The long-awaited return of the popular 21st century Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson hit America tonight with the season 2 premiere of Sherlock titled “A Scandal in Belgravia.” In addition to giving us this splendid image of Benedict Cumberbatch un-ironically rocking the infamous Holmes deerstalker, the hour and a half episode served up a variety of new twists and turns. Most specifically it revealed that this version of Sherlock Holmes not only has a contemporary Moriarty, but the adventuress Irene Adler, too!
Find out who was naked (everyone) and what we thought of the return of Sherlock in our very spoiler-filled review below.
Tons of spoilers! You’ve been warned!
The new episode picks up where “The Great Game” left us: in an empty indoor pool, Jim Moriarty has Sherlock and John covered with the telltale laser-dots of snipers while Sherlock trains a single gun on the plastic explosives lying on the ground between them. Sherlock makes to set off the bomb with a gunshot, but soon Jim gets a phone call. Whatever information the call conveys, it convinces Jim Moriarty to call off his snipers and leave the pool with the knowledge he and Sherlock will be crossing paths again.
The episode then gives us a fun sort of montage both depicting a bunch of Sherlock’s new cases and the link between his growing celebrity and the popularity of John’s blog. Not surprisingly, the blog is good for business and John and Sherlock are getting photographed more often in the papers. (The donning of the deerstalker is used as gag here because Sherlock is trying to hide his face from newspaper cameras.) During this sequence we see John writing up several cases which contain clever nods to the Conan Doyle canon: A case about comic book experts reporting on comic book things coming to life is called “The Geek Interpreter” while another case is called “The Speckled Blonde.” (Referencing “The Greek Interpreter” and “The Speckled Band” respectively.) Of course, the episode as a whole is referencing “A Scandal in Bohemia” the famous Holmes story which featured the blackmailer Irene Adler.
When the story gets going, we’re properly introduced to Irene Adler. This 21st century version is a professional dominatrix, but also someone who collects compromising photographs of some of her more famous clients. Soon Sherlock and John find themselves whisked to Buckingham Palace where Mycroft Holmes informs them they need to recover compromising photographs of someone who Holmes deduces is a member of the Royal Family. What’s relevant is Irene Adler is not asking for money at first, deepening the mystery. Eventually Sherlock and John confront Irene Adler. She already knows they’re coming, however, and greats Sherlock while totally in the nude. (This nicely references an earlier scene in which Sherlock is wrapped only in a bed sheet while taking a meeting at Buckingham Palace.)
As in the original story, Sherlock uses the false alarm of a fire to deduce the location of the all-important camera phone containing the compromising photographs. But things are more complex than that. Soon, American secret agents rush in on the scene and it seems Irene Adler has more than just compromising photographs in her possession. A lot of people want her dead. Throughout all of this, we get the sense that Sherlock has seriously gotten his feathers ruffled by her and though they briefly work together to thwart the Americans, she eventually turns the tables on him, drugs him, and gets back her cameraphone. During this fracas, Adler also screws with Sherlock’s phone resulting in a custom text-message alert for herself. Whenever Irene Adler texts Sherlock an orgasmic “Mmm-ah!” fills the air. Cute? Sexy? Creepy? All of the above.
Time passes and we witness Christmas in Baker Street. Sherlock is rude to everyone, specifically poor Molly, the girl who works in the police morgue who clearly had the hots for him in the last run of the show. John Watson is wearing a terrible Christmas sweater worthy of Ron Weasley, and Mrs. Hudson declares it to be the only day Sherlock and John have to be nice to her. However, this heartwarming scene is broken up by the news that Irene Adler is dead. Mycroft and Sherlock see a body in a morgue with a face mangled beyond recognition, but Sherlock identifies the corpse as Adler by looking at her body (since he committed her measurements to memory.) Sherlock also believes Adler to be dead at this point because she sent him her cameraphone, something she would never do if she were alive. However, it all turns out to be a scam as Watson is later told by Adler herself that she is really alive. The information on her phone is way bigger than photographs, and the true conspiracy of the story starts to be made clear.
Irene Adler’s super badass cameraphone actually contains a secret coded e-mail she obtained from a government official who was one of her “clients.” In Adler’s presence, Sherlock decodes this as information about a specific airline flight, flight 007 to be specific. Mysteriously, he’s given a ticket by his brother for this flight only to find a plane full of corpses. Mycroft reveals the British and U.S. governments had populated this plane full of already-dead people because they knew terrorists were planning to blow it up. More importantly, both governments were planning on letting it happen to make the terrorists think they had gained a tactical advantage. But, the show’s off, because Irene Adler transmitted the information to Moriarty who in turn transmitted it to the terrorists. A super-secret multi-government hoax has been ruined by Irene Adler, and all because Holmes temporarily trusted her. After this deathblow has been served to Mycroft and the government, Adler starts demanding more accommodations or she’ll go public with the other government secrets she’s got in her awesome phone. Cruelly, she asserts she never had a thing for Sherlock and that Moriarty had informed her how to “play him.”
But all is not lost, because our Sherlock knows the truth and realizes Adler did sort of have a thing for him and that the elusive passcode on her phone is S.H.E.R! She liked him after all. Holmes wins, albeit briefly. The episode closes with John and Mycroft meeting in the café below Baker Street where Mycroft tells John that Adler has been beheaded in the Middle East. Both decide to lie to Sherlock about her death and instead convince him she’s involved in a witness protection program in the States. In the final scenes, Sherlock appears to buy this, but then the action cuts to Adler’s execution, and it is revealed that in her “final moments” none other than Sherlock Holmes was there to rescue her.
I’ve got real mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and everyone else in this awesome cast back on Baker Street and delighting the hell out of me. But, I was really irked by the writing decision to transform this 21st century version of the iconic character of Irene Adler into a sex worker. In my view, this was a reductive move and somehow made the character more sexist than her original Conan Doyle incarnation. Her overt va-va-voom stuff also bugged me because we’re told it’s totally throwing off Sherlock’s awesome deductive mojo, which doesn’t really make sense. He looks at her and question marks appear on the screen like in a Looney Tunes cartoon. I appreciate the idea that this version of Holmes may very well be a total virgin, ergo the use of sexuality on him might be crippling, but it comes across a little cartoony. Further, dominatrix stuff and sex for the sake of sex isn’t really edgy, and comes across as pandering here to me. I imagine Moffat thinking, “oh this is what the kid’s like.” Personally, I would have much rather had Adler obtaining her secrets in another, trickier and smarter way, rather than taking her clothes off. Actress Lara Pulver is totally awesome in the role, but the “sexiness” of the character was sort of taken away for me by having her be so in your face about sex. In short, it all came across a little porny rather than interesting. I was also pleased to see Jane Clare Jones from The Guardian making an even more detailed argument on this point.
However, Sherlock is back, which is good. Though I really disliked the characterization of Adler in the story, the story itself was compelling, funny, fast, exciting, unique, while at the same time being perfectly true to Sherlock Holmes. The Christmas at Baker Street scene was excellently done by all the actors, and Mrs. Hudson really shined in this episode. The scene in which we realize the bond between Mrs. Hudson and Sherlock and the important and badass team they make up is bold and touching. Meanwhile, Freeman and Cumberbatch have perfected their chemistry to the point where you could just watch an hour of them bickering and it would be satisfying. The direction and pacing are also exciting, and revelation of what is really going on truly haunting. It also genuinely feels as though the fictional universe of this Holmes has gotten a little bigger with the inclusion of other nations, which is not at all unwelcome. If the Moffat/Gatiss penned version of Sherlock Holmes is truly the new James Bond, then bring it on! But maybe next time, he doesn’t need such a Pussy Galore-esque antagonist. (I mean, at least Pussy Galore was a pilot for crisssakes.)
Either way, the episode was fun, and I’m looking forward to Hound next week!
Am I a bad person if I say that, despite some well-pointed out problems, I’m not really upset by this episode at all? Maybe. Even so, I was tickled to death for the full hour and a half. Not that all the fun entirely makes up for the dominatrix angle on Adler, but I enjoyed Pulver all the same, who I thought did a really excellent job with what she was given. In the end, I feel that the real issue with her occupation was that it was just plain uncreative. It doesn’t take much effort to say, “well, she’s sexy and manipulative and lots of people fall for her I know, she can be a BD/SM sexpot!” I did appreciate that she was gay (outside of her attraction to Sherlock, which just made the choice of having her prefer women more interesting), but since it wasn’t explored at all, that was basically a throwaway as well, in addition to adding to the unhelpful “lesbians want to have power over all men” stereotype.
As to the thought that Sherlock has never had sex at all; it’s typical to see the character portrayed as entirely asexual, or asexual with exceptions (Adler usually being the only one), but the idea that he simply doesn’t have the makeup to handle it, and has therefore never tried it, is an emotionally interesting take. Especially when you see how cruelly other people treat him for it in Mycroft’s snide remarks, or Moriarty’s nicknames.
Outside of that, Sherlock has begun putting its fringe characters to much better use, something that practically no incarnation of the stories has bothered to do. The enjoyable thing about figures like Mrs. Hudson and even Lestrade (who has contradictory traits in Doyle’s stories) is that they have very little characterization whatsoever, making them open for a great deal of interpretation. And we’ve all seen the silently-suffering Mrs. Hudson, or the scolding irate Mrs. Hudson, but when have we ever seen the loving, saavy Mrs. Hudson who’s braver than brave and would do anything for her dear lodgers? Where has this woman been all my life? She’s spectacular.
The further exploration of the Holmes brothers’ relationship in this case was handled with a deft, if at times chilling, hand. We start to get a greater picture of that family bond, the sense that Mycroft raised Sherlock, and might even be responsible for foisting this “don’t care about people, it doesn’t help” attitude on his little brother. We see people handling drug addiction the way they would in the modern world: whereas Watson simply berated Holmes’ use of cocaine in the original stories, we get to see Mycroft calling John, informing him that it’s a “danger night,” that he can’t leave Sherlock’s side. We know that John and Mrs. Hudson have raided the flat before looking for Sherlock’s hidden stashes. (We also now know that Sherlock has a sock index. Of course he does.)
And even with all the damaging parts to these relationships, we see that Sherlock — without wanting or intending to — is building himself a family of sorts. That’s what I’m invested in. Can’t wait to see what next week brings.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Tor.com on January 5, 2012.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He eliminates the impossible and replaces it with a gin and tonic whenever possible.
Emily Asher-Perrin is the Editorial Assistant for Tor.com. She hopes that she, too, will one day have a heirarchy of dressing gowns.