The Hounds of Baskerville, and The Reichenbach Fall
While The Hounds of Baskerville remains one of my cherished stories of the entire series, The Reichenbach Fall is considered a really, really fantastic finale. Much better compared to The Great Game.
According to The A.V. Club review of The Hounds of Baskerville:
Here is the line that remains with me from this episode of Sherlock: “Once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.” It’s a slightly altered version of a famous quotation from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon. When Holmes says this to Dr. Watson in the original source, The Sign Of The Four, he’s trying to disabuse Watson of preconceptions as they confront what appears to be an impossible break-in: A man entered a room 60 feet above the ground without using any doors or windows. Dr. Watson is preoccupied with the impossibility of the feat; Holmes’ point is that Watson’s conception of what’s possible has no bearing on the facts of the matter.
In “The Hounds Of Baskerville,” Sherlock utters this same line as he raves to Watson, in a drug-induced delirium, about the big red-eyed dog that he saw. And when Sherlock says it, Watson asks, “What does that mean?” It’s a fair question, because the answer is that it doesn’t mean much. The reason that the original quote is so famous is because in its original context, it’s such an elegant summation not just of Sherlock Holmes’ approach but of scientific inquiry as a whole. All of that elegance is stripped away here, where it serves primarily as a fancy way for Sherlock to say, “I realize it sounds crazy, but I know what I saw, damn you!”
The misuse of the quote is emblematic of “The Hounds Of Baskerville,” which takes Doyle’s famous Holmes novel and recasts it as a platform for unconvincing psychological horror. This is an uncharacteristically poor outing for the program, which is especially disappointing given how brief the seasons are and how little Sherlock we get to enjoy already. But at least “The Hounds Of Baskerville,” by working so poorly, provides a contrast that shows why the show usually works so well.
The primary shortfall of “The Hounds Of Baskerville” is that there is so much nothing where there ought to be something. The episode has mystery, but it’s a mystery driven by the absence of facts. The episode is rife with long sections of emptiness. The client, Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) takes a good 10 minutes to say that his father was killed by something with large footprints. Sherlock and Watson stroll through empty labs. Sherlock and Henry get freaked out by shaky-camera nothingness in the middle of the moor. Henry freaks out at shaky-camera nothingness in his backyard. Watson reenacts the kitchen scene from Jurassic Park, minus the dinosaurs, in the Baskerville complex.
And of course, on a lighter note, there’s the stretch in which Watson chases down a distant set of flashing lights as a possible lead, as the show takes us on an inordinately long journey for an “it’s just people screwing in their car!” red-herring gag. It’s emblematic of the many instances in which this episode goes on a long walk for an awfully small drink of water.
That emptiness is portrayed with a purpose, of course. The mind can go to disturbing places when there’s no discernible, rational reality on which it can gain purchase, and “The Hounds Of Baskerville” is playing off of that. It’s a promising basis for an austere psychological thriller—just not for an episode of Sherlock.
The show is at its best not when the mystery emerges from an absence of facts, but when there’s a preponderance of facts that don’t add up—or, more accurately, when there are facts that add up imperfectly to the wrong result, and only Sherlock’s mind can make them all fit. That doesn’t strike me as a terribly restrictive formula—Doyle certainly got plenty of mileage out of it—even if I do admire Sherlock for trying something different.
The thin soup of the mystery in “The Hounds Of Baskerville” is made even worse by lifeless execution. The ancillary characters consistently fail to make much of an impression, sliding out of memory as soon as they leave the screen. The gape-mouthed Henry Knight spends the majority of his screentime blubbering and moaning. When Sherlock says that he’ll take the case because Henry said, “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound,” it makes a certain kind of sense, as it’s the only marginally interesting thing that Henry utters in the entire 90 minutes.
Aside from providing another hollow reference to the original Hound Of The Baskervilles story, Henry’s therapist, Dr. Mortimer, seems to exist so that she can be nearly shot by Henry. Her presence is otherwise inconsequential. It’s a similar situation with Inspector Lestrade, who shows up out of contractual obligation, and Mycroft Holmes, who provides an implausible (and glossed-over) deus ex machina by getting Sherlock back into Baskerville a second time.
Then there’s the evil scientist of evil, Dr. Frankland, the “old friend” of Henry’s murdered father who might as well have “HEY EVERYONE, I’M THE KILLER!” tattooed on his face. He’s a bit lacking in subtlety. For instance, when he killed Henry’s father for discovering the existence of Frankland’s dastardly chemical experiments, Frankland apparently chose to wear a T-shirt featuring the enormous logo of the secret project he was trying to conceal.
As for that secret project, it doesn’t provide much of a reveal. All throughout the episode, we’re reminded of the popular theory that the horrors witnessed in the mists of Dartmoor are the result of genetic experimentation by a shadowy government outfit. And in the end, the cause proves to be chemical experiments by a shadowy government outfit, a distinction without a practical difference.
While there’s a briefly intriguing mystery about the vector of the craze-inducing drug, the solution here is similarly unsatisfying: Frankland pumped gas into the air. That payoff feels more suited to Adam West’s Batman than Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. The closing scene, in which Moriarty has scrawled “SHERLOCK” all over the walls of his ultra-modern prison cell, is similarly hokey.
“The Hounds Of Baskerville” seems to be obsessed more than other episodes with a painstaking modernization of elements from its source material. It seems especially proud, for instance, of substituting a high-tech military complex for the manor in the original Hound Of The Baskervilles. While such changes can be inventive, these revisions can’t sustain a story on their own. They’re window dressing.
At its best, Sherlock succeeds not because it’s a modernization of the Doyle canon but because it’s a lively reinterpretation. The friendship between Holmes and Dr. Watson was rarely a point of interest in Doyle’s stories, yet Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have spun it into a complex, charged relationship full of intrigue and personal drama. It’s that type of fearless creativity—as opposed to mere revision—that makes Sherlock great. It’s telling, then, that this episode follows the lead of the original story by keeping Sherlock and Watson separate for long chunks of time, scenes during which the show, not coincidentally, feels limp.
In a way, it could be Moffat and Gatiss’ Holmes obsession that led Sherlock astray here. The Hound Of The Baskervilles is arguably Doyle’s most venerated single work, so any adaptation of it must be a daunting task. It would be natural to end up with an outing like “The Hounds Of Baskerville,” which is so preoccupied with its relationship to the mother text that it loses track of the fascinating mythology Sherlock has built up in its own right—a show imprisoned, rather than inspired, by its own muse.
According to The A.V. Club review of The Reichenbach Fall:
In the climactic showdown of tonight’s season finale, “The Reichenbach Fall,” the diabolical James Moriarty sneers at his arch rival, Sherlock Holmes, “You always want everything to be clever. That’s your weakness.” He’s gloating because he’s tricked Sherlock into believing that he possessed a code capable of breaking into any security system in the world—a possibility so remote that not even the writers of Sherlock would entertain it. And yet Sherlock swallows it whole (or at least pretends to). For all his belief in deductive logic, Sherlock also has a tendency to get so caught up in the particulars of a mystery that he misses the much larger truth. In this way, Moriarty’s criticism is spot-on: Sherlock is so obsessed with cracking Moriarty’s code that he misses the blinding, flashing obvious. But the line can also be viewed as a barb directed not just at Sherlock, the fictional character, but at Sherlock, the series—and maybe even its fans, too. “The Reichenbach Fall,” an episode that makes numerous allusions to the tale of “Hansel And Gretel,” is in some ways a cautionary tale about the danger of following the breadcrumbs too closely. If you’re not careful, you might just end up in the wrong place.
The episode caps off a season in which Sherlock has, with varying degrees of success, taken on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest hits: “A Scandal In Bohemia,” The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and, now, “The Final Problem,” the story in which the author killed off his most famous and beloved creation. In one of the clever transpositions this series does so well, the iconic Reichenbach Falls—the place where the original Sherlock faked his own death—appear in the episode, but only in painting form. After Sherlock recovers Turner’s celebrated painting of the falls, he becomes a media sensation. At a press conference, he reluctantly poses in a deerstalker cap—an accessory which, Watson points out, will now be known as a “Sherlock Holmes hat.” So far, so meta.
The episode’s singular title, “The Reichenbach Fall,” is a neat summary of Sherlock’s character trajectory tonight. His seemingly fatal plunge—which I’ll get to in due course—is preceded by a metaphorical one. Just as Sherlock, “the hero of Reichenbach,” becomes a household name, so too does his nemesis. In a sublimely ridiculous sequence, a silent, gum-chewing Moriarty simultaneously breaks into the Tower of London, the vault at the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison, using little more than a fire hydrant and his iPhone (Stealing the Crown Jewels: There’s an app for that!). As the cops come storming in to the Tower, prepared for a fight, Moriarty sits there, nonchalant, wearing a crown and royal robes. It’s beyond cheeky; it’s borderline kitsch.
So Moriarty is taken into custody, and it doesn’t take a genius like Sherlock to realize that this is exactly what he wanted. In what is inevitably touted as “the trial of the century,” Sherlock testifies against Moriarty, despite having only met him for five minutes. (The testimony is yet another sly nod to the source material, in which Moriarty only comes face-to-face with Sherlock once). “Two minutes would have made me an expert,” he insists. The jury deliberates for six minutes—they were held up by a queue for the loo, apparently—and returns with a startling verdict: Not guilty. Having successfully intimated the jury, Moriarty is a free man.
The surprise verdict is the first of many blows to befall Sherlock over tonight’s episode. As act one ends, Moriarty pays a visit to 221B Baker Street to tell Sherlock all about his magical line of computer code. “I own secrecy,” he says, adding, “Honey, you should see me in a crown.” In Andrew Scott’s hands, Moriarty is a distinctly 21st-century villain, sort of a twitchy, (more) flamboyant version of Julian Assange.
The fuel driving “The Reichenbach Fall” is the rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty. While their cat-and-mouse-game has, technically speaking, been underway ever since the beginning of season one, it wasn’t until this season that it really took center stage. One of the favorite themes of detective fiction is the blurring of the line between villain and pursuer—the notion that, to understand the mind of a criminal, one has to have a few screws loose. I’m not well-versed enough in the genre to know if this idea pre-dates Sherlock Holmes, but he’s certainly the most shining example of what, by now, has become a screenwriting cliché: the mad detective.
Sherlock is a Flawed Hero®, a character who seems tailor-made for a series on premium cable, even if he’s actually on PBS. So when Moriarty frames Sherlock for his own crime—the abduction and poisoning, via mercury-tainted chocolate, of the children of the American ambassador—it’s rather too easy for his detractors to believe he’s actually a psychopath. Sergeant Donovan doesn’t want to believe that Sherlock is capable of solving a crime using nothing but a set of footprints and a few traces of glycerin, so she chooses to believe the version of Sherlock that Moriarty has crafted. She follows the breadcrumbs, if you will, but ultimately succeed in confirming her own suspicions: This Sherlock guy’s a loon. As Sherlock tells Watson a short while later, “Everybody wants to believe it, a lie that’s preferable to the truth.”
For the audience, there isn’t a terrible amount of suspense. After all, we know Sherlock is crazy, but not that crazy—or, as Watson aptly puts it, “Nobody could fake being such an annoying dick all the time.” Indeed. Instead of suspense, though, we experience something that’s more genuinely terrifying: the sense of being powerless to disprove someone else’s elaborately constructed lie.
From here, “The Reichenbach Fall” descends even further into the postmodern rabbit hole. Pursued by most of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a few of the world’s deadliest assassins, Sherlock drags Watson to the home of Kitty Reilly, the lady reporter he rejected earlier in the episode who’s now published a sensational expose alleging that the “hero of Reichenbach” is an enormous fraud. There, he discovers that her main informant is “Richard Brook,” a impecunious Irish actor who makes his living playing a character named “The Storyteller” on a children’s television show. He claims he was paid by Sherlock to pose as Moriarty. We only see Scott as “Richard Brook” for a few minutes, but he brilliant embodies the meek, disheveled actor his character’s pretending to be; it’s no wonder Kitty fell for his story. Of course it also helps that, having been rejected rather brutally by Sherlock, she was all too ready to believe Brook/Moriarty’s tale of woe.
Yet there’s something about the twist I don’t totally buy. While it feels contrary to the spirit of Sherlock to nitpick excessively—part of the fun of this show is how it willfully flouts the very idea of plausibility—but even still this particular twist feels a little flimsy. If Brook is well-known enough that he was on TV, surely someone would have recognized him while he was on trial for the crime of the century? And just how far back does Moriarty’s plot against Sherlock go, anyway? Far enough that he was going to auditions years ago just to eventually use his IMDB credits to bring down Sherlock Holmes? If so, you have to honor the guy’s commitment.
After a brief and rather inscrutable meeting with poor old Molly, Sherlock at last arrives on the rooftop for his showdown with Moriarty. Having successfully distracted Watson with the (fake) news of Mrs. Hudson’s shooting—a plot point drawn very directly from “The Final Problem,” for those of you keeping track—Sherlock can face down his rival without distraction. The scene is a terrific showcase for both actors, though, by this point, neither Scott nor Benedict Cumberbatch really needs to prove himself in this department. Sherlock may have cracked the code, but what he didn’t anticipate is that Moriarty knew that he would, and that the code itself was nothing but a giant McGuffin meant to distract him from the real plot that’s been building all along. What’s more, Moriarty isn’t a brilliant hacker. He’s just a guy who was able to find a few willing, easily corruptible participants to partake in his plot. (It’s another revelation that plays into this episode’s overall theme, which seems to be the danger of looking at the facts and seeing only what wants one to see.) Unless Sherlock agrees to commit suicide and go to his grave a fraud, Moriarty’s crack team of assassins will kill Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade.
It’s a devilishly clever twist. Not only does it create a seemingly inescapable conundrum for our hero, but it also works as a great way to prove how much he’s evolved as a human. Sherlock is willing to give his own life—or pretend to, anyway—to save his friends from certain death. Makes you all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Just as he’s about to jump to his death, a sly grin spreads across Sherlock’s face; he thinks he’s got an out. He makes one last-ditch attempt to get Moriarty to call off the dogs, but Moriarty, in a final, devastating twist, pulls the trigger on himself. Now Sherlock’s only recourse is to jump—to take the very fall that Moriarty predicted during their tea summit. And so he does, leaving a kind of oral suicide note via his cell phone—a fitting touch for this technology-obsessed show—and then leaping to the ground as Watson looks on helplessly.
In a coda that’s both touching and funny, Watson and Mrs. Hudson pay a visit to Sherlock’s grave. When Watson, somewhat abashedly, confesses to harboring anger toward his dear, departed friend, Mrs. Hudson assures him his feelings are normal—then unleashes a tidal wave of suppressed anger about Sherlock’s various infractions. Watson interrupts, “I’m not actually that angry, OK?” Then, standing over Sherlock’s glossy black gravestone, he makes a moving entreaty. “Don’t. Be. Dead.” The camera pans away to reveal that, a few yards away, Sherlock is about as “not dead” as they come. In fact, there’s little to suggest that he’s experienced any kind of physical trauma at all—no scrapes, scars, bruises, or bandages. Just that pasty complexion and mop of greasy black curls.
So, we’re left with one enormous, juicy question: How’d he do it? In Conan Doyle’s story, there was an enormous loophole, since Watson never actually witnessed Sherlock take his fateful plunge. As everyone with access to Wikipedia knows, it was only later that Conan Doyle gave in to fans and revived Holmes, concocting a story about how Holmes bested Moriarty using his martial-arts skills, then climbed up the cliff to make it look like he had also fallen.
In “The Reichenbach Fall,” however, there appears to be much less ambiguity. We even see Sherlock’s limp, bloody, seemingly lifeless body carried off on a stretcher. So how did the master detective dupe everyone, including a crowd of onlookers? Even setting aside the issue of plausibility—something most Sherlock viewers did a long time ago anyway—there are not too many possibilities that suggest themselves. The closest thing I have to a theory is that whatever Sherlock did, it involved Molly. After all, their final encounter seemed very important yet was never fully explained.
Whatever the case may be, it’s a testament to Sherlock’s writers that they are able to provoke such breathless speculation over a story that’s been re-imagined so many times—to take something old and familiar and make it just as electrifying as the original. And therein lies the particular genius of Sherlock, a show which is able to rearrange, and in some cases completely alter, the details of its source material, while keeping its spirit firmly intact.
A Scandal in Belgravia
Irene Adler is Professor River Song. I’m not joking. They do both have familiar traits. Furthermore, River Song predated Adler by about 5 years.
Take Adler’s nude scene, and River Song’s first appearance during the Moffat Era, the opening of The Time of Angels. Both of them are a bit femme fatale, while also displays comparable in intelligence to the main character. At least, initially, before being damseled later on.
Even Missy the Master in Doctor Who‘s Dark Water would also qualify for this same trope, though one could argue she represents feminism as mocking… “silly” and “hostile” (see Legally Blonde), as Missy never needs saving from the Doctor.
According to The Guardian article, “Is Sherlock sexist? Steven Moffat’s wanton women“:
The instant Irene Adler’s scarlet-tipped fingers extended across the frame on Sunday night, it seemed certain that Steven Moffat’s rewriting of Sherlock Holmes’s famed female adversary would cause some consternation. The series opener of Sherlock – watched live by almost 10 million people – updated Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the short story in which Holmes is, unusually, outwitted by an acute American adventuress in possession of a compromising picture of the Bohemian king. The woman Holmes referred to as “the woman” was remade by Moffat as a high-class dominatrix saved only from certain death by the dramatic intervention of our hero. While Conan Doyle’s original is hardly an exemplar of gender evolution, you’ve got to worry when a woman comes off worse in 2012 than in 1891.
In many ways the Holmes stories are a perfect fit for Moffat’s skill-set. The puzzle-box plotting, the 24/7 bromance, the fetishisation of “masculine” reason over pesky “feminine” emotion, all suit him right down to the ground. In the case of his stewardship of Doctor Who, Moffat’s tendency to write women plucked straight from a box marked “tired old tropes” (drip/scold/temptress/earth mother to name but a few), and his consequent failure to sketch a compelling central dynamic between the lead and his companion, has seriously affected the show’s dramatic power. But no such trouble with Sherlock.
Doctor Who has never just been about a dashing alien who happens to be wicked smart. The Doctor cares about stuff, and uses his considerable noodle to fight injustice, tyranny and exploitation. By contrast, Holmes is in it for no reason other than Reason. An insufficiently stimulating case will be summarily dismissed as “boring”. A Scandal in Bohemia opens with Conan Doyle sidelining feeling as “grit in a sensitive instrument”, a spanner in the works of the world’s “most perfect reasoning and observing machine”. Unlike Who – where, famously, the evil of the Daleks is linked directly to their rejection of human emotion – Conan Doyle paints a hyper-rational universe almost made just for Moffat.
In this context, what Moffat would do with Adler was always going to be interesting. From a certain perspective, Conan Doyle’s character is something of a “proto-feminist”, a woman of great intellect and formidable agency, who, above all, proves to be a match for Holmes. It’s not unproblematic that both author and protagonist respect Adler only because she has a “soul of steel” and “the mind of the most resolute of men”. She’s not a waste of space, it is suggested, because she escapes the weakness of her sex and can act, symbolically, as a man. But, importantly, she makes her own way in the world. In the climactic scene of Conan Doyle’s story, emotion initially leads her to betray herself, and – like all women – when confronted by danger, she protects the thing she cares about (which, according to Holmes, is invariably either babies or jewellery). However, after these events, having had time to reflect coolly, Adler realises she has given herself away and plans the escape by which she gets one over on Holmes.
However, even this ambiguous portrait of female power proved too much for Moffat to stomach. Granted, he allowed her to keep her smarts. But, at the same time, her acumen and agency were undermined every which way. Not-so-subtly channelling the spirit of the predatory femme fatal, Adler’s power became, in Moffat’s hands, less a matter of brains, and more a matter of knowing “what men like” and how to give it to them; of having them by the sexual short and curlies, or, perhaps more aptly, on a nice short leash. Her masterminding of a cunning criminal plan was, it was revealed late in the day, not her own doing, but dependent on the advice of Holmes’s arch nemesis, James Moriarty. A move that, blogger Stavvers noted, neatly reduced her from “an active force to a passive pawn in Moriarty and Holmes’s ongoing cock-duelling”.
More troubling still, Moffat’s Adler blatantly fails to outwit Holmes. Despite identifying as a lesbian, her scheme is ultimately undone by her great big girly crush on Sherlock, an irresistible brain-rot that leads her to trash the security she has fought for from the start of the show with a gesture about as sophisticated – or purposeful – as scrawling love hearts on an exercise book. As a result, Moffat sends Adler out into the world without the information she has always relied on for protection, having made herself entirely vulnerable for the love of a man. Lest we haven’t got the point yet, Holmes hammers it home. “Sentiment,” he tells us, “is a chemical defect found in the losing side.”
And then there was the jaw-dropping finale, which somehow managed to smoosh together a double-bill of two of patriarchy’s top-10 fantasies. All those troubled by female sexual power – or the persistent punctuation of orgasmic text alerts – were treated to the sight of the vamp laid low, down on her knees, about to have her block knocked off by a great big sword. And, at the same time, our hero miraculously appeared to save his damsel in distress. Medusa and Perseus, Rapunzel and her prince, all wrapped up in a potent little bundle. Symbolically speaking, it was really quite impressive. But for those of us crazies who like to think that women are, y’know, just regular human beings, it was, politically, really quite regressive.
According to The A.V. Club review:
In a way, Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” was the prototypical cliffhanger. It involves the hero, Sherlock Holmes, teetering off the edge of a cliff to his apparent doom, and its publication was followed by a long hiatus. In another way, “The Final Problem” wasn’t a cliffhanger at all, since by all accounts, Doyle considered that story—the consulting detective’s fatal tumble down Reichenbach Falls—to be the conclusion of Holmes’ career. It’s only in retrospect that Holmes’ fall became climax rather than denouement.
“The Great Game” had none of that ambiguity. When it aired in 2010, it left us with the image of Sherlock, John Watson, and Moriarty standing over a pile of explosives at a municipal swimming pool, facing Sherlock’s threat to fire his sidearm and turn the pool into Reichenbach Falls Part II—except this time for keeps.
That wasn’t not going to happen, of course, and during the 18-month downtime, Sherlock appears to have grown bored with its own cliffhanger. Moriarty and Sherlock end the mutually assured destruction scenario with a mutual agreement to not destroy each other. Moriarty takes a phone call that offers him a prospect too interesting to pass up. “Sorry, wrong day to die,” he coos. With a snap of his fingers, he orders his crew of assassins—the least-steady-handed snipers in the world—to point their wobbly laser sights away from our heroes’ heads. Everyone stands down.
Moriarty has something to occupy himself, which is nice, but where does that leave Sherlock? Moriarty was his greatest foil. Watson’s blog has turned Sherlock into a minor celebrity, so there is a parade of clients through the door of 221B Baker Street. Sherlock finds most of them “boring,” and it’s hard to blame him. The man who says his aunt’s ashes aren’t his aunt’s ashes, the bloggers who say their beloved comic books are coming true, the girls who want to know if their grandfather’s body went to heaven. It’s all so tedious.
Detective Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard enlists Sherlock’s help with the case of a man who managed to avoid dying in a plane crash—despite checking into the flight—only to be found dead in the trunk of a car. Sherlock can’t figure this one out, and later, as Watson writes the case up on the blog, Sherlock peeks at the screen. “No, no, no, don’t mention the unsolved ones!” he protests. Watson says it’s important to include those, too, because “people want to know you’re human!” Watson most of all, I imagine.
The next case merits a six on Sherlock’s scale—apparently, enough to pique his interest but not enough to make him leave the house. So he videoconferences into the crime scene by way of Watson’s laptop, dressed in nothing more than a sheet. The case: A driver has car trouble in the countryside. He looks out at the nearby clearing and sees a hiker in the distance, by a stream, enjoying nature. The driver tries to start his car, and it backfires. He looks at the clearing again. The hiker is dead. Even over wireless video, this one is a slam dunk. “Go to the stream,” Sherlock says to the cop at the scene, for there he will find his answer.
Just then, a strange, official-seeming fellow storms into Sherlock’s apartment and shuts down the video link. Posh suit, no weapons, trousers speckled with fur from a bunch of small dogs—Sherlock knows exactly where this stranger works.
So Sherlock joins John Watson at Buckingham Palace, and they have a little giggle session. “Are we here to see the Queen?” asks Watson. Sherlock’s stuffy older brother Mycroft Holmes walks in. “Apparently, yes,” says Sherlock. Giggles.
Sherlock is still dressed in nothing but a sheet, which allows for some Benedict Cumberbatch beefcake, perhaps to complement this episode’s supply of female T&A. Once Mycroft and some other royal-palace muckety-muck calm Sherlock down, they explain that one Irene Adler—presumably the same Ms. Adler who phoned Moriarty at the beginning of the episode—is in possession of compromising photos that could embarrass the royal family. Adler’s a dominatrix, you see, and she has well-placed clients.
After borrowing a cigarette lighter from the royal attaché, Sherlock and Watson are off to essentially reenact “A Scandal In Bohemia,” the Doyle story from which this episode gets its title. In the original story, Adler wasn’t a dominatrix, but rather a socialite who has photographs of herself with a European monarch and who outwits Holmes, the rare case in which he’s beaten. I don’t think that recasting Adler as a purveyor of S&M thrills is sexist, as a couple of British critics have argued, in part because I think that the characterization follows naturally from the glimpses of Adler we get in “Bohemia.” In fact, the dominatrix angle strikes me as too obvious and ultimately dull, as Lara Pulver’s portrayal of Adler is not especially sensual nor intimidating.
In line with “Bohemia,” Sherlock masquerades as a man of the cloth seeking refuge from a street fight. Unlike “Bohemia,” Adler greets Sherlock and Watson in the nude. This is why the dominatrix thing is so uninteresting, because the best execution that Sherlock can come up with is, “After looking through her closet for a while, she decides to just up and show them her tits.” Watson is dumbfounded, and Sherlock finds that his clue-scanning powers are rendered impotent by this show of flesh. In essence, the show plays with itself for a couple minutes before it resumes the business of telling a story.
Watson sets off the smoke alarm, and, thinking there’s a fire, Adler instinctively glances at the spot where she’s hidden the photographs (just as the Irene Adler in “Bohemia” does). Before Sherlock can recover the payload, though, a bunch of American thugs with earpieces and silenced firearms storm in and act all American-y. “Open the safe, durr durr! I’m an unrefined asshole who loves to shoot things and swing my big dick around!” says the American, basically. Sherlock obliges, deducing that the numbers that open the safe are Adler’s measurements—and also calculating the circumference of her hips and breasts.
The safe is booby-trapped, allowing Sherlock et al. to gain the upper hand and subdue the Americans. Sherlock ends up with the phone, though it’s protected: “I AM _ _ _ _ LOCKED,” the display reads, with four blanks for a passcode. In the scramble to make sure there are no more interlopers from the colonies, Watson gets separated from Sherlock, and Adler stabs him with some kind of sleepy poison. That’s right, after Adler freaking tells Sherlock that she would rather die than allow him to keep the precious phone, he lets his guard down to such a ridiculous degree that Adler can simply stride up and STAB HIM. She tells Sherlock that she wants him to remember her as “the woman who beat you,” but it feels like she wins on a technicality. The character of Adler deserves something craftier than this from the Sherlock writers.
In the original story, Doyle’s Irene Adler beats Holmes by sniffing out Holmes’ ruse, playing it cool, and waiting for the right moment to turn the tables. This Adler beats Sherlock with a pointy object. So, yes, these first few Adler scenes are the low mark of the episode.
The first act concludes in Holmes’ drug-induced slumberland, where dream-Adler reveals the answer to the dead-hiker conundrum. When the driver’s car backfired, the hiker turned his head, and in that split-second lapse, he was struck in the back of the head by the boomerang he had thrown moments earlier. Laid low by a force that he himself had set into motion—by the end of the episode, the hiker won’t be alone in that fate.
Sherlock quickly recuperates, and Mycroft pays a visit to 221B. The older Holmes spends most of his time there condescending to his younger brother, taking the occasional break to answer his phone and mutter very serious-sounding Defense Ministry blurbs like, “Bond Air is go, that’s decided, check with the Coventry lot.” Sherlock wants to know what else was on Adler’s phone, because it seems unlikely that a couple racy photos of a duchess would have aroused trans-Atlantic concern. Yet Mycroft tells Sherlock to forget it and stay out of it. That’s so Mycroft of him!
Without any leads, though, Sherlock is powerless to obey. So the months pass, and Christmas arrives. Watson and Sherlock throw a Christmas party, in the barest sense of the term: Lestrade has nowhere better to be thanks to an estrangement from his wife, Mrs. Hudson from downstairs nurses her ailing hip, and Sherlock humiliates poor Molly, the woman from the coroner’s office who has a crush on him.
Molly’s prospects are doomed, but Irene Adler has better luck. Sherlock pays attention whenever he receives a text message from her—it arrives with a distinctive ringtone, a moan of ecstasy—and on this night she alerts him to a gift that has been placed above the fireplace. It’s Adler’s phone. Sherlock calls Mycroft. “You’re going to find Irene Adler tonight,” he tells his older brother. “You’re going to find her dead.”
The brothers meet down at the morgue, where they examine a corpse whose face is mangled but whose measurements match those of The Woman. Sherlock mourns in his own way, accepting a cigarette from Mycroft but otherwise expressionless. Nearby, a family weeps. “Look at them. They all care so much,” Sherlock says. “Caring is not an advantage,” says his brother. Merry Christmas, one and all.
Mycroft calls his grudging accomplice Watson and tells the good doctor to cancel his Christmas plans. “My friends are wrong about you. You’re a great boyfriend,” says Watson’s latest whats-her-name paramour. “Sherlock Holmes is a very lucky man!” So it’s confirmed; Watson is a bachelor again.
Sherlock notices that the hit counter on Watson’s blog has been stuck at “1895” for quite a while now. Perhaps it’s a clue, planted by Adler herself, Sherlock reasons. He tries it: “I AM 1 8 9 5 LOCKED.” No dice.
Outside the flat, a beautiful woman approaches Watson with a smile and a lilt in her voice. She might be a little more subtle than Watson’s been used to lately, on account of she’s wearing all of her clothes, but still, John can recognize an advance when he sees one. Except he’s not seeing one. A black sedan pulls up and Watson is invited to get in. Summon him with a pretty lady—classic Mycroft move, Watson fumes. “He could just call me, you know.”
The car takes Watson to the kind of romantic, abandoned, dramatically lit quasi-industrial setting you get when you hire good location scouts. It’s not Mycroft who has summoned Watson but Irene Adler. She’s alive! And she’d like her phone back. But Watson has no intention of helping her, and he insists that she tell Sherlock she’s alive. He has a short temper with Adler, and while he says he isn’t jealous, it’s not a convincing lie.
Watson seems especially perturbed, in a twisted way, that Sherlock never responds to Adler’s texts. After all, Sherlock would “outlive God trying to have the last word,” Watson says. Except with Adler, Sherlock doesn’t even try. “Does that make me special?” Adler asks. Watson says he doesn’t know. But that’s another lie. Of course it makes her special. Watson just doesn’t know how or why, exactly, it makes her special. A lack of response is an unusual way for somebody to show admiration. There’s nothing usual about Sherlock.
In any event, Adler relents and sends Sherlock a text message with word of her aliveness. A few seconds later, a tinny moan of ecstasy echoes through the empty hall. Sherlock was there for the whole thing.
Back at Baker Street, Sherlock confronts that same CIA thug and his goons. It’s nothing a little Holmesian jiujitsu can’t remedy, though, and soon everyone’s safe again, and Sherlock is comforting poor Mrs. Hudson—who, as it happens, had stowed the all-important cameraphone in her blouse when the Americanos first came knocking. Naturally, Sherlock won’t hear of it when Watson suggests that Mrs. Hudson take some time away from all the drama. “Mrs. Hudson leave Baker Street? England would fall!” says Sherlock with an avuncular tone, as he holds the now-smiling woman tight. We like to see that Sherlock’s human, and the creators of Sherlock know this.
We also like to see him X-raying a phone, because that’s kind of nuts, and nuts is fun, too. Molly from the hospital looks on with her usual doe-eyed admiration, wondering if the phone belongs to Sherlock’s “girlfriend.” It would be silly to X-ray your own girlfriend’s possessions, Sherlock says, but we all do silly things, and hey, maybe Irene Adler was silly enough to make Sherlock’s address the passcode on her phone. “I AM 2 2 1 B LOCKED.” No dice.
Adler definitely knows the address, though, because she turns up in Sherlock’s bed. She’d still like that phone back, because her shadowy criminal contacts—“killers”—are after her, and the documents on the phone are her only leverage. After a little smartphone switcheroo fails to trick Adler, Sherlock hands her the real phone. She shows him an email that she lifted off a Defense Ministry official who was making use of her services. Apparently the man with the loose lips said that the email was going to “save the world.”
It doesn’t look like much. “007 Confirmed allocation,” the subject line reads, and then there’s a string of numbers and letters. In no time, Sherlock determines that the numbers and letters are seat assignments on a jumbo jet, specifically flight 007, specifically flight 007 leaving for Baltimore at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening. Yet that’s not the whole picture, and Sherlock knows it. Flight 007. “Bond Air.” “The Coventry lot.” While he puzzles away, though, Adler texts the flight details to Moriarty. And he, in turn, sends a textual raspberry of triumph. “Jumbo Jet. Dear me Mr Holmes, dear me.” (Presumably his omission of the customary direct-address comma is a symptom of his inimitable criminal insouciance.)
The Mr. Holmes in question is not Sherlock but Mycroft, who buries his face in his hands. Stupid Moriarty, he always ruins EVERYTHING.
Back at Sherlock’s flat, Adler has the consulting detective alone. She asks him if he’s “ever had anyone” and then invites him to “dinner” one last time. He grasps her wrist gently—if this were the end of the world, she whispers, wouldn’t he have dinner with her? No chance to answer that question, because Sherlock once again has uninvited visitors, this time from the British government. They’ve got a ticket for Sherlock, on flight 007.
In the car, Sherlock has something close to the whole picture. During World War II, he explains, the British had intelligence that indicated the town of Coventry was going to be bombed, but they allowed it to happen rather than reveal the fact that they had broken the enemy’s code. (This is an actual story, but probably not a true one—reminiscent of the American urban legend that F.D.R. had advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack.) Sherlock says that Flight 007 is the target of a terrorist plot and the Coventry group in the Ministry Of Defense is going to let it happen rather than torpedo their intelligence sources amid the responsible terror groups.
When Sherlock boards the plane, he finds the seats filled with dead bodies. Well, Mycroft is there, and he’s technically alive. So this is the solution: Fly the plane unmanned, blow it up with nothing but dead bodies inside, and let the terrorists think they’ve won, while nobody has to die. “Neat, don’t you think?” asks Mycroft. And it is, aside from the fact that the point of terrorism is not so much the killing of a few innocent people but rather the political, economic, and social effects that result—effects that would still ripple out from this event whether the bodies on board were already dead or not. And aside from the fact that a conspiracy this massive and complex involving a 747 that took off from a public airport would be impossible to conceal. So, other than being completely deranged and unworkable, it is a tidy little trick, Mycroft.
And it would have been allowed to not work, if it weren’t for that meddling Sherlock. He’d been sniffing around this mad plot unawares for a while now, says Mycroft. The man with the urn full of counterfeit ashes. The girls who weren’t allowed to see their grandparents’ body. The dead man in the car trunk who was supposed to be on the earlier terror-bombed flight. They were all connected.
Until now, though, it had been the Coventry group’s little secret. By the way, Mycroft says to his brother, you didn’t happen to decode that email for Adler, did you? Because, you know, that’s exactly what she wanted you to do. Oops. And Mycroft goes out of his way to pin the blame on his brother, for exhibiting such “obvious” human weakness, trying to impress a girl. Let’s not forget, though, that it was Mycroft who put Sherlock on the case in the first place, unleashing a boomerang that came back to hit him in the ass.
Adler shows up. She still has her phone, and said phone is still full of valuable secrets, information on which the lives of British citizens might depend. After adjourning with the Holmes brothers to Mycroft’s office, she demands protection and a hefty ransom, one that will “blow a hole in the wealth of a nation.”
Except: “No,” Sherlock says. All along, Adler has been playing with a boomerang force of her own, and Sherlock now realizes that instant when, out of human instinct, she looked away. That moment they had in the apartment, when he felt her wrist—that wasn’t a moment of affection, at least not on his part, at least not entirely. He was taking her pulse, and it was quick. She had gotten sentimental, “a chemical defect found on the losing side.” She insists she was merely toying with him, “just playing the game.” But Sherlock types, “I AM S H E R LOCKED,” and the phone doesn’t lie. It might induce a few groans, given that this climactic plot point turns on a pun, but the writers come by the pun honestly.
Months later, Mycroft and Watson meet in a café, where Mycroft informs the doctor that Adler is dead. “It’s definitely her? She’s done this before,” Watson says. “It’s her. I was thorough this time,” Mycroft says. “It would take Sherlock Holmes to fool me.” Which, of course, he has. Sherlock was on hand for the supposed beheading of Adler, and he’s helped her to a life of anonymity. I don’t think that this knight-in-shining-armor epilogue helps the episode; the banishment of uncertainty detracts from the poignancy for me.
The only memento Sherlock wishes to keep is that pivotal phone of hers, the same way that Doyle’s Holmes accepted a photo of Adler as payment in “Bohemia.” And like the original Holmes, Sherlock thinks of Adler as The Woman. Maybe she’s not the woman who beat him, since in this modern telling, she didn’t, in the end. But she is the woman that intrigued him, and who he admired in his own way. Sherlock hesitates as he puts the phone in the drawer, lingering over it for a second. “The Woman,” he says, with emphasis on the definite article, and with some regret. Her weakness was that her pulse quickened despite herself, and for a moment, he allows himself to wish that he had that same weakness, too.