Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride and What It Means for Season 4

Well, it's been confirmed: filming for Season 4 starts in April 2016, and we'll have it on our televisions by January 2017. I'll not deny it, that's a lot of waiting, but at least we got a Christmas(ish) special to sate us while we wait. (Note: *SPOILERS AHEAD*)

And what a Christmas special it was! Completely and utterly insane, but so entertaining, and it gave us so many wonderful things:

Doctor Hooper! Molly rocks the mustache better than John, lol
Fat Mycroft! Good lord, lol
Spy Mary! I'm so glad they kept her back story
Mrs. Hudson and her protest of silence against her not speaking in the stories, lol
"Give her some lines, she's perfectly capable of starving us!"
And sight gags like this:

Speedwell's! In Internet speak: "Aw yiss!"
And of course, the ultimate reveal (or, one of them):

"Miss me?"
So, what did I think of the special? Well, let's talk about three things:

The MESSAGE: So, to my surprise (and I'm pretty sure everyone watching), this special ended up being about feminism.

As a feminist myself, I can't say that I found myself against the notion when I realized what the episode was truly about. I was just a bit taken aback, since I don't think any Sherlock episode before has really had a message. Was this a bold move or a potentially damaging one? (I suppose that question really sums up all the choices made for this episode!)

I confess I was a bit unsure of the execution when the camera lingered on Mary after Holmes and Watson went dashing out to solve another case. Is this whole episode going to be her complaining about how unfair it is for women in this time period?, I wondered. I mean, it certainly was unfair, but that wasn't what I'd come to watch.

But then Mary receives the message from Mycroft, and we discover a fantastic thing: that in this story line she's still a spy, and she, too, dashes off to solve the Abominable Bride case. I personally love this addition to the show's canon; I even sort of wish it was part of the Conan Doyle stories. Mary Watson is so rarely in said stories, and is so casually killed off, perhaps now we can say her many absences were because she was on spy missions, and her death must have happened in the field, so its true circumstances had to be hidden from Watson. I'll definitely keep that head canon, as it's so much better than what we have.

Through the mystery of the Abominable Bride, we are ultimately led to the secret society behind it, what Watson temporarily labels the League of Furies:

How to describe this scene? It's not offensive, at least not intentionally. I mean, the hoods were probably a poor choice, especially when you're trying to portray these women in a positive light, but I think the costumes were supposed to be purely for effect, not necessarily as part of their portrayal as women - as Moriarty says, "Is this crazy enough for you? Gothic enough?" The hoods were simply to invoke the mood of a classic Conan Doyle mystery, of shadowed halls and secret cults and mysteries stranger than our imaginings. So, I wasn't offended; I can see why other people might be, but I don't think that was ultimately the intent.

Then why was I still uncomfortable watching this?

After thinking about it, I realized it wasn't the message that was making me uncomfortable; it was the execution of said message. Because this speech is so heavy-handed, so smack-you-across-the-face, just not subtle at all.

I'm uncomfortable because it's bad screenwriting.

The whole episode stops in its tracks just for Sherlock to explain to us exactly what we're supposed to take away from this episode. There's no subtlety, no nuance, nothing for us to figure out for ourselves - no, it's just words, words, words. Ugh.

Up to this point, I really liked how the portrayal of the women of the Sherlock universe had been handled: Molly disguising herself as a man to be taken seriously in what's seen as a man's profession; Mary getting out from underneath John's condescension to solve cases and mysteries for the British government; Mrs. Hudson protesting her character's silence, because so many women are often ignored and made to think their words and opinions don't matter; and Lady Carmichael and her fellow Brides, taking up arms against a world that tells them they are lesser, that their suffering doesn't matter, that verbal and emotional abuse is their lot in life. I see all these women, and I understand them; perhaps murder is a bit much, but I understand the emotions behind it.

We don't need Sherlock Holmes to explain that to us.

It's interesting, actually, how Sherlock is portrayed as a feminist in this version, while in contrast John is portrayed as a misogynist (and pretty much any other -ist in the book). Sherlock sees Lady Carmichael as an intelligent and discerning individual, and says so. While he says it to spite her husband, it has a genuine ring to it, and that genuine respect holds true when he comes across the society of Brides. He understands their motives, their anger, their resentment, and thus their rebellion (he just explains it in a few too many words). 

Intriguingly, it seems that his feelings cross over to the modern universe, as we see Molly and Janine as two of the vengeful Brides, and also flashes of them from His Last Vow. I think we're supposed to conclude that Dr. Hooper's surprising hostility arises from Sherlock remembering Molly's anger at him for taking drugs, and knowing she would be angrier still if she knew he was on drugs now. Sherlock's guilt over deceiving Janine shows when her Bride self speaks of men betraying women and treating them badly. He knows he is one of those men, and so, in this drugged-up mess of a mind palace, he is condemning himself.

This crossing-over into the modern day story line leads us to our second important aspect:


What do you think? Too much overlap? Just enough? Is it entertaining? Obnoxious? Clever? Too clever?

The mind palace is a narrative device introduced in Season 2 in The Hounds of Baskerville, and was featured prominently throughout Season 3, especially in His Last Vow. In this episode we see it as the story's ultimate framing device, as it's left vague as to whether modern Sherlock is creating his Victorian era persona via the mind palace and a pretty heavy drug cocktail, or Victorian era Sherlock is dreaming up modern Sherlock through a heavy dose of cocaine. To be honest, I love the ambiguity; the last shot especially is wonderful in showing the the two dimensions side by side and that Sherlock Holmes, no matter what century he's in, is always "a man out of his time."

What bothered me about the mind palace, though, is that it may have taken away from a perfectly good mystery. It's around the hour-mark that Holmes discovers the society of Brides, and in that we have our mystery solved. I don't know about you, but I've missed having good mysteries in Sherlock; Season 3 was good, but it didn't really have any great cases except for His Last Vow, and even that was more about Sherlock's own flaws and shortcomings than it was about the case itself. In The Abominable Bride, we actually got a pretty intriguing mystery, and to see it solved in the end was immensely satisfying. There was just one hang-up: Lady Carmichael. Why did she hire Holmes to uncover the society she herself was a part of? It's at this point that the mind palace really comes into play (and the last half hour of the special is completely crazy because of it), but I couldn't help feeling it took away from the satisfaction of a good resolution.

If we actually got a good mystery out of the mix, I think I might have been fine with just an hour-long special; they could have come up with a reason for Lady Carmichael to bait Sherlock Holmes. Maybe she wanted to see if he could figure it out, as a test; if he couldn't, they were safe from anyone else who would try to uncover them. If he could, then maybe they could ask him to join them, or at least help their cause. I don't know; I just know the mind palace part of it didn't feel strictly necessary.

Don't get me wrong; I love Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty. I'm glad they were able to bring him back because he is just perfection as the off-kilter Jim. But in speaking of the story in general, I'm not sure the mind palace was really beneficial to it. 

The mind palace is a clever idea, and it definitely gives Sherlock as a show a unique look and feel. But the mind palace is only meant as a narrative tool; when it becomes the whole of the narrative structure, the show becomes purely style over substance...which brings me to what I'm worried about for Season 4.


At the end of The Abominable Bride, Sherlock announces that Moriarty is definitely dead, and he knows exactly what he's going to do next. All the rest of the characters, understandably, react to his statement like this: ???

So, is Moriarty dead or not? Did this special give us an answer? Well, I believe it did, so here's my interpretation of Moffat and Gatiss' hijinks:

The Abominable Bride started out as just one person, Emelia Ricoletti. When she died, her friends took her place - really, anyone could be the Bride, as shown by Janine and Molly dressing up as her to scare Lord Carmichael and to distract Holmes and Watson while Lady Carmichael killed her husband. 

How it ties into Moriarty is this: Moriarty is dead. However, other villains can still use his image to intimidate and to distract Sherlock and John from whatever's really going on. Like the Bride, Moriarty's identity can be taken on by anyone - including whoever's responsible for the image of his face flashing up on every screen in England. 

Of course, I may be wrong; you never know what insanity Moffat is going to pull out of his sleeve, and we've still got a good two or three months before filming starts for him to dream up a new interpretation of what's really going on. But I do think this theory makes the most sense in regards to the special. Even if Moriarty is dead, they can still bring Andrew Scott back via the mind palace, which I think is part of the reason why they're using it more and more.

My fear for Season 4 is that it will be more of Season 3. Not that Season 3 was bad, but it was nowhere near the kind of quality Seasons 1 and 2 were. Moffat and Gatiss are focusing less and less on good stories and more and more on the characters. It's not like they're bad characters, either; it's just that the stories need to be used as a vehicle to expand on those characters, not the other way around. The characters themselves don't have the chance to shine or evolve when the narrative around them is weak. To be fair, the show has gone through a lot of the more well-known Conan Doyle stories, but still, isn't adapting material what you're good at, "Mofftiss"? There are still so many stories left, surely you can find a way to create a good story out of some of the most entertaining mysteries ever written?

To be perfectly honest, even with its flaws, The Abominable Bride is a genuinely good piece of entertainment; I've watched it three times, and I know I'll watch it again. Its dialogue is well written, its characters are awesome, it has more than a few hilarious moments as well as some genuinely creepy scenes with the Bride, the mind palace is insane but enjoyable stuff, and all the Conan Doyle references really are a treat for anyone familiar with the stories. It just needed a bit more focus to be on par with the likes of A Scandal in Belgravia, A Study in Pink, The Reichenbach Fall, etc.

I hope Moffat and Gatiss realize what they need to work on and fix it, then take what they're good at already and wrap it all up in a good mystery. That's what we need for Season 4, and I can't wait to see what's in store for us when it does eventually come around.

January 2017 - we've waited this long, we can make it!