Sherlock – The Abominable Bride
Sherlock returns for a New Year special that takes Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Dr. John Watson back to 19th century England for a traditional Holmes story with a twist.
I’ve never covered Sherlock before but I have always enjoyed it to varying degrees. I really like how the concept has been modernised with really creative visualisations of the thought process Sherlock Holmes employs to reach his conclusions. It really embraced the present day setting in ways that were both clever and interesting. To my mind the series has never produced anything as strong as the first outing “A Study in Pink” and this episode is no exception to that but the creativity has always been pretty much constant.
Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a great Holmes. He comes across as a genius level intellect while being “a high functioning sociopath as” Holmes himself puts it. There’s a real inhuman quality to him that goes fits Sherlock Holmes perfectly. Martin Freeman is a great Watson as well as he fills in the gaps that are necessary for this character. His frustration with Holmes as well as the implicit trust is all there and it’s interesting that their relationship didn’t need that much modernisation other than the dialogue.
So, is this episode any good? It is really good but -as with most things that Steven Moffat is involved in- is also incredibly flawed. I’ll come back to that in a bit but for now I’ll talk about what worked well here.
I really like the idea of showing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in a more traditional Sherlock Holmes setting as it was something I had been curious about since I started watching this version. It’s not something that I want to see very often but it’s a curiosity that deserved one story and that’s exactly what we got here, at least on the surface.
One thing that struck me is how similar the story was to the Guy Ritchie directed Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. The broad strokes of a villain who appears to rise from the grave and casting supernatural elements into a world that shouldn’t really have them are much the same but the similarities generally end there. The comparison isn’t a huge one but it definitely struck me as I was watching it.
As mysteries go it wasn’t a terribly engaging one as Sherlock pretty much rules out the supernatural aspect from early on but also rules out the idea of twins by saying that twins is never the answer. I have to admit that my mind went to that possibility first but how could it not? There’s a killer who appears to be in two places at once while being dead so it’s a logical guess. It’s clever how the episode quickly tells us that it won’t be as simple as that but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect that to be the answer anyway.
Maybe I didn’t find the mystery engaging enough as I was waiting for the logical explanation that would make sense but somewhat feel like it came from nowhere and there definitely was an element of that going on. I’m sure if I rewatched the episode I’d be able to see where certain answers might have come from but certainly on an initial viewing there was a bit of “where does that come from?” going on. It was always clear that the mystery wasn’t really what this episode was about as it only really served as a catalyst for everything else that was going on. Having it start off being the focus of the episode and then fade into the background somewhere around the midpoint broke the momentum of the episode somewhat. it did regain it towards the end but the case was the least interesting aspect of the episode where it really shouldn’t be. I like that it went largely unresolved as that was essentially the point of the episode.
I didn’t find the idea of Emilia Ricoletti (Natasha O’Keefe) acting as a 19th century feminist vigilante after having accepted her impending death to be a particularly strong explanation. The feminist idea had potential especially when coupled with Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) using extreme methods to achieve her dream of being a coroner but the episode didn’t do enough with it for it to be as strong as it needed to be. It has a lot to do with the mystery being pushed into the background and a lack of development of Emilia in general.
The time period was well presented with excellent set and costume design as is expected from BBC period dramas but the performances really managed to sell it as well. Cumberbatch and Freeman were noticeably different versions of these characters with Cumberbatch’s accent being very different to the present day version. He could easily walk into a traditional Sherlock Holmes story and make it work as evidenced by this.
Some of the characters were changed to suit the time period such as John’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) being a feminist campaigning for women’s right to vote and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) being altered to be chronically obese to the point that he has a small number of years to live. The back and forth between the brothers as they place bets on when Mycroft will expire is amusing and it’s an interesting change to bring to the Mycroft character considering he seems so inhibited in the present day.
Characters like Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) remain pretty much the same but considering they take up a mostly supporting role in the show that’s no big surprise. Their contribution here is fairly minimal.
When I heard about this episode I thought that it was going to be a disposable 19th century set story done just to have fun with the idea so I was surprised when it tied into the end of the last season as well as providing setup for the next one. It turns out the entire adventure takes place inside Sherlock Holmes’ Mind Palace as he struggles to resolve the idea of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) still being alive despite the fact that Holmes saw him die. The whole reason for “The Abominable Bride” is that she was able to come back from shooting herself through the brain just as Moriarty did so Sherlock works through this unresolved historic case in his brain to figure out if it’s possible for Moriarty to still be alive.
It could be argued that making most of this episode a drug induced hallucination is a bit of a cop out and in some ways it is but it serves as an effective device to explore the psychology of Sherlock Holmes. His fantasy is from Watson’s point of view which suggests that he needs to be well regarded by those around him and having him take an observational role in his own fantasy is a clever way for him to really watch what goes on to help him put the clues together. In many ways it is a self inflicted character study where he really tests himself with a case that he actually can’t solve. Failure is something he is afraid of but he isn’t too arrogant to think that it will never happen to him. If Moriarty is alive then that marks something that completely slipped by him and that is a hard thing for him to deal with. Seeing him frantically dig through the grave of the Abominable Bride looking for the truth as he sees it shows how much he needs things in his world to make sense.
It is unclear whether Moriarty is actually alive at this point but that almost doesn’t matter as the really significant development is that Moriarty will be a constant presence in Sherlock’s mind palace so the show doesn’t actually need him to be alive. Having Moriarty as a constant manifestation in Sherlock’s subconscious is far more interesting than having him as a physical presence. Every time Sherlock retreats to his mind palace to consider things Moriarty can represent the self doubt in his thought process and trip him up at every turn. Obviously Moriarty hasn’t actually done anything to create this as it will be Sherlock’s insecurities over meeting his match that will have created this presence in his psyche. Having Sherlock be his own worst enemy is far more fascinating than any physical villain could be.
Another interesting development in the conflict between Sherlock and Moriarty is the recreation of the more traditional Reichenbach Fall imagery as a summation of the relationship between these two characters. This imagined sequence shows that they are physical and intellectual equals which leads to them going over together in the first place. The one changed element in this version is that Watson shows up to give Sherlock the advantage. I like the fact that Sherlock sees Watson as someone who gives him a measurable edge in his work. That edge will allow him to overcome Moriarty as there is so much trust between them. We also get to see an honest representation of how Sherlock feels about Watson right from inside his own head. Having Watson represent strength to Sherlock is an excellent twist in their friendship.
In many ways this is a fairly disposable outing that could be taken as something of a companion to the series as a whole. I don’t think watching this is essential as I imagine season 4 will give enough information on the Moriarty situation to make do but as a character study it definitely works as an interesting companion and should enrich the whole development of the next season assuming the storytelling is done well.
A mostly disposable curiosity that has some fun with the idea of the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman Dr. John Watson being in a more traditional 19th century Sherlock Holmes story.
This was an idea that I was interested in seeing since I started watching this show. It’s a curiosity that deserved one story and that’s exactly what this is on the surface.
The mystery wasn’t a terribly interesting one as it starts off prominent but fades into the background as things progress. I was never fully engaged in what was going on as it always felt that there was going to be a simple explanation for the whole thing which there largely was. It was left unresolved which was the overall point of the episode.
I didn’t find the idea of Emilia acting as a 19th century feminist vigilante to be particularly engaging. It was a solid idea but it wasn’t developed particularly well as the mystery fades into the background eventually and the Emilia character was barely dealt with in any meaningful way.
As is expected from BBC period dramas the time period was well represented with costumes and set design as well as excellent performances from all concerned. Benedict Cumberbatch was particularly excellent as he changed his accent to suit the time period more.
The changes made to Mycroft and Mary were nice touches that made senses and keeping other characters much the same works fine as they take up a support role in the episode.
Having the whole episode be a drug induced hallucination to help Sherlock figure out how Moriarty could have survived being shot in the head was a nice touch. Tying it to an unresolved case that Sherlock casts himself in worked really well and it’s interesting that he chose to see himself from Watson’s point of view which shows that he needs to be well regarded by those around them as well as being able to take a distanced look at the case to help figure it out.
Moriarty being a presence that will always be in Sherlock’s mind palace is more interesting than having him be alive could ever be. This allows Moriarty to represent his own self doubt that can trip him up at every turn. Having Sherlock be his own worst enemy is much more fascinating than any physical villain could be.
The recreation of the Reichenbach Fall with more traditional imagery worked really well at showing the conflict between these characters. They are physically and mentally equal until Watson appears to give Sherlock the advantage. It’s interesting to have Sherlock feel that Watson represents strength to him and allows him to overcome Moriarty’s influence.
In many ways this can be seen as a companion to the series as I doubt that it will need to be watched to understand the next season but at the same time it will enrich the development of the next season assuming it is done well.
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