It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with everything Sherlock Holmes, so this statement may be biased, but here it is: the BBC series Sherlock is utterly brilliant. If you aren’t watching this show, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It caught like wildfire when it came to BBC America, but this is not a case of Anglophilic Americans overrating something just because it’s British. The show won countless awards in the UK before it ever made its way across the pond, and the writing, cinematography, music, and acting are all exemplary. Even the show’s weaker moments are far and away better than most television.

Regrettably, each season (series, if you’re from the UK) only consists of three hour-and-a-half episodes, and the wait between seasons is interminable (well over a year). The second season premiered in the UK recently on New Year’s Day, and it was absolutely fantastic—better, I would argue, than any of the first season’s episodes, which were already setting the bar pretty high.

While the reaction to the episode was for the most part overwhelming positive, I was still shocked and dismayed by the few negative reviews. Not because the reviewers didn’t like the show—I can understand differences in taste—but because the reviewers’ main complaints clearly indicated that they hadn’t even understood the episode. Granted, the episode was convoluted, complicated, and very clever, and it demanded a lot of careful attention from the viewer. But the lack of critical thinking and the inability for advanced interpretation was still a little depressing. At the same time, it’s not necessarily the viewer’s fault. The majority of the entertainment we consume does not require intellectual engagement, and if one is accustomed to being fed entertainment passively, of course one is not going to know what to do with a story that requires more. Also, Sherlock requires the viewer to be observant and to concentrate on the show, so if one is multitasking or accustomed to watching television while distracted, one will miss things.

Here is my (very lengthy) review, pointing out things that I noticed the reviewers missed, or things that bear further discussion, or things that I disliked, or things that I just plain loved.

I thought the third episode of last season was the strongest, and this season began exactly where we left off, in the middle of a tense cliffhanger. But the show enjoys turning expectation its ear, and in the middle of a standoff with Moriarty and some explosives, Moriarty’s cell phone rings (to the tune of the BeeGee’s “Staying Alive”). “D’you mind if I get that?” Moriarty asks Sherlock, who is covering him with a gun, and is in turn being covered by several snipers. “No, no, please. You’ve got the rest of your life.” Moriarty mouths, “Sorry!” like a dinner party guest apologizing for his bad manners. By now, the viewer is already laughing. Parts of what makes this particular version of Moriarty so terrifying, however, are his abrupt mood changes and deeply disturbing insanity. In an instant the mood shifts as Moriarty threatens the caller, “Say that again, and know that if you’re lying to me, I will find you and I will skin you.” As he leaves, he says to the person on the other end, “If you have what you say you have, I will make you rich. If you don’t, I’ll make you into shoes.” Moriarty calls off his snipers and leaves the building. Sherlock says, “Someone changed his mind. The question is: who?” The scene cuts to a woman we will later learn is Irene Adler, switching off her phone.

Right off the bat, this episode requires careful observation, as everything that happens in this opening scene will be significant later. Moriarty had decided (after some changeability, which he says is his only weakness) to kill Holmes and Watson. Yet he takes a call from Irene (he obviously knows it’s her) first; any information Irene has is worth postponing murder for. We know from the rest of the episode that what Irene has is the code in the email. Moriarty knows that he will need resources to break the code; he may even need Sherlock to do so. So he doesn’t attempt to kill him (whether he would have been successful in killing Sherlock is a matter for some debate), and Irene saves Sherlock’s life. Her reaction when she is texted the pictures of him implies that she did not know of him before, but there was a quick scene some time before that in which we see her hand on a newspaper featuring Sherlock, and she says into her phone, “I think it’s time, don’t you?”, so she definitely knows of his existence from Moriarty. The “I’ll skin you and make you into shoes” threat was rather apropos, given that Irene’s skin is the only thing that’s her own; everything else is a persona she puts on and changes to suit the individual she’s dealing with.

(Incidentally, Kate Middleton is implicated as the “Your Highness” Irene is speaking to after the phone call; she’s pretty much the only young female royal at the moment. Rather daring move on the part of the writers… Also incidentally, the actor who plays Moriarty must not have been available to work with the other actors in this episode. They use green screen for the shots in the pool, and he’s always by himself for the rest of his scenes.)

A good part of what I enjoy so much about this show is the rapid, witty dialogue. The case montage is full of winners. Lestrade tells them about a plane crash, and Sherlock says, “Suspected terrorist bomb. We do watch the news.” John scoffs, “You said, ‘Boring,’ and turned over.” The whole thing is so fast you hardly have time to chuckle. When the representative of the “illustrious client” tells Sherlock, “You look taller in your photographs,” Sherlock replies, “I take the precaution of a good coat and a short friend.”

Every time I catch a reference to Doyle’s works, I wonder how many more references I’m missing—it’s been over a decade since I’ve read some of the stories. The title of one of the blog posts John is working on (“The Geek Interpreter”) is a play on “The Greek Interpreter,” one of Doyle’s story titles. “The Speckled Blonde” is a play on Doyle’s “The Speckled Band.” “The Navel Treatment” is a play on “The Naval Treaty.” I freely admit that both Sam and I cackled madly with glee when Sherlock pulled on the deerstalker cap to hide from the press outside the theater. Yeah, it was pandering to the fans, but I didn’t mind in the slightest.

I watched this episode twice, and it’s worth a second viewing just to see how far in advance Sherlock plans his moves (and to catch all of the rapid dialogue). He asks for matches or a lighter while in the palace, using it to prove how good he is (that he’s deduced that the client smokes), but his real purpose in doing so is to give it to John so he can start a fire when they’re in Irene’s flat, thus revealing the hiding place of the photos. A lovely nod to the original “Scandal in Bohemia,” but also an illustration that Sherlock’s claim that he’ll have the photos by the end of the day is not an idle boast.

The author of an article I read about this episode groused about how Irene’s nude entrance was just for cheap shock value. It was, but that wasn’t the point of it. Sherlock wasn’t able to deduce anything about her from her clothes, and Irene had Kate do her makeup and hair (intentionally, I’m sure), so he wasn’t able to deduce anything personal from that either. The original character of Irene Adler was bold, nontraditional, and rather scandalous, no doubt making the traditionalists around her very uncomfortable; the writers of this series conveyed the modern-day societal equivalent of that by making Irene a dominatrix.

The parallels between Sherlock and Irene are presented in an intriguing way. Both are looking at photos of the other at the same time, drawing what information from them that they can. While both are dressing for their meeting, Sherlock says, “Going into battle, John. I need the right armor.” When Kate asks what Irene will wear, Irene replies, “My battle dress.” They both know this will be a match of wits. She knows his strengths and how to use them against him. She says, “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.” Irene has her share of deductive skills—she is, after all, able to figure out the boomerang/backfire case—but it’s as a function of her truly brilliant skills as a manipulator. For Sherlock the person is insignificant next to the data; for Irene, the person is of more importance.

Irene makes the jab that whoever hit Sherlock cared about him because they so carefully avoided messing up his face. John snorts, but it was a very astute observation; he went to a fair bit of trouble. John is clearly left-handed (witness, his furious note-taking throughout the show). When Sherlock asks John to punch him, he indicated the left side of his face. Even though John is angry with Sherlock, he punches him with his right hand (both times, actually) so that he hits the left side, as suggested, even though it would’ve felt pretty unnatural for a left-handed man. John: “Remember, Sherlock: I was a soldier. I killed people.” Sherlock: “You were a doctor!” John: “I had bad days!” A hilarious interchange, that simultaneously shows that John is not to be trifled with (Sherlock goes down like a sack of bricks) and that his friendship with Sherlock is pretty strong. Irene picks up on all of this within a few moments of meeting both men, not because she deduced it from the data but because she’s skilled at reading people (something Sherlock is notoriously horrible at). She knows about the boomerang case because she “knows one of the policemen. Well, I know what he likes.” She uses the same phrase several times, describing how she gets information, but she’s not merely referring to sexual preferences. She reads people, finds out what they want, and then uses that to her own ends.

When Sherlock and Irene first meet, he picks up on some of this, but not the deeper aspects—and that’s exactly how she’s able to use her skills to manipulate him. Sherlock discusses the boomerang case with her, and Irene says she doesn’t understand. Sherlock: Well, try to.” Irene: “Why?” Sherlock: “Because you cater to the whims of the pathetic and take your clothes off to make an impression. Stop boring me and think. It’s the new sexy.” She tosses his condescension right back at him when she says she’s already told him the code. He frowns, confused, and she taunts, “Think.” The cinematography, with all of the interesting camera angles and the way they illustrated Sherlock and Irene going over the case in their heads, was excellent, as always.

I’m very proud of myself for figuring out that the code had to be Irene’s measurements after Irene told Sherlock, “I’m flattered.” I remember reading the original stories and feeling the same thrill of accomplishment anytime I managed to figure out anything at the same time Holmes did, and I’m so glad that feeling was captured and translated into the television show.

Sherlock calls a warning to John as he opens the safe, “Vatican cameos,” evidently a code that John knows means to duck, and also a reference to a case that Holmes mentions offhandedly in The Hound of the Baskervilles (I had to look this one up, as I’d forgotten this completely.)

John’s blog counter gets stuck on 1895. Sherlock thinks the number is Irene’s password, but it’s not—they conclude the counter is just faulty. Perhaps this will be significant again later, perhaps it’s just a reference to the poem about Holmes and Watson and their timeless adventures where “it’s always 1895.” According to the Doyle stories, it was 1895 when Holmes took on the case of the Bruce-Partington plans, which was one of the plotlines for the last episode of the first season of the show.

The Christmas scene was beautifully awkward, and well-played. John’s look of shock when Sherlock apologizes really underscores the fact that Sherlock, though still atrocious at personal interaction, is developing concern for others’ feelings on occasion.

The scene between Sherlock and Mycroft after Irene’s “death” was exquisitely underplayed. Sherlock’s growing awareness of emotion is evident, at least to the viewer. Mycroft’s gift of the single cigarette had more meaning in it than a litany of sympathetic phrases, but he’s still Mycroft. Sherlock: “This is low tar.” Mycroft: “Well, you barely knew her.” We see more of the Holmes brothers, particularly Mycroft, than we’ve ever seen before. Sherlock watches a family, obviously grieving over a loved one. “Look at them. They all care so much. Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us? Mycroft: “All lives end. All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage, Sherlock.” An advantage in what? In playing the game, in living, in being happy? It’s interesting to note that for all of Sherlock’s supposed callousness, it’s his brother who is really the Ice Man. Yet he still worries about his brother and has all but commandeered John’s life in order to take care of him.

The scene where Irene reveals to John that she’s alive was both confusing and moving. John pleads, “Tell him you’re alive,” obviously worried about his friend’s emotional status. Irene shakes her head. “He’d come after me.” John: “I’ll come after you if you don’t.” Irene: “Mm, I believe you.” Why did Irene show herself to John? Did she know Sherlock would follow him? I think she at least suspected, though she seemed surprise to hear that he was there. She makes a point of saying that she’s gay, and I’m still not entirely sure if she meant for Sherlock to hear that (and thus draw the conclusion that all of her flirtation with him is just part of the game) or if that particular half-truth (she’s clearly bisexual) had some other purpose. She says that her purpose in bringing John there in the first place is because she needs his help to get the phone back. She can clearly break into the place on her own, but she doesn’t know what Sherlock has done with the phone or if it’s even at 221B. Why does she think John will help her? He says he doesn’t even want to see her. She gives him what he wants; she tells Sherlock that she’s alive. But John doesn’t help her. Then again, at that point, she realizes that Sherlock has been listening, so John is unlikely to be able to worm any information out of him anyway. Perhaps she only called John out there to hear how Sherlock was doing, if he was upset by her “death,” whether or not her triumph was complete? I’m still not clear on all of this myself.

I already loved Mrs. Hudson, but this episode just made me adore her even more, and it also very clearly showed how attached “the boys” are to their not-housekeeper. This Holmes is not a hero, as they continually remind us. Sherlock is a jerk, and he’s cruel—unintentionally so most of the time, intentionally with the cabbie and the American CIA agent. The cruelty is different this time because he’s not after information, he wants vengeance for hurting Mrs. Hudson. For once, seeing that she’s upset, he carefully wipes his feet when he comes into her kitchen. Both John and Sherlock snap at Mycroft for telling her to shut up. “Mrs. Hudson leave Baker Street?” Sherlock asks. “England would fall.” The note to John, “Crime in progress, please disturb,” was interesting because it seemed to imply that he wanted John to stop him from letting things go too far (and usually John is the one reining him in, so that makes sense). In this case, however, John gives him unspoken permission to do what he wants. Both of these men have a rather dark side to them.

Quite a bit of time passes in this episode. It’s March when the stand-off at the pool occurs, we see John typing up a blog entry dated May, Christmas and New Years roll around, and then several months more after that.

At first the whole American CIA subplot wasn’t clear to me. They found out Irene had vital information, evidently information they were permitted to kill for. I didn’t get why they were working with Mycroft at the end; the lead American is at the plane when Sherlock boards, and he says if he put a bullet in Sherlock’s brain, they’d pin a medal on him, so he obviously knows that Sherlock was beaten by Irene. Evidently the implication was meant to be that both Mycroft and the Americans were willing to work together to get Irene’s information, though that makes Mycroft awfully cold, working with the people who were perfectly happy to kill his brother. He sent Sherlock and John to Irene’s house where they might have been killed, but then again, he probably knew Sherlock could handle them. What he didn’t know was that Irene would handle Sherlock.

When Irene breaks into the flat, one step ahead of the people who are after her, Sherlock is puzzled as to why she ever let on that she was alive: “You let John know that you were alive, and therefore me.” Irene: “I knew you’d keep my secret.” She puts a lot of trust in him, but she knows how to manage Sherlock Holmes; trusting him makes him protective (examples: Mrs. Hudson, John). He has very few friends and would claim to prefer it that way, but it’s obvious that isn’t true, and he defends them to the last.

Irene, of course, is playing him; Holmes can’t resist showing off, and she sends the information straight to Moriarty. Moriarty’s game is more with Mycroft than Sherlock in this episode, and he taunts him with his failed plans. Mycroft is shattered. “We lost everything. One fragment of one email, and months and years of planning finished. That’s all it takes: one lonely naïve man desperate to show off, and a woman clever enough to make him feel special.” Sherlock: “You should screen your defense people more carefully.” Mycroft: “I’m not talking about the MOD man, Sherlock; I’m talking about you! The damsel in distress. In the end, are you really so obvious? Because this was textbook: the promise of love, the pain of loss, the joy of redemption; then give him a puzzle… and watch him dance.” He says, “I drove you into her path. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Didn’t know that his brother was susceptible to that sort of manipulation, I expect. Perhaps Mycroft thinks that his brother is as divorced from caring as he is, and now he has discovered differently. The apology is interesting, though: almost like someone apologizing for setting someone too difficult of a task, for setting them up for failure. Mycroft thinks that he has overestimated his little brother, and now, though he’s furious and disappointed in him, he still protects him. He’s willing to let Irene walk free (with all of her expensive demands met) just so that he doesn’t have to tell his “masters that his biggest security leak is his own little brother.” Then again, is it about protecting Sherlock, or saving face for himself? Hard to say. Mycroft is more of a mystery than Holmes, but a less interesting one because he seems so much more inhuman.

Moriarty’s name is the catalyst that breaks Sherlock out of his shame. Irene: “Oh, Jim Moriarty sends his love.” Sherlock raises his head. Mycroft: “Yes, he’s been in touch. Seems desperate for my attention…which I’m sure can be arranged.” (As we know, it is arranged, in the very next episode.) Irene: “Thank God for the consultant criminal. Gave me a lot of advice about how to play the Holmes boys. D’you know what he calls you? The Ice Man (she looks across to Sherlock) and the Virgin.”

Moriarty is too smart by half. He knows Mycroft: as close to truly emotionless as they come, turning his considerable intellect to the accrual and management of power. And he knows Sherlock: the same intellect, but tempered with a yearning for human contact. Sherlock could be a “scientist or a philosopher,” as Mycroft says, yet he chooses to be a detective. The human element, which he proclaims to despise as a weakness, plays a large role in his work, though he would likely not admit it. It’s Sherlock, not Mycroft (who has conceded defeat), who is finally able to beat Irene… in this particular match. Understanding emotion (however badly) can be an asset to playing the game, as Irene understands better than anyone.

Sherlock: “You got carried away. The game was too elaborate. You were enjoying yourself too much.” Irene: “No such thing as too much.” Sherlock: “Oh, enjoying the thrill of the chase is fine, craving the distraction of the game – I sympathize entirely – but sentiment? Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.”

Irene mocks him for thinking that she’s in love with him. Sherlock: “I imagine John Watson thinks love’s a mystery to me but the chemistry is incredibly simple, and very destructive. When we first met, you told me that disguise is always a self-portrait. How true of you: the combination to your safe – your measurements; but this (gesturing with the phone) this is far more intimate. This is your heart …and you should never let it rule your head. You could have chosen any random number and walked out of here today with everything you’ve worked for…but you just couldn’t resist it, could you? I’ve always assumed that love is a dangerous disadvantage… Thank you for the final proof.”

Irene makes one final plea before he can enter the last character of the password: “Everything I said: it’s not real. I was just playing the game.” Sherlock: “I know. And this is just losing.” He is seemingly callous as he says to Mycroft, “If you’re feeling kind, lock her up; otherwise let her go. I doubt she’ll survive long without her protection.” Irene: “Are you expecting me to beg?” Sherlock: “Yes.” Irene: “Please. You’re right. I won’t even last six months.” Sherlock: “Sorry about dinner.” Dinner, obviously, does not mean dinner in this episode—and in a way, this apology is more shocking than Sherlock’s apology to Molly, because he just might mean it, that he’s sorry there couldn’t be a relationship there.

John finds Mycroft smoking a cigarette outside of the café and is puzzled by that. But the viewers know what it means: this is Mycroft’s tribute to Irene (a repeat of the cigarette gesture at her first “death), the farewell that (he thinks) his brother can’t give because he doesn’t know about her death.
Mycroft understands Sherlock a bit better than John in this. John thinks Sherlock despises Irene. “Won’t even mention her by name – just “The Woman.” Mycroft: Is that loathing, or a salute? One of a kind; the one woman who matters.” John: “He’s not like that. He doesn’t feel things that way … I don’t think.” Mycroft: “My brother has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?” John: “I don’t know.” Mycroft: “Neither do I … but initially he wanted to be a pirate.” (This line is a bit hilarious once you’ve seen the end of the episode with Sherlock and that cutlass.)

John is a terrifically awful liar, and the audience initially believes that Sherlock deduces that Irene is dead. The scene where he asks to keep her camera phone (a gesture of sentiment if there ever was one) is particularly touching in this context. John is reluctant to give him the phone, until he sees how much it means to him (he even says Please!). I think John learns a lot about his friend in this moment, and perhaps reconsiders his opinions of his heart.

A couple reviewers denounced the show’s “sexist” portrayal of Adler because they said that the end of the episode made her a helpless damsel in distress. Those reviewers completely missed the point. Irene won (this time). Mycroft criticizes Sherlock for falling for the oldest trick in the book, playing white knight to the damsel in distress, but that’s exactly what Sherlock does all over again at the moment that Irene begs for help. With a heartfelt confession and a few tears, she has him keeping careful eye on her for months, ready to step in and be her protection–because she manipulated him into doing so. Sherlock crows about sentiment being a weakness, but she’s blatantly manipulated his sentiment.

I don’t think Irene knew for certain that Sherlock would save her. She hoped he would—she had done her best work to ensure that he would—but there are tears in her eyes as she’s texting him goodbye. Then, the flash of hope—and the smile of triumph. She manipulated Sherlock right through to the end of the episode, including the rescue. Sure, she had feelings for Sherlock, but that was incidental. Irene Adler wins this round.

So now Irene is truly safe: Mycroft, Moriarty (who is probably proper angry with her, since she played him too) the terrorists, everyone who was after her thinks that she’s dead. And here’s the thing: she needed Sherlock for that. Mycroft said “it would take Sherlock Holmes to fool me,” and that’s exactly who Irene got to help her. The information she had gathered was her protection; she said that over and over. Sherlock takes it from her and says pointedly, “It was.” Irene says that she needs it because of how she lives. She misbehaves, and her protection ensures that “people will be on my side exactly when I need them to be.” She no longer has the camera phone; Sherlock won that battle. But she wins the next one: in spite of Sherlock crowing about sentiment as a weakness, he has a soft spot for her. He is her protection now, and he is on her side exactly when she needs him to be. In a way, as another viewer said, she trades the phone and picks up Sherlock as insurance.

In my opinion, Moffat did Irene justice; she’s a match for Holmes, and seeing them both try to keep one step ahead of the other using their respective skills made for a fascinating episode. When Irene leaves Sherlock after their first encounter, she says, “This is how I want you to remember me. The woman who beat you. Goodnight, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” And he does remember her as “the woman,” the woman who was a match for him. Their relationship is a series of battles of wits, with the victor always in question. It’s a power play, and Irene’s life “playing the game” as a dominatrix makes a lot of sense in that context. But this isn’t about sex, or certainly it isn’t just about sex. Irene is far too complicated for that, and Sherlock is the first person she’s met who is her equal in the game. She’s drawn to him for the same reasons Moriarty is.

Speaking of Moriarty, I wrote most of this review before the final episode of the series aired, and was pleased to see some of my predictions tallied with what happened. But I’ll leave that for another review, because seriously, this thing is eight pages long in Word (!), and I’ll just bet none of you are actually still reading this. 😛