Sherlock Gets Its Celibacy Right and Its Irene Adler All Wrong

by | Jun 20, 2013 | Catholic Mom TV Review, Pop Culture, Sherlock | 7 comments

I’m pretty sure I read a quote somewhere to the effect that you shouldn’t read a book that promotes immoral behavior no matter how well it’s written, since that would basically be the mental equivalent of drinking poison just because it was in a particularly beautiful cup. But google can’t find it, so if I said I made it up, who would know?

Anyway, Sherlock Season 2 . . . prettiest cup ever. Drinker beware. I still think it’s a brilliant show and I loved every minute of it. But if you’re going to watch it be forewarned, there is some serious racy-ness in Episode 1, and Episode 3 has some very unnecessary bloody gruesomeness involving a character we care about.

I’m going to focus on Episode 1 here, because I think it had the best and worst moments of the season.

Warnings . . . 

There will be spoilers from here on out.  Lots of ’em. You should also know that I am unable to judge the show on its own merits, since I’ve read the books and am therefore compelled to compare the shows to the stories as they were originally written. It’s just how I roll.

The good news first: Despite the general increase in edginess from Season 1 to Season 2, the characters continue to be written in a way that is very faithful to the original material, but cleverly updated for a modern era. Perhaps Moriarty is an exception to this, since he’s pretty much your run-of-the-mill evil genius professor/criminal mastermind in the stories. But I can’t bring myself to mind because his re-imagining as an utterly psychopathic “consulting criminal” is
such an improvement. The voices! I love the voices.

The thing I was most scared of them messing up was Sherlock’s lack of interest in women. It is an integral part of his character as described in the stories: 

All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold,
precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect
reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover
he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the
softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.

The issue here is that our hero does not separate the physical act of love from the emotional one, which is hardly the prevailing opinion of our culture.

But I loved the way writer Steven Moffat described the concept to the world when Sherlock insists to Irene Adler, “I’m
not hungry.  Why would I go to dinner with you when I’m not hungry?” Perfect. 

And now the bad news: While I am thrilled that they preserved Sherlock’s asexuality AND his celibacy they just didn’t seem to get Irene Adler or quite grasp Sherlock’s relationship with her.

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard
him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and
predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion
akin to love for Irene Adler…yet there was but one woman to him, and
that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory. 

It is Sherlock himself who calls her “the woman” after she has bested him intellectually.  But in the show, she is a dominatrix with a website in which she calls herselfthe woman” before she’s ever met Sherlock Holmes.  What the heck?

And . . . yeah.  Despite her real (if denied) attraction to Sherlock (he can tell because he took her pulse while she was trying to put the moves on him, loved that) she’s actually a lesbian dominatrix.  While the dominatrix thing is obviously morally problematic, I can get how they arrived there from who she is in the book.  And while we get no moral judgments against Miss Adler from anyone in the show, certainly not Sherlock, nor do we in the book.  Nothing but respect all around for the feisty young lady (who’s American in the original, by the way, but the Brits can claim her if they want her, it’s fine with me).  

There’s a similar lack of “judgmental-ness” (not a word, I know) for Moriarty.  Sure, he murders and threatens and cheats and deceives people, but he’s just so clever.  It’s here that I try to remember that while Watson is usually the one actually giving us the information (at least in the books) it’s all filtered through the lens of Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes just doesn’t have the same standards of judgment as most people.  He cares a lot more about “interesting” than he does about “right and wrong.”

So, I’ll just count on the fact that we’re not supposed to trust Sherlock’s ability to judge people’s character and hope that those of us playing at home are supposed to disapprove of both Moriarty and Irene Adler.  And even if we’re not, I will.  I certainly don’t get the sense that the creators are encouraging us to pursue either character’s lifestyle, and both of them suffer appropriately negative consequences as a result their choices, which is why I’m still drinking out of the cup.

Unfortunately, there’s a bigger problem with the characterization of Miss Adler on the show.  The reason for Sherlock’s respect for and captivation with Irene Adler is that she bests him.  That’s the whole reason.  In the novel, she tricks Sherlock and gets away (with her precious photograph and her new husband).  But on the show, it’s Sherlock who has the last laugh.  He figures out her code.  He keeps the phone.  He wins.  And she doesn’t escape, Sherlock just lets her go.  In every other case, that’s the point in which he moves on completely to the next new challenge, leaving others to tidy up the loose ends.

But with Irene Adler, Sherlock maintains an uncharacteristic interest in her that seems almost romantic, but never makes sense.  It is completely out of character that after he has defeated her he would retain any interest in her whatsoever, let alone take the trouble to go halfway around the world to save her life.  

I doubt it was their intention, but in letting Sherlock crack the code on her phone, the show’s writers robbed Irene Adler of the thing that made her remarkable.  It was never her charm or beauty or sexuality that made her memorable, it was her intellect and resourcefulness.  And while we know at the beginning of the book version of events that she’s dead — she’s described by Watson as “the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory,” Sherlock didn’t have anything to do with either her escape or her death.  But on the show they take away her victory over him and show him later saving her life, like she’s just another damsel in distress.  They didn’t get what made her special, and they took it all away.  On the show she was nothing more important than a naked lady in a chair.

Overall, I can’t help but be excited to see what’s in store for the show since apparently Watson and Sherlock have finished making all those Hobbit movies and are in the middle of shooting Sherlock Season 3.  But I am really worried that they will continue to ratchet-up the levels of sex, violence, and disregard for key plot points.  Especially because they totally don’t need too!  They have something really special happening, an amazing combination of great writers and actors and stories.  I hope they’ll recognize that before it’s too late.  



  1. Amelia Bentrup

    Hmm I disagree that there is a lack of judgement for Moriarty from Sherlock…I do think it is shown how he is wrong/evil and Sherlock does judge his character as such. I think the very fact that Sherlock doesn't go over to the dark side and commit crimes himself shows such on his part. After all, surely Sherlock is smart enough that he *could* get away with it, so the fact that he doesn't, I think does show how he does indeed have a moral compass. After all, both Moriarty and Sherlock are brilliant, so the main difference is how they use their brilliance and Sherlock uses his for good while Moriarty uses his for evil. I think the very fact that Sherlock uses his briliance to solve crimes shows that he does have a moral compass of right vs. wrong…even if he doesn't articulate it.

    After all, there are really only two things that prevent people from committing crimes/doing evil things. 1) an internal moral compass that says that doing something is wrong and 2) fear of getting caught/punished. Sherlock wouldn't have the second one, as he is brilliant, so really it is only the first thing that could prevent him from doing evil.

    Of course, it's been awhile since I saw the shows and even longer since I read the I could be totally off on this..but this is just what I remember.

  2. Christine

    Thank you for this analysis. I have read some of the original stories, and have been "too scared" to watch the show for fear that they'd portray it all wrong. It's good to hear that it's such an enjoyable show, even with these shortcomings. But I still can't profess to be very interested in seeking it out.

  3. Cate

    Love this. I think the show is just brilliant, but I couldn't agree more about the Irene Adler angle. Especially in a society so obsessed with the "independent woman," the Irene of the book was way more independent and powerful than the way she was portrayed in the show. I guess today sex is the only way a woman can have power? Blah.

  4. Hannah

    What got me about Irene Adler in the show, was that she was unnutterably unlikable–not because she was lesbian, or bisexual, or a sadomasochist, or a prostitute, but because she wasn't kind. Someone could be all those things, and if there was just a glimmer, of kindness or caring about someone or something else, somehow, you can care about the character. But the opening words about her, was that she destroyed a happy marriage by having an affair with both parties, just for kicks, kinda soured me on her. Then, we get to watch her treat everyone as if they were something to be juiced for their status/money/what's in it for her. All she does is use other people. I wasn't sure why we were supposed to care about her, other then that she got a hormonal buzz out of trying to seduce a nerdy virgin. There is a buzz/excitement that comes out of trying to destroy/consume innocence, it fills our world in predatory school teachers and people who see others as "conquests"….it leaves Irene Adler no redeeming grace, no small kindness or twinge of emotion or any crumb we can to see humanity in her. In the end, Moffat not only stripped Adler of what makes her likable or interesting (intelligence, wit, kindness to an injured clergyman, something/someone she cares about other than herself) but stripped her of even her humanity. There was never any evidence that she cared about any thing or any one other than herself and what she could get from them. It left her flatter than cardboard.

    • Kendra Tierney

      Hannah, this is SUCH a good point. And I totally left it out. Not only is it more understandable why Sherlock would like Miss Adler in the book, it's understandable why WE would like her.

      Instead of her being fooled by his disguise and caring for him, when this Sherlock shows up as an injured clergyman, she walks out stark naked. It's meant to be titillating of course, but you've pointed out that it's even more disappointing than I originally noticed.

      So now she's not even the "hooker with a heart of gold" they took away her intrigue AND her heart. Sheesh. Who would have thought I could ever feel this much pity for Irene Adler of all literary characters?!

  5. Irishmoss

    Interesting read! I do enjoy your blog, including the comments.

  6. Megha

    I really like your post . I recently read ASIB after watching SHERLOCK’s spisode. The way they show Irene was highly wrong . As a person who watch show first and read story latter i can say its a mislead . After watching the episode i don’t understand why the hell adler is an admirable character , as you said she is neither kind nor clever in show and above all nothing but a pawn in game of men , a damsel in distress only to be rescued by men and a predatory woman lusting after a virgin and lost due to it . I thought why the hell this character is so famous and important in books when there is nothing remarkable about her UNTILL i read ASIB . God that story and Irene’s characterization in that is making me say WHAT A WOMAN. She is not just clever but kind and main reason holmes respect her because she used somehow his own way and not her body and sexuality to outwit him . Other than this fact she is kind and have a valid reason to keep photographs instead of blackmailing people for pleasure that is making her THE WOMAN in my eyes . Show’s Irene’s whole character discussion based on whether holmes have romantic feelings for her or not and nothing else but book irene is not dependent in a man’s feelings for her to be noteworthy. Most important point of your article i like is the concept of THE WOMAN , in the story Irene is ‘the woman’ because of her intelligence and only for sherlock because she changed the way he see woman’s cleverness and intelligence. But in show she is known as ‘the woman’ only because she is a sexy and skillful prostitute and because of her beauty so end scene of episode where is remember her as THE WOMAN was hollow , i don’t understand how a woman who maupulate and use people feelings , hurt their heart for her play can change a man’s perspective towards women who find them “not trustworthy” , as i said it was a mislead for understanding adler’s character.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

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