The Woman: The Femme Fatale in Modern Sherlock Holmes

Irene Adler in “Elementary” is the perfect femme fatale

In the vast canon of Sherlock Holmes, only one woman stands out: Irene Adler. Introduced in the short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler receives the dubious introduction as “the woman.” She’s an object of affection or desire, because the great detective Sherlock Holmes could never feel something so base as love; instead Dr. Watson recalls that to Holmes Irene Adler “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” Now over a hundred years and two successful TV shows later, Irene Adler evolved from a mildly scandalous New Jersey opera singer to the classic femme fatale.

A standard trope of film noir movies of the 1920s, the femme fatale served as the dangerous female to draw in and often trap the male protagonist using flirty banter, dark eyeliner, and well-angled shadows. She only served her best interests and escaped to live another day to torment the protagonist’s dreams. Sexy, dangerous, and a little basic, the femme fatale recently became a sort of ideal for women in action-mystery adventures. Black Widow in the Avengers, Catwoman to Batman, and in the case of the BBC and CBS, Irene Adler.

For context, Arthur Conan Doyle introduces Irene as a cunning and unassuming woman who only shows up once in all of the Holmes tales. The prince of Bohemia comes to the Baker Street detectives asking them to retrieve a scandalous photograph of him with Adler before the prince gets married. Holmes takes on the case, and in one of the rare times through the series, fails. He tricks Adler into revealing the location of the photo, but she realizes his deception and outsmarts him by escaping the city with the photograph. Holmes, awestruck but not in love, forever immortalizes her “under the honourable title of the woman.” This brief short story launched a thousand Irene Adlers, and all befall the fate of the femme fatale.

None more so than seen on the BBC and CBS with their respective modern retellings. Viewers can debate which show, “Sherlock” or “Elementary,” took their Irene-as-the-femme-fatale farther, as both versions took her in completely new and darker directions. However I believe “Elementary” had the most original and in-depth take on The Woman never seen before in the canon: spoiler alert, Irene Adler and the criminal mastermind Moriarty exist as one and the same. The twist follows the overall arc of season one, as Sherlock struggles with sobriety in the wake of a two year heroine addiction sparked by the bloody death of Irene Adler at the hands of Moriarty. As the season drew to a close, the writers pulled out all the stops to tease Sherlock’s final showdown with Moriarty — aka Irene Adler, aka Moriarty in disguise.

Adler-but-actually-Moriarty could fulfill the trope of the femme fatale in all of the expected ways, but “Elementary” still managed to give both characters a new slant. Now the somewhat devious Irene Adler becomes the criminal mastermind Jamie Moriarty, the woman who runs one of the largest criminal organizations in the world, kills people regularly, and still fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. Complete with loose blonde curls, seductive eye contact, and a smooth British accent, the writers of the show took the woman one step farther and turned her into the ultimate villain, and in turn the ultimate femme fatale.

I think this twist in “Elementary” created a more intense show than its BBC counterpart and their female dominatrix whose ultimate downfall ended up showing in her devotion to an unloving man. But the real strength of “Elementary” lies in its casting between Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock), Lucy Liu (Dr. Joan Watson), and Natalie Dormer (Moriarty and Adler). The natural chemistry between the three of them builds off their character’s backstories, which only enhances the tension of the plot. Their on-screen build up created the most dramatic moment of season one, and it’s not the final arrest. The final argument of the episode, when Joan realizes how close to the edge Sherlock stands, acts at the climax of the episode. The intensity between Sherlock, Joan, and Moriarty makes the audience ask: Will the duo have to really admit defeat at the hands of Moriarty?

“Elementary” built off the way all of the characters were running on high emotions, and the entire time the audience wonders if Sherlock will go over the edge: lose to Moriarty or use heroine to escape his fate. By combining the one woman Holmes loved with his nemesis, the show took all of the famed Conan Doyle characters in a new bent.


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