Professorfonz brought up in this comment that the Karachi arc of “A Scandal in Belgravia” opens up the possibility of interpreting Sherlock in that episode as a desiring subject who acts upon his desire, not only as the object of desire. This was in response to the Recreational Meta piece “The Virgin Genius and the Power of Molly’s Desire" for Episode 8 of the Three Patch Podcast.
I’m reblogging my own thoughts inspired by professorfonz so this can be a stand-alone post instead of a comment on a lengthy essay. Apologies; still getting the hang of tumblr.
I love that Benedict Cumberbatch thinks Sherlock felt desire for Irene and acted upon it and it is certainly the way I would go if I were writing the story, since I see stories through a lens of desire and romance. But my strict reading of the episode, especially based on my sense of Steven Moffat’s themes, is that Sherlock is motivated not by desire but by the exchange where Irene asks if he expects her to beg, he says yes, and she begs.
There are a few reasons I think so.
1. Moffat writes begging as a theme in this episode. Irene says she can make Sherlock beg for mercy, Sherlock says he’s never begged for mercy, and here, Irene is begging for mercy (Sherlock to Mycroft: “If you’re feeling kind”). Later, Sherlock begs John for the phone, and John responds to that, too, violating procedure. It’s about honest plea being more reliable for decision-making than desire.
2. That piano trill. When Sherlock pauses to hear Irene beg, there’s a little piano trill in the score that is light, beautiful, completely changing the mood: without intending to, I found that I was thinking of it as “the trill of hope.” That’s when she begs. The same trill gets repeated right after the text alert in Karachi when she realizes she gets a second chance at life. It is repeated but with a key change when Sherlock remembers the moment and that introduces the moment the two themes, Irene’s theme and Sherlock’s grieving violin composition, resolve into harmony. This could indicate sexual congress, of course, but that doesn’t feel quite right to me. It feels more like it describes the kind of yearning that Irene evokes when she talks about the last night of the world, when she can stop playing the game.
3. I think of his decision to rescue her as a continuation of Sherlock’s “ah” moment from the denouement when Irene says Moriarty sends his regards and he rapidly separates his Irene data between evidence of Moriarty and evidence of Irene’s true sentiments. As long as Irene’s still playing (“Everything I said: it’s not real”), Sherlock is closed to her. He’s about to walk out, be done with her, and consign her to Mycroft’s tender mercies. When she calls to him about begging, he stops short. He is open to listening. She begs; that is the first time he ever answers her about dinner (“he never replies”), because she’s communicating from her true self. It’s safe for him to answer her, then. He replies “Sorry about dinner” not just to get back at her for the sexual humiliation of “Junior” but to acknowledge the person-to-person truth behind her overtures. He is pointedly saying that there will be no more games between them, Moriarty-inspired or not. He’s destroyed her game and there’s no point in being anything but genuine, so he lets his bitterness and vulnerability show. Then (in my headcanon) he goes off and starts thinking about what he can do to help her because that’s how Sherlock responds to genuine pleas from anybody, this pirate with a heart.
I read the love story of Sherlock and Irene as the story of two kindred spirits unable to resist connecting because they recognize in each other the beautiful brilliant children they both once were, before they became so bored and lonely and endangered. This is compatible with the reading that he desired her and they had a loving, possibly sexual encounter after the rescue, and I personally love that and hope it happened. But I think Sherlock’s desire for her, if that was in play, was in addition to his true motive for rescue, not the motive itself. I think the rescue was his heart’s response to a communication that was true and therefore reached through his isolation and loneliness. I think his recognition of her greatness, akin to his own, is independent of his sexual desire for her, and that is why I believe that Moffat was true to the original Arthur Conan Doyle spirit of Holmes admiring Adler’s genius and not just that Holmes fancied her.
Thanks again for commenting, professorfonz!