“Sherlock: The Abominable Bride” Review: Everything Old is New Again

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(Warning: This review contains spoilers.)

Fans of BBC’s Sherlock have been waiting an awfully long time for a new episode. In fact, with the cast and crew in such high demand, new installments of Sherlock are a rare commodity. This show has not always responded well to the pressure of success, and the difficulty in scheduling production has made this pressure higher than ever. Fortunately, the result is a clever and complex episode that almost succeeds at re-capturing the sense of fun and adventure missing from the most recent series, without getting lost in its own twists and turns.

I’ll admit, the idea of re-imagining the modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes to be set in Victorian London (would this qualify as re-re-imagining, or un-re-imagining?) struck me immediately as something of a self-indulgent stunt designed to stall for time as the show continued to figure out how to get unstuck from the mire of tangled arc story in which it’s been entrenching itself since the end of series two. However, upon viewing, the strengths of this approach were obvious, surprising, and thoroughly entertaining.

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By resettling the series in time, the show managed to wipe the slate clean of its previous arcs, and focus wholly on the authentic spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works that made the show so much fun to begin with. With the modern canonical complications stripped away, the characters (all in their proper places within Doyle’s canon) became fun and unburdened; strange, but familiar; odd and delightful. From the understated tragedy of seeing Mary, whom we know as a wickedly smart woman-of-action, relegated to idle frustration and making tea, to the delightful surprise of encountering Molly Hooper in drag (very suited to the character), the characters were given new life and dimension. Probably most importantly, the relationship between Watson and Holmes was warm, familiar, and rife with the trust and affection we’d been craving since episode one, all without sacrificing the delicious barbed wit of their bickering. Although the affection was all in Holmes’ mind, it was refreshing to see an acknowledgement of the respect and friendship he feels for Watson, but so rarely expresses.

Nearly everything about this Victorian reboot was an improvement over the state of the show at the end of the last series. Notably, the meta-commentary aimed at the fandom was reigned way in, and expressed as sweetly understated remarks about Dr. Watson’s retellings: The role Mrs. Hudson plays, the difficulty in choosing which Holmes adventures to present, the illustrator being “out of control” with regards to the accuracy of the visuals versus the original writing, are small, clever, natural ways for the writers to wink at the fans which do not detract from the flow of the story.

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The mystery, a woman who blew her brains out in a crowded street in broad daylight then seemed to rise from the dead to kill her husband, was tense and absorbing, with just the right touch of supernatural suspense. In fact, the mystery was so compelling that I naively mistook the change of time period as an intentional opportunity to temporarily cast off the overwrought complexities of series three and focus tightly on the strange and fantastical cases that made the early seasons so enjoyable. The revelation that the 1895-Holmes was only a drug-induced hallucination of modern Holmes, struggling to solve an ancient case in order to help him untangle a modern puzzle, COULD have been a disappointing return to the morass of series three. Instead, it made enough sense, with the reveal foreshadowed nicely by a variety of unsettling hints, to act as an effective bridge, bringing the compelling energy of the case forward in time to propel the story of Holmes resorting to extreme measures to discover how a still-living Moriarty might be possible, while also coming to terms with the ghost of his late nemesis rattling about inside his subconscious.

By integrating the two stories, Sherlock is able to show off what makes it shine. The two realities are almost perfectly intertwined, serving as something of a single dual-reality. The tag, showing the past Holmes imagining his future counterpart, connects these worlds neatly. Even though one of these realities is a hallucination, they are both canon; they are both real to an audience of Holmes fans spanning generations. This inclusion of both Doyle’s original works and the changes Sherlock has made to it plays as deep respect to the source material and a nod to the myriad possibilities the stories inspire. The beauty of Sherlock is that it can navigate the twists and turns of an intriguing mystery while simultaneously delving into the psyche of the damaged genius at its centre, manipulating the viewers’ emotions, exploring the various relationships between its characters, and build a series arc story alongside the episodic mystery. There is such brilliant and capable storytelling happening in this episode, that it makes the weak points that much more disappointing. For example, the scene in the graveyard which turns out to be a present-day hallucination was unnecessary and cheap. A show capable of greatness shouldn’t need to resort to trickery and “Surprise! It wasn’t real!” tactics designed to confuse and frustrate the audience. These hiccups in the narrative only serve to interrupt the flow of a story that should be deep and fluid. Having an opportunity to take the audience on a journey through the inner workings of Sherlock’s remarkable mind, the writers chose to inhibit, rather than facilitate, our understanding using “gotcha” moments.

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The resolution of the mystery is also unfortunately thin. Holmes and Watson discover that the killer of these two men is a group of women suffragists who want to create a sort of “boogieman-bride” to intimidate men who abuse or disrespect women. The tone of this reveal is not only mildly patronizing, but the goofiness of this scheme as a supposedly-righteous suffragist plot also undercuts the seriousness of the women’s crimes. Are we supposed to think of these women as heroes, the way we do the historical suffragettes? The tag (which, while it is only a hallucination, supposedly projects what Holmes would have done were it true) suggests that Holmes and Watson reported the case as a “rare failure” and took no further action, thereby preserving its “unsolved” status for Holmes in the future. However, these women assisted a suicide, then murdered two men in a way that did not promote equality or the women’s suffrage movement, and inspired a string of unrelated murders disguised to look like the work of “The Bride.” What made this a battle these women deserved to win? Our modern context informs our understanding that women in 1895 were unjustly oppressed, but in the Victorian context, how did this plot further the cause of equal rights? Are we to accept that Molly Hooper was part of a secret society that perpetuated the murder of men who treated women unfairly (which, back then, would have been nearly all of them)? Are we supposed to admire these women for their cause when their tactics were so bizarre and misguided? Are we supposed to simply accept our male leads’ actions as correct, when the “victorious” women barely got the chance to speak for themselves? Portraying the righteous fury felt by the victims of historical discrimination requires a deft and delicate touch that was unfortunately not present here.

And as for the arc of the modern-day story, frustratingly little progress was made, especially considering the long wait in store for fans before the next installment.

So, while fans hoping for a rich and cerebral drama with watertight storytelling may come away feeling shortchanged, “The Abominable Bride” revives the uncomplicated sense of adventure and mystery that makes the show as a whole so thoroughly entertaining. It may not have been wholly satisfying, but it was certainly a great deal of fun.

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