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

Writing Kim Kelly or One of Many Reasons why Freaks and Geeks is a Show to Watch

Once upon a time, the land of television was a harsh, unforgiving place. Shows came and went, regardless of quality. Having a well-written, well-cast, well-directed program did not guarantee success. Take Freaks and Geeks: I’m going to guess that many out there have not heard of this show. It only lasted a season (1999-2000) and ran on NBC (hardly HBO). Well, this was a show produced by Judd Apatow (the 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), and that starred actors like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. Guest stars included Shia LaBeouf, Leslie Mann, Ben Stiller, and Jason Schwartzman. So… there were a couple names (not yet big) involved.

I think what killed Freaks and Geeks was the premise: high school. Talk about a unique setting for dramatic teen comedy, especially in the late nineties. The show focuses around the Weir family, particularly their children Lindsey(Linda Cardellini) and Sam(John Francis Daley). Sam is a geek, one of a few just starting out his high school career. Lindsey was also a geek but a different kind (math nerd), she is an upperclassman looking to break out of her image by hanging with the “freaks”: Segel, Rogen, and Franco. I’m going to be honest: this is not the most driving premise I’ve ever heard. What makes it work, however, is not just the casting. Freaks and Geeks has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen on television, and one needs look no further than the character of Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) for an example.

She just comes off as sunshine and rainbows.
She just comes off as sunshine and rainbows.

Kim Kelly is the bitchy girlfriend of Franco’s Daniel Desario. She appears dumb, vulgar, and mean-spirited. On the surface, she is the exact opposite of protagonist, Lindsey Weir. For many shows, particularly comedies: this would be enough characterization (for one season anyway). Comedies are no strangers to using stereotypes for laughs, especially among non-starring characters (which Kim Kelly is). A lesser show would have stopped there with her and probably little of the humor would have been lost.

I’m going to try to avoid going into spoilers, as I think the storytelling of Freaks and Geeks is best left to its writers. That said, I am going to discuss one episode in detail: “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” The basic premise: Kim invites Lindsey over for dinner in an attempt to try and build a friendship between the two of them. Two people who don’t really like each other trying to get along: hilarious… but that’s not what the episode is really about. This is Kim’s family:

They are not like Lindsey’s family. Lindsey’s family is about as normal as it gets: father (working), mother (homemaker), and younger brother (insert sibling description here). Kim comes from an abusive household, and the writers make no secret of this. What’s great, however, is that they don’t overdo it either. Kim’s “father” isn’t physically abusive (at least not in the episode) and her mother isn’t immediately crazy. It is a realistic presentation of a dysfunctional family.

Afterwards, Kim is explained a little bit: but the show doesn’t use her background as a crutch for her character (oh this is just how she was raised nonsense). Kim is still given responsibility for her actions and still expected to grow (just not at the same pace as Lindsey). How refreshing it is to have no shortcuts taken. There were a million ways to explain Kim Kelly and the writers chose the simplest. They didn’t make it flashy or outwardly attention-grabbing, they just made it good.

One of Kim's many great lines from the show.
One of Kim’s many great lines from the show.

Every character gets this treatment on Freaks and Geeks: it’s what makes the show worth watching. I could go on praising but that is just what it would be. So I’ll simply say: watch it. No stupid hooks, no excessive nudity or character deaths in place of character development: just good, realistic, character drama. Too bad there aren’t more shows on this level.