Sunday, January 8, 2012

"A Scandal in Belgravia"

Irene Adler is a frustrating character. The subject of exactly one short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," adaptations trying to establish an elaborate and consistent mythos and cast for the "Sherlock Holmes universe" love to completely blow her out of proportion. This is to an extent also true for recurring, implied or regularly-referenced characters like Mycroft, Moriarty and Moriarty's offsider Colonel Moran, if they aren't used well. The problem with Irene Adler is that she is always, without fail, turned into Holmes' love interest even though that is based on a complete misreading of the text of "A Scandal in Bohemia" and is symptomatic of the numbing terror that conventional entertainment seems to have about the idea of asexuality, like it's a disease that makes your bits fall off or something. So Sherlock Holmes has to have a female love interest, even if the specifics and intimacies of their relationship are left at best vague. The whole point of "A Scandal in Bohemia" was that Holmes was for once defeated, in this instance by a woman of particular resourcefulness, and as a result came to greatly respect and admire her talents. He keeps her photograph as a testament to this, and refers to her thereafter solely as "the Woman", the one woman, and indeed one of the few people, to best him. Adaptations can occasionally use this for the sake of counterpoint, creating slightly wearied scenarios where the just Holmes has two "nemesis figures": Moriarty, the "evil Holmes", and Irene Adler, the "female Holmes," usually a figure of ethical flexibility. I think if anything this episode highlights some of the problems with these accumulated Holmes archetypes.
The set-up is fairly familiar; Holmes has been requested to gain access to some compromising photographs. In this case, however, it is not the King of Bohemia whose integrity is at stake but an unspecified member of the British Royal Family. Holmes and Watson have become notorious figures on the internet; we get some smirk-inducing in-jokes involving Holmes disguising himself in a deerstalker and Watson typing up cases with punning names like "The Speckled Blonde," "The Navel Treatment," and my personal favourite, "The Geek Interpreter." Details for some of these can be found on the verisimilitudinous viral website for the show. You're welcome, Moff. Anyway, in the midst of a case for which he is getting John to be his eyes and ears, Sherlock is summoned to Buckingham Palace, and Watson arrives soon after, enter Mycroft with the case and the game is afoot.
This is an extremely Mycroft-heavy episode, quite surprisingly so, but I think that is a good thing and I rarely felt that Mycroft's presence was extraneous. However, I do feel that the episode was occasionally lacking something in terms of the Holmes-Watson dynamic, and that occasionally Mycroft was acting as Sherlock's foil in scenes where Watson could probably have been used. While there's certainly a risk of Mycroft being overused, I think he was good here, but as much as I enjoy the character I hope he's used sparingly for the remainder of the series. To be fair, Holmes and Watson didn't actually see him very often in the original stories.
Anyway, Sherlock and John set out to investigate Irene Adler. Sherlock's motives seemed a tad flimsy to me. Irene doesn't want money or favour; she's involved in a power play, and apparently that's what gets Sherlock interested. How is it a power play? Not really sure, to be honest. It's only much later that she presents demands to the British Government. Regardless, this Irene Adler is not an actress, adventuress and opera singer who is finally settingly down with a sensible man after a youth of flirting with the aristocracy. Instead she's a dominatrix. While I felt that this was of course a perfectly good reason for her to have compromising photographs of a member of the Royal Family I found it to be quite cliché and a little tasteless in general. Once Sherlock is bundled into her house pretending to be a distressed clergyman as in the original story, she confronts him in a way distinctly unrelated to the source material, as she walks in starkers. As Sherlock himself puts it, "You cater to the whims of the pathetic and take your clothes off to make an impression." So begins our nightmarish descent into the world of Moffat's incredibly confusing sexual politics. He seems to give us a lot in terms of women who are so ridiculously over-empowered that it turns back on itself and becomes condescending, and yet who often play out rather adolescent fantasies of feminine sexual aggression. You can say all you like about Irene Adler's nudity giving Sherlock nothing to "read". To be honest I think Moffat just wanted a woman with her clothes off on camera. By comparison, we see his scrutiny of John standing to one side. I'm sure Sherlock could have read a lot from Irene Adler's makeup, hairstyle, body language and so on. Apparently, however, he can't. We do have another nice reference to the original events of the story, however, when John starts a fire to get Irene to give away the location of her photographs. It's good to see when the writers bow to the simple elegance of Conan Doyle's own creations.
Then the CIA burst in and we get down to the plot proper; I suppose it was fair enough of them to expand a relatively brief short story into a more elaborate piece. Recovering the photographs from Irene Adler was hardly going to make a detective story of its own. Indeed there are a number of Holmes short stories that aren't really detective stories at all, more just Holmes and Watson getting swept up in events. So we are given a real conspiracy: why is the American government intent on recovering Ms Adler's phone? What secrets does it conceal? The more important question in the view of the narrative, however, is this: does Sherlock Holmes have a heart?
I think the answer to anyone who's actually read Holmes is a "yes". Although he is, as I've stated, occasionally callous and manipulative when the need arises, and although he views romance and sexuality, as Watson notes in the original tale, "with a gibe and a sneer", we see repeatedly that he is a staunchly loyal friend, a true gentleman and even something of a patriot. Given the particularly aloof, eccentric and absent-minded figure of Holmes with which we are presented in this series, however, perhaps this question was in its own way important. Indeed the original novels and short stories, scattered as they are throughout Holmes' life, are suggestive of a humanising influence or at least a kindling of some warmth in Holmes by his long, loyal and mutually supportive friendship with Watson. Maybe that's why this episode frustrates me; it's more the situation with Irene Adler than his friendship with Watson which is used as a catalyst for exploring his emotional side.
To refer back to the original text, in the same above-quoted passage Watson explicitly tells us that "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind." The feelings Irene Adler conveys in Holmes are those of admiration and professional respect. They encourage him to take women more seriously. The two most notable instances, to me at least, of true powerful emotion from Holmes which convey affect or sentiment in the canon are firstly when Lestrade tells him how much the police force respects him at the end of "The Six Napoleons" and secondly, and most powerfully, in "The Three Garridebs" when, after Watson is shot, Holmes is observed to be on the borders of a homicidal rage before he discovers that his friend is still alive. I realise that such observations are born of a Victorian culture of great emotional privacy and romantic propriety but nonetheless I think they are noteworthy. It is not Irene Adler but Watson and Lestrade who permit our insights into Holmes' emotional side, and frankly I find having a suggestively sexual or romantic situation with a woman as our catalyst rather than platonic friendships is, in our contemporary climate certainly, rather trite.
Honestly it's all blown up into rather absurd proportions. Believing Irene to be dead, Holmes sinks into a melancholy. He met her for all of a few minutes, and despite her obvious intellectual capacities they hardly have time to establish an affectionate relationship. There's no valid reason he should be so affected, and I think this was a failing of the episode. Holmes' behaviour seemed to lack justification. He's evidently distracted by her apparent demise in some way. I think something involving his friendship with John would have been a much better exploration. As I said at the beginning, the ludicrous, canonically contradicted and rather unjustified extension of Irene Adler's character into a love interest for Holmes is completely overdone and besides that its sheer normativity makes it seem tired, repetitive and unambitious. The problem with Moffat asking "Does Sherlock Holmes have a heart?" is exactly the same as him asking "Does the Doctor have a heart?" The answer, as I've said, is unanimously yes - but as a friend. "Friend" in as much emphasis as possible. Romantic and sexual considerations are quite simply irrelevant to his character, and problematising them always feels like a pointless time-wasting exercise in futility which risks making their characters seem less unique.
Of course in the end it's all left very ambiguous, as it is with the Doctor. Irene makes a number of bald-faced sexual suggestions towards Sherlock by which he seems fairly unaffected. She tells him, rather pointlessly I felt, that Moriarty's nickname for him is "The Virgin"; it seems to me that he's more or less unaffected by this as well, given that it's little more than an adolescent jibe. I really hope it wasn't meant to be taken seriously or else it makes Moffat seem rather juvenile; is virginity some kind of weakness or failing? Who can say in the world of Moffat. Sherlock exploits Irene's apparent feelings for him to finally unlock her phone and destroy her plans. He reassures her that she has given him living proof of the disadvantage inherent to sentiment and love. At the very end he pulls the wool over everyone's eyes by rescuing her from terrorist execution, and keeps her phone, reminiscent of saving the photograph in the original adventure. Was this out of romantic sentiment, friendship, or professional admiration? It's really very hard to say. Frankly with Holmes I think if you're leaving it ambiguous you're missing the point. I did, however, appreciate the suggestion we're left with by Mycroft, who muses to John upon his brother's employment of his immense brainpower for detective work and his presumably childhood desire to be a "pirate". This suggests what I feel is a "Romantic" bent, which is to say capital R Romantic: not of the amorous kind, but rather of the adventurous, thrill-seeking and imaginative type, in the way old stories are characterised as "Romances." That, I believe, is a neat enough summation from Mycroft, but it does make a lot of the episode's content seem awfully bunk.
A lot of people have criticised the interpretation of Irene Adler in this episode as sexist: that, in contrast to the original story, her feelings are the ruin of her, she loses to Holmes, that she needs the assistance of Moriarty rather than her own nous alone to get the job done and that she has to be saved from the terrorists by Sherlock at the end. I think that is in some ways a valid complaint, turning one of Conan Doyle's most assertive and capable figures into something of a defeatable damsel in distress. However, I think my biggest criticism is how "sexed up" the character is; not even for Holmes necessarily, but definitely for the audience. I realise that the original Irene Adler was evidently a woman with an amorous past, and that turning her into a dominatrix is, as I've said, a convenient way to have her in possesion of a lot of compromising information, but it does feel an awful lot like someone just wanted a naked lady on the screen, and making her a sex worker feels like they couldn't think of a cleverer or more subtle method of establishing the plot. The fact that she has to use her sex appeal to make her way in the world rather than her brains suggests to me a disparity, and I think it would have been much, much more effective, infinitely moreso, and altogether more challenging, to establish her as an equally sexless character or at least one whose sexuality was not relevant to the events at hand, as was the case in the original story, and made her profession more intellectual. Her mental strength certainly parallels Sherlock, but it doesn't change the fact that in the episode she is, as a woman, sexualised professionally, and the fact that Sherlock apparently doesn't care much about her sexuality suggests that having her get her kit off or characterised as a dominatrix is really just unnecessary titillation for the audience. Frankly I think it was a bit of a cop-out, cheap and a little crass.
What about the rest of the plot? I really liked it, I must say. While I think "Bond Air" being a codename for "Flight 007" is the kind of ridiculous association a secret operation would never be so frivolous as to use, Mycroft's solution to this terrorist bombing is indeed elegant. Blowing up a plane full of the already dead is rather ingenious, and it provides us with the extremely eerie confrontation between Sherlock and Mycroft surrounded by corpses. That being said, linking this back to some of the cases Sherlock dismissed in the early montage may have been a bridge too far. Similarly the idea of a test-run occurring in Germany for which one corpse ended up being absent is equally rather absurd: if a plane went down anywhere in Western Europe with no survivors and terrorists had been implicated there would be utter panic and turmoil. We certainly don't see evidence of that in the episode, and we know the staging of this incident isn't public knowledge. Nonetheless I liked the bluffing game the governments are playing with the terrorists, and the idea that knowing your enemy's secret is often far more valuable if they don't know that you know their secret. Holmes unwittingly compromises this information and the whole plan goes down the toilet as Moriarty informs the relevant criminal parties of the situation. To return to Irene Adler for just a moment, I didn't like the idea either that she was in league with Moriarty, an equally apparent problem in the current Hollywood film series. Irene Adler is presented in "A Scandal in Bohemia" as an independent, resourceful and principled woman, and while she may be ethically flexible, she wouldn't ally herself with someone as blatantly evil and dangerous as Moriarty. Putting yourself between Holmes and Moriarty goes completely against the strong instincts of self-preservation and self-protection which are so fundamental to her character.
One other thing I would mention is that the resolution to the cliffhanger of "The Great Game" is, like all cliffhangers, a bit of a disappointment. Moriarty gets a phone call from Irene Adler and decides to just leave. It's not really clear why. Does he honestly believe that Irene Adler is going to bring about Sherlock's ruination? Seems a bit optimistic. I wonder if the ever-present sniper laser-target which accompanies Moriarty everywhere is going to eventually be revealed as having Colonel Moran at the other end. What else is there? Oh yes. Here's a petty gripe. I believe I mentioned in my reviews for the first series that occasionally Moffat made a few over-eager efforts to appear modern and tech-savvy which come across as clumsy and actually makes him seem more out of touch. That returns here with the overuse of the term "camera-phone". Does anyone call them "camera-phones" these days? Did they ever really call them that? What phones don't have cameras in them these days? Very few, I'd wager. I'm pretty sure if you say "I took a picture on my phone," people aren't staring at each other open-mouthed in bewilderment as asking "What the devil do you mean you took a picture on your phone?" so that you have to reply "It's a camera-phone," and they all relax and go "Oh I see, you should be more specific young man." Yet in this the term is used repeatedly, rather than just "phone", as if having a camera in your phone is a novelty, and Irene points out the added value of her phone by specifying that it is a "camera-phone". Really, it's quite unnecessary. I'm surprised they don't feel the need to call all the phones "mobile phones" as well just in case we think everyone's got land lines running up their trousers. I suppose also in fairness to Ms Adler I ought to mention that we almost see Sherlock without his gear on too when he almost walks off without even a sheet in the middle of Buckingham Palace. I'm sure fangirls go crazy over that sort of thing but it makes eyes roll in my head. Pointless. Juvenile. Unnecessary.
Mycroft saying "Oh shut up Mrs Hudson!" has got to be one of the funniest moments of the series.
I've maybe been a little over-harsh in this review but I think the Holmes purist in me got control. It was certainly a very entertaining episode with a good mystery, some excellent dialogue, a few nice deductions and pretty consistent pacing. Yet I'm rather dubious about the depiction of Irene Adler and whether there was really any point in exploring Sherlock's affective side, and if so I wonder if there weren't better characters and situations than the one with "The Woman" which could have been used to such an end. In this regard, John was altogether underused. In a more general sense Mycroft was perhaps slightly overused. All sexual politics aside, however, the performances were as good as ever, the plot was engaging and it's looking like the second series will maintain the standards of the first.

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