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The Creation of Irene Adler


CBS’s Elementary loves playing with tropes and expectations. From the day it was announced that the usually white, middle/upper-class male John Watson was going to be played by Lucy Liu, the show has challenged problematic elements of its genre and turned standards on their heads.

And although Lucy Liu’s Watson is a fabulous character, this subversion is nowhere more powerful or evident than in the show’s interpretation of Irene Adler.

Warning: this post contains MAJOR spoilers for the first season of Elementary.

As Sherlock says, he saw Irene as “The Woman,” the one who “eclipsed and predominated the whole of her sex.” And Irene Adler isn’t real. She is a character constructed by a clever con-artist, designed precisely to ensnare Sherlock. Every one of her character traits, her every action and reaction, is a lie created to be Sherlock’s idea of perfection.

And interestingly, she isn’t a stereotypically weak and feminine construction, because this isn’t the 1950s, and that just wouldn’t fly or ring true with Sherlock. In fact, she’s far closer to a “not like other girls” type figure than a “girly” figure. She’s a glamorous and talented American artist. She’s independent and no-nonsense, witty and a bit of a flirt, hard to pin down, and even a bit of an admitted criminal who steals works of priceless art to save them from ignoble fates. And none of that is real either. She still has too much of a sheen, is too perfectly molded to Sherlock’s tastes.

Even her murder is a fiction. If our early perspective of Irene are taken in isolation — the perspective that comes filtered through Sherlock’s eyes — the show could potentially be criticized for fridging the original series’ one dynamic and challenging female character. Instead of having any real presence in the show, she’s reduced to the dead romantic interest who triggered Sherlock’s breakdown. She drives forward some of his investigations, but the woman herself is not to be seen.

Then, first, it turns out she isn’t dead. She appears as a broken, confused woman who needs Sherlock to protect her, to take care of her. And then that turns out to be an act too. It is all a game, constructed by an incredibly clever, if sociopathic, woman, who just wants to have fun with other people’s lives, to be a mastermind and bask in her own manipulative genius.

The pawn was really the chessmaster, the object in the story was not just the subject but the author, and the “perfect woman” does not really exist except in the minds of men who desperately want her to appear.

And for the first and only time, Sherlock is blinded by a deception. He cannot see that he is being lied to, not even a little, even when the signs are there. She tells him she’s working on her own work of art, and the big reveal that just happens to be the time he finds apparent signs of her murder? But the plotline makes sense. It makes sense that the male lead would find a gorgeous, vivacious woman who challenges him, but always in an enjoyable way. It makes sense that she would then be murdered as a way to punish him. And when she isn’t dead after all, it makes sense that she would need him to care for her and protect her, and that the focus would shift to him and how he’s dealing with this struggle. It is, after all, the plotline she is supposed to have.

The fact that the mastermind behind this whole deception is “Irene” herself is delicious.

And as a villain, Moriarty is glorious. That’s not to say that Irene/Moriarty is a good or admirable person, by any stretch of the imagination. Her role in Sherlock’s life is one of incredibly long, incredibly complicated emotional abuse. But there’s something satisfying about seeing a sophisticated woman stride onto the scene, dismissing the idea that “men have a monopoly on murder” with a wicked little laugh, and playing puppet master with pretty much everything. Intelligent, confident, a true rival to Sherlock and purely, geniously evil to boot? What could be better?

And the one to outwit her? It’s not Sherlock, but Joan. She’s the one who understands Moriarty, in a twisted sort of way, who knows that she will have to come back and gloat over her success. The other woman who is, in many ways, Sherlock’s equal, the show’s other subversion, turning a traditional white male sidekick into a Chinese-American woman who more than holds her own. The two women face off against each other in a battle of wits, and Joan wins in part because Moriarty underestimates her. Just as Sherlock missed Irene’s true nature because he didn’t expect to see it, Moriarty misses Joan’s true intelligence because she doesn’t expect to see more than a sidekick, a pet. Because no-one could possibly equal or even surpass Sherlock, except Moriarty herself. She is, in the end, defeated by the very fact that she has used again and again in her own manipulations: women are more multi-dimensional and more intelligent than most people assume them to be.


Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

3 thoughts on “The Creation of Irene Adler

  1. I was extremely frustrated by Elementary’s move here – not because they made the decision to make Moriarty a female character, but because they condensed the two characters into one. I think this moment would have been infinitely stronger if they had written two separate female characters, working together as Irene and Moriarty do in the original story. I fully believe a female character can possess all the nuances in personality and deception that the Irene/Moriarty character exhibited, but I think it’s also possible to have two female characters who both possess all those nuances and exhibit them in characteristically different ways. Writers and producers are constantly diminishing the number of female characters in pop culture creations such as this one; to have written not one but two female villains, in my opinion, would have been a far more impressive show of diverse representation.

    1. Irene and Moriarty don’t work together in the original story, though; they’re not remotely related. The choice to make Irene a pawn of Moriarty is entirely a modern one, albeit so widespread that people begin to think it canonical. It happens in BBC Sherlock, it happens in the Guy Ritchie films, so I was actually thrilled here to see that Irene was not (yet again) reduced to a subservient figure to the Main Villain. In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, Irene is a pretty much independent figure, apparently financially (she’s an opera singer) as well as narratively. The King of Bohemia seeks her out because she has incriminating information about him, but she’s totally over it and just wants to go and get married to her lawyer beau without being bothered. Holmes stages a kerfuffle to get into her house, Irene sees through it, and tracks him down later (disguised in drag) for the sole purpose of a little light mockery. She then goes on her way, and has nothing to do with either him or Moriarty in any of the rest of the stories. The insistence on making an independent female character, the only person who ever beats Holmes, a tool of the main antagonist, has always rankled at me, so I’m actually really glad Elementary avoided doing so.

      1. It’s definitely interesting that Irene *is* subservient to the main villain Moriarty in Elementary — but only in the sense that she’s an entirely fictional creation of Morairty herself. A comment on other modern interpretations, perhaps?

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