In both the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel A Study in Scarlet and in the latest installment of BBC’s Sherlock—“The Abominable Bride”—we’re told “there is nothing new under the sun.” This mirrored sentiment explains the preponderance of fan fiction and fan writing in general, but also the tendency for the show Sherlock to feel more like fanish creation than a straight-up adaptation. So, if fandom be the food of our love for Sherlock Holmes, then “The Abominable Bride” isn’t really a new episode of Sherlock at all, but rather, a nearly endless hall of mirrors in which Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss do what they do best with our notions of these great characters: they play.
Spoilers for “The Abominable Bride.”
When Dorothy Gale wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she points out that several “real” people were in fact with her in Oz, but under different guises. Had The Wizard of Oz been contemporary TV show and not an awesome 1939 movie, you can bet fans would have been furious that Dorothy’s journey to Oz morphed from a colorful reality to the tired trope of “it was all a dream.” Yet, few are upset that Oz is established to be less than real in this indisputably wonderful movie. And that’s because the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz (by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf) does exactly what “The Abominable Bride” does so well: it splits the difference between our notions of fact and fancy.
Because at the start of every new year I read at least one Isaac Asimov essay, and because Asimov was a well known member of the Baker Street Irregulars, and because we’re hovering near to his birthday, what I mean by “fancy” is defined by Asimov (in his 1958 nonfiction essay collection Fact and Fancy) as this: “I can think of no better word for the gauze of the truth than ‘fancy.’” What Asimov calls fancy I call messing around. And if you think of “The Abominable Bride” as Gatiss and Moffat messing around with a variety of notions about Sherlock Holmes and his constellation of friends and enemies, then this episode is wonderfully satisfying. For the purist who wanted a straight-up Victorian-era Holmes mystery, this might fall short. For the fan of the contemporary show, longing for an explanation of the various threads still unanswered—from Moriarty’s death to Sherlock’s fall—you might be pissed. To both camps (and yes, these camps might exist in the same mind palace) I say this: but look at all the fun we had!
So, the big news about the “The Abominable Bride” is that it eventually reveals itself—both slyly at the start, and somewhere in the middle—not to be an alternate-universe story of a Victorian-era Cumberbatch-Holmes, but instead, a direct sequel to the series 3 finale “His Last Vow.” Recall, Moriarty is back, oh but how? To solve this puzzle, Sherlock has gone deep into his own mind to try to solve a similar mystery of Emelia Ricoletti, a case from over a hundred years before in which a bride (Ricoletti) killed herself and then was able to somehow kill others. As Mycroft says at one point, Sherlock might become the only person to be “buried in his own mind palace.”
The idea that our Sherlock would create an entire alternate Victorian version of himself and all of his machinations in his head is certainly pushing the realism envelope a bit. But, when we toss in the idea that Sherlock has also just overdosed on a bag of drugs, we can allow ourselves to buy all of it, at least logistically. Emotionally, though, we could interpret the entire Victorian narrative construct as Sherlock working through his various mistakes and feelings of personal guilt, particularly in the way he treats women. The solution to the mystery of the ghost bride Mrs. Ricoletti is, in short, feminism. Sherlock and John—both Victorian and contemporary—are remonstrated throughout the episode for being brutish and careless towards everyone from Mrs. Hudson to Molly Hooper. At the start of the episode, much of this is hilarious; particularly when Holmes quips that Mrs. Hudson is basically doing a live parody of Watson’s stories as a form of “literary criticism.” But by the end of the episode—or at least the Victorian arc—it becomes apparent that Sherlock and John’s casual sexism is in need of a serious tune-up. As Mycroft says, it’s a war that they must “lose.”
Now, this isn’t to say that Sherlock has made a sharp feminist attack against itself in the style of Mad Max: Fury Road. With that situation, you’re dealing with a series of preceding films that are basically misogynistic, meaning Fury Road was an outright revolution against itself. This is different. Holmes and Watson are not—to my estimation—originally written as misogynists. They are, however, in their original literary form, very progressive, but only for their time. Meaning, there’s always room for improvement in the ongoing adventure of complete equality and equity between all genders. And when our “gentleman hero,” is in fact a bit of a lying “drug addict,” his attitudes toward “the fairer sex” could use some actual input from actual women. Not to mention, I feel like I’m already seeing some kick-ass Emelia Ricoletti cosplayers in my own mind palace. (It should be noted too, that when trying to come up with a name for this story Watson and Holmes mention “A Monstrous Regiment.” This is a reference to the novel A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King. It’s a sequel to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, a series of novels about an older Sherlock Holmes training Mary Russell, a lady detective who later marries him. The title itself is a jab on at an anti-feminist 1558 text written by John Knox called “The First Blast of a Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women.”)
So, when you eliminate the social commentary and the Victorian-era mystery and the as-usual on-point humor, what remains? Easy: the fan fiction, or perhaps more accurately, the fan writing. More than any other film of TV interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, “The Abominable Bride” felt the most like a dramatized essay or think piece discussing various aspects of the nature of the characters and their universe. Actually, it felt like about ten Sherlock think pieces at once, which, if we’re being critical, is probably where it falters a bit. The feminist angle probably could have been handled a bit less clumsily, and the switching of narrative lenses could have perhaps less unmooring. But, if this is several think pieces happening at the same time, then I think these missteps are, if not excusable, at least explicable. From the mysterious origins of Sherlock’s cold Spock-like personality (“I made me”), to Watson acting-the-fool to make Holmes look better (“Daddy’s gone”), to the idea of Watson’s printed stories influencing reality (“I’m a storyteller, I know when I’m in one”), a lot of ground was covered. Maybe more than was reasonable?
Still, perhaps the most interesting fanish rumination is whether or not Moriarty is more a part of Sherlock’s mind than a real person. Beautifully, “The Abominable Bride” gives us a lush recreation of Reichenbach Falls from the canonical story “The Adventure of the Final Problem.” But, it also grafts on a revision to this story, one in which Watson intervenes and saves Holmes, seemingly from both Moriarty and himself. A revision of the events at Reichenbach Falls is kind of what Sherlock Holmes writing post-“The Final Problem” is all about. Perhaps the most famous Reichenbach revision comes from Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven Per-Cent Solution, in which it’s revealed Moriarty is not real, but rather a complicated construct of Holmes’s psyche. In the Meyer novel, Holmes figures this out with the help of Sigmund Freud, who “The Abominable Bride” outright references when Holmes makes a mention of an “analyst’s couch in Vienna.” Between Laurie R. King and Nicholas Meyer, that’s two non-canonical works referenced here, in additional to all the canonical ones!
So, what to make of “The Abominable Bride”? In the end did any of it matter? Since so much of the episode wasn’t real, a lot people may feel cheated. But, if you view the episode as an essay or think piece, then there’s a potpourri of wonderful Sherlockian goodies. The titular Abominable Bride herself is not only a reference to a line in “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” but her twin pistols and intentional suicide also echo “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” Super-fat Mycroft is straight out of “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” while the double-upped buried bodies is reminiscent of “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.” Even casual fans will catch the visual clues from “The Five Orange Pips,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Creeping Man,” A Study In Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and of course, “The Final Problem.”
The narrative frame of Sherlock Holmes has always been about an echo of what is “real” and what is the “fancy” of the storyteller. In the original stories, that fancy—the embellishments from Dr. Watson—are part of the experience. Each subsequent interpretation from Laurie R. King to Nicholas Meyer, to Robert Doherty to Lyndsay Faye, add an additional lens onto the characters. With “The Abominable Bride,” Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are peering back through all those lenses to find the characters searching for themselves. If you love any of them—from Mary to Mrs. Hudson to Lestrade to John and Sherlock themselves—then you must have, even if just for a moment, loved something in this episode.
And if you didn’t? Well, then I concede that you may have in fact seen “The Abominable Bride.” But did you observe?
Ryan Britt is the author of the essay collection Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, out now from Plume Books (Penguin Random House). He’s written about Sherlock Holmes extensively for The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The B&N Book Blog, and here on Tor.com. In fact, way back in 2010, he was the very first Tor.com contributor to suggest covering at little TV show called… Sherlock.