Saturday, January 2, 2016

In Which I Review Sherlock (New Year's Day 2016)

Well. Okay then. You know, I had absolutely no idea what to expect going into this one-off New Year's Day Sherlock special entitled "The Abominable Bride." None at all. Yes, I had seen the trailers and the photos and knew that somehow, inexplicably, we, and our two leading men, were cast into the late 1800s and looked far more like Holmes and Watson that they typically do; but aside from those obvious (and very confusing) spoilers, I had virtually no idea what this episode of Sherlock was even going to be about. What I got was one of the very best episodes of Sherlock we've ever seen. This is the sort of smart, witty, snappy writing I've come to expect from Moffat/Gatiss on this, their other BBC show. Sometimes Sherlock gets bogged down in the tricks and the trappings of a detective story (to be fair, it *is* a detective story) and often becomes a bit too gadget and direction-happy and won't let the audience breathe and enjoy, but this trip back to 1895 was exactly what the good doctor ordered. Grab a pipe, a funny hat, and a cup of good cheer: the boys are back in town! 

My review is going to be rather brief because while the plot is vast in scope, the themes of the episode really boil down to one important question. The question we, the fans, have been asking for a little over a year: is Moriarty alive and how did he survive the modern day Reichenbach Fall? To answer this question, Sherlock (as he is wont to do) go deep into his mind palace and tries to solve another famous crime: that of Emelia Ricoletti, the Abominable Bride. That is the bare bones summation of this plot line. Everything you see back in 1895 is a (sadly drug fueled) trip into the famous mind palace in order to reflect into the present and answer that all important question. But that doesn't mean that our trip to the past isn't incredibly fun. It feels as though Moffat and Gatiss sat for weeks at a computer, scouring through the best of and AO3 in order to come up with a sensible plot line that was true to Doyle's writing and true to the characters as they have conceived of them in modern day London. They knew that they had a hard task before them, to whet the appetites of the admittedly rabid Sherlock fanbase while admitting that it was going to take at least another year before we get season 4 (damn Cumberbatch and Freeman and their rising-star careers). In order to do that, the writing duo decided to have a little bit of fun. An alternative universe, if you will. It's common enough in fanfiction. Setting the story back in the Doyle era of the original Holmes, we are given a little New Years Day treat but all the while not expecting any of this to be canonized. A romp in the garden, then. We get some fun with our favorite detective boys and are pacified until 2017. Instead, Moffat and Gatiss pulled the rug out from under our feet and made everything about this episode relate to the present tense. And it was insanely well executed.

Right off the bat, the death of Emelia Ricoletti feels familiar. A deranged and macabre woman blows her brains out in front of an audience and then somehow rises from the grave to terrorize all of England. It's Moriarty in a fancy wedding dress. Could Moriarty have survived his death blow? Well, sure; why not? Sherlock survived his fall, after all, and every hero needs a villain in their story. The hero need that element against which they fight in order to prove that they are the hero in the tale being told (this all sounds very Doctor Who-ish, does it not?) The case of the Abominable Bride is not really about Ricoletti, then. Yes, Sherlock in the modern day, having taken an entire lists worth of illegal drugs, is trying to solve the case as his plane lands from whence it too off only moments prior, but in reality, Sherlock is trying to solve Moriarty's case viz a viz Mrs. Ricoletti. It's a great one-two punch because while the Ricolleti 1895 case is clearly a parallel to the 2014 Moriarty one, the audience does not grasp the supreme twist that it's all happening inside Sherlock's head until more than halfway through the tale. Honestly, you have to give some props to the writers for this clever about-face and deception. So is Moriarty alive? Well, yes and no. Is the physical being known as Moriarty alive and well? According to Sherlock, in the end, no. That creature who threatened to burn the heart out of Sherlock is dead. But the memory of Moriarty, what he represents, is. And just as Sherlock often represents logic, order, control, and systematic deduction, Moriarty is a force of chaos. He is a destructive maelstrom who tries to topple Sherlock by playing a long game with the boy genius; his modus operandi is to distract Sherlock and his work by plaguing the detective's thoughts. Sherlock Holmes will never be free of Moriarty. That voice--that chaotic malevolent force--will always be there whispering evil nothings in Sherlock's ear. It's like the 1895 vision of Moriarty says at the Reichenbach Falls, "this is how we end--always together." Moriarty and Sherlock are our very own Satan and God, tangled in a web. Remember who is locked up, deep inside Sherlock's mind palace? It's Moriarty. They are two sides of what it means to be a super genius: the hero who tries to save victims and the villain who creates them. Sherlock stands at a precipice and tries not to fall over, to become Moriarty. But, unlike his arch nemesis, Sherlock has one thing that Moriarty can never hope to have: John.

"There's always two of us!" Fake 1895 John yells before he kicks Moriarty over a cliff. It doesn't matter what the case is, or what time period they happen to be in, Sherlock would be lost without his blogger. John saves Sherlock, just as Sherlock confesses during John's wedding day. As is always the case, there are a lot of Sherlock and Watson moments that feel highly significant but once the curtain rises and we realize that the 1895 drama is, in fact, not really happening outside of Sherlock's wild mind palace, we have to understand that this mustached John is how Sherlock (our modern Sherlock, that is) conceives of his best friend. It's never been hard to deduce what John is for Sherlock--John is really Sherlock's conscience. In a world that threatens to consume the detective, Sherlock turns off all his emotions and focuses on the work and on solving the case. John is there to humanize him. When 1895 John asks his best friend "what made you like this?" it's really Sherlock wanting to know why he is the way he is. His answer is that nothing made him, Sherlock made himself. And isn't that a trifle sad? Sure, he's a brilliant detective and a world class mind, but recall the season three opener in which Sherlock all but admits that he is lonely and sad without John. Sherlock may have made himself this way, but there's always a reason. The ghost of Mrs. Ricoletti causes Sherlock to extemporize on the nature of the past and how we all have ghosts, the ones of our own making. John, as always, is there to lean on, to keep the ghosts at bay, should Sherlock need it. The question we might pause to consider, then, is what are Sherlock's ghosts. Might the mysterious Redbeard that Mycroft has written in his pocket have anything to do with why Sherlock closed himself off? Or the allusion to another Holmes brother?

There were a few other themes that were parceled out to us over the hour and a half but the one that is the strongest is women's agency (something ever so near and dear to my heart). In the 1895 drama, we get a fairly accurate (and sad) depiction of what life was like for women in the world. Either they are ignored by their husbands (Emelia Ricoletti and Mary Watson); they are mute plot devices (Mrs. Hudson with maybe some of the best lines of the night); they are objects meant to serve men but have little meaningful interaction with them (the Watson's maid); and while they might be clever and just as capable as a man, they are forced to hide their gender to get ahead in the world (Molly Hooper with the best mustache in the series. Sorry, John). The invisible amry is a reference to Moriarty's network, which I assume is going to play a significant role in season 4, but it's also a statement by the two chief writers about empowering women; that they could move mountains (or plot and plan the murder of several bad men) if we let them. For a writer (Mofatt) who has been given quite a bit of grief over his misogony on his other BBC show (looking at you, Clara kid) it's refreshing to see him (and Gatiss) make a mostly-strong statement (even if I cringe a bit that the main impetus for this women's army is all about being ill treated by men). A wee bit of speculation but I do wonder if that mission statement will carry through to Season 4. Might we see the return of Irene Adler? Guess we'll have to wait (slightly less than) an eternity to find out!

Miscellaneous Notes on The Abominable Bride

--"I'm glad you liked my potato." I laughed for five minutes solid.

--Tons of call backs and references to earlier modern day cases, which really should have been the big clue that all was not what it seemed: John and Sherlock meeting almost the same way in 1895 (complete with Mike Stamford); the dialogue and Holmes deducing that Watson was in war; the (orange) pips as a harbinger of death; the creepy moors and the supernatural creature that is really just a trick of the mind (ghost, dog); Sherlock playing John and Mary's waltz.

--Fat! Mycroft is one of the best things I've ever seen. "Did you summon me here just to humiliate me?" "Yes."

--Speaking of Mycroft, the modern day gent really does get the short end of the stick with Sherlock. He might be smarter than his little brother, but loves him deeply, as evidenced by the emotion wraught on his face both in the season three finale and in a few tender moments Mycroft tries to have in the modern world. The "I'll always be there for you" was heartbreaking given that Sherlock rejects his brother.

--"I'm your land lady, not a plot device." I want that on a t-shirt.

--"Elementary, my dear Watson." #Nerdgasam

--Men out of time, the pair of them. Bless. See everyone for season 4!