Now, if this isn’t the perfect way to start 2012, I don’t know what is.
What with this episode being so elaborate, so twisty-turny and beautiful, I hardly know where to start. This is amazingly done television, and A Scandal in Belgravia has set out to prove—and has succeeded—that waiting 18 months for Series 2 has been monumentally worth it. There is so much brains, so much joy, so much sheer love for Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation and for this world of characters that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have created that just shines through every bit on screen. The script, which is incredibly tight, incredibly dense and, as per, wonderfully witty, absolutely bloody hilarious, and emotionally demanding; and that has been put on screen by Paul McGuigan, and filled with life by a stunning central cast of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, Una Stubbs, Louise Brealey, and Rupert Graves, and in this episode the powerful guest appearance of Lara Pulver with such enormous effort, skill, and heart. It’s these people that make the programme, and I think Sherlock will go down in history as one of the finest adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and one, if not the best drama production of a long, long time. It spells devotion, and I don’t think anyone could help themselves and not be drawn to that, not be drawn into this world, and not come to love these characters and the stories that they tell. There is murder at the gallop—murder by boomerang, to be precise!—but it is only decoration, as are the twists and the turns and the charade. Decoration to a power play that shall remain unrivalled for many, many generations.
Spoilers under the cut.
It has been a while since we last saw Sherlock, John, and Moriarty in that pool, and after a short rehash of what happened on that fateful day, we dive right back into the cliffhanger. Sherlock aims. John gulps. Jim stares.
And then the Bee Gees start singing Stayin’ Alive, and the apocalypse is put on hold. Just so.
All possible scenarios have been imagined, not just by me, over these many months, and then a phone call and a ring tone that I now can’t get out of my head save the day. OF ALL THINGS, MOFFAT. OF ALL THINGS. Stayin’ aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiivee…
Irene Adler has played the first trump of many to lure Moriarty away from Sherlock for a while—because, well, not just Daddy has enough now. She wants to play with Sherlock, so she uses one of the many secrets stashed away in her phone to tempt Moriarty away, because who would kill the only consulting detective in the world when there are governments to topple?
Moriarty: “So, if you have what you say you have, I will make you rich. If you don’t, I’ll make you into shoes.”
Oh, you wonderful creepy bastard.
I don’t think I’ve laughed this much anywhere throughout Series One. I could go on quoting the entire thing, because the dialogue and what the actors—Martin and Benedict, especially—have done with it is the most amazing I’ve seen, I think, EVER. The giggling at the Palace, the ashtray, Mycroft as the Queen, the “I always hear ‘punch me in the face’ when you’re talking, but it’s usually subtext,” the Hatman and Robin (and the nod to the stir the two have caused on the Internet in the fact that John’s scribblings now actually provide a source for income as well as unwelcome fame), the … everything. I can’t and I won’t quote everything I might like to, because then this entry will be three feet long. Just know that the hilarity was received and appreciated.
After that, everything’s a bit of a blur, and it’s months that pass within a few minutes on our screens, during which we see John and Sherlock going about their business, solving cases, John blogging about them and Sherlock sticking his nose in over the backrest of John’s armchair in the most adorable of ways (“‘The Geek Interpreter’? What’s that?”). Their tentative relationship as we have seen it in The Great Game, when they were getting closer but still trying to find their footing, still at odds with what the other person was coming to be in their lives, has now become a tight bond, with a certainty about the regular way things work, the way they work, as a team, as friends, as flatmates, as the opposite poles of a spectrum that still couldn’t imagine being anywhere else but with each other; even though John’s in Dublin and Sherlock doesn’t actually notice he’d gone out. Again. Sherlock is the adventure that John craves and needs within the mundance existence that he is forced to lead, and John is the one steady thing, the reassurance, the home that Sherlock can hold on to while the outside world is closed off and full of mysteries, too many to solve at once. Many people think that because John is knowable, is decipherable, John is boring, but… would Sherlock be with someone who’s boring him? Of course he wouldn’t. John is open and dependable in a world that is closed off to Sherlock, and inaccessible. John is the every-day proof that his abilities are working. Sherlock is attracted to mystery, alright—but only because he wants to solve it, because he hates things that he cannot crack open and read. He wants to solve all the mysteries and file them away to make sense of the way he sees the world, because no-one else does, and John is the one person he doesn’t have to explain that to. John lets himself be read and deciphered and known because he understands that Sherlock needs it, he likes it, and that makes him anything but boring. It makes him extraordinary.
Sherlock: “Pass me over.”
John: “Alright, but there is a mute button, and I will use it.”
That’s why Sherlock turns to John so bewilderedly as Irene is sitting on his lap with nothing on but lipstick and a fake priest’s collar between her teeth: he cannot read Irene, at least not yet, and he can’t imagine why. Are his faculties of deduction failing him? He looks back at John, and immediately all the details jump out at him with immaculate certainty, but when he tries again with Irene, he comes up empty. That, of course, intrigues him, but it also drives him up the wall. Now, Irene… Irene Adler is unique. She is The Woman, the only one to ever impress Sherlock Holmes so thoroughly. There has been a lot of anxious debate about her character before the series began, especially with the two Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law (the second, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, having been released just a few weeks ago), in which Holmes is shown to have a romantic or, at least, physical relationship with Irene, in the background. Fans were anxious Moffat and Gatiss would do the same in the series, because most—me included—just don’t think that Sherlock likes her enough to let go of his asexuality, and because, maybe absurdly, sometimes it feels as though too deep a bond between The Detective and The Woman would take away from the special status of John, the first to get Sherlock to actually care, although Mark Gatiss said during a Q&A session that this episode would be about “Sherlock and love, not Sherlock in love.” It is a testament to the fans’ intelligence and the way the two care about the characters that this episode is so breathtakingly ambigious and no-one is right and no-one is wrong.
I think that Sherlock understands human emotion very well. Irene accuses him of not knowing anything about love, but I think he knows a lot, even beyond the chemistry behind it all that he nonchalantly throws back in her face. It’s just that he doesn’t understand the concept in relation to himself. He has accepted that he cares for John and that John somehow feels the same about him, but I think that every other person he stops to accept as well has to be re-negotiated, the odds of Sherlock being able to counter the “disadvantage” have to be assessed, before he can let them in. John humanizes him a lot over those months, so much so that, even though Sherlock still doesn’t know when to back off with his deductions, he does ask for Molly’s forgiveness when he embarresses her at the impromptu Christmas party—with all the people who are, in essence, his family, except Mycroft; even though he didn’t invite them, John probably did, but I still find it heartwarming that Lestrade is there, because, dammit, he does care—and kisses her cheek to say thank you, which, as is evidenced in John’s stare, is something very rare, indeed. He has to understand why Irene bothers with him, and I think that what he comes to feel for her is as much triumph at solving her riddle, as it is appreciation for someone who has dared to go up against everyone else in a fight they should not have had a chance of winning. What did Sherlock want to be when he was little, a pirate? Mycroft is right—what does that tell us about his heart?
Is Sherlock really bewitched by her at some point, or was he always just playing her, as he reveals to have done at least once, when he felt her pulse while she thought she was seducing him? I don’t know. I’m not sure if Sherlock knows, even though he apparently felt the need to save her from being beheaded by terrorists. John thinks he knows, he even offered up his own middle name for the baby. Does Sherlock want the phone because it represents his triumph…
“This is your heart and you should never let it rule your head. […] I’ve always assumed love was a dangerous disadvantage, thank you for the final proof;”
or her life that he saved, her heart that belonged to him? I think he realized very early on that she really, really liked him, and he had to figure out how to respond to that, same as he had once decided to simply ignore and then exploit it in Molly’s case. Before he met John, there wouldn’t have been a question, but now, there is a choice to be made. He makes it with Molly for a second time when he apologizes, and he has to make it with Irene, has to decide what she could be to him if emotions did hold that kind of imperative significance to him which it does to other people. Why should he eat if he’s not hungry? Well, perhaps because it’s worth it. Is Irene worth it? He does act completely foolishly by decoding that email for her, but what exactly is he caught up in? His need to impress her, a woman, or his general showing off?
Was he mourning for her when he thought she was dead, or was he mourning for a puzzle he may have a chance to solve now, but not to rub her nose in the fact that he did? I think the fact that he says to Mycroft, “Do you ever think that there’s something wrong with us?” indicates that, with Irene, it’s not really his heart that is mourning, it’s his head. If this were John on the table, or Mrs Hudson, the mask would slip, because he would let it, as would Mycroft if this were his little brother on a slab. Thus, they both lie and deceive in that moment, again achieving that sense of ambiguity concerning Sherlock and Irene. Their rules might hold in the face of the Commonwealth and ordinary people, but sometimes, even though generally caring is not an advantage, sometimes you can turn the odds in your favour and get away with it. As Mark Gatiss said, this episode is about Sherlock and love, and I think Irene is as much a magnificent woman as she is a symbol of those concepts that Sherlock has to grapple with as he reevaluates his humanity. I find that, by deciding to go after her and save her, Sherlock makes a stand not necessarily for Irene, but for the concept of caring as one that he accepts. A lesson that he has learned, a lesson that began when John stepped out of that swimming pool cubicle so many months ago.
The funny thing is how it all comes back to John, not just because, as it seems, the entire show ships Sherlock/John like only the Great Dragon himself could ship Merlin/Arthur, but also because nothing Sherlock might possibly feel for Irene takes away from the fact that John always comes first: he was the first. The first to make Sherlock make a choice, not between his head and his heart, but to let the two run together, to make exceptions to his rules. The simple fact that Sherlock only very subtly, but visibly panics when the killers threaten to kill John in Irene Adler’s living-room, the fact that John would do anything for Sherlock, would ask his now ex-girlfriend—Jeanette, the boring teacher—to leave so he could make sure that Sherlock won’t harm himself (really, though, girl, you want your boyfriend to leave his flatmate alone when all those close to said flatmate are afraid he might try to commit suicide? Yeah, get out!), and that he would be the one chasing Irene Adler around the bloody world, should she choose to cause Sherlock any more of what John thinks is heartbreak, is illustration enough, and cause enough for just about everyone to tell John, ‘No, really, though, you’re married.’
John: “We’re not a couple.”
Irene: “Yes, you are.”
J: “Now who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes, but for the record, if anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.”
I: “Well, I am. Look at us both.”
Sherlock has inserted himself so completely in their lives even though he shouldn’t have—string of slightly rubbish girlfriends, sexual preference, who gives a damn about that when the person you’re looking at is so completely dazzling and you’re undeniably, platonically in love with them? Brainy is the new sexy; and you don’t have to be a married couple to act and feel like one when the only difference is that you’re not having sex with one another, anyway (just as you don’t have to be a family by blood, which I’ll come back to later).
John and Sherlock at Buckingham Palace is a prime example of how these two bring out the best and the worst in each other, and how they’re perfectly fine with the fact that hardly anyone will ever get it. From, “Are you wearing any pants?” to “And that’s as modest as he gets,” that sequence serves fantastically to show how seamlessly they work, how attuned they are to each other, and how fearless they are in the face of anything, just as long as they’re in it together, even when John’s beating him up.
“You want to remember, Sherlock, I was a soldier. I killed people.”
“You were a doctor!”
“I had bad days!”
Since we’re stuck on the caring lark, as Sherlock likes to call it, let’s talk about the family. There is one thing you need to know about 221B Baker Street. If you mess with Mrs Hudson, you might as well be dead.
Mrs Hudson, we shall have you know, rocks. She loves her boys and they love her, which is just as simply illustrated by the fact that they all have dibs on each other’s fridge: Mrs Hudson can tut about the thumbs, and Sherlock can go and pinch a pastry. Not to mention that she’s done so many things to protect the two at incredible danger to herself throughout the canon, not to mention that atrocious husband of hers, that it’s only right that she’s finally getting the appreciation she deserves. She hid the phone. in. her. bra. COME ON.
Mycroft: “Oh, shut up, Mrs Hudson!”
Sherlock & John: “MYCROFT!”/”OI!”
Well, at least they didn’t throw him out of the window. There, you really see Sherlock’s mask slip: he deduces that someone attacked Mrs Hudson and dragged her upstairs, and by the time he’s finished piecing it together, there is a snarl on his face that betrays his fury. God help you should you ever see that face.
When it’s all over, he hugs her close to his side, and the smile in John’s eyes is heartwarming and, more than spending Christmas together, this moment symbolizes the Baker Street Family.
In other family terms, Mycroft has a much bigger role in this episode than in the previous series, which is fabulous. He may be the British government, but he’s also an older brother, very protective of his younger sibling, and constantly afraid of letting him down. As much reason as he has to be angry at Sherlock, as much as he makes it appear as though Sherlock owes him something, he just wants to make sure that he’s alright, and he’s genuinely sorry at the end, when he apologizes to Sherlock for dragging him into the Irene Adler case. He goads Sherlock with his inexperience at the Palace, but he really is shocked to find that he may have caused his brother hurt. If John and Mrs Hudson are Sherlock’s exceptions, then Sherlock and, just as importantly, the trust he has in John Watson to keep his brother safe are Mycroft’s only concession towards the concept of caring. He calls John when there might be a Danger Night coming, and this sequence in which he calls Baker Street from the morgue is as powerful relationship-wise as it is to show how incredibly dense this script is: within a few sentences, it’s all there, the difficulties that come with living with an addict. It’s hard, and you could talk about it for half an hour, but they do it within a minute. That’s how well this family works, and I can hardly imagine what the Ice Man will go through after Reichenbach, when he has to take care of John. I bet you a dollar he won’t be the Ice Man anymore.
Thank you, Sherlock cast and crew, for making this a truly memorable and amazing series opener. Sherlock Series Two is shaping up to be a revelation, and following the quality that was Series One, all I can do is bow.
Next: The Hounds of Baskerville.