“There’s always two of us. Don’t you read The Strand?” – Sherlock Recap, The Abominable Bride

the abominable bride

Sherlock, New Year’s Day 2016 Special
“The Abominable Bride”
Posted by Sage

If you follow Head Over Feels on social media (and you’d better), you perhaps noticed that we didn’t give off our usual hum of anticipation leading in to a brand new episode of Sherlock. Truth be told, I found it genuinely difficult to get excited about a special that looked for all the world like it was going to be some kind of dream or alternate reality adventure, totally outside of the actual show canon. “The Abominable Bride” was a standalone story that put us right back where series 3 left off…and it wasn’t. I admire Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat for their determination to have their cake and eat it too, even if that doesn’t work out for them all the time. But when years pass between our appointments with this Sherlock and Watson, why not be bold?

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Look, this Victorian Inception thing either worked for you or it didn’t. But the conceit gave the show’s brilliant production and design staff another way to shine; their care and attention to detail showed in every frame. At last year’s Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles, I was privileged to spend an hour in a hotel boardroom with Sherlock production designer Arwel Wyn Jones and a dozen other fans, 12 Angry Men style. That’s nearly a full 11 months ago, but he was already neck-deep in preparations for “The Abominable Bride.” The task that was keeping him up at night around that time? Finding era-appropriate versions of Sherlock and John’s signature arm chairs.

Production designers spend their lives considering minute details that only the most attentive of viewers will even consciously note. And that’s why we love them. But the scarcity of the new Sherlock episode to the people who make it shows in the final product. In “The Abominable Bride,” I see a piece of work that’s been made in its own sweet time with the cool, shrugging confidence that can only come with runaway success and a heavily tumbled slash ship. I also see that the artists behind the show had months (and years in the case of the writers) to think about how to do it and how to do it right. Contradiction, my dear Watson. It makes for a divided audience. About a third of my Twitter timeline really hated this episode.

Me? I’m fine. “The Abominable Bride” didn’t have the giddiness of “The Sign Of Three” or the cold dread of “The Reichenbach Fall,” and believe me, I’ll get to the problematic bits. Still, I enjoy Gatiss and Moffat’s textual high-fiving over their own cleverness – you kind of have to, to be a fan – and the one-off did push the story forward incrementally. Or at least, a couple of characters.

Though the first five minutes did nothing to allay my fears in that respect. The episode opens and proceeds for a while as a straight-up Victorian re-telling of “A Study In Pink.” John Watson is injured in the war; runs into his old friend Stamford, and meets his new flatmate Sherlock Holmes whilst he’s wailing on a dead body in a morgue. It’s all very twee, aside from Martin fucking Freeman. Sherlock is always Sherlock – a “man out of his time” or any time. He’s timeless. But “Bride” showcased the traditional Watson who runs parallel to the modern one in Freeman’s performance. He plays this Watson so differently, though there’s never a doubt that the partnership is still the same. As always, I marvel at his talent and get more excited when I should when he gets to yell.

good lord

Then the episode fast-forwards a bit to an established sleuthing duo returning home from another adventure that’s sure to be written up for publication in The Strand magazine. The time-warped Baker Street is proper thrilling, as is the appearance of Mrs. Hudson. She’s the first in a series of women to be overlooked and undervalued in the episode. And while she may be used to reading her name in a perfunctory context in John’s stories, she’s not over it. “Well, I never say anything, do I?” she challenges her tenant. “I’m your land lady, not a plot device.” (THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT A PLOT DEVICE WOULD SAY.) Inside their rooms is another woman is taking drastic steps to be seen. Mary Watson resorted to gaining access to 221B as a client, since it’s the only way by which she can see her husband. Not that her husband is really worth the trouble. 0/10 recommend dating or marrying 1895 John Watson, ladies. His painfully bored wife misses him, and offers up her assistance on the next case. “What would you do?” John asks her, befuddled by the suggestion that she might be of help. “Well, what do you do?” Mary shoots back. He doesn’t have much of an answer.

Sherlock ignores the domestic happening behind him and murmurs some foreshadowing about going “deep” within himself for a case. (“Ummmm…” – Tumblr.) Then a pair of mutton chops walks in, followed quickly by Detective Inspector Lestrade. He’s shaken, and certainly there on business. But first, a drink. (“Watson, restore the courage of Scotland Yard.”)

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Lestrade (still FINE AS HELL, even with the face-warmers) begins weaving the tale of Emilia Ricoletti. On her wedding anniversary, Ricoletti put on her wedding dress, smeared red lipstick onto her mouth, and then stepped out onto her balcony in full view of the busy street below. Bystanders ran for cover as she shrieked (“YOU?”) and fired shots at the ground, the whole ordeal ending when she pointed the gun at herself and pulled the trigger. Or so that’s what rationality would predict. Later that night, none other than Emilia Ricoletti’s husband Thomas meets “the bride” on his way out Lime House. The dead woman, whose body he was certainly on his way to identify, shoots him in front of several witnesses and disappears into the foggy night.

bride

I want to talk about storytelling for a minute. It’s happening on every level of Sherlock. Every case starts with a story, whether that comes from the law or from the client. It’s never nothing. There’s never no information. There’s a version of events from a specific point of view. There are prejudices and assumptions about what humans are or are not capable of. It’s Sherlock’s job to suss the truth the out, his lack of emotion (keep telling yourself that, Shezza) making him the ideal editor to cut through the bullshit. (“Poetry or truth?” “Many would say they’re the same thing.” “Yes, idiots.”) Once that happens, the story is re-written yet again, this time by John Watson. Whether he’s writing for a blog or for the Strand, he’s writing for an audience now. Sherlock’s work doesn’t make him a legend. John’s stories do. And they’re nothing without a little flair. My head canon is that every Sherlock episode is a “filmed” version of a Watson blog entry, and maybe the cases themselves weren’t quite so melodramatic. It’s all about framing, you see.

Lestrade’s narration is enhanced by a cool visual trick. The Sherlock crew set up the sitting room of 221B in the middle of the street where Thomas Ricolletti is shot; the camera zooms in and out of the meeting of minds and back to the murder, so it’s as if Lestrade, Sherlock, and Watson are actually witnessing the crime. That technique also backs up my unreliable(ish) narrator theory. The sleuths are seeing events as Lestrade describes them. He’s the storyteller.

Not that Sherlock trusts him. The first stop is the morgue, to ascertain whether or not what’s on the slaaaab is truly Mrs. Ricoletti. A “moron” has strapped the corpse to the table (hi, Anderson!) and is rewarded for his stupidity with verbal abuse by “Hooper,” the mustachioed, no-nonsense coroner. I do believe I love this. Modern Molly is a very feminine character who doesn’t see why her desire to date, wear lipstick (right shade or not), or be a low-key cat lady should at all undermine her authority in the lab. (Or in Sherlock’s mind palace. HM.) Molly could have been written into this special as a barmaid or something and the cross-dressing out of necessity could have been given to a female character who’s less stereotypically girly. But our Molly Hooper is a little ruthless. And she’s certainly brave. I could see her gaming the system to live the life she feels she deserves and do the work no one could do better. My shipper heart also leapt at the brief yet weighty interactions between Holmes and Hooper. There’s something about Holmes not noticing something very off about the coroner that calls back to the bad timing, misunderstandings, and tentative healing of their 21st century relationship. I ship it in every era.

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Anyway, the dead body is (or was) unquestionably Emilia Ricoletti. The only change from the body’s previous day spent in the morgue is the smear of blood on one finger – the finger “she” used to write “YOU” in her own blood on the wall. (Anderson’s precautions aren’t so stupid after all, maybe.) Watson offers a meat-dagger-quality theory that Sherlock shoots down immediately: twins. SECRET twins. (“This whole thing could have been planned.” “Since the moment of conception?”) The good doctor does make a helpful note on the way out, however. The body shows signs of consumption. Sherlock doesn’t hear this part, since he’s already decided he’s learned all he can from these people. (“Thank you all for a fascinating case. I’ll send you a telegram when I’ve solved it.”)

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Oh, and there have been more murders pinned to “the bride.” All men, which has Lestrade shaking and Sherlock scoffing. It’s copycats, the detective reasons. With hysteria in the wind, why not add the bells and whistles the public associates with this ghostly terror to throw Scotland Yard off the actual scent? Sherlock’s interest in the case waning, Mycroft sends for the men to call on him at the Diogenes Club. But before that, we get a very strange scene between Watson and his maid. Mary isn’t in (and hasn’t been much since she received a cryptic telegram at 221B); the maid is quite intentionally impertinent in asking about it. John’s response is such a perfect jab at the designation between real duties and “women’s work.” (“If it wasn’t my wife’s business to deal with the staff, I’d talk to you myself.”) This hint at the conspiracy behind the city under siege would have worked better if the maid had appeared in one or two more scenes to underline the role she plays in the Watsons’ life and how enraged she is at being ignored. Instead: fat suit Mycroft.

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Besides the fact that Mycroft Holmes is quite rotund in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, I don’t understand this choice. I suppose the goal was a spot of dark comedy, with Mycroft eating himself to death just to win a bet with his brother. But it doesn’t fly. It’s too meanspirited a take on Modern Mycroft, who’s come to show real regard for and loyalty to Sherlock. The visual gag is easy and vile; John’s sign language hack-job is just as predictable, but much less uncomfortable. The success of the scene is that it’s where I began to really question what was going on backstage of this episode, if you will. Mycroft does delight in being the puppetmaster, but the way he fed this information to Sherlock and Watson (a Lady Carmichael will lead them to the perpetrators of these acts, “an enemy we must lose to…”) is too contrived for a regular Moffat/Gatiss script.

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Brother Mine meets with Lady Carmichael, who also has a story to tell. Her husband has been acting strangely since the morning he received five orange pips in the mail (classic Holmes reference), apparently an omen of death. “She’s come for me, Louise,” he chokes out. From that morning, he’s a haunted man. This is terrific news in Sherlock’s book, since it gives him a solid opportunity to see “the bride” in the flesh. Or not, whatever.

Sherlock: “Eustace is to die tonight!”
Watson: “Holmes.”
Sherlock: “…And we should probably avoid that.” 

The boys take a field trip out to the Carmichaels’ country mansion. On the train, Watson’s uneasiness starts to show. He’s accepting the stories as they’ve been told to him. Based on the witnesses and the positive morgue ID, there can be only one conclusion: Emilia Ricoletti is terrorizing men from beyond the grave. He forgets how facts can be twisted, until Sherlock accuses him of letting his pathetic fancy run wild. “Since when have you had any kind of imagination?” Sherlock asks. “Perhaps since I convinced the reading public that an unprincipled drunk addict was some kind of gentleman hero,” Watson answers back. And….fair.

come to mention

Sidebar: I love it when Sherlock gets all macabre and says things like, “There are no ghosts in this world, save those we make for ourselves.” I bet you all a million dollars each that James Franco has whispered this exact sentence into the ear of at least one NYU co-ed while drinking small-batch whiskey from a chipped coffee mug in a Brooklyn speakeasy.

Eustace is not psyched about being the carrot dangled in front of a misandrist spirit. He even attempts to convince the detective that his wife is overreacting, even though he was the one sobbing on the floor in his pajamas the night before. Sherlock will have none of it. He met Lady Carmichael and in an instant knew that she wasn’t the type to be held hostage by a scary story and a creaky step on the stairs. “She’s not a hysteric,” Sherlock reminds her husband. “She’s a highly intelligent woman of rare perception.” He does smell one rat in the house though. And I wonder if Sherlock’s enthusiasm for this rather dangerous plan has anything to do with his assumption that Eustace probably deserves what’s coming to him.

rare for us

“Mm, I should think so. Murder on the knees.”

At last, we’ve arrived. The gay greenhouse scene. *cracks knuckles*

Stakeouts are a hotbed of sexual tension. Just ask Mulder and Scully. (And you CAN! Jan. 24 on Fox.) So Watson is a bit of a dick in this decade. But Sherlock’s a bit of a dick in every decade, and they still care about each other more than they do anything else, so. There’s quite a bit of running around in “The Abominable Bride,” and though I’m Team Sherlolly 1000%, I too was looking forward to the boys finally sitting down for a heart-to-heart. What’s interesting about this scene is what comes to light later: this is all happening in Sherlock’s subconscious. He dreams up a scenario in which John, yet again, challenges his self-imposed alienation. He corners him, basically to ask about his “experiences.” Ladies and germs, John Hamish Watson would like very much to know if his adult friend William Sherlock Scott Holmes is a virgin.

Watson: That is the version of you that I present to the public: the brain without a heart; the calculating machine. I write all of that, Holmes, and the readers lap it up, but I do not believe it.
Sherlock: Well, I’ve a good mind to write to your editor.
Watson: You are a living, breathing man. You’ve lived a life. You have a past.
Sherlock: A what?
Watson: Well, you must have had…
Sherlock: Had what?
Watson: You know.
Sherlock: No.
Watson: Experiences.
Sherlock: Pass me your revolver. I have a sudden need to use it.
Watson: Damn it, Holmes, you are flesh and blood. You have feelings. You have  – you must have…impulses.
Sherlock: Dear Lord. I have never been so impatient to be attacked by a murderous ghost.

To be fair, this is the same reaction I have when anyone asks me about my sexual history. (Come and get me, murderous ghost!) The first time I watched this episode, I felt frustrated. Are we going in circles now? We’ve heard conversations like this between these and other characters so many times before. But with Sherlock quite literally generating this all in his mind? He’s addressing it. For the very first time. He’s on the brink of something. And while Holmes will always lean on his fake detachment as a crutch, I have a feeling that part of the dam will break in season 4. Sherlock made himself, sure. But his legend is un-made when he lets others in.

Before their chat can devolve into a giggly game of never-have-i-ever, the men hear a commotion. It’s your standard haunted country house business: glass breaking, a threatening whisper, candles going out all around. Watson straight up loses it, because on some level, he sees Sherlock’s disavowal of the supernatural as going hand-in-hand with his disdain for human feeling. He’s scared shitless, and he abandons his post.

Eustace is murdered by the bride, as he was always going to be. Lestrade shows up to claim the body (How long did it take him to get there?), and he mentions the note that’s been left with the corpse. Sherlock never misses anything; this note is new. “Miss me?” it reads. And at last, we’ve come to the point. Then, the point comes to Mycroft. Mycroft would like to know if Sherlock does miss the note’s author, knowing the answer already. The gear shift in this scene is subtle and brilliant – probably my favorite of the special. Mycroft and Sherlock recap the Conan Doyle end of Moriarty (“His body was never recovered.” “To be expected when one pushes a maths professor over a waterfall. Pure reason toppled by sheer melodrama: your life in a nutshell.”), each of them slipping in 21st century phrasing every few sentences. Moriarty is “the virus in the data.” By the way, did Sherlock make his list?

All thoughts of the Carmichael case are pushed aside – it never was very important anyway. Sherlock installs himself in his sanctuary to receive his inevitable caller. When Moriarty shows up, he’ll show up on Sherlock’s turf. (“He says he’s waiting.” “For what?” “The devil.” “I wouldn’t be surprised. We get all sorts here.”) And there he is, like an apparition – which is, of course, what Moriarty is now.

My favorite character from A Christmas Carol is The Ghost Of Gay Subtext Past

My favorite character from A Christmas Carol is The Ghost Of Gay Subtext Past

“The Abominable Bride” is the story of how Sherlock Holmes lets Jim Moriarty go. And if that sounds like he’s the divorcee in a Nancy Meyers movie who needs to find herself by drinking a buttery Chardonnay and meddling in her adult daughters’ lives, then fine. Because this is a sexual connection; this scene had to extinguish any and all doubts about that.

Sherlock: I’m aware of all six occasions you have visited these apartments during my absence.
Moriarty: I know you are….By the way, you have a surprisingly comfortable bed.

Am I saying that the whole Holmes/Moriarty rivalry was born by their desperate need to know each other, in the Biblical sense? Maybe I am. Or maybe Sherlock is, because his subconscious has once again become very, very gay. Mind Palace Moriarty isn’t giving up the goods on how he managed to broadcast his very un-blown-up face to the entire country several years after his death, and yet he’s still there. Taunting and flirting, flirting and taunting. (“Let’s stop playing. We don’t need toys to kill each other. Where’s the intimacy in that?”) Then Sherlock lets his imagined Moriarty co-opt one of Irene’s favorite phrases. (HM.) “Dead,” Moriarty practically sings, “is the new sexy.” Who needs fan fiction when the real text reads like this?

The room quakes around Sherlock, and he wakes on Mycroft’s private jet. He’s back on the ground in London; Lady Carmichael is the pilot; we’ve barely moved since “His Last Vow.” John doesn’t want to believe that Sherlock is as high as Mycroft knows that he is. (“If helps if I see myself through his eyes, sometimes. I’m so much cleverer.”) But Sherlock has nearly put himself into a coma in order to take the elevator down, down, down into his Mind Palace, where his even cleverer suppressed self might be able to come up with a reason for Moriarty’s impossible survival. Does your heart ever break because Mycroft instituted a system to keep his stubborn baby brother from destroying himself in yet another attempt to know everything? Because mine does.

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Mycroft is there in the flesh and on that plane, promising that he’ll “always be there” for Sherlock. But when Sherlock wakes back in his hallucination, Watson is the one giving the “don’t do drugs” speech. “I’m happy to play the fool for you,” this Watson is screaming. (And that’s the difference between him and Mycroft, I guess.) “I will run along behind you like some halfwit, making you look clever, if that’s what you need…” BUT.

dear god above

“…you will hold yourself to a higher standard.”

While the boys were getting high and talking about girls, Mrs. Mary Watson went ahead and solved the case. Her help rejected by her own husband, Mary is called into service by Mycroft to keep an eye on his idiot friends. (PLEASE can this be foreshadowing to Mary and Mycroft teaming up in the present? What someone with her skills could mean to the British Government!) Mary is the most pure-hearted compulsive liar this show has ever seen. Even though she’s been ignored and humiliated, she brings Sherlock and Watson in on the conspiracy as soon as she can. It’s important to me that the men were handed this victory; they’d figured nothing out on their own.

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So why then does Sherlock get to speak for these women? It’s tradition that Sherlock explains the facts of the case and exposes the perpetrator in the 11th hour of the episode, but in “The Abominable Bride” it’s not earned. The idea is a noble-ish one: the women of Victorian London, fed up by mistreatment and exclusion, bring the men of that city (at least those with guilt in their pasts, like Eustace Carmichael) to their knees, using a dying woman and a simple act of misdirection to manufacture fear. Modern Sherlock’s brain peoples that secret society meeting with women whose trust he knows he’s guilty of abusing (Molly, Jeanine), and that’s meaningful. But it doesn’t sit right that they stand there mostly silent while Sherlock lectures about their righteous motives. What were they fighting for, if not a voice?

full of brides

Worse still, this conclusion is overshadowed by the reappearance of Moriarty – another reminder that Sherlock is barely concerned with the facts of this case beyond one simple question: how can a human being shoot himself through the back of the head and then return? Sorry, ladies. The queen has arrived, and she wants all the attention.

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I’ve seen this episode called “feminist” and ehhhhh, that’s a stretch. A big one. Sherlock doesn’t come out of his drugged-out dream state determined to suddenly give the maligned women in his life their due. Instead, he wants to disturb the peace of a woman long dead. He’s still chasing Moriarty’s ghost. He tells John that those don’t exist, but he wants so badly to prove that Moriarty is something more than human. Because Moriarty doesn’t fit in to Sherlock’s carefully constructed concept of humanity – not even the worst bit. Mary and John are done. They leave Sherlock, Mycroft, and Lestrade to dig up Emilia Ricoletti’s corpse. There’s nothing at the bottom of that grave except a decaying body, a sweaty Lestade (mmmm), and another trip back to the Mind Palace. This time, it’s the real Reichenbach Falls from the Turner painting on the wall of the Diogenes Club. Moriarty and Sherlock’s last stand.

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This dream state setting is all Moffat’s doing, I’m sure. He’s played with consciousness a lot on Doctor Who, and labeled this plane of awareness just as dangerous as full cognizance, if not more so. Moriarty is only a threat to Sherlock here. It’s the only place where Sherlock hasn’t bested him. The Reichenbach fall was so masterfully orchestrated, it really did fool “the Napoleon of crime.” So why does Sherlock still feel so inferior? Again, it’s about letting go. But he can’t do it alone.

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John Watson is such a staple of Sherlock Holmes’ life that there’s a a fully formed Mind Palace version of him ready to kick a criminal mastermind off a cliff. When John shows up, Moriarty isn’t so scary anymore. He’s a joker and a joke – he makes a comment about Johnlock’s obvious sexual tension, and neither man is even fazed. (I know the difference between Sherlock feigning nonchalance – like he was in 221B earlier in the episode – and the real thing.) The monsters go away when the light comes on. And for Sherlock, John is the light. It’s what Sherlock needs – the final push to confirm Moriarty’s mortality and, thus, get to the bottom of the REAL case. (“I never said he was alive. I said he was back.”) Moriarty is dead, to begin with. So what did he plan before he go? And who was he working with? One smug smirk from Sherlock as he makes his way back to 221B to begin his work, and the game is back on. Give or take a year.

Random Deductions:

  • Victorian skull print! I want it and I need it.
  • “Mrs. Hudson, there is a woman in my sitting room. Is it intentional?” I’m not saying A WORD.
  • “Votes for Women.” “And are you for or against?” “Get out.”
  • “Stranger things have happened.” “SUCH AS?”
  • “Because it’s never twins.”
  • “Is there any large body of people you’re not concerned about?” Why is Victorian John a conservative Republican?
  • PLAID SUITS PLAID SUITS PLAID SUITS
  • Back to the Sherlock and sex conversation: never forget that Benedict Cumberbatch himself told an interviewer that Holmes would be “devastating” between the sheets. “I’d know exactly how to please a woman, I’d know exactly where to put my fingers, where to put my tongue, where to put my – his I should say – his fingers, his tongue. Think about violinists, think about what they can do with their fingers…” And that’s what you missed on Glee. 
  • “I like your rooms..they smell so manly.”
  • “What do you think of MI5 security?” “I think it would be a good idea.”
  • “I thought I was losing you…I thought perhaps we were neglecting each other.” “Well, you’re the one who moved out.” “I was talking to Mary.”
  • When Sherlock thinks of Molly, he doesn’t think of the times she did what he asked without questioning him. He thinks of the time she told him what a fucking asshole he was being to her and the other people who love him. That’s the Molly he goes to first. I’m fine.
  • “You’re going in the water, short-arse.”

Thoughts on “The Abominable Bride,” readers? Did I miss anything cool at the theatrical showing? Let’s discuss Victorian sexual mores and the gun as a phallic symbol in the comments.

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