Sherlock: Irene Adler is THE woman

I finished watching the first episode of 2012’s Sherlock just after midnight, and attempted to analyse out my feelings about it for a couple of hours before giving up – I couldn’t do it, at least not beyond the Bohemia/Belgravia translation, without sleep, and also I needed to re-watch the whole episode, re-read the original 1891 story, and take a look at the previous 1984 transition to the screen.

The original story, first published in 1891, opens with a statement:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. ….. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

In the TV adaptation from 1984 with Jeremy Brett, David Burke and Gayle Hunnicutt, the opening scene is a burglary – two men interrupted in the course of a burglary first by a man with a club, then by a woman with a gun. The men leave, scared off by the armed and ruthless woman: and Doctor Watson’s voiceover begins with “To Sherlock Holmes, she was always The Woman, the beautiful Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.”

spoilers below the cut-tag

By contrast, the first few minutes of “Belgravia” were concerned not with Adler, but with Sherlock, John, Jim Moriarty, and a swimming pool. Though Jim Moriarty is, as we find, speaking directly to Irene Adler when he walks out of the empty pool, we do not discover this for eighty minutes, and Moriarty speaks to her with really brutal dismissiveness, threatening to make her into shoes.

I did enjoy the difference between 1891 and 2012:

As he spoke there was the sharp sound of horses’ hoofs and grating wheels against the curb, followed by a sharp pull at the bell. Holmes whistled.
“A pair, by the sound,” said he. Yes, he continued, glancing out of the window. “A nice little brougham and a pair of beauties. A hundred and fifty guineas apiece. There’s money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else.”

Instead Sherlock is collected by a pair of Palace employees and a limo, but even better when a policeman holding a phone says to John “It’s for you,” and when John reacts as if it’s a call, says “No, the helicopter.”

The quote about “I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing,” is from “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” in which the client referred to is ELizabeth II’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, either before or after he came to the throne.

I loved the way the famous 1891 scene:

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.” – “Frequently.” – “How often?” – “Well, some hundreds of times.” – “Then how many are there?” – “How many? I don’t know.” – “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

becomes in 2012, John commenting that he’s tempted to steal an ashtray, and then after Sherlock deduces that Palace Man will have a box of matches or a cigarette lighter because “I know you don’t, but your employer does”.

“We have kept a lot of people successfully in the dark about that fact.”
“I’m not the Commonwealth.”
“And that’s as modest as he gets.” (Later, in the car) “Okay, the smoking… how did you know?”
“The evidence was under your nose, John, as ever, you see but do not observe.”
“What was that?”
“The ashtray”, says Sherlock, producing it.

But wherever Steven Moffat has to focus on Irene Adler herself, the woman, things go a bit wrong.

In 1891, when the King of Bohemia has to confess himself to Holmes, the discussion (after it’s clear that the King has been careless enough to send letters in his own handwriting, on his own notepaper, with his private seal, and Holmes has dismissed this with “”Pooh, pooh! Forgery. Stolen. Imitated” the King admits:

“My photograph.” -“Bought.” – “We were both in the photograph.” – “Oh, dear! That is very bad! Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion.” – “I was mad — insane.” – You have compromised yourself seriously.”

Compare this to:

“Photographs of whom?” – “A person of significance to my employer. I can tell you it’s a young person. A young female person.” …. “She doesn’t want anything. She got in touch; she informed us the photographs existed, and that she did not intend to use them, either to extort money or favours.”

The person at risk of blackmail, the Highness whose bare legs appear in the first few minutes, is not an active agent in the story: she appears and disappears, and it is the Client – or rather her male employee the Palace person – who acts on her behalf. What would this story be if a fictionalised Kate Middleton herself – or whoever the Highness is supposed to be – were to come forward and admit, as the King must in 1891:

“I am about to be married.” – “So I have heard.” – “To William Arthur Philip Louis Wales, first son of the Queen of Great Britain. You may know the strict principles of his family. He is himself the very soul of delicacy. A shadow of a doubt as to my conduct would bring the matter to an end.” – “And Irene Adler?” – “Threatens to send them the photograph. And she will do it. I know that she will do it. You do not know her, but she has a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men. Rather than I should marry another, there are no lengths to which she would not go — none.”

But the whole sequence of how Sherlock first gets access to the house does work far better in 2012 than in 1891. Holmes hires a streetful of people to stage an attack on him, thus:

As he spoke the gleam of the side-lights of a carriage came round the curve of the avenue. It was a smart little landau which rattled up to the door of Briony Lodge. As it pulled up, one of the loafing men at the corner dashed forward to open the door in the hope of earning a copper, but was elbowed away by another loafer, who had rushed up with the same intention. A fierce quarrel broke out, which was increased by the two guardsmen, who took sides with one of the loungers, and by the scissors- grinder, who was equally hot upon the other side. A blow was struck, and in an instant the lady, who had stepped from her carriage, was the centre of a little knot of flushed and struggling men, who struck savagely at each other with their fists and sticks. Holmes dashed into the crowd to protect the lady; but just as he reached her he gave a cry and dropped to the ground, with the blood running freely down his face. At his fall the guardsmen took to their heels in one direction and the loungers in the other, while a number of better-dressed people, who had watched the scuffle without taking part in it, crowded in to help the lady and to attend to the injured man. Irene Adler, as I will still call her, had hurried up the steps; but she stood at the top with her superb figure outlined against the lights of the hall, looking back into the street.

Sherlock, much more straightforwardly, instructs John

“Punch me in the face”, and when John queries “Punch you?” – “Yes. Punch me in the face. Didn’t you hear me?” – “I always hear ‘Punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking but it’s usually subtext” followed by an all-out attack on him: “You forget, I was a soldier. I killed people.” – “You were a doctor.” – “I had bad days.”

*happy sigh* – That, there, is just perfect.

Sherlock succeeds in looking actually very pathetic, and it’s really a shame that Kate is just not fooled because she knows this is Sherlock and he has an appointment.

There follows the truly excellent moment – perhaps the only Adler / Sherlock scene where things do not go wrong – where Irene Adler shows up stark naked but for her eye make-up and lipstick, and perfectly demonstrates that she is really on top. I mean really. I cheered. That, translated from 1891, is something I can perfectly imagine the woman doing – knowing what Sherlock can find out about her from what she is wearing, she shows up in glorious absolutely confident flaming nudity. Sherlock’s bewildered glance from the ????? of Irene Adler to the familiar John Watson, whom he casually reads (just as Holmes does in 1891)

“Wedlock suits you,” he remarked. “I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.” – “Seven!” I answered. – “Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness.” – “Then, how do you know?” – “I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?”

I also liked the difference between John lighting a rolled-up magazine with the cigarette lighter borrowed from Palace-person (a discussion about which he and Sherlock must have had off-camera) and then Sherlock mansplaining to Irene Adler that of course “On hearing a smoke alarm, a mother would look towards her child. Amazing how fire exposes our priorities. Really hope you don’t have a baby in here” and 1891 Holmes being rather verbose with Watson:

It was all-important. When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. In the case of the Darlington substitution scandal it was of use to me, and also in the Arnsworth Castle business. A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box. Now it was clear to me that our lady of to-day had nothing in the house more precious to her than what we are in quest of. She would rush to secure it. The alarm of fire was admirably done. The smoke and shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully. The photograph is in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull. She was there in an instant, and I caught a glimpse of it as she half-drew it out.

At that point the interesting CIA agent subplot rushes into the room and Sherlock gets suddenly inspired when it threatens to shoot John. Of course.

When Irene Adler says “This is how I want you to remember me; the woman who beat you. Goodnight, Mr Sherlock Holmes” – this echoes and amplifies the moment in the 1891 story where, less obviously but certainly, Adler has just beaten Holmes (admittedly he underestimated her!)

We had reached Baker Street and had stopped at the door. He was searching his pockets for the key when someone passing said: “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”
There were several people on the pavement at the time, but the greeting appeared to come from a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.
“I’ve heard that voice before,” said Holmes, staring down the dimly lit street. “Now, I wonder who the deuce that could have been.”

Irene Adler, in a strange dream sequence – or the first email she sent to Sherlock? – explains how the hiker was murdered. And when Sherlock wakes up, his phone has been reconfigured, apparently permanently, to the little ecstatic sigh of a woman who is really enjoying herself, whenever Adler texts Sherlock.

Thereafter, in 1891, the story – and the victory – is all Irene Adler’s. The letter she leaves restates that the photograph is hers for protection, not blackmail, and Holmes’ response “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty” and his request for Irene Adler’s photograph is a beautifully Holmesian rebuff of Royalty. (Just as Sherlock’s request to keep the camera phone at the end of the episode – he even says “Please”….)

In 1984 the episode ends as it began with Watson’s voiceover:

The best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to sneer much at the cleverness of women but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler or when he refers to that woman, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.

as in 1891 this story ends with:

And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.

But in 2011 the story has fifty minutes to run – it does not end with John and Sherlock over breakfast, but continues with Mycroft walking into the room, in what appears to be almost a throwaway line “Bond Air is go” – the significance of which won’t be explained for nearly three-quarters of an hour.

The story continues with Sherlock’s interaction at a Christmas party with three women in his life: Mrs Hudson, John’s current girlfriend Janette, whom Sherlock clearly regards as trivia, and Molly Hooper, whom Sherlock manages to crucify – and then, really humanly, apologises for it. This is interrupted, delightfully, by the little ecstatic gasp from Sherlock’s phone that means Irene Adler has just texted him – and John has been counting them. 57. Neatly, John gets angry/jealous over them “Do you ever reply?” and Molly gulps wine, both shellshocked at actually getting an apology from Sherlock and, I think, realising that there is a woman in Sherlock’s life who makes John jealous.

When the CIA plot points come barging in again, this time to beat up Mrs Hudson and get the locked phone, Mrs Hudson becomes the woman – she is someone Sherlock cares about, someone he’s very willing to kill to defend, and she’s also smart enough to hide the camera phone and cry to make the plot point think she doesn’t know.

There’s a response here to the episode, which is clearly and neatly written and which I do not, in the end, agree with. Not WolframD’s point about

For Sherlock and John it is that they always know they have each other and also that they can rely their whole lives in each other’s hands. I know a lot will probably think “Well friends can do that too without being called a couple” but then I want people to just rethink and reflect a little bit more. Just strip away all your prejudice and preconceptions. Just try to think about the people that do not crave physical contact and what a relationship is to them. There is a love between John and Sherlock whether they are aware of it or not. Irene Adler IS.

– she’s right about that.

But this point, where she summarised the whole mess of the ending with Sherlock’s involvement with Irene:

With Irene dead I thought that it was a very nice ending. Then you KNOW they won’t be bringing the character back and you can leave all of it behind. For me that is a very important thing to do. She is a character that interfere with the dynamic between John and Sherlock that is very important to me as a fan (that was probably the thing bugging me with Sherlock’s horrible change of character at times during the episode). I do not want to know of her in the future. She is a character that belongs to Scandal in Bohemia and should be kept as a ONE STORY character. But if it is only that she has survived and she won’t return it is totally fine with me.

But then again… the whole ending with Sherlock saving her. No. I hated it. It was so pretty the way she had died and the way that he was sad for her sake.

Really, for me, the next good bit about the episode was the moment where Sherlock passes over the duplicate phone he set up so that Adler would enter the passcode for him, but she knew it was a duplicate and so she entered a fake code, making Sherlock lose another one of the passcode opportunities. (Oh, I liked it that John’s middle name is Hamish. That’s one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ contributions to Sherlockiania, you know.)

The bit where Sherlock cracks the mysterious email and adds “Please don’t feel obliged to tell me that was remarkable or amazing, John’s already expressed that thought in every possible variant of the English language” – and both John and Adler are looking up at him and smiling, oh my, he’s really trying to express some kind of loyalty to and claim on John – and Adler tops them both with her offer to make him beg for mercy twice.

It was also neat that the clients Sherlock dismissed as “boring” at the start of the episode turned out to have had had valuable clues for him to decipher the mystery of the plane at the end, but otherwise the flinging away of Irene Adler into a plot about UK/US intelligence, terrorism, and Moriarty, bugged me so much I have had a hard time watching to the end of the episode knowing what was coming.

[Update: After I’d posted this, I also found a response by Vida S which I liked a lot: Sherlock and The Woman: What on Earth Happened to Irene Adler? – & another good one, Sherlocked – the humiliation of Irene Adler.]

Another Angry Woman, who summed up my feelings about the ending – the implication that in all this Irene Adler had merely been Jim Moriarty’s tool, and in which Irene Adler loses all her autonomy and is merely rescued by Sherlock at the very end:

I would gladly keep the sparkling, sexy, sharp Irene Adler of most of the episode, and cut off the end entirely. And if the BBC need to fill up the full 90 minutes, why not extend the scene where she is beating Sherlock Holmes with a cane? And perhaps, let’s see him beg for mercy. Twice.

In that, I agree with WolframD – if we had kept Irene Adler true to end, herself entirely, scarily intelligent and delightfully herself, I could better have dealt with the ending in which she dies. But better would have been to remain true to the original story: Irene Adler is the woman.

Recommended to me over a year later (August 2013) I find that in November 2011 – two months before Moffat’s Irene Adler episode was broadcast on the BBC – a Sherlock fan wrote the perfect Irene Adler story for the present day. Bohemian Rhapsody, by Speranza. How I wish Speranza were writing Sherlock scripts.


Filed under Sherlock Holmes

2 responses to “Sherlock: Irene Adler is THE woman

  1. John Böttcher

    Have you read this (rather long) review?


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