Irene Adler: A Holmesian Balancing Act

“This is your heart, and you should never let it rule your head.”

In the new Sherlock series, Irene Adler is not a one-dimensional femme fatale who is eventually so reduced as to require saving by the male hero, is not a sexist portrayal of a damsel in distress. She is a unique player in the game, the only character who is able to find a balance between her heart and her head, and though this balance costs her one victory, it gives her the ability to influence others and win what the show deems a far more important victory: that of the heart.

Irene is the principal antagonist of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” but due to the mere handful of episodes the show gets every year the center of every episode must be Sherlock. The essential story of the show is not that of a series of mysteries, but of the humanization of Sherlock Holmes. When we were introduced to Sherlock, he declared himself a “high-functioning sociopath,” was baffled as to why someone would be upset over their child’s death years later, and was so obsessed with his games that he was willing to play the taxi driver’s game. Sherlock and his brother both scorned emotions, friendship, sentiment, right up through this episode, but the fact remains that this detachment from their bodies, from their hearts, keeps these two from being whole people. To be a machine, rather than a man, is not something to aspire to. As Lestrade says in the pilot “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day, if we’re very very lucky, he might even be a good one.” To be a complete person, everyone must find a balance between their emotions and their reason, even Sherlock Holmes, which is how he may yet become a “good man.”

Sherlock is on some level aware of this, which is why he has never attempted to sever his connection to John Watson. John is nowhere near as intelligent as Sherlock, but he understands people on an emotional level that Sherlock just doesn’t comprehend. Sherlock’s journey thus far has been towards understanding that no one, not even he, can live without love, and his teacher has been John Watson, whose effect comes through clearly in this episode in which Sherlock makes jokes, laughs, and even offers his first sincere apology. But John has taken him as far along the spectrum of emotions vs. intelligence as he can, has “softened” Sherlock enough for Irene Adler to start slamming her way in.

Sherlock and Mycroft are solidly at the intelligence end of the spectrum, whereas John is solidly at the emotional end. Irene Adler stands balanced in the middle, and has learned to use this balance to her advantage. Her sexuality is a weapon, one she uses without for a moment surrendering her intelligence. She can make a fool out of Sherlock Holmes wearing nothing but a borrowed coat, can hide herself from his deductive skills wearing only makeup and heels. She is present in both her body and her mind, whereas Sherlock exists solely in his mind. It is easy to forget that Sherlock was naked in public just a few scenes before Adler walks in starkers, because Sherlock was so embarrassed by his nudity that he surrendered to Mycroft’s demands rather than be exposed. Irene is so unembarrassed by her sexuality that she leaves Sherlock Holmes speechless.

Irene’s presence highlights where each of the characters falls on the spectrum of emotions/sexuality and intelligence. Her first “death” shows how detached the Holmes brothers are, as they discuss the weakness of caring in a morgue. It also shows how Sherlock has begun to move on the spectrum, as he is clearly deeply affected by both her death and her resurrection. Her hyper-sexualized characterization brings the question of Sherlock’s sexuality, or lack thereof, to the forefront, showing how disconnected from an essential part of being human he is. Her emotional portrayal also shows how emotional Watson is, when during Irene and Watson’s conversation Watson’s concern for Sherlock is constantly at the forefront, and he and Irene exchange not a word about anything except their mutual relationships with Sherlock. It is even through her actions in sending her phone to Sherlock that Sherlock’s love for Mrs. Hudson becomes obvious. And finally, the climactic scene in which she loses one game clearly illustrates both Sherlock’s and Irene’s strengths and weaknesses.

Irene is finally brought down by her balancing act, by the emotions which she embraces as a source of power equal to her intelligence. She was able to manipulate emotions Sherlock didn’t even know he had in order to gain information about the jumbo jet bomb, and her phone was filled with information gained through the use of her own and others’ sexuality. Irene turned that emotional power, with a little help from Moriarty, into a weapon to use in the game of intelligence, but it was that emotional power which proved her downfall on two levels.

The emotions she brought to the surface in Sherlock gave him the key to his deduction. Earlier in the episode, Sherlock’s deductive power was given an essential push by the emotions raised in him when the CIA spooks threatened to shoot John. At the end of the episode, a similar emotional nudge is used to fuel him when Irene mentions Moriarty, raising a different emotion in Sherlock: that of envy and fury. With that, he is finally able to figure out Irene’s password.

Using Sherlock’s name as a password was both a sentimental and clever choice on Irene’s part, as she was clearly counting on Sherlock not having the emotional intelligence to figure out that she would choose something so obvious. If he had not used her pulse and pupils to read her heart, she would have won easily. But her whimsical sentiment for Sherlock led to her downfall, as his realization of her attachment led him to what he called her weak spot: her heart. He found the chink in her armor, and as he scorned all love and connection he used it to beat her.

But that was only one game: the game of wits and cleverness. Irene was playing at both ends of the spectrum, and though she lost at the game of intelligence, in the world of the show that is not the important game. After all, while many people live perfectly happy lives without being geniuses, who would truly want to live without love? In the game of emotions, sentiment, attachment, Irene won hands down. She broke through Sherlock’s emotional armor, making him for perhaps the first time in his life act on sentiment, rather than reason, in saving her life at the end of the episode. She won at the game that really matters, and her victory was far longer lasting than his, as she will eventually be able to regain her position but her effect on the other characters will never be erased.

Irene Adler is what Sherlock, Mycroft, Moriarty, and even Watson can never be: a truly whole person, who lives both in her body and mind, in her heart and her head, in the privacy that Sherlock and Moriarty embrace and in the world that Mycroft usually rules. She is a whole person, and Sherlock recognizes this, perhaps even envies her for reveling in that which he has never been able to understand. That is what makes her the woman, the only one who matters. She shows Sherlock what he has been missing locked inside his head, and brings him closer to real, powerful emotions than he has ever been. Who would truly want to live without caring about anyone? Not even Sherlock Holmes, it seems.

One final note: I though the issue of Irene’s sexuality was cleared up when Watson said “I’m not gay” and she replied “Well I am–not I suppose.”


4 comments on “Irene Adler: A Holmesian Balancing Act

  1. verityjes says:

    I’m not sure I heard this right, but I thought she said “Well, I am. Look at us both”, which Watson answered with a scoff. I don’t think her sexuality really matters though, she could have just been bisexual and falls for Sherlock. I really enjoy your analysis of the characters 🙂

    • That seems to be the general conclusion of what she said–this is why actors shouldn’t mumble :). I don’t think it changes the analysis though, because basically what she’s doing in that scene is questioning everyone’s sexuality. She seems to be suggesting that she and Watson are both gay, but as Watson’s not really gay that would imply she’s not gay either. I honestly think she’s a textbook “Depraved Bisexual” trope. Thanks for reading!

      • verityjes says:

        Part of me thinks the “Look at us oth” thing is to imply how AWESOME Sherlock Holmes is . “Hey, this guy will turn you gay if you’re a straight man, and turn you straight if you’re a lesbian! That’s how great he is!” I really hope that’s not what the show was going for.

      • Yeah, that is something a lot of people seem to be taking as the meaning. Given that that would be a really dumb thing to do, and pretty nasty to boot, I really doubt that’s what they were going for 🙂

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