The Abominable Sherlock

We saw The Abominable Bride on the big screen yesterday, a few days after Europe. (It aired in UK on January 01, 2016.) Unfortunately, I got barely any sleep last night, so these preliminary thoughts are probably very ramble-y and incoherent, but here we go.

And note: SPOILER ALERT. I will also assume that you’ve seen all the preceding seasons and TAB itself.

Visually, it was beautifully designed, set-dressed, costumed, and lit. I didn’t think it reached the level of gorgeous, but Victoriana has no special place in my head or heart; YMMV. I also liked what I was able to pick up of the sound design; it would require a second viewing to be able to appreciate it more.

Storytelling-wise, like many of the previous Moffat-Gatiss Sherlock stories, the episode was clever, even if it did fall short of the usual quality. It’s as if focusing on the switches between Victorian and modern England took so much effort that the production couldn’t manage to add the customary amount of visual effects storytelling into the 21st century parts of the story; that was noticeable at first viewing and glaring in hindsight. (The integration of smartphones and social media and overlapping various textual elements with the action are some of the most successful bits of the Moffat-Gatiss version.) What we had was a Victorianized version of the opening credits, Victorian streets and trains and carriages, Victorian outfits, Victorian houses, a Victorian version of Sherlock’s sitting room, and a telegram text superimposed on the fireplace in Sherlock’s Victorian room. Next to the effort dedicated to the original setting of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, the modern era clips felt like a poor step child.

The then story itself. It was a little choppy, and some details seemed tacked-on. For example, I had such high hopes that the word you drawn in blood would’ve been a clue to a deeper plot or another perp, but it was slapped on as a superficial marker (“The ghost bride brigade was here”) and otherwise forgotten.

One commenter say they liked the feminist theme at first, even if it was weakened at the end. I saw this comment before seeing the episode, and was consequently surprised because I didn’t think The Abominable Bride was very feminist. Rather, it attempted to check some feminist discussion topic boxes (for example, Watson doesn’t give lines to Mrs. Hudson in his stories; the comment about the war men “must lose”) but unfortunately the way the episode was constructed and shot erodes any feminism there was.

There seemed on surface to be a fairly good number of female characters, but that was skin deep. IMDB’s full credits list gives 28 characters, of which only a quarter (eight) are women. What’s more, these women don’t get to be real people with real concerns. There were few moments when some of the women got to talk with each other, and when they did, it was more often about men than not. Technically, TAB passed the Bechdel-Wallace test, but only very technically. (Mrs. Hudson had a short line to Mary Watson while handing a letter to her, and Lady Carmichael told her daughter to leave the breakfast table, “quickly now”. My sleep-deprived brain is failing me – what else am I forgetting?)

Besides not being given a chance to interact with each other, women were used either as set-dressing or tokenized. Mrs. Hudson from Team Mom gets to carry her tea trays and complain how she’s more than a plot point. Emelia Ricoletti, the original bride, is depicted as a creepy avenging harpy – seriously, what the hell was going on with her lop-sided lipstick? Lady Carmichael, the client, never rises above the trope of Proper Lady even when she’s revealed to be one of the avenging harpies ghost bride conspiracy. Molly Hooper was turned into a cross-dresser to enable her to preside over the Victorian mortuary, and, lo and behold, she also turns out to be an avenging harpy a member of the ghost bride conspiracy. Mary Watson doesn’t count, because she’s Not Like Other Girls, and besides she was barely given anything to do or say.

Most of the rest of the women, if they’re not merely background noise, turn out also to be involved in the ghost bride conspiracy to murder a bunch of men. Mystery stories usually have a mystery to solve, sure, and usually it includes both the method (how) and motive (why), but TAB pretty much stopped at method. “Because lack of vote” isn’t a sufficient motive in my book; it’s plain lazy writing when you have half a dozen murder victims, with half a dozen murderers, all with their own histories and hangups and motivations.

If, however, you set all of that aside as the product of Sherlock’s mind palace escapades… Well. You could argue that him being Sherlock’s most intelligent opponent (save for Mycroft) justifies spending yet another episode wallowing in things Moriarty. (No, I don’t care for the Moffat-Gatiss version of Moriarty. Give me Jamie Moriarty from Elementary any day.) It wouldn’t explain why TAB relegated Moriarty to such a plain boogeyman role and a perfunctory one at that. There was no threat in this Moriarty.

I saw someone else’s comment that TAB was “a remarkably and intricately formulated story of how Sherlock found more about himself and how he successfully confirmed Moriarty’s death.” If it all really was about confirming Moriarty’s death, the conclusion was brushed aside remarkably fast, with a one-liner from Sherlock to the effect of “He blew his brains out.” Why waste a full episode on that? After all, we frequently see Sherlock blow through deductions at lightning speed:

Sherlock’s Scandal in Belgravia deduction via Songlin M

Jamieson Cox on The Verge says it’s because Sherlock’s fourth season won’t air until 2017 and

“[i]t 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.”

Knotty I buy, strangely paced I can see, but obtuse I don’t (unless you’re talking about the casual sexism). In the end, TAB just felt surprisingly pointless.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.