It’s January 1st, 2012. Coldplay are at nuber one with “Paradise,” with Flo Rida, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, and LMFAO also charting. Since Christmas, Samo aand Tokelau switched sides of the International Date Line, and Harry Burkhart committed two million dollars worth of damage in an arson spree in Los Angeles.
While on television, Sherlock returns with A Scandal in Belgravia. This is, quite simply, a phenomenal piece of television. It belongs on lists alongside The West Wing’s “Two Cathedrals” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” It’s smart and ambitious, and everything it tries comes off nearly perfectly. It calmly and definitively sums up what this take on Sherlock Holmes can do, and why it’s valuable and interesting – a marvelous case of a show being its own best advertising. Even more than its barnstorming premiere, this is an episode you can show people to hook them on the show.
With so much talent on display here, it seems silly to credit it all to Moffat. But in the end, this episode works because its script provides such a strong foundation. First and foremost, A Scandal in Belgravia consists of Moffat luxuriating in the structure of writing. Moffat has always been an intensely structural writer – as a farceur has to be, really. But more than that, Moffat has always been unafraid of foregrounding the structure, writing television in which part of the pleasure is watching the story unfold in the peculiar shape he’s put it into.
But in the past, Moffat has relied on structural cleverness to create big, landmark episodes of series like Coupling and Press Gang where the budget didn’t give any other ways to go big. With A Scandal in Belgravia, on the other hand, he finds himself at a seeming summit of his career, with opportunities unlike any he’d had before. The ninety minute format gave him space to work that he’d never had before – he didn’t even have the obligation of a cliffhanger at the forty-five minute mark to work to. In Cumberbatch and Freeman he had as solid a cast as exists. With Sherlock as a bona fide hit, there was the budget to do, if not whatever he wanted, at least more or less anything that might be required of an action-adventure plot. He’s got a top notch director.
The last time Moffat faced a situation like this he produced The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, but there, at least, he still had the advantage of low expectations. Here there’s no shield – Moffat’s only options are to show that he’s as brilliant as claimed or to disappoint. He didn’t disappoint.
In many ways this comes from Sherlock’s structure, which is almost tailor made for Moffat to succeed with. The show is, by its nature, built around moments of dazzling exposition, that being, in a real sense, the entire point of Sherlock Holmes as a character. These are also the sorts of scenes Moffat excels at – he’s always been extremely good at using exposition scenes for characterization and comedy. And, of course, he has Benedict Cumberbatch, a ruthlessly methodical actor who’s capable of mapping extraordinarily nuanced paths through Moffat’s dialogue.
All of which is to say that the episode is really structured around its finale, and three specific plot beats. The first is the revelation from Mycroft that Sherlock has been flitting around the edges of the plane plot all episode, which is both well-constructed (using the establishing montage at the outset to throw in a bunch of key details) and, more to the point, feels as though it’s wrapped up the episode. There’s enough Aristotelean unity in that to feel like things have resolved, which gives Irene’s seeming victory structural weight.
This, in turn, makes the subsequent revelation of Irene’s password all the more triumphant – especially because it’s such a well-structured reveal that manages to be as clever as it is obvious. With the plot feeling as though it’s resolved the bulk of its hanging threads, it feels like a proper reversal. What’s key is the elegance of the actual solution – we’ve seen the “I AM _ _ _ _ LOCKED” screen enough times, but by filling in wrong answers we’re subtly been led away from reading the blanks as part of the phrase. Between that and the fact that the entire reveal is, in reality, just a pun, the climax lands magnificently.
Which is, in practice, all setup for the final reveal, in which Moffat opts to actively reject the standard narrative structure of this sort of thing, in which Irene gets fridged at the end. The script sets this up carefully, starting by establishing her death in dialogue between John and Mycroft, then revealing that Sherlock already knows about it (which only further hammers it home), and then finally cutting to her execution. There’s a sort of steady worsening of the situation that happens here, with each development in the resolution making it less satisfying and more exploitative, all building to the false fade-to-black, which finds one more bit of the script to pay off with the “ah” text message sound signifying the final twist away from being a story about a tragic femme fatale and towards being a story about the sort of romance a character like Sherlock can have.
Which brings us around to the actual point of this episode. It will (and has) not escaped notice that Sherlock and Irene’s relationship is not entirely unlike the relationship between the Doctor and River, not least because of Moffat’s comments in interviews in which he describes them as “psychopaths.” But where that always felt like a slightly awkward approach in Doctor Who (Moffat is surely the first person to suggest that the Doctor is a psychopath, or that he could only ever love one), it’s a sound fit for a show whose first episode openly proclaimed the main character to be a “high functioning sociopath.” Sherlock has always in part been about the fact that its main character is as broken as he is extraordinary.
But within this, the point has always been to do something other than angst over Sherlock’s frailties. Sherlock, and for that matter Moffat, has never been inclined towards deconstruction. And so instead of a dour piece about how Sherlock’s genius means he will be forever alone or some other suitably emo shit, we get a story that is interested in trying to figure out what sort of romantic partner Sherlock could ever have.
On top of this, of course, is the original text. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which has the odd double role of introducing the only character anybody ever romantically pairs Sherlock Holmes with and flagrantly not actually being about Sherlock Holmes in love. What “A Scandal in Bohemia” is about, however, is the differences between men and women – a point highlighted at the end of the story, when Watson reflects on how Holmes “used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.” Further, Holmes’s monicker for Adler, “the woman,” is described with the emphasis on the definite article, highlighting the way in which the story intends to present Adler as an exemplar of her gender. (This is hammered home in the first paragraph.)
But Adler is something of a cipher throughout the story, since Watson never actually meets her. In essence all we actually see is her making her way through a series of romantic relationships that she uses to protect her life, and given that the story refers to her as “the late Irene Adler” at one point, suggesting that her protection may have run out. All we get of her is Holmes’s general comments on how women work (which are all borne out) and the description of her victory as stemming from “a woman’s wit,” but that victory is ultimately hollow, and her wit remains wholly subjugated to men. It is not a story devoid of value, but it’s also far from straightforward.
So with Adler being largely without characterization, Moffat had considerable leeway in how to approach this story. His approach – making her a dominatrix – is savvier than it first appears. Within the confines of what was pitched to the BBC as a “sexy” version of Sherlock Holmes, it’s obvious to point of being inevitable. There’s no way for the character not to intersect with the femme fatale archetype, and the dominatrix leans into it nicely. It’s a profession that allows Adler to not just serve as a femme fatale, but to be a hyper-competent femme fatale who does not merely incidentally serve in that role, but who is conscious and self-aware.
On top of that, Moffat writes a good dominatrix. She’s over the top, but between Lara Pulver’s acting and a wealth of little touches, she feels, if not like a real person as such, at least as rounded and realized as Sherlock and John, which counts for a lot. Perhaps more to the point, Moffat writes her as a character who is genuinely dominant – that is, as someone who is capable of controlling social interactions and getting people to do what she wants. It would be easy for such a character to become overbearing, but there’s an intriguing understatement to her dominance. Her big nude scene, where she takes control simply by not wearing any clothes and throwing everyone for a loop, is a case in point. For all its self-conscious eroticism, there’s a remarkable subtlety to the scene.
But the central cleverness isn’t simply creating an unusually nuanced dominatrix/femme fatale. It’s also in setting this up as a viable romance for Sherlock Holmes, and, as we’ve already discussed, successfully sustaining that romance in a way that doesn’t take away from either character. Nobody has to “settle down” or sacrifice parts of their identity. The implication is fairly clear that Irene and Sherlock will meet again, whether in a televised story or not.
And it is here that the observations about structure finally come into focus. Because the reason this works is, in effect, that Moffat is able to build an entire relationship out of exposition and cleverness. Because Sherlock and Irene are both ultimately constructed as hyper-competent characters in a detective serial as opposed to people who are prone to, say, discussing or acknowledging their feelings, their relationship exists entirely in this realm. It’s all puzzles, explanations, and adventures. Which is why the hyper-structured approach of this episode works so well: because ultimately, Moffat is telling a love story in which the romance itself is pure structure.
Moffat finds, in other words, an intersection between a couple of things he’s good at and commences to build something at that intersection. But it’s striking just how weird the intersection is. Love stories and puzzle boxes are not really the same thing at all, and although Moffat has written loads of both, including the Doctor/River romance, he’s never really stripped it down to this bare a level before. The Doctor and River’s relationship was a puzzle, but the content of their relationship was mad adventures. But Sherlock and Irene are puzzle all the way down.
It helps tremendously, however, that the world around them is so crisp by this point. Sherlock and John are a well-honed double act capable of anchoring any scene, but Sherlock had that sorted out by the end of its first episode. What’s impressive at this point is the way they’ve learned to trust in Rupert Graves, Una Stubbs, and Louise Brealey, all of whom also get absolutely top drawer stuff. In an episode that borders on being lopsided given how good the Sherlock/Irene stuff is, having things like the wonderful beat of Mrs. Hudson hiding the phone or the scene of Sherlock cruelly deducing the nature of Molly’s gift before realizing who it’s for are both hugely important things that make it easy to be thrilled that the show is back, as opposed to just being happy that Benedict Cumberbatch is. And, of course, there’s Paul McGuigan, who directs this with a stunning array of interesting and vibrant camera angles that makes it feel fresh and dynamic.
When this aired, it felt brilliant in a way that, in one sense, nothing Moffat had written since Blink did. He’d written top notch scripts, certainly, and I’m not going to suggest that this is my favorite, because it’s not. But he’d not written a puzzle box this immaculately constructed in years, and certainly not one with the sweep and scale of this. To do that while also finding a genuinely new and fresh way to do a love story in an action-adventure story is remarkable. And there is, throughout A Scandal in Belgravia, a sense that Moffat knows just how good this is. He’s on his top form, working in beautiful little bits of snark like the deft implication of who it is Adler has photographs of. And, of course, there’s his underlying insistence on reworking how women in stories like this get to work – his cheeky decision to keep Irene alive really is such a brash rejection of how these things are usually done. He’s writing like a man who knows that his career is unlikely to have a better phase than this.
Which is notable in its own right. This is around the period where a critical line against Moffat really started to crystallize – indeed, I think you can make the argument that Jane Clare Jones’s article about this story in the Guardian two days after it aired was a tipping point in the “Moffat is sexist” line of argument. My issues with this argument in the general are well-documented and don’t need to be reiterated here, but there is a sense of the tide of outspoken opinion (distinct from public opinion) turning here – just nine months after this, Moffat would opt to depart Twitter in part due to the degree of vitriol being directed at him there. And yet for all of this, notably, the sense of confidence and swagger in his writing never wavered. Much of why A Scandal in Belgravia works as well as it does is the fact that it’s willing to aim high and trust that the talent of everyone involved will carry the production over the line. That hasn’t always worked, and it won’t always work. But when it does, as with this, it’s electrifying.
And perhaps more than anything, then, it’s worth noting that there’s a reason why Steven Moffat’s career crescendos here, and why he found himself in the position of writing and overseeing two of the BBC’s biggest hits. He’s very, very good at writing television. And on his best days, he’s practically untouchable. This is a case in point.