If you went into this year’s Sherlock holiday special The Abominable Bride expecting a period-piece trifle, no one can blame you. Everything released in advance of its January 1st premiere focused mostly on Victorian London’s dashing menswear and Martin Freeman’s robust mustache. Combine the promotional focus, the Christmas setting, and the seemingly lightweight premise — a vengeful bride has risen from the dead! — and you have a recipe for repeated late-December viewing.
Of course, creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are a little more ambitious. This is a quasi-holiday special, sure, but it’s also a complicated interstitial piece of Sherlock’s overall narrative and a vehicle for entry-level social commentary, winking meta-criticism, and fanfic-spawning setpieces. The boldness is commendable, and it’s probably necessary: Sherlock’s fourth season won’t air until 2017, a consequence of its stars’ packed schedules. (It takes a long time to get in and out of that Doctor Strange costume.) It would be unfortunate for any show to go three years without so much as a morsel of story, but that would almost be preferable to The Abominable Bride, whose commitment to producing new Sherlock content at all costs renders it knotty, obtuse, and strangely paced.
There are spoilers for both The Abominable Bride and the first three seasons of Sherlock beyond this point.
It turns out Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson’s (Martin Freeman) 19th century life and work aren’t much different from their 21st century incarnations. Sherlock solves mysteries alongside the befuddled detectives of Scotland Yard; Watson writes about their adventures in The Strand. The pair’s newest case involves a suicidal bride, one who’s somehow come back from the dead to enact vengeance on London’s deadbeat husband and lovers. This isn’t a true alternate reality, though: having had his season-ending suicidal mission cancelled, the present-day Sherlock has taken a potent — and potentially lethal — drug cocktail. It’s heightening an elaborate fantasy within his "mind palace," and it revolves around an old case that he’s using to solve the mystery of his nemesis Moriarty’s (Andrew Scott) apparent return.
Present-day Sherlock is an anti-hero; Victorian Sherlock is just obnoxious
I’m not ruining the plot by telling you this Inception-esque scenario ends with Sherlock and Moriarty wrestling soaked under the Reichenbach Falls, a fight after which Sherlock flies high (in the friendly sky) like a true comic book superhero. Once it’s been established that we’ve entered the province of Sherlock’s mind, anything can happen, and this rule ends up being extremely convenient from a fan service perspective. When all's said and done, a grand total of 10 "real" minutes have passed. We’re on to season four.
Because Sherlock is the author of the fantasy that gives the episode his shape, we see every character and plot turn through Sherlock’s eyes, and the result is a warped world that’s more frustrating in its unlikelihood than usual. Everyone around Sherlock is an idiot, helpless and blithering in the face of his intellect; his brother Mycroft (Gatiss, pulling his customary double duty), typically the only check on his roaring brain, is obese to the point of immobility and killing himself to prove a point. The present-day Sherlock is an anti-hero, sure; the dream Victorian Sherlock is just obnoxious.
The circumstances and particulars of the case allow Moffat and Gatiss to push Sherlock into England’s suffragette movement, and fourth-wall-sniffing commentary from Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) and Baker Street landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) complements the show’s lite-feminist inclinations. (To hear Hudson tell it, she’s good for more than serving tea and worrying, though you wouldn’t know it from the show’s first three seasons. Again, this feels more like bait for Tumblr fans than the seeds of a lasting change.) Of course, the culmination of the show’s interaction with the movement is a speech in which Sherlock bemoans the injustice of the whole thing while a room of women stands silent around him.
Bait for Tumblr fans
In a critical review of The Abominable Bride, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff made a smart point about the narrative problem Sherlock’s astounding cleverness poses. "[Moffat’s] protagonists have a tendency to become strange, alien gods after a few seasons. They’re the ones who figure out the puzzle every time," VanDerWerff writes. "Sherlock Holmes is the smartest and best. He is the only one who can save us." Stories that come to revolve around extremely smart, equally arrogant people all struggle to answer the same basic questions. How can there be tension when the viewer’s assured the character will always succeed? And what’s the viewer’s reason for liking or caring about the character at all?
Consider The Martian, a movie in which Matt Damon’s botanist astronaut Mark Watney is basically a near-future Sherlock stranded on another planet. The movie’s premise is the same as your standard Sherlock episode: you’re watching an extremely capable person solve problems normal people could never solve. The difference is the framing: in every second you recognize the impossibility of Watney’s odds, and how helplessly alone he is.
Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is smarter, colder, and much less desperate. You never believe he’s in any danger, even in the throes of an overdose or the middle of an overwhelming case. He’s a brilliant, terrible man whose flaws are all inconsequential. Moffat and Gatiss had less trouble dealing with this in Sherlock’s first two seasons, where the mysteries were stronger and the detective’s adversary was worthy. The same can’t be said for the Christmas special, where he’s purely an invention. Moriarty is going to be working from beyond the grave in season four; for Sherlock’s sake, let’s hope he left a mighty mess behind.