Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sherlock - The Abominable Bride - Review

My review of the season 3 finale

Objectively speaking, The Abominable Bride is quite bad. It’s the sort of mess of fan service, self-indulgence, and petty delay which has become a hallmark of Sherlock since The Empty Hearse. But that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, in all its illogical absurdity.

The episode begins with a lightning recap of the first three seasons which reminds long-time viewers of a few series high points but does little to enlighten new fans. It then gives us a “what if” transition into an alternate universe. It’s 1895, post-Reichenbach, and Watson and Holmes are returning to 221B from a case. They’re just in time to meet Lestrade, who needs Holmes’s assistance on a murder.

It all began (he informs them) when the titular bride, Emelia Ricoletti, went mad and started taking potshots from her balcony at passersby, before blowing a hole in the back of her head. Later that evening, on his way to identify her corpse, her husband was stopped in the street by a creepy-looking woman in a wedding dress.

You can see where this is going. Emelia removes her veil and plugs her husband full of lead before evaporating into the mist. A series of similar murders crop up around the country, meaning Lestrade and Watson immediately think ghost rather than copycat murderer. Thankfully, Holmes is here to remind us several times ghosts don’t exist, and poetry is never true unless you’re an idiot. Hashtag the Enlightenment. Neil deGrasse Tyson would be proud.

Coroner Hooper (Louise Brealey with a stache) confirms that the Bride is most certainly dead, so it’s even more puzzling when Holmes and Watson are referred by Mycroft (satisfying canon with extreme girth), months later, to a wife who reports her husband, Sir Eustace Carmichael, is seeing the Bride. First of all, he receives orange pips in the mail, obviously a threat (Sherlockians will recognize the reference to The Five Orange Pips), and then begins to ramble on about seeing the Bride, who has come to exact revenge for some secret sin. When Holmes and Watson visit Sir Eustace, however, he denies the accusations, dismissing his wife’s story as female hysteria (hashtag misogyny).

Deriding the man’s attitude (bizarrely, in 1895 Holmes is more forward-minded than Watson, an exact reversal of 21st Century Sherlock and John), Holmes decides to stake out the manor and catch the ghost red-handed. As they wait, Watson asks Holmes about his past. Surely there must be more to him than the logical machine that he, Watson, presents in the stories. Sherlock both embraces and rejects that characterization, as convenient. Now it’s convenient: he explains that he’s chosen a celibate life of the mind. There are no ghosts in his past who made him like this—he made him like this. But if there’s anything this episode proves, it’s that we’re never free of the past.

Speaking of which, we now cut back to the future, and find the explanation of this episode’s particular conceit. Everything has occurred in Sherlock’s Mind Palace, in the four minutes since it took his plane to leave and return to the soil of England. The rest of the episode cuts between the two, as Sherlock sinks in and out (or through the hallucinogenic layers, Inception-style) of his dream, using his memory of the Emelia Ricoletti case to try and subconsciously solve the resurrection of Moriarty and come to terms with his own ghosts. After several superb Andrew Scott scenes, in which he does the Moriarty thing, the two confront one another atop a mental Reichenbach Falls (it's silly, it's silly, I know, but I loved seeing them fitting Sidney Paget's illustration to a T.) After a great deal of Dark Knight talk (Moriarty: "At the end it's always just you and me!" The Joker: "I think you and I are destined to do this forever."), John Watson unceremoniously kicks Moriarty off the cliff. The story returns to the modern era, where Sherlock has found the answer to the riddle.

Well, okay, all right, Mr. Moffat, I suppose that makes sense. Now, justify the enormous amount of time spent in Victorian England. Of course, he can’t—this is a novelty episode—the period stuff is its own reward, it doesn’t serve the plot of Sherlock the modern show in any way. In the whole story, we only receive the answer to one question raised in the season 3 finale, and that merely reminds us of the consequences of shooting oneself in the mouth. Moriarty blew the back of his head off. Of course he’s dead. Now wasn’t this all fun?

Okay, it was a bit. The parts where Sherlock plays the period drama straight make it an entertaining Holmesian pastiche, Cumberbatch is right at home as the gentler, more considerate but intensely cerebral canonical Holmes, Martin Freeman enjoys doing a bit of scenery chewing, it has tons of atmosphere and fits perfectly into the traditional Gothic style of Holmes horror stories. We’re still treated to the signature Sherlock banter.

But when episode doesn’t stick to that, it begins to unravel. Along with the pastiche, we have the psychological subplot concerning real-life Moriarty, several emotional plots which aren’t resolved, and a great deal of social commentary. It splinters the episode and makes it difficult to decide where to focus our emotions.

From very early on, The Abominable Bride functions as a criticism of Conan Doyle’s world, and specifically two elements thereof: Victorian misogyny, and the flatness of Sherlock Holmes as a character. Demolishing these pillars is not a subplot, but the central theme of the episode.

Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Watson (surprise, newbies—Watson is married) criticize the dynamic duo for neglecting them; a maid is saucy to Watson; Watson is a 19th century misogynist. It ultimately adds up to (no kidding) a cult of vengeful women using the tale of the Bride (she went to the trouble of elaborately faking her death to establish the myth) to either intimidate or copycat murder men. They meet in a desanctified church and treat Emelia like a perverse messiah risen from the dead. All of this is frightfully silly, but Holmes, remembering all the times modern Sherlock mistreated women, looks penitent, Mycroft says they deserve to win, and their complaints are treated with far more gravity than their heinous crimes. As object lessons go, this one is insulting to everyone involved, and hardly addresses the realities of misogyny in the 19th or 21st Centuries or even specifically in the rest of Sherlock the show.

It's so silly it's difficult to really be offended, but it's not the only iconoclasm on display. Watson’s integrity as a narrator is at stake here. Not only does the story criticize his neglect of women and his alarmist, somewhat xenophobic politics, but it questions the central premise: Sherlock Holmes as logical machine. Holmes is not really like Watson portrays him—he’s a human being. What does that look like? Well, it mostly involves drug addiction, intellectual fallibility, and nightmares about his childhood dog, Redbeard.

Sherlock has always been a show which is by turns an adaptation, homage, parody, and critique of its source material (mostly in that order). In later seasons, the show has spun off into its own territory, more conscious of its own reputation than its roots. The Abominable Bride is more meta than ever, overtly delving into external criticisms, and overtly incorporating the Holmes mythology which before has only been winked at. It’s odd to see a show demolish its premise and rules so plainly, with such lack of subtlety, and makes one wonder how the fourth season will recover.

At this point, one is inclined to banish Moffat to the club of disgraced writer-directors (he can drown his sorrows with George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and Chris Carter - "if only we had given the fans resolution instead of tedious fan service!"). But The Abominable Bride was impossible not to enjoy, and I'm a sucker for silly time travel episodes (see The X-Files: Triangle, one of my favorites) and Victorian London. Maybe the show will pick itself up in season 4, dust itself off, and then never, ever talk about the events of this episode again. I certainly hope so.

My review of the next episode: The Six Thatchers

Want something good to watch? Check out my full list of British detective shows.



  1. I think there is more to this episode than meets the eye. I had a hard time even making it through on first viewing--it seemed to last forever. Afterward, upon reflection, I believe it does move the show's plot forward and hint at things to come in Series 4. First off, Sherlock must have taken his drug cocktail before he boarded the plane. He must have planned to examine something other than Moriarty's "resurrection" because he had no knowledge of that. An obvious guess as to what that might be would be his own life and choices--and things that had been bothering him that he couldn't quite put his finger on. His directed dream--or trip into his "mind palace" began with those issues. The schtick with women being mistreated (women's "sufferage" in Moffatpunspeak and Sherlock's dreamworld)had to do with Sherlock's epiphany that he has mistreated women--as referenced by every woman in the room being revealed to be an actress that has played a character on the show before, with the uncloaking in the deconsecrated church. That plays into him re-examining decisions he had made as a child with Mycroft--to forgo women and friends as needless distractions. Irene Adler had caused him to question his decision with respect to women. And he had made his first real friend with John, of course. Now Mary was necessarily disrupting his relationship with John, as his wife. Then there is Mary herself--the reason that she was in Victorian Dream London. Sherlock had intentionally stopped vetting Mary when he saw that she had genuine feelings for John. The other woman that made the trip back that was highlighted by his dream was Molly Hooper, with her disguise. At some point on the plane, Sherlock was awakened to tell him that Moriarty had resurfaced, and Sherlock incorporated that into his directed dreaming. That is the point he started to consider whether Moriarty could be alive, and to come up with the Emelia Ricoletti case. Sherlock's conclusion of the mind palace simulation was that Moriarty must be dead. That being true must mean that there is someone that sent the message. In Series 4, I'm pretty sure we will find that Moriarty did not work alone (I'm guessing a twin, or at minimum a sibling) and that Mary or Molly is the other criminal mastermind. Excuse the rambling comment--I have a migrane. I hope my points made it out alive.

    1. Oh, and that might make Mary "The Abominable Bride."

    2. Watching it a second time with the family, it does seem to work best as a psychological examination of Sherlock's phobias and fears. The examination of the Holmes image as a facsimile he uses to protect himself - the guilt over how women are treated, the fear of them as an unknowable cult-like Other - Moriarty the constant incarnation of his lowest moments - John as his one salvation, one connection to normal human life.

      I can't see them doing Mary as criminal mastermind, though - they've already gone through the whole rigmarole revealing her initial deception, then having John forgive her for it. I doubt even they would do a fake-out like that.

      And don't forget Mrs. Hudson - who knows what she's been putting in that tea?

    3. I didn't forget Mrs. Hudson--or Lastrade, for that matter. I just considered them landmarks in that episode.

      Moffat has told us that he has no interest in creating a detective story, only a story about a detective. If he had his way, ACD Canon would only be an afterthought told in flashbacks and by mention. The comments are wonky right now, appearing as you write, then disappearing like magic. Over for now.

    4. Sherlock is barely even a detective, anymore - he talked a bit about deduction, and thought through some things, but I don't recall any deductive fireworks. And, of course, as mysteries, Sherlock episodes have been quite poor for a long time.

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