Sherlock Sunday 3: A Scandal in Belgravia by Steven Moffat (Motif and Metaphor)
Every time I watch this, I’m astounded all over again at how beautifully this is constructed. (It’s also beautifully directed and acted, but let’s stick to writing.) Rewatching it this time, I was struck by how damn funny the first half is, how light and snarky the dialog and plot are. And then it grows darker, heartbreaking things happen, there’s a magnificent climax and then . . . This is SUCH A GOOD STORY. We could talk about the doppelgänger antagonist again, about writing relationships and not just romantic ones, about characterization and arc, but one of the things this story is especially brilliant at is metaphor, the meaning in the subtext. Metaphor and its stepbrother, motif, sound too grad-school to be any fun, and they too often become heavy-weight story-killers, but handled deftly they can add layers to a story, set up echoes, and generally pull everything together into a unified whole. And Steven Moffat is nothing if not deft. So lets talk about motif and metaphor and the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes.
Motif is easy: it’s anything that’s repeated within a narrative. The shark music in Jaws is a motif; the color red is a motif in The Sixth Sense. Metaphor is almost as easy: it’s a concrete thing that represents an abstract idea. Both metaphor and motif have power, but a metaphor used as a motif is double-barreled subtext. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is studded with metaphoric motifs.
. . . and that’s where I stopped when I was drafting this post and never got back to it, SO I’m putting this up so I can go to the grocery before the snow hits again, and then I’ll come back and talk about specifics of metaphor and motif in the comments. Feel free to start without me and on any topic. ARGH.
Okay, I’m back, I’m fed, and I love this episode.
The thing I love best about it isn’t motif or metaphor, it’s the cataclysmic character change Sherlock goes through because of the impact of Irene. I know there’s a school of thought that says that Irene isn’t as powerful in Moffat’s version as she is in Doyle’s, but I think she’s more powerful: she transforms Sherlock Holmes through the sheer impact of intelligence and daring. He meets his match and she beats him, both figuratively, putting him on the floor, and psychologically, when she blows open his world, destroying his detachment forever. You can’t get the sacrifice he makes in the next episode without Irene stripping him raw in this episode.
That’s why my favorite moment in this episode is when he apologizes to Molly. Before Irene, he could never have understood what he’d just done to Molly. I love the way his new-found empathy makes John and Lestrade and even Molly gape at him when he says, “I’m sorry” and so clearly means it. And that’s followed by his seeing Irene’s present and knowing she must be dead. His vulnerability is so clear that Mycroft offers him a cigarette, a HUGE gesture between these two very controlled men. (I really wonder what Mama Holmes was like.) At the end, when he defeats Irene, he doesn’t do it cooly; there’s passion in every word he says, even though his voice stays steady. And then, having put her on her knees figuratively, he picks up a sword and rescues her when she’s on her knees literally, which is a demonstration not of her weakness but of her power: He’s risked his life and is killing people to save her even though he’s essentially lazy and doesn’t LIKE people; he has to because she’s that essential to his understanding of how the world should work. He outwits her at the end because she cares for him (thus the solvable password), but she owns him in the end because he can’t walk away and let her die. It’s not a healthy relationship, but it is a powerful one, two cold, distant people who have disdain for the rest of the human race, who defeat each other over and over again and yet are inextricably bound to each other.
As a romance writer, I’m amazed every time I watch this episode. There’s incredible sexual tension here but no sex; this is intellectual intercourse. If the most sensitive and powerful sexual organ in the human body is the brain, these two are having the best sex EVER. I love the way Irene deploys sex as a weapon, I love the way Sherlock turns it on her. I love the way she bombards him with sexually coded texts; I love the way he reads every one and never responds until he learns she’s alive, and then says only, “Happy New Year.” I love the way he babbles when she offers him the cryptogram challenge, I love the way she says, “I was just playing a game,” with the plea in her voice that he believe her, that she cares about him. She’s naked in the first scene with him, but for Irene, that’s battle dress. She’s dressed in the climax in Mycroft’s study with him, but she’s never been more naked than she is at the end, in the same way that Sherlock is naked at the palace and invincible, clothed and stripped raw in Mycroft’s study. Clothes have nothing to do with stripping these two bare; they rip every defense from each other in that scene in Mycroft’s study in a true climax in every sense of the word. It’s some of the most masterful writing I’ve ever seen anywhere. (The actors are amazing, too, but we’re talking writing here.)
And then there are the motifs and metaphors. Metaphor, like theme, can be a real story killer, but the way Moffat uses motif, metaphor, and theme in this is so brilliant it actually lifts the story.
So let’s start with an easy motif: the color red. Red means love, danger, evil, death, and above all passion. Seeing red increases respiration and heartbeat; “seeing red” means being overcome by emotion. So all we see of the person who calls Moriarty at the beginning of this episode is her red fingernails, but we know she’s sexual and dangerous. (A nice note of symmetry: Irene’s first action in this story is to call Moriarty; her last action is to text her good-bye to Sherlock and then hand that phone to her executioner.) Irene puts on red lipstick as battle dress; Sherlock shows up at her door with blood spilled deliberately as an assault, to get him in the door. Sherlock, newly schooled in emotion after his meeting with Irene, recognizes the passionate symbolism in Molly’s gift wrap, then sees the same in the gift Irene has left for him, two women offering him sexual love as a gift. Red is threaded through this episode, reinforcing the subtext of passion and its dangers.
A much more interesting motif is nakedness. Irene is naked a lot in this episode but she’s never vulnerable until the end when she’s fully clothed. Irene’s naked body is a weapon she uses; that’s why she calls it her battle dress. She completely disarms John who asks her to put something on, but it’s not her nudity that confounds Sherlock, it’s that she’s stripped herself bare of clues. And yet he should recognize a kindred spirit: he’s just gone to Buckingham Palace in the nude to defy his brother. Mycroft tells him to put his pants on, John asks Irene to get dressed, but Sherlock and Irene know that clothes are irrelevant because they’re not bound by convention or, oddly enough, by sexual feeling. Sherlock may be sexually cold, but Irene is a human iceberg, using the passions of others to gather information and acquire power.
That by itself is interesting; what raises that motif of nakedness to the level of brilliant metaphor is that by the end of this episode, they have stripped each other bare in a much more powerful way: they’ve understood each other intellectually, they’ve seduced each other by flaunting not only their brains but their common disdain for convention, they’ve each recognized that the other is bound by no limits, and their banter and cross-and-double-cross actions are the intellectual foreplay that sets up the climax where Irene rises above him triumphant and on top until he pins her beneath him, destroying everything she’s done in a kind of little death. And even then, they admire each other: she may be the only person who ever beat him, but he is, in turn, the only person who ever beat her. Sherlock tells her he’s defeated her because she’s sentimental, but in the end he keeps her phone, a slave to sentimentality himself.
And that barely scratches the surface of the subtext in “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Start taking apart the metaphors inherent in dominance and submission in this story. The more you unpack that metaphor, the more you find to unpack. It’s just brilliant use of metaphor and motif.