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Wednesday, 28 of October of 2020

Sherlock – “A Scandal in Belgravia”

I dislike being outnumbered. It makes for too much stupid in the room.”

Sherlock titlecardEugh. Just…eugh.

There’s plenty to like in the return of Sherlock, the smart puzzlebox of a BBC show. Cumberbatch and Freeman (though the latter is underutilized here, I feel) remain immensely likeable and entertaining in their respective roles, and the show’s use of graphic overlays and audio accompaniments to demonstrate Holmes’ mental processes remains top notch. The twists and turns of the plot moves along briskly and assuredly, leaving me feeling fine with the episode from a structural standpoint.

But, oh someone’s god, what the hell is this mess of Irene Adler? And the resurfacing of the Arab stereotypes (does someone have a scimitar fetish?!) right at there at the end?

I mean, putting aside the rather blatant ripoff of CSI:, updating Adler was going to be necessary, and I was eager, based on their slight tweaking of Watson and Moriarty to fit the current times (I’ve decided that Sherlock‘s Moriarty, instead of being a professor, is actually a graduate student whose dissertation has driven him to criminal activity) to see how they reconfigured Adler, one of the few people (gender qualifications be damned) to outsmart the brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

This was not, exactly, what I had in mind.

While Sherlock‘s misogyny was largely limited to Holmes being an ass to Molly (which carries through here), we could chalk it up to Holmes’ general social ineptitude. Doyle’s Holmes had little problem expounding on general uselessness of women in the stories and novels. They were, according to Holmes, emotional, overwrought, lacking in rational thought, and were even worse off if the women were from the country or were gypsies (triply damned if all three).

The one bright spot in all of this was Irene Adler, who is (supposedly) threatening to blackmail the King of Bohemia with a compromising picture, outwits Holmes using his beloved disguise tactics and absconds with the picture to America as a form of protection. She leaves a picture of herself in the hiding place, a picture Holmes decides to keep as a testament to “The Woman.” (You can read the complete text of “A Scandal in Bohemia” here).

Here, Adler is a similar position, using her position as a professional dominatrix to get compromising photos of powerful people as a form of protection from the people who pay her for sexual scoldings. Rather pleasantly, little is made of her profession by other characters, with hardly any degradation of her choice in work. Sadly, the episode can’t bear having Adler in a position of strength for very long and quickly tosses her from a femme fatale into a damsel in distress. Some of this comes off as part of her Moriarty’s plans, but in the end, she’s quickly left defenseless and without an escape route from those who would harm her.

All of this creates the narrative momentum that the episode is really concerned with. Sherlock,  after being infantilized for much of the episode, through his own behavior (refusing to wear his trousers) and by others, is able to reassert his masculinity, both physically and intellectually by both humbling and saving Adler at the end of the episode, closing off Adler as an equal and instead as someone prone to the “chemical defect” of “sentiment”.

Equally distressing is that Adler doesn’t seem to have her own agenda. Instead, she appears to be somehow, somewhat in league with Moriarty. Given her role in sparing Holmes and Watson from being blown to smithereens at the start of the episode, and resolving the cliffhanger from last season. Having her be a full-fledged partner of Moriarty would be interesting, but the show instead has Adler be someone Moriarty sought out and is, essentially, using in his game (whatever that may be; we’ll probably find out in the finale of this season) against Holmes.

In the end, it doesn’t much feel like this incarnation of Adler warrants the salute (if it is that) of “The Woman” Holmes ascribes to her. It feels more like a backhanded compliment, a way of saying, “Yes, you, a woman, did outsmart me for a while, largely because I was distracted by your lady parts and soft skin, but after giving into your more feminine instincts, you eventually kneeled before my intellect, as all must.”

Which brings me to the last point about the episode, that I’ll spend only a few words on. The gay panic in this episode is painful. Yes, the show’s had some winking fun at making the homoerotic subtext of the partnership between Holmes and Watson into text (in the everyone thinks they’re a couple), but here it just escalates to unnecessarily high levels. Adler identifies as gay, and whether she’s telling the truth or not doesn’t matter, since by the end of the episode she’s fallen completely in (I’m assuming) non-platonic love with Holmes. Chain this with Watson’s role in the episode largely being regulated to denying that he is a gay and the episode’s general emphasis on sex, it is quick to shut down the idea of anything but a heterosexual relationship being the ultimate choice.

All in all, the episode’s plot provided a number of nice layers of political intrigue (the Coventry aspect was particularly nice) that I always appreciate, and the few times Holmes and Watson were together, particularly their brief fight scene (“I killed people!” “You’re a doctor!” “I had bad days!”) demonstrated the reasons why I liked the show in the first place. Hopefully, with them off to the moors for the next episode, the show will be sharper than it was here.

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