Well, Sherlock’s second season has with maddening desultoriness finally wended its way across the ocean. Could it have taken longer? I’ve been pacing like Penelope waiting for Odysseus to get off his ass and show up to set things right.
And what did we get for our patient waiting? Before all else, “A Scandal in Belgravia” is an edifice of cleverness. An edifice made from clever bricks derived from clever straw that was gathered by artificially intelligent harvesters and stored in silos of towering smartassery. The cleverness is nonstop. Now, when the word “nonstop” is used in current entertainment, it usually means that one suspense/chase sequence follows quickly on another, in a routine and expected fashion. In “Scandal,” clever things are flung at you so quickly you barely have time to duck before three more are winging toward your head. Thank god there was such a long hiatus between seasons, and that there are only three episodes in each. Because this couldn’t be written in the week and a half that an American network television schedule tends to allow. Mind you, you could, potentially, write a fascinating script in that time, layered with character and buzzing with electric dialogue — but you can’t plot the Allied invasion in a week and a half, and that’s what this is. (And if someone who knows better tries to tell me that it was written in a week and a half, I’ll put my fingers in my ears and say la la la, because my entire understanding of reality would be up-ended.)
Like Austen’s Emma, you really need to experience “Scandal” two or three times before you can grasp just how obsessively it’s been constructed. Seriously, the construction almost frightens me. It’s couture. There is not a second that is not there in service of the Grand Plan, and that’s not usually something you can say about a show known for its banter. (Nor do shows known for their banter have to justify themselves, by the way. If it’s a funny scene that delights the audience and which they’ll remember ten years from now when the exigencies of plot are forgotten, it doesn’t have to serve a higher structural purpose. Though it’s nice when it does.)
The updates, of course, are charming. Doyle’s Irene Adler was “a well-known adventuress” — possibly a courtesan, definitely an opera singer, a stage performer, and therefore a woman in a scandalous profession; Moffat’s is a dominatrix. Holmes pretends to be a clergyman in each, but only in the latter does Miss Adler virtually straddle him naked, snatch off his false collar, and click it firmly between her strong white teeth. Who can argue with this? I certainly can’t.
And how many clues are we dutifully and slyly given? When John is whisked off by the mysterious woman he thinks is Mycroft’s assistant, he complains about the drama of it all and points out acerbically that “Sherlock doesn’t always follow me, you know.” He barely says the words when our minds have to grapple with the fact that we’ve just learned it’s not Mycroft who’s waiting; but of course, Sherlock did follow him. When Mycroft tells John about Irene’s final fate, he comments that it would take Sherlock Holmes himself to fool him about her death this time. Our minds are busy wondering if she’s really dead, and whether John will give Sherlock the truth or the cover story; but of course, Sherlock did fool Mycroft about her death. And then there’s the “SHER” unlocking code — talk about hiding in plain sight. If that mystery had carried over two episodes, there’s no way fans wouldn’t have figured it out en masse; but because a dozen clever things are being flung at us each minute, there’s no time to think about it.
Because it’s not enough to have Sherlock and Irene meet and cross swords for the first time. It’s not enough for them to do verbal battle and then have Sherlock retrieve the phone from her safe and perhaps lose it to her at a later time and place, which is how it would unwind in most TV shows. No, as their first scene together is playing out, why not have three CIA operatives break in at gunpoint and threaten to shoot John? But wait, that’s not enough either. Let’s have a gun inside the safe that shoots when the door is opened, killing one of the CIA men, just after Sherlock yells “Vatican cameos!” and John prudently ducks.
I grant you that at this point a fight would be standard. Though usually it wouldn’t involve a polite “Would you mind?” to your new dominatrix friend, who obligingly smacks down the remaining intruder. Okay, but post-fight, this is where most shows would take a brief rest, have a smoke, ask if it’s good for you too. Sherlock, told to phone the police, simply steps outside, shoots a gun into the air, and goes back in. Where he’s drugged and literally whipped to the floor by Irene, who really means it when she asks for her phone back.
Well, that was sparkly, but surely we can take a breath now? But why would we, when we can toss the audience into utter confusion by plummeting immediately into what may be a fantasy sequence — or is it? — of Irene playfully analyzing Sherlock’s previous case while they both stand in the meadow where that case happened. As we scramble to figure this out (“He still seems drugged. So maybe he’s hallucinating? Ah, yes, here comes the bed up to meet him… nice touch… but why would they bother to show us a hallucination? So maybe Irene’s really there…”)
It just doesn’t stop. And everything is related to everything else! Even the boomerang that hit the hiker when he was looking the wrong way — a story that reverberates through Sherlock and Irene’s relationship. Even the comedy bits about potential clients being interviewed at the flat. Even tiny snatches of Mycroft’s phone conversations with his underlings. Using the classic (clever) writer’s trick, everything serves two purposes, so the audience accepts clues and pockets them without knowing they’re clues.
Here’s an example of how badly that sort of thing can be done. In the film Malice, every bit of dialogue is grindingly plot related. So when, out of nowhere, the wife gives the husband a letter opener as a gift and says, “No more paper cuts!” — you sigh with the tiresome knowledge that the letter opener will be a plot point. I saw Malice when it came out in 1993, and that bit was so clunkily done it’s the only thing I remember from the entire movie. Don’t let this be your fate, young writers. Clues should only be visible in the rear-view mirror; so that as you’re watching you think, “Ah, Wilson’s angry at House because his work with his patient was disrupted” not “Wilson is disproportionately angry at House and I don’t know why. I wonder if there’s something personal between him and this patient?”
Always give the audience an apparent reason: let them think, the writers are showing me this because it’s funny; or because it illustrates the emotional state of the hero; or because they needed to move this character out of earshot so we could hear John twit Sherlock about the sexually replete sigh Irene has programmed for her text alert (not because the phone call that led Mycroft to the other room will prove significant later). Sherlock speaks hesitantly when Irene is leaning into him, their hands clasped, because he’s turned on, not because he’s trying to count pulse beats and talk at the same time (though I think we can safely infer it’s a bit of both). Misdirection is the high road to mystery writing — but entertaining and perfectly reasonable misdirection, that’s interesting in itself, or it won’t work properly.
Take the morgue scene; we enter suspecting Irene is alive (because there’s too much time left in the episode) — but even here, there’s no carelessness. We’re given another clue — face bashed in — that in this case we know perfectly well is a clue, and how many TV shows have we all seen where a disfigured face means the corpse belongs to someone else? But while no writer can erase the years of television knowledge burned into our brains, we don’t really focus on it, because we’re too busy focusing on the fact Sherlock recognized her from, as Molly says, “not her face.”
And of course, Sherlock leaves the hospital and returns to Baker Street, where (have I mentioned it doesn’t stop?) he sees the front door’s been jimmied and finds Mrs. Hudson held captive. (One of my favorite bits, by the way; Sherlock automatically noting the bruises, the cut on her face, and the blood on CIA Guy’s ring. “You know what I’m asking for, don’t you, Mr. Holmes?” Sherlock quietly notes CIA Guy’s carotid artery, his skull, eyes, lungs; “I believe I do,” he returns evenly.)
And as long as we’re talking about notes on screen… my god, the possibilities. First: the series decision to have actual phone texts appear as words in midair. You know how texts are usually shown in film? Person gets text; shot of person looking at phone; shot of phone itself with the text message visible. As routine and boring as those TV shows from 1972 where they thought they’d better show you Barnaby Jones driving his car so you’d understand how we got from one scene to the next. But words just hanging in midair? I beg your pardon? I can just hear the initial explanation: “No, no, the words will just… be there. Not on a prop! Not on anything. Trust me, it’ll be great.” And it is great, because that’s how texts work — swift communication from one mind to another.
Second: the decision to use the same technique for Sherlock’s thought processes. In any other Holmes-based film or TV show, you only hear the explanation after Holmes has amazed us with his deduction; which, sadly, leaves out the fun of seeing that deduction form lightning-fast from a set of facts. (And by the way, how clever was it for Irene to introduce herself naked and wearing plenty of face make-up, and how convenient to have John standing there fully clothed with circles under his eyes to display how utterly simple it was for Sherlock to read John, and how impenetrable he found Irene?)
Throwing text up over the action is visually efficient as well. When Sherlock’s working out Irene’s string of numbers and letters, we can examine the material he’s thinking about at the same time we see his face. Ordinarily a director will try to give us something like this by showing a computer screen and a face partially reflected in it; but why bother? Just throw his thoughts out there! There’s so much visual information packed into this show, I don’t know how it could be intelligible to a blind viewer. Audio description must be running wild.
This is pure, glittery artifice. At one end of the entertainment spectrum, there’s the naturalistic style; ordinary people who wouldn’t know how to be witty, but who know how to hurt — Ernest Borgnine in Marty, say. At the other end, hammered gold and gold enameling. (I know which side I gravitate towards. Once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing, but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make — because otherwise, where’s the fun?)
The flight of the dead? Kate Middleton? Three small dogs? The Geek Interpreter? The general visual playfulness? (As Sherlock steps past the three comic book nerds, they vanish, as he dismisses them from his mind; then he hears them say something interesting, and he steps back to show they’ve re-appeared.) This much cleverness in one place is like having the President, Vice-President, and Speaker of the House all in the same room; some sort of law is being violated, natural if not man-made. Certainly a major law of television has been violated, at the very beginning; I can’t imagine an American studio executive allowing a seasonal cliffhanger to be solved by a deus ex machina. You’re telling me the hero of our show doesn’t solve this problem? It’s solved by a phone call that randomly arrives at the right moment? Though I’ve often suspected the public really doesn’t care if main characters don’t show agency all the time. And in this case, Irene’s call to Moriarty connected more things to more things, in an episode built like a piece of crystal.