Sherlock Holiday Special Recap: Unstuck in Time

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson.
Episode Title
The Abominable Bride
Editor’s Rating

Happy New Year and safe deductions, fellow Sherlockians! It's time for a brand-new case starring the 'Batch, Bilbo Baggins, and the rest of the gang, all sporting fancy Victorian hats and uncomfortable corsets. So, plop down on your sitty thing and have a sip of Mrs. Hudson's tea, but don't be surprised if she doesn't say much.

Set in England in 1895, "The Abominable Bride" isn't a continuation of the present-day Sherlock narrative — or so it seems at first. Instead, this one-off holiday special is meant to tide us over until the fourth season debuts in 2017. I don't have to tell you that this episode is set in the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle era, which hasn't been on the small screen in any extended fashion for more than 20 years. This is the first major pop-culture event of 2016, people. Transplanted into the past, can Sherlock shake up musty ol' Baker Street enough to thrill us present-day fans?

Hoo boy, can it ever. "The Abominable Bride" is the most purely entertaining episode of Sherlock since the second season. Its head-spinning, mind palace–plumbing narrative is so rich and textured — and the Gothic shadow-and-fog production is so spot-on — that I'm tempted to say it's the Best Episode Ever. Director Doug Mackinnon, a Doctor Who regular, keeps Steven Moffat and Mark "Mycroft" Gatiss's improbably dense script moving at a breakneck pace, while effortlessly juggling twin Bizarro World canons. By the end, I found myself wishing this wouldn't be the last time we see old-timey London in the Sherlock universe.

"Bride" opens with a restaging (or, perhaps, the original staging) of Holmes and Dr. Watson's introduction, this time in 1895, a direct mirror of their first encounter from the series pilot. Everything we're about to see takes place in a bygone era with these two firmly established characters, one of whom recounts the other's tales of derring-do to a riveted audience — but in a way that suspiciously marginalizes the roles of women who help them. Got that?

Good, because London's been plagued by the chilling case of Emilia Ricoletti, a bride who rose from the dead to kill her husband. And, of course, a mutton-chopped Lestrade is flummoxed by the crime. (Some things are eternal.) Ghosts aren't real, Holmes snaps at Watson, and the woman doesn't have a twin — it's never, ever twins — so something else must be afoot. When the bride sets her undead sights on wealthy aristocrat Sir Eustace Carmichael, Holmes and Watson appear to spot her ghostly image in Carmichael's hedge maze. Suddenly, the impossible doesn't seem so improbable.

Remind you of anything? Midway through this episode, like a good Watson, I was furiously scribbling down parallels between the Ricoletti case and the Moriarty-is-alive cliffhanger from last season's finale. I figured they'd turn out to be thematically related, at best. But then, Andrew Scott's brilliantly devilish criminal mastermind actually does wander into the action, and old-timey Mycroft murmurs about "the virus in the data," and Moriarty is suddenly standing in 221B Baker Street showing Holmes the blown-out back of his head. That was the moment my brain melted.

It turns out this is all is a deep, deep dive into Sherlock's own mind palace, where the modern-day detective is trying to solve a famous 19th-century mystery. If he cracks the case, it may help him figure out how his arch-nemesis could have somehow cheated death. Unless … is the present-day storyline actually 1895 Sherlock's cocaine-addled vision of a future where jets fly through the air and Watson is clean-shaven? We are officially unstuck in time. The last 30 minutes of "Bride," which include a pair of much-needed interventions, a corpse-digging, and an improbable run-in at the Reichenbach Falls, are wild and disorienting. It's like dipping into the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, and Sherlock's sudden leaps through the space-time of his own mind carry strong Eternal Sunshine vibes.

These dueling timelines, if handled poorly, could have seemed like a cheesy joke. Instead, the tantalizing loose angles of the Ricoletti case combine with Holmes's fragile state and those terrifying close-ups of Moriarty to suggest something darker: a grand mythology where every incarnation of the world's smartest sleuth is doomed to encounter an unstoppable, unsolvable evil force — no matter when or where he exists.

That eternal battle aside, though, I can't repeat the mistake Watson makes by underestimating the formidable role of the women in the "Bride" case, and throughout the Sherlock universe. The truth of the undead bride is a brilliant reveal: A vast conspiracy of suffragettes created a supernatural legend to exact revenge on the men who have wronged them. It brims with callbacks to earlier moments in the episode (Molly in a mustache!) and the series (Janine, anyone?), along with feminist-theory subtext for good measure. (Yes, the suffragettes are villains, which might strike some as unsavory. But they're righteous, not diabolical. As Mycroft says, "this is a war we must lose.")

The suffragette cabal joins last season's Mary arc — along with 1895 Mary's secret liaison with Mycroft — as a demonstration of rebellion against the men who bully their way through societies past and present. Nobody likes to be marginalized — Mrs. Hudson and Watson's maid are both miffed at their near-invisible presence in the Strand stories — especially when there's ample evidence to the contrary, such as Sherlock's callback to the role Molly played in faking his death.

When we reconvene in 2017 (or 1896, or whenever we are), one thing is clear: Holmes better start listening to the women in his life. They always seem to know something he doesn't. Even if Moriarty is dead — and he certainly seems to be — there will be games afoot next season. Perhaps, in fitting with the theme of this episode, some sort of underground network is keeping Moriarty's legend alive? And our hero's drug habit is spiraling ever-further out of control, so the lone-genius approach won't work for much longer. If there's one message this modern spin on an original Troubled Male Antihero is intent to prove, it's that the fall always goes deeper than you think.

Case Notes:

  • This was technically a "holiday special," but that detail consists solely of characters uttering "Merry Christmas" to each other. Thankfully, nobody learns the true meaning of blah-de-blah.
  • Is Mycroft foreshadowing his own death with that plum pudding wager in the past, and the "take care of yourself" stuff in the present?
  • At any rate, don't miss Mycroft's notepad at the end: "Redbeard" (Sherlock's childhood dog), "611174", "Vernet?",  "Scarlet Roll…" What does it all mean? Got any guesses?
  • The 1895 timeline is riddled with Holmes references. There are the Reichenbach Falls, obviously, and "the dog one" is presumably about "The Hound of the Baskervilles." And there's Large Mycroft, whose girth (Gatiss rocking that Big Momma's House fatsuit!) closely resembles the original character. Watson's stories are published in the Strand, the real-life home of Arthur Conan Doyle's tales.
  • There's also the five orange pips from "The Five Orange Pips," and the title is a reference to a line from "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual." And "Ricoletti" was also the name of the Interpol baddie from "The Reichenbach Fall." Did you notice any others?
  • We still haven't really dealt with the fact that our "high-functioning sociopath" straight-up murdered arch-villain Magnussen in last season's finale. They're not just gonna let that one go, are they?
  • Dear wealthy aristocrats everywhere: Why would you ever want a hedge maze? The only thing they're good for is murder.
  • So, that Victorian garb: Who wore it best? I'm personally a fan of Martin Freeman's handlebar mustache … but we should probably give the edge to Amanda Abbington's corset-and-veil ensemble, since Mary's getup is a clever nod to "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger."
  • "Elementary, my dear Watson." Holmes never says this line in Doyle's original stories, but it appears here as a wry meta-commentary. Since Watson has gotten so many other details "wrong" (and because Holmes is convinced he "doesn't say" things he really does), the line's inclusion is just … well, you know.
  • Finally, a round of applause for production designer Arwel Jones and the show's costume and set teams. They evoke the Victorian period seamlessly, and without making the proceedings feel musty. Now, please get out of my head. I already forget which year this is.