Sherlock Sunday 3: A Scandal in Belgravia by Steven Moffat (Motif and Metaphor)

Every time I watch this, I’m astounded all over again at how beautifully this is constructed. (It’s also beautifully directed and acted, but let’s stick to writing.) Rewatching it this time, I was struck by how damn funny the first half is, how light and snarky the dialog and plot are. And then it grows darker, heartbreaking things happen, there’s a magnificent climax and then . . . This is SUCH A GOOD STORY. We could talk about the doppelgänger antagonist again, about writing relationships and not just romantic ones, about characterization and arc, but one of the things this story is especially brilliant at is metaphor, the meaning in the subtext. Metaphor and its stepbrother, motif, sound too grad-school to be any fun, and they too often become heavy-weight story-killers, but handled deftly they can add layers to a story, set up echoes, and generally pull everything together into a unified whole. And Steven Moffat is nothing if not deft. So lets talk about motif and metaphor and the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes.


Motif is easy: it’s anything that’s repeated within a narrative. The shark music in Jaws is a motif; the color red is a motif in The Sixth Sense. Metaphor is almost as easy: it’s a concrete thing that represents an abstract idea. Both metaphor and motif have power, but a metaphor used as a motif is double-barreled subtext. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is studded with metaphoric motifs.

. . . and that’s where I stopped when I was drafting this post and never got back to it, SO I’m putting this up so I can go to the grocery before the snow hits again, and then I’ll come back and talk about specifics of metaphor and motif in the comments. Feel free to start without me and on any topic. ARGH.

Okay, I’m back, I’m fed, and I love this episode.

The thing I love best about it isn’t motif or metaphor, it’s the cataclysmic character change Sherlock goes through because of the impact of Irene. I know there’s a school of thought that says that Irene isn’t as powerful in Moffat’s version as she is in Doyle’s, but I think she’s more powerful: she transforms Sherlock Holmes through the sheer impact of intelligence and daring. He meets his match and she beats him, both figuratively, putting him on the floor, and psychologically, when she blows open his world, destroying his detachment forever. You can’t get the sacrifice he makes in the next episode without Irene stripping him raw in this episode.

That’s why my favorite moment in this episode is when he apologizes to Molly. Before Irene, he could never have understood what he’d just done to Molly. I love the way his new-found empathy makes John and Lestrade and even Molly gape at him when he says, “I’m sorry” and so clearly means it. And that’s followed by his seeing Irene’s present and knowing she must be dead. His vulnerability is so clear that Mycroft offers him a cigarette, a HUGE gesture between these two very controlled men. (I really wonder what Mama Holmes was like.) At the end, when he defeats Irene, he doesn’t do it cooly; there’s passion in every word he says, even though his voice stays steady. And then, having put her on her knees figuratively, he picks up a sword and rescues her when she’s on her knees literally, which is a demonstration not of her weakness but of her power: He’s risked his life and is killing people to save her even though he’s essentially lazy and doesn’t LIKE people; he has to because she’s that essential to his understanding of how the world should work. He outwits her at the end because she cares for him (thus the solvable password), but she owns him in the end because he can’t walk away and let her die. It’s not a healthy relationship, but it is a powerful one, two cold, distant people who have disdain for the rest of the human race, who defeat each other over and over again and yet are inextricably bound to each other.

As a romance writer, I’m amazed every time I watch this episode. There’s incredible sexual tension here but no sex; this is intellectual intercourse. If the most sensitive and powerful sexual organ in the human body is the brain, these two are having the best sex EVER. I love the way Irene deploys sex as a weapon, I love the way Sherlock turns it on her. I love the way she bombards him with sexually coded texts; I love the way he reads every one and never responds until he learns she’s alive, and then says only, “Happy New Year.” I love the way he babbles when she offers him the cryptogram challenge, I love the way she says, “I was just playing a game,” with the plea in her voice that he believe her, that she cares about him. She’s naked in the first scene with him, but for Irene, that’s battle dress. She’s dressed in the climax in Mycroft’s study with him, but she’s never been more naked than she is at the end, in the same way that Sherlock is naked at the palace and invincible, clothed and stripped raw in Mycroft’s study. Clothes have nothing to do with stripping these two bare; they rip every defense from each other in that scene in Mycroft’s study in a true climax in every sense of the word. It’s some of the most masterful writing I’ve ever seen anywhere. (The actors are amazing, too, but we’re talking writing here.)

And then there are the motifs and metaphors. Metaphor, like theme, can be a real story killer, but the way Moffat uses motif, metaphor, and theme in this is so brilliant it actually lifts the story.

So let’s start with an easy motif: the color red. Red means love, danger, evil, death, and above all passion. Seeing red increases respiration and heartbeat; “seeing red” means being overcome by emotion. So all we see of the person who calls Moriarty at the beginning of this episode is her red fingernails, but we know she’s sexual and dangerous. (A nice note of symmetry: Irene’s first action in this story is to call Moriarty; her last action is to text her good-bye to Sherlock and then hand that phone to her executioner.) Irene puts on red lipstick as battle dress; Sherlock shows up at her door with blood spilled deliberately as an assault, to get him in the door. Sherlock, newly schooled in emotion after his meeting with Irene, recognizes the passionate symbolism in Molly’s gift wrap, then sees the same in the gift Irene has left for him, two women offering him sexual love as a gift. Red is threaded through this episode, reinforcing the subtext of passion and its dangers.

A much more interesting motif is nakedness. Irene is naked a lot in this episode but she’s never vulnerable until the end when she’s fully clothed. Irene’s naked body is a weapon she uses; that’s why she calls it her battle dress. She completely disarms John who asks her to put something on, but it’s not her nudity that confounds Sherlock, it’s that she’s stripped herself bare of clues. And yet he should recognize a kindred spirit: he’s just gone to Buckingham Palace in the nude to defy his brother. Mycroft tells him to put his pants on, John asks Irene to get dressed, but Sherlock and Irene know that clothes are irrelevant because they’re not bound by convention or, oddly enough, by sexual feeling. Sherlock may be sexually cold, but Irene is a human iceberg, using the passions of others to gather information and acquire power.

That by itself is interesting; what raises that motif of nakedness to the level of brilliant metaphor is that by the end of this episode, they have stripped each other bare in a much more powerful way: they’ve understood each other intellectually, they’ve seduced each other by flaunting not only their brains but their common disdain for convention, they’ve each recognized that the other is bound by no limits, and their banter and cross-and-double-cross actions are the intellectual foreplay that sets up the climax where Irene rises above him triumphant and on top until he pins her beneath him, destroying everything she’s done in a kind of little death. And even then, they admire each other: she may be the only person who ever beat him, but he is, in turn, the only person who ever beat her. Sherlock tells her he’s defeated her because she’s sentimental, but in the end he keeps her phone, a slave to sentimentality himself.

And that barely scratches the surface of the subtext in “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Start taking apart the metaphors inherent in dominance and submission in this story. The more you unpack that metaphor, the more you find to unpack. It’s just brilliant use of metaphor and motif.

46 thoughts on “Sherlock Sunday 3: A Scandal in Belgravia by Steven Moffat (Motif and Metaphor)

  1. Over the past week I watched this episode four times, mostly to see if it would hold up. Answer: Yes.

    Motif is about repetition—and the meaning that can be created thereby. Here’s a partial list of the repetitions I noticed. As I re-watched, adding to this list became a hunt for the ones I had missed on earlier viewings. Undoubtedly, there are more.

    Sex Motifs, which, in this narrative, are all Power Motifs as well:

    • “Let’s have dinner,” says Irene to SH, repeatedly.
    • “I know what he likes,” says Irene again and again.
    • “X is the new sexy”—brainy, think, and one more(?)
    • Smoking, after seeing “Irene’s” body. SH: “This is low tar.” Mycroft: “Well, you hardly knew her.”
    • “Put your trousers on/Are you wearing any pants?”
    • “We’re both defrocked” pun on “defrocked.”
    • Nakedness and one of its opposites, Disguise—major in this episode. SH and Irene were both naked and were both in disguise, SH as a priest, Irene in her role as dominatrix; Molly in her Christmas dress was disguised, to SH, but to no one else, as a girlfriend; and the corpse on the slab at the morgue was naked, disguised as Irene.
    • The Coat (SH’s): SH is wearing it (he claims it makes him look taller, another disguise), then Irene wears it to cover her nakedness (see above), then it’s hanging on the door of SH’s bedroom.
    • The Sheet: SH wears it to cover his nakedness, both at Baker Street and at Buckingham Palace; SH covers up with it in the dream vision, in which, near the river where the boomerang murder took place, his bed rises up to meet him; Irene is covered with it when she is discovered in SH’s bed; the corpse is covered with a sheet; Irene’s client (“Your Highness”) is lying on a sheet
    • Texting—Irene’s text message alarm, which SH does not change.
    • Infidelity: Lestrade’s wife; Irene and many of her clients, including the “prominent novelist and his wife.”
    • Irene’s whip: used with the client we know as “Your Highness,” pictured on her website pictures, and wielded against SH.

    Violence and Death:

    • Bloody Cheeks: SH, John, Mrs. Hudson, the American thug/burglar/CIA (?) guy.
    • “Tell him you’re alive,” says John to Irene, three times.
    • Corpse—see above.
    • Molly at the morgue—see below.
    • Kneeling—Irene and John when the American thugs break into Irene’s place, and Irene when she’s about to be beheaded.
    • Sherlock as the executioner, who spares Irene, his “client” at this point.

    Family, Friends, and Significant Others (on Christmas!):

    • Lestrade is being cuckolded—his wife and a PE teacher, as SH tells him.
    • John’s sister is not actually “off the sauce,” another SH deduction.
    • Molly’s gift, unexpected, is painfully deconstructed by SH, for which he apologizes.
    • Irene’s gift, also unexpected, is hidden in plain sight on the mantelpiece.
    • “We’re not going to be having Christmas phone calls?…” Mycroft to SH.

    • Mirrors—over SH’s mantelpiece, over Irene’s mantelpiece concealing a safe, and at her dressing table.
    • Make-up: lipstick, eye shadow (battle dress, see above, nakedness).
    • “Deep End”: sign in the swimming pool—Moriarty’s end.
    • “Stayin’ Alive”: Moriarty’s ring tone.
    • Locked/unlocked: Irene’s phone, Irene’s safe, John’s blog counter.

    Series-wide motifs:

    • “Boring,” says Moriarty and SH
    • Things Hidden: In this episode, Irene’s phone in the safe, in SH’s dressing gown pocket, in Mrs. Hudson’s bra, and as a Christmas gift; the information on the phone hidden behind a password.
    • Knowledge Hidden: This is the governing motif of detective fiction.

  2. I finished the post, but there’s so much more to say. I didn’t touch on the feminist/antifeminist stuff here because I wanted to focus on writing, not politics, in the post, but we can take that apart, too. And then there’s the incredibly crunchy protagonist/antagonist conflict here, and a truly beautiful structure, and the excellent use of community, and . . .
    I could write a book on this episode. I think it’s the best thing Moffat has ever written.

  3. I love Mrs. Hudson and Molly. And the Mycroft/SH brother dynamics. The “excellent use of community” in SH, which you are also excellent at creating in your books, would make a great discussion.

  4. I rewatched this episode today in anticipation of this post and I still can’t get over the brilliance of it all.

    Some great one-liners. Just 2 days ago my cousin’s status update was “People don’t go to heaven when they die, they get taken to a special room and burned.”

    The first thing I notice in this ep is control – Mycroft trying to control Sherlock, Sherlock controlling John, John allowing it, John trying to control Sherlock’s bad manners, Irene controlling everybody, Drugged Sherlock out-of-control, Mycroft’s despair at his unravelled plan, … Why? I think because it is when we can’t control something and know that to be true, we are truly vulnerable.

    Next is love. “Someone must love you very much” – Irene because she sees that John avoided marking Sherlock’s face. There’s Molly’s unrequited love and Sherlock’s *immunity* to it. Mycroft’s coolness when he sees the grieving family. Lestrade’s wife and John’s many girlfriends as love gone wrong and close approximation’s of love. And then Irene and Sherlock. She flirts at him. He reads but never reciprocates. They are both affected by the relationship.

    I love the term intellectual intercourse. I get a little giddy when there are smart funny people around. I’m highly intoxicated by intelligence so the “smart is the new sexy” makes it for me.

    Btw – riding crop from ep 1 where Sherlock is beating a corpse/cadaver (which word is correct?) And then Irene and her dextrous use the crop with, well everyone, AND Sherlock.

    Fave bit from the palace- Sherlock steals the ashtray John mentioned.

    1. “I get a little giddy when there are smart funny people around. I’m highly intoxicated by intelligence so the “smart is the new sexy” makes it for me.”

      That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

    2. I’d forgotten about the riding crop in the beginning. And I hadn’t really dug into the control motif; that’s a great catch, thank you.

    3. Nice call on the riding crop! I’ve seen this ep and indecent number of times and completely missed that. 🙂

  5. This is undoubtedly my favorite episode so far, for these reasons and more. That moment at the end, when she hears the sound of that particular ringtone and knows that she is saved–the expression on Irene’s face is sublime. The first time I watched this, I played that tiny scene over and over. So much subtext in a brief scene with hardly anything spoken. Masterful.

    I can’t wait for the new episodes..although only three. Sigh.

      1. They always make us wait, the bastards. Cumberbatch and Freeman are making big movies now and Moffat’s show running Doctor Who, so they have a lot on their plates.
        I remember reading somewhere that Moffat and Gatiss had thought about picking up the characters twenty years later, when they were close in age to the originals, with new actors. I vote Capaldi for Holmes; he should be through with Who by then.
        I did go check to see if the first one of the season 3 is available streaming on Amazon yet, and it isn’t. But they usually wait 24 hours after it screens so . . .
        HUGE envy for people in England who have see the whole new season.

        1. I just checked my iTunes (it’s 9:05a MT) and The Empty Hearse was waiting to be downloaded – woohoo! Legitimacy, here I come! 🙂

  6. Interesting that you referred to Irene as an iceberg; she said that Moriarty told her he calls “the Holmes boys…the iceman and the virgin.” For all their coldness and emotional control, there was a lot of heat (of various kinds) going on in that last scene. Manipulation on all sides, of course, but some real feeling there from both Sherlock and Irene. Every time I watch it, I change my mind on what, or how much, one actually feels for the other. I understand that “brainy is the ne

  7. Sorry, my fingers got ahead of my brain. I understand and agree that “brainy is the new sexy,” but it’s more than that, and yet I couldn’t say that what either of them feels is love in a way I would define it.

    I also love the “clothed/unclothed” thread that runs through the episode. Sherlock’s going to the palace in a sheet I initially took to be stubbornness and childishness, and he and John getting the giggles there just added to that. (When John laughed about Sherlock’s comment about being there to see the Queen, I didn’t take it as mean, necessarily, just that they were already giddy and regressed to the third grade. Then again, who can be meaner than third-graders, so point to you.) It’s also interesting that for Irene to consider nakedness her “battle dress,” she has such fabulous clothes. I imagine she would consider it part of her public persona, but I would cheerfully dig to China with my bare hands for the black dress she wears in the last scene. (Did you know there are entire websites devoted to the wardrobe for this series?! )

  8. I also love that moment when Irene cuts Sherlock to the emotional quick – when she and the Holmes brothers are talking at the end, and she tells Sherlock effectively that she was playing him but the real game was with Mycroft. There’s a momentary look of devastation on Sherlock’s face, and then he lays all her secrets bare. It’s a brilliantly played scene where Sherlock lashes out at Irene, and it’s not an intellectual game when he works out her code – it’s a very emotional revenge, just as her choice of code is emotionally telling, for two people who are all about the head games.

    1. SUCH a case of sibling rivalry here . . . or at least younger-brother syndrome. Absolutely fascinating to see how the dynamics play out between Sherlock and Mycroft (and Cumberbatch and Gatiss). I make the distinction because even though the characters are THERE in the script, it takes actors like C and G (and the whole wonderful cast) to bring them to life — and I’m sure acting choices also shape writing choices as the seasons progress.

  9. NOTE FROM JENNY: There are some minor season three spoilers in here. Nothing huge, but if you’re like me and like to watch your episodes pristine, skip this.

    This episode is all about control, making Irene a dominatrix is simply putting it out there with all the subtly of Vegas neon. Sherlock controls his world intellectually by being the smartest, quickest, most teflon person in the room. Nothing touches him. I’ll have to go back and rewatch (the burdens I bear for this blog!) but I don’t recall Sherlock ever being touched physically by another character until Irene. So the whole Molly apology is simply shocking in both its sincerity *and* its physicality (Moffat’s gift to us Sherlolly shippers ;p). Irene controls people physically first and then intellectually by collecting data as a defense and combining the two to keep her prey off kilter. She completely throws Sherlock for a loop in her domain and then again in his. She even controls Moriarty to a degree by offering him information/leverage (presumably) which leads to his stay of execution of the Baker Street Boys by distracting him (it’s never made clear, to me anyway, if she knows *what* she’s interrupting with her phone call… I like to read it as she does). She’s never not in control until Mycroft’s study when Sherlock uses *what she taught him* to turn the tables. It’s all so beautifully done.

    Also the Baker Street community in this one is so strong, I dare say it’s at its pinnacle. Things start to unravel in Hounds and then completely disintegrate in Fall. In series 3 (NO SPOILERS!), well, there’s a new normal. How can there not be? At any rate, in Scandal we have the Xmas party with everyone (Mycroft on the phone), the post mortem (Sherlock, Molly and Mycroft at Bart’s and John and Mrs H at Baker Street battening down the hatches), and the break-in sequence (my favorite!) with the core group, and and in both cases, they all mesh so tightly together. This is a family, motley though it may be, and everyone has their place in it. Except the “boring teacher”, she has to go. ;p But it’s notable just how “other” Sherlock still is to everyone. Not even Mrs. Hudson is aware if he’s had any relationships of a romantic nature. In Irene he’s met someone who is his intellectual equal and who has managed to slip into his dance space. She’s dangerous, both personally and professionally. What’s not to love? To me this isn’t regular romantic love but rather the meeting of soul mates, whether or not that relationship is ever consummated in the standard form. I think that’s why this episode is so compelling, aside form all the crunchy craft stuff, too. ;p

  10. I love this, for all the reasons already mentioned. I think when they were promoting the second season, the writers called this one a “twisted love story.” Couldn’t agree more. Irene and Sherlock besting each other over and over, and becoming more fascinated with each other while they do it, is such a pleasure to watch. And seeing both of them so exposed, so vulnerable because of what they’ve done to each other is beautiful.

    I wanted to talk about Irene this week. I’ve encountered the opinion that Moffat made her less than she was in Doyle’s story. Not having read “Scandal in Bohemia,” I don’t really know how this compares to the original outside of some cursory Wikipedia surfing. But I don’t agree that Moffat took away her status as “the only woman who beat him.” I think he took that idea and ran with it, made it deeper – this Irene didn’t just outwit him during the case (although she does, multiple times), she forever altered how he views and experiences his relationships with other people. She changed him, as his exposure to Watson and Moriarty did. He follows her across the world to save her from being beheaded and then holds on to that camera phone because he can’t let go of her. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in season three (minor spoiler) is the occasional reference to The Woman, proving she is still on his mind now and then. Only an equal could have that impact on him and mean that much to him.

    A lot of the criticism seems to mention that last scene, where he unlocks her phone and therefore wins. But that comes after she has manipulated him into working out Mycroft’s plan for her. Maybe we should think of it as rounds, and Sherlock wins the last one. I think there are reasons Moffat chose to change that (I believe she gets away completely in the original?) If Wikipedia is right, the original involved blackmail and letters, which we see at the beginning with the photos. But Moffat made Irene’s ultimate goal the blackmail of an entire government, and wrecking the counter-terrorism plan was basically a demonstration of what she was capable of. With stakes like that, yes, Sherlock is going to be the one to win at the very end. But the reason he does win at the end is because they have come as close to romantic love as either of them will ever get and made each other vulnerable.

    As far as Irene telling John she’s gay: I also got the impression she would identify as bi. But sex isn’t something that particularly interests her (she’s like Sherlock that way). She’s more comfortable with the concept than he is on the surface, but it only matters to her as a means of getting what she wants (information, power, etc.).

    This is the subject where I really want to compare/contrast with Elementary, but this is already really long, so I’ll stop now.

    1. Irene in the Doyle story marries the man she loves, settles into domestic bliss, and (I think) dies young so that Holmes can remember her without ever seeing her again.
      Moffat’s version is better.

      1. Hmmm . . . yes and no. I kind of like it that Sherlock has this unrequited love. I haven’t read the original recently but I seem to remember that Irene simply isn’t interested in Sherlock — she’s got her own goals and agenda, and she does use him. Maybe I need to go back and re-read this.

        But, Moffat’s Adler is absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t like to have to choose. (But Moffat’s Adler is in technicolor.)

  11. This was brilliant! I’ve seen the episodes of seasons 1 and 2 so many, many times… I love them! But I’ve never really thought about it in terms of analysis – and this just makes me want to watch them over again and start analyzing them on my own. Thanks!

  12. Gwarsh. Thanks. The concept of control came to me the minute I saw the then unknown, dominatrix in the previous ep.

    And oy! “Dextrous use OF the crop.” See, that’s how giddy all this smart ‘n sexy makes me.

    BonnieC- I like the community/family bit you’ve picked up on.

    In Study in Pink we meet Sherlock as an outsider who is only connected to people who have high regard for him because he helped them in difficult situations such as. Mrs Hudson and the restaurant owner. As John influences his life, Sherlock begins to show regard to them, slowly having more understanding of what they mean to him – “Mrs Hudson, leave Baker Street?! England will fall!!!”

  13. I’ve got more to say about this episode, but it’ll have to be later. Just wanted to point out, this: “He outwits her at the end because she cares for him… but she owns him in the end because he can’t walk away and let her die.” Do a gender-flip and it sounds an awful lot like Spike and Buffy.

  14. I have been waiting to talk about this episode ever since Jenny announced we’d be tackling Sherlock as the next Sunday series on Argh Ink. So, so much to love, here, and so many of you have already dived into the best of this episode.

    One of my favorite SH/IA parallels is their choice of career: Mycroft calls her craft “recreational scoldings” — and, truthfully, isn’t that what Sherlock does for a living as well? He mocks LeStrade, Anderson, the police in general, Watson (though usually with modified apology, if not outward restraint because he truly does love and respect John), and anyone with less brains than he. He recreationally scolds anyone whose mind doesn’t work as quickly and as cleverly as his. His oft-repeated phrases: “obvious,” “of course,” “boring,” etc. are little tongue-lashings – quick like the crop – to anyone who questions how he got from point A to Z so quickly. He even scolds himself with those phrases when he doesn’t see or solve something quickly enough.

    And then…Irene. And that hilarious moment early on where she declares smart the new sexy and SH all but explodes into verbal action, practically tripping over his own words in his haste to show off his smart/sexy for her.

    I especially love this because Sherlock is all about the quick fix: solving crimes immediately and then moving on to the next before he is bored. Sucking down the cigs to get his nicotine. Always moving, his mind cracking ahead at warp speed, rarely resting and reflecting. Irene, on the other hand, likes to take her smart/sexy slowly. How long will it take her to get ready to do battle with Sherlock? “Oh, aaaaages,” she tells Jane. SH whips on his hat to do battle with the press, twirls out the door in his coat, hails cabs because walking or public transit is too slow (Possibly? Just a guess). Irene, however, takes a long moment to run her hands over her wardrobe, draws the red onto her lips with languid, lush movements, and – one of my favorite moments in the entire episode – falls asleep in Sherlock’s bed, allowing herself to be vulnerable and safe at Baker street at last.

    I have problems with this episode, certainly. Sherlock is a high-functioning sociopath with absolutely no consequences to his actions. Everything Irene does has brutal – even fatal – consequences. The first half of this episode is such a loving portrait of a strong, dominant, independent, sexy woman who prefers the company of women and makes her living giving what-for to the most powerful men and women in England but then she is bested by a man (true, Moriarty IS an evil genius so I do cut Moffat some slack, there), saved by a man, at the mercy of a man. I don’t like that the punisher must eventually be punished here to make the story work but I love Irene and I love the vulnerability we finally see in Sherlock, thus humanizing him, so I can mostly look past the flaws.

    1. A lot of what happens at the end of this is just hubris. Irene was bound to fall because she was overreaching; in the end she’s blackmailing governments for amounts that make Mycroft turn pale. And Sherlock had been cruising for a bruising his entire life. The fact that they cause each other’s falls is logical–who else would be smart enough to bring them down?–and the fact that the beatings at the end only increase their respect for each other says a lot more about their psychologies and their relationship than it does, I think, about gender politics. If you take gender out of the equation and look at this as protagonist vs antagonist and at the logic of the story, she has to fail at the end. But having vanquished her, Holmes should dismiss her and forget her the way he dismisses and forgets everybody else. Yet he runs to save her. I don’t think that makes Irene weak–she’s caught in powerful forces she unleashed herself, so again, hubris–I think it shows how strong her impact on Sherlock was, especially since it’s not an impact she made with her usual weapon, her body. He doesn’t run to her because he wants to have sex with her, he saves her because she’s important to him as a person.

      I’m writing a book right now where the heroine is saved in the end, and I had to think it through because I don’t like the little-woman-needs-saved stories, either. But in this story, the heroine is a fixer, she’s saved everybody else all the way through the book, and she’s almost incapable of asking for help. Accepting help for her is a triumph of growth; if she saved herself, it would be a nice feminist statement and she’d be the same person she was at the start of the book.

      I think, in the same way, Irene’s slogan, “Know when you are beaten,” comes home to roost. She’s going to be frozen in her distance and her disdain if she’s not beaten; the only times she’s real and passionate and breathing is when Sherlock opens her phone and she rushes to tell him, “I was only playing the game,” and at the end when he comes for her. The rest of the time she’s walled up by her superiority and maniacal sense of her own power, which of course is Sherlock’s problem, too. The outcome of bashing each other’s walls down is that you’re both left without walls.

      There’s no doubt Irene is a powerful, ruthless woman. But nobody is invincible. One of the things I love about the ending, improbably though it is, is that the joy in her eyes isn’t because she’s going to be saved (that would relief, not joy), it’s because it’s Sherlock and he’s come for her, just as the look in his eyes when he says, “Run,” has a lot of joy in it, too. I find that ending exhilarating because of that brief recognition of each other. Although I wish she’d run.

      What is it about British heroes who say, “Run,” to the women they love? Is it because they know the women will participate in their own rescues? Or is it just because it’s Nine and Sherlock?

      1. This is going to sound horribly contradictory but despite loving Irene and loving her and SH as an unorthodox protag/antag and wanting her to survive, I thought the actual, physical act of her being saved – the scene itself, I mean – was a bit of a cop out. Maybe because the improbability of it itself took me out of the moment. I know Sherlock is a genius and has accomplished more than we mere mortals ever could (including *SPOILERS* surviving the Reichenbach Fall) but compared to some of the other, cleverer ways he’s outsmarted villains and saved the day, this improbable saving felt tacked on and clumsily set up and that took the episode down a notch for me. I barely heard the “Run!” and accepted the joy because I was too busy wondering how he infiltrated the cell and stole a disguise and got to the Middle East without John wondering where he went. Not that he hasn’t done that stuff a million times over, but something about this scene made me wonder about it, thereby taking me away from the interaction itself.

        I’m trying not to say I would rather have seen her die than have her saved in this way because I fear that implies I think she was dispensable or needed to be punished for her actions but somehow what SHOULD have felt out of character for Sherlock in an apologetically romantic way felt like laziness. The apology to Molly at Baker Street and the eventual text response of Happy New Year were so much nobler and smart/sexy, respectively, than the rescue that it made the ending fall a little flat.

        And, yes! Run, for the love of God, woman!

        1. I actually did a blog post at the time on how I didn’t believe the ending at all–it’s completely impossible–but I didn’t care because I wanted it to be true so much. It would never happen, but if Moffat says it did, I’m willing to be swindled.

  15. At the end, Mycroft and John are sitting in the cafe.

    Mycroft: 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?
    John: I don’t know.
    Mycroft: Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.

    Surely, there’s some meaningful character development to be gleaned from this segment, my Johnny Depp obsession nonwithstanding.

    Also, Irene and Sherlock are not a love story. Their dynamic is all about recognition, respect, and bone-deep appreciation; those traits while similar, and sometimes just as sexy, are not the same as love. The only love story Moffat and Gatiss are telling here is that of Sherlock and John.
    …Which I would also like to illuminate for a moment. Moff/’Tiss and the team do a brilliant job of both acknowledging and mocking the homosexual inference bestowed on every buddy tale in recent memory. I appreciate that they aren’t intimidated by that treatment (see: Doctor Who), but that they have instead determined to show that there are all kinds of love. and that sex is not always a component of that love.
    Maybe I’m playing Captain Obvious here, but you don’t often see creators/writers/directors/actors taking pains to make that kind of distinction on this side of the pond. (Possible exceptions include Nashville and Scandal. And no ‘Pond’ pun intended.)

    1. I love that pirate line. And of course it sets up him with a sword rescuing Irene and loving every minute of it.

      I do think that Sherlock and Irene are a love story, they’re just not a love story in the classic romance sense. They’re two people who are bound by deep feeling for each other, changed by each other. For a comparison, John has never made Sherlock stammer (although he may have babbled a little bit after John almost died for him with Moriarty at the end of season one). I agree that the central relationship in these stories is the bond that Sherlock and John establish, and that it’s a more important bond to Sherlock than his unwilling connection to Irene, but that doesn’t mean that Sherlock and Irene aren’t in love with each other in the can’t-walk-away-from-you sense. Physical love is an expression of relationship for some passionate connections, but not all. I don’t think either Sherlock or Irene is interested in physical passion, but if two people ever mind-fucked each other, it’s these two, and they did it with a great deal of mutual excitement and satisfaction.

      1. OF COURSE IT DID! (the pirate remark setting up the rescue with the sword). I’m shouting because I only got that just now . . . . Wow. Didn’t see that level before.

  16. Also, if we’re talking motifs, I think you can safely add “questionably sexuality”. If we’re going to talk about Irene’s sexual preference (is she or isn’t she?), you may as well bring in John (is he or isn’t he?). They each definitively have interests outside their own professed sexual norm. Add in that snarky “Is it the Queen?” bit about Mycroft, and I think you’ve got yourself a set.

    (Though personally, I think the overarching sexual preference of all involved is “smart”.)

    1. Sometimes I think they deal with sexuality because it’s so present in our modern idea of story. Protagonists can’t just be fascinating, they have to be hot. They’ve presented Cumberbatch as so beautiful that he’s damn near other-worldly, and that’s made him an object of sexuality. Think of him standing on that outcrop in “Baskervilles,” his coat blowing around him. They made him Heathcliff. Cumberbatch is an odd-looking man, very attractive but not handsome in the conventional sense, but they’ve dressed him and styled him and lit him so that he’s breathtaking in this. And then they made him brilliant and fun to watch (and big props to Cumberbatch for that, too) and of course people start speculating who he’s sleeping with. How can anybody that magnetic not be sexual?

      I do think that some of the most attractive male characters on screen in the past years have been characters with attachment issues played by not-conventionally-handsome men, Sherlock, Eleven, and Loki to name but three.

  17. I really liked a lot of the character and relationship stuff in this episode. But I found the plot convoluted and illogical, which was disappointing. They had lots of great teasers, such as the body that’s found in a car trunk in England after the person has supposedly just died in an airplane crash elsewhere. And, of course, a person in Irene’s position would possess lots of embarrassing secrets about powerful people. But the writers didn’t bring all of this together in a clever, surprising way, IMO. They kind of reeled around with it in murky confusion, instead, I thought. Because there was so much I really liked about the episode, it would be top-of-the-charts outstanding if the plot had hung well, but I thought the plot was lumpy and untidy, with mismatched arms and seams that didn’t get closed.

    1. You know, the only thing I thought wasn’t tight was the rescue. That was ridiculous. But I bought everything else.

      Do you want to talk about it in more detail? The stuff that was illogical? (I’ll give you the rescue, no problem.)

      1. I don’t remember most of the things that didn’t work for me, since I haven’t watched it for a while, but I do recall that one was the way the body in the trunk wound up where it was. Another was Irene turning the phone, which she described as her protection, into a target; it makes no sense to publicize your blackmail material to your victims until you’re actually blackmailing them–notifying anyone that you’ve got such material when you do NOT intend to use it just makes trouble for YOU. I also didn’t buy the “SHER” code at all; the actors played the moment very well, and Sherlock’s condemnation of sentiment was great character stuff, but the actual code was silly, as was his sudden deduction that that must be the code. I was never convinced a shrewd blackmailer with big ambitions would store everything on a phone, since phones are so easy to lose, steal, damage, and break. I found the airplane plot too absurd to go along with. The problem with the rescue was that in 90 minutes of story, there’d never been any indication whatsoever that Irene had anything whatsoever to do with the Middle East or that jihadists would have the slightest interest in hunting her down–or would even known she existed. So her winding up wearing a burkha and about to be beheaded by a jihadi in the final scene was about as logical as her winding up on the moon. Going back earlier in the story (as it comes to me), she had no reason to reveal to Watson that she was alive after she faked her death.

        Okay, even not remembering the story, clearly there was a lot in the plot that bothered me…

        1. It’s funny, I can explain away almost all of that, but I think it’s because I WANT to explain it away; that is, I’m giving this episode a lot of leeway because I love it so much, I want it to work.

          1. The sexual tension between Irene and Sherlock was great, as were the relationship scenes between Sherlock and Watson, Sherlock and Mycroft, even Mycroft and Watson. As was the comedy. They also made Irene so interesting I’d love to see her in another episode (though that would obviously be a huge departure from the canon).

            But I think the writers thought they needed an incredibly complex plot, full of twists and reversals and bluffs and blinds, to show how clever Irene was. And I felt they got lost in their own labyrinthe.

  18. This episode is so brilliant I could watch it endlessly. While the focus was on the relationship between Sherlock and Irene, the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft caught my attention too. We are given a lot of good stuff – the Buckingham palace scene with their verbal sparring and mockery, the final scene at the airport with the downfall of Irene. Best of all was the scene at the morgue after they (incorrectly) identify the body. What a terrific view of their complicated connection. I was very struck when Sherlock asked his brother “Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?”, which means that Sherlock DOES wonder, and that helps to make him more vulnerable and human in our eyes. I think that Mycroft has never wondered. His response is so controlled – “caring is not an advantage” – he is by far the colder man. Sherlock was surrounded by friends on Christmas Eve (hosting!), while Mycroft was alone. But at the end of that scene, we do see into the older brother’s heart, when he contacts John to warn him that Sherlock took the cigarette, making it a “danger night”, and that Sherlock will need looking after. Mycroft cares too. I find the relationship between the two brothers fascinating.

    1. That’s a good point, that Mycroft is actually colder than Sherlock. I wonder if Sherlock would have said that before he’d lived with John, somebody who constantly reminds him that the other people in the world count.

  19. John is definitely bringing out Sherlock’s humanity and making him look at himself in a way he never has had to before. I’ve always thought it was more John’s than Irene’s influence that caused Sherlock to pause and then apologize to Molly after humiliating her at the Christmas party. John really works on Sherlock to get him to see how his behavior affects others. Sherlock is learning, albeit slowly. “Not good?” “No, not so good.”

    Sherlock would never have voiced his self-doubt (is there something wrong with me) to John, even though John is the person he is closest to. Even with John he is unwilling to appear anything other than utterly self-confident. But he revealed his concerns to Mycroft, with whom he is usually at odds. These brothers do have a very strong link. I love the explorations of these complicated relationships. Such fun!

  20. Fabulous push and pull between the protagonist and the antagonist, and it’s amazing how the human relationships are woven in so skillfully. (I will admit some of the airplane plot had me going WHAT? I had to watch the hitchhiker/boomerang thing three times before I was semi-OK with that, and I easily forget how I justified that to myself — but the thing is, more human stuff comes rolling around the next minute, so I can forget and forgive and ride the new stuff.)

    My friend is a big fan of Elementary, and doesn’t like Sherlock — especially this episode — because she thinks Moffat can’t write women without sexualizing them (and thereby degrading them? I’m not sure). But sexuality is an important part of a person’s power — male or female, really.

    And what could Irene be that would fit the plot and not twist the original story too badly out of shape? An adventuress? Please. So 19th century, and adventuresses don’t have the kind of power they used to — also, sexualizing the woman again. A CEO? No, Irene is very solitary (like Sherlock) and she can’t have a whole company depending on her. She needs power without being tied to a bunch of people. A high-level politician? Again, too many people, and too much schmoozing. Wouldn’t fit the character, wouldn’t be a good doppleganger.

    The only thing I can think of on such short notice is maybe some sort of burglar or spy. But let’s face it, viewers like to see smart, sexy people on the screen. Even if she were a master criminal (and I do think she is, actually — it’s just that her cover as a dominatrix overpowers the other roles she plays, heh-heh, overpowers), she’d still have to play the part sexy, because this is TV in the 21rst century. Nobody is going to watch asexualized people battle for supremacy . . . . As Jenny mentions, even asexual Sherlock is very sexualized — Cumberbatch is turned into a heartthrob.

    I wonder, though, if the lesbian Adler and the asexual Sherlock are attempts at showing a non-romantic, non-sexual love and respect? The chemistry there, though, is so strong . . . .


Comments are closed.