Written by Liz Dircks
Reviewing television can be, at times, a drudgery. It’s not necessarily the bureaucracy of writing but rather the content; summarizing the highs and lows of, say, a pilot episode can be a bare-bones process that often lacks the fervent fanbase to which a writer may aim her review. Simply put, the interest might be there, but finding real investment in a freshman show is a crapshoot.
Sherlock is not one of those shows. Love it or hate it, it inspires passionate reactions, and co-showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss should be congratulated on that alone. The show’s end-of-year special, “The Abominable Bride,” is a jumble of ideas with eventual purpose that makes a commendable effort to fix past mistakes but is, more to the point, a frenetic ninety minutes of TV.
Transposing the same beats from Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John’s (Martin Freeman) first meeting in “A Study in Pink,” we’re quickly introduced (or re-introduced?) to the much-publicized Victorian setting, where the case of Emilia Ricoletti has a hilariously mutton-chopped Lestrade (Rupert Graves) on edge. Ricoletti went mad and, bedecked in her wedding dress, indiscriminately unloaded a shotgun onto a public street before turning it on herself and was then resurrected hours later to gun down her husband. When Ricoletti’s “ghost” allegedly appears to another man, Sherlock is all too happy to search for the connection. It’s a fitting nod to the vein of mysticism that weaves its way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but there’s a sinister Trojan horse of a subplot: aspects of the Ricoletti case begin to mirror present-day Sherlock’s quandary revolving around how Moriarty seemingly cheated death, making this episode a more direct link between seasons than I’d expected.
The love letters to Holmes canon are copious here. References to stories like “The Speckled Band“ (a midnight stake-out), “The Five Orange Pips” (one character’s harbinger of death), and “The Musgrave Ritual” (a Persian slipper presumably stuffed with pipe tobacco) only scratch the surface of direct quotes and themes lifted from the original text. Of course, Sherlock had a few creations of its own that required Victorian makeovers. Sherlock’s “mind palace” deduction technique, for instance, nixes the holographic imagery reminiscent of Iron Man movies and substitutes floating newspaper clippings. The decor at 221B is less clinical but still morbid, with a mounted stag head and Charles Allan Gilbert’s “All is Vanity” replacing parallel hangings on the modern Sherlock’s walls.
The most uniquely Sherlock stamp on this classical setting, though, has to be the show’s consistently gorgeous cinematography. Light and space are fiddled with in this episode in ways that put the bleak, clean lines of 21st-century London to shame. This is especially true as the trap to catch Sir Carmichael’s would-be killer plays out, where the avenging “ghost” is bathed in warm light amidst the dark recesses of the manor. And in yet another sweeping homage to the past, many shots intentionally resemble the famous Sidney Paget illustrations published in the Strand Magazine, including one of Sherlock and John sitting across from each other on a train and another of Sherlock steepling his fingers in thought.
Still, as the plot progressed, things didn’t completely add up to me. No one seemed to question that Hooper, a.k.a. Molly the pathologist, was clearly a woman dressed as a man. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, now absurdly corpulent in an attempt to match his book counterpart’s physical description, was borderline cartoonish, like a bad joke. Plus, the dialogue boasted only an antiquated flair and not full linguistic immersion. But all these initial gripes on my part turned out to have a direction when we were jolted out of the Victorian era into the modern era, picking up on the plane where Season 3 left off. In a surprising twist, it’s revealed that Sherlock has taken drugs again, and the Victorian case is happening inside his head as his way of sorting out current problems in his life. Thus, everything we see in the Victorian scenes is through his lens, hence the less-than-favorable depictions of some characters. This clever usage of the tired “dream sequence” trope had me sitting forward in my seat, watching with renewed interest as contemporary Sherlock repeatedly dove into the dreamscape to seek closure on a number of issues. In the end, though, Victorian-Mary discovers the final piece of the puzzle, in the form of a cult of women who manipulate the gender roles of their era to kill men who they believe lack morality.
Which brings me, as is customary with any new Sherlock episode, to the renewed debate regarding the women in the detective’s life. There will always be contention when it comes to how Mrs. Hudson, Molly Hooper, Mary Morstan, and others are afforded their agency in this male-dominated show, and that’s okay. Personally, I’ve taken umbrage with past seasons, which I felt leaned too much on female stereotypes in order to play up Sherlock’s aloofness around “the fairer sex.” Although this episode is heavy-handed when it comes to underlining the sexism of the era, I think the show is moving incrementally in the right direction. Mary is the most notable example, a woman who is every bit as shrewd and cunning as Sherlock without being the show’s emotional center (that would be John’s job). In “The Abominable Bride,” Mary does her own thing, including campaigning for votes for women and working undercover for Mycroft, but still gets shafted by the men who won’t acknowledge her potential. Likewise, Mrs. Hudson is bitter about her demure housekeeper status in John’s stories, and Molly plays a male character, which I interpreted as commentary on the nature of women’s work roles in that period, despite my lingering confusion. “Amazing,” Watson observes at one point, “what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world.” Maybe, in his own way, this is Sherlock acknowledging similarities across time, and holding himself accountable for all the ways he’s wronged women in the past.
“The Abominable Bride” had the tricky task of writing its main duo true to both the stories and their current iterations, and it accomplished that and so much more. With viewers’ appetites sufficiently whetted for Season 4 (whenever that may be), Sherlock leaves plenty of little unanswered questions and one big one: if Moriarty really is dead, how is he continuing to plague Sherlock in life? The special ends with a fun, thought-provoking scene suggesting everything we’ve seen in the modern era is Victorian-Sherlock’s dream of the future. Standing in front of the window at 221B, he remarks, “I’ve always known I was a man out of his time,” as the camera slowly pulls back onto modern-day Baker Street. Moffat and Gatiss, and probably every Holmes adaptation for the past three decades, understands this basic tenant of the character, but so far, Sherlock has played with it to the most enjoyable conclusion from a story standpoint.
Sherlock, ‘The Abominable Bride’ will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 12, click here to order.