Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sherlock and the war within

I always feel a bit villainous about nitpicking things that I love. It's always done with the best of intentions ("if only they'd done this it would be so much better (for me personally)")  but it still feels a bit churlish. If something is mostly okay, and has a few brilliant, perfect moments, isn't that enough? For some, probably, but if you haven't noticed by now that I compulsively over think things, let me state clearly that I can't help but dwell on those 'if only's' until they burst forth from their gestation in my brain into blog-post form. So, before I dig too hard into the picking of nits, let me establish up-front that I love the BBC version of Sherlock, with everything that word entails, from the initial infatuation to the deep-respect and the forgiveness of faults.

The show has much to recommend it, from the impeccable performance of the preposterously-named Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character to the even more impressive work done by Martin Freeman as his Watson, from the brilliant innovations in incorporating the modern world in all its text-messaging, computer-saturated glory to the sweeping, epic scores. All of the brilliance of the things the show gets right far eclipse its flaws, but it is the flaws I dwell on. And all of that brilliance and all of the flaws appear in starkest detail in my favorite episode of the show's six episode run, "A Scandal in Belgravia."

The episode's name is a nod to the original Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," and if you're familiar with the original stories, you might guess that this would be the Irene Adler episode. And you would be right! Adler, for the uninitiated, is regarded as one of the pivotal figures in the Holmes canon; despite only appearing in the one story her appearance in any adaptation is an inevitability. The story features a few good examples of Holmesian intellect, the most notable being the ruse he uses to enter Adler's lodgings and the means by which he ascertains the location of the incriminating photograph Holmes has been hired to pursue. However, the story is notable not for this but for the fact that Adler outwits him. Holmes, after learning the location of the photograph, plans to leave and return with his client (the king of Bohemia, no less, who fears that the photograph will be used to blackmail him after his upcoming nuptials to a woman who is not Adler) and secure it then. However, Adler sees through the ruse, disguises herself and follows him home, then flees the country with the photograph, leaving a letter explaining herself and promising never to use the photograph for purposes of blackmail, as the king so feared. Hereafter, according to Watson, Adler was, to Holmes, always the woman, and to readers, she was the woman who beat him at his own game.

No subsequent adaptation has really done her justice; I haven't seen A Game of Shadows, the second outing by Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, but by all accounts it does her no favors. And, unfortunately, Sherlock is no different. The basic set-up and motivation is similar, although the one potentially being blackmailed is English rather than Bohemian royalty (and a lady rather than a gentleman). However, Adler is not a former opera singer, as in the original story, but a professional dominatrix, known professionally as, "The Woman." Many of the show's nods to Holmesian canon are moderately subtle, but this one is a screaming red klaxon. What's more, it's unnecessary, because Holmes refers to her as 'the woman' later in the episode and so we get the nod anyway, now undermined by the repetition. It is not the only thing undermined in the episode.

The trap that a number of Adler adaptations seem to fall into is making Adler into a love interest to Holmes, with various degrees of one-sidedness depending on to what degree that particular Holmes is socially inept and emotionless. It makes her dependent on Holmes, in a way, whereas in the original story Adler had no particular interest in Holmes other than as someone who could potentially do her harm; she flees the country with her husband, who she marries mid-way through the story. Holmes has little respect for women in the original stories much of the time, although to be fair he has little respect for most everyone, and there are problematic elements in the way Adler is portrayed even there (her initial description from the king of Bohemia, for example, contains the line, "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."). Yet the Adler of the original is independent in a way that no Adler since has been able to really claim.

I understand the impulse to translate that independence into some sort of non-traditional occupation, which is how we get Adler-as-sex-worker. I don't even really have a problem with that in principle, although it does go against the spirit of the original. The only crime Bohemia-Adler had committed was the threat of blackmail against a powerful former lover who had wronged her; she felt, quite correctly, that she would not be safe against someone of such stature without the insurance of the photograph and the threat of ruin its revelation might bring. Belgravia-Adler is a blackmailer many times over, having access to secrets that go far beyond marital infidelities and into the realm of national security. Worse yet, she reveals near the climax of the episode that she really had no understanding of how to use the information she had until she was told by someone else. So much for independence.

It is in that 'someone else' that we come to one of the structural flaws that plagues the entirety of the first two seasons of Sherlock, and that is the obsession with Jim Moriarty. If Adler is one inevitability of a Holmes adaptation Moriarty is the other. I quite understand the notion of killing the author, and so I'm not going to go into a tiresome multi-paragraph dissection of the fact that Doyle's intention with Moriarty was not to provide some overarching raison d'etre for his most popular character but to kill him off so that Doyle could focus on what he felt was more important work writing historical fiction (entirely believable if you remember the multi-chapter diversion into early American history that interrupted "The Sign of Four."). What matters is not intention but what's actually on the page, and the idea of someone of fearsome intellect devoted as wholly to crime as Holmes himself is devoted to detectoring is compelling. So I get why Moriarty is always introduced. The problem with this, and unfortunately I can't find the blog post that convinced me of this, is that Moriarty is boring. Yes, even when he's conceived, as he is in Sherlock, as the Joker to Sherlock's Batman, he is deadly boring.

The lure of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not seeing Holmes face off against brilliant master criminals. The thrill is in seeing him navigate the messy, chaotic ordinariness of crime, untangling the web of motivations of ordinary people driven to do horrible things. The thesis of the blog post that is lost somewhere on the internet was that every time Moriarty comes out, normal motivations are thrown to the wind and we become locked in a cat-and-mouse game where two smart people try to outsmart each other while everyone else runs around and looks baffled. The criminals are as important in a good mystery story as the protagonist; we can be driven to hate them or to sympathize with them, to yearn for them to be brought to justice or to be exonerated, or to escape as Adler did. With Moriarty all we can hope for is that he be caught and either thrown over the falls or be put back in the Baker Street Asylum, where he sits until he feels like escaping and tormenting his arch-enemy again. There is never any ambiguity about it; he is the yin to Holmes' yang, and so we yearn for his internment.

Sherlock doesn't seem to be aware of this problem, because Moriarty is involved in every single episode of the series run. In the pilot he's the man behind the main villain, paying him off for every murder he commits. In the second episode, he gave the villain the information they needed, and kills them off to ensure his existence isn't revealed. He then reveals his existence in the third episode, "The Final Problem," where he confronts Holmes and Watson at the end of the episode, revealing himself to be both brilliant and out of his gourd. The episode ends in a cliffhanger, with Holmes and Watson on the verge of being murdered by hidden snipers. The fifth episode, an execrable adaptation of, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," features Moriarty at the end being released from prison (with no indication of how he got there), and the sixth is a rough adaptation of, "The Final Problem," and the problem seems to be that all the story beats from the fatal confrontation between Moriarty and Holmes were used up in the episode that bears that name, leading so some of them being rehashed; it works, but mostly in spite of itself.

Which leaves us backtracking to the fourth episode, where Moriarty is the one who knew what to do with the information Adler was trying to get out of Holmes. She had been given a code from one of her clients and needed Holmes to decipher it (because she is a poor witless woman). The code is an airline seat allocation number to a flight that British Intelligence knows is going to be targeted by terrorists; they know this because they've broken the terrorist's codes. However, they don't want to indicate that they know this, so they fill the plane with cadavers, planning to have it take off and be blown up with no casualties, ensuring they can continue to receive intelligence from the terrorists without them being the wiser. Adler's womanly brain cannot possibly conceive of any use for this information beyond feeding it to Moriarty who, it is presumed, tells the terrorists (because he is bad), leaving the British and American intelligence agencies involved with nothing for all their efforts.

The beat is marginally the same; Adler beats Holmes at his own game. And yet, because it's yet another move in the long game of chess between Holmes and Moriarty (a game that we know ends with both men knocking over their own kings), her role is sad and diminished, moreso when Holmes finally cracks the code on her cell phone to gain access to all the blackmail information she's been hiding away. So Holmes doesn't really lose, and Adler doesn't really win; in fact, she begs him not to unlock the phone, since doing so would deprive her of the protection she needs. The information she was keeping is the only thing keeping her enemies from killing her. A woman, serving one man, begging another for her life. Hardly the picture of independence.

And yet I can't deny the perfection of the scene where he finally, after trying time after time to figure out what code she could possibly be using for her cell phone, figures it out; never has punching in four characters been so dramatic. Nor can I deny the final scene, the denouement; the fade to black, the silence, the moan, oh, the moan, which we have been trained to react to all this time, an indication of her become an indication of him. Forgetting, and forgiving, that a narrative about a brilliant, insubordinate woman has now narrowed to a damsel-in-distress scenario.

"When I say!"

I love this episode, more than nearly any other episode of television I can name, more than most movies I've seen (and at 90 minutes an episode of Sherlock is only a budget increase away from being a movie as it stands). Everything I wrote above is true and yet none of it matters. I cannot watch the end without crying; I cannot listen to Irene Adler's theme without doing the same. I would change so much, if I had the power, but I wonder how much I would also destroy if I made those changes. The episode is problematic, yes, but it works, and so the burgeoning feminist in me butts up against the artist, the one who says, "let it be, because it sings."

The episode, and the show, is flawed, but in interesting ways. It's on NetFlix, if you haven't seen it. Its virtues outweigh its mistakes, in the end, even if those mistakes are worth noting so that they aren't repeated.

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