Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating anomaly. Deemed the world’s greatest detective, the crime-solving genius enacts countless unorthodox strategies and deductions in the advent of fresh evidence, fresh corpses, and even fresh leads. His conclusions spur more questions than answers, but regardless how outside-the-box his methods and theories appear to be, they culminate to produce the very results we seek to discover, revealed in the form of the truth.
As far as we’re concerned, Sherlock Holmes strictly envelopes himself in the hunt for the truth, tirelessly searching for the reality hidden underneath the absurdity. Nearly four seasons in now, and Sherlock has done its job to reinforce this drive and regurgitate it to fans both casual and hardcore to mostly entertaining effect. Five years since we were first re-introduced to the man behind the storied mind, and we are now -finally – beginning to learn why his eagerness to solve precedes him.
“The Abominable Bride”, set in Victorian-era 19th Century London, is Sherlock‘s supposed visit to the roots that granted the series life in the first place. It happily plants the iconic deerstalker hat over Sherlock’s head, embraces the supernatural elements the show has merely hinted at previously, and invites us to a time where the world’s greatest detective tackled the world’s greatest cases. Most important, however, is that it provides us with pertinent insight surrounding a man we just can’t seem to understand. Early on into the proceedings, Watson proclaims that the events that construe the mystery behind this week’s special push our dear Mr. Holmes to the furthest of psychological extremities. Throughout the viewing experience, we find out how this particular case challenges Sherlock as an investigator, and how it exposes him as a man. No other installment in the generally heralded update to the famous private inspector has been this daring, and, for better or worse, it truly goes all out in execution.
Let’s start with the worse, because as I’m assuming most of you all were as well, I was extremely excited to watch a fresh installment of Sherlock again. This is one of the most unique television series I’ve ever seen, and it’s amazing how high Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have set the bar for future incarnations of our beloved Holmes character. All of which pains me to point out how much of what is presented here didn’t work. First of all, the central mystery revolving around a dead married couple and a “ghost” of a bride never found its footing, and the buildup surrounding it was almost nonexistent. We are (rather neatly) provided a presentation of the incidents and the murder that followed, but in-between that is largely sloppy work. We are too-quickly introduced to the
classic alternate versions of Sherlock, Watson, Mary, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson. Then there’s the matter of a silly bet between Sherlock and Mycroft that not only taints the lightheartedness of the brothers’ kindred competitive spirits (Mycroft literally bets his life on the conditions at play), it ignores the already-established, underlining sadness of their relationship.
Once the gears begin to turn, it becomes difficult to even care about the second wife and her husband, the eventual second victim to the implausible crimes of a living corpse. Granted, the encounter at their mansion led to a few chills, but for the most part I couldn’t wait for the episode to wrap it up and dive into something more indulgent. Unfortunately, the ambiguity of the case just so happened to linger up until the final half hour of the episode, with the reveal predictably highlighting the struggle women experienced in the time period.
Even more disappointing is the context behind it all and the handling of said context. Sherlock obviously neglects the women in his life, but instead of giving an actual reason as to why that is, the show just simply reminds us that that’s what he does. And while doing so, it classifies what Sherlock has seen them as his entire life, which apparently is supposed to have come to us as some sort of surprise. Does the show really think we weren’t aware of this all along? Is this truly the only avenue Sherlock wants to take this matter?
Furthermore, I can’t even begin to describe how frustrated I was seeing practically every woman Sherlock’s wronged throughout the series just show up like they did – even the bridesmaid from “His Last Vow” is one of the members of that convent. Since “The Abominable Bride” tries its absolute hardest to prove the importance of this apparent theme relative to the central plot, seeing it get thrown under the rug as fast as it did before the conclusion of the episode was astoundingly jarring. It’s as if Gatiss and Moffat, who wrote tonight’s special, suddenly realized how dried up their mystery had gotten, attempted to spruce it up with past issues of gender roles in society, and just suddenly forgot that they brought any of that stuff up altogether.
Tonight’s other major crime was the blatant advertisement of Moriarty, wrapped around an ongoing theory from the previous two seasons that Sherlock’s nemesis may still be alive. As much as I love watching Andrew Scott work as the maniacal foil to our central hero, the simple fact that he appeared and re-appeared in dream-like sequences totally spoiled the intrigue in a potential return. This episode does such a poor job hiding the inevitable realization that Moriarty’s really dead, at times I was immediately pulled out of the episode; the initial immersion of the jump back in time falling victim to bizarre clashes in sensibility and fantasy. This rings very true for the second half of “The Abominable Bride”, as it clearly doesn’t know exactly where to go, deciding to find some closure in the story it’s telling at the expense of confusing the living shit out of us.
It’s also not fair that we had to wait this long just for Sherlock to bait-and-switch us like it does here, but that’s exactly what happens. Almost this entire episode, in regards to occurrences, is fallible; the 19th Century draping becomes simply a playground for Sherlock’s cocaine-induced imagination. Although that part works – and I’ll touch on that more in a moment – it still exudes instances during the special that don’t go anywhere. We find out that Sherlock was overdosing on the same plane ride we last saw him at the end of Season Three, and the entire Ricoletti investigation leads him to believe that Moriarty planted one more potentially dangerous red herring for him at the site of the dead wife’s grave. He heads over to dig out the corpse and rid his rival of his latest trap, except…he actually doesn’t – he’s still fighting the effects of the drugs he’s absorbed in the plane while his closest friends aim to help him.
This could’ve been the moment where the episode redeems itself. We could’ve witnessed a man who we once believed had the intelligence of a thousand minds at his undisputed low point, searching for a truth that simply doesn’t exist and proving negligent to the fact that his psyche – and intelligence – is deteriorating. It definitely wouldn’t be the prettiest thing Sherlock has done, but it would’ve damn well been sad to watch – and quite rewarding, too. For a show that’s previously gone out of its way for the advances of pure, quality television, this particular scene being yet another one of our protagonist’s hallucinations is, at the very least, a grave missed opportunity.
As much as I disagreed with what went on in “The Abominable Bride”, there are still plenty of high points here. The flashback setting is nailed to perfection, with a somewhat scaled back camera angle in various scenes that makes the whole experience feel like a play come to life in the form of a Victorian-era graphic novel. Even though much of tonight’s proceedings is directed with the same flair as the rest of the series, there’s a distinct layer of nostalgia to it, and Sherlock makes wonderful work of mixing the best of both modern and classical.
The entire cast still contains the same amount of charm and precision they’ve carried for over five years now, and it’s a real pleasure seeing them ever so marginally fixate their performances based on the time zone their characters are in. Most of the fun I had in “The Abominable Bride” was paying close attention to how the gang interacts back in the 19th Century versus their modern-day encounters, and the general spark of Benedict Cumberbatch’s alarmingly evident chemistry with Martin Freeman. In addition, this was a rather amusing installment, with Mycroft’s “deaf” secretary, Sherlock’s patronizing calculations, and Mary’s often hilarious observations providing pleasant breaks from the action.
Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work will get a real kick out of some of the episode’s references to his short stories, like throwback Mycroft being extremely overweight (which was supposedly hinted at in many of Doyle’s works), the horseback rides through town while Holmes and Watson design their next move, and the physical confrontation between Sherlock and Moriarty. It’ll be up to our imaginations to determine what this special could’ve been had Gatiss and Moffat fully committed to crafting a story set exclusively in the 1800s.
Lastly, there’s Sherlock’s plight, and the curiosity that surrounds his persona is explored brilliantly in “The Abominable Bride”. Where the feminist outlines and handling of the murder mystery stumbled, the discovery of this central character’s vulnerabilities sung. There’s a real, tangible sense of urgency to throwback Holmes, and the reveal of modern Holmes’s overdosing heightens the former’s intent to solve magnificently. Small, tiny fragments of his past with Mycroft are seldom peppered in the episode, providing us with a few worthy answers while retaining the ambiguity that makes their bond as brothers so interesting. Each of these revelations to Sherlock give us a better chance of dissecting him, and even though we still don’t quite have a firm grasp of exactly what encouraged him to live life like he has, it’s impossible not to feel like we can officially relate to him now.
Sherlock Holmes, at least in this televised version, is a distinctly troubled man. Without a doubt, his past has plenty to do with that, but it’s the temptations of the present that have perpetuated his condition. I’m poised to believe that Moriarty’s repeatedly abstract presence has inspired Sherlock to entertain his mind through drugs, filling a missing void left empty from the death of his old enemy. He gets off on the thrill of solving the unsolvable case, and no one was capable of providing a challenge as desirable as Moriarty was. With him gone for quite some time now, Sherlock’s current situation with cocaine would stand to bring that excitement back into his life.
It even raises questions I didn’t consider asking before. For example: What if Magnussen really wasn’t that bad a guy, and his mind palace was a figment of Sherlock’s imagination? How often, since Moriarty’s demise, has Sherlock been conspiring with drugs? Is it possible for Holmes to one day acknowledge the love and care his brother or his closest ally have given him all these years? Deep down, there’s a human being searching for emotions he can’t express right now, trapped by the vices that have chased him all his life. This is the kind of tragedy Sherlock should totally experiment with going forward. The state of his health is only beginning to plummet, and from that the series has an enthralling story arc for which to explore further in Season Four – if it so chooses to expand on its developments.
And there you have it. “The Abominable Bride” is Sherlock at its absolutely most inconsistent. With a slow start, poorly written themes and generally uninteresting case, it’s certainly not among my favorite of the series’ efforts. However, its decision to push the overarching story arc forward through Sherlock himself produces excellent results, and at times you’re instantly reminded why you’ve spent two whole years waiting for him to come back into your life and solve ridiculous mysteries. Since it’s scattered with peaks and valleys, the best way I can describe this special is through cliché: labeling it an 85-minute box of chocolates. You just never knew what you were gonna get, and while that’s a great indication of what Sherlock has to offer most of the time, one has to wonder if that’s always the best approach.
+ A deeper look into and better understanding of Sherlock, the man
+ Performances all around (Especially Cumberbatch and Freeman)
+ Nods to Doyle’s short stories
– Disappointing murder mystery
– Too many themes and plot points thrown around at once
– Moriarty intrigue spoiled