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The tragic result of a need unmet.

I forget how exactly it crossed my desk, who tweeted it, or retweeted it: “If you’d asked me last week who’d do better by Irene Adler, I would have been wrong.” —Which is an interesting sniglet to unpack, depending as it does on your awareness of the general tenor of both Sherlock franchises that sophomored within a couple of weeks of each other a couple of weeks back, and your familiarity with the œuvres of their respective auteurs, or at least the reputations of those œuvres: Ritchie’s “Women? What women?” bonhomie; Moffat’s polarizing brio, burning bright and quick through two seasons of Who and his first Sherlock outing. —And once all of that’s been taken to account, the intent of the sniglet’s clear: Ritchie’s inept dismissal of Adler from the plot of his second Sherlock (if not, technically speaking, the franchise) had already long since disappointed; the only possible surprise could come from Moffat’s being moreso. —But of course fandom being what it is, and polarizations being what they are, only someone expecting to be so surprised would have bothered to make such a statement. Once we might have expected more, they’re saying, but look! I’ve got a new benchmark to express our disappointment. —It’s not a true statement; it’s not even an ironic statement. It’s ironical. No one who could parse it could mistake its meaning. The only reason to have said it is so all could nod along.

Certainly, I nodded when I read it, before seeing the Moffat.

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

A Study in Scarlet

Never a big fan of Sherlock. Any iteration, really: he’s a bully and an asshole and his supposedly compensatory hypercompetence isn’t, so much: as a kid I never forgave him the above, and as I got older the blinkered, stratified, unbroachable classism his deductions required began to pall: how every charcoalmonger in the country must necessarily perform only the one job, the same job, in the same way, under the same conditions, that the characteristic sheen might properly be worn into the elbows of their only jackets, and the distinctive calluses of their trade manifest themselves on thumbs and index fingers, so that Holmes might once more demonstrate his skills. And his much-vaunted rede about the impossible and the improbable is nothing but a means of going wrong with ghastly confidence. —This inhuman student of humans who so haughtily disdains the humane: I suppose we had to invent him at some point, since he quite obviously doesn’t exist, but give me Dirk Gently any old day of the week.

The Ritchie Holmes amused and entertained (me, it should be understood; mileage, as ever, varies); big and noisy and engagingly designed, with preposterous plots that perform as plots ought in this sort of thing, and if I’m told the action sequences were choreographed to resemble the Victorian martial art of Bartitsu, who am I to quibble? —The chemistry’s the thing, and Downey and Law have it and to spare; I like my Holmeses manic, and my Watsons more sharpish than gruff, their fondness all but buried beneath the exasperation, and so. —I quite liked the Moriarty, far more than the warmed-over Lecter we’re given in Moffat’s. Mostly I like how in the background the whole urban world is constantly in the process of being built, modernity half unpacked from its shipping crates and left littered about the place. —And oh yes: I was indeed disappointed with his treatment of Adler, but mostly because the clumsy show-me-the-body “death” in the second film was terrible writing, and because I’d really liked Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.

Moffat’s: I wasn’t going to bother watching it at first, but enough people said enough things about it that I did, and Cumberbatch and Freeman have chemistry to burn, and if Cumberbatch is a bit too controlled, Freeman’s exasperated enough to counterbalance it, and I was enjoying the first episode right up until it utterly ducked the sole responsibility a mystery story has, of solving its puzzle (for all the varied and possible meanings of solve, and puzzle): if I’d been watching it on the teevee I’d’ve thrown things at the screen (one does not throw things at one’s laptop). But something clicked, I guess; I watched the second episode, groaning the while, and also the third, though its mugging, pop-eyed Moriarty repels me. —But the chemistry; the sharp dialogue; the update game, which works more often than not; the way the current fad for sociopathic leading men in television lets them play appropriately nasty games with Holmes’s inhumanity; these I guess were enough to keep me coming back?

And the kick for deliberately not knowing the Earth revolved around the Sun didn’t hurt.

But: a relentlessly cruel Holmes grates, if you’re not all that fond of the character; and ever since the end of Jekyll I’ve been suspicious of Moffat’s ability to end anything: he’s aces at kick-offs, and wildly profligate with crowning moments of awesome, but all those improbably twisty plots end up just being, well, impossible to resolve. (I quite like how he solved this problem at the end of his first season of Who, by destroying corner and paint with one bravura fillip, but that’s the sort of thing you can only really do the once.)

So. That’s why I nodded along with the tweet (remember that tweet? This all started because of a tweet); but that’s also why I queued up “Scandal in Belgravia” and watched it one night when I should have been writing.

But like I said… fandom doesn’t do ambivalence. We want wholeheartedness. And if the thrust of the story is different than what we’re looking for, we’ll seize on only the bits of the text which tell the story we want to be told… the rest can just vanish.

—“A Scandal in Fandom

Prepared not to be surprised at all by the benchmark that had been set, I ended up—well. Pleasantly surprised, by what I think I’d rate as the best episode of Moffat’s run (“Reichenbach Fall,” though one hell of a ride, was flawed, perhaps fatally, by its final shot). —And if I had to pick which of the two Irenes I’d say had done better by her Platonic, Akashic ideal, it’s no contest: I’d go with the flawed, compromised, pandering antiheroine over the tepidly inoffensive dispenser of plot coupons any old day.

—But blowing 1200 words to refute a tossed-off tweet to one’s own satisfaction is hardly debate, much less criticism. Let me do what I came here to do, which is commend to your attention Userinfo.jblum’s essay, “A Scandal in Fandom: Steven Moffat, Irene Adler, and the Fannish Gaze,” which does an able job of reading Moffat’s Irene as something more than a gross caricature, but more to the point makes some good points about all-or-nothing criticism that don’t boil down to the tone argument, or fannish defensiveness: being mindful of our needs going in; noting how the ways they’re met or left unmet distort our readings of whatever it is; taking this all into account. —Any text of sufficient complexity is incoherent; Fisking is always too easy.

(What was it, that met a need for me, or didn’t leave a particular need egregiously unmet? —I suppose it would be the moment when Watson and Irene are squaring off in that iconic power station, and he says—and I should probably interrupt to say if Watson never again has another mildy cod–gay-panic moment over his friendship with Sherlock it will be too fucking soon by half and then some I mean what the fuck year is this anyway, but nonetheless: the moment he says, “I’m not gay!” and Irene says, “I am. Yet here we are.” —Those moments when people might share an acknowledgement that what they are is so much more than what they’re capable of saying it is they are; when desire—no, scratch that, “desire” gets all confused with sex, which is fine for storytelling, but lousy for criticism, even one so muddled as this—when yearning does the anarchic thing it does, heedless of the cost; that tyrant, heart, wanting what it wants no matter what. —For whatever alchemical reason, it sunk home, this exchange, this moment, and all I’d let lead up to it; and thus my reading was distorted. —That tyrant heart.

(But enough already.)

Oh, wait! Found the original tweet. Sorry, Brendan.

“If you had asked me to guess whether Guy Ritchie or Steven Moffat would treat Irene Adler more embarrassingly, I would have been wrong.”

Well there’s most of my opening paragraph shot to hell. —“Embarrassingly.” Huh.

  1. David Lee Ingersoll    Jan 17, 05:17 AM    #

    My favorite modern Irene? Kim Dickens in the The Zero Effect.


  2. Kip Manley    Jan 17, 05:31 AM    #

    Oh sweet houghmagandy Christ, that was her? —It has been way too damn long since I saw that flick. (Manic Holmes; Stiller as Watson: check, check.)


  3. Brendan    Jan 19, 09:56 AM    #

    David, I was trying to think of a non-embarrassing Adler in film and failed. Thank you for the reminder!


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