Warning: May contain mild spoilers
More than a year has passed for audiences since the wrenching cliffhanger of “The Great Game,” and it’s fair to say that expectations have been running high.
Picking up where we left off, co-creator/screenwriter Steven Moffat wastes no time in exceeding those expectations. The stand-off is resolved with an audacity that firmly establishes the tone of the episode. There is an irrepressible cheekiness standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the darkness in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” as Moffat gives Moriarty (Andrew Scott) what is easily the creepiest line in the episode, “If you have what you say you have, I will make you rich. If you don’t, I’ll make you into shoes.” Then we get a brief, tantalizing glimpse of “The Woman.” Irene Adler (Lara Pulver,) a royal, blackmail and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), these are the basics that any Holmesian/Sherlockian knows. It’s the execution that’s full of surprises. There are enough nods to canon, the show’s fans, and pop culture in the first five minutes to delight any viewer. “The Geek Interpreter” and “Hatman and Robin” are the tip of the iceberg, as Moffat uses time-compression to move things along while cementing Sherlock and John as a professional unit.
It is a summons from an “Illustrious” client that brings about the duo’s meeting with Ms. Adler. From that encounter it’s clear that Irene and Sherlock fascinate each other. Watching this simultaneous duel and dance of intellects provides much of the episode’s zing. Yet is is Adler who sums up their dynamic, as well as the appeal of the show itself, “Brainy’s the new sexy” she declares shortly after leaving Sherlock speechless by greeting him in “Battle dress.”
Brainy is sexy, and this is television at its sexiest. While the plot unfolds, crammed to bursting with snappy dialogue and canon references, the core of the narrative is how Sherlock deals with matters of the heart. This is nothing as simple as a love story between Irene and Sherlock. Despite all denials Sherlock Holmes is an emotional creature. Choosing to subsume those emotions into intellectual pursuits just makes him that much more vulnerable to being blindsided. The primary relationship in Sherlock’s life is with his blogger, and if his fascination with “The Woman” eclipses that for a moment it’s to illuminate that Sherlock’s emotions are far more complex than he’s given credit for. His relationships with his brother, Dr. Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) and Lestrade (Rupert Graves) are as planets orbiting a star. Yet we also see a deep devotion to Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) and the nascent understanding of his own cruelty during a Christmas gathering at 221B Baker Street. By the end of the episode nearly every character has been stripped raw in one way or another without completely breaking them. Everyone has an Achilles heel, and those are exploited with ruthless efficiency.
The key to the episode, to the show in its entirety, is in the performances. Cumberbatch completely embodies Sherlock as an intellectual force of nature who is nonetheless flummoxed by his own emotions. Martin Freeman’s John Watson is simply the bedrock that Sherlock stands on. Freeman’s performance is quiet ferocity at its finest, yet puckish enough to take the arrogant wind out of Sherlock’s sails. A supporting cast that hits all the right notes makes “A Scandal in Belgravia” sing like traditional portrayals of Irene, and it is Pulver’s Adler who is the catalyst in Belgravia.
By turns brazen and uncompromising, cruel and vulnerable Pulver plays Adler as a mirror image of Sherlock. It is something that we don’t quite expect, to have “The Woman” illustrate precisely how flawed and brilliant Sherlock is by showing us her own brilliance and flaws. “A Scandal in Belgravia” is only marred by a resolution to the episode which muddies the Sherlock/Irene dynamic by being overly subtle. Audiences are used to seeing a clear-cut victory over Holmes, and Moffat’s decision to follow a particularly vicious battle of wits with ambiguity is sure to disappoint some viewers.
Overall, the episode succeeds as adaptation and long-awaited return to the universe Moffat and Gatiss transposed Doyle into. A sharper ending would have been more welcome, but much like Doyle, Moffat has left plenty of room for the audience to solve the puzzles themselves. (Episode 2 “The Hounds of Baskerville” airs Sunday, May 13th at 9pm on PBS.)