Notice what wasn’t included in my titular list? Professional scolding. There’s a big hole at the center of “A Scandal in Belgravia” and it’s shaped like Irene Adler – The Woman the episode is supposedly about, except Steven Moffat doesn’t seem as interested in her as everyone else does. She appears only in a few scenes; her absence dominates (puns!) the episode more than her presence does, giving way to more important business. Moreso than Irene Adler, this episode is really about the non-romantic relationships in Sherlock’s life: his friendship with John, his fraught sibling relationship with Mycroft and his makeshift family that includes landlady Mrs. Hudson and coworkers Molly Hooper and Greg Lestrade. The relationships and how they define Sherlock’s character are crucial to answering the big questions that the show has already put forth. The first question, as raised by Lestrade in “A Study in Pink,” is whether or not Sherlock is not merely a “great man” but a “good one.” The next, interrelated question, raised by Jim Moriarty in “The Great Game,” is whether or not Sherlock even has a heart that can be burned.
Enter Irene Adler, whose sole purpose is to chip away at Sherlock’s icy façade. Now, I’m not interested in getting into the argument about gender roles and sexual exploitation, which has been the main focus of fan and critical discussion regarding “A Scandal in Belgravia.” The portrayal of women on the show has been problematic, I admit, but I still love this episode. It’s the funniest the show has ever been, the saddest it’s ever been, and the best distillation of what Sherlock is ultimately about: trying to discover what kind of man Mr. Holmes really is.
Mrs. Hudson makes an important pronouncement near the beginning of the episode: “Family is all we have in this world.” Earlier in the show’s run, Sherlock might have taken issue with such an openly sentimental statement, but here we see him reluctantly take his place among a makeshift family of his own. This transition won’t be a smooth one, as best demonstrated by the delightfully awkward Christmas party scene. The party is significant because it marks the first time the series has shown the entire cast in the same place, at the same time. Although John is obviously the one who planned the party, they are all connected through Sherlock and they each care about him in their various ways.
Caring is most painful for poor Molly. Her portrayal as a hapless doormat putting up with Sherlock’s abuse has also received criticism as another example of the show’s damaging sexual politics. Depending on your perspective, she’s either a pathetic victim or a persistent geek girl who can see beneath Sherlock’s prickly surface to offer him unconditional love. Whatever the case, it’s nice to see her stand up for herself and call Sherlock out: “You always say the most horrible things.” Oblivious too many times before, Sherlock seems overwhelmed by the realization that anyone takes what he says to heart. For all of his feigned arrogance, he doesn’t really think people are listening to him and he’s touched when he sees that they do.
Sherlock is good at observing people, but is flummoxed when those same people are staring right back at him. This might be the true reason why Irene Adler’s naked entrance throws him off – not because she isn’t wearing any clothes, but because it’s clear to him that she made the choice solely for his benefit. She knew he was coming and dressed for the occasion. He doesn’t know what to do with that kind of attention. When she calls him sexy, he really doesn’t know how to respond. He thinks he’s invisible, or like a two-way mirror. It shocks him to discover people can actually see him, too. The image of the Great Observer and the way he is forced to recognize himself, in turn, being observed is another interesting thread that runs throughout season two (the “private detective”/”public image” encounter with the paparazzi also drives this home). The struggle with other people’s perceptions fits nicely with Sherlock’s journey toward self-definition as he becomes more socially connected.
Back to family. Is there a better scene in the whole series than Mycroft and Sherlock’s conversation in the morgue? From Mycroft’s offering of a single cigarette (“It’s Christmas”) to Sherlock’s emotional dodge when his brother’s questioning becomes too pointed (“This is low tar”), the scene paints a vague but devastating outline of the Holmes’ boys’ cold upbringing. When Mycroft says, “Caring is not an advantage… Sherlock,” the scolding edge in his voice shows that they’ve had this conversation more than once. Does the sentiment (or lack thereof) come from Mycroft himself, or was it handed down from their parents? Is Sherlock truly a “high-functioning sociopath,” as he describes himself, or has all warmth simply been beaten out of him? Mycroft may turn out to be the true sociopath, molding his brother into his own image because he doesn’t know any other way to live. Despite his throwaway line at teatime (“I’ll be mother”), he inhabits the role of the stern, unfeeling father, while John steps more easily into the nurturing maternal role.
So what about John? Is he just a friend, or a care-taker, a protector, the butt of gay jokes? Sherlock and John have settled into an easy friendship, giggling like schoolboys in Buckingham Palace. They snipe at each other about who has the better website. The two men’s personalities have started to merge in fascinating ways: Sherlock shows compassion toward Molly, and John can’t even tell his own girlfriends apart. Regardless of sexual orientation, they are a couple, as Irene points out.
To sum up, despite the well-worn criticism that people have already leveled at this episode, I thought it was a smart, sweet, funny installment that shows a surprising amount of depth despite the obvious ploys for titillation. Yes, making Irene Adler into a femme fatale dominatrix was a little easy. Making a character gay, only to have her fall in love with a man because he is just too awesome, is a little offensive. And the less said about Irene’s last-minute rescue, the better. I pretend that never happened. But there’s a lot I’ll defend here, even if no one else does. I’ll defend the gratuitous nudity, especially Sherlock’s, because hey –we’re equal opportunity objectifiers here, and also because it seemed like a pretty good inside joke on the part of the writers (Benedict Cumberbatch gets naked all the time in stuff! He just buffed up for Frankenstein!) And I’ll totally defend the groan-worthy “I am SHERlocked” pun because it was the right amount of funny and melodramatic for me. I think the camera-phone was speaking for us all.
Stray Observations (in the AV Club style):
- “I always hear ‘Punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking, but it’s usually subtext.”
- Don’t fuck with Mrs. Hudson, seriously.
- Sherlock has mastered the art of passive-aggressive violin playing.
- For some reason, it really tickles me that when Sherlock says, “Say that again,” John’s first instinct is to say, “You’re right.” Someone has been very well-trained.
- This episode features my favorite visual gag on the show: Sherlock trash-talking a guy who has been sitting behind him the whole time.