I Love the Woman: an Analysis of Love, Power, and the Character of Irene Adler (Sherlock)

Call me a sucker for bizarre romances, but this one is special. Irene Adler is a character who has seen many incarnations, only three of which I am really familiar with. The first is the Irene Adler from the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She is barely in them (only appears in A Scandal in Bohemia). If one reads that story looking for a steamy romance between Holmes and ‘the Woman’, prepare for disappointment. The romance was an invention that came later. The second Irene Adler I encountered was portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. She had the physical attractiveness of Irene Adler but none of the mental presence. To be fair to Ms. McAdams, that was more the script that turned her into a damsel-in-distress, rather than her acting. Okay, two Irenes out of the way, let’s talk about Lara Pulver‘s powerful performance from the BBC series, Sherlock (specifically the episode: A Scandal in Belgravia).

Proof that beauty does not equal presence.
Rachel McAdams: Proof that beauty does not equal presence.

She is one of the best characters I have ever seen on screen, hands down. I will begin with a description of her character: character in this case being shaped by the script and Pulver’s acting. Irene is sexy and she knows it. I know that there is a modern view that power, in the female sense, comes from sex appeal (and knowing how to control it). I really do not agree with this statement and it does not apply at all to Irene Adler. She is sexy, true, and she knows it. This Irene Adler is intelligent, cunning, and unafraid to do what she needs to do to get what she wants. The fact that she has any attractiveness is simply another tool for her to use.

Pulver's Adler always looks composed. More importantly, she is doing something in nearly every scene. She does not exist to simply stand there and look pretty.
Pulver’s Adler always looks composed. More importantly, she is doing something in nearly every scene. She does not exist to simply stand there and look pretty.

The Irene Adler, in this incarnation, is a dominatrix (children, don’t ask your parents what this means) who is (spoiler alert) under the employ of James Moriarty. Moriarty is the arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, in case anyone out there was wondering. Anyway, Moriarty hires Adler to seduce Holmes and get him to give her information. Anyone even remotely familiar with the character of Sherlock Holmes knows this is not an easy task. He is known as “the world’s greatest detective” a.k.a. “not a moron.” Nevertheless, Irene Adler matches wits against Holmes… and wins and loses.

She succeeds in manipulating Holmes. He is attracted to her (the two share a phenomenal chemistry) and is foolishly tricked into giving her the information that Moriarty wants. Irene Adler is set to walk free at the end of the episode, having manipulated Sherlock completely without getting involved… except she did get involved. Part of the great success of the BBC Sherlock series is that genius characters are still human characters.

In one of the many scenes to showcase their similarities, Adler and Holmes prepare for battle. Both understand that appearance is important... but they look at it as part of the power struggle rather than simply looking pretty for one another.
In one of the many scenes to showcase their similarities, Adler and Holmes prepare for battle. Both understand that appearance is important… but they look at it as part of the power struggle rather than simply looking pretty for one another.

“Brainy is the new sexy.” Irene’s words to Sherlock near the beginning of their encounter. It is true, for both parties. Sherlock is attracted to Irene’s intelligence, Irene is attracted to Sherlock’s intelligence. The wonderfully tragic element emerges in who both of these characters are. Sherlock Holmes, in any portrayal, is always slightly ostracized from other human beings because of his intelligence. In the BBC edition, Sherlock is a high-functioning sociopath. He does not (outwardly) care about people or even acknowledge emotions. Irene is a dominatrix, someone so in control of herself that she is afraid of feeling helpless more than anything. Both are in constant struggle for power in their relationship, and the power comes from the appearance of not caring. He is how it climaxes:

For those out there who haven’t seen the episode and are curious as to the context: go watch it (seriously do, it’s wonderful). I will give brief background – the phone was Irene’s challenge to Holmes. She gave him time and opportunities to figure out the password and he almost bungled it until… well, you saw what happened.

“But wait,” you say, “that didn’t look like a romance. Sherlock didn’t care.” Really? That’s the power struggle. In that scene Irene has lost, her emotions are betrayed and Sherlock has the advantage. If he didn’t really care he could just walk away and that would be the end of it. Irene Adler would be killed and the world spins on. She is nearly killed… until this happens:

They both lose the game… and they are okay with it. Sherlock, in the most bizarre way possible, gives a very important lesson about love. When two people love each other, they are at their most vulnerable. Logic, intelligence: these things fall to impulse and emotion. I feel that this theme is the center of A Scandal in Belgravia, and is reflected even in the music. The love theme between Sherlock and Irene fluctuates in intensity, similar to the way emotion works. It embraces, then pulls back, only to ultimately embrace again. Feel free to disagree but please, listen to it in its entirety (“The Woman” and “Irene’s Theme” are also part of this):

This Irene Adler is the most compelling because she is the only one I have seen who manages to stay equal to Sherlock Holmes. Both characters have their moments of triumph and defeat. For brilliant people, they make a mess of love. Luckily they are smart enough to sort it out in the end. I remain cautiously optimistic for Adler’s return in the series. Irene Adler was only in one book, but maybe that was simply because that incarnation was less interesting.

There is one line from the episode that I quickly want to touch upon. It is a dialogue exchange between John Watson (Martin Freeman) and Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss). I am simply paraphrasing here so apologies if I get a line wrong:

Mycroft: “Closed forever. I am about to go and inform my brother—or if you prefer, you are—that she somehow got herself into a witness protection scheme in America. New name, new identity. She will survive—and thrive. But he will never see her again.”
Watson: “Why would he care? He despised her at the end. 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.”
Watson: “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?”
Watson: “I don’t know.”
Mycroft: “Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.”

This perfectly encapsulates the nonsensical nature of love. It really never can be explained. If it could, I doubt it would be as powerful (I know, I’m a romantic, humor me). Point is that, at the end this is a blog post, and if it can impart any wisdom it is: love is not always portrayed correctly in media, but when it is, it is powerful. That said, it will never be as powerful as – you know – the love you will experience in your actual life. So if there is a ‘the woman’, ‘the man’, or whomever out there, let them know. Whether traditional flowers or something as screwed up as Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, love is worth noting – even if it is just in a small way.

Anyway, sorry to get sidetracked at the end. A Scandal in Belgravia: see it if you want to see a version of Irene Adler who earns the title of ‘the Woman’ and not just some damsel-in-distress.

Probably says more about me than I would like that this is one of my favorite written romances.
Probably says more about me than I would like that this is one of my favorite written romances.

Mycroft: Closed forever. I am about to go and inform my brother—or if you prefer, you are—that she somehow got herself into a witness protection scheme in America. New name, new identity. She will survive—and thrive. But he will never see her again.
Watson: Why would he care? He despised her at the end. 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.
Watson: 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?
Watson: I don’t know.
Mycroft: Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.

– See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/sherlock/series-two/a-scandal-in-belgravia/#sthash.HWfmwkuG.dpuf

Mycroft: Closed forever. I am about to go and inform my brother—or if you prefer, you are—that she somehow got herself into a witness protection scheme in America. New name, new identity. She will survive—and thrive. But he will never see her again.
Watson: Why would he care? He despised her at the end. 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.
Watson: 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?
Watson: I don’t know.
Mycroft: Neither do I. But initially he wanted to be a pirate.

– See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/sherlock/series-two/a-scandal-in-belgravia/#sthash.HWfmwkuG.dpuf

4 thoughts on “I Love the Woman: an Analysis of Love, Power, and the Character of Irene Adler (Sherlock)

  1. That’s quite a wonderful post on my favourite episode in Sherlock. I do agree with your closing, “love is not always portrayed correctly in media, but when it is, it is powerful. ”

    I think that’s very very accurate. I salute you for writing a wonderfully great post on one of the best episode in Sherlock (they’re all really good and very well done but somehow this one is magnetic!).

    I just chanced upon your site while researching for my next article.

    Can I use your image of Pulver’s Adler for my next post? I’m assuming it belongs to you as screen shot. I will credit it.

    Like

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