By now, most of the Elementary fandom has probably already seen or been spoiled for the season finale double-whammy that was “The Woman/Heroine”. But just in case someone hasn’t, abandon ship now if you want to remain unspoiled, because this bit of rambling meta is going to lay out just how cleverly Elementary updated and made the one woman who bested Sherlock Holmes their own.
Short version: Warning, here there be spoilers.
So, just a quick refresher: In the original ACD canon, Irene Adler appears in one story, A “Scandal in Bohemia,” and is mentioned in others, as the woman who bested Sherlock Holmes and ran off to her own life and is never seen again. From Dr. Watson’s perspective, Holmes did not love Irene Adler, but that he did feel an immense respect for her.
In many of the adaptations since the original story was published, the role of Irene Adler as The Woman has been expanded, usually to that of criminal, and usually as a love interest for Holmes.
And for a while, it appeared Elementary not only went down the same path, but that she was also dead (which again, a nice nod to the original canon and ACD’s complete inability to remain internally consistent but that’s another point altogether), leading to cries of her being “fridged for Sherlock’s manpain”.
But lo and behold, not only do we find out in the season finale that Irene Adler is still alive, but that she isn’t in fact Irene Adler at all, but Moriarty herself. And this is a twist that, as far as I know, has not been played with in modern Holmes adaptations (though if it has happened in pastiches, someone please tell me).
And why not? It’s brilliant.
On Irene Adler as the Holmsian Love Interest… again.
One of the most problematic and most prevalent themes of the Adler-as-Love-Interest tropes is how despite she being the woman who beat him, that Holmes eventually returns to save her. The idea that Holmes has feelings for Adler because she’s beaten him is, I think, an acceptable read of canon. It’s clear that he has some strong regard for her, and whether it’s taking into account Watson as unreliable narrator or adaptation degeneration, the idea that Holmes felt something for Irene Norton nee Adler does not seem too much of a stretch.
(Why it always has to be love, well that’s another discussion entirely on the changing views of rationalism and love, one I’m nowhere near qualified to really expound on)
But the fact is that the return is always to the trope that Irene Adler, having beaten Sherlock Holmes, requires saving by him. And Elementary sidesteps this beautifully by having Irene Adler succeed in fooling Sherlock Holmes, and going on her merry way.
And this is the part where the idea gets a little complicated. Because by the end of the episode we realize Irene is and always has been Moriarty. So does Adler really beat Holmes? Or is it Moriarty who does. What does that mean for the Adler/Holmes narrative in the scope of A Scandal in Bohemia?
Trying to answer that question is where things get very interesting for me, and really brings to light for me how extremely clever the Elementary writers were. I think it’s very useful to distinguish between Moriarty and Irene Adler despite them being the same person, because the show itself takes such pains to set them apart. And for a good reason.
Things to note about Elementary’s Irene Adler: Much the same as “A Scandal In Bohemia“‘s Adler, she is content to have one encounter with Holmes and be gone on her merry way. Moriarty’s motivations for experimenting with Holmes, for observing him, are related to this fact, but the key is that the core of Irene Adler, the one who encounters Holmes, impresses him with her intellect (and in this case, intellect AND appreciation for art preservation), and then walks away from him with exactly what she wants, remains the same.
It gets a little more complicated, when we remember that Adler is, in fact, a construct of Moriarty’s. And how much could Moriarty be willing to walk away if the entire point of the exercise is to observe Holmes in his natural habitat?
But that too, is made clear in Moriarty’s reveal. Moriarty-as-Adler is still perfectly willing, perfectly capable of walking away from Holmes. Moriarty-as-Adler still wins by successfully fooling Holmes by faking her death.
It is Holmes who falls, who is deeply affected and deeply moved by his meeting with Adler. In the story, that deeply moved leads him to stop underestimating women, to give her the title of The Woman, the one that eclipses and predominates the entirety of her sex; in Elementary, Holmes ends up with a heroin addiction. But in both he is still deeply moved by having met her.
And Moriarty-as-Adler doesn’t need rescuing by Holmes. She isn’t saved, she doesn’t need to be. She walks away from Holmes with her agency and the very core of her being firmly intact.
Which is far truer to the text than would initially meets the eye with the red herrings of Dead Girlfriend and Bohemian Painter and The One that Got Away that had been thrown our way.
Some people might consider it a bit of erasure, for Irene Adler as a character to be revealed as Moriarty in disguise, I actually really like the twist, for a simple reason:
Irene Adler was The Woman to Sherlock Holmes, the one woman who eclipsed and predominated the whole of her sex, the only one to gain the honourific of The Woman from Sherlock Holmes.
And Irene Adler doesn’t exist. Irene Adler as The Woman is a construct, a fantasy, and Elementary very simply puts that out there. That the person Holmes considered The Woman, the single one, the woman who is representative of women. That person doesn’t exist. No perfect woman exists. Not for Sherlock Holmes, not for any one.
When stripped of artifice and the Sherlockian trappings of intelligence and meetings of the mind, the courtship of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, and the revelation of Moriarty-as-Adler, speaks to something incredibly basic:
Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Girl turns out to be not as perfect as boy thinks. Boy is distraught. Boy (with help of Friend) Gets Over It.
It’s simple and it’s powerful and it is poignant. And it flies in the face of every single romantic comedy in the media. By breaking Irene Adler down into a fabrication, Elementary shows us how hollow the idea of The Woman, The Man, The Perfect Ideal of Your Choice, is.
And, you know what, that’s awesome.
On Irene Adler Being Beaten By Sherlock Holmes… Again
Some people have said that by making Moriarty Irene, that it again takes away Irene’s agency that she is not the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes, but the woman beaten by Sherlock Holmes. And once again, this is the part where putting a distinction between Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes is helpful. Irene Adler is a construct of Moriarty’s, and it was Moriarty who was defeated.
But not by Sherlock.
Moriarty was beaten by Joan Watson.
Let’s repeat that. Sherlock’s overdose was a ruse. Sherlock being in the hospital was bait for Moriarty, and it was Joan Watson who beat Moriarty, who diagnosed Moriarty and beat her.
Joan was right. Moriarty remains (as both herself and in the Irene Adler guise) the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes. And who in turn was beaten by another woman, by Joan Watson.
How is that not absolutely beautiful and a clever way of keeping the core of what made Irene Adler so deserving of respect for Holmes while still remaining true to the Moriarty narrative of Moriarty being beaten. And in this case, even as Moriarty loses (in this case to Joan), Holmes loses too. Instead of losing his life (as the original intent of ACD’s Final Problem), Holmes loses a bit of his own history, a part of himself that was both painful and formative and something that was good that he obviously treasured.
But having addressed “The Final Problem,” let’s circle back to “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Holmes loses to Adler in “Scandal” because he underestimates her because she’s a woman, because he found himself believing the cultural myth of that period, that woman are inherently inferior to men, that they can’t be as clever. And he loses, to his detriment.
On Elementary, it’s not Holmes’ misogyny and buying into the cultural myth that is his downfall. This time it’s Moriarty’s. Moriarty buys into our cultural myth. Moriarty is a woman, Moriarty is the one who should know better than Holmes that women are a force to be reckoned with. And yet Moriarty buys into internalized misogyny and underestimates Joan Watson.
Think about it for a minute. Internalized misogyny is not being perpetuated by the hero who is then rewarded. Internalized misogyny is being practiced and perpetuated by the antagonist and her downfall is directly related to her internalized misogyny. Her dismissal of other women, as seeing them as competition, mascot, as lesser directly relates to her losing.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
In the current media landscape, we are still regularly reinforced by the idea that women should be seen as competition, where we all buy into (to varying degrees) a social expectation that women are lesser desirable, are expected to be less interesting, less well written then men. We all buy into that to varying degrees. But suddenly we have Elementary, we have a show that not only updated a classic canon to the modern age by the inclusion of peoples of colour, but one that proceeds to update the myths and shatter the idea of people as paragons of their gender, that manages to make internalized misogyny a trait that doesn’t just exist but is actively negative.
How cool is that?
Now, if only we can stop with the Microsoft product placements.
from io9’s excellent analysis of the first season of Elementary - Elementary Demonstrates the Right Way to Update a Classic Hero (via gallifreygal)
This is a Holmes knocked from the pedestal of the dispassionate gentleman detective. His relationship with his addiction forms the core of his character, of secondary importance only to Watson in his development throughout the season. And Jonny Lee Miller’s fantastic incarnation of Holmes makes sure we feel the weight of addiction in a show that takes it seriously. He suffers the aftermath, and must face the realities of recovery — no easy thing for a man who trades on the illusion of invincibility with all the gusto of the Conan Doyle original.
Also keeping him humble: his supporting cast. There’s a popular misconception — the fault of many an adaptation — that Holmes is a supergenius accompanied by an admiring everyman and surrounded by dunces. Conan Doyle’s Watson and Gregson would beg to differ, and so this Holmes lives in no such vacuum; he’s never the only clever person in a room. When he reveals his addiction, Gregson (not unkindly) points out that as a detective, he had that covered. His sponsor Alfredo’s skills in the repossessionary arts outclass Holmes’s by a mile. He acknowledges Moriarty as more than a match for himself. Even housekeeper/librarian Ms. Hudson has the effortless memory to which Holmes aspires.
And in Watson, he’s found an equal — and that’s what the show’s not-so-secretly about.