‘Sherlock’ Special Review: The Abominable Bride
In the past I’ve pretty much been the Queen of Sherlock Spoilers, knowing every little thing that’d happen in each episode and following #Setlock fiercely online. This time around I took the opposite approach and went into this only knowing that it took place in the Victorian era. I wasn’t sure how, if at all, it’d fit in with the rest of the series, but I was grateful that we at least got this because this will officially be the longest hiatus between seasons of Sherlock since the show started in 2010. We’ve had a new season every two years (2010, 2012, 2014) and now suddenly instead of a full season, we have one solitary episode all by itself. I’m happy that we got something, though, because with Benedict Cumberbatch being snatched away from us by Marvel for Doctor Strange, we’re going to have to be more patient than ever before.
TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide and drug abuse.
It’s not surprising to me that an episode of Sherlock is good. What I am surprised about is what made it good. Moffat does not have the best reputation for writing women, but somehow this episode was surprisingly female-focused. Yes, the women turned out to be murderers, and no, I’m not saying that’s remotely okay, but the context was women protecting other women and going to extreme lengths to do so. While it was far from perfect, it was so out of left field for a predominately male driven show that I had to do a double take.
Let’s start with the amazing parts of the women in this episode. Every woman that popped up on screen was fiercely determined, intelligent, and badass without falling into the dreaded ‘femme fatale’ trope. Molly’s Victorian era counterpart was so set on furthering her career that she posed as a man to gain access to what was denied to her because of her gender. The bride was willing to lose her life to protect other women, becoming a legend and basically sacrificing who she was as a person before her death to keep other women safe. And then Mary, my beloved Mary, was badass in the past and badass in the present and I expected no less from her. Are we surprised she’s a suffragette?
When we flash forward to the modern day Mary is still amazing, even though she only had a few short lines. Every single bit of dialogue she has is her pretty much proving herself to be the most badass person in the room. She shows up Mycroft by finding out where Emilia Ricoletti is buried. She even shows up Sherlock by being completely unphased by his drug-induced tangents and hopping right in to help solve the crime. Then when John says he’s “taking Mary home,” he quickly corrects himself to say “Mary is taking me home.” I am certainly on Team Mary all the way. She not only brings a vital and consistent female energy to the show, but she does so in a way that is extremely useful and relevant to the plot. She’s not just a prop or a way to check off a token female character requirement. Best yet, her personality meshes so incredibly well with the characters already on the show. She fits in so well and she’s an absolute pleasure to watch on the screen.
But let’s face it – the depiction of women on this show has been far from perfect. As much as I love Irene Adler, she was a highly problematic character. Tidbits of dialogue peppered throughout other episodes are also quite damaging, often using feminist slurs or outright dismissing women’s value to the plot. Even in this episode, which I think was so incredibly female power focused, the truth of the matter is that they all were a bunch of murderers. It’s unfortunate that this power has to come hand and hand with homicide, but even Mycroft Holmes seems willing to look past it and categorize it as a war they shouldn’t win. It’s complicated, and hard to justify murder regardless of the circumstances, but my feelings still generally land on the positive side. Perhaps the bar has been set too low for this show and I’m latching onto the first majority female driven plot a little too hard? Perhaps.
But the majority women driven plot wasn’t the only thing about this episode that surprised me. The relationship between John and Sherlock continues to be a complex situation that feeds the fandom fires. During the episode the two men have a long conversation about why he doesn’t get involved with anyone romantically. I walked away from it feeling as though it were further confirmation that Sherlock was somewhere on the asexual spectrum, but still capable of feeling romantic feelings towards others. He intentionally avoids his romantic feelings because he feels it’s too complicated. Others have interpreted this scene very different than I have, taking the entire conversation to mean he’s both a sexual being and a romantic one and avoids both. Both interpretations are just that: interpretation. But I feel that we’ve been thrown enough contextual evidence that he’s not sexually interested in women to assume that he’s canonically not a heterosexual person. But again, it seems there could be a great deal of debate about this, so I’m willing to concede that I could be seeing this through my own asexual flag colored glasses.
My interpretations about character sexuality may veer into purely fanon side more often than not, but it’s rare for a show to constantly throw out canon hints like this without outright declaring their sexuality plainly. It leads to a great deal of debate and projection on our behalf. Unfortunately that projection may also lead many people to feel they are being queer-baited, which is a completely valid feeling. I too wish they would apply a more definitive label on Sherlock, but at the same time if they did so I might be disappointed that my projections and interpretations of the canon evidence didn’t pan out. I completely understand the frustration, though, and I can feel the fandom growing angry with each passing season.
In fact, I can feel the fandom becoming angry about a lot of things and, honestly, it’s making it increasingly difficult to fan with absolute delight whenever a new episode is released. I feel like a traitor to my audience when I feel so happy, but at the same time I am just so overjoyed that this piece of art is continuing I almost just want to turn a blind eye to the hatred. That’s irresponsible, though, and I’m definitely listening to the valid criticism. It’s just difficult to enjoy something on an artistic level so incredibly much, but have such an upset fanbase. It seems that the treatment of women and the constant baiting about sexuality have led many to abandon the show entirely, which is understandable, but so very unfortunate. I truly feel that from a structural level, this show is a piece of art. The set design, the costumes, the editing, and the acting are top notch. But these problematic elements creep up and for many none of the quality matters anymore.
The special did have a lot of callbacks to previous episodes of the show as well as the books the show was based on. This seemed put in as a way to appease fans, but with the aforementioned hemorrhaging of fans who can’t get past the gender and sexuality problems of the show, I’m not sure if that mattered much in the long run. It was a strange sort of double AU. It was both emulating the source material – most notably during the Reichenbach Falls scene- as well as intentionally mirroring scenes directly from the show which was a homage to the source material which the episode was directly emulating. Yikes. Complicated, right?
The part of this that seemed to throw a lot of people off was the abrupt switch to present day halfway through, but in a way this worked better for me than it would have if the episode were entirely isolated. I’m a big fan of overarching story so perhaps the reason I wasn’t so thrilled about the episode going in was because it seemed like it’d be stand alone. The fact that it propelled the plot from the end of season three forward, even if only to give Sherlock some insight into how Moriarty could possibly return, was much more intriguing for me than an isolated Victorian era murder mystery. I seem to be very much alone in that opinion, though. But then again, I seem to be growing increasingly alone in the Sherlock fandom in general, so what are ya gonna do?
I would say that I’m exciting for season four, but I don’t know how long Cumberbatch will be chained to Marvel. The estimated airdate is in 2017, but man it’s hard to get my hopes up when the wait between seasons is so damn long. With any luck, I’ll have our #Setlock friends tweeting about the filming for the new season soon and I’ll actually start feeling excited again. Come on, Setlockers, I’m counting on you.
Stephanie “Angel” Wilson is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and has essays published in Fandom Frontlines.