Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Seriously Underdeveloped Bride: Sherlock’s New Year’s Special

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, "The Abominable Bride."

Six years ago today, on January 7, 2010, Kevin Courrier, David Churchill and Shlomo Schwartzberg launched Critics at Large with the aim of providing a place for new critical writing outside the narrowing constraints of the media industry. Since then, we have published a new piece of criticism every day (on films, books, television, theatre, dance, and popular and high culture of all genres), and have gathered a still-growing group of writers – both established and emerging – from across the continent. Over 2,200 posts later, Critics at Large continues to be committed to providing a space when a true diversity of voices can resound. It is particularly meaningful to mark the anniversary of the site with a piece by Danny McMurray on Sherlock. The BBC series was dear to David, who we lost to illness in the spring of 2013, and we at Critics at Large will read Danny's analysis with pride and with loving memories of David. 

Mark Clamen
Managing Editor,
Critics at Large

Kevin Courrier
Critics at Large

Note: This review contains spoilers for Sherlock's "The Abominable Bride".

Fans have waited almost two years since Sherlock, the BBC’s beloved modern-day adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries, closed out its 3rd season with the shocking return of Holmes’ nemesis, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott). To some frustration, the latest episode, titled “The Abominable Bride” and billed as a feature-length holiday special, does little to further the plot showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat left us with two Januarys ago. Instead, the holiday special takes the form of an “alternate reality” story that transports Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and partner Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) to the lush, gothic Victorian London from which their characters were born.

In 1895 London, Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) of Scotland Yard arrives at 221B Baker Street to see Sherlock Holmes and a mustachioed John Watson about a case that has him rattled. A recently-deceased bride appears to have returned from the dead to murder her husband with a shotgun. Stranger still, she seems to have accomplished the deed without her corpse ever having left the morgue. After some consideration and several problematic pieces of evidence, Sherlock Holmes leaves the case unsolved – that is, until the killer bride begins terrorizing another man, months after her body is buried.

The special’s story is unapologetically gothic, the perfect “whodunit” adventure for the series’ one-off Victorian episode, and loaded with stunning imagery. Natasha O’Keeffe as the mysterious ghost bride at the heart of the case is chilling; the scene where she stalks Tim McInnerny’s Sir Eustace Carmichael through a hedge maze in the early morning mist is both beautiful and horrific, reminiscent of Lucy Westenra hypnotically seeking her vampire paramour in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and also Bram Stoker’s Dracula). While the Sherlock series generally involves its title character solving mysteries with the use of smart phones and hacking, “The Abominable Bride” sees Watson and Holmes traipsing through morgues, cemeteries, and foreboding country estates like proper Victorians, in tweeds and historically authentic footwear.

The costuming and set design are each incredible in their own right. From Mary’s (Amanda Abbington) delicate black mourning dress at the top of the feature to Watson and Holmes’ suiting, everyone looks fantastic. Molly Hooper’s (Louise Brealey) 1895 counterpart is particularly noteworthy, and not to be spoiled by this review. Victorian Baker Street has become a literal “study in scarlet,” with a liberal dusting of Sherlock Holmes trivia smattered about. The backgrounds are full of paintings, artifacts, and details set designer Arwel Wyn Jones pulled directly from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (my favourite is the jackknife on the mantle, stabbed through Holmes’ unread mail), and deliberately placed to invite comparison with the regular modern-day set. For lovers of Victoriana, the ubiquitous details are enough to render the episode riveting in the grisly-but-gorgeous manner of any good gothic tale.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Una Stubbs in "The Abominable Bride."

While I adored the atmosphere of “The Abominable Bride,” save for a couple out-of-place camera spin scene transitions and one awkward looking fall through a waterfall, the story itself had a couple issues. Gatiss and Moffat, frequently accused of underplaying the show’s female characters, placed women front and centre in the special by tying the plot into the Suffragette movement and I rather wish they hadn’t. Although Mary and landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) had some brilliant and appropriate lines about their position as women in the Victorian age, the feminist angle crashes and burns pretty heinously at the climax of the episode when Sherlock confronts a KKK-inspired cult of murderous women whose primary goal is to teach their crummy husbands a lesson for chronically abusing and underestimating them (spoiler: the lesson is death). This scene is the most egregious flop in the episode, requiring the largest suspension of disbelief, as Sherlock interrupts some ceremonial proceedings in the cult chamber without even a ghost of confusion or confrontation from the lady masterminds. In fact, the members of this violent secret society with a vaguely political agenda calmly open the floor for Holmes and politely stand around with appreciative grins while he “mansplains” feminism to them (and to us, apparently). Thanks, Sherlock. We all would have been washing dishes for eternity without you.

The other misstep “The Abominable Bride” makes is half-heartedly weaving itself into the overarching Sherlock storyline by adopting a “dream sequence” format. A few insultingly obvious clues indicate early on that the entirety of the Victorian plot takes place in Sherlock’s “mind palace” (a mnemonic device favoured by geniuses everywhere) during a drug overdose that, it’s explained, lasts a whopping ten minutes after the end of season 3. BBC specials are often notoriously untethered to their parent series, as is the case with the other Moffat/Gatiss creation Doctor Who, so while the attempt to attach “The Abominable Bride” to the tail of Sherlock’s previous episode is admirable, the dream sequence concept feels cheap. Also much like Doctor Who, Gatiss and Moffat overreach in an effort to prevent “The Abominable Bride” from being “just another dream sequence episode,” muddying the timeline by implying that “2015 Sherlock” is hallucinating the 1895 story while “1895 Sherlock” is, in turn, imagining the present day events. This amendment to a cut-and-dry plot device is unnecessary and, like their misguided need to dally with Suffragettes, it would have been better left alone.

As with many things in life, “The Abominable Bride” is a lot of fun if you don’t think too much about it which is unfortunate for a series that identifies as being particularly clever. It’s an homage to the gothic, a love letter to the Victorian period and its obsession with the macabre, but it is not a feminist piece, nor an essential component of the Sherlock story. Fans craving a fix (to borrow a phrase from Sherlock himself) after season 3 concluded on January 12th, 2014 should consider this installment as little more than decadent fanfiction: satisfying, creative, and engaging maybe, but whether or not it’s enough to tide us over until season four’s projected airdate of “sometime in 2017” remains to be seen.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.


  1. Great review! You really captured the strengths and problems with this episode. It was hard to articulate some of the issues, so thanks for doing a great job of it.

  2. Hey Danny very spot on review - I thought I might be alone with my disappointment!