Sherlock 2.1: A Scandal in Belgravia

First and foremost let me express my deep disappointment with whoever made the call to edit Sherlock for American television. Not only is it supremely annoying to not receive the same program as was originally aired, but in this day and age, when everything is online, you simply can’t do that kind of thing without getting caught out and made to look stupid. There’s no good reason for that kind of tampering. It bothers me because one of the cuts removed a key character moment. The scenes between John and Sherlock with the ashtray, while funny, really don’t have anything to do with the plot, but the scene between Mycroft and Sherlock when Sherlock says, “Sex doesn’t alarm me,” and Mycroft responds, “How would you know?” not only illuminates something about Sherlock, but about his relationship with Mycroft. It’s a key moment and I cannot believe it was cut.  Whatever, that happened and it’s shitty, and now let’s talk about Sherlock season two, episode one.

I’m saving the particular discussion about Irene Adler for its own post because she is a monster to deal with. For the purposes of this review, I’ll go with—I like the basic idea of the Irene Adler series creators Steven Moffat, who also wrote this episode, and Mark Gatiss developed. They present her as a dominatrix who keeps incriminating photos on her cell phone as a means of insurance. That works. “A Scandal in Belgravia” is an update of one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best Holmes short stories (in fact, season two adapts the only Holmes stories really worth reading), “A Scandal in Bohemia”, in which Sherlock matches wits with a clever woman of ambiguous morals, Irene Adler. Here, Adler is decidedly more amoral than Doyle’s original, but she retains all of the wit and cunning that are the trademarks of “the woman”. And Adler is well cast, played by Lara Pulver (True Blood’s Claudine), who is beautiful in a sharp, cutting kind of way. She gives Adler a lot of verve and is sexy without being base. She also manages not to get swallowed up by series star Benedict Cumberbatch, which is no mean feat.

The episode picks up immediately where season one’s cliffhanger ended, with Moriarty cornering Sherlock and John at the swimming pool, surrounded by snipers and a bomb vest. We don’t get much Moriarty in this episode, but the way he hisses “If you don’t have it, I’ll make you into shoes,” as he exits the scene is enough of a moment. I have a lot to say about Andrew Scott’s (John Adams) take on Moriarty but I’ll save it for “The Reichenbach Fall”. That’s his show, after all. I found the first act of this episode to be a little rocky. Adler’s introduction into Sherlock’s life is shoe-horned in among montages and time lapses depicting Sherlock’s rise as an internet phenomenon thanks to John Watson’s (Martin Freeman) blog. I think the main issue is simply one of rhythm. Adler is introduced, gets the better of Sherlock, and then disappears and we go through the time jump. The phone call with Moriarty, though, is enough of a setup for her, and I think it would have worked better, rhythmically, if Adler and Sherlock’s confrontation wasn’t halved but was just one crazy week. Splitting the timing gave the first act a fits-and-starts feel.

But it’s not the end of the world because nearly everything else in this episode is firing on all cylinders (what isn’t working pertains to Adler and will be addressed separately). Season one established Sherlock as a genius and near-bulletproof crime fighter. He’s a very contained man of few weaknesses.  Season two is all about finding the few chinks in his armor and prying until everything falls apart. “Belgravia” is the first step down that road as it’s the first time we see Sherlock make a real, grievous error. To be fair to him, he does have plenty of moments where he’s cool and in charge—and one painful moment where he’s absolutely awful to timid Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey, Bleak House). Cumberbatch manages to bring even more style to Sherlock and swings easily between Holmes’ manic moments and his periods of ironclad control. There’s a comfort he has in this role that didn’t exist in season one, a confidence probably borne of the widespread approval he received after the first series (there’s a fun motif throughout the episode playing on his newly-minted status as a thinking woman’s sex symbol—“brainy is the new sexy”). He pushes Sherlock’s mood swings harder, infuses his moments of calculation with more ice, and when he does take that misstep with Adler, his surprise and disbelief would be funny if you didn’t also see how keenly he felt the error.

Freeman, too, displays an increased ease of action and presence as John. He won a BAFTA for his work in series one and it’s clear why—in the face of Cumberbatch’s looming screen tyrant tendencies, Freeman more than holds his own. To American audiences he’s best known as a comedic actor—“that guy from The Office” or “the naked guy in Love Actually”—so his performance in the first season was quite shocking. Who knew Martin Freeman was THAT good of an actor? And now that I am expecting that level of work from him, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s a brilliant foil for Sherlock, and I am amazed every time I watch this show that he is able to go toe-to-toe with Cumberbatch and come out looking like an equal. No one else on the show quite manages that.

The episode ends on quite a dark note. Season one was not particularly dark, even when we got our first glimpse of Moriarty. But “Belgravia” puts us on a darker path, entering the forest of Sherlock’s destruction. It’s a solid episode even if I’m not wildly in love with Adler, and the pacing problems at the beginning are overcome by the otherwise excellent direction from Paul McGuigan (responsible for season one’s “A Study in Pink” and “The Great Game”). There is a lot of clever foreshadowing built in that will come to fruition in “The Reichenbach Fall”, which makes this episode worth revisiting after watching that one. Overall, “Belgravia” proves that series one of Sherlock was not a fluke and that this really is exceptional television, anchored by Cumberbatch and Freeman, who have never been better.


6 thoughts on “Sherlock 2.1: A Scandal in Belgravia

  1. Dana

    I have been thinking about this episode all week and after watching a second time I am left with the follwing impressions:
    Moriarty is one of the scariest villians in a long time. He is really unhinged.
    I love Watson as much as Holmes.
    Irene Adler is the one who calls Moriarty and saves Sherlock in the first scene and thus he saves her in the last.
    Like you posted the time lapses were distracting, it seems like a week, not months.
    I wanted to cry for Molly at the Christmas party.
    I want Watson to get it on with Mycroft’s assistant.
    The flirtations between Adler and Holmes had a very 1940’s film noir feeling.
    My biggest disappointment was that Moriarty told her how to play the Holmes boys instead of it being her idea.

  2. Victoria

    Every time I watch Sherlock I have a fight with myself about who the greatest actor on this show is – Cumberbatch/Freeman/Scott? I don’t think there is another show where there are THREE amazing characters brought to life like this. Usually by the end of the argument, I end up settling on Andrew Scott (because Moriarty just absolutely terrifies yet captivates me) but after reading this I lean toward Freeman. Especially after his performance in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, which just levels me. Looking forward to your thoughts on Adler!!!

    1. I definitely think Scott deserves a lot of credit for Moriarty, but as I’ve never seen him in anything else, I don’t feel confident in judging his talent in general.

      As to Cumberbatch/Freeman, I look at it like this: Cumberbatch is a Tyrannosaurus Rex, devouring everything in his path and generally being the top of the food chain. But Freeman is a velociraptor, dodging and weaving and managing to carve a place for himself, too. Cumberbatch’s talent is pretty goddamn titanic and there is nothing subtle about it. Freeman sneaks up on you until one day you go, “HEY. That guy is really good.” I don’t think it’s a matter of saying one is better than the other, because the show wouldn’t work unless they were engaging in a true creative partnership and feeding each other and pushing each other and bringing the best out in one another. To me it’s more that Cumberbatch is so obviously good, while Freeman’s real accomplishment is just standing up to Cumberbatch and managing to create an impression with the T-Rex wrecking havoc around him.

      1. Victoria

        This is definitely true – and maybe trying to decide which actor is ‘best’ is the wrong approach. Maybe ‘favourite’ is more apt. What I like about Freeman’s performance though, as you mentioned, is his subtlety. However, again as you said, you wouldn’t notice the subtlety without Cumberbatch. Sometimes I feel like you can go 10 minutes or more in this show without breathing and then Watson will say something and it’s like you come crashing down to earth because he makes you remember you actually have feelings, etc.

        I don’t really think I have a point anymore other than I am just really excited to talk about Sherlock on a Monday morning 🙂

  3. Pingback: Sherlock 2.2: The Hounds of Baskerville « CineSnark

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