Sherlock in Retrospect: A Scandal in Belgravia
By David Selby.
“My brother has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?”
A Scandal in Bohemia was a strange novella in that it featured very little time for interaction between the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. In spite of the length of the story and its one-off nature, however, Bohemia went down as a notable classic in the Conan Doyle series because of its rare suggestions. Irene Adler was painted as the one – and only – woman (particularly controversial during the prejudicial time in which it was written) ever to outsmart Sherlock Holmes.
A Scandal in Belgravia, on the other hand, is an unparalleled masterpiece. It ‘borrows’ the key details of the plot from the original (the initial visit of Irene Adler, the photographs and the power-play, the fire alarm) but makes its own formidable imprint. It is, thus, a sophisticated piece of writing with an impressive social and political awareness.
Irene Adler (or ‘The Dominatrix’) is an example of how Sherlock has been ‘modernised’; more is made of the romance and the details of the character are more sexually explicit than in the original. Debatably, it makes the character more recognisable, because it is both her façade(s) and her ‘heart’ (as described by the eponymous protagonist) that become tangible entities throughout the narrative. Irene’s desire to ‘flirt’ with Holmes becomes an unhealthy obsession – harking back to the cabbie’s suggestion in A Study in Pink: “Who’d be a fan of Sherlock Holmes?” Clearly, Adler associates herself with the ‘intellectuals’ (the likes of Holmes and Moriarty) – she has a level of involvement in social affairs, but considers herself above them and her motives are for her own satisfaction. The only contrast (but a significant one) between her and the other ‘geniuses’ of the series is that she looks up to another character; her daring, fearless nature eventually leading to her making Holmes aware of her love for him – and, in turn, catalysing her own downfall.
Holmes, meanwhile, also begins to show (albeit briefly) a fraction of his true colours. Watson is seen as the ‘eyes’ of the audience; also acting as the narrative voice of Conan Doyle’s series. Yet despite the aforementioned being the audience-surrogate, it is Holmes who we feel for this week; a character whose sudden ability to elicit sympathy comes as a shock to the viewer. His unseemly comment to Molly is another way through which writer Steven Moffat conveys the softer, more ‘human’ facet of the character; apologising – a small (arguably unsatisfactory, after his treatment of her) gesture, but one which changes Molly’s perspective indefinitely. Holmes is benevolent and, to an extent, gentle; his superciliousness vastly diminished by Adler’s matching intellect. Yet still he makes calculations; still he deceives and plays his own game (Adler’s faked death can be seen as a foreshadowing to Holmes’ later on – the events of Holmes’ life always somehow being on a larger scale). As Mrs Hudson remarks: “He’s Sherlock. How will we ever know what goes on in that funny old head?”
The subplot of the CIA and the terrorists is memorable on its own, not least because it gives Mycroft a chance to shine. With the protagonist and each of the periphery characters giving their finest performances, the storyline itself is enhanced. Moffat scripts some astonishingly remarkable moments of dialogue (“When we first met you told me that disguise is always a self-portrait—how true of you. The combination to your safe, your measurements. But this, this is far more intimate. This is your heart. And you should never let it rule your head. You could have chosen any random number and walked out of here today with everything you worked for. But you just couldn’t resist it, could you? I’ve always assumed that love is a dangerous disadvantage. Thank you for the final proof”) – not to mention a haunting use of foreshadowing (“They wouldn’t let us see Granddad when he was dead”). Holmes’ treatment of Nielson after he has captured a (beautifully-acted) Mrs Hudson begins to show how much he cares for his mother-like landlady. The passcode for the phone is an undeniably clever twist which somehow manages to avoid being clichéd.
Holmes and Adler have a charming relationship; however a large portion of the episode’s success is thanks to additional factors, such as the directing by Paul McGuigan and the Fabian Wagner’s imposing use of cinematography. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed the series’ soundtrack, this one particularly stands out and adds to the atmosphere of the piece (I’d recommend giving Sherlocked or The Woman a listen if you get the chance).
The ending is amusingly poignant, in a way. Adler acknowledges her defeat and yet Holmes astounds the viewer with another act of compassion. As he chuckles away about ‘the Woman’, we are left to wonder: what really happened to Irene Adler?
A Scandal in Belgravia is everything you could wish for and more. It is a suitably adult, inspiring and all-round brilliant episode of television, stemming from refined, engaging script by Steven Moffat.
Catch up on the other articles in this series:
- Sherlock in Retrospect: A Study in Pink
- Sherlock in Retrospect: The Blind Banker
- Sherlock in Retrospect: The Great Game