When last we saw Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, all the way back in 2010, they were just about to get shot by snipers or blow up themselves and supervillain Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) at the end of “The Great Game.” Well here it is, 2012, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are back, mercifully, for another round of daring mystery-solving in series two of Sherlock, which had its North American premiere last night on PBS.
This season, writers Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and Steve Thompson are offering up three new adventures, this time adapting arguably the most well-known of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. Episode one gave us Moffat’s take on “A Scandal in Bohemia” with “A Scandal in Belgravia,” a story that introduces the television show to The Woman, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver. This may be the archetypal Steven Moffat story; it’s clever, it’s full of sexual innuendo, it has a brassy woman, and, in the end, everything is connected.
But first, there’s that pesky cliffhanger to deal with. Fans have been waiting as patiently as possible for the resolution to the stalemate/checkmate ending of series one’s “The Great Game.” What happens is probably the most Moffatty diffusion of a perilous situation you could dream of: Moriarty gets a phone call. Yep, it appears that today is NOT a good day for Jim to bite the dust and, so, he lets the sleuths live. Moffat understands television better than anyone, and having worked on Doctor Who pays off here; you end an episode with the most “how will they get out of that?!” cliffhanger, and you forget it almost as quickly. What’s great, though, is that it’s entirely in keeping with the character of Moriarty and plays into the plot of the episode at hand as well. We’ll get more Moriarty later in the series, but here he simply walks away.
From here, we get a series of Sherlock and Watson interviewing prospective clients. Watson’s blog has picked up a great deal of steam and Sherlock is garnering a degree of fame. He makes mention of not wanting to have a public face and there’s a very funny in-joke which I won’t spoil here for those not in the know… but it’s a good one. They soon get on the case of a man who died of blunt force trauma while standing in an open field and the only witness, a man whose car had broken down, didn’t see anyone. This intrigues Holmes, but not enough to actually go there himself; he sends Watson and a webcam to investigate whilst he himself sits at home wrapped in a sheet.
They are interrupted mid-investigation (we do eventually get a resolution to this mystery) by government employees and helicopters. Seems they’re being hired by someone very, very high up, as they find themselves in Buckingham Palace. They are greeted, with his usual clipped pomposity, by Mycroft Holmes, still played brilliantly by series co-creator Mark Gatiss. It seems that a high-priced dominatrix named Irene Adler has a camera phone containing a series of compromising photographs featuring herself and a female member of the royal family. These would, of course, spell nothing but trouble for the most powerful family in Britain were they to be released; however, Ms. Adler is not asking for anything. She merely wants them to know that she has them. This power play sparks Sherlock into taking the case, to retrieve the camera phone, and prevent the eponymous scandal.
This is, of course, not the end of the story by a long shot. In fact, one of the things I like best about this episode is that it’s not afraid to span a great deal of time. The very beginning of the episode shows on Watson’s blog that it’s near the end of May, yet by the end of the 90 minute story, we’ve just had Christmas and New Year’s. When all’s said and done, it’s probably close to a year all told from the top to tail. There’s no point in having feature-length episodes if you aren’t going to play with it. We’re seeing the entirety of the Irene Adler saga, which would surely take longer than a couple of days. We see that they’re working on other cases along the way, but we certainly don’t need to know the details of each of them.
Now, let’s talk about Irene Adler. She is an incredibly smart, savvy, industrious, dangerous, and sexy woman, absolutely tailor-made for the Moffat treatment. Ever hear of a person named River Song? Moffat eats up women like this on a silver platter. It’s like he wants all women to be the screwball comedy version of Emma Peel. Within Sherlock Holmes, Adler is the closest thing he could possibly have to a girlfriend. He doesn’t exist in a physical or sexual world; he’s got no time for it. But he has the utmost respect for her intellect, which is the only thing that Sherlock Holmes values. She proves to be a match for him, a worthy mental sparring partner. Her allegiances lie only with herself, or to whoever pays her the most, and often, that isn’t Sherlock. Because Moffat is who he is, he’s made her a dominatrix and she wears very little throughout. Like all of his women, there will undoubtedly be allegations of sexism in the way he’s written the character, but I think he’s just writing women the way he wants them to be. It’s the same thing Howard Hawks did. They like sexy women who talk like men.
Lara Pulver’s portrayal of Adler is very good. She’s graceful and demure but you know she can handle herself, in just about any way possible. Her scenes with Cumberbatch are heated and enthralling. There are lots of layers to the character (not clothing-wise) and Pulver plays them all wonderfully. She makes you believe she’s telling the truth when you know she probably isn’t, which is exactly the predicament Holmes finds himself in. Of the Conan Doyle stories, Adler appears in only “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but I would like to think Moffat & Co could find a way to work the character into further stories, simply because Lara Pulver did such a great job.
The rest of the cast is a joy as well. Cumberbatch and Freeman’s interplay is even stronger this season, and we truly get the sense that they are great, if unusual, friends. This should go without saying, since they’re professional actors, but at no point watching them do you think they’re actors playing parts; they seem like real, live people. The supporting cast has a more prominent role in this episode, specifically Gatiss as Mycroft and Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson. Both get the opportunity to explore their characters a bit deeper and flesh them out. Unlike in the recent Robert Downey, Jr. film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft here is respectfully adversarial and we get a real sense of their childhood through short exchanges. There’s also a fantastic moment when Sherlock, at home with all his friends on Christmas, calls Mycroft who is sitting entirely alone in a giant room next to a fireplace. It’s a rare moment of Mycroft behind the curtain.
The direction for this episode is by Paul McGuigan, who directed episodes one and three last series and also directs episode two of this series. He brings an excellent flashiness to the program, taking various moments to do interesting or surreal things, depending on the situation. As with last series, Sherlock’s mental processes are represented graphically, via onscreen text, slow motion photography, and freeze frames. I’m sure as a nod, or a slam, on the Guy Ritchie films’ fight scenes, we get a quick, Matrix-y punch-up between Sherlock, Adler, and some CIA guys. It’s very well handled and doesn’t detract from the story for the sake of cool cinematography. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s episode to see what McGuigan does with a horror story.
“A Scandal in Belgravia” is an excellent opener to the season and welcome return to our favorite consulting detective and military doctor. By taking on such a well-known story in the Holmes canon, and making it their own, the Sherlock team has solidified their place in the history of televised sleuthing. Until now, nothing could touch the Jeremy Brett series of Holmes adventures and, while those are still fantastic, Sherlock is making something wholly separate yet equally wonderful. Next week’s episode is “The Hounds of Baskerville,” written by Mark Gatiss, of course a take on perhaps the best known of Conan Doyle’s stories, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Who’s excited?