What Makes a Relationship?

Thoughts on Steven Moffat's 'A Scandal in Belgravia'


When we say relationship, we almost invariably mean a romantic—more specifically, sexual—relationship. It’s part of our culture. And out of the abundance of our cultural heart, our mouths speak. We have reduced human relationships to sexual interaction.

Television writer Steven Moffat explores this phenomenon in his Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Sherlock is a British series, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, that updates the classic Sherlock Holmes stories.

In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock Holmes is hired to retrieve a mobile phone filled with pornographic pictures and classified information from Irene Adler, a professional dominatrix. Sherlock is helped by his flatmate, John Watson. The interactions among these three characters expose their attitudes about relationships.

Irene Adler views the world in terms of power differentials, and therefore lives her life trying to get the upper hand. Her profession consists of controlling people at their most vulnerable. When she first confronts Sherlock, she tries to control him by appearing in her “battle dress”: heavy makeup, stilettos, and nothing else.

None of Irene’s relationships is free of her desire for control. The only person with whom she might be in some sort of genuine romantic relationship is her PA—an employee. Even what she would call friendship includes making those friends vulnerable. When she doses Sherlock with an intravenous sedative, she assures John that Sherlock will be fine; she has used the drug on “loads” of her friends. Several times she expands on “knowing” someone: “Well, I know what he likes.” Knowledge of a person, in her estimation, is no more than knowledge of that person’s failings. Finally, her relationship with Sherlock is always a play for dominance. She keeps texting him variations on “You look sexy. Let’s have dinner” until she has well and truly lost “the game” of forcing him to fall in love with her.

John Watson offers an alternative perspective on relationships. Instead of seeking power, he uses relationships to alleviate his appetite for sex. He either has a girlfriend, or is on the hunt for one, at all times.

In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” John’s girlfriend, Jeanette, is his fourth in eight months. Unsurprisingly, the relationship is superficial. When Jeanette breaks up with him, John tries to bribe her to stay, and in the process confuses her with his previous girlfriend. A week later, when a beautiful woman he has never met approaches him, he offers to make New Year’s Eve plans with her. John does not want a relationship. He wants a body.

Furthermore, relationship in John’s mind is equivalent to romantic relationship. He asks his landlady, “Has [Sherlock] ever had . . . a boyfriend . . . girlfriend . . . a relationship?” Sherlock has at least three close friends, so in fact, the answer is yes. But friendships do not fit into John’s view of a “relationship,” and this damages his own relationship with Sherlock. He has reduced the romantic relationship to sex, so non-sexual relationships confuse him.

When Irene becomes the latest in a string of acquaintances to call John and Sherlock a “couple,” John frustratedly insists that he isn’t gay. When she counters that he is certainly behaving as if he cares for Sherlock, John is paralyzed. He has no idea how to deal with the fact that he loves a man he is not in love with, so he stops caring for Sherlock—deserts him—leaving him to face several opponents (Irene included) alone.

Irene’s relationships are power struggles, and John’s are the indulgence of appetite. Sherlock despises both. When Irene confronts him naked, he is scathing: “If I wanted to look at naked women, I’d borrow John’s laptop.” Her behavior is not strong. Rather, it objectifies her. And John drools over objectified women. Both Irene’s and John’s behaviors produce nearly the opposite of the intended results. Irene’s attempt to use sex as means to power only proves that “love is a dangerous disadvantage” when she succumbs to attraction. It makes her vulnerable to Sherlock. He uses her own lust to break into her phone, and she is forced to beg for his mercy.

Sherlock refutes John’s idea that getting sex is a relationship by pointing out that John’s interest in women is only an “incredibly simple and very destructive” chemistry—hardly something to want for oneself and one’s friends. Irene’s and John’s views are empty, if not actively dangerous.

But what alternative does Sherlock offer? He does not immediately strike one as a model for interpersonal interaction—he is perpetually blunt and rude. And yet, while he might announce his deductions too loudly and at inappropriate times, he looks at individuals as what they are: individuals. He suits his theories about human beings’ motivations to what he sees, rather than taking a theory or two about humanity and forcing individual humans into it. This brings about relationships that are constructive, and even redemptive.

John sees himself as a man who needs to find a girl for himself and another for his best friend. Sherlock not only points out the shallowness of this understanding, but he also treats his relationship with John as the complex thing that it really is—something that extends from affectionate companionship (when John says being in Buckingham Palace makes him want to steal an ashtray, Sherlock steals it for him) to intense care (when John’s life is threatened, Sherlock saves him with a spectacular feat of deduction). And when John fails miserably—leaving Sherlock vulnerable, and then lying to him—Sherlock doesn’t call John an idiot and point out the truth. Instead, he thanks John, and accepts the good intentions behind John’s actions.

Irene sees Sherlock as another man to be dominated through his libido. Sherlock sees Irene as a clever, passionate woman who will “cater to the whims of the pathetic and take clothes off to make an impression,” but who could, if only she tried, think. She believes that sex is a weapon she has under control, and Sherlock shows that she is still vulnerable to it. But because he encourages her to use her head instead of her body, she starts to grow into someone different—someone he finally goes out of his way to save. She no longer has her camera phone for blackmail; she is wearing the hijab (having been kidnapped by terrorists), and her face is bare of makeup; she has neither anything to offer him, nor any power over him; but she is an individual he cares for, and he risks his life in her service.

“A Scandal in Belgravia,” then, presents two individuals’ reductive views of relationships. But they are not so individual that we cannot recognize them in our culture today. Enough people have bought into Irene's power-play attitude to put a BDSM "romance," 50 Shades of Grey, at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. And some of our most successful movies are chick flicks: romances in which the heroes and heroines are cookie-cutter pretty faces that we can tell apart no more than John could his girlfriends. But there is another option, as seen in Sherlock’s example. Relationships based on deep knowledge of individuals have the potential to be self-denying and true.

Moffat’s “A Scandal in Belgravia” does not offer a complete Christian definition of relationships, but if he is not pointing precisely in the right direction, he is certainly pointing us away from the wrong ones.

Image copyright BBC.

Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell, a literary obsessive with a sleeping disorder, teaches in a Christian school by day, writes fan fiction by night, and cares for her mentally defective dog, Arthur, on the side.

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