The Woman. Just, The Woman.
After the first series of Sherlock, it was clear that the audience reaction around the world meant Moffat and Gatiss had a bigger success on their hands than they had expected, or in fact quite knew what to do with. When the show came back for its second series, it would have to go big or go home, blow the doors off some even bigger Holmes cases or risk forever being seen as a one-series flash in a fantastic pan.
To give it its due, Series 2 dealt with three of the biggies in the Holmes canon – Irene Adler, ‘The Woman’ from A Scandal In Bohemia, the best known of all the Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the seeming destruction of Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. If Series 1 had set itself the goal of proving the concept of an updated Holmes could work, Series 2 was to be its ‘take no prisoners’ series – it would either become a crowning glory, a celebration both of the Conan Doyle originals and the power of the update, or it would prove itself unable to scale the heights of the monolithic originals and go, probably quietly, away.
A Scandal In Bohemia is a big prospect in itself – royal families, compromising photographs, a practical prince’s ransom at stake to protect the honour of the Bohemian ruling classes, and, among it all, there’s the tantalizing character of Irene Adler, the American opera singer who had a liaison with the Bohemian prince, and the person Holmes ever after only describes as ‘The Woman.’ There’s an implication that if she doesn’t reach his remote and ever-calculating heart, The Woman at least touches Sherlock Holmes’ mind, arguably by far the more interesting and intimate part of him.
How the hell do you update that and keep it relevant?
Firstly, there’s an intelligent decision made – the original hangs on the shame the Bohemians would feel were the revelation of the connection with Adler ever made. In our less prudish, more salacious society, there’s no particular suggestion of shame, but certainly the idea of damage done through press publication of compromising photographs. Relationships, these days, are our stock in trade. But paying for sex appeals to both the salacious and the disapproving sides of our conflicted societal nature (every tabloid screams ‘Ooh, Shocking! See Page 7 For Pictures!’ If that doesn’t strike you as conflicted, you’ve presumably mastered DoubleThink). Paying for kink even more so. So Moffat recasts Adler as a professional inflictor of pain and pleasure, a dominatrix to the stars, but more importantly to the powerful. She actually bills herself as ‘The Woman.’ And now there are compromising photos of a female member of the British Royal Family in an extremely compromised position with The Woman. Mycroft, in his significantly altered position in the update, is on hand to assist the Crown and calls in his younger brother to retrieve the pictures on The Woman’s cameraphone.
Along the way, there’s sheer joy – Sherlock in a sheet in Buckingham Palace because he simply refuses to let his brother dictate his actions, the updates to Watson’s blog making gloriously free with the Conan Doyle canon, twisting the titles to deliver laughs (The Speckled Blonde – beautiful), and the expanded understanding we get of ‘the battlefield’ beneath what everyone sees on London’s streets, with Jim Moriarty in effect sparing the lives of Sherlock and John at the beginning after a call from Adler, and going on to torment Mycroft with what he knows as a result of her information. Adler, as played by Lara Pulver, is a woman who ‘knows what people like’ and gives it to them, taking what she needs to bolster her position and her security along the way. When Sherlock takes the case and promises to retrieve the pictures, he does it because she’s not demanding money from the Royals. She’s asking for nothing at all, she just wants people to know she has the pictures.
People, it turns out, most specifically including Mycroft Holmes and Jim Moriarty.
When Sherlock turns up at her door pretending to be a mugged vicar, the ruse fools her for not a second – she’s expecting him, and has donned her ‘battledress’ to meet him. Her battledress of course being nothing at all. Her attempt to unnerve the man Moriarty describes as ‘The Virgin’ is possibly the only off-key sequence in the episode, bowing to its pre-watershed broadcast time to allow Sherlock Holmes to get nothing in the way of clues from her nakedness. That’s a possible disservice to the original, who, stripped of modern sentiment, would have been able to determine preparation for the meeting in her make-up, her hair, (not to be prudish or indelicate) her intimate grooming. He should have known her gym routine from her muscle tone, her favoured whip-hand from the turn of her wrist, and so on. But our pre-watershed Sherlock gets nothing – beyond the fact that she takes her clothes off to make an impression, and ultimately, thankfully, her vital statistics. Being suddenly attacked by the CIA helps deepen the mystery beyond the nature of a sex scandal though, and begins a kind of intellectual courtship between Adler and Holmes that if anything makes the Cumberbatch-Pulver versions of these characters far more interesting than the originals as written (at least to our modern minds).
As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that there’s more on Adler’s cameraphone than sexy pictures. Once she gives Sherlock a puzzle to play with it takes him eight seconds to make more progress than anyone else has been able to manage in months – as was a theme all the way through Series 1, for all his somewhat lofty sociopathy, Sherlock Holmes is as susceptible to manipulation as anyone else. Give him a puzzle and Sherlock Holmes will sit up and beg, because the alternative is being left alone with his brain and his boredom.
The real scandal locked away in a cameraphone in Belgravia is not one of sex but one of policy, not one of bondage but BondAir. Years of Mycroft’s work is undone and lives will doubtless be put needlessly at risk, a convoluted plan ruined by Sherlock’s compulsive need to solve problems, and if possible impress, while Moriarty laughs and taunts the Holmes boys. Nevertheless, the connection between Sherlock and Irene is both real and sentimental – the lock code to her phone, which will be destroyed if tampered with (putting lives at risk) shows the sentiment. Sherlock’s final recue of The Woman shows the reality.
As an update, like most of the others in the series, A Scandal in Belgravia is loose, taking more delight in the twists it’s able to apply and in delivering a mystery that still feels fresh to our modern eyes and keeps us guessing. Essentially, it’s true to the spirit of Conan Doyle, delivering the unfathomable and relentlessly enticing, while taking delicious liberties with the whole scope of the source material but including enough gracenotes to make it unquestionably sing the same fundamental song as the original.
When it aired, A Scandal In Belgravia felt instinctively like a step up. Not that anything in Series 1 was pedestrian – The Blind Banker was the most faithful and dogged recreation of the original narrative structure, but the whole Moriarty thread was sublime – but A Scandal In Belgravia did what Conan Doyle did but that few ever remember: it made the Sherlock Holmes stories about a wider world than just the monomaniacal mental duel between a man and his nemesis. It showed there were other players in Sherlock’s world, some of whom had different special interests to serve than his eventual destruction. Lara Pulver took Adler to a new level, playing at – at the very least – the same level of quality and intensity as Cumberbatch, Gatiss and Andrew Scott, establishing the new Irene Adler as unforgettable character, and A Scandal In Belgravia as an explosive “We’ve still got it – and then some” opening act to Sherlock’s second series.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk