I am a Sherlock fan, and by the transitive propery I love Irene. It's impossible to love the world's greatest detective without fostering admiration for The Woman. But I don't always love how she's portrayed. She was fridged* in the RDJ films (after playing the damsel in distress, two terrible troped in one). And in the BBC adaptation, Irene loses everything because she falls for the enigmatic Sherlock (quite the opposite of what happened in ACD's story). Kind of disappointing for one of my favorite antagonists, it feels like the modern retellings of her story have been less progressive than the original (despite BBC's almost-textual characterization of Irene as not-quite hetrrosexual). *If you don't know what that means, watch this excellent summary of the term (coined by Gail Simone) with Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian.
So when I found out that Elementary was introducing the character (played by the GLORIOUS Irene Adler) I was hopeful. The premise of the series seemed to be subverting out expectations. It still featured the brilliant, boorish Sherlock, but the show was constructed to reach a more modern, diverse audience. I thought my favorite character would finally be done justice in a modern adaptation. *SPOILERS* At first, I thought I might be disappointed. It seemed like the character had only been intriduced to give Sherlock a tragic backstory, fridged before she could even have a character arc of her own. I decided to finish the season, with only a few episodes left, and abandon it after I was done. I'm so glad I stuck around.
It turns out, Irene was a fiction, and the woman Sherlock had fallen for was actually the villain Moriarty. What a devastating twist. Here are two characters we thought we knew, here was a plot device we thought we understood, and it's all been a dynamic shift towards a new direction. via Feminist Fiction:
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.
My problems with the modern interpretations of Irene are the problems I have with female characters in general. There are often so few of them, one character is expected to be all things to all people all the time, and it's impossible to have a fulfilling character when she's bogged down by all those expectations. Or worse, the character exists only to make the male characters seem more interesting or powerful. They die so the male characters can grieve, or fail so the male characters can win. It's sexist and predictable. So I'm thrilled Elementary took a different approach with Season 1. It's not perfect, but I'm always thrilled when a show surprises me (and if your plot twist has its own article on tv tropes you can bet it won't surprise me), and with the Irene-Moriarty reveal they definitely earned my loylaty, and challenged other Sherlock Holmes adaptations to do better.