Sherlock: The Abominable Bride Review

by thethreepennyguignol

I’ve never really written about Sherlock on this blog before, which is kind of odd when you consider the fact that it’s a) a proper pop-cultural pantheon that has earned it’s place amongst the most critically revered and passionately fandomed shows of the decade and b) co-created by the man behind one of my favourite shows of all time, Steven Moffat. Truth be told, Sherlock has never really interested me on the same rabid level that other shows have-I appreciate it as a bit of clever fun (and the Hound of the Baskervilles adaptation is something extremely special) but it generally leaves me a little bit cold for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s the ostentatious style, maybe it’s the general air of smugness that wafts off it in waves, maybe it’s the fact that it has made Benedict Cumberbatch an inescapable presence even to those who are pretty ambivalent towards him (guilty as charged). But I get it; it’s slick, clever, and mind-bending, with a few great performances sprinkled in there to boot. If you love it, more power to you, even if I can’t quite get on board with that bandwagon myself.

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Nonetheless, I finally caught up on the 2013 series a few weeks ago, and it made sense to tune in to the period-piece festive special The Abominable Bride because-well, because it seemed like a rollicking bunch of historical festive fun, which is something I can never in good conscience turn down. And hey, Steven Moffat pulled off one decent Christmas special– why not another?

And hey, the show did entertain me- quite a bit, in fact- for the first hour or so. Dumping us back in Victorian England as a period-appropriate Sherlock and Watson try to figure out how a woman who apparently shot herself in the head has returned to commit a series of bloody murders, the show had a lot of fun recalibrating it’s modern-day cast to the 19th-century setting. The story had a good ghostly edge that fit well with the Christmas broadcast (look, ghost stories and Christmas just make sense to me, alright?), and it even manage to cart out Blackadder stalwart Tim McInnery for a guest spot. This was good! I liked this! Thumbs up and a round on me for everyone involved.

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But then the story took a…turn. We jumped back to the present day, and the show quickly revealed that everything in the preceding hour had been happening inside Sherlock’s head as he tried to figure out how Moriarty had returned. And, in the final half-hour of the show, Sherlock disappeared firmly up it’s own mind palace.

Look, I get that a lot of the appeal of this show is that it’s fiendishly clever, dancing between reality and the inside of Sherlock’s head even in the straightest of episodes. But here, every scene seemed to run into the next one like so much wet paint; we were in the modern day, where Sherlock was certain that if he could solve the case of the ghostly killer he could figure out what happened to Moriarty, but no! That was him tripping on drugs! And now we’re acting out the last scene of the Reichenbach Falls- not the show’s adaptation of it, you see, but the original Conan Doyle story! And now we’re back in Victorian London solving the original mystery! Andrew Scott’s in a dress! Back to modern day! DO YOU SEE HOW CLEVER THEY’RE BEING? DO YOU SEE IT? DO YOU?! The episode seemed so desperate to please hardcore fans that I swore at some points I could hear it trying to claw it’s way out from behind the screen to fellate the audience.

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And, before I carry on, let’s take a small moment to consider the resolution to the Victorian plot. I’ve touched on women and feminism in Sherlock before, but the events of the Abominable Bride really take the cake. The episode peppered in a few references to the women’s suffrage movement- which wasn’t exactly around then under those terms, but alright- one of which included a character announcing “VOTES FOR WOMEN” with literally no further context or apparent relevancy to the plot. And it was with this level of sledgehammer subtlety that they dealt with the rest of that story. Sherlock tracks the perpetrators of the murders down to a church, where they are revealed to be feminists fighting for women to be treated with more grace by their male counterparts. And how are they doing this, you might ask? Maybe through the letter-writing campaigns and the peaceful marches that the Suffragists employed (much later in the timeline, but hey, historical accuracy clearly isn’t an issue here)? Or through the ink-bombing of letterboxes and hunger strikes of the Suffragettes? Of COURSE not- they’ve created a murder cult that slaughters men who mistreat their partners. Also, they kick around churches wearing purple KKK hoods.

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No, really.

And then Sherlock does a speech about how one half of the population is at war with the other (even though many men supported women’s suffrage and fought alongside their female counterparts) and that this is a war that men must lose (which both puts the onus for gender equality on men instead of the women who are apparently fighting it, and frames women’s suffrage as something that removes power from men as opposed to giving it to women). Forgive me if I’m a little annoyed, but as someone who’s studied gender history for a long time now, framing the early Suffrage movement as a bunch of spurned women who commit murder every time a man displeases them fucking infuriates me. Depicting the vital early stages of Britain’s feminist movement as a man-murdering cult, while not even bothering to name-check any of the brilliant historical figures who helped define it (Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Astell, et al) is some bullshit. I’ll admit that this did colour my attitude towards the episode in a big way, but even without it, the third act of The Abominable Bride was a fanservicey, confused mess.

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Basically, for me, a casual fan with no deep emotional investment in the series, this episode pretty much severed ties to the last vestiges of goodwill I had towards it. From an overly clever-clever third act that seemed to rely much more of fanservice that actually moving the plot along or telling us things we didn’t know, to a resolution to a plot that popped early feminists in KKK hoods, the whole thing felt like it was striving for something bigger and better than anything it could really achieve. Tuning back in to the series, I was hoping for either a jump forward in the Morairty plot of the previous season or simply an entertaining romp through Victorian London. What I got was an ugly mish-mash of both, an episode that seemed to give a half-hearted hand-wave to both plots without properly throwing itself into either. What resulted was a flabby, self-indulgent mess whose plot could have been summed up in a webisode,

Ah, well, at least I get another year off before I have to deal with it again.

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