail, the clothing — I did cosplay as Sherlock and the lovely Lisa was my Watson –, the modernism, and the pure delight of the world’s only consulting detective, I adore Sherlock despite its flaws. I’ll admit to loving the romanticism of the detective almost as much as Sherlock, and that my other favorite show, Lost Girl is an urban fantasy about a private detective.
I knew going into “A Scandal in Belgravia” that any plot with Irene Adler would be sexy and engaging, but problematic. Problematic because Irene is “The Woman”; she is the woman Sherlock puts on the pedestal and calls it love. And while Sherlock shows the progression of the mysteries our heroes solve, it’s also bias from the point-of-view of Sherlock. In fact, this episode was perhaps the closest representation of what goes on in Sherlock’s head that we’ve seen on screen yet. Heck, we see Sherlock’s observations literally on the screen before us. And to Sherlock, Irene is an ideal, a trope, a puzzle, and what he believes love is about.
How to properly solve the problem of Irene being a sexist trope based on Sherlock’s point-of-view would’ve been to point out that Sherlock is wrong. And where the show faults the most is here, because Sherlock is a show about Sherlock being right. Interestingly enough, Irene was the only person in Doyle’s book to ever best Sherlock, but given the need for Sherlock to be right in his own narrative on the show, the last time we see Irene on screen in “A Scandal in Belgravia” is to have Sherlock save her. This doesn’t bode well for her outsmarting him.
The second problem is that of the fans. Everyone knows Sherlock and John have a romantic friendship (a bromance, for those of you in the 21st century) or they are coded as gay. In today’s modern world, coding gay characters is out-dated and will probably get you laughed at by the lgbt population and our allies. Sherlock has had more than a few jokes about Sherlock and John being a couple, pondering on Sherlock’s sexuality and his sex life, and little to no backtalk from John when someone makes the assumption aloud that he’s Sherlock’s boyfriend. Die-hard Sherlock fans are largely Sherlock/John shippers with insistences on the true love of their characters and damned be anyone, including Irene Adler or show-runner Steven Moffat, who may get in the way. Every modern show out there is monitoring the internet, and in the age where fans can tweet at producers (Moffat being one of them), the floodgates are open from instant criticism or, at worst, hateful trolling. But audience influence has an impact, even if it’s only subconscious.
So we have Irene, who becomes a trope, because we don’t know anything about Irene or her motivations. (Unlike say the Muppet Sherlock Holmes comic with Miss Piggy as Irene, shouting what she wants from the rooftops. Perhaps my favorite version of Irene.) Sherlock proclaims that Irene is in love with him because he measured her pulse and looked into her dilated pupils. And even though we know Sherlock is not right 100% of the time, the narrative compels us to believe him. Compels us to put Irene on a pedestal.
Okay, but what about love? I believe this episode was truly about matters of the heart, about love in all its different forms, and how Sherlock considers romantic love — or perhaps just sex — the final frontier of relationships.
“I will burn you. I will burn the heart right out of you.” – Jim Moriarty
Sherlock insists he has no heart. Even as he grieves for Irene, when he believes her to be dead on Christmas, he asks Mycroft what is wrong with them, wrong with the Holmes boys, that they just can’t break down and cry in the morgue like the family down the hall.
Sherlock also insists that romantic attachments are a distraction and that they would sully his detective work, his life’s passion. In “A Study in Pink,” Sherlock basically tells John that he’s asexual, literally married to the job. While there’s been lots of fans calling Sherlock a virgin and other fans saying that’s silly as sex does not always equal love, “A Scandal in Belgravia” has Mycroft, Irene, and Jim calling Sherlock a “virgin” and Mrs. Hudson and John seriously wondering.
Of course, what Jim threatens Sherlock with and makes a deal with Irene to do, in order to get her retirement, has to do with romantic love/lust/obsession. However, Jim understands that there are more kinds of love, and that despite his attempts to use his heart muscle for only pumping blood, Sherlock has love in his life. Especially since the addition of John. Irene isn’t just meant to break Sherlock’s heart; she’s also meant to burn some of those relationships.
To make you fall in love: Irene
What an assignment Irene takes on: to make the great Sherlock Holmes fall in love with her. In order to get information, in order to get the attention of Mycroft, in order to just prove Sherlock wrong about his heart.
While this causes Irene to fall into the femme fatale, I appreciated her as a dominatrix because it’s a people reader role. Sherlock may be able to read their clothing (as we see his brain flummoxed by meeting Irene while she’s naked), but Irene can read their body language and their emotions. That’s what dominatrices do. (Did I spoil that for anyone?) Pros tend to play the stereotypes because they have paying customers, and male customers tend to request the tropes: the femme fatale, the ice queen, the vamp, the woman-in-black, and damsel-in-distress. I actually thought her portrayal was pretty good in that respect, and in this way, I was okay with the tropes as she modeled them to peak Sherlock’s interest.
Of course, the clinch wasn’t that Irene turned out to be working with Jim to foil the British and American governments’ plans for “world peace.” It was supposed to be that she got Mycroft’s attention and had wanted it all along for her asylum. But Sherlock doesn’t break in the way Jim thinks he would’ve, and it’s not because Irene might’ve actually cared for Sherlock.
(I’ll leave you to decide whether Irene also made Sherlock believe she was in love with him as further insurance, which at least stopped her from being beheaded.)
Furthermore, I don’t think Irene’s that much of Jim’s pawn as again, Sherlock’s point-of-view seems to think. She used Jim’s request as a means to an end. It is Sherlock, not her, who puts the power in Jim’s hand. (Compared to say Mycroft who can’t seem care about Jim.)
“I’m not actually gay”: John
Interestingly enough, the only thing we hear from Irene’s point-of-view about her own sexuality is her declaration that she’s gay, after John’s declaration that he’s not. If we do believe that Irene loves Sherlock (as Sherlock certainly thinks), then do we believe that John could also change his sexual orientation for Sherlock? After all, Kinsey surmised that we are all a bit more bisexual than we want to admit in public and that our actions speak louder than which box we put ourselves in. Both Irene and John are interested in Sherlock on some level.
But despite whether you take the romance angle or the bromance one, John is Sherlock’s partner. And with a Sherlock who’s never had sex nor seems inclined to any sort of physical affection — as we see the great detective humiliate Molly, who’s crush on him is blindingly obvious since “A Study in Pink” but Sherlock doesn’t notice until “A Scandal in Belgravia” — John is Sherlock’s crime-solving partner and his domestic partner. John is jealous of Irene in this episode. He’s brimming with it in every way he interrupts their interactions, leaves the room, or childishly suggests they name their babies after him. Human heads in the fridge and danger aren’t a turn off for John, but Irene might’ve been.
Jeanette, John’s latest girlfriend, is correct in that he is a wonderful boyfriend…to Sherlock. John literally kills for Sherlock, and he’s Jim’s first major target directly tied to Sherlock. Jim doesn’t go after Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, Mycroft, or even Sherlock’s mother; no, Jim knows exactly who Sherlock loves the most.
But by the end of “The Great Game,” Jim realizes he can’t just blow up John as much as it will kill Sherlock. No, that’s sloppy, and I believe Jim likes the slow torture. Shooting someone directly in the heart is just no fun, and that’s why the cliffhanger happens the way it does. (Though if anyone had written that cliffhanger ending in fanfiction, they would’ve been laughed at.)
“I am the closest thing to a friend that Sherlock Holmes is capable of having”: Mycroft Holmes
“A Scandal in Belgravia” plays with the idea that while Sherlock may be interesting to Jim as an opponent that he can measure up to, the elder Holmes may be the one Jim wants to manipulate. Sherlock’s estranged relationship with Mycroft works to Jim’s advantage.
Both of the Holmeses struggle with signs of affection, even brotherly love toward each other. Mycroft spies on Sherlock; he uses the British government’s money and surveillance power to check in on his little brother. Likewise, Sherlock, despite showing up at Buckingham Palace nude, solves cases for Mycroft, which have no doubt helped Mycroft in his quest to rule Britain.
That said, their refusal to share information with each other and always plotting around one another makes Irene’s moves like a giant game of telephone between brothers. Or perhaps chess. If say, Mycroft would’ve shared with Sherlock about “Bond Air,” Jim might’ve never found out. Or if Sherlock would’ve told Mycroft about Jim kidnapping John and almost killing them, Mycroft would’ve been hunting Jim, not bothering with Irene and her camera phone.
Mycroft is Sherlock’s family at the end of the day, and no one can hurt you like family. In Sherlock’s time of need, Mycroft phones John and Mrs. Hudson to watch after him. They are Sherlock’s chosen family.
Never your housekeeper: Mrs. Hudson
When Donovan asserted that Sherlock doesn’t have friends in “A Study in Pink,” she was correct. Sherlock instead has family he’s been assembling since the series started. Mrs. Hudson was used extremely effective in “A Scandal in Belgravia” to show another aspect of Sherlock’s heart.
A lot of villains have tried to kill Sherlock and some John, but there has been no rage in Sherlock’s eyes. Not the way he looked when he realized the America CIA had been torturing Mrs. Hudson. Sherlock tossed the main guy out a window, multiple times, because someone hurt her.
In a way, this was overkill. I preferred Sherlock and John telling off Mycroft for telling Mrs. Hudson to ‘shut up’ than dumping a man out the window. But it’s clear that Mrs. Hudson and Irene don’t occupy the same worlds, and that Mrs. Hudson represents a gentleness inside Sherlock that we don’t see very often. Though that’s not to say Mrs. Hudson’s a gentle lamb; she’s pretty snarky, and while she’s not on the same intellectual level as Sherlock, she can hold her own.
Though it is interesting that Jim and Irene seemingly write Mrs. Hudson off as a plan of attack. Instead, Mycroft’s intelligence on Sherlock led to the hostage taking of Mrs. Hudson by the CIA, not Irene’s or Jim’s line of thinking. Which just plants another seed of disgust that Sherlock feels for his brother.
“Just once, can you two behave like grown-ups?” — Mycroft
“We solve crimes; I blog about it; and he forgets his pants. I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.” — John
Here we have Sherlock’s heart, Sherlock’s family. For the man who insists that he’s ruled by logic and brushes love off, he has more of it than he realizes. And I think that’s the great accomplishment of “A Scandal in Belgravia”; it exposes Sherlock’s heart.
In that Irene didn’t die by Jim’s hand, she must’ve accomplished her mission for him: to peak Mycroft’s attention, to tell him that his weakness, Sherlock, is known. And when that was done, Irene didn’t burn Sherlock’s heart. Sherlock thinks this is because she’s in love with him, and this is what the show tells us to. But I like to think she stopped because he was another job and she didn’t care or just cared enough for him as someone on her intellect-level (even if Sherlock would never admit this) to not burn him.
I only wish we could’ve exposed Sherlock’s heart without having to dig so deeply into his point-of-view, so that Moffat’s narrative didn’t support Sherlock’s sexism. Irene from another’s eyes could’ve and should’ve been so much more than a trope.