In the only Sherlock we’re likely to get in 2016, we get thrown for a temporal loop and come up mostly grinning.
I’ve always known I was a man outside his time.
When producer Steven Moffat announced that we’d receive a Sherlock “Christmas Special” (more like New Year’s Special) set in Victorian times, I was all for it. It was to be a pure standalone, a lark — just something to tide us over while we continued to wait for Season 4, which probably isn’t coming until next year thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s very full dance cards. I certainly wasn’t expecting time travel, hallucinations, or anything that would in essence “give away the game.” Can’t a fun concept — doing a Sherlock episode the old-school way — just be a fun concept?
Well, when you’re Moffat, the answer is always yes and no. As usual, he and Mark Gattis gild the lily and try to have it both ways in “The Abominable Bride,” and that is both a blessing and a curse. Instead of taking Sherlock’s adventure in 1895 at face value, the gradual reveal that the entire hour has been spent inside present-day Sherlock’s mind palace accomplishes two things: incrementally moving the ongoing narrative forward, yes, but also undercutting the effectiveness of its Victorian story. As has become common since “The Reichenbach Fall,” Sherlock isn’t about the mysteries, but the man, and what’s going on inside his head.
The big takeaway here is Moriarty — still dead, Sherlock assures us, despite his sudden, grinning reappearance on screens across the country at the end of “His Last Vow.” The cocaine-fueled ghost story playing inside the detective’s subconscious provided him an explanation for how Moriarty may have survived shooting himself on that roof, but that doesn’t mean he actually did it. “Dead is the new sexy,” Subconscious Moriarty taunts him. It’s more important that Sherlock put the ghost of Moriarty to bed, for good — kick him off the waterfall, as it were — so he can fully address what’s actually going on. “I know exactly what he’s going to do next,” says Sherlock of the dead man, with his trademark half-smile. Okay then.
Despite this Möbius strip of interlocking dreaming Sherlocks that very nearly derails the episode into incomprehensibility, “The Abominable Bride” is still a great deal of fun, because Sherlock is always fun. We get to see our leads’ meet-cute again, with the riding crop and that mutual friend who only appeared in the first episode, but just when you worry that the whole episode will be a retread of “A Study in Pink” we flash ahead to find them in full partnership. The 1895 version of Holmes and Watson have some subtle differences; Cumberbatch is more upright, less petulant, and Freeman is also more confident. As products of this era, being part of the intelligentsia requires a certain bearing that the 21st-Century pair can get away without.
The two don’t even really have a conversation that would qualify as “awkward” until, while waiting for the ghost of Emilia Ricoletti to murder a hapless lord, John starts to pry into Sherlock’s personal affairs. “Why do you need to be alone?” he asks his friend, who carries a watch containing a photo of Irene Adler. “All emotion is abhorrent to me,” he responds — except, those aren’t really Sherlock’s words, but John’s, as he has written Sherlock the Character in his publications. Except that’s not true, either, as this is all taking place inside present-day Sherlock’s head, so who’s speaking for whom? Once again, the extra layering might be as intellectually stimulating as Holmes’s 7% solution, but it neuters the emotional effect.
The actual mystery at the heart of “The Abominable Bride” is entertaining on its own: a young woman supposedly shoots herself on her wedding day, only to reappear later to murder the man who mistreated her. “Til death do us part — twice in this case!” Sherlock jokes. Yet with a positively identified corpse in the morgue (where a perpetually grumpy Anderson works, of course, alongside a cross-dressing Molly Hooper(!)), men continue to die, and the ghost continues to be to blame. Sherlock assumes copycat killers, and tells an adorably mutton-chopped Lestrade as much (while Watson unhelpfully suggests “twins” — it’s NEVER twins), until Fat Mycroft intervenes and sets him on the path to solve everything. There’s a secret organization lurking in the shadows, Fat Mycroft tells his brother, and the Ricoletti Ghost is just a piece of it.
Ah, Fat Mycroft. In the biggest (heh) character transformation between eras, Mark Gattis puts on hideous prosthetics and stuffs his face with pudding. Fat Mycroft is true to the original Doyle novels, to be sure, but as for all the snark between brothers about just when the man would die, that felt quite a bit more modern. Mycroft puts his gluttonous fingers in another pie by enlisting Mary Watson, who hasn’t seen much of her husband lately (they’ve both been…busy), to keep an eye on Sherlock and John. Even in Sherlock’s imagination, Mary is a secret government agent. (In the present day, she’s apparently capable of looking up MI-5 information on her phone faster than Mycroft can even say it out loud.)
Anyway, after their defense of Lord Carmichael goes disastrously wrong (and Watson is certain he has encountered a literal ghost), a note left on the murder weapon announces the “return” of Professor Moriarty, and that’s when the episode starts to turn on its ear. Both Sherlocks take information from the other when passing between dream states, recalling Desmond Hume‘s experience when “unstuck in time,” but without any emotional anchor. Nevertheless, the mystery is eventually “solved,” with a solution involving some theatrical tricks and a highly-coordinated secret organization of…suffragettes?
“The league of Furies awakened,” Sherlock muses. “The women we have ignored and disparaged.” Molly’s here. Watson’s servant is here. Janine(!) is here. Surprisingly, Mrs. Hudson — who spends the episode complaining that all she does in John’s stories is send people in and serve tea — isn’t, but she probably doesn’t go in for conspiracies. The final piece of the puzzle is supposed to be Lady Carmichael, but it’s Moriarty, again, because Sherlock is still dreaming. Moffat and Gattis seem to be making a welcome point about gender equality, but since it’s all happening inside Sherlock’s head and is only used to serve a different story about a dead man, it gets cut off at the knees. “Is this silly enough yet? It doesn’t make sense because it’s not real.”
There’s also a bit of Inception here too, as the only way for Sherlock to finally escape this Limbo of his own making — after another confusing round of nested dream states, and boy do I wish the episode had saved only a single reveal for the end instead of continuing to ping back and forth — is to dive off the Reichenbach waterfall that marks his most infamous adventure. “It’s not the fall that kills you, Sherlock…it’s the landing,” Moriarty taunts him. Director Douglas McKinnon has a few showoff-y moments in the episode, like the cool bullet-time effects used when discussing the original Ricoletti case, but the Reichenbach scene is particularly evocative — mythic, even.
Despite how present-day Sherlock was only put on that plane to go on a suicide mission, all anyone wants to talk about when they retrieve him is his drug use. That includes Victorian Watson, who berates Sherlock for not holding himself to the “higher standard” people expect from him. So at least subconsciously, Sherlock feels guilty about putting his life at risk to have these mental breakthroughs, but it is effective, and he survives, so no harm done, I suppose. And once again, the big conclusion here is that Moriarty is still dead, which we kind of knew. Sherlock successfully spent 90 minutes devouring its own tail, and I’d be more frustrated if I didn’t enjoy these characters and their dialogue so darn much and will take any moments I can with them.
Odds and Ends:
- “Stranger things have happened!” “Such as?” “Strange…things!” Never change, Anderson.
- John is clever enough to deduce the young mortician Hooper is actually a woman, but doesn’t recognize his own wife’s perfume. Also, he’s quite mean to his servant, and muffs his attempt at sign language at the Diogenes Club. Does he even break even in this episode?
- “Why do you make him tea?” I don’t know, I just sort of do.” Can we get a major Lestrade-Hudson subplot in Season 4?
- Moriarty, speaking for all the fans: “Why don’t you two just elope, for God’s sake?” Andrew Scott’s bugnuts performance is an acquired taste, but I can’t get enough of it now. If this is the last we see of him, it was fitting.
- “Dear Lord, I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.”