Irene Adler: how to *not* butcher a brilliant woman character

Spoiler warning: this post contains MASSIVE HONKING SPOILERS FOR ELEMENTARY. If you haven’t watched season 1 to the end yet, turn back now, because it’s actually really good and I don’t want to ruin it for you. You have been warned. 

A year and a half ago, I wrote a little blog about how badly Stephen Moffat had fucked up the character of Irene Adler in his Sherlock. I complained that he had stripped Irene of everything that made her cool, removing all of her agency and turning her into a mere piece in a game between two men. I ejaculated with despair when this woman had to be rescued (by a man, obviously). I expressed dismay about how a story over a century old had better gender politics than something that was on the telly recently.

So when I started watching Elementary, I was slightly worried about how Irene Adler might be fucked up and fucked over by a writer, yet again. I probably needn’t have, as Elementary had managed, with a great deal of success, to not piss me off. It had a very strong female character who wasn’t a Strong Female Character™, and portrayed a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman in a really touching way.

When Irene Adler finally emerged as a victim needing rescue, I had my palm ready to apply to my face. And fuck me, I didn’t need to.

See, as an audience, we’re conditioned to be surprised at a twist, even a twist that was pretty obviously foreshadowed. Dramatically, we needed a twist. And my goodness, it was a brilliant one.

Having Irene Adler as Moriarty was a delight. This Irene is not a passive pawn, but an agent. It goes beyond placing Irene Adler as the woman who outsmarted Sherlock once and elevates her to the status of Sherlock’s equal, a more than worthy adversary. While Moffat’s Adler ended her story with needing to be rescued by Sherlock, Elementary’s began this way, using her apparent rescue as a manipulation.

This Irene holds the cards at all times. This Irene Adler very nearly wins.

Dramatically, she can’t win, because Sherlock always wins. However, Sherlock’s victory was on points this time, atop a trail of bodies.

And yes, we might say something about her weakness being her love for Sherlock, but let us not forget that the only reason Sherlock fell for her gambit was that she was his weakness. Even here, they are equals. Even here, they have both used it as leverage.

And I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of this rather brilliant villain.

(apologies for all the squee, this is what happens on the rare occasion I actually like something. Fully concede that Elementary isn’t perfect, particularly in their fuck-ups on Miss Hudson, but Irene Adler is kind of a pet favourite character of mine)

8 thoughts on “Irene Adler: how to *not* butcher a brilliant woman character”

  1. What side’s it on & when? I lost the series link when I went from a normal Virgin Media set top box to the TiVo (which is excellent but you do have to kinda start from scratch telling it what you like).

  2. A way of thinking about it that I adore is that (spoilers!) Sherlock loses to Irene/Moriarty but Moriarty loses to Joan, not Sherlock, because Joan is the one who figures her out.

    1. Hell yes. This is kind of how I see it. Sherlock didn’t even notice the weakness, while Joan had the clarity all the way through.

  3. Admirers of Irene should read my book: The Case Book of Irene Adler (Kindle). She is a tough operator of course, but is an admirable woman with her own set of ethics. For example, she believes that anyone who cannot account for their wealth is a fair target. When the establishment protects powerful villains, she takes the law unto her own hands, even to the extent of shooting the villainous Lord Stonehead, a child abuser and killer dead. When she steals a valuable diamond, it is from a Countess who had begun by defrauding the insurance company by fraudulently declaring that it had been stolen.

  4. What would you consider the fuckups with Mrs Hudson? an ACTUAL trans woman playing a trans woman IMHO was a long overdue step for primetime telly shows, and i did not see it handled horrifically badly. Maybe my bar is too low, and I am a dark and cynical pixie.

  5. I was very skeptical of making Irene Adler the bad guy,since she never was one to begin with ,and also I was afraid they would make her a classic femme fatale trope-which BBC did .But while the Irene of Elementary was nothing like her book counterpart ,she was very memorable and could go toe-to-toe with Sherlock in a way that was similar to the books-she surprised him .The Irene /Moriarty thing was great as a twist but I do wish we would get an adaptation of Irene like she was in the books..

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